Perpetual Dawn: Solminer Rising

December 9, 2014

Anna, Linus, and David
Anna, Linus, and David

Prior to my life in the wine business, I worked for a small record label based in Los Angeles called Plug Research.  Operating an independent record label, and putting together a roster of artists that reflect a forward-thinking curator, is in many ways like creating a winery: the vineyards you work with are your artists, and your role in the cellar functions much like that of a producer, guiding your artists to their highest expression without losing the essence of what makes them special.  David DeLaski, a veteran of the Los Angeles music scene, understands this concept better than anyone, as reflected in the beautiful wines he is making alongside his wife Anna under their new label, Solminer.  I met the two of them at their vineyard and home in Los Olivos this past week to discuss life after the music business, organic farming, and winemaking with an eye toward the natural.

“Music is something you can get deeper and deeper into, with a great community, and there’s a bit of an obsession there,” says David DeLaski.  “There are a lot of parallels with wine in that sense.”  As both winemakers and musicians can attest, there is an all-consuming quality to these passions; once you’ve got the bug, you can think of nothing else.  “I came to wine through my dad,” recalls David.  “He was a businessman who enjoyed wine and so I got exposed to it at a very young age.  I don’t have a cellar of old dusty bottles, though.  I never became a big wine collector; wine was never a huge part of life until all this, until we started making wine.  Some people are big collectors of music, but I was never an obsessive record collector; I loved to create it.”

Solminer did not begin with the grand ambitions of becoming the next cult winery or building a 10,000 case brand.  Rather, it grew naturally out of the love of the craft of winemaking and the joy of farming.  “Honestly, we weren’t quite sure how we’d fit into all this,” says David.  “At first it was like ‘well, we’ll be weekenders and make a barrel of Gruner Veltliner.’  But you get sucked into this community in a really wonderful way.  So we took a chance on it all, and we’re really glad we did.”  The two also fortuitously connected with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton fame to guide the winemaking and help them focus their goals in the cellar.  “We got hooked up with Steve because we loved his wines, and I think he was open to what we’re doing because it was something different, Gruner Veltliner,” recalls David.  “If we were just another producer making Pinot Noir I don’t know if he would have been interested.”

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While their first vintage of Gruner came from John Sebastiano Vineyard, going forward it will come entirely from their estate DeLanda Vineyard in Los Olivos.  Their small home vineyard is a beautiful property, with a palpable energy that one can sense upon entering the driveway, originally planted entirely to Syrah when the DeLaskis took it over.  Starting with a clean slate, they made the decisions to alter the varietal focus and to farm it organically, in large part because of concerns for their young son Linus.  “The bottom line is, it was never a choice, because Linus is down there playing, in the vineyard, in the dirt,” emphatically states Anna.  “So we decided from the beginning, if we have to deal with something, it’s going to be done organically.”  The couple has also begun incorporating biodynamic practices in the vineyard, a philosophy which, again, grew out of the development they saw in their children first.  “Our background in biodynamics comes from the side of Waldorf education, which has opened us up to a lot of ideas and philosophies that Steiner had,” says David.  “My older boys go to a Waldorf school, and if our vines grow anything like they have, then maybe there’s something to Steiner’s philosophy.”

Though their vineyard still has quite a bit of Syrah planted, they’ve grafted increasing amounts to Blaufrankisch and Gruner Veltliner.  Anna, a native of Austria’s famed Wachau region, guided the couple towards this decision to plant two of Austria’s most noble grapes, rarely seen outside of their homeland.    They’re also making the unique choice to create a Blaufrankisch-Syrah blend, the first of its kind to my knowledge.  “Adding a little Blaufrankisch to the Syrah is amazing,” smiles David.  “Just 5 or 10%, it’s really cool.”  Their winemaking, following along the lines of their farming approach, leans toward the natural, utilizing native yeasts, mostly neutral vessels, and minimal sulfur.  “We never really made a conscious decision to be ‘natural winemakers’,” states David.  “It’s kind of ingrained with the rest of our philosophy.  The more I understood about the winemaking process, the more I started to taste the difference in those kinds of wine, and the more I taste them, I find myself drawn to them.  I appreciate mistakes or natural occurrences from year to year.”  The DeLaskis interpretation still means that there must be a core of deliciousness first and foremost; these wines are natural, but they are also clean, precise, and bright.

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Tasting through the current Solminer lineup was a revelation.  Their Gruner, utterly distinctive, seemed to marry the lentil and pepper notes the variety is known for with a textural weight reminiscent of Roussanne, as well as autumnal notes of baked apple and cinnamon.  Their estate Syrah was also singular, sort of Crozes-Hermitage meets the Langhe in its marriage of iron, pepper, earth, and dried leaf.  The star of the lineup, however, was their sparkling Syrah, “Nebullite”.  It reminded me of one of my favorite wines on the planet, Camillo Donati’s Lambrusco.  There was a living quality to the wine, imbued with the same notes of earth their still Syrah possessed along with extra dimensions of macerated raspberry and a thrilling sous bois, Balsamic character.  “As a musician, I was never classically trained.  I always liked to improvise, and to me, natural wine has that improvisatory nature, it’s like jazz.”  To continue the jazz comparison, that sparkling Syrah was like the first time I heard Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come: You either get it or you don’t, but if it speaks to you, it is an experience like no other.

When I first met Anna and David months ago here at the Café, I noticed their exuberance and air of positivity, qualities that were in abundance on my recent visit.  One immediately senses that these are two people in love, living their dream, and that joy radiates through their wines.  “The key was meeting Anna and coming here, and falling in love with her and with this place,” smiles David.  “And then going to Austria together, and seeing how ingrained wine is in the culture and the community there.  When we returned, we realized we had that same community here, and that we could create that same lifestyle in Santa Ynez.”


Check out Solminer’s wines at our first ever Natural Wine Fair!
This Wednesday December 10th at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe, 6-8 PM

Or buy them online:
– Solminer 2013 Riesling, Santa Barbara County
– Solminer Sparkling Syrah, ‘Nebullite’

Watch Me Jumpstart: Mike Roth, Mullet, and the Launch of Lo-Fi

May 19, 2014

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I was a teenage indie rock obsessive.  As such, I embraced the genre’s most lo-fi practitioners, particularly Guided By Voices. Their best works, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, are laden with tape hiss, false starts, songs that stop abruptly and cut into other songs, and a generally shambolic aesthetic; rather than trying to mask the economic shortcomings of their recording devices, they celebrated them, creating a whole universe that felt like a direct line from their bedroom to mine.  In the past few years, a handful of vintners in California have taken an analogous approach in their winemaking and farming, creating soulful wines despite their shoestring budgets.  Associated most closely with the natural wine movement, these are analog wines for a digital era, looking back to go forward.  Mike Roth, formerly of Martian Ranch and now launching his own project, the aptly named Lo-Fi, has been at the forefront of this movement in Santa Barbara County.  I met with him this week in the record-high heat at his new estate vineyard in Los Alamos to discuss the future and taste his first releases.

Gamay: Business in the front
Gamay: Business in the front

“So this is the Mullet,” declares Roth.  “Business on the front slope, party on the back.”  Roth’s vineyard name befits the nature of his new venture.  While the approach and technique are quite serious and methodical, the project is meant to be fun and accessible, “wines for the proletariat” as Roth likes to refer to it.  Planted just a few weeks ago, the vineyard was created using solely recycled materials from other local vineyards, installed by Roth with the help of friends and family.  The steeper, southwest-facing front slope is planted to Gamay, while the gentler back slope is Cabernet Franc, unique varietal choices that have shown early promise in Los Alamos at other sites.

One of the coolest labels I've seen in a while

Roth gained notoriety at Martian for his idiosyncratic approach to farming, carrying heavy crop loads early on and dropping fruit late to offset our area’s tendency toward fall heat spikes, allowing for ripe fruit at low brix and in turn, lower alcohols. He plans to farm his estate in a similar fashion, with an approach that embraces the natural ecosystem as much as possible. “Farming here will be organic, though I’d really prefer to avoid any additions for the most part.”  The soils at Mullet, like most of Alisos Canyon just east of here, are Chamise shale loam.  These acidic shale-based soils, which contain a fair amount of clay, have shown great promise for Cabernet Franc in particular at sites such as Thompson and Martian.  “Planting here is meter by meter.  I hope to eventually dry farm it, there’s enough clay here that I think it could work,” states Roth.

Baby Cab Franc poking through
Baby Cab Franc poking through

Roth’s first release under the Lo-Fi label is as much a mission statement as a wine.  Sourced from the organically farmed Coquelicot Vineyard near the Santa Ynez River, it is 100% Cabernet Franc, fermented with native yeasts, aged in neutral vessels, made entirely without the use of sulfur.  Philosophically, it encapsulates everything Roth is about. “It definitely has a bit of a Bourgueil thing going on,” proudly states Roth. He is referencing one of the Loire Valley’s great Cabernet Franc regions, and while I see a family resemblance, I find his rendition under Lo-Fi to be distinctly Santa Ynez.  Its generosity of fruit and texture are unmistakably California, and the herbal and spice nuances, which range from fresh tobacco and roasted tomato to exotic notes of Oaxacan mole negro and wild sage, aren’t found outside of this area.  There is a similarity to other local practitioners working in an early-picked style- Lieu Dit, Roark, and Buttonwood– though the soulfulness of Roth’s take is his own.

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While it is still early going for Roth’s new projects, I anticipate the future for his label and his vineyard highly, with forthcoming releases of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gamay to fill out his portfolio.  He is an artist working in the medium of grapes, following a vision that does not adhere to trends.  As he dives into this new work, unencumbered by the expectations of others, I’m reminded of a classic Guided By Voices lyric:
“Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled
See an opening and bust into the field
Hidden longings no longer concealed”

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