Another Green World: From Farm to Table with Buttonwood’s Karen Steinwachs

April 21, 2014

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“All of these wines are grown for the table.”  With this one sentence Karen Steinwachs sums up the philosophical core of Buttonwood.  A working farm as well as vineyard and winery, Buttonwood is centered on the idea that wine’s ultimate purpose is to shine at table, where it can spark conversation and communion with friends and family.  I spoke with Karen this week about her farming and winemaking approach, as well as the unique environment that is Buttonwood Farm.

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After years in the high-tech world, Steinwachs decided to leave the rat race and pursue a long-held dream of working in the wine industry.  An ardent fan of Santa Barbara County wines, she managed to secure a gig at Lincourt in the fall of 2001, working her way up from the bottom as a cellar rat.  “I kept talking to the winemaker about ways that the winery could be more efficient, because once you’ve been in management as long as I have been, it’s hard to drop that attitude.”  A great student, she quickly worked her way up the ranks of such notable wineries as Foley and Fiddlehead.  When the opportunity to take over as winemaker at Buttonwood arose in 2007, she jumped at the chance.

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“I was very familiar with Buttonwood from attending their many events.  I loved the concept of it being a farm as well as a vineyard.”  Aware of the fact that she was stepping into a winery with a style people were familiar with, she approached her first vintage with the goal of learning about the character of the fruit, vinifying every lot separately to gain knowledge about the site character.  Through this meticulous approach, she was able to see the strengths and needs of the vineyard, and has gradually brought her own style to the wines to accentuate the site’s best characteristics.  “There have been changes since I took over.  The wines are now a little more approachable while still being age-worthy.  We work a lot on tannin management, because I want to be able to enjoy the wines while I’m still alive.  We’ve also worked on bringing more freshness to the whites.”

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There is no recipe here; rather, the vagaries of the vintage are allowed to shine and adapted to.  “We approach every single wine differently and adjust from year to year as we fine tune the needs of each wine.  I grow 10 different grape varieties here, and we’ve sought to make the wines more distinct from each other and really give them their own voice.”  This experimentation and exploration extends to the vineyard, where new grape varieties have been planted in the name of making more complete wines.  “We’ve grafted some of our Merlot to Malbec and plan to plant some more.  And on the white side, we’ve grafted quite a bit of Grenache Blanc, which grows beautifully here.  I see it becoming a signature grape of the Los Olivos District AVA.”

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The soils at Buttonwood are mostly Santa Ynez series, part of the uniform Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series that defines the Los Olivos District, though there is some diatomaceous earth, serpentine and sand in pockets.  They also sit on the aquifer that is common throughout the AVA.  “We have a very big aquifer here, and a lot of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley are in this part of the valley.  There are also a lot of own-rooted vines, and the roots here go incredibly deep.”  Much like Fred Brander, the architect of the Los Olivos District, Steinwachs feels the area is still defining itself, but has all the makings of a great AVA.  “It’s going to be a tough area to define because it truly is different than the other AVAs here.  Our defining factor is that our soils are totally uniform, unlike Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.  I always get a minerality, which is a word that can be hard to define, but there is a rocky quality in our site that I find throughout the AVA.  The wines also tend to have great acidity, in part due to the big temperature shifts from day to night we have here.”

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Like many vineyards in the area, Buttonwood excels with several different Bordeaux and Rhone varieties.  However, Steinwachs sees two standouts in her work there thus far.  “I have to credit Chris Burroughs for the tagline ‘Blanc and Franc.’  Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have been here since the beginning and grow beautifully.”  Even in cool years like 2010 or 2011, the Cabernet Franc here (as with all of their Bordeaux varieties) isn’t green or vegetal; rather, there is earth, cigar box, and raspberry fruit, with only a hint of pyrazine, an unmistakably Californian expression of the grape that has the balance and presence of great Bourgueil.  “Cabernet Franc is a fussy little diva, it’s like Pinot Noir.  You have to grow it perfectly or it throws a tantrum, you have to baby it in the cellar, but it makes great wines.  We do focus on leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard to avoid that green character, but generally we don’t find that bell pepper character from this site.”

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The farming at Buttonwood is some of the most thoughtful in the Valley.  While it incorporates elements of organics and biodynamics, it is most reminiscent to me of Japanese iconoclast Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy, adapting to the natural needs and environment of the site.  “We say that we’re farming ‘biologically.’  We don’t use any synthetic herbicides or insecticides,” says Steinwachs.  “Our theory is that if we keep the plants healthy and maintain a diverse environment, they’ll protect themselves.  Philosophically, we’ve really got our own way of farming, which is organically minded, self-contained, and focusing intensely on what nutrients the soil may need.  We’re constantly testing the soil to see how we can address the needs of our plants.”  As her friend and fellow winemaker Nick De Luca (a proponent of Fukuoka-inspired farming) says, “terroir is an unplanted field,” and in this sense, the farming at Buttonwood seems geared towards capturing the essence of the land as accurately and naturally as possible.

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Buttonwood Vineyard and Farm looks and feels very much like old school California.  Yet it also points the way to what the vineyard of California’s future will likely look like: wider spacing to address our growing water issues; cover crops growing wild; polyculture, with fruits and vegetables growing alongside grapes; in essence, a self-contained ecosystem where the farming adapts to the needs of the place rather than dogmatically following a prescribed set of rules.  “It’s not about me as a winemaker,” says Steinwachs.  “We farm for deliciousness, whether that’s tomatoes or wine.  We love the fact that people are coming back to the table.  It’s not just the eating and drinking, it’s the communal aspect of people getting together.  And that’s what Buttonwood is about.”

Purchase Buttonwood’s beautiful Cabernet Franc

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