David Delaski has always been a unique and creative person, but passion is the essence of his personality that is infused into his winemaking for Solminer Wines. Passion leads to everything. It’s not just passion for great wine but for the whole of his life, and all his endeavors.
“Creative pursuits always called me. Wine is definitely one of those pursuits where you can be really creative.”
In 2009 David met his wife Anna, who had just moved to Los Angeles from Austria. The pair spent some time exploring wine regions of the world, including Anna’s home country of Austria. It was at that point in their lives they looked at each other and decided they wanted to pursue something in the wine industry. With the passion found while exploring wine regions, they “threw caution to the wind” and created Solminer.
Sol for sun and miner, to impart the idea of mining the sun, harvesting the bounty of things from the soil.
The couple found a farmhouse in Los Olivos which had 3 acres of Syrah planted. After much work, they had done it! Anna and David’s dream was now a reality. They are doing something so unique for Los Olivos, and California– they have taken from Anna’s heritage by planting two of Austria’s most famous grapes, Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch. The vineyard now called DeLanda (a combination of their names, Delaski, Anna, and David) is 100% organically farmed, to protect their family and neighbors from harsh chemicals. In addition to grapes, the property has animals, including sheep, chickens, and donkeys! It’s a passion looking at the farm as a whole system. They are in the process of undergoing their certification for being a biodynamic winery.
“When you are standing out in the vineyard it gives you a moment of self-reflection.”
David goes to the vineyard to describe his winemaking process, “Start with well farmed organic grapes and do minimal interventions.” Their goal is to get the purest expression of the site as possible. Spending most of the time on farming and less time doing things to the wine during the winemaking process. The wines are created purely from the DeLanda vineyard, and really speak what the terroir and property are about, exploring.
Sam and Shawnda, owners of the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café and Bernat Winery & Retreats, are long-time advocates of using fresh, locally sourced produce for the meals prepared by Chef Chris Joslyn in the Los Olivos Café kitchen. This passion has led them to focus on their own property and create the Los Olivos Café Farm. By utilizing their own land, they will now have the ability to grow many of the vegetables they need for the restaurant’s menu, flowers for arrangements on the tables and, as an extra bonus, offer extra produce canned into delicious, fresh product for sale exclusively in their Wine Merchant retail store. The opportunity to serve dishes incorporating vegetables picked from the field that morning, insures that guests dining at their restaurant will be enjoying produce at the peak of flavor.
Matt McCurdy, also employed at Windmill Nursery, will be working with Sam and Shawnda on the farm. Growing up in Santa Barbara and later moving to Ballard before leaving in 1992, in his 20’s Matt was an environmental activist focused on protecting the remaining ancient forests in Northern California and Oregon. In his 30’s he worked as a project manager building affordable housing for low-income families. After being laid off, he decided to go back to the environmental roots of his 20’s and combine that with the skills he had learned as a manager. He followed his passion and went to work for an Organic Nursery in Texas, Redenta’s Garden, where he learned the ins and outs of Organic farming from co-workers who held masters degrees in Horticulture. Since then, he has grown Organic vegetables in Texas, Northern California, and throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, converting lawn areas into vegetable gardens and raised beds. He is very excited that nine years later, his efforts are paying off with the opportunity to farm a large area.
The 3 acres of the Los Olivos Café Farm, under the management of Matt, will help to maintain the vital agricultural open space needed for the long-term success of the Santa Ynez Valley. Farmed Organically, everything will be watered through drip irrigation (no overhead spraying), weeding and harvesting will be done by hand, and there will be no use of GMO seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides. Matt explains, “The primary benefit of local Organic farming is the food being served on the plate is the freshest possible. The harvest from the farm is delivered the same day to the restaurant insuring the highest quality of flavor and nutrition. Health-wise, for example, the Organic Heirloom seeds I am planting are of a known heritage spanning decades and in some cases a century or more. There are a lot of unanswered questions about what GMO crops will produce generations from now and the possible side effect to our health and food supply. Growing Organically is how it has been done for thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution.”
Currently, the Los Olivos Café Farm is growing Black Beauty Zucchini, Golden Zucchini, Yellow Crookneck Squash, Golden Beets, Kabocha Squash, Butternut Squash, Delicata Squash, Buttercup Squash, a variety of carrots, various Green and Purple beans, Sunflowers, Zinnia’s, and Cosmos. In addition, salads will be created from the Romaine Lettuce, Red Sails Lettuce, Oak Leaf Lettuce, Toscano Kale, and Smooth Leaf Spinach, while cucumbers will be used for both fresh in salads and canned for pickles.
Prior to my life in the wine business, I worked for a small record label based in Los Angeles called Plug Research. Operating an independent record label, and putting together a roster of artists that reflect a forward-thinking curator, is in many ways like creating a winery: the vineyards you work with are your artists, and your role in the cellar functions much like that of a producer, guiding your artists to their highest expression without losing the essence of what makes them special. David DeLaski, a veteran of the Los Angeles music scene, understands this concept better than anyone, as reflected in the beautiful wines he is making alongside his wife Anna under their new label, Solminer. I met the two of them at their vineyard and home in Los Olivos this past week to discuss life after the music business, organic farming, and winemaking with an eye toward the natural.
“Music is something you can get deeper and deeper into, with a great community, and there’s a bit of an obsession there,” says David DeLaski. “There are a lot of parallels with wine in that sense.” As both winemakers and musicians can attest, there is an all-consuming quality to these passions; once you’ve got the bug, you can think of nothing else. “I came to wine through my dad,” recalls David. “He was a businessman who enjoyed wine and so I got exposed to it at a very young age. I don’t have a cellar of old dusty bottles, though. I never became a big wine collector; wine was never a huge part of life until all this, until we started making wine. Some people are big collectors of music, but I was never an obsessive record collector; I loved to create it.”
Solminer did not begin with the grand ambitions of becoming the next cult winery or building a 10,000 case brand. Rather, it grew naturally out of the love of the craft of winemaking and the joy of farming. “Honestly, we weren’t quite sure how we’d fit into all this,” says David. “At first it was like ‘well, we’ll be weekenders and make a barrel of Gruner Veltliner.’ But you get sucked into this community in a really wonderful way. So we took a chance on it all, and we’re really glad we did.” The two also fortuitously connected with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton fame to guide the winemaking and help them focus their goals in the cellar. “We got hooked up with Steve because we loved his wines, and I think he was open to what we’re doing because it was something different, Gruner Veltliner,” recalls David. “If we were just another producer making Pinot Noir I don’t know if he would have been interested.”
While their first vintage of Gruner came from John Sebastiano Vineyard, going forward it will come entirely from their estate DeLanda Vineyard in Los Olivos. Their small home vineyard is a beautiful property, with a palpable energy that one can sense upon entering the driveway, originally planted entirely to Syrah when the DeLaskis took it over. Starting with a clean slate, they made the decisions to alter the varietal focus and to farm it organically, in large part because of concerns for their young son Linus. “The bottom line is, it was never a choice, because Linus is down there playing, in the vineyard, in the dirt,” emphatically states Anna. “So we decided from the beginning, if we have to deal with something, it’s going to be done organically.” The couple has also begun incorporating biodynamic practices in the vineyard, a philosophy which, again, grew out of the development they saw in their children first. “Our background in biodynamics comes from the side of Waldorf education, which has opened us up to a lot of ideas and philosophies that Steiner had,” says David. “My older boys go to a Waldorf school, and if our vines grow anything like they have, then maybe there’s something to Steiner’s philosophy.”
Though their vineyard still has quite a bit of Syrah planted, they’ve grafted increasing amounts to Blaufrankisch and Gruner Veltliner. Anna, a native of Austria’s famed Wachau region, guided the couple towards this decision to plant two of Austria’s most noble grapes, rarely seen outside of their homeland. They’re also making the unique choice to create a Blaufrankisch-Syrah blend, the first of its kind to my knowledge. “Adding a little Blaufrankisch to the Syrah is amazing,” smiles David. “Just 5 or 10%, it’s really cool.” Their winemaking, following along the lines of their farming approach, leans toward the natural, utilizing native yeasts, mostly neutral vessels, and minimal sulfur. “We never really made a conscious decision to be ‘natural winemakers’,” states David. “It’s kind of ingrained with the rest of our philosophy. The more I understood about the winemaking process, the more I started to taste the difference in those kinds of wine, and the more I taste them, I find myself drawn to them. I appreciate mistakes or natural occurrences from year to year.” The DeLaskis interpretation still means that there must be a core of deliciousness first and foremost; these wines are natural, but they are also clean, precise, and bright.
Tasting through the current Solminer lineup was a revelation. Their Gruner, utterly distinctive, seemed to marry the lentil and pepper notes the variety is known for with a textural weight reminiscent of Roussanne, as well as autumnal notes of baked apple and cinnamon. Their estate Syrah was also singular, sort of Crozes-Hermitage meets the Langhe in its marriage of iron, pepper, earth, and dried leaf. The star of the lineup, however, was their sparkling Syrah, “Nebullite”. It reminded me of one of my favorite wines on the planet, Camillo Donati’s Lambrusco. There was a living quality to the wine, imbued with the same notes of earth their still Syrah possessed along with extra dimensions of macerated raspberry and a thrilling sous bois, Balsamic character. “As a musician, I was never classically trained. I always liked to improvise, and to me, natural wine has that improvisatory nature, it’s like jazz.” To continue the jazz comparison, that sparkling Syrah was like the first time I heard Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come: You either get it or you don’t, but if it speaks to you, it is an experience like no other.
When I first met Anna and David months ago here at the Café, I noticed their exuberance and air of positivity, qualities that were in abundance on my recent visit. One immediately senses that these are two people in love, living their dream, and that joy radiates through their wines. “The key was meeting Anna and coming here, and falling in love with her and with this place,” smiles David. “And then going to Austria together, and seeing how ingrained wine is in the culture and the community there. When we returned, we realized we had that same community here, and that we could create that same lifestyle in Santa Ynez.”
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.
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.
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