Grapevines are very sensitive to their environment, and climate is a key factor in grape and wine production. So when the weather changes from the norm it does have an effect. And, when that weather change is prolonged or extreme, growers must take special note to harvest their grapes at the optimum time.
Wes Hagen, formerly of Clos Pepe and currently a consulting winemaker at J. Wilkes Wines, reported that this year was the “earliest winegrape harvest in modern California history.” While historically harvest has been in late September through October, due to the unseasonably warm weather, crops were harvested in August for the second year in a row.
Larry Schaffer, winemaker for tercero wines, was thankful that the region experienced a bit of rain at the beginning of the year, but “the above average heat that followed led to early bud break once again, setting the schedule for an early harvest.” In addition to the lack of rain and unseasonable heat, strong cold winds in late spring and early summer, during flowering, led to shattering in a few of Larry’s varieties and uneven fruit set for other vineyards. This resulted in decreased crop levels. Larry felt the challenge was to “allow for the grapes to reach their ‘physiological ripeness’ without sugar levels rising too quickly.” Although time will tell, he feels that challenge has been met and is very happy with the quality of fruit he has received and the young wines that have been produced.
Although the yields were lower, Wes reports that “quality is high and lots of folks are reporting dense, flavorful wines like we haven’t seen since 2010.” With drought and lower yields, Wes also believes this is the perfect time to stock up your cellar. Wine prices for quality bottles have never been better, and he predicts the prices are only going up in the next two years. J. Wilkes, where he consults, uses vineyards throughout the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, and Paso Robles Highlands, and they “are very excited about the quality of the 2015 vintage from all of these appellations, and will blend wines into the best AVA blends we can and offer them at great value.”
David deLaski, winemaker for the Solminer Wine Co (an organic vineyard) found that when they tested for pH and Brix (sugar content) to determine the best time to harvest, the pH was climbing faster than the Brix. In order to get the flavor profiles they wanted, they ended up with wines that have a higher pH than usual, but he is “….very happy with the flavors and aromas that the 2015 harvest is providing. The wines are developing beautifully in the cellar!” Solminer received Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch (a red Austrian varietal that is quite rare in California). David says they also, “got a good amount of our Syrah this year, and we are making rosé, a fresh Syrah blend, a Syrah Reserve and last but not least, a sparkling Methode Champenoise. We also are sourcing Riesling grapes and this year a first, some Pinot Noir grapes.”
Sam Marmostein, owner of the Bernat Vineyard, Los Olivos Café Farm, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café, said his vines were a little stunted this year, despite being watered by drip, because of the “very dry winter.” He reports that his grape crop was 25% of what they normally get, but “the grapes taste great, and it should be a good year.” The newly established Los Olivos Farm has gotten off to a wonderful start. Sustainably and organically farmed, the crops are used in the dishes served at the Los Olivos Café with extra produce being pickled into jars with recipes developed by Executive Chef Chris Joslyn. The pickled produce will be available for sale at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café very soon. In the beginning, the fields yielded so much zucchini that it initially outpaced the pickling process. Luckily, the Los Olivos Café Farm was able to donate the excess to the non-profit Veggie Rescue group, who redirects gleaned local produce to charitable organizations and school lunch programs in the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, and Santa Maria areas.
During this prolonged drought, where water use is extremely critical and everyone is concerned with saving as much of this precious resource as possible, vineyards have been using drip irrigation and inspecting regularly to make sure they only use as much as needed to ensure the vitality of the vines. According to Wes, this lack of water has begun to impact yields and vine health because of the “salts at root level caused by the extended drought.” He believes that the expected El Niño “…needs to bring us 20”+ this year to give us what we need for the next year, 30”would be better, but it needs to be spread out over the whole winter so it can recharge the water table and drench the vine roots, washing the salts away.” All of the growers are hoping for a wetter season with rain spread out evenly – no floods, and not during flowering!
Wine lovers often have the romantic notion that the land, the terroir, will always triumph above all else to dictate what grapes thrive where, and what defines a given region. In reality, economics and the fickle nature of the marketplace often play just as big of a role. Case in point: Santa Barbara County’s history with Riesling. The early reputation of our area, particularly cooler climate regions like Los Alamos, Santa Maria Valley, and the Sta. Rita Hills, owes a great deal to Riesling, back when you’d see it labeled as White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling. Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, however, economics forced Riesling out in favor of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Riesling is now making its long overdue comeback thanks to a new generation of consumers, critics, and sommeliers championing this truly noble grape. I recently spoke with vintners in the area to discuss the history of Riesling, and its Teutonic brethren Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner, in our region, and their future in Santa Barbara County.
The leader among this group is Graham Tatomer. Tatomer, a Santa Barbara native who fell in love with the grape after his first taste of an Alsatian Riesling, has built his Riesling-focused program around Kick On. “Kick On is by far the most important site I work with, and it’s a wonderful site,” says Tatomer. “It’s a long-term contract. Jeff Frey has done a great job farming the vineyard, but he leaves the executive decisions on my blocks to me, so I have complete control of the farming, from pruning to leafing to watering.” Tatomer focuses on Block B, a newer planting from the early 2000s. “I took B block because of greater vine density, it’s further up the hill, and it has a southwest exposure,” states Tatomer. “Great aspect, there’s sun but plenty of access to the wind as well… Jeff and I have been experimenting with weed control methods, trying to get closer to completely organic farming.” Tatomer produces two different renditions of Kick On. The vineyard designated bottling is lean, austere, inspired by Austria and Alsace yet uniquely California, with the mineral intensity of this site concentrated into a chiseled package. His Vandenberg bottling, on the other hand, is focused on botrytised fruit, mainly sourced from Kick On, and is comparatively plush, with more pronounced stone fruit aromatics while still capturing Kick On’s precise character. Other wonderful Kick On bottlings abound, from the bright and taut wines of Ojai, Municipal, Mes Amis, Stirm and J. Brix to the slightly off-dry expressions from Margerum and La Fenetre’s Josh Klapper under his Dr. Klapper moniker.
The most profound bottling of Kick On I had the pleasure of tasting in researching this article, though, came totally out of left field. Fred Brander’s Brander label has long utilized Kick On fruit as part of its Cuvee Natalie blend; in 2014, however, they chose to do a vineyard designated, varietal Riesling from Kick On. Winemaker Fabian Bravo casually shared this recently bottled wine with me this week after tasting through numerous soon-to-be-bottled Sauvignon Blanc tanks (which were great as always), and I was absolutely floored. Reminiscent of great Auslese-level Mosel Riesling- sites like Erdener Treppchen or Urziger Wurzgarten come to mind- this was wild, singular stuff. Notes of orange bitters, juniper, clove, Luxardo Maraschino, vanilla, cherry, even a perception of minerality reminiscent of the Mosel’s blue slate (though of course this is the glorious sand of Kick On) – the overall effect was reminiscent of my favorite classic cocktail, the Martinez, but with perfect balance and deceptively bright acid. Bravo explained that the unique character of this wine resulted from a new winemaking approach. “We stuck it in a tank that freezes the juice, then we turned the system off, cracked the valve, and basically concentrated the must, so almost reverse ice wine making,” laughs Bravo. “You do lose a lot of volume, probably 70% or more. It’s a slow process, someone sits there pulling off about a gallon an hour. Early brix will be up around 50 at that point with the first lots, and it will drop over time as we pull juice off. The resulting amount was so small that we fermented in beer kegs, and only ended up with 21 cases.” The wine instantly became a new benchmark for me, and is a testament to the talents of Bravo and the always-experimenting Fred Brander. If you can get your hands on a bottle of this precious nectar, consider yourself blessed.
Riesling’s other Teutonic compatriot, Gewurztraminer, has been particularly underappreciated in Santa Barbara County. Unlike the Riesling renaissance that has happened over the past few years, Gewurztraminer remains a marginal curiosity, as evidenced by the fact that there remain only three sites planted to the grape here: Jim Clendenen’s Le Bon Climat in Santa Maria, and White Hills and Alisos, both in Los Alamos. Los Alamos, with its less recognizable name and more affordable land, has proven to be a safe haven for many of these lesser-known varieties, and Gewurztraminer is no exception. In the hands of producers like Kunin, Bedford, and Tercero, it produces varietally classic, wonderfully expressive and food friendly wines. “My goal was always to make a wine that showed off the grape’s exotic bouquet, flavor profile and mouthfeel, but not to push the envelope style-wise as far as residual sugar or acidity,” says Seth Kunin. “I found that, with the exposure and mean temperatures at Alisos, we could get enough ripeness to achieve the lychee aromatics and rich mouthfeel while keeping the sugar levels low enough to ferment the wine dry.”
Some of the most legendary Santa Barbara County Gewurztraminer came from a site that no longer has the variety planted: Babcock Vineyard. “The first grapes I ever crushed at the estate were Gewurztraminer,” recalls Bryan Babcock. “It came in late August of 1984.” The old guard of Sta. Rita Hills speaks of Babcock’s Gewurztraminers with the same awe reserved for the early vintages of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir or Au Bon Climat’s early Chardonnays, but there are, sadly, almost no bottles remaining of his Gewurz from this era. Along with Babcock’s Riesling, the Gewurztraminer developed phylloxera in the late ‘80s, and had to be pulled out. When the time came to replant, he went in a different varietal direction.
In the case of Riesling, “it’s one of the great conduits to terroir, but it didn’t hit the deep chord that it hits in Germany,” says Babcock. “It never felt world class like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here does.” And while Gewurztraminer made gorgeous wines in a range of styles for Babcock, from dry and bright to late harvest expressions inspired by Alsace’s vendange tardive bottlings, it was ultimately too much of an uphill battle in the market. “In the late ‘80s, it wasn’t like it is now, where the public has been educated so much more and has been exposed to a lot of these lesser known varieties from around the world,” states Babcock. “Nobody could pronounce Gewurztraminer when I’d pour at tastings. Yeah, you can educate people, and yeah, it’s one of the world’s noble varieties, but I grew tired of being the educator.” Despite the modern interest in Gewurztraminer brought about by sommeliers’ love of its expression in Alsace, as well as the genetically linked Savagnin of the Jura, it doesn’t appear to be making a Santa Barbara County comeback any time soon. “Unfortunately, I do not see Gewurztraminer growing beyond its ‘niche’ status here in the Santa Barbara County area,” says Tercero’s Larry Schaffer. “The best places for it to be planted – much cooler climates like are seen in the Sta. Rita Hills – are also perfect to plant grapes that yield much higher dollars for the grapes themselves and the subsequent wines.”
The rarest curiosity in Santa Barbara County is Rancho Sisquoc’s planting of Sylvaner. Other than Sonoma County’s Scribe Winery, Sisquoc has the only planting of this variety in California. “6 acres of Sylvaner were planted in 1974,” says Sisquoc’s Ed Holt. “3 of the original acres are still in production, all own-rooted. We re-planted the other 3 acres in 2013 with plants from the original acreage.” Planted in a mix of Elder and Botella series soils, Sisquoc’s Sylvaner is gorgeous, with its acid perfectly balanced by a touch of sweetness, and remains one of the best (and most under-the-radar) values in Santa Barbara County. Sisquoc’s winemaker Sarah Holt Mullins says it’s a nightmare to deal with in the cellar, but is worth the effort. “It comes off the vine sticky, snotty and dense,” as she vividly describes it. “We put it through the ringer on its first day in the winery, sorting, crushing, must pumping and then finally pressing. It will only allow us to press it gently because it will squirt through any passage it can find in the press. Well worth the war for Sylvaner.”
One of the big questions with these grapes is whether to ferment the wine completely dry or leave some residual sugar. Santa Barbara County has traditionally produced mostly off-dry or late harvest styles, though the recent Riesling resurgence has favored drier wines. In the case of wines from the prized Kick On Ranch in particular, this often means Rieslings with almost punishing austerity, taut, saline expressions where the nearby ocean and the sandy soil underfoot are palpable on the palate. Yet those who have chosen off-dry expressions here, such as Brander or J. Brix’s petillant naturel sparkling Riesling, tap into a similar core of place with residual sugar that offsets this high tension, high acid vineyard beautifully. Ultimately, it is about balance, an idea that is, as with most things in wine, subjective.
“The sweetness of my Gewurztraminer varies each year depending upon a number of factors, with the main one being ‘mother nature’,” states Tercero’s Larry Schaffer. “When you ‘stick’ a fermentation by cooling it down and adding SO2, it is not an immediate process – yeast cells want to continue to do their thing. Therefore, the residual sugar levels in my wine are never the same from year to year.” Some of the oldest producers in the area, such as Rancho Sisquoc and Santa Barbara Winery, have crafted off-dry Rieslings for decades, speaking to the great demand this style has in the marketplace. These wines are often the gateway into appreciating wine for younger consumers, but make no mistake: these wines still strongly communicate a sense of place. “The sweet Riesling style is very popular in this area and in outside sales; it would be hard to market a dry after so many years of sweet,” says Sisquoc’s Holt Mullins. This balance between sugar and acid also allows the wines to age surprisingly well. Many of my most profound experiences with older California wines have been late harvest Rieslings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, often acquired at auction for $10-15. Many of those same wines are now $40-50 at auction, giving me hope for their continued growth in the vineyards and in the marketplace, if not for my pocketbook.
Beyond the crucial decision of sweetness, most of the winemakers I spoke with emphasized the relatively hands-off/subtle approach to working with these varieties in the cellar. “I hardly change anything from site to site,” says Tatomer. “I feel like those things get talked about more than they should. It’s very minor things, such as the level of crush I get on the material or the level of dissolved CO2 at bottling. My goal is to capture the best of these sites.” Ojai Vineyard’s Fabien Castel, who has been making lovely Rieslings from Kick On along with Ojai founder Adam Tolmach, has taken a similar hands-off approach, with the twist of crafting several different bottlings in different guises from the vineyard, ranging from their flagship dry bottling to experiments with botrytis and ice wine. “The variations around Riesling are more about us getting a good grasp on the potential for the site and the varietal. It is a byproduct of the way Adam is exploring vinification. The botrytis selection is maybe most compelling because it is rare and achieved great balance of sweetness and freshness. It has the varietal complexity of perfumes modulated by unusual earthy fragrances and concentration given by botrytis cinerea.” Riverbench’s Clarissa Nagy also began exploring this multi-pronged approach to Riesling with the 2014 vintage. “Our current release of Riesling is in an off-dry style. I have made a very small amount of completely dry Riesling as well. It’s a wine that is beautiful dry and off-dry. Vintage 2014 gave us perfect conditions for a Late Harvest Riesling too. We picked it at 38 Brix and hand sorted each cluster used. It has fabulous honeyed and botrytised notes.”
Santa Barbara County Riesling (and Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner) is a thing of beauty. Throughout a range of styles it expresses site cleanly and clearly, communicating placein an unadorned fashion. From the mineral, brilliant wines of Tatomer to the exotic, innovative Riesling of Brander, from the experimentation of Ojai’s various bottlings to the old stalwarts of Sisquoc, SBC Riesling is distinctive and fresh. Graham Tatomer, who has staked his reputation on Riesling, sums up the mix of regret for Riesling lost, and hopefulness for Riesling’s future, in Santa Barbara County. “Riesling is the last noble grape that hasn’t really taken off yet in California. I hope to find a vineyard as great as Kick On going forward, but it’s a challenge. A lot of those amazing early plantings, like Sanford & Benedict and White Hills, are gone. But this grape has thrived because it truly makes some of the greatest wines on the planet.” Our region has something new to say about this legendary grape, and now more than ever there are winemakers broadcasting this unique voice loud and clear.
“This is what love is for
To be out of place”
– Wilco, “Impossible Germany”
A comprehensive guide to Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner in Santa Barbara County, followed by a breakdown of soil types if you’re feeling particularly nerdy:
Santa Maria Valley – Clendenen Family- Le Bon Climat Estate Gewurztraminer
– Rancho Sisquoc- Estate Riesling and Sylvaner
– Riverbench- Estate Riesling
– Solminer– Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling – Tatomer- Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling
Los Alamos Valley – Bedford- Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Brander- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Daniel Gehrs– White Hills Vineyard Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Dr. Klapper (La Fenetre)- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix- Kick On Ranch Riesling and Pet Nat Riesling
– Kunin- Alisos Vineyard Gewurztraminer
– Lucas & Lewellen- Estate Riesling
– Margerum- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Mes Amis- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Municipal Winemakers- Kick On Ranch “Bright White”
– The Ojai Vineyard- Kick On Ranch Riesling (Special Botrytis and Ice Wine Bottlings as well)
– Stirm- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Tatomer- Kick On Ranch Riesling, Vandenberg Riesling
– Tercero- “The Outlier” Gewurztraminer
Sta. Rita Hills – Lafond- Estate Riesling
– Santa Barbara Winery– Lafond Vineyard Riesling (several different bottlings)
– Tatomer- Lafond Vineyard Riesling
Santa Ynez Valley
– Brander- Los Olivos Vineyard Estate Riesling
– Demetria– Riesling
– Fess Parker- Rodney’s Vineyard Estate Riesling
– Firestone- Estate Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Gainey- Estate Riesling
– Koehler- Estate Riesling
– Lo-Fi– Coquelicot Vineyard Riesling
SOIL TYPES: Santa Maria Valley Le Bon Climat
– Gewurztraminer- Sandy loam with some shale fragments in the upper slopes (Chamise, Garey, and Corralitos series)
– Riesling- Shallow Pleasanton sandy/gravelly loam
– Sylvaner- Elder and Botella series, alluvial soil, more of a clay loam
– Riesling- Mocho sandy loam intermixed with gravel, ancient riverbed soil
Los Alamos Valley Alisos
– Gewurztraminer- Chamise shaly sandy loam
Kick On Ranch
– Riesling-Extremely sandy, with minor sandstone and shale fragments. Arnold and Betteravia series.
Lucas & Lewellen
– Riesling- Botella loam
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Extremely sandy. Arnold, Betteravia, and Corralitos series.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner Vineyard are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
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