When you combine the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe for a winemaker and pairing dinner, you get an exceptional culinary evening that is not only “UnTraditional” in it’s bold wine and food pairings, but an experience that leaves you surprisingly convinced that, as Wes claims, beer and wine truly are the foundations of all modern civilization.
The “UnTraditional” Winemaker and pairing dinner on June 7th started off with Wes introducing himself and promising to give, over the course of the evening, an explanation of each dish before it was served and, at some point, the history of why wine is the most important fermented beverage in the world…in 5-min. As an example, Wes emphasized the importance of gathering friends and family together around tables, such as those that evening, to share a good bottle of wine and linger to talk and connect in a way that is not possible through electronic gadgets. That face to face connection, enhanced by a glass or two or three of wine, often brings out the true natures of companions, and is a space where novel ideas can flow and alliances can be formed.
With the first course, Wes explained that he collaborated with Chef Chris Joslyn on a menu that would go beyond the usual, traditional pairings, and reach for courses that were a little outside the box; a little untraditional, but equally as complementary and delicious. Chef Joslyn’s team set the bar with the first plate, which featured a beautifully crafted Ahi, cucumber, and avocado mixture neatly tucked into a crispy sesame cornet. Light and slightly sweet, the amuse bouche paired beautifully with the Clos Pepe Estate 2013, “Axis Mundi Rose of Mourvedre.”
As the evening progressed that culinary bar got higher and higher. The appetizer was followed by a small plate which featured a Fanny Bay oyster beside a Short Rib croquette, paired with a steel barreled Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay, “Homage to Chablis.” The third course brought the same pressed grapes back to the table, but this time having been fermented in an oak barrel so that guests could easily taste the difference between the two processes. Paired with grilled Longline Sword Fish, leeks, sweet corn, fingerling potato, and a lemon buerre fondue, the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay “Barrel Fermented” was the perfect compliment.
Moving on to the red wines, the fourth course introduced Clos Pepe Estate 2011 Pinot Noir to the table. Paired with a roasted chicken roulade, Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, braised chard, and chicken jus – the course melted in your mouth. A Cassoulet of pork sausage, pork confit, slab bacon, and duck confit was the feature of the fifth course. Neatly baked into small ramekins, this was the grand crescendo of the evening, and was excellently paired with the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.
Before the final course of assorted cheeses paired with an Olin 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wes delivered on his promise to explain why wine was the most important booze in the world and was the reason we have advanced in our civilization. Perhaps it might have been a little more than 5-min, but no guest complained. They would have sat there for an hour more listening to Wes deliver his information in such an accessible, humorous style, and with such an infectious enthusiasm for life.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Fred Brander begins his discussion of the Los Olivos District not by reeling off statistics or carting out maps, but by walking out of his cellar with 4 bottles. 2 are unlabeled, 2 are in brown bags. Brander comments as he pours a first taste from one of the bags, “This is a producer I really admire… I think it’s a good example of someone making more balanced Cab here in California.” Its notes of cedar, ripe blackcurrant, and cassis, along with a prominent signature of American oak, place it squarely in Califonia; it turns out to be Ridge’s iconic estate bottling from Monte Bello Vineyard. Next he pours the two shiners: one is a barrel sample of his young vine Cab, meticulously planted 5 years ago with an incredible array of rootstocks and clones (12 combinations in total); the other is a barrel sample of his old vine Cab, own-rooted, planted in the mid ‘70s. Though young, there is already an intense, gravel minerality to both, along with all that exuberant young fruit. He proudly informs me that the alcohols are in the mid to low 13s. We finish with the other brown bag, which has harder tannins, just-ripe plum, and a finish filled with notes of sharpened pencil. We are clearly in Bordeaux here (it turns out to be a Pessac-Leognan from Chateau Haut-Bergey), though the leap from the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Los Olivos District to the Old World is, refreshingly, not a huge one. His point is clear: this area is capable of site driven, balanced wines that can stand toe to toe with the benchmarks of the world.
A Master of Wine candidate and one of Santa Ynez Valley’s pioneers, Brander tastes blind like this just about every day, comparing his wines with other producers from around the world, seeking out new ideas, constantly thinking about how to improve his wines, his vineyard, and our growing region. His latest passion is the birth of the Los Olivos District AVA. The idea that this part of the valley may be worthy of its own AVA first arose over 10 years ago, when the Sta. Rita Hills became official. “Sta. Rita Hills was the first to differentiate itself, and they did it based mainly on climate, which made me want to look further into the Santa Ynez AVA and see what made us different here besides the fact that we’re warmer. As it turned out, the area that we are now defining as the Los Olivos District has very distinct and uniform soil and climate.”
The soil in the Los Olivos District is part of the Positas–Ballard–Santa Ynez association, which consists of alluvial soils and lots of gravel, in many ways reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank. It is distinct from the limestone of Ballard Canyon or the serpentine and chert of Happy Canyon, the two AVAs that bookend the region, and its mineral presence is readily apparent in the area’s wines. For Brander, this soil, and its uniformity throughout the District, is the most compelling reason for the creation of the AVA. “The weakness in California AVAs is that they’re frequently not as specific with soils. Even in Napa, where you have so many sub-AVAs, there is uniform climate within them, but there are often varied soils. That is one of our big strengths here, that we have such uniformity.” Starting at the 1000-ft. elevation mark (above this the soil shifts into a different, sandier soil series) in the San Rafael Mountains and sloping gently down to the Santa Ynez River, one also finds great consistency of temperature and topography. “The climate is consistent, the topography is consistent, the soils are consistent, and I think these factors make a very strong case for this deserving its own AVA.”
Brander has become famous throughout the world for his various expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, which for me capture a minerality and purity rarely found outside of Sancerre. Many producers within the District also channel this more restrained style, which is a wildly different expression from the rich, musky, tropical style found in Happy Canyon, one that I also love for very different reasons. “Climate is a big factor. Here in Los Olivos we have cooler temperatures, less of a diurnal shift, and the wines tend to have lower pH and more malic acid than Happy Canyon. This area, in my opinion, is more conducive to making a fresher style of Sauvignon Banc, unoaked.”
While Sauvignon Blanc in a more precise style may be a defining expression for the AVA, for the most part the area’s varietal identity is still being sussed out. “Rhone and Bordeaux varieties are certainly the two main groups that are planted, along with some Spanish and Italian varieties, and I think all of those have been successful,” says Brander. “I’ve even tasted some Rieslings and Pinot Grigios that have been very good. Chardonnay can also be viable in a style reminiscent of classic Napa, picked early with blocked malo.” For my palate, which leans unabashedly Eurocentric, I find particular interest in the Bordeaux and Italian varieties coming from the District. There is a freshness and balance in these wines, be it Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, which is distinctive and highly mineral, with a different character than that found in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.
The Los Olivos District AVA is currently in the process of establishing its growers’ alliance, an important step for solidifying the community that will advocate for this region on a large scale. “The AVA has the greatest number of wineries, i.e. winemaking facilities, within an AVA within Santa Barbara County. We also have the history: the earliest vineyards were planted within the boundaries of the AVA, and we also have Ballard as the first township in the Valley, along with Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang. It’s more reminiscent of Europe’s appellation model where you have little towns inside them.” Brander goes on to share that the next step in the AVA process is for the petition to come up for public comment, which will likely occur this summer. If all goes according to plan, it should be finalized and approved by the end of 2014.
Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion of AVAs in the last 10 years, though unlike many areas established through the AVA system, which seem to have marketing as their raison d’etre, the division of our growing region has been firmly rooted in science and site character, with the goal of giving consumers an idea of the style and sense of place in the bottle. “If we can subdivide the Santa Ynez Valley into the AVAs needed to fill out the puzzle, I think it’s better off for the consumer,” says Brander. “Besides this AVA, we need AVAs to demarcate the areas north of us, like Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos. But I think we’re certainly advancing the ball more than we were 15 or 20 years ago.” The Los Olivos District certainly has my vote, and I look forward to seeing the further discovery and refinement of this AVA in the coming decades.
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