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!
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.”
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.
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.”
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