“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!

Celebration of Summer at Bernat “In the Vineyard & On The Farm” Event

August 19, 2015

DSC05415August 8 dawned with perfect weather for a late summer afternoon event celebrating locally sourced food and wine! Held at the Bernat Vineyard in Los Olivos under clear, blue skies with just the right amount of warmth; “In the Vineyard & On the Farm” was beautifully orchestrated by Sam and Shawnda Marmostein to showcase the bounty of their own vineyard and neighboring farm “The Garden Of…” owned by Shu and Debby Takikawa.

Moving toward the entrance, guests were first introduced to local artist GeorgeGeorgeLockwood_painting Lockwood, in the field, actively working on an original plein air oil painting featuring the long community dining table, set with bright umbrellas and intensely yellow sunflowers, freshly picked the day before, against the green leaves of the vineyard beyond. Conveniently situated nearby, guests were able to check back in as the afternoon progressed and George worked toward completion. The finished piece was offered up over dinner in an auction, eventually selling for $2,000, with proceeds going to support the Jewish Foundation.

stacked glassesAt the check-in table, Shawnda warmly greeted each guest upon arrival, explaining the activities coming up and answering any questions before handing them a wine glass and encouraging them on toward the lawn overlooking the vineyard. The terraced gathering spot was the ideal location to relax and greet friends new and old after choosing a favorite varietal of Bernat or Tercero wine to sip. Tantalizing appetizers passed by the Los Olivos Café staff, hinted at the delicious farm fresh meal yet to come, while the casual atmosphere encouraged conversation among guests waiting for an opportunity to tour the vineyard with Sam.guests on the grass

Sam and Shawnda bought the property in 1995 and began planting their vineyard. Sam had been creating wine with friends, and he wanted to continue the practice using his own grapes. He enjoys the cycle of winemaking and the ability to gaze out of his windows overlooking the vineyard and instantly know what time of the year it is by the look of the vines. Currently they have 3 ½ acres of CCOF certified organic vines from which they produce a Rose, with Nebbiolo grapes grown on 19 year-old stock, and a Syrah each year for Bernat Estate Wines. Everything is done by hand; they pick the fruit and bring it up in buckets to the destemmer and then to ferment. Finally they press the grapes and after the wine has aged appropriately, they bottle on site. During the tour, Sam encouraged guests to taste the grapes currently going through veraison. Not quite ready for picking, Sam will continue to test them daily until he finds the optimal flavor and acid balance needed for award winning wine.

DSC05373After the vineyard tour, the group was invited to take a ride on a flatbed trailer decked out with hay bale seats for a fun trip to the Takikawa farm next door. Shu Takikawa offered interesting insight into his organic farming practices. He has been a farmer for 32 years, and his expertise has resulted in produce that is sought after at Farmer’s markets and restaurants locally and in Los Angeles. The evening’s meal would start with a wonderful salad freshly picked from his fields and filled with baby lettuces, cherry tomatoes, pickled carrot, and Japanese Cucumbers.

With the return to the vineyard, guests were invited to take their seats at the community table. A Bernat Grenache Blanc 2012 from the Santa YnezDSC05411 Valley, Camp 4 vineyard was poured to accompany Farmer Shu’s salad, brightly dressed with a tangy, tarragon vinaigrette with tarragon grown in Shawnda’s herb garden. The delightful beginning to the meal, paired with the cooling fresh air as the sun set behind the fields, encouraged new friendships between guests seating along the table. And, by the time the main meal was served, everyone felt as if they had been fast friends for many, many years.

In addition to Farmer Shu’s salad, Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café’s Chef Chris Joslyn served a tender Hollister Ranch grass fed rib eye, garnished with seared tomatoes, green beans, and summer squash from Shu’s fields, along with basil olive oil smashed potatoes. Paired with Bernat’s ‘Intrigue’ 2010 Estate Syrah, guests lingered into twilight, until finishing the evening with a Lavender Panna Cotta, made with Lavender from Sam and Shawnda’s DSC05421property, topped with locally sourced berry compote.

As dusk drew the event to a close, guests made their goodbyes and offered heart-felt thanks for a wonderful time to hosts Sam & Shawnda for a truly unforgettable evening.

Los Alamos Valley: An In-Depth Look At Santa Barbara County’s Unsung Treasure

July 21, 2014

Los Alamos Valley sign

In the past decade, Santa Barbara County has exploded with AVAs, and rightfully so.  As we’ve tasted the wines and analyzed the nuances of soil and climate throughout our region, we have begun to carve out special sub-regions of note that have a distinctive voice.  In addition to our early AVAs of Santa Maria Valley (est. 1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (est. 1983), we have Sta. Rita Hills (est. 2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (est. 2009), Ballard Canyon (est. 2013) and the pending Los Olivos District (likely to be established by 2015).  Yet one of the County’s most historic regions remains without a designation of any kind: the Los Alamos Valley.  This past week I spoke with numerous winemakers and farmers who have worked over the years with Los Alamos Valley fruit to hear their thoughts on the site character of Los Alamos, its various subzones, and the idea of an AVA. santa maria valley AVA wine mapsanta ynez valley AVA wine region When researching a region, I always start with soil; my love lies in the dirt.  Los Alamos, like most great regions, has a wealth of exciting soils.  Shale, clay, sand, gravel, sandstone, and a bit of limestone can be found in various pockets.  This variability within the region has led some to suggest that rather than a single AVA, the area should be broken down into several smaller AVAs.  “I do think it would have to be broken down for it to be true to definition, and that in itself might make it less feasible or practical to do so,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. There is also a notable difference in temperature between the valley’s west end near Vandenberg Air Force Base, which can be quite chilly, and the eastern end near Alisos Canyon, where things heat up.  Broadly speaking, Los Alamos Valley is 10 degrees cooler on average than Santa Ynez Valley, and 10 degrees warmer than Santa Maria, though again, there are more subtle nuances from east to west.  As a result of these variations in soil and climate, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variety for the region to hang its hat on.  Much like Santa Maria to its north or Santa Ynez to its south, Los Alamos has a multitude of varietal voices that express this place.

Thompson's rolling slopes vineyard
Thompson’s rolling slopes

Starting in the east, near the northern boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we find perhaps the area’s most acclaimed sub-region: Alisos Canyon.  Running east of Highway 101 along Alisos Canyon Road, this area is paradise for Rhone varieties, though Cabernet Franc and Gamay also have potential.  The canyon is home to the famed Thompson Vineyard, which has produced legendary Syrahs for 20 years.  Newer sites, such as Martian Ranch, Watch Hill, and The Third Twin, show equal promise.  Despite being a very small region, Alisos Canyon is defined by several different soils, all of which have either sandstone or shale in their parent material.  In the southeast, at Martian and Alisos, there is Chamise shaly and sandy loam.  This acidic shale seems to imbue the wines, Syrah in particular, with brightness and lift even at higher sugars/alcohols.  Across the road, at Thompson, is Tierra Sandy Loam, an alluvial soil providing more textural breadth in the wines.  The Third Twin (formerly Los Tres Burros), Sine Qua Non’s site above Thompson, shifts into San Andreas-Tierra Complex, a much sandier, sandstone-derived soil.  As we shift toward the mouth of the canyon, particularly at Watch Hill, we see very sandy Arnold series soils, making this prime real estate for Grenache in particular.

photo 2

The climate is also ideal for Rhone grapes, a Goldilocks-like balance between not-too-hot and not-too-cold.  “For Rhones, Alisos Canyon is still a cool area and fairly uniform in temperature from its mouth east of the 101 most of the way to Foxen Canyon,” says Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  “As cool as it is, it is somewhat sheltered and warm enough that everything can get ripe yet have the long hang time that lets the flavors develop.  Things can get ripe without being crazy sweet.”  Kunin elaborates on this idea, stating “Alisos is in the Eastern corner of the hypothetical Los Alamos AVA, and so benefits from the warmer airflow of the Santa Ynez Valley. This tempers the predominantly cool coastal breezes that dominate the flats farther West and make them better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In general, I think that it is this hybrid airflow pattern that defines Los Alamos.”  Many have suggested that Alisos Canyon should have its own AVA.  Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care farms many of the sites here (impeccably, I might add), and believes in the potential of not only the Valley as a whole, but Alisos in particular.  “I believe that Los Alamos Valley is special and deserves its own appellation,” says Finkle. “However, Alisos Canyon Road is unique and dominated by Rhone varieties.  As you move west of the town of Los Alamos, the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling.  For this reason there should probably be at least two sub-appellations.”

lewellen wine

Moving just north of Alisos Canyon, before the town of Los Alamos, we head into the Los Alamos flats along Highway 101.  Lucas & Lewellen owns most of the land here, and has long advocated for the potential of Los Alamos.  Their vineyards contain a wealth of interesting grape varieties, 20 in all, ranging from Nebbiolo and Freisa to Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca, functioning as a great window into what unexpected grapes may potentially shine in Los Alamos.  Soil here is alluvial, mostly Botella series (also prominently found in the southern Sta. Rita Hills).  As we continue up Highway 101, past the town of Los Alamos, we start to get into bigger plantings, often owned by larger companies such as Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home.  This could go some ways toward explaining the lack of an AVA for Los Alamos Valley: these larger labels often blend the wines into Central Coast or even North Coast designated wines, rarely vineyard-designating or even putting Santa Barbara County on the label.  “With so many large producers/growers in the area, there hasn’t been the grassroots inertia to garner the acclaim, promote the region or gather data for an AVA application,” explains Kunin.

The steep slopes of Verna's Vineyard
The steep slopes of Verna’s Vineyard

Cat Canyon is the next area of note, located in the northern Los Alamos Valley, just east of Highway 101.  While there are still some bigger corporate plantings, there are also two of the valley’s most noted sites: Verna’s and White Hawk.  Verna’s Vineyard, owned by the Melville family, has served as the source for their more affordable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs.  These are some of the top values in California today, particularly the Pinot Noir, driven by a purity of place and a strong core of hard spice.  Jaffurs also produces a superb Syrah from Verna’s; to taste it next to their Thompson bottling is a great illustration of the large difference in site character between Alisos Canyon and Cat Canyon.  Across the street from Verna’s is White Hawk, a lauded source for Syrah.  Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl has utilized this site for many years, and it is one of only two non-estate vineyards he continues to work with, while his protégé Maggie Harrison incorporates it into her flagship Syrah for her Lillian label.  Ojai’s White Hawk Syrah shows wonderful restraint, with great structure, purity and spice.  Viognier is promising from both sites as well, and Ojai recently produced a beautiful Sangiovese from White Hawk.

white hawk vineyard

Both Verna’s and White Hawk are essentially gigantic sand dunes, dominated by Arnold and Corralitos sands, and quite a bit colder than the southern and eastern portions of Los Alamos Valley (on a map, it lines up roughly with the eastern Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Bench).  One can taste it in the Syrah, which has more pronounced notes of peppercorn and leaner texture, as compared to the meatier, broader wines of Alisos Canyon.  “Verna’s is a cooler site- you can see the fog in Santa Maria from the top of the hill-side block,” says Jaffurs.  “The north (south facing) side of Cat Canyon is a different site from Verna’s which almost faces north – hence its relative coolness.”

Western Los Alamos Valley
Western Los Alamos Valley sunset, viewed from the eastern crest of Kick On Ranch

The final region of note is the valley’s far western edge along Highway 135, not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  As a resident of this part of Los Alamos, I can attest that it is very cold, very foggy, and very windy.  Again, there are some bigger/more corporate plantings to be found here, though the quality remains high, particularly in cool climate whites from the large White Hills property, one of the coldest, westernmost vineyards in Santa Barbara County.  The two star sites, however, are Kick On Ranch and Los Alamos Vineyard.

sand in kick on flats
Sand in the flats of Kick On
kickonrocks
Rocks in Kick On’s upper blocks

Kick On Ranch has garnered the most acclaim for, of all things, Riesling.  This should not come as a surprise given the early success of Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills with Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  Economics forced those areas to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but these varieties remain and thrive in Los Alamos.  Graham Tatomer was one of the first to latch on to this site for his Riesling-focused label, with his single-vineyard bottling a top example of the austere minerality to be found at Kick On.  He has also recently planted Gruner Veltliner, a variety that should show great results here.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach has also been making beautiful Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, from the vineyard.  J. Brix are crafting gorgeous examples of Kick On across the varietal spectrum, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir in several different iterations (their Petillant Naturel Riesling is one of the top methode ancestrale sparklers I’ve tasted from California).  Soil in this part of the valley is quite sandy, consisting of Arnold, Corralitos, Betteravia, and Tierra series.  In Kick-On’s upper blocks, however, one finds fossils and large pieces of sandstone and shale.  “The ancient-beach soil is mesmerizing,” says Emily Towe of J. Brix.  “We can’t walk Kick On without stopping over and over to pick up shells, stones, fossils. It’s a whisper of history from when it was the bottom of the sea, long before it became the Valley of the Cottonwoods. The vines get to live in both worlds, in a way.”  The minerality in the whites here is amazing, with intensity rarely found outside of Europe’s chilliest climes.  Pinot Noir showcases an intriguing herbal side, with tomato leaf and root vegetable notes, along with dark fruit and spice highlights that are distinct from Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria. los alamos vineyard sign The other site of note is the legendary Los Alamos Vineyard.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen operated from a barn on the property here in their earliest days.  Gavin Chanin, who is now producing stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyard, also has fond memories of his early time here.  “During my first harvest in Santa Barbara I lived next door to Los Alamos vineyard in a bunk house, and we used to drink beer and watch them night harvest with huge flood lights,” recalls Chanin.  “It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me.”  Los Alamos Vineyard, like its neighbors in this part of the Valley, is quite sandy, with steep slopes and incredible exposures.  Chardonnay exhibits an intense, almost searing minerality, with fruit playing a background role.  These are not wines defined by aromatic intensity; rather, they are almost entirely about texture and mineral presence, in a fashion not found elsewhere in California.  The Pinots exhibit a similar herbaceousness as that found in Kick On.  “Los Alamos Vineyard is very unique,” says Chanin.  “The wines are rich but held together with great acidity, freshness and minerality. It is my most coastal vineyard but also our warmest because Los Alamos is somewhat cut off from the ocean.”  To taste the wines from Chanin, or Au Bon Climat through their “Historic Vineyard Series” bottlings, is a revelation: they are unlike any other Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County.  These are site-driven, beautifully balanced wines that speak loudly of their origins.

So, what is the future for Los Alamos Valley?  The winemakers I spoke with were divided: some believe an AVA would be beneficial, some believe it should be broken into several small AVAs, some believe only Alisos Canyon should have an AVA, and some believe there shouldn’t be any AVAs at all.  Given the diversity of the region, this is no surprise.  “I hate the idea of type casting Los Alamos because it has the potential to do so much at a very high level,” says Chanin.  “Very often with AVAs people only want to plant/produce what the AVA is best known for.”  Craig Jaffurs shares his skepticism at an overarching AVA, though believes Alisos Canyon may be worth designating.  “The larger Los Alamos Valley has not shown enough distinction to warrant becoming an AVA.  Alisos Canyon would be a worthy AVA in the same sense Ballard Canyon is.”  Bryan Babcock, a Sta. Rita Hills veteran who has worked with such sites as El Camino and Loma Verde in Los Alamos Valley’s northern sector, is quick to caution against Pinot Noir becoming Los Alamos’ flagship variety, and also points to the challenges of fractured AVAs.  “I would not hang my hat on Pinot, at least not yet. If you try to be a Pinot appellation, you will be crawling out from under the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley for the next 100 years… Also be careful about fracturing your AVA and destroying any potential clout that you would have had otherwise. If you don’t put together a critical mass of interest and players, you will witness the still birth of your AVA.”

There are currently, to my knowledge, no plans in the works to establish an AVA within Los Alamos Valley, though there is constant talk about it among the area’s vintners.  Perhaps we’ll never see an official designation for this area, which is a shame, as there are so many beautiful, unique wines coming from here.  As Seth Kunin states, “the concentration of flavor combined with unique structure [in Los Alamos] allows for significant ageing. Certainly some of the best examples of older (5-10 year-old) Syrahs that I have tasted from Santa Barbara County come from Los Alamos.”  I couldn’t agree more.  With the influx of new producers working with the fruit here, and exciting new plantings such as Mike Roth’s Mullet site, there is renewed energy in Los Alamos, carrying on the work of early pioneers like Ojai, Au Bon Climat, and Bedford.  Sites such as Thompson, Los Alamos Vineyard, White Hawk, and Verna’s are already legendary, and I have no doubt that we’ll be discussing Kick On Ranch, Martian, and Watch Hill with the same reverence in the years to come.  I hope that, as we continue to further refine our knowledge of site in Santa Barbara County, we continue to argue the merits of place as passionately as those I spoke with have done here.  It is this open dialogue and elegant exchange of ideas that will continue to elevate our area. A selection of Los Alamos bottlings to seek out:

Alisos Canyon
– Luminesce Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Ojai Thompson Vineyard Syrah, Grenache
– Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah
– Martian Ranch Grenache, Syrah, Gamay, Viognier
– Tercero Watch Hill Grenache
– Bedford Syrah
Andrew Murray Watch Hill Syrah

Cat Canyon
– Jaffurs Verna’s Vineyard Syrah
– Melville- Anything from Verna’s Vineyard
– Lillian Syrah
– Ojai White Hawk Syrah, Sangiovese
– Tercero White Hawk Viognier, Syrah

Western Los Alamos
– Tatomer Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix Kick On Ranch Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris
– Municipal Winemakers Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Stirm Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Forlorn Hope Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Ojai Kick On Ranch Pinot Noir, Riesling
– Chanin Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Clendenen Family Syrah-Viognier La Cuna
– Bedford Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc

Only Love Can Break Your Heart: Steve Clifton and the Madness of Nebbiolo

June 30, 2014

NebbioloAs 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.”

BUY:
– Palmina 2008 Nebbiolo, Santa Barbara County

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 the future of Santa Barbara County, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.

Busy Being Born: Angela Osborne and A Tribute to Grace

March 31, 2014

tribute to grace

A good wine captures its vineyard.  A great wine captures its vineyard AND the personality of its winemaker.   When I think of the wines that have inspired me- Didier Dagueneau’s various expressions of Pouilly-Fumé, Soldera’s Brunello, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bob Travers at Mayacamas- I think of them not only as the essence of the place they grow, but as an encapsulation of their creators.  To that list I would add Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace.  She puts her heart and soul into every bottle, and one can sense her presence in the glass, a feminine, ethereal, joyful rendering of site and self.  I spoke with her this week about her new spring release and the character that makes these wines so distinctive.

Cynicism is impossible around Angela Osborne.  She radiates such positive energy that even when she discusses the more esoteric aspects of her winemaking philosophy or her views on farming, there is such genuine belief and lack of artifice that one can’t help but be compelled.  Take the hummingbirds that grace the corks of her current vintage.  “The Chumash believe the hummingbird represents the grandmother energy, and both of my grandmothers became angels last year, so now they watch over all the bottles of Grace,” says Osborne.  “There were 13,776 hummingbirds that came into the world this vintage, which was really powerful for me.”  It is these little details- imbuing something as mundane as a cork with so much love- that make her wines stand out.

This detail-oriented approach extends to the winemaking.  Her varied experiments in the cellar are some of the most thought-out and intriguing I have seen.  Techniques that may have worked in past vintages will be altered or abandoned completely if the current vintage or a burst of inspiration calls for it.  Her new release is a great example of this, in particular her Grenache rosé.  Angela’s 2013 is a wildly different take than her 2012.  The ’12 came from Coghlan Vineyard on the western fringe of Happy Canyon, was aged in large neutral oak puncheons, and went through full malolactic fermentation, making for a rosé with heft and richness.  The ’13? “The 2013 spent 24 hours on the skins, and then fermented cold in stainless, aged entirely in stainless, no ML.  It’s also from the Highlands this year.  Bottled on my birthday, March 3rd.”  Despite the critical acclaim she received for her previous rosé, she felt the need to do a total 180 and explore a new winemaking approach.  “I really liked the ’12, it was really soft and approachable, but I wanted to experiment this year with something a little higher acid, especially working with the Highlands.  It feels like it’s got lighter feet, a bit more playful, which suits me at the moment.”

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The Highlands that she speaks of is the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  It is a site so perfectly suited to Osborne’s style, and her chosen medium of Grenache, that it’s difficult to imagine her without the Highlands and vice versa.  Located on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County, in Ventucopa, this lunar-looking site is one of the most unique in California.  “It doesn’t really feel of this world.  It’s very moon like.  Kind of silences you a bit,” says Osborne.  At 3200 feet elevation, and subject to an extreme continental climate, it is separated into two sections: the valley floor and the Mesa.  Angela’s single vineyard Grenache has typically been a mix of both, but with 2012, she has shifted to utilizing entirely Mesa fruit, with the valley floor being used for rosé and her Santa Barbara County blend.  While the valley floor is very sandy, the soils of the mesa are loamier, and, more importantly, laced with igneous rocks- basalt, quartz, gneiss, and granite- making for soil conditions that are singular within Santa Barbara County.

“The ’12 has an entirely different tannic structure.  This is the first year I’ve bottled the Mesa by itself, and there’s much more strength there.  It’s 50% whole cluster, whereas my valley floor blocks are all destemmed,” says Osborne.  Her Grenache from the Highlands has always been noted for its delicate nature and elegant texture, though she doesn’t worry about losing this with the addition of whole cluster; rather, she is seeking more structure, with the hope of giving the wines the ability to age like the great Chateauneufs, particularly Chateau Rayas, which she admires.  “I’ve yet to come to a point where the whole cluster becomes too much.  I hope it will give longevity, in a different way energetically than acid, but hopefully with the same ability to age.  I don’t want it to be overt, but I love the spice of Grenache, and I feel a lot of that comes from whole cluster.”  She also chooses to make the stylistic separation in the cellar between her varying lots of whole cluster or destemmed fruit in typically creative fashion.  “I always separate the fermentations into whole cluster, layered, destemmed, and whole cluster and destemmed,” says Osborne.  “I label my barrels as sun and moon, because I feel the moon energy is represented by the whole cluster, and the sun is the fruit.  So each barrel lists percentages of sun and moon.”

The future for A Tribute to Grace is wide open.  The Osborne clan is hoping to eventually split their time between Santa Barbara County and Angela’s home country, New Zealand, working two harvests a year, having a small patch of land to call their own, and raising a family.  It’s a goal that, like the wines of A Tribute to Grace, is beautiful and true.

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