The Passion Behind Solminer Wines With David Delaski

April 7, 2017

 

David Delaski has always been a unique and creative person, but passion is the essence of his personality that is infused into his winemaking for Solminer Wines. Passion leads to everything. It’s not just passion for great wine but for the whole of his life, and all his endeavors.

“Creative pursuits always called me. Wine is definitely one of those pursuits where you can be really creative.”

In 2009 David met his wife Anna, who had just moved to Los Angeles from Austria. The pair spent some time exploring wine regions of the world, including Anna’s home country of Austria. It was at that point in their lives they looked at each other and decided they wanted to pursue something in the wine industry. With the passion found while exploring wine regions, they “threw caution to the wind” and created Solminer.

Sol for sun and miner, to impart the idea of mining the sun, harvesting the bounty of things from the soil.

The couple found a farmhouse in Los Olivos which had 3 acres of Syrah planted. After much work, they had done it! Anna and David’s dream was now a reality. They are doing something so unique for Los Olivos, and California– they have taken from Anna’s heritage by planting two of Austria’s most famous grapes, Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch.  The vineyard now called DeLanda (a combination of their names, Delaski, Anna, and David) is 100% organically farmed, to protect their family and neighbors from harsh chemicals. In addition to grapes, the property has animals, including sheep, chickens, and donkeys! It’s a passion looking at the farm as a whole system. They are in the process of undergoing their certification for being a biodynamic winery.

 “When you are standing out in the vineyard it gives you a moment of self-reflection.”

David goes to the vineyard to describe his winemaking process, “Start with well farmed organic grapes and do minimal interventions.” Their goal is to get the purest expression of the site as possible. Spending most of the time on farming and less time doing things to the wine during the winemaking process. The wines are created purely from the DeLanda vineyard, and really speak what the terroir and property are about, exploring.

Discover Solminer wines at our online Wine Merchant here!

 

Humble & Honest Wines

April 19, 2016

Meet Kevin Law of Cotiere Wines

“To share and enjoy wine and food with friends is why I believe we are all in this industry.” 

The Cotiere Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, is one of those wines that stops you in your tracks, once you try it you have to find out what it is, who made it, and how to get more! It is a head turner, the flavors are rich and textured throughout, with plenty of resonance and fabulous overall balance.
After about 10 years of harvest work, and assistant winemaking, Kevin Law began his own label, Cotiere, in 2006. A geology major who found himself getting involved with atmospheric sciences, meteorology, and mapping, Kevin decided to expand his experience into something he was genuinely passionate about; wine.  Like all great winemakers, there are individuals who influence and guide them along their journey, Barbara and Jim Richards of Paloma on Spring Mountain in Napa, were incredibly helpful to Kevin.
In his mid-twenties there was an old vine California Zinfandel that turned Kevin into a wine-lover. From there it seems, there are many benchmark wines and varietals from around the world that captured his imagination. The first California Pinot Noir that truly got his attention was the 1994 Williams Selyem Allan Vineyard – “on release that wine was singing.”
Cotiere wines are made humbly out of respect for the fruit, to reflect that year’s unique growing conditions. The wines are crafted to offer a sense of place, an expression of the Central Coast terroir. Kevin wants to stay true to the grapes individuality per row, block, vineyard, and year. The fruit for Cotiere wines is sourced from selected vineyards such as River Bench, Thompson, Hilliard Bruce, La Encantada, and Presqu’ile. Keeping each vineyard separate he shows the honest truth of terroir, creating a unique experience for wine drinkers.  We’ve had the honor of meeting Kevin, tasting his wines, and getting to know him on a personal level. We can vouch that Cotiere wines express the true authenticity of their place because of the character of the person behind them. Can’t think of a better way to experience the terroir of the our Santa Barbara Wine Country then enjoying these wines.

Kevin’s Pinot is one of many fantastic wines he produces for his Cotiere label. Here’s what we are currently featuring:

An exotic white with beautiful minerality and clarity. Aromatics of orange blossom and ripe lemon, followed by a deceptively rich finish.
$21.00

 

Harvest 2015

October 9, 2015

Grapevines are very sensitive to their environment, and climate is a key factor in grape and wine production. So when the weather changes from the norm it does have an effect. And, when that weather change is prolonged or extreme, growers must take special note to harvest their grapes at the optimum time.

Wes Hagen, formerly of Clos Pepe and currently a consulting winemaker at J. Wilkes Wines, reported that this year was the “earliest winegrape harvest in modern California history.” While historically harvest has been in late September through October, due to the unseasonably warm weather, crops were harvested in August for the second year in a row.

Larry Schaffer, winemaker for tercero wines, was thankful that the region experienced a bit of rain at the beginning of the year, but “the above average heat that followed led to early bud break once again, setting the schedule for an early harvest.” In addition to the lack of rain and unseasonable heat, strong cold winds in late spring and early summer, during flowering, led to shattering in a few of Larry’s varieties and uneven fruit set for other vineyards. This resulted in decreased crop levels. Larry felt the challenge was to “allow for the grapes to reach their ‘physiological ripeness’ without sugar levels rising too quickly.” Although time will tell, he feels that challenge has been met and is very happy with the quality of fruit he has received and the young wines that have been produced.

Although the yields were lower, Wes reports that “quality is high and lots of folks are reporting dense, flavorful wines like we haven’t seen since 2010.” With drought and lower yields, Wes also believes this is the perfect time to stock up your cellar. Wine prices for quality bottles have never been better, and he predicts the prices are only going up in the next two years. J. Wilkes, where he consults, uses vineyards throughout the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, and Paso Robles Highlands, and they “are very excited about the quality of the 2015 vintage from all of these appellations, and will blend wines into the best AVA blends we can and offer them at great value.”

David deLaski, winemaker for the Solminer Wine Co (an organic vineyard) found that when they tested for pH and Brix (sugar content) to determine the best time to harvest, the pH was climbing faster than the Brix. In order to get the flavor profiles they wanted, they ended up with wines that have a higher pH than usual, but he is “….very happy with the flavors and aromas that the 2015 harvest is providing. The wines are developing beautifully in the cellar!” Solminer received Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch (a red Austrian varietal that is quite rare in California). David says they also, “got a good amount of our Syrah this year, and we are making rosé, a fresh Syrah blend, a Syrah Reserve and last but not least, a sparkling Methode Champenoise. We also are sourcing Riesling grapes and this year a first, some Pinot Noir grapes.”

Sam Marmostein, owner of the Bernat Vineyard, Los Olivos Café Farm, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café, said his vines were a little stunted this year, despite being watered by drip, because of the “very dry winter.” He reports that his grape crop was 25% of what they normally get, but “the grapes taste great, and it should be a good year.” The newly established Los Olivos Farm has gotten off to a wonderful start. Sustainably and organically farmed, the crops are used in the dishes served at the Los Olivos Café with extra produce being pickled into jars with recipes developed by Executive Chef Chris Joslyn. The pickled produce will be available for sale at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café very soon. In the beginning, the fields yielded so much zucchini that it initially outpaced the pickling process. Luckily, the Los Olivos Café Farm was able to donate the excess to the non-profit Veggie Rescue group, who redirects gleaned local produce to charitable organizations and school lunch programs in the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, and Santa Maria areas.

During this prolonged drought, where water use is extremely critical and everyone is concerned with saving as much of this precious resource as possible, vineyards have been using drip irrigation and inspecting regularly to make sure they only use as much as needed to ensure the vitality of the vines. According to Wes, this lack of water has begun to impact yields and vine health because of the “salts at root level caused by the extended drought.” He believes that the expected El Niño “…needs to bring us 20”+ this year to give us what we need for the next year, 30”would be better, but it needs to be spread out over the whole winter so it can recharge the water table and drench the vine roots, washing the salts away.”  All of the growers are hoping for a wetter season with rain spread out evenly – no floods, and not during flowering!

Los Alamos Valley: An In-Depth Look At Santa Barbara County’s Unsung Treasure

July 21, 2014

Los Alamos Valley sign

In the past decade, Santa Barbara County has exploded with AVAs, and rightfully so.  As we’ve tasted the wines and analyzed the nuances of soil and climate throughout our region, we have begun to carve out special sub-regions of note that have a distinctive voice.  In addition to our early AVAs of Santa Maria Valley (est. 1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (est. 1983), we have Sta. Rita Hills (est. 2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (est. 2009), Ballard Canyon (est. 2013) and the pending Los Olivos District (likely to be established by 2015).  Yet one of the County’s most historic regions remains without a designation of any kind: the Los Alamos Valley.  This past week I spoke with numerous winemakers and farmers who have worked over the years with Los Alamos Valley fruit to hear their thoughts on the site character of Los Alamos, its various subzones, and the idea of an AVA. santa maria valley AVA wine mapsanta ynez valley AVA wine region When researching a region, I always start with soil; my love lies in the dirt.  Los Alamos, like most great regions, has a wealth of exciting soils.  Shale, clay, sand, gravel, sandstone, and a bit of limestone can be found in various pockets.  This variability within the region has led some to suggest that rather than a single AVA, the area should be broken down into several smaller AVAs.  “I do think it would have to be broken down for it to be true to definition, and that in itself might make it less feasible or practical to do so,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. There is also a notable difference in temperature between the valley’s west end near Vandenberg Air Force Base, which can be quite chilly, and the eastern end near Alisos Canyon, where things heat up.  Broadly speaking, Los Alamos Valley is 10 degrees cooler on average than Santa Ynez Valley, and 10 degrees warmer than Santa Maria, though again, there are more subtle nuances from east to west.  As a result of these variations in soil and climate, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variety for the region to hang its hat on.  Much like Santa Maria to its north or Santa Ynez to its south, Los Alamos has a multitude of varietal voices that express this place.

Thompson's rolling slopes vineyard
Thompson’s rolling slopes

Starting in the east, near the northern boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we find perhaps the area’s most acclaimed sub-region: Alisos Canyon.  Running east of Highway 101 along Alisos Canyon Road, this area is paradise for Rhone varieties, though Cabernet Franc and Gamay also have potential.  The canyon is home to the famed Thompson Vineyard, which has produced legendary Syrahs for 20 years.  Newer sites, such as Martian Ranch, Watch Hill, and The Third Twin, show equal promise.  Despite being a very small region, Alisos Canyon is defined by several different soils, all of which have either sandstone or shale in their parent material.  In the southeast, at Martian and Alisos, there is Chamise shaly and sandy loam.  This acidic shale seems to imbue the wines, Syrah in particular, with brightness and lift even at higher sugars/alcohols.  Across the road, at Thompson, is Tierra Sandy Loam, an alluvial soil providing more textural breadth in the wines.  The Third Twin (formerly Los Tres Burros), Sine Qua Non’s site above Thompson, shifts into San Andreas-Tierra Complex, a much sandier, sandstone-derived soil.  As we shift toward the mouth of the canyon, particularly at Watch Hill, we see very sandy Arnold series soils, making this prime real estate for Grenache in particular.

photo 2

The climate is also ideal for Rhone grapes, a Goldilocks-like balance between not-too-hot and not-too-cold.  “For Rhones, Alisos Canyon is still a cool area and fairly uniform in temperature from its mouth east of the 101 most of the way to Foxen Canyon,” says Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  “As cool as it is, it is somewhat sheltered and warm enough that everything can get ripe yet have the long hang time that lets the flavors develop.  Things can get ripe without being crazy sweet.”  Kunin elaborates on this idea, stating “Alisos is in the Eastern corner of the hypothetical Los Alamos AVA, and so benefits from the warmer airflow of the Santa Ynez Valley. This tempers the predominantly cool coastal breezes that dominate the flats farther West and make them better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In general, I think that it is this hybrid airflow pattern that defines Los Alamos.”  Many have suggested that Alisos Canyon should have its own AVA.  Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care farms many of the sites here (impeccably, I might add), and believes in the potential of not only the Valley as a whole, but Alisos in particular.  “I believe that Los Alamos Valley is special and deserves its own appellation,” says Finkle. “However, Alisos Canyon Road is unique and dominated by Rhone varieties.  As you move west of the town of Los Alamos, the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling.  For this reason there should probably be at least two sub-appellations.”

lewellen wine

Moving just north of Alisos Canyon, before the town of Los Alamos, we head into the Los Alamos flats along Highway 101.  Lucas & Lewellen owns most of the land here, and has long advocated for the potential of Los Alamos.  Their vineyards contain a wealth of interesting grape varieties, 20 in all, ranging from Nebbiolo and Freisa to Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca, functioning as a great window into what unexpected grapes may potentially shine in Los Alamos.  Soil here is alluvial, mostly Botella series (also prominently found in the southern Sta. Rita Hills).  As we continue up Highway 101, past the town of Los Alamos, we start to get into bigger plantings, often owned by larger companies such as Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home.  This could go some ways toward explaining the lack of an AVA for Los Alamos Valley: these larger labels often blend the wines into Central Coast or even North Coast designated wines, rarely vineyard-designating or even putting Santa Barbara County on the label.  “With so many large producers/growers in the area, there hasn’t been the grassroots inertia to garner the acclaim, promote the region or gather data for an AVA application,” explains Kunin.

The steep slopes of Verna's Vineyard
The steep slopes of Verna’s Vineyard

Cat Canyon is the next area of note, located in the northern Los Alamos Valley, just east of Highway 101.  While there are still some bigger corporate plantings, there are also two of the valley’s most noted sites: Verna’s and White Hawk.  Verna’s Vineyard, owned by the Melville family, has served as the source for their more affordable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs.  These are some of the top values in California today, particularly the Pinot Noir, driven by a purity of place and a strong core of hard spice.  Jaffurs also produces a superb Syrah from Verna’s; to taste it next to their Thompson bottling is a great illustration of the large difference in site character between Alisos Canyon and Cat Canyon.  Across the street from Verna’s is White Hawk, a lauded source for Syrah.  Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl has utilized this site for many years, and it is one of only two non-estate vineyards he continues to work with, while his protégé Maggie Harrison incorporates it into her flagship Syrah for her Lillian label.  Ojai’s White Hawk Syrah shows wonderful restraint, with great structure, purity and spice.  Viognier is promising from both sites as well, and Ojai recently produced a beautiful Sangiovese from White Hawk.

white hawk vineyard

Both Verna’s and White Hawk are essentially gigantic sand dunes, dominated by Arnold and Corralitos sands, and quite a bit colder than the southern and eastern portions of Los Alamos Valley (on a map, it lines up roughly with the eastern Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Bench).  One can taste it in the Syrah, which has more pronounced notes of peppercorn and leaner texture, as compared to the meatier, broader wines of Alisos Canyon.  “Verna’s is a cooler site- you can see the fog in Santa Maria from the top of the hill-side block,” says Jaffurs.  “The north (south facing) side of Cat Canyon is a different site from Verna’s which almost faces north – hence its relative coolness.”

Western Los Alamos Valley
Western Los Alamos Valley sunset, viewed from the eastern crest of Kick On Ranch

The final region of note is the valley’s far western edge along Highway 135, not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  As a resident of this part of Los Alamos, I can attest that it is very cold, very foggy, and very windy.  Again, there are some bigger/more corporate plantings to be found here, though the quality remains high, particularly in cool climate whites from the large White Hills property, one of the coldest, westernmost vineyards in Santa Barbara County.  The two star sites, however, are Kick On Ranch and Los Alamos Vineyard.

sand in kick on flats
Sand in the flats of Kick On
kickonrocks
Rocks in Kick On’s upper blocks

Kick On Ranch has garnered the most acclaim for, of all things, Riesling.  This should not come as a surprise given the early success of Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills with Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  Economics forced those areas to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but these varieties remain and thrive in Los Alamos.  Graham Tatomer was one of the first to latch on to this site for his Riesling-focused label, with his single-vineyard bottling a top example of the austere minerality to be found at Kick On.  He has also recently planted Gruner Veltliner, a variety that should show great results here.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach has also been making beautiful Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, from the vineyard.  J. Brix are crafting gorgeous examples of Kick On across the varietal spectrum, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir in several different iterations (their Petillant Naturel Riesling is one of the top methode ancestrale sparklers I’ve tasted from California).  Soil in this part of the valley is quite sandy, consisting of Arnold, Corralitos, Betteravia, and Tierra series.  In Kick-On’s upper blocks, however, one finds fossils and large pieces of sandstone and shale.  “The ancient-beach soil is mesmerizing,” says Emily Towe of J. Brix.  “We can’t walk Kick On without stopping over and over to pick up shells, stones, fossils. It’s a whisper of history from when it was the bottom of the sea, long before it became the Valley of the Cottonwoods. The vines get to live in both worlds, in a way.”  The minerality in the whites here is amazing, with intensity rarely found outside of Europe’s chilliest climes.  Pinot Noir showcases an intriguing herbal side, with tomato leaf and root vegetable notes, along with dark fruit and spice highlights that are distinct from Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria. los alamos vineyard sign The other site of note is the legendary Los Alamos Vineyard.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen operated from a barn on the property here in their earliest days.  Gavin Chanin, who is now producing stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyard, also has fond memories of his early time here.  “During my first harvest in Santa Barbara I lived next door to Los Alamos vineyard in a bunk house, and we used to drink beer and watch them night harvest with huge flood lights,” recalls Chanin.  “It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me.”  Los Alamos Vineyard, like its neighbors in this part of the Valley, is quite sandy, with steep slopes and incredible exposures.  Chardonnay exhibits an intense, almost searing minerality, with fruit playing a background role.  These are not wines defined by aromatic intensity; rather, they are almost entirely about texture and mineral presence, in a fashion not found elsewhere in California.  The Pinots exhibit a similar herbaceousness as that found in Kick On.  “Los Alamos Vineyard is very unique,” says Chanin.  “The wines are rich but held together with great acidity, freshness and minerality. It is my most coastal vineyard but also our warmest because Los Alamos is somewhat cut off from the ocean.”  To taste the wines from Chanin, or Au Bon Climat through their “Historic Vineyard Series” bottlings, is a revelation: they are unlike any other Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County.  These are site-driven, beautifully balanced wines that speak loudly of their origins.

So, what is the future for Los Alamos Valley?  The winemakers I spoke with were divided: some believe an AVA would be beneficial, some believe it should be broken into several small AVAs, some believe only Alisos Canyon should have an AVA, and some believe there shouldn’t be any AVAs at all.  Given the diversity of the region, this is no surprise.  “I hate the idea of type casting Los Alamos because it has the potential to do so much at a very high level,” says Chanin.  “Very often with AVAs people only want to plant/produce what the AVA is best known for.”  Craig Jaffurs shares his skepticism at an overarching AVA, though believes Alisos Canyon may be worth designating.  “The larger Los Alamos Valley has not shown enough distinction to warrant becoming an AVA.  Alisos Canyon would be a worthy AVA in the same sense Ballard Canyon is.”  Bryan Babcock, a Sta. Rita Hills veteran who has worked with such sites as El Camino and Loma Verde in Los Alamos Valley’s northern sector, is quick to caution against Pinot Noir becoming Los Alamos’ flagship variety, and also points to the challenges of fractured AVAs.  “I would not hang my hat on Pinot, at least not yet. If you try to be a Pinot appellation, you will be crawling out from under the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley for the next 100 years… Also be careful about fracturing your AVA and destroying any potential clout that you would have had otherwise. If you don’t put together a critical mass of interest and players, you will witness the still birth of your AVA.”

There are currently, to my knowledge, no plans in the works to establish an AVA within Los Alamos Valley, though there is constant talk about it among the area’s vintners.  Perhaps we’ll never see an official designation for this area, which is a shame, as there are so many beautiful, unique wines coming from here.  As Seth Kunin states, “the concentration of flavor combined with unique structure [in Los Alamos] allows for significant ageing. Certainly some of the best examples of older (5-10 year-old) Syrahs that I have tasted from Santa Barbara County come from Los Alamos.”  I couldn’t agree more.  With the influx of new producers working with the fruit here, and exciting new plantings such as Mike Roth’s Mullet site, there is renewed energy in Los Alamos, carrying on the work of early pioneers like Ojai, Au Bon Climat, and Bedford.  Sites such as Thompson, Los Alamos Vineyard, White Hawk, and Verna’s are already legendary, and I have no doubt that we’ll be discussing Kick On Ranch, Martian, and Watch Hill with the same reverence in the years to come.  I hope that, as we continue to further refine our knowledge of site in Santa Barbara County, we continue to argue the merits of place as passionately as those I spoke with have done here.  It is this open dialogue and elegant exchange of ideas that will continue to elevate our area. A selection of Los Alamos bottlings to seek out:

Alisos Canyon
– Luminesce Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Ojai Thompson Vineyard Syrah, Grenache
– Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah
– Martian Ranch Grenache, Syrah, Gamay, Viognier
– Tercero Watch Hill Grenache
– Bedford Syrah
Andrew Murray Watch Hill Syrah

Cat Canyon
– Jaffurs Verna’s Vineyard Syrah
– Melville- Anything from Verna’s Vineyard
– Lillian Syrah
– Ojai White Hawk Syrah, Sangiovese
– Tercero White Hawk Viognier, Syrah

Western Los Alamos
– Tatomer Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix Kick On Ranch Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris
– Municipal Winemakers Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Stirm Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Forlorn Hope Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Ojai Kick On Ranch Pinot Noir, Riesling
– Chanin Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Clendenen Family Syrah-Viognier La Cuna
– Bedford Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc

Fred Brander and the Birth of the Los Olivos District AVA

February 9, 2014

photoFred Brander begins his discussion of the Los Olivos District not by reeling off statistics or carting out maps, but by walking out of his cellar with 4 bottles.  2 are unlabeled, 2 are in brown bags.  Brander comments as he pours a first taste from one of the bags, “This is a producer I really admire… I think it’s a good example of someone making more balanced Cab here in California.”  Its notes of cedar, ripe blackcurrant, and cassis, along with a prominent signature of American oak, place it squarely in Califonia; it turns out to be Ridge’s iconic estate bottling from Monte Bello Vineyard.  Next he pours the two shiners: one is a barrel sample of his young vine Cab, meticulously planted 5 years ago with an incredible array of rootstocks and clones (12 combinations in total); the other is a barrel sample of his old vine Cab, own-rooted, planted in the mid ‘70s.  Though young, there is already an intense, gravel minerality to both, along with all that exuberant young fruit.  He proudly informs me that the alcohols are in the mid to low 13s.  We finish with the other brown bag, which has harder tannins, just-ripe plum, and a finish filled with notes of sharpened pencil.  We are clearly in Bordeaux here (it turns out to be a Pessac-Leognan from Chateau Haut-Bergey), though the leap from the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Los Olivos District to the Old World is, refreshingly, not a huge one.  His point is clear: this area is capable of site driven, balanced wines that can stand toe to toe with the benchmarks of the world.

A Master of Wine candidate and one of Santa Ynez Valley’s pioneers, Brander tastes blind like this just about every day, comparing his wines with other producers from around the world, seeking out new ideas, constantly thinking about how to improve his wines, his vineyard, and our growing region.  His latest passion is the birth of the Los Olivos District AVA.  The idea that this part of the valley may be worthy of its own AVA first arose over 10 years ago, when the Sta. Rita Hills became official.  “Sta. Rita Hills was the first to differentiate itself, and they did it based mainly on climate, which made me want to look further into the Santa Ynez AVA and see what made us different here besides the fact that we’re warmer.  As it turned out, the area that we are now defining as the Los Olivos District has very distinct and uniform soil and climate.”

Fred Brander tasting room
Fred Brander in front of his iconic tasting room

The soil in the Los Olivos District is part of the PositasBallardSanta Ynez association, which consists of alluvial soils and lots of gravel, in many ways reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.  It is distinct from the limestone of Ballard Canyon or the serpentine and chert of Happy Canyon, the two AVAs that bookend the region, and its mineral presence is readily apparent in the area’s wines.  For Brander, this soil, and its uniformity throughout the District, is the most compelling reason for the creation of the AVA.  “The weakness in California AVAs is that they’re frequently not as specific with soils.  Even in Napa, where you have so many sub-AVAs, there is uniform climate within them, but there are often varied soils.  That is one of our big strengths here, that we have such uniformity.”  Starting at the 1000-ft. elevation mark (above this the soil shifts into a different, sandier soil series) in the San Rafael Mountains and sloping gently down to the Santa Ynez River, one also finds great consistency of temperature and topography.  “The climate is consistent, the topography is consistent, the soils are consistent, and I think these factors make a very strong case for this deserving its own AVA.”

gravelly loam that defines the Los Olivos District
A closeup of the gravelly loam that defines the Los Olivos District

Brander has become famous throughout the world for his various expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, which for me capture a minerality and purity rarely found outside of Sancerre.  Many producers within the District also channel this more restrained style, which is a wildly different expression from the rich, musky, tropical style found in Happy Canyon, one that I also love for very different reasons.  “Climate is a big factor.  Here in Los Olivos we have cooler temperatures, less of a diurnal shift, and the wines tend to have lower pH and more malic acid than Happy Canyon.  This area, in my opinion, is more conducive to making a fresher style of Sauvignon Banc, unoaked.”

While Sauvignon Blanc in a more precise style may be a defining expression for the AVA, for the most part the area’s varietal identity is still being sussed out.  “Rhone and Bordeaux varieties are certainly the two main groups that are planted, along with some Spanish and Italian varieties, and I think all of those have been successful,” says Brander.  “I’ve even tasted some Rieslings and Pinot Grigios that have been very good.  Chardonnay can also be viable in a style reminiscent of classic Napa, picked early with blocked malo.”  For my palate, which leans unabashedly Eurocentric, I find particular interest in the Bordeaux and Italian varieties coming from the District.  There is a freshness and balance in these wines, be it Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, which is distinctive and highly mineral, with a different character than that found in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.

The Los Olivos District AVA is currently in the process of establishing its growers’ alliance, an important step for solidifying the community that will advocate for this region on a large scale.  “The AVA has the greatest number of wineries, i.e. winemaking facilities, within an AVA within Santa Barbara County.  We also have the history: the earliest vineyards were planted within the boundaries of the AVA, and we also have Ballard as the first township in the Valley, along with Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang.  It’s more reminiscent of Europe’s appellation model where you have little towns inside them.”  Brander goes on to share that the next step in the AVA process is for the petition to come up for public comment, which will likely occur this summer.  If all goes according to plan, it should be finalized and approved by the end of 2014.

A map of the pending Los Olivos AVA
A map of the pending AVA

Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion of AVAs in the last 10 years, though unlike many areas established through the AVA system, which seem to have marketing as their raison d’etre, the division of our growing region has been firmly rooted in science and site character, with the goal of giving consumers an idea of the style and sense of place in the bottle. “If we can subdivide the Santa Ynez Valley into the AVAs needed to fill out the puzzle, I think it’s better off for the consumer,” says Brander.  “Besides this AVA, we need AVAs to demarcate the areas north of us, like Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos.  But I think we’re certainly advancing the ball more than we were 15 or 20 years ago.”  The Los Olivos District certainly has my vote, and I look forward to seeing the further discovery and refinement of this AVA in the coming decades.

Purchase Brander’s top Estate bottlings:
2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2016 Sauvignon Blanc

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