Larry Schaffer started off in the educational and trade publishing industry, but after a number of years felt he had finished everything he set out to do in that field, and started wondering about what was next. He had always been interested in winemaking, wondering how the process worked. How do you develop different wines from one grape varietal or another?
Learning more about winemaking was the challenge he was looking for, and he left his career to get a degree in Viticulture and Enology. After studying and working for years, Larry began his new career as the Enologist for Fess Parker Winery. He chose to settle in Santa Barbara County because of the openness of the winemaking community, their willingness to help each other, and because the Santa Ynez Valley is a great place to raise children.
After a year with Fess Parker, Larry started buying grapes to make his own wines, focusing on Rhone varietal wines under the label Tercero Wines. Tercero means “third” in Spanish, and the number three has many ties within Larry’s past and present. He was the third child in his family, he lived in the third dormitory complex at UC Davis, and he has three children of his own! Now firmly established with an excellent range of wines, Larry is looking forward to sharing Tercero wines with guests on August 26, during the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café’s Friday Night Winemaker event. In the spirit of Tercero, Larry will be offering three wines to taste, those which he feels will pair beautifully with the cuisine offered at the Los Olivos Café.
When asked, Larry describes his style of winemaking as “pragmatic”. He believes that if he’s done a blend correctly, the sum will be greater than the its parts. So, when he is putting his blends together, he’s never sure exactly what he’ll have. In his head, he’ll be thinking “This is going to add this and this is going to add this…” but in the end, sometimes it works out fine and sometimes it doesn’t. He believes that if he has done his job right, when one of his bottles is opened, he wants it to speak of the vintage, to speak of the vineyards that he worked with, the varieties he used, and he wants it to speak of his knowledge, education, or lack of knowledge – whatever it was that went into making that wine at that time. He says, “That’s an evolving process to me. My wines are never going to taste the same, or smell the same, and that’s ok! Because it’s going to hopefully be reflective of that time period when I made the wine. If I was going to be dogmatic, rather than pragmatic, I don’t think I would achieve that.”
5 years ago, in 2010, the Marmostein’s added the Bernat Retreats to their property so out of town visitors could enjoy wine country living. Sam and Shawnda find it so fulfilling to see guests enjoying the property and the beauty that surrounds them. More often than not, their guests express the desire to drop everything and live the life Sam and Shawnda enjoy. And it is possible! That’s just what Sam did, and that’s just what Shawnda did. They have the winery, the vineyard, the restaurant, the wine store, the farm, and the retreats, but what makes it wine country living – is sharing it!
It is a source of pride for both Sam and his wife Shawnda that their wine and the food offered at their Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe reflect good stewardship of the land. The Bernat Vineyard that Sam planted on 4 acres has been CCOF certified organic since 2009. Their restaurant has a history of using ingredients from local farmers and growers, helping to support the agricultural heritage of the Valley. This year, they were able to utilize more of their land and started the Los Olivos Café Farm next to the vineyard. Growing the crops on their own land ensures that Los Olivos Café Chef Chris Joslyn receives a large selection of entirely organic produce to use in his dishes, picked from less than a mile away at the peak of freshness and flavor. The farm also provides the flowers for the tables at the Café and extra produce is being canned and offered for sale in their store.
The Bernat four acre vineyard, with its 19 year old vines, is comprised of Sangiovese, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet vines were grafted over five years ago, so those grapes have not been bottled yet; 2016 should be their first release.
Farming your own land can lead to many unexpected skills. Sam has become a professional gopher trapper in the years he’s had his own vineyard. He has learned to read the needs of the plants, for example that vines need water to keep the PH down. But what keeps him engaged and loving his life is looking out the window at his fields and knowing what season of the year it is. And, Sam says, “It’s great to create something people can enjoy.”
A “signature” of any event that Sam and Shawnda host is their enthusiasm for giving back to the community by creating memorable, enjoyable moments for their guests. For those lucky enough to attend the sold out Annual Bernat Winemaker Dinner at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café earlier this month on October 9, the Marmostein’s did not disappoint. Greeting guests near the bar with a tasting of their first Bernat 2014 Rosé Nebbiolo, Sam and Shawnda made sure each guest was warmly welcomed and at ease. By last Thanksgiving, Sam noticed that the grapes weren’t progressing and decided to pick, press, and ferment a Rosé. Only 100 cases were brought out a few months ago and with only 35 remaining it has become a welcome addition!
Invited into the private dining room located at the end of the Wine Wall (made famous as the backdrop in the pivotal scene of the Academy Award Winning movie, SIDEWAYS), the intimate gathering of guests found their seats while Sam and Shawnda made sure everyone was comfortable. The family style tables, dressed with beautiful arrangements of flowers picked and arranged by Shawnda from the Café Farm, encouraged conversations among tablemates. It was easy to forge new connections and friends. Everyone was sociable and it was quickly learned that there were numerous anniversaries and a birthday to celebrate, which prompted many stories and laughter. One young couple was celebrating their anniversary and their first weekend “away” from the kids! Judging from the smiles, they seemed to be enjoying every minute.
As guests settled and began looking with anticipation over the beautiful menus designed by Shawnda, the attentive waiters arrived with the first course of the evening – a cantaloupe and arugula salad tossed with mint, pistachios, feta and a lemon vinaigrette. This course was paired with the Bernat 2012 Grenache Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, made with grapes from Camp 4 vineyard in Los Olivos. The perfectly balanced grenache blanc was left unfiltered to bring out the true flavor, and then hand bottled.
The second course, hot smoked salmon on a bed of warm lentil and baby kale salad with a shallot confit soubise, was excellently paired with the Bernat 2010 Estate Nebbiolo. A lean 5-year old wine that feels kind of Italian, it is made from the last grapes to be harvested and takes the longest time to mature. Also taking the longest time in the bottle, it is well worth the wait.
Chef Joslyn’s third plating was a mouth-watering ragout of duck and mushrooms on a bed of snap peas and pappardelle pasta. Perfectly paired with the Bernat 2011 Estate Sangiovese, Sam explained that only a ¼ acre of his vineyard is planted with Sangiovese, so there is very little produced of this excellent varietal.
The richest course featured a grilled Colorado lamb chop placed above an eggplant, fennel, tomato and olive-pine nut relish, then drizzled with lamb jus. Cooked to perfection, the lamp chop was paired with the Bernat 2010 ‘Intrigue’ Estate Syrah. Double decanted before serving, it is Bernat’s flagship wine with a long finishing flavor.
The surprise of the evening came with dessert. Accompanying a beautifully arranged chocolate fondant dessert with salted caramel ice cream topped with a crisp caramel sugar confection, Sam and Shawnda presented their first library wine. The 2002 Syrah, made exclusively from their vineyard, was enthusiastically received and provided an excellent finish to a wonderful evening.
This winter marks 20 years of providing quality wine, food, and experiences for Sam and Shawnda. They will be celebrating this special Anniversary with a dinner event on December 12th. Currently, they are running a contest for best story. Throughout November, Shawnda will be collecting stories from guests about their experience at the Café. Did you get engaged there? Have your first date or celebrate a golden anniversary? Meet someone famous? Fall in love? All stories are welcome. If you have a café story to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Our Los Olivos Café Story”. Shawnda and Sam will select the top two stories and post it on the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café’s Facebook page for a vote. “Like” your favorite story and the winner will receive two tickets to the 20th Anniversary Dinner. Runner up will get a lunch for two. The 20th Anniversary Dinner is not to be missed! The menu will be a keepsake featuring old pictures and a timeline of the last 20 years, in addition to outlining the 3 courses paired with great wine. Bernat wines might be in one or more of the dishes, and they’ll be starting off with an amuse bouche and champagne. It is an evening for celebrating and reminiscing. The winning story will be read at dinner, and I’m sure there will be plenty of spontaneous stories to enjoy, especially from some of the employees who have been with Sam and Shawnda almost from the beginning! Reservations are now being accepted on eventspot.
Journey just past the Santa Ynez River, into the hills off of Refugio Road, up a steep gravel driveway, and you will be greeted by the spectacular vistas of Refugio Ranch. Rising dramatically into the Santa Ynez Mountains, this 415 acre ranch is a sprawling piece of property, comprised mostly of open spaces; just 27 acres are currently planted. I met with Ryan Deovlet, Refugio Ranch’s contemplative winemaker, on an overcast Monday to explore the intricacies of this special site.
We climbed into the ranch’s Polaris, and went zooming up a precipitous hill. Rounding a bend, I was greeted by a tiny block of Syrah. “This is the Escondido (hidden) block, Clone 383, which is a little bit compromised by daylight hours.” Tucked way back into a canyon on the ranch, one can understand both the name and the challenges of ripening in this spot. “Because of the shadowing in this block we lose a couple hours of sunlight compared to the rest of the ranch. It tends to be a little more red fruit, with a lot of the carpaccio, pepper, meaty character. It actually inspired me to create a second red wine blend because it is so distinct from our other blocks.”
In talking with Deovlet, I quickly saw his desire to grow with the Ranch, willing to abandon previously held ideas or techniques if it meant better expressing a sense of place. “I have total autonomy, but it’s a collaboration between all of us, Niki and Kevin Gleason (the Ranch’s owners), Ruben Solorzano, (of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates), and myself. We’ll pull corks together and talk about the direction of the property and evaluate what we’re doing. With these small lots, you take a risk sometimes and it doesn’t always work. But for the most part, things are working out and they’re putting their trust in me and giving me autonomy.”
The farming here is essentially organic, though there aren’t currently plans to pursue certification. Like many properties I’ve visited in the valley recently, I was impressed by the diverse ecosystem they’ve preserved and nurtured here and how they’ve adapted to the unique needs of the site. “Kevin and Niki were cognizant of what they had here. It’s a nice, cool sanctuary,” says Deovlet. “They were very conscientious of where to plant and how to preserve the natural terrain. It still has a raw, wild feel.”
The diversity of the Ranch also applies to their choice of plantings: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, and Malvasia Bianca for the whites; Syrah, Grenache, a recent addition of Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah for the reds. Deovlet also plans for some new additions, perhaps Picpoul or Bourboulenc to bring more acid and minerality to the whites, as well as some Grenache planted in their sandier river blocks. One of the most intriguing varieties on the property is Malvasia Bianca. Deovlet crafts a beautiful Spring white from this fruit, with a touch of residual sugar, a hint of spritz, and great acid, balancing the minerality of the Ranch with an easy-going exuberance.
Speaking of minerality, the soils here are some of the most exciting I have seen in Santa Barbara County. Black and lunar-like, with lots of rocky topsoil, it’s a clay loam with mudstone in its origins, quite different from the soils of the Los Olivos District AVA that stops just north of here. “It’s organic, heavy earth, alluvial mountain runoff all captured within this little bowl we have here,” states Deovlet. “We have great water retention. The goal is to eventually dry farm everything, which we’ve been working with Ruben on.” While these are mostly sedimentary soils, there is a bit of igneous material in their Petite Sirah in the form of granite, perhaps helping to explain why this grape expresses itself in such a singular way here.
“The Petite, for me, sort of serves as our Mourvedre, bringing a little more structure and putting a California twist on a Southern Rhone-inspired blend,” states Deovlet. He and Ruben are also exploring a new farming technique, using a crossbar to spread the canopy in the fruiting zone on the Petite, with the goal of giving the fruit longer hang time while preventing issues with rot or mildew. “We have to be very focused on canopy balance and low yields, with the intention that we can get all the fruit off before we hit the late October rains. In ’09 and ’10 we had those storms come through before we got everything in and we learned some hard lessons. That being said, if low yields over and over and over again mean the project never gets into the black, that project isn’t sustainable. There has to be a balance in the farming.”
Deovlet and Solorzano have had to make some big strides very quickly in approaching the farming at the Ranch as the growing conditions are so particular. “We haven’t had the most consistent of vintages, so we’ve had to learn on the fly. I’m blessed to be working with Ruben; everyone calls him the grape whisperer, and it’s true, he’s very intuitive in his approach.” While Deovlet initially had some concerns with the slightly higher pHs/lower acids the site was giving him, he’s learned to accept them, particularly after speaking to old world winemakers like Chave who see similar numbers. In place of acid, the structure of Refugio Ranch comes from tannin. “When I’m pulling fruit, it might be 25 or 26 Brix. At those numbers, we see that ideal tannin development, and at this site the vine isn’t starting to shut down.”
When the subject of Chave, one of the great iconoclcasts of the Northern Rhone, arose, I asked if Deovlet still saw the Old World as his benchmark. He thoughtfully replied, “I’m certainly inspired by the Old World, and you do find some of those aromatic markers here. That being said, I like to have a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New. I certainly take some ideas and inspiration, but we have this California sunshine, and these unique growing conditions, and I want to create something that speaks to the character of the Ranch.” To that end, the project is expanding their lineup of wines based around what the vineyard has shown them thus far, from 3 different bottlings to 8. While this may initially present challenges from a sales standpoint, their motivations are solely quality-driven. “It’s not diluted in moving from 3 wines to 8; it’s the opposite, it’s listening to the vineyard and fine tuning our style,” emphasizes Deovlet. “We’re making great strides in learning to understand the property, and how distinct it is.”
For such a young property, Refugio Ranch has made incredible leaps in quality very quickly, due in no small part to the passionate team in place. “The Ranch, generally speaking, has been a beautifully organic evolution to learn, block by block, how to approach viticulture from a very individualistic approach, and the same in the cellar,” says Deovlet. “I think that process has kept us in tune and taught us to listen to the wine. The ultimate question is, stylistically, are we doing justice to this property? They’re coming out of the gate delivering pleasure, and I think and hope they’re going to age as well.” Their current lineup indicates that they are indeed listening intently to the voice of this place, and I expect it to become ever more clear and distinct in the coming years.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner Vineyard with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
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