“It is fairly easy to get interested in wine, it’s alcohol, it’s fun to drink, you are usually surrounded by great times and friends. However, there is a lot of work behind it. Long hours, early mornings, and late nights.” Fabian Bravo, winemaker for Brander winery has been devoted to the craft of winemaking since his first harvest in 2007.
Like many, Fabian didn’t take a direct path into winemaking. He grew up in Gonzalez California, in the Santa Lucia Highlands. One of California’s premier cool-climate winegrowing districts. Surrounded by agriculture Fabian decided to take a different path. He attended Cal Poly for electrical engineering, and after college began working for a company in Goleta. He worked 4 years in his field but realized he couldn’t see himself growing old doing that type of job. Entering an early “mid-life crisis” he began to explore other career paths.
During his soul searching he dabbled in baking bread at a bakery, looked into law enforcement, and taught high school geometry and algebra. Eventually he went back home to work as an engineer again. Shortly after, he met a friend who offered him a harvest position, he would have to take a leave of absence from work if he decided to do it. As harvest crept closer he finally decided to take the leap and began working for Siduri winery in Santa Rosa, California. That was the point where he decided this industry was something he could see himself doing for a while. Watch Part 2 of our interview with Fabian to hear his inspiring journey in his own words here.
Right after harvest Fabian celebrated his birthday in Santa Barbara County. He went wine tasting, of course! One of the wineries he found himself tasting at was Brander winery. As fate would have it, the next Monday he saw that a winery had posted a job for assistant winemaker, which turned out to be Fred Brander, of Brander Winery. About a week after harvest at Siduri he started working for Fred at Brander. He is about to celebrate his 9-year anniversary there.
Fabian’s passion for winemaking is easy to see, as he describs his devotion to the craft. “You want to capture the vintage, the vineyard, the varietal. You have one shot at each vintage. Keeping that in mind, you only have a certain amount of years to make wine, a certain window to capture each year. Getting up early and staying late in necessary. You want to make sure you showcase the vineyard and hard work that goes into the fruit and production.”
Brander is well known for their Sauvignon Blanc production, which is celebrating its 40th vintage. Making 11 different bottlings every year. The vineyard was planted in 1975, and was first harvested in 1977. 44 acres are devoted mostly to Sauvignon Blanc, with a few other varietals planted on property. Brander has been practicing bio dynamic farming since 2010 which Fabian observed has given the wines a cleaner, fresher feel than before.
Fred Brander has been working for many years to get the Los Olivos District AVA approved. All of his hard work has finally paid off, the 2015 vintages will be the first with this AVA on the label. Great work Fred!
Enjoy learning about the story behind the Los Olivos District in Part 3of our interview here.
During the entire month of October, we welcome you to experience Brander wines at a 20% discount from their regular retail price. The four wines we have featured are:
Dine with us at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café this month and enjoy a Brander tasting flight; they will also be part of our extensive by the glass menu.
Another way to experience Brander: On the night of October 28th, our dinner guests will get to meet Fabian in person as he mingles with guests and pours tastes of his Brander wines for our Final Friday Winemaker series (Dinner reservations are highly recommended. No extra cost.) 805-688-7265 Reservations also available online.
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.”
I like on the table, when we’re speaking, the light of a bottle of intelligent wine. -Pablo Neruda.
“This is what wine is to me, sharing with friends, fantastic conversation, the light and energy of a wine, but not just any wine– an intelligent brilliant wine.” -Jessica Gasca
Jessica Gasca is an intriguing woman who dipped her toes into the wine industry interning in 2009. She described her first harvest as “absolutely magical.” Born and raised in southern California Jessica realized in her late twenties she wasn’t passionate about the career path she had been working towards. The summer before starting a masters program she quit her job, left her friends and family, and moved to the central coast to dive into the wine business.
Jessica landed a job with Matthias Pippig of Sanguis, at Grassini Family Winery, and has worked as an enologist for Blair Fox. Jessica is currently working at Dragonette Cellars while pursuing her dream of making her own wine under the label, Story of Soil, formerly ITER [e’tair]: n. (Latin) the journey.
Jessica is grateful to her uncle, Gary Burk, for his inspiration and mentorship along her journey as a winemaker. Gary has been making wine in Santa Barbara County for 20 years. He previously worked as the GM and assistant winemaker for Au Bon Climat and Qupe, and now has his own highly-acclaimed winery, Costa de Oro wines.
Jessica’s intention for her wines is to see what Mother Nature provides each year and follow her intuition. Each vintage, varietal, and vineyard is different. It’s about connecting to the earth, sculpting the wines to show a sense of place and style—following what’s inside.
Jessica describes harvest as her favorite part of winemaking. Waking up before the sun, picking the grapes, processing, crush, getting sweaty and dirty. It’s a beautiful process, one that she fell in love with immediately.
Santa Barbara County is a remarkable place for grape growing and for making world-class wines that Jessica is grateful to be part of. She is passionate about the industry and this region, and hopes to continue helping it become more widely known and recognized for the quality wines being produced.
Like most winemakers, Jessica Gasca’s career started as a dream—a passion to create “intelligent” wine—a dream she nurtured. We are honored to pour the fruit of her labor created from the grapes lucky enough to express themselves through Story of Soil.
“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis. “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.” Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc. While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy. The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates. This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.
Great wine often requires context. While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting. I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group. These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them. The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly. In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.
The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon. While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region. “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis. “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us. And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.” Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion. And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon. “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”
Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement. “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis. “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage. We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.” They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality. “Sauv is all about minerality. There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”
The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples. The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes. “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis. “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.” This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well. “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine. I think part of that has to do with our lower yields. Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”
The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality. Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages. “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette. “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.” Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.
The two sites they are currently working with, Grassini and Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils. The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality. Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site. “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe. This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.” Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.
In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet. Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it. Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression. “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work. We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’ And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”
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.
“We take each year as it comes. Recipes are boring. We look at what nature gives us and go from there.” Kitá’s winemaker Tara Gomez is a straight shooter. With some winemakers, you get the feeling they are thinking about their marketing strategy before they answer a question. With Gomez, there is none of this artifice or pretense; instead, there is a delicate and thoughtful honesty. This past week I tasted through numerous 2012 and 2013 barrels with Gomez and assistant winemaker Tymari LoRe, and discussed their approach in the vineyard and the cellar.
The young Kitá label was created by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, debuting with the 2010 vintage. Gomez herself is Chumash, and seeks to carry on the stewardship of the land that her ancestors have been part of for centuries, now via their estate vineyard, Camp 4. Fess Parker originally planted this large, stunning 256 acre vineyard with 19(yes, 19!) different grape varieties in total. In 2010 the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians purchased the land, and since taking over, they have fine-tuned the farming along with the team at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates (CVCA), working towards their goal of a more sustainable ecosystem and more expressive site character.
With the managing team of Rudy Bravo and Ben Merz, two of the stars of the renowned CVCA team, at the helm, they have addressed the needs of each block and variety in-depth, not an easy task for a vineyard with so much diversity. As part of their move toward sustainability they have installed owl and bat houses, moved away from using synthetic treatments in the vineyard (save for a couple of blocks that they’re still dialing in, and even then in miniscule amounts), and generally moved toward creating a more diverse environment. “Taking from the land only what we need and giving back to it is what we believe in,” proudly states Gomez. “We’re doing a pomace-to-compost program now, for example, which is a lot of work, but it’s important to us, so it’s worth it.”
While located in the extreme east of the Los Olivos District, Camp 4 still lies on the Positas series, part of the Ballard-Santa Ynez-Positas series that defines the AVA. Their close proximity to Happy Canyon is only hinted at by the chunks of serpentine present here that have come down from Figueroa Mountain. With the Rhone and Bordeaux varieties at Camp 4, there is an intense minerality present in the final wines that is distinct from Ballard Canyon to its west or Happy Canyon to its east. In the red varieties in particular there is a gravelly textural presence that unifies the wines.
In addition to their estate program for Kitá, Camp 4 sells fruit to around 60 different producers in the valley, many of whom vineyard designate the fruit or use it as the backbone for appellation bottlings. Grenache Blanc has jumped out as a star as it has in many vineyards within the Los Olivos District. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc also find a voice in this site that is strikingly different from the very-close-by Happy Canyon. “Cabernet Sauvignon is my baby,” states Gomez, and it shows in the details of the finished wine. While Happy Canyon Cab has a tendency to be brawny and ultra-ripe, reminiscent of modern Napa Valley’s powerful renditions of the grape, Kitá’s take on Cab is finessed, with notes of pencil lead and cassis that are more reminiscent of France’s Medoc. The sun-kissed character of California is still apparent, but with a great sense of balance and encouragement of non-fruit aromatics.
A graduate of CSU Fresno’s renowned viticulture & enology program, Gomez carefully blends science and intuition in her winemaking approach. “I look at everything when I’m picking,” she says. “I like to pick for acidity, because I like that brightness, but we look at brix and pH, we look at flavors, and we often do several picks to find the various components that we want to achieve.” This meticulous approach is present in the final wines. Tasting through barrels with the winemaking team here was fascinating, as they were constantly questioning what they could do to improve a wine the following vintage, or how they could blend barrels to make a more complete wine. “We try to be as true to the varietal as we can and deal with what we’re given. Of course, we strive for lower alcohol, we like that brightness, that acidity. We want age-ability. And I don’t believe in doing a bunch of additions to correct a wine.”
While a young label, Kitá is already making beautiful wines, and has a bright future ahead of it. They are taking a special site to even greater heights through devoted farming, and they are striving at every step to make wines that will age and showcase place. Tara Gomez is part of a great Santa Ynez Valley tradition of channeling the land that goes well beyond grapes, and ultimately, it is this love of a spiritual home that makes the deepest impression.
Fred Brander begins his discussion of the Los Olivos District not by reeling off statistics or carting out maps, but by walking out of his cellar with 4 bottles. 2 are unlabeled, 2 are in brown bags. Brander comments as he pours a first taste from one of the bags, “This is a producer I really admire… I think it’s a good example of someone making more balanced Cab here in California.” Its notes of cedar, ripe blackcurrant, and cassis, along with a prominent signature of American oak, place it squarely in Califonia; it turns out to be Ridge’s iconic estate bottling from Monte Bello Vineyard. Next he pours the two shiners: one is a barrel sample of his young vine Cab, meticulously planted 5 years ago with an incredible array of rootstocks and clones (12 combinations in total); the other is a barrel sample of his old vine Cab, own-rooted, planted in the mid ‘70s. Though young, there is already an intense, gravel minerality to both, along with all that exuberant young fruit. He proudly informs me that the alcohols are in the mid to low 13s. We finish with the other brown bag, which has harder tannins, just-ripe plum, and a finish filled with notes of sharpened pencil. We are clearly in Bordeaux here (it turns out to be a Pessac-Leognan from Chateau Haut-Bergey), though the leap from the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Los Olivos District to the Old World is, refreshingly, not a huge one. His point is clear: this area is capable of site driven, balanced wines that can stand toe to toe with the benchmarks of the world.
A Master of Wine candidate and one of Santa Ynez Valley’s pioneers, Brander tastes blind like this just about every day, comparing his wines with other producers from around the world, seeking out new ideas, constantly thinking about how to improve his wines, his vineyard, and our growing region. His latest passion is the birth of the Los Olivos District AVA. The idea that this part of the valley may be worthy of its own AVA first arose over 10 years ago, when the Sta. Rita Hills became official. “Sta. Rita Hills was the first to differentiate itself, and they did it based mainly on climate, which made me want to look further into the Santa Ynez AVA and see what made us different here besides the fact that we’re warmer. As it turned out, the area that we are now defining as the Los Olivos District has very distinct and uniform soil and climate.”
The soil in the Los Olivos District is part of the Positas–Ballard–Santa Ynez association, which consists of alluvial soils and lots of gravel, in many ways reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank. It is distinct from the limestone of Ballard Canyon or the serpentine and chert of Happy Canyon, the two AVAs that bookend the region, and its mineral presence is readily apparent in the area’s wines. For Brander, this soil, and its uniformity throughout the District, is the most compelling reason for the creation of the AVA. “The weakness in California AVAs is that they’re frequently not as specific with soils. Even in Napa, where you have so many sub-AVAs, there is uniform climate within them, but there are often varied soils. That is one of our big strengths here, that we have such uniformity.” Starting at the 1000-ft. elevation mark (above this the soil shifts into a different, sandier soil series) in the San Rafael Mountains and sloping gently down to the Santa Ynez River, one also finds great consistency of temperature and topography. “The climate is consistent, the topography is consistent, the soils are consistent, and I think these factors make a very strong case for this deserving its own AVA.”
Brander has become famous throughout the world for his various expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, which for me capture a minerality and purity rarely found outside of Sancerre. Many producers within the District also channel this more restrained style, which is a wildly different expression from the rich, musky, tropical style found in Happy Canyon, one that I also love for very different reasons. “Climate is a big factor. Here in Los Olivos we have cooler temperatures, less of a diurnal shift, and the wines tend to have lower pH and more malic acid than Happy Canyon. This area, in my opinion, is more conducive to making a fresher style of Sauvignon Banc, unoaked.”
While Sauvignon Blanc in a more precise style may be a defining expression for the AVA, for the most part the area’s varietal identity is still being sussed out. “Rhone and Bordeaux varieties are certainly the two main groups that are planted, along with some Spanish and Italian varieties, and I think all of those have been successful,” says Brander. “I’ve even tasted some Rieslings and Pinot Grigios that have been very good. Chardonnay can also be viable in a style reminiscent of classic Napa, picked early with blocked malo.” For my palate, which leans unabashedly Eurocentric, I find particular interest in the Bordeaux and Italian varieties coming from the District. There is a freshness and balance in these wines, be it Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, which is distinctive and highly mineral, with a different character than that found in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.
The Los Olivos District AVA is currently in the process of establishing its growers’ alliance, an important step for solidifying the community that will advocate for this region on a large scale. “The AVA has the greatest number of wineries, i.e. winemaking facilities, within an AVA within Santa Barbara County. We also have the history: the earliest vineyards were planted within the boundaries of the AVA, and we also have Ballard as the first township in the Valley, along with Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang. It’s more reminiscent of Europe’s appellation model where you have little towns inside them.” Brander goes on to share that the next step in the AVA process is for the petition to come up for public comment, which will likely occur this summer. If all goes according to plan, it should be finalized and approved by the end of 2014.
Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion of AVAs in the last 10 years, though unlike many areas established through the AVA system, which seem to have marketing as their raison d’etre, the division of our growing region has been firmly rooted in science and site character, with the goal of giving consumers an idea of the style and sense of place in the bottle. “If we can subdivide the Santa Ynez Valley into the AVAs needed to fill out the puzzle, I think it’s better off for the consumer,” says Brander. “Besides this AVA, we need AVAs to demarcate the areas north of us, like Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos. But I think we’re certainly advancing the ball more than we were 15 or 20 years ago.” The Los Olivos District certainly has my vote, and I look forward to seeing the further discovery and refinement of this AVA in the coming decades.
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