Impossible Germany: Santa Barbara County’s Twisting History (And Future) With Riesling and Its Teutonic Brethren

January 26, 2015

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Wine lovers often have the romantic notion that the land, the terroir, will always triumph above all else to dictate what grapes thrive where, and what defines a given region.  In reality, economics and the fickle nature of the marketplace often play just as big of a role.  Case in point: Santa Barbara County’s history with Riesling.  The early reputation of our area, particularly cooler climate regions like Los Alamos, Santa Maria Valley, and the Sta. Rita Hills, owes a great deal to Riesling, back when you’d see it labeled as White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling.  Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, however, economics forced Riesling out in favor of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Riesling is now making its long overdue comeback thanks to a new generation of consumers, critics, and sommeliers championing this truly noble grape.  I recently spoke with vintners in the area to discuss the history of Riesling, and its Teutonic brethren Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner, in our region, and their future in Santa Barbara County.

The story of Santa Barbara County Riesling begins in 1964 with Santa Maria Valley’s legendary Nielson Vineyard (now part of the Byron property).  Soon after followed Rancho Sisquoc’s planting in the southeastern portion of the AVA.  “A small test plot of Riesling was planted in 1968 and were the first grapes planted in any amount of acreage, followed by 9 acres in 1970,” says Sisquoc vineyard manager Ed Holt.  Other early plantings include Firestone, Tepusquet (now part of Cambria), Curtis Vineyard’s Area 51 (now owned by Andrew Murray), Sanford & Benedict, Zaca Mesa, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, Babcock, Koehler, White Hills, and Gainey.  Of these, Sisquoc, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, White Hills, Firestone, Curtis, Koehler, and Gainey have Riesling remaining.  More recent plantings plantings include Coquelicot, Camp 4, La Presa, Brander’s Los Olivos Vineyard, and Fess Parker’s Rodney’s Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley; Ampelos in the Sta. Rita Hills; Riverbench in Santa Maria Valley; and Kick On Ranch (formerly known as Careaga Canyon) in western Los Alamos Valley. The latter vineyard is perhaps the most promising for modern Riesling in Santa Barbara County, with a critical mass of independent, cutting edge winemakers culling from this spectacular site.

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The leader among this group is Graham Tatomer.  Tatomer, a Santa Barbara native who fell in love with the grape after his first taste of an Alsatian Riesling, has built his Riesling-focused program around Kick On.  “Kick On is by far the most important site I work with, and it’s a wonderful site,” says Tatomer.  “It’s a long-term contract.  Jeff Frey has done a great job farming the vineyard, but he leaves the executive decisions on my blocks to me, so I have complete control of the farming, from pruning to leafing to watering.”  Tatomer focuses on Block B, a newer planting from the early 2000s.  “I took B block because of greater vine density, it’s further up the hill, and it has a southwest exposure,” states Tatomer.  “Great aspect, there’s sun but plenty of access to the wind as well…  Jeff and I have been experimenting with weed control methods, trying to get closer to completely organic farming.”  Tatomer produces two different renditions of Kick On.  The vineyard designated bottling is lean, austere, inspired by Austria and Alsace yet uniquely California, with the mineral intensity of this site concentrated into a chiseled package.  His Vandenberg bottling, on the other hand, is focused on botrytised fruit, mainly sourced from Kick On, and is comparatively plush, with more pronounced stone fruit aromatics while still capturing Kick On’s precise character.  Other wonderful Kick On bottlings abound, from the bright and taut wines of Ojai, Municipal, Mes Amis, Stirm and J. Brix to the slightly off-dry expressions from Margerum and La Fenetre’s Josh Klapper under his Dr. Klapper moniker.

The most profound bottling of Kick On I had the pleasure of tasting in researching this article, though, came totally out of left field.  Fred Brander’s Brander label has long utilized Kick On fruit as part of its Cuvee Natalie blend; in 2014, however, they chose to do a vineyard designated, varietal Riesling from Kick On.  Winemaker Fabian Bravo casually shared this recently bottled wine with me this week after tasting through numerous soon-to-be-bottled Sauvignon Blanc tanks (which were great as always), and I was absolutely floored.  Reminiscent of great Auslese-level Mosel Riesling- sites like Erdener Treppchen or Urziger Wurzgarten come to mind- this was wild, singular stuff.  Notes of orange bitters, juniper, clove, Luxardo Maraschino, vanilla, cherry, even a perception of minerality reminiscent of the Mosel’s blue slate (though of course this is the glorious sand of Kick On) – the overall effect was reminiscent of my favorite classic cocktail, the Martinez, but with perfect balance and deceptively bright acid.  Bravo explained that the unique character of this wine resulted from a new winemaking approach.  “We stuck it in a tank that freezes the juice, then we turned the system off, cracked the valve, and basically concentrated the must, so almost reverse ice wine making,” laughs Bravo.  “You do lose a lot of volume, probably 70% or more.  It’s a slow process, someone sits there pulling off about a gallon an hour.  Early brix will be up around 50 at that point with the first lots, and it will drop over time as we pull juice off.  The resulting amount was so small that we fermented in beer kegs, and only ended up with 21 cases.”  The wine instantly became a new benchmark for me, and is a testament to the talents of Bravo and the always-experimenting Fred Brander.  If you can get your hands on a bottle of this precious nectar, consider yourself blessed.

Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo
Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo

Riesling’s other Teutonic compatriot, Gewurztraminer, has been particularly underappreciated in Santa Barbara County.  Unlike the Riesling renaissance that has happened over the past few years, Gewurztraminer remains a marginal curiosity, as evidenced by the fact that there remain only three sites planted to the grape here: Jim Clendenen’s Le Bon Climat in Santa Maria, and White Hills and Alisos, both in Los Alamos.  Los Alamos, with its less recognizable name and more affordable land, has proven to be a safe haven for many of these lesser-known varieties, and Gewurztraminer is no exception.  In the hands of producers like Kunin, Bedford, and Tercero, it produces varietally classic, wonderfully expressive and food friendly wines.  “My goal was always to make a wine that showed off the grape’s exotic bouquet, flavor profile and mouthfeel, but not to push the envelope style-wise as far as residual sugar or acidity,” says Seth Kunin.  “I found that, with the exposure and mean temperatures at Alisos, we could get enough ripeness to achieve the lychee aromatics and rich mouthfeel while keeping the sugar levels low enough to ferment the wine dry.”

Tercero's Larry Schaffer with his Outlier Gewurztraminer
Tercero’s Larry Schaffer with his Outlier Gewurztraminer

Some of the most legendary Santa Barbara County Gewurztraminer came from a site that no longer has the variety planted: Babcock Vineyard.  “The first grapes I ever crushed at the estate were Gewurztraminer,” recalls Bryan Babcock.  “It came in late August of 1984.”  The old guard of Sta. Rita Hills speaks of Babcock’s Gewurztraminers with the same awe reserved for the early vintages of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir or Au Bon Climat’s early Chardonnays, but there are, sadly, almost no bottles remaining of his Gewurz from this era.  Along with Babcock’s Riesling, the Gewurztraminer developed phylloxera in the late ‘80s, and had to be pulled out.  When the time came to replant, he went in a different varietal direction.

In the case of Riesling, “it’s one of the great conduits to terroir, but it didn’t hit the deep chord that it hits in Germany,” says Babcock.  “It never felt world class like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here does.”  And while Gewurztraminer made gorgeous wines in a range of styles for Babcock, from dry and bright to late harvest expressions inspired by Alsace’s vendange tardive bottlings, it was ultimately too much of an uphill battle in the market.  “In the late ‘80s, it wasn’t like it is now, where the public has been educated so much more and has been exposed to a lot of these lesser known varieties from around the world,” states Babcock.  “Nobody could pronounce Gewurztraminer when I’d pour at tastings.  Yeah, you can educate people, and yeah, it’s one of the world’s noble varieties, but I grew tired of being the educator.”  Despite the modern interest in Gewurztraminer brought about by sommeliers’ love of its expression in Alsace, as well as the genetically linked Savagnin of the Jura, it doesn’t appear to be making a Santa Barbara County comeback any time soon.  “Unfortunately, I do not see Gewurztraminer growing beyond its ‘niche’ status here in the Santa Barbara County area,” says Tercero’s Larry Schaffer.  “The best places for it to be planted – much cooler climates like are seen in the Sta. Rita Hills – are also perfect to plant grapes that yield much higher dollars for the grapes themselves and the subsequent wines.”

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The rarest curiosity in Santa Barbara County is Rancho Sisquoc’s planting of Sylvaner.  Other than Sonoma County’s Scribe Winery, Sisquoc has the only planting of this variety in California.  “6 acres of Sylvaner were planted in 1974,” says Sisquoc’s Ed Holt.  “3 of the original acres are still in production, all own-rooted.  We re-planted the other 3 acres in 2013 with plants from the original acreage.”  Planted in a mix of Elder and Botella series soils, Sisquoc’s Sylvaner is gorgeous, with its acid perfectly balanced by a touch of sweetness, and remains one of the best (and most under-the-radar) values in Santa Barbara County.  Sisquoc’s winemaker Sarah Holt Mullins says it’s a nightmare to deal with in the cellar, but is worth the effort.  “It comes off the vine sticky, snotty and dense,” as she vividly describes it.  “We put it through the ringer on its first day in the winery, sorting, crushing, must pumping and then finally pressing.  It will only allow us to press it gently because it will squirt through any passage it can find in the press.  Well worth the war for Sylvaner.”

One of the big questions with these grapes is whether to ferment the wine completely dry or leave some residual sugar.  Santa Barbara County has traditionally produced mostly off-dry or late harvest styles, though the recent Riesling resurgence has favored drier wines.  In the case of wines from the prized Kick On Ranch in particular, this often means Rieslings with almost punishing austerity, taut, saline expressions where the nearby ocean and the sandy soil underfoot are palpable on the palate.  Yet those who have chosen off-dry expressions here, such as Brander or J. Brix’s petillant naturel sparkling Riesling, tap into a similar core of place with residual sugar that offsets this high tension, high acid vineyard beautifully.  Ultimately, it is about balance, an idea that is, as with most things in wine, subjective.

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The sun-dappled slopes of Kick On Ranch

“The sweetness of my Gewurztraminer varies each year depending upon a number of factors, with the main one being ‘mother nature’,” states Tercero’s Larry Schaffer.  “When you ‘stick’ a fermentation by cooling it down and adding SO2, it is not an immediate process – yeast cells want to continue to do their thing. Therefore, the residual sugar levels in my wine are never the same from year to year.”  Some of the oldest producers in the area, such as Rancho Sisquoc and Santa Barbara Winery, have crafted off-dry Rieslings for decades, speaking to the great demand this style has in the marketplace.  These wines are often the gateway into appreciating wine for younger consumers, but make no mistake: these wines still strongly communicate a sense of place.  “The sweet Riesling style is very popular in this area and in outside sales; it would be hard to market a dry after so many years of sweet,” says Sisquoc’s Holt Mullins.  This balance between sugar and acid also allows the wines to age surprisingly well.  Many of my most profound experiences with older California wines have been late harvest Rieslings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, often acquired at auction for $10-15.  Many of those same wines are now $40-50 at auction, giving me hope for their continued growth in the vineyards and in the marketplace, if not for my pocketbook.

Beyond the crucial decision of sweetness, most of the winemakers I spoke with emphasized the relatively hands-off/subtle approach to working with these varieties in the cellar.  “I hardly change anything from site to site,” says Tatomer.  “I feel like those things get talked about more than they should.  It’s very minor things, such as the level of crush I get on the material or the level of dissolved CO2 at bottling.  My goal is to capture the best of these sites.”  Ojai Vineyard’s Fabien Castel, who has been making lovely Rieslings from Kick On along with Ojai founder Adam Tolmach, has taken a similar hands-off approach, with the twist of crafting several different bottlings in different guises from the vineyard, ranging from their flagship dry bottling to experiments with botrytis and ice wine.  “The variations around Riesling are more about us getting a good grasp on the potential for the site and the varietal. It is a byproduct of the way Adam is exploring vinification. The botrytis selection is maybe most compelling because it is rare and achieved great balance of sweetness and freshness. It has the varietal complexity of perfumes modulated by unusual earthy fragrances and concentration given by botrytis cinerea.”  Riverbench’s Clarissa Nagy also began exploring this multi-pronged approach to Riesling with the 2014 vintage.  “Our current release of Riesling is in an off-dry style. I have made a very small amount of completely dry Riesling as well. It’s a wine that is beautiful dry and off-dry.  Vintage 2014 gave us perfect conditions for a Late Harvest Riesling too.  We picked it at 38 Brix and hand sorted each cluster used. It has fabulous honeyed and botrytised notes.”

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Santa Barbara County Riesling (and Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner) is a thing of beauty.  Throughout a range of styles it expresses site cleanly and clearly, communicating place in an unadorned fashion.  From the mineral, brilliant wines of Tatomer to the exotic, innovative Riesling of Brander, from the experimentation of Ojai’s various bottlings to the old stalwarts of Sisquoc, SBC Riesling is distinctive and fresh.  Graham Tatomer, who has staked his reputation on Riesling, sums up the mix of regret for Riesling lost, and hopefulness for Riesling’s future, in Santa Barbara County.  “Riesling is the last noble grape that hasn’t really taken off yet in California.  I hope to find a vineyard as great as Kick On going forward, but it’s a challenge.  A lot of those amazing early plantings, like Sanford & Benedict and White Hills, are gone.  But this grape has thrived because it truly makes some of the greatest wines on the planet.”  Our region has something new to say about this legendary grape, and now more than ever there are winemakers broadcasting this unique voice loud and clear.

“This is what love is for
To be out of place”
– Wilco, “Impossible Germany”

A comprehensive guide to Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner in Santa Barbara County, followed by a breakdown of soil types if you’re feeling particularly nerdy:

Santa Maria Valley
– Clendenen Family- Le Bon Climat Estate Gewurztraminer
– Rancho Sisquoc- Estate Riesling and Sylvaner
– Riverbench- Estate Riesling
Solminer– Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling
– Tatomer- Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling

Los Alamos Valley
– Bedford- Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Brander- Kick On Ranch Riesling
Daniel Gehrs– White Hills Vineyard Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Dr. Klapper (La Fenetre)- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix- Kick On Ranch Riesling and Pet Nat Riesling
– Kunin- Alisos Vineyard Gewurztraminer
– Lucas & Lewellen- Estate Riesling
– Margerum- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Mes Amis- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Municipal Winemakers- Kick On Ranch “Bright White”
– The Ojai Vineyard- Kick On Ranch Riesling (Special Botrytis and Ice Wine Bottlings as well)
– Stirm- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Tatomer- Kick On Ranch Riesling, Vandenberg Riesling
– Tercero- “The Outlier” Gewurztraminer

Sta. Rita Hills
– Lafond- Estate Riesling
Santa Barbara Winery– Lafond Vineyard Riesling (several different bottlings)
– Tatomer- Lafond Vineyard Riesling

Santa Ynez Valley
– Brander- Los Olivos Vineyard Estate Riesling
Demetria– Riesling
– Fess Parker- Rodney’s Vineyard Estate Riesling
– Firestone- Estate Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Gainey- Estate Riesling
– Koehler- Estate Riesling
Lo-Fi– Coquelicot Vineyard Riesling

SOIL TYPES:
Santa Maria Valley
Le Bon Climat
– Gewurztraminer- Sandy loam with some shale fragments in the upper slopes (Chamise, Garey, and Corralitos series)

Rancho Sisquoc
– Riesling- Shallow Pleasanton sandy/gravelly loam
– Sylvaner- Elder and Botella series, alluvial soil, more of a clay loam

Riverbench
– Riesling- Mocho sandy loam intermixed with gravel, ancient riverbed soil

Los Alamos Valley
Alisos
– Gewurztraminer- Chamise shaly sandy loam

Kick On Ranch
– Riesling-Extremely sandy, with minor sandstone and shale fragments.  Arnold and Betteravia series.

Lucas & Lewellen
– Riesling- Botella loam

White Hills
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Extremely sandy.  Arnold, Betteravia, and Corralitos series.

Sta. Rita Hills
Ampelos
– Riesling- Tierra clay loam

Lafond
– Riesling- Alluvial sandy/silty soil, Mocho and Metz loamy sands

Santa Ynez Valley
Brander Los Olivos Vineyard
– Riesling- Ballard and Santa Ynez gravelly/sandy loam

Camp 4
-Riesling- Positas sandy loam

Coquelicot
– Riesling- Gravelly loam, Ballard-Positas series

Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard
– Riesling- Alluvial, Elder loam

Firestone
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Gravelly, sandy loam, Ballard series

Gainey
– Riesling- Positas gravelly loam

Koehler
– Riesling- Gravelly/sandy loam, Ballard series

La Presa
– Riesling- Sandy/clay loam, Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series

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