Say the words “California wine” and more often than not, bruiser Napa Cabernets or buttery Sonoma Chardonnays come to mind. There’s a certain irony to the fact that most consumers consider wine country of Santa Barbara County as a relative newcomer when in fact the area has had acreage under vine for over one hundred years. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Santa Barbara County really took off, thanks in part to the UC Davis’s assessment of it having the optimal climate for growing grapes.
What makes the climate of Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast so unique? Three factors come into play: The Humboldt Current, the Coriolis Effect, and the Transverse Range.
The Humboldt Current, despite its name, has nothing to do with cheese or green pharmaceuticals. It’s actually a deep ocean current that comes up from Peru, bringing cool waters with it. That combines with the Coriolis Effect, which is a phenomenon that occurs when northern winds push surface-warm ocean water off the top of the Pacific and moves it further west. The Coriolis Effect truly is phenomenal because it’s not possible without the Earth’s rotation! When that warmer water shifts away, those deep, cool waters shift towards the top, ensuring a continuous cooling effect mid-California Coast. That cool air is then funneled inland due to the Transverse Range: that’s where the North-South running mountains turn East-West due to an early plate tectonic shift. That geological and meteorological combination add up to the unique microclimates we find around Santa Barbara County – which add up to a great variety of wine!
The two biggest AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, in Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. Both are river valleys created by that plate tectonic shift, which means they oddly run west-to-east, funneling cool maritime air in with them. Both AVAs benefit from large diurnal swings because the cool Pacific influence brings in chilly fog overnight, lowering the nightly temperatures, before burning off midday at higher, hotter afternoon temperatures. That large temperature swing optimizes sugar levels in grapes while maintaining acidity. You’ll notice wines from both AVAs may be higher in alcohol but never taste out of balance: there will always be a refreshing prickle of acidity on the finish. Let’s take a moment to thank diurnal swings for that!
Within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the best known AVA is Sta. Rita Hills. (And yes, it is legally ‘Sta. Rita Hills’ and not ‘Santa Rita Hills.’ It seems the famous Santa Rita winery in Chile was a bit peeved when the Santa Rita Hills AVA was initially granted and sued to prevent consumer confusion.) Sta. Rita Hills is most famous for its Pinot Noir. The AVA benefits from that ocean air as well as very specific ‘chet’ soil that create the unmistakably bright and floral Sta. Rita Pinot flavor. It’s no mistake that some of the best-known California Pinot vineyards, including Sea Smoke, are located here.
Moving away from the ocean, we find the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon AVAs. As their names imply, they are both lower altitude AVAs and, since they’re surrounded by mountains, heat and sunlight reflect off to create much warmer microclimates than those found in Sta. Rita Hills. Bordeaux and Rhone varietals do well here. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon loves Happy Canyon and Syrah rules Ballard Canyon.
And, fun fact!: Happy Canyon earned its moniker by having the only working still during Prohibition, leading many a local to visit and to leave quite happy! We’re pleased to see this happy-making legacy continued with fantastic wine.
And finally, the newest AVA in the region is perhaps the closest to our heart: the Los Olivos District. Located in the area surrounding the Los Olivos Café, the Bernat vineyard is proud to be part of the Los Olivos District. Comparatively flat and warm, Syrah absolutely thrives here – which you can taste in the many different Bernat Syrah bottlings.
With the continued interest in Santa Barbara County, we feel that its potential is just now being brought to fruition. The various microclimates and unique topography allow for infinite possibilities, from rich, round reds to bright, acidic whites. Santa Barbara Country truly has a wine for every wine lover!
We love sharing Santa Barbara Wine Country! Shop our Wine Merchant here and we’ll ship our wine country to you! Consider choosing from our custom wine club selection that offers only the best of California Central Coast wines.
To step onto the Sunstone property is to step back into the Old World.
The gorgeous stone chateau is centered in a beautiful landscape, complete with tranquil space to sip your wine. It’s unlike any other winery in Santa Barbara County and is the result of an Old World sensibility passed down through the Rice family. In our interview, owner and winemaker, Bion Rice, shares the past, present, and future of Sunstone Winery.
According to Bion Rice, who now oversees the winery, his family relocated to Santa Ynez from Santa Barbara seeking better educational opportunities for his two sisters. His mother immediately saw the possibilities for what is now Sunstone. The landscape alone would inspire anyone, but Linda’s focus on “food, family, and friends” allowed her to pursue creating the best possible atmosphere for all. Linda and husband Fred planted Bordeaux varietals assuming they would sell the grapes off to winemakers but quickly became enamoured with making their own. And much like what would happen in a small Provençal village, their local friends were happy to help, pitching in to mentor their efforts and support them every step of the way.
Without any formal training in winemaking to start, Fred and Linda soaked up as much as they could – again, a very Old World approach! They began bottling their wine and by their second vintage, the family found themselves with a few thousand extra cases. Bion did what any loyal farmer’s son would do: he loaded the cases into his truck and began hawking his wares all over Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. His favorites stops were invariably at restaurants, where he’d end up chatting with chefs and tasting through fantastic dishes that opened up the possibilities of pairings for his wines even more. Sunstone’s production and demand increased exponentially and the Rice family soon sold their wines across the country.
Ironically, Bion sees the 2008 recession as a blessing in disguise because it forced the family to scale back and focus on what really mattered to them. This re-assessment renewed their passion for Linda’s initial pursuit of “food, family, and friends,” and the quality of their wine improved drastically. However, the Rices have never veered away from organic farming and are proud to operate the longest running organic winery in all of Santa Barbara. While this may have seemed ahead of its time, commitment to organic farming really just ties back to the Old World version of farming and was part of Linda’s overarching vision.
Today, Bion and his wife oversee operations, including winemaking. Bion plans to keep it in the family and is fostering his sons; in fact, his teenage son Miles helps in the blending process and has final say in which blend ends up in the “Milestone” bottle!
Before summer ends, give yourself a minivacation by visiting Sunstone winery. Step back in time and enjoy the chateau made from reclaimed materials and native stone. Grab a glass of their best-selling rosé and savour the warmth of family and friends that the Rice family has helped build.
Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat– Pioneer Winemaker of Santa Barbara
According to the Au Bon Climat website, Jim Clendenen grew up in Ohio in a “gastronomically impoverished” culture. It’s safe to say that he has since more than made up for that epicurially lost time during the last 30 years!
A Global Education
Like many of his generation, time spent in Europe during a semester abroad opened his eyes – and his mind – that food and wine could be more than burgers and California Mountain Burgundy. Such a transformative experience caused him to dedicate his career to wine instead of law, which is what he was actually there to study.
After a stint at Zaca Mesa, which has become so well-known for cultivating future winemakers that it’s called ‘Zaca U,’ Jim partnered with Adam Tolmach to create Au Bon Climat. His time in France influenced both the name of the winery and Jim’s approach: he sought to craft more subtle, vibrant, and age-worthy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In other words, he wanted to create what he wanted to drink.
Francophile Tendencies and Shared Vision
Jim’s Francophile tendencies were shared by winemaking colleagues Bob Lindquist, Adam Tolmach, and Ken Brown.
They got together on a regular basis to drink the French wines they all loved so much, thereby cementing the future of Santa Barbara winemaking whether they knew it or not. Since then, all have become giants in the wine industry, but it’s still Au Bon Climat that stands out as the best Burgundian-styled using fantastic California fruit.
Jim is quick to point out that it’s the Clendenen Family label that’s actually his “first” label because the grapes are from his own vineyard and he has built it from the ground up. There, he creates wines from more esoteric French grapes like Mondeuse and Aligoté which are seldom seen stateside. Such wines are highly acidic and beg to be paired with richer foods, which is also a direct nod to his time in France as a young man.
But winemaking isn’t the only way Jim carries out his quest to make up for gastronomical impoverishment of his youth: his lunch time meals for staff and visitors alike are legendary. He personally prepares a feast at the winery every day that he’s there and everyone sits down together at a communal table to enjoy it. You never really know what you’ll get since Jim usually cobbles together a meal
from what he has available – the veggies come from his garden and the meats are from local farmers. A thoughtful selection of wines are always present on the table. Truly an experience!
We, however, don’t need to wait for an invitation because we’re featuring Au Bon Climat wines through the month of August. We are offering the three featured wines below for 20% off throughout the month. We hope you get to take advantage of this fantastic deal!
Winemaking is about storytelling, and the story behind Zaca Mesa is definitely worth telling. -Eric Mohseni, Zaca Mesa Winemaker
Zaca Mesa, one of the most storied wineries around due to it’s history. Established in 1973 when there were only two wineries in Santa Barbara County. Zaca Mesa is the first winery in the area to plant Syrah grapes, which helped kick start the Rhone varietal love affair throughout California.
Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block of Syrah is the oldest in the Central Coast. The vines themselves came from Gary Eberle, who acquired them from a UC Davis professor, who had taken them from Hermitage in France! Black Bear Block is all original rootstock– a rare find these days.
(Fun fact: “Black Bear Block” earned its name when vineyard manager Ruben Camacho found black bears there munching away on the grapes!) Today, Zaca Mesa’s estate exclusively grows Rhone grapes, everything from Viognier to Grenache and Syrah.
The story doesn’t end with the grapes, though. Located in a big ol’ barn up in the Santa Rita Hills, Zaca Mesa has been lucky enough to experience such legendary winemakers as Ken Brown and Bob Lindquist. Zaca Mesa has consistently kept quality wines above all else, and it’s that commitment to quality that attracted current Head Winemaker Eric Mohseni.
But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”
Eric worked part time at The Wine Country in Signal Hill during his undergraduate days at Cal State Long Beach, where he majored in food science and chemistry. As his role quickly grew, he became the buyer for Southern Hemisphere wines, which launched an obsession with Sauvignon Blanc. That, in turn, lead him to move to New Zealand to work a harvest and fully immerse himself in winemaking. But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”
Still a chemistry major at heart, Eric loves experimenting with barrels and aging. Recent additions to the winery include massive concrete tanks and elegant clay amphorae, both of which are used to produce Syrah and a Grenache-Mourvedre blend. Those wines are big, deep, and tannic, as the concrete and clay are obviously less porous than oak barrels and allow very little air in. This kind of curiosity and experimentation allows Zaca Mesa to produce varied styles of wine from the same block of grapes, from smooth and round to big and bold.
Eric credits Vineyard Manager Ruben Camacho, Cellar Master Agustin Robles, and the entire Zaca Mesa staff with the winery’s success because of their ongoing commitment and dedication. Ruben has been with Zaca Mesa for over 40 years, and Agustin isn’t far behind. Eric believes that the camaraderie found there is crucial to the finished wines.
Eric was our Featured Winemaker for the month of June in 2017. View our upcoming featured winemakers on our special event page here.
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.
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, Erik Mallea of Mallea Wines has a remarkable talent for understanding the terroir of the vines he tends from which he creates his exquisite wines. As our featured winemaker for the month of January, Erik shared his foreseeable path to becoming a winemaker and the story behind his label.
Part One of our interview with Erik:
His love of farming took him to Oregon and New Zealand where he worked in viticulture and winemaking, but his fascination with fermentation began in his teen years back in his rural hometown in Minnesota with Chokecherries, apples, and oats. After receiving his Masters degree in Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State he came to Santa Barbara County in 2007 to pursue his career as a winemaker and vineyard manager. Currently managing vines for Sanford Winery and producing a stellar line up of wines for his and his wife, Amber’s, Mallea label.
“Observant” was the word Erik gave when asked to describe the part of his personality that gets infused into his winemaking. Instead of approaching winemaking with a specific style, Erik treats each vineyard with a unique approach that requires him to be observant of the land and the process. Mallea wines are sourced from five vineyards that Erik maintains from the ground up.
The thoughtful quality that can be tasted in every bottle can be experienced before the bottle is even opened. The coat of arms on the Mallea labels are a tribute to his father’s family coat of arms passed down from the Basque Country; the story behind this coat of arms takes you back into another time. If a wine label can influence the flavors and depths of character in a wine, either through it’s mere presence or the subtle feeling it evokes before sipping, then we suggest you listen to Part Two of our interview with Erik. The background story that makes up this coat of arms is inspiring and lives on not only in the Mallea family but also in the Basque region.
PART TWO of our interview with Erik:
We invite you to experience Mallea Wines, they are a beautiful expression of the elegance and body found in Santa Barbara County wines. Purchase Mallea Wines for 20% off during the month of January (online and in our wine merchant). Mix and Match– this is a great way to experience these beautiful wines!
2014 Mallea Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County
Very aromatic with candied grapefruit on the nose and a hint of white flowers. On the palate, the wine is fruit-driven and crisp, with the grapefruit appearing again alongside ripe peaches. Enjoy with an afternoon picnic!
“2014 was quite warm! Day after day of warm temperatures, day and night, took everyone by surprise. Fruit ripened quite early, nobody could really believe it.” – Erik Mallea
Harvested on September 9th from a two acre vineyard in Santa Barbara County. Partial whole cluster fermentation (1/3 of the fruit went straight into tanks without being de-stemmed), adds complexity, and creates “other than fruit” characteristics. This bottling is 100% Grenache grapes, giving more vertical correctness. A lot of the fruit characters start melding with more herbal notes. This wine shows some sage and other unique flavors that change while the wine sits in the glass. Making it a more enjoyable wine. Aged 20 months in neutral French oak. Only 250 cases produced.
“The fruit for this Sauvignon Blanc was grown in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. After harvesting on August 19th the juice was barrel fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks.” – Erik Mallea
Mallea 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Barbara County
Violets, olallieberries and dark tobacco leaves rise on the nose the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon produced from the Los Olivos District appellation. It’s relatively easy to sip, without intrusive tannins, offering black cherries, fudge richness and the tang of black plum skins. Aged in neutral French oak barrels for 18 months. Only 3 barrels produced!
Larry Schaffer started off in the educational and trade publishing industry, but after a number of years felt he had finished everything he set out to do in that field, and started wondering about what was next. He had always been interested in winemaking, wondering how the process worked. How do you develop different wines from one grape varietal or another?
Learning more about winemaking was the challenge he was looking for, and he left his career to get a degree in Viticulture and Enology. After studying and working for years, Larry began his new career as the Enologist for Fess Parker Winery. He chose to settle in Santa Barbara County because of the openness of the winemaking community, their willingness to help each other, and because the Santa Ynez Valley is a great place to raise children.
After a year with Fess Parker, Larry started buying grapes to make his own wines, focusing on Rhone varietal wines under the label Tercero Wines. Tercero means “third” in Spanish, and the number three has many ties within Larry’s past and present. He was the third child in his family, he lived in the third dormitory complex at UC Davis, and he has three children of his own! Now firmly established with an excellent range of wines, Larry is looking forward to sharing Tercero wines with guests on August 26, during the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café’s Friday Night Winemaker event. In the spirit of Tercero, Larry will be offering three wines to taste, those which he feels will pair beautifully with the cuisine offered at the Los Olivos Café.
When asked, Larry describes his style of winemaking as “pragmatic”. He believes that if he’s done a blend correctly, the sum will be greater than the its parts. So, when he is putting his blends together, he’s never sure exactly what he’ll have. In his head, he’ll be thinking “This is going to add this and this is going to add this…” but in the end, sometimes it works out fine and sometimes it doesn’t. He believes that if he has done his job right, when one of his bottles is opened, he wants it to speak of the vintage, to speak of the vineyards that he worked with, the varieties he used, and he wants it to speak of his knowledge, education, or lack of knowledge – whatever it was that went into making that wine at that time. He says, “That’s an evolving process to me. My wines are never going to taste the same, or smell the same, and that’s ok! Because it’s going to hopefully be reflective of that time period when I made the wine. If I was going to be dogmatic, rather than pragmatic, I don’t think I would achieve that.”
Recently Shawnda Marmostein from the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, sat down with Matt Brady of Jaffurs Wine Cellars to learn a bit more about his wine making journey. In 2005 Matt started in winetasting and then, when harvest came around, he jumped in to help out with the picking of the grapes. Working through that harvest, Matt was bitten by the winemaking bug and was subsequently offered a full-time position. He has been there ever since, enjoying the diverse opportunities afforded by a small winery. Over the years, he has moved through 7 different job titles including cellar master to assistant winemaker and, a little over a year ago – to his current position as co-winemaker with owner Craig Jaffurs. While most of his training has been on-the-job, Matt has also taken weekend wine chemistry classes at UC Davis. In 2009, he took a sabbatical to travel to Australia and created a vintage at “Two Hands Wines” in the Barossa Valley. Matt is very appreciative of the benefits of working in a small winery where the few employees have the opportunity to become familiar with all aspects of the business and wear a number of different hats.
Craig Jaffurs, owner of the winery, began a career as a cost analyst for an aerospace company in Santa Barbara. On his off hours, he started exploring winemaking and creating his own home wines, learning from one of his best friends, Bruce McGuire, who works at the Santa Barbara Winery. After working a couple of harvests with Bruce, Craig fell in love with winemaking. Based on the success of his first few home vintages, he launched his own commercial brand and, in 1994, began making the Thompson Vineyard Syrah. His started with a couple 100 cases – which received rave reviews from the Wine Spectator. This initial success got the ball rolling, and Craig started doubling production – making his wine at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria through the year 2000. In 2001 Craig and his wife, Lee, bought the property where Jaffurs Wine Cellars is currently located. One block from the beach in Santa Barbara, the facility is off Milpas on Montecito St. After purchasing the property, the couple knocked down the little house on the site and began building their dream winery from the ground up. Visitors to the facility, which is open every day for tasting from 11am – 5pm, are in for a rare treat. The tasting room is located in the center of the production floor, surrounded by the tanks, barrels, and all the action. In fact, it is not uncommon for a casual winetasting to turn into an adventure for the lucky ones who come to taste and end up being invited to sort the grapes or do a little foot stomping – especially around harvest.
Matt related that Jaffurs philosophy is to have a minimalist approach. Beginning with great vineyards (strongly believing that the site trumps everything else), harvesting the best grapes they can get by hand, and working with vineyard managers so that everything is done to their specifications. They pick the grapes at night, trucking them to the winery in Santa Barbara by 7:00-8:00 in the morning. In the winery, the philosophy is “…to not do too much, so they don’t screw anything up.” Using a light touch, they hand sort the grapes, and employ gravity to move their wine, de-stemming most of their fruit without crushing it – while allowing for a small percentage to get whole cluster fermented before getting lightly foot stomped. Matt says, “We want our wines to be powerful and expressive, but we also want them to be elegant and balanced and together.” Currently Jaffurs has 25 acres of grape under contract, producing 5,000 cases, and 14 different wines. The produce small lots, with the majority of their wines being sold directly to their wine clubs. Matt feels, this gives them the opportunity to be “…a little more headstrong and experimental on what we want to do with our wines. Because we have a captive audience, so to speak, that are going to buy them – we can experiment with things like using more whole clusters or extending barreling.” Something larger wineries aren’t able to do, because they have to make the same thing every year. One of the things Matt is most excited about in 2016 is breaking some of their picks into multiple picks. For instance, if they target a harvest for a particular Wednesday, they will go in the Friday before to pick some of the grapes, pick the majority on that Wednesday, but then save some to be picked a few days later. This gives them some slightly varying levels of ripeness to work with – creating a way to increase complexity and add more layers to the wine. “Not the kind of thing a huge winery can do,” continues Matt. “but when you are small, agile, and dynamic- you get a winery team and winemaking staff that is excited to keep pushing the bar up and you get some really cool stuff!”
br /> Matt loves his job. “Every year is different, every year we do some great experiments, every year your understanding of winemaking evolves. Things you thought you knew…you realize you don’t know. It’s one of those ever humbling processes. You get one chance at making wine each year and that’s pretty exciting.”
On Friday, July 29, join Winemaker Matt Brady at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café’s “Friday Night Winemaker” event where he will be offering tastes of Jaffurs wines that he feels would pair best with your dinner. The experience and tastes are only for guests who are dining at the Café. No reservations or cost are required to taste the Jaffur wines. However, dinner reservations are strongly recommended. For more information or reservations: 805-688-7265 or www.losolivoscafe.com.
Learn more about Matt Brady and Jaffurs Wine Cellars from our interview at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe.
The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café has been offering quality dining for guests looking for excellent, freshly prepared food on a daily basis since 1995. Recently, they have expanded their service to bring that same level of expertise for intimate group experiences inside and outside the restaurant.
For those looking for a quiet place to meet, located in an exclusive section of the restaurant is a beautifully appointed room with rustic, wainscoted walls using recycled barn wood. The warm tones make this a perfect retreat for elegant private gatherings. Artwork on the walls creates additional charm, while a mounted high definition TV that can be used for presentations during corporate events or slide shows celebrating life moments, adds practical usability to the room. The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café is known for it’s inventive use of seasonal, locally sourced produce to create world-class signature dishes. Their knowledgeable and friendly staff is happy to assist in choosing wines and selecting a delicious customized menu to fit your budget
For off-site events, the Los Olivos Café will deliver everything needed for a successful dining experience with their new catering van. Serving up the flavors of the California Central Coast, private residences or businesses can now host a top notch dining experience direct from the kitchen of talented Executive Chef Chris Joslyn. In addition to working with staff to customize the menu, there is discount pricing available from the restaurants wine selection for all off-site events too.
The beautiful Santa Barbara Wine Country also offers many opportunities for an alfresco experience at a nearby park or winery. By calling ahead, a small group of 20 or more can order a 3 course gourmet lunch for delivery to any place with normal vehicle access in the Santa Ynez Valley or groups can pick up the budget friendly $20/per person lunch spread to take with them on their journey.
The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café celebrates the bounty of the region, offering the best of the local wines and working with nearby growers and farmers to insure each dish will be an exceptional and memorable experience for guests.
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.
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