“Cupid’s Choice” at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe

February 2, 2016

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café have selected the perfect wine to accent all of the romantic moments you have planned for your day. The Cupid’s Choice features three local wines from distinct wineries that pride themselves on the love and care that goes into each vintage. Each winery is unique, yet shares a common thread – that of close family and friends, coming together to pour their heart and soul into creating wine that reflects their own joy in life and pride in the land and grapes they love. Let “Cupid’s Choice” lead you on a day of mutual discovery! Start with a lovely burst of brunch-time bubbles courtesy of a sparkling “Brut Rose.” Then, after a day of adventures, you can look forward to a “Slice of Heaven” served with a great meal. As the evening deepens, bring your Valentine closer for a “Sweet Ending” with a premier dessert wine. “Cupid’s Choice” has romance written all over it! The collection sells for only $93 (regularly $108) and if you come in to purchase in-store, it includes a beautiful Italian Wine box, a suitably charming gift for your favorite Valentine.

Riverbench 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery was established in 1973. Located on the southeastern side of the Santa Maria Valley, the alluvial soils proved a match made in heaven for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes planted on the property. The winery is committed to sustainable winegrowing practices, and their wines brilliantly reflect their inspiration – Champagne in France, the country of romance and celebration. Their tasting room, located on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, is in a restored 1920s craftsmen style house. The garden includes a bocce ball court and a horseshoe pit, and is a lovely property to visit for a wine country picnic. Riverbench presents a small portfolio of wines from their outstanding vineyard, which results in wine of “uncommon character and dimension.”

Riverbench’s 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose is lightly perfumed with aromas of lilac and a hint of rosewater. This palest blush pink wine boasts noticeably fine bubbles, and in the mouth, flavors of meringue, marzipan, and raspberries are made all the more intriguing by a sensual hint of sauvage.

Babcock 2012 Pinot Noir, “Slice of Heaven”

Babcock Winery & Vineyards was established in 1978. Mona and Walter Babcock purchased the 110-acre property, off hwy 246, in the western side of the Santa Ynez Valley. Originally planting 20 acres to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, in 1983 they created their first experimental vintage. Encouraged by the results, the couple decided to move forward with plans for a small winery. In the meantime, their son decided to investigate the “wine thing” with his parents, which prompted a change in his education plans. He spent a couple of years of enology course work, but after crushing some Gewurztraminer in 1984, he forgot about school and ended up being awarded gold medals at the L.A. and Orange County Fairs for his 1984 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc. From there, a love affair with wine has been blossoming over the last 40 years. Says Brian “…I do like the idea of pulling corks on wines that are like a dream come true.”

Babcock’s 2012 Pinto Noir, “Slice of Heaven” is dry and bright in acidity, and would be excellent with beef, pork, and dishes of wild game. The tannins are fairly thick for a Pinot Noir. The winemaker notes, “If you want to get a handle on what the excitement is all about in the Sta. Rita Hills, just taste this wine that was grown in the absolute epicenter of the place.”

Foxen 2013 Sweet Ending Dessert Wine

The Foxen Vineyard and Winery lies deep in the Santa Barbara wine country. By following the quaint, twisting, rural Foxen Canyon Road, visitors will discover the historic Rancho Tinaquaic, on what remains of the original Mexican land grant ranch that covered most of the current Foxen Canyon. Once there, stop first to see “The Shack.” Renamed foxen 7200, the small, rustic building is where it all began when friends Dick Dore and Bill Wathen founded the Winery in 1985. Then, travel a little bit farther up the road to the new solar-powered winery and the FOXEN tasting room. Although far from the sea, the name of the winery is in memory of Dick’s great-great grandfather, Benjamin Foxen, who was an English sea captain in the early 1800s before coming to Santa Barbara and purchasing the land. His love of the sea is reflected in the distinctive anchor which became his cattle brand, and then later the trademark of the Foxen Vineyard & Winery.

Foxen’s 2013 “Sweet Ending” Dessert Wine brings to mind a walk through a blossom-filled meadow in the prime of spring. It’s taste, like an unforgettable kiss.

Let “Cupid’s Choice” 3-pack collection from the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café provide the romantic notes of a very special Valentine’s Day!

In the Mouth a Desert: Dry Farming in Santa Barbara County

June 2, 2014

In the Old World, farming grapevines without irrigation is the standard.  Even on the Greek island of Santorini, which averages just 3-4 inches of rainfall per year, the vines are, miraculously, not irrigated.  By comparison, Santa Barbara County’s average of 12 inches per year sounds like a deluge.  Yet the vast majorities of vineyards in our area, as well as the rest of California, are irrigated.  While grapevines require less water than many crops, the issue of water conservation in the vineyard is one that will need to be addressed more seriously in the coming years as our drought events become more frequent and extreme.  This week I spoke with two of Santa Barbara County’s dry farming practitioners, Bill Wathen of Foxen and Peter Stolpman of Stolpman, about how they manage the challenges of dry farming and the character of the resulting wines.

The growing conditions at these two sites are strikingly different.  At Stolpman Vineyards, in the heart of Ballard Canyon, “we are blessed to sit on a 3 foot layer of moisture and nutrient retaining clay with a 300ft deep slab of limestone beneath,” says Stolpman.  “Not only does the clay retain moisture, but it also retains the cold temperatures of the night.  The clay makes our land even better suited to dry-farming, as the impact of day-time heat is lessened.”  Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard, on the other hand, has much more challenging conditions, with a lot of sand, a soil whose extremely well-draining nature poses one of the greatest challenges for dry farming in Santa Barbara County.  “The soil profile at Tinaquaic is a little magical, as in I don’t know how these vines do it every year with only annual rainfall,” states Wathen.  “It is a deep sandy loam, unsure of the Series (ed. Note: the USDA soil map says it’s Arnold Sand), with pockets of Careaga sand. In years of normal rainfall the vine canopy can be quite aggressive, so there is a lot of retention. We generally average 2 to 3 tons per acre (3-4 pounds per vine) yields historically.”  Amazingly, even in these difficult growing conditions, Wathen is able to get sustainable yields and make it work without water.

Spacing in vineyards where the goal is dry farming is an important factor.  When one observes California’s historical vineyard plantings pre-1960s, which were essentially all dry farmed, spacing was very wide, and the vines were often untrellised.  As modern farming has looked to top sites in the Old World such as Burgundy and their farming practices for inspiration, California’s vineyards have moved to much tighter spacing, often as tight as meter by meter, occasionally even closer.  This poses much greater hurdles for dry farming as the competition for water increases.  Stolpman, who has variable spacing on his property, believes that the type of trellis is just as important as the spacing.  “Our spacing ranges from 10×5 to 3×3 in the vineyard.  The 10×5 blocks certainly adapt the best to dry farming, but we’ve also seen positive results in our 3×3 block,” he says.  “Key with the tightest spaced blocks is head-pruning and not expecting much yield per vine.  The jury is still out regarding our conventional 3×6 blocks where the six foot rows allow us to trellis the vines.  These vines are set up to carry more canopy and more clusters than the tighter head-pruned blocks.”

Wathen’s property has more space between vines, though he believes going even wider from the get go may have been more advantageous.  “When Dick (Doré) and I planted Tinaquaic in 1989, we really didn’t think through the irrigation issue. We planted what was high density at the time (8X4), and assumed that water grew on trees here at the ranch,” Wathen states.  “We were able to give each vine 1 gallon of water every 10 days through the first two growing seasons. After that, they seemed fine without water, so we changed strategy.  Ideally, yet after the fact, we should have gone on a 10X10 or 12X12 planting without a trellis, enabling us to cross cultivate.”

Both sites utilize cover crops, and are very cognizant of the timing in planting and plowing.  “We plant cover crop every year for erosion control and green manure,” says Wathen.  “The cycle here goes 1) disc and plant cover crop after harvest. 2) Disc the cover crop under early to late spring, depending on the annual precipitation that year; dry years earlier, wet years later. 3) Disc and roll a few times late spring to seal the surface.”

With 3 years of drought, culminating in 2014’s extremely dry conditions, farming adjustments have been made at both sites to make dry farming possible.  “We have elongated the weaning periods for younger vines,” Stolpman says.  “This year for instance, we gave all of the vines 12 years and under an overnight drink once in January and February to imitate normal rainfall.  We gave the very young vines another drink in April and early May.  We only irrigate during root days and from our own measurements know that water goes 8-12 inches deeper into the Limestone with less Lunar gravity.”  Wathen has also had to shift his approach.  “This year has been extremely challenging balancing the canopy,” emphasizes Wathen.  “You always need to be thinking about next year.  Adjustment farming is the key.  The rule of thumb is >20 inch shoot, 2 clusters. 12-20 inch shoot, 1 cluster. Less than 12 inch shoot, 0 clusters.”

So, is the character of dry farmed vines detectable in the glass?  Wathen and Stolpman have different opinions on the subject.  “We find we get a natural balance from dry-farmed vineyards as the vines regulate themselves,” says Stolpman.  “Because of the lack of water, the vines want to go dormant in the fall, and we try to pick while the vine is on its last breath, giving us a perfectly ripe crop.  Irrigated vines will continue green and happy, with no sense of the seasons, and winemakers may choose to pick much later at higher sugars.”  Wathen has a different take.  “I really have not seen any difference in ripening curves vs. irrigated fruit.  Believe me though, if I had the water, I would irrigate.”

As a lover and seeker of site character in wine, the issue of dry farming is one I’m passionate about.  There is a representation of vintage and place in these wines that can’t be denied.  While I love many, many wines that come from irrigated vines, most of whom are also managing their water use meticulously, there is a truth in wines from completely dry farmed fruit that seems to set itself apart.  “Balanced vines give balanced wines.  Dry farming allows the vineyard to give a truer expression of itself rather than the more modern, homogenous approach of irrigating, green-dropping, and picking late,” emphasizes Stolpman.  And when one tastes a bottle of Stolpman’s “Originals” Syrah or Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard Cabernet Franc, it’s hard to argue this statement.  I hope that the conversation about dry farming becomes a more prominent one in Santa Barbara County’s future, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.

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