Jeff Fischer started small and dreamt big to make Habit Wines
What drives wine-lovers to Santa Barbara Wine Country? For most Californians, they visit because of the proximity and the refreshing rural escape from LA or the Bay Area– and of course for the quality of our wines. For Habit Wines owner Jeff Fischer, it’s all about the attitude our region exudes– a welcoming attitude with a willingness to share knowledge and support its fellow winemakers.
You might know Jeff from his eponymous character on the Fox show American Dad!.Balancing his two callings of acting and winemaking, Jeff started small, making several cases of wine out of a garage in Los Angeles, with a few hundred pounds of grapes he bungee-corded onto his truck and brought down from Santa Barbara.
Three defining moments helped Jeff get started: The first winery to agree to sell him grapes. The winemaking classes that guided him through the creation of his garagiste cases of wine he made in LA. And, Doug Margerum who opened his winery doors giving Jeff the opportunity to become a full-fledged winemaker. (Watch our interview to hear Jeff’s journey to winemaking in his own words.)
For a wine to grow as a passion into a business it takes a certain kind of creative energy which Jeff imbues in every one of his wines.
Mavericks in the industry like Jeff help define Santa Barbara wine country – and the winemakers who make it all happen. Like others before him, it’s this culture of expression and encouragement that helped him get started, or as he puts it, “it’s a great, great vibe!”
So, why the big hand on the Habit Wines label?
“It’s really all about art and addiction,” says Jeff – the art of acting and his addiction to winemaking. For him, the hand belongs to William S. Burroughs, Jeff’s favorite poet from his hometown of St. Louis, who “may be reaching for his own fix” on the label. The Habit label certainly does pop out on a shelf of wines – it’s easy to spot from a distance on our own wine wall – and the design even landed his wines in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Like most ‘misunderstood’ modern art, it wasn’t always as accepted. During one of his first vintages, Jeff brought his wines to the famed French Laundry restaurant in Napa. The staff loved the wine but refused to buy any for the restaurant giving the reason that the label was too modern, too out of the ordinary for the bourgeois Napa eatery.
Habit Wines are made from grapes from several vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County. Jeff prefers Happy Canyon grapes to grow his Bordeaux blends, keeping it hyper-local to the area. Most of his other varietals are grown in the Los Olivos District.
For Ernst Storm, wine should tell a story: the story of the site, the story of the grape, and the story of the vintage. For us, his own story is an intriguing adventure that influences his unique approach to winemaking!
Ernst grew up along the Western Cape region of South Africa, an area made famous for winemaking. Although he did not grow up in a family of vignerons, his surroundings heavily influenced both himself and his brother. Ernst knew that he wanted to pursue a line of work that both involved creativity and nature, both of which logically lead him back to his roots.
Not content with just staying home, however, Ernst traveled extensively through Europe and eventually made his way to California, working in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills. There, he was able to balance out his knowledge of cool-climate winemaking that he learned in South Africa with that of the much-warmer Sierra Foothills AVA. He learned how to work with much higher levels of alcohol and pHs, and how to stabilize wines that are far out of balance, all of which have since come in handy with the varying microclimates around Santa Barbara County.
Ultimately it was a desire to explore a wider range of temperatures that drew him to Santa Barbara County. He became the winemaker for Notary Public Wines, drawing from the warmer Happy Canyon AVA to craft some delicious Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordeaux varietals. The microclimate range, though, is impossible to ignore, opening up unlimited possibilities for winemakers. After establishing his own eponymous label, Storm, Ernst set out to craft wines that tell the story of his background as well as their own.
A prime example is his Sauvignon Blanc: Ernst ages the wine in stainless steel, which is a decidedly New World approach, with lees (or spent yeast cells) included, which is decidedly Old World. The result is what he calls an “American Riviera wine”: one that is bright, refreshing, and infinitely quaffable. In fact, it’s the best selling white wine at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café month after month!
Owner of the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, Sam Marmorstein, got a chance to sit down with Ernst and learn more about his winemaking methods and path to finding himself as a winemaker in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Never one to rest on his proverbial laurels, Ernst is constantly exchanging ideas with his brother in South Africa. Since both are winemakers, they continue to inspire and advise each other. Ernst claims that most smaller wineries – and indeed, wine regions – have to figure out what works as they go along. This is a vastly different approach than that of bigger areas like Napa and Bordeaux where big money is spent on formulating wines that meet the specs for both public appeal and critical acclaim. Although that kind of money is helpful, making it up as you go allows the freedom to experiment, and that’s just what Ernst continues to do.
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.
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.
If you were to read a book about the history of wine making in Santa Barbara Wine Country, Foxen Winery would most definitely be a significant part of it. History is made when two people meet who’s personalities and talents compliment each other with a common vision, each bringing something to the table– or in this case the bottle– to make the vision a reality. And as Foxen’s popular, and rather catchy, adage goes, “If you don’t know FOXEN, you don’t know Dick… or Bill!”
Where did Dick Doré and Bill Wathen, commonly referred to as the Foxen Boys, meet? At a party… of course. You’ll enjoy watching our interview when they describe the details of the first time they met and their early years making wine. You’re sure to be entertained by their version of the story.
Though Dick and Bill get much of the well-deserved credit for Foxen’s success, their joint venture which began in 1985, is really a joint family business; which undoubtedly would not be the success it is without the expertise of their wives and all they do. Both Jenny Doré, Dick’s wife, and Becky Wathen, Bill’s wife, are behind the scenes keeping the business wheels turning and the Foxen boys on track– even their children play significant roles in running the family business.
Keeping it in the family is only natural since Foxen’s vineyard and winery is on Dick Doré’s historic family property. In fact, their original winery — commonly referred to as “The Shack”– is the old blacksmith shop that was in full operation when Dick’s great great grandfather, William Benjamin Foxen, operated the family property as a horse ranch. William Foxen was a sailor in the hide and tallow trade, who sailed around Cape Horn and came to Monterrey to pick up the hides and tallow, before dropping them off in Mexico and bringing back finished goods to California. On one of his trips he stopped in Santa Barbara at the Regional Commodant’s home. He met the Commodant’s youngest daughter, instantly fell in love and married. It was 1837, his new father-in-law arranged for William Foxen to purchase 10,000 acres from a Mexican land grant, which is now the Foxen property. William Foxen and his new wife started raising horses on the Foxen Canyon property and had 14 children! What better name for their winery than “Foxen,” with the logo adapted from the original cattle brand tilt head anchor.
So how did managing horses turn into producing wine? That’s where Bill comes in. More details are in our interview, but long story short, Bill knows what he’s doing in the vineyard where Dick says Bill, “makes the magic happen.” Clearly his talents are also in the winery because you’ll never find a Foxen wine that will disappoint– consider it a challenge and start with our three featured Foxen wines below. Even when they were operating in a 150 year old building, Bill still made incredible wines that built the reputation Foxen maintains.
When asked how they might sum up an aspect of themselves that may get infused into Foxen wines with one word, Bill said that he likes to borrow the term “Hózhó″ from the Navajo, meaning “walking in beauty – or living in a manner that strives to create and maintain balance, harmony, beauty and order.”
Foxen wines are just that… wines in balance.
We’ve had the pleasure of hosting a few Foxen Winemaker Dinners. They are always a great success– not only is the food amazing– but Dick and Bill bring their approachable demeanors and exceptional wine knowledge which always make for spirited conversation. After getting to know the Foxen Boys and their wives, it is apparent how they have become anchors of the Santa Barbara County wine industry.
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.
In 1997 Christine and Stevan Larner finally saw their dream of being in the wine business as a reality. Purchasing a 130 acre south facing parcel, perfectly situated in what is now Ballard Canyon, they began the Larner family legacy. Their son Michael was working as a Geologist in Colorado prior to the new family endeavor, but he always knew he wanted to come back to the earth, and being able to pass something down for multiple generations was fascinating to him. “The legacy aspect was my biggest selling point.” And so began the long and meaningful process of planting a vineyard and becoming a winemaker. Michael earned his Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and has been making wine since 1999.
Michael’s experience as a geologist before being a winemaker, allows him to see the winemaking and viticulture aspects much more from the land itself. He wants “to be firmly grounded to the earth” which has multiple meanings in Michael’s life. Leaving his career to join his family in their vineyard and winery endeavor gave him a sense of creating something that was always there, a legacy. His winemaking style is all about the site expression, allowing the wines to be the speaking word from the vineyard.
“Something there was present, this is the true essence of terroir, it’s coming from the land. As a geologist I am very comfortable with that, because I have studied the earth.”
As a winemaker Michael enjoys experimenting with different fermentation techniques, yeasts, and barrel choices. The process of giving and take allow the terroir to speak as loudly as it can through his wines. The Larner Vineyard and Winery team consist of more than just Michael, his wife Christina, mother Christine, and sister Monica each offer their own distinct look into the legacy. Figuring out where each wine will fit within the Larner program is a family affair. As a wine critic living in Rome, Monica looks at the wines from the eyes of the critic– how it’s going to do in the market. Christina is much more in tune with where the wines fit in from a generation standpoint, and Christine with her background in business is “the price guru.”
“The land was speaking louder than the winemakers.”
Michael is not only a fantastic viticulturist and winemaker but also co-founded the Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon is a north-south running valley totaling 7,000 acres, one of the smallest in California. Described as the ‘Goldie Locks’ AVA, because it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for a variety like Syrah. A slightly warm ripening interval, but also a cooling effect– so you get that pepper spice coupled with fruit which is essentially what Syrah— makes Ballard Canyon ideal growing conditions for the Syrah grape. There is 17 vineyards total in the Ballard Canyon AVA but just 6 produce wine, the rest is sold to other wineries. Currently, only 600 of 7,000 acres are planted, over 300 of those acres are planted to Syrah. Proving that “everyone sort of knew; ‘this is our champion’, this is what we want to bring forward.”
In Part One of our interview with Michael, he shares the backstory of how Ballard Canyon AVA evolved from an idea to reality.
In Part Two of our interview, Michael lights up about what makes Larner wines “Grounded”.
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:
Learn more about local Santa Barbara County winemakers at our blog here!
“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 as assistant winemaker 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.
You are at a dinner party, and suddenly you hear it, the sound of a popping cork. After that first cork is pulled the sound of the house changes, the conversations begin to flow freely, the laughter comes more quickly. You aren’t discussing the taste, it is time to relax and let the wine take us some place emotionally, and flavor wise, without having to feel the need to define it.
“Great wine should lead to a conversation about everything except itself. Wine is not egotistical, it is not narcissistic, it doesn’t care if you talk about it.” -Wes Hagen
Asked to describe himself in one word Wes said, “Performative”. There are a lot of winemakers with the same knowledge he has but the ability to be able to engage anyone with a glass of wine is what sets him apart. We certainly won’t argue with that!
Wes started his winemaking adventures in 1996 here in Santa Barbara County. Ranked among the top 100 most influential winemakers in the United States by Decanter magazine, Wes is an incredible resource for wine knowledge. He researched, wrote, and had approved three AVA’s in Santa Barbara County; Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and Ballard Canyon. He has written for various publications and taught at many prestigious institutions.
After 21 years as winemaker at Clos Pepe estates, he became the brand ambassador and winemaker for J.Wilkes winery. Founded by Jeff Wilkes in 2001 focusing on Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. The untimely passing of Jeff left the label at a standstill until it was purchased by the Miller family in his honor. Wes is continuing to represent Jeff’s legacy and his ideas about how to make great wine. Letting the vineyards speak, not getting too stylistic with the wines. Trying to keep the way they represent the place and the time they were grown, intact.
“…to put a bottle of wine on the table every night, and to use wine to keep the people you love at the table for an extra hour”-Wes Hagen
If you would like to meet Wes and try his incredible wines, he will be mingling with guests during our dinner service at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe on September 30th. Can’t make it in? All of J. Wilkes wines are 20% off the whole month of September in the retail store and online! Take advantage of this discount that will only last until the end of September, and try the sampler 4-Pack to get a taste of a wonderful selection of J. Wilkes wines. For reservations call 805-688-7265 or schedule online via open table
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.