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.
As wine lovers, we hear stories again and again of Pinot Noir’s difficulties in the vineyard and the cellar. Often described as “the heartbreak grape,” it has perplexed and exasperated many a vigneron across centuries. But talk to Nebbiolo producers in California and you soon find out that the “heartbreak” of Pinot is the stuff of puppy love compared to the torrid, depression-inducing love affair that is Nebbiolo. I spoke this week with Steve Clifton, a man who has devoted himself to crafting great Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County, about his long relationship with this maddening grape variety.
“If a producer is not willing to invest in the time and anguish necessary to produce Nebbiolo and be proud of it, don’t bother,” states Clifton. “Ours is at least a 5 year project. I wish I could afford to hold on to it longer. My accountant wishes he had never heard of Nebbiolo.” Steve Clifton’s passion for Nebbiolo is palpable. Taste his various expressions of the grape, from 5 different vineyards in Santa Barbara County, and you can see the meticulous care given to let the site character of each express itself. His passion has even inspired our owner here at the café, Sam Marmorstein, to plant a bit of Nebbiolo for his Bernat project. Marmorstein also is quick to note the obsessiveness required of the grape. “It’s the first to bud and last to harvest in November,” he says. “It’s definitely a labor of love. I don’t think many wine makers will attempt it.”
Of the winemakers I’ve spoken to in the past about Nebbiolo, from the Sierra Foothills and Santa Cruz Mountains to Paso Robles and Santa Maria Valley, one complaint has constantly arisen: the challenge of getting pH to rise. For most, it is not uncommon to pick with pH between 3.0 and 3.2. To provide context, those pH levels are more like what one might see with a very high acid white, or even some sparkling wines; to experience those numbers in a red wine is almost unheard-of. Through his years of farming adjustments, and assistance from the masters of Piemonte, Clifton has been one of the lucky few to get this issue under control. “Those numbers were definitely the case in the early days before we asked for help with farming,” Clifton says. “In 2000, Maurizio Gily, Luciano Sandrone and others gave time to come and help us with farming and changed all of that. We harvest Nebbiolo between 3.4 -3.6 pH and around 23.5 brix now.”
This may be one of the great keys to his success with the grape: the wines have a beautiful balance between generosity of fruit, textural presence, and acid, allowing them to handle long times in barrel and bottle without losing freshness. Clifton attributes this success to forgoing the idea that grapevines have to struggle. “When I was finally taught to farm for health, strength and virility for Nebbiolo, everything changed. I have applied that philosophy to all of our farming and am very happy with the results.” Clonal material has played a major role in Nebbiolo’s New World success (or failure) as well, with the availability of better clonal material in the early 2000s marking a huge shift in quality. “Before 1997 we were working almost exclusively with Lampia and Rosé clones,” states Clifton. “In 1998 we made Michet available. To me 2002 and the first Michet harvests were a major turning point.”
The debate over modern vs. traditional has been a fierce one for decades in Piemonte, much as it has taken hold in Californian wine culture over the last few years. The traditionalists embrace lengthy fermentations with long extended macerations, large neutral casks for aging, and longer stays in barrel and bottle before release. The modernists employ shorter fermentations and may utilize small barrique, sometimes new, for aging, striving for riper and/or fruitier, more generous characteristics in their wines. Clifton proudly falls into the traditionalist camp, deeply inspired by one of my personal idols in Barolo, Giacomo Conterno. “I love that you make reference to Giacomo Conterno,” smiles Clifton. “He is by far the most enduring influence on our Nebbiolo style (not to mention Barbera as well). The highest compliment I have ever received was to be mentioned in Piemonte as a part of the ‘traditional’ group of producers, even though we are New World.” Clifton is also quick to point out that both sides in the modernist/traditionalist debate in Piemonte are moving a bit more toward the middle. “I think the modernist-vs -traditionalist fight has lost its punch recently as most producers have reverted to a more restrained and traditional style over the last 8 vintages.”
Even Clifton’s style has grown and changed a great deal as he has had more experience with the grape. “In the earliest years, I treated Nebbiolo like Pinot Noir because that is what I knew and because I thought the two grapes share a lot of similarities. I was dead wrong. If I ever treated Pinot Noir the way that I treat Nebbiolo now, it would look like apple butter.” Despite the success he had achieved with Brewer-Clifton, he was willing to abandon what was comfortable and start anew in the name of expressing the truth of Nebbiolo. “I had to start at the beginning and learn from scratch. I had to be willing to say ‘I don’t know’. It was very hard. I made many attempts early on with whole cluster Nebbiolo. I don’t show those off.” Clifton has also settled on a relatively stable regime of extended maceration, though even here he still lets the vintage and intuition dictate his decisions. “Extended maceration is typically 32 -46 days. Again, it is all about lengthening the tannin chains. The only determining factor is taste.”
While clearly a lover of great Piemonte Nebbiolo, Clifton is not trying to produce Barolo in California. Like all great New World winemakers, his desire is to capture a singular take on the grape with the unique voice of his own surroundings. “I strive to make translations, not replications,” Clifton emphasizes. “The most profound statement Nebbiolo can make is to reference where it is grown. I feel that it is necessary both that our Nebbiolo is varietally correct and identifiable, but also that it tastes of Santa Barbara and the vineyards that it is from. If it doesn’t, then I have missed the mark. Every great Nebbiolo exclaims where it is from.”
Much like Barolo, where one finds very different wines from the calcareous marl of the west (La Morra, Barolo) and the sandstone of the east (Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba), Clifton finds the soil-driven differences to be very apparent in his Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County. “We have Nebbiolo on both limestone and clay based soils,” says Clifton. “The difference is demonstrably obvious. The limestone base always delivers a lighter, more fragrant wine; the clay a more muscular, hearty wine.” While he currently works with 5 very different vineyards, he still would like to explore additional terroirs within the County. “I want to plant Nebbiolo in the Santa Rita Hills. I think that with proper, extreme farming… It could be amazing…”
Clifton is still exploring and tinkering, always with the end goal of creating his Nebbiolo masterpiece. While many would argue he’s already crafted several, there is a continual push to be greater, to tame this mysterious mistress. “If you fall under the spell of Nebbiolo, your choices are taken away. It’s an obsession. The closer you get to her, the more obsessed you become. Any fleeting brush makes you try harder. I have 20 or 30 years left, maybe, but I will always make Nebbiolo.”
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