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.
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.
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”.
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
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!
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.
I’m fortunate that I am in a position to taste some amazing wines from around the world on a regular basis. As a result of this, when I assess wines from our area (or any area for that matter), I compare them not just with their local peers, but with my personal benchmarks for great wine on a global scale. Santa Barbara County, I am proud to say, is making the best wines in its history, and it only seems to be getting better. I am consistently pleased and excited by what is coming out of our little corner of the world. Every now and then, however, I taste something that goes a bit deeper, that burrows into my mind and truly blows me away, forcing me to recalibrate the way I view a particular grape variety. This past week I had that experience with the Zinfandel of Eric Bolton.
A graduate of CSU Fresno, Bolton has vast knowledge of the science of winemaking. Yet he is not a mad scientist in the winery; rather, he prefers to focus on bringing in healthy, balanced fruit from properly farmed sites and let it do its thing. Fermentations happen with native yeast, and there are no additions beyond sulfur. Bolton first gained acclaim as head of the winemaking team for the Ambullneo (now known as Greg Linn) label. While these have flown somewhat under the radar locally, they are stunning expressions of Pinot Noir: lots of whole-cluster, alcohols in the high 12s to mid 13s, an incredible array of floral and spice aromatics, and great longevity. 2013 marked Bolton’s first year stepping out on his own, making just around 40 cases of Zinfandel.
“The vineyard source is Tres Niños, right across the street from DePaola Vineyard near Lake Lopez in Arroyo Grande. It’s a rocky clay loam,” Bolton states matter-of-factly. (Okay, so technically we’re in San Luis Obispo County here, but Bolton is making his wine in Santa Maria and he is the essence of SB County’s spirit through and through). Despite being picked quite late in the season, the fruit was just barely/perfectly ripe, clocking in around 13% alcohol, almost unheard-of for modern Zinfandel. Bolton also embraced Zin’s textural resemblance to other thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Grenache and fermented the grapes 50% whole-cluster, a somewhat atypical decision that proved wise. Nick de Luca of Ground Effect recently did the same with his Zinfandel out of Paso Robles and the results were equally stunning. “You don’t really pick up the whole-cluster much now other than texturally. It’s really shifted a lot in barrel,” says Bolton.
The Arroyo Grande Valley may be one of the most underrated locations in the state for great Zinfandel. Colder than many of Zin’s more fashionable locales, yet warm enough to ripen Zinfandel to extreme levels should one choose to do so, it is a perfect spot for more classically balanced Zin. Saucelito Canyon has long produced legendary wines from their estate here, particularly their small parcel of vines dating back to the 1800s. Bolton’s rendition, however, is without comparison. Opening with classic varietal notes of peach and brambly red fruits, it unfolds to more exotic aromatics of wet gravel, white pepper, and violets. Texturally, the whole cluster provides precision and a lithe presence, with an intensely mineral finish reminiscent of chalk. To find Zinfandel in this style, one would have to go back to the early iconoclasts, such as Ridge and Joseph Swan. “I have to say Ridge would be the biggest inspiration,” smiles Bolton. “Those Zins they made in the ‘90s were great. I had an ’87 in 2006 and it was a wonderful wine, still going strong. I also worked with Michael Dashe and liked what he was doing; he’s certainly an inspiration as well.”
Bolton will continue to make this wine in 2014, and hopes to add Sangiovese to his roster in the near future. “I would love to do something that could stand head to head with great Brunello, but I have to find the perfect source,” Bolton says. Given the beautiful wines he’s crafted thus far, I have no doubt that he could do great things with a grape that has perplexed many of California’s best. For now, I’ll be grabbing all I can of his Zinfandel, as it is a singular wine of inspiration and place, and a new favorite.
A good wine captures its vineyard. A great wine captures its vineyard AND the personality of its winemaker. When I think of the wines that have inspired me- Didier Dagueneau’s various expressions of Pouilly-Fumé, Soldera’s Brunello, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bob Travers at Mayacamas- I think of them not only as the essence of the place they grow, but as an encapsulation of their creators. To that list I would add Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace. She puts her heart and soul into every bottle, and one can sense her presence in the glass, a feminine, ethereal, joyful rendering of site and self. I spoke with her this week about her new spring release and the character that makes these wines so distinctive.
Cynicism is impossible around Angela Osborne. She radiates such positive energy that even when she discusses the more esoteric aspects of her winemaking philosophy or her views on farming, there is such genuine belief and lack of artifice that one can’t help but be compelled. Take the hummingbirds that grace the corks of her current vintage. “The Chumash believe the hummingbird represents the grandmother energy, and both of my grandmothers became angels last year, so now they watch over all the bottles of Grace,” says Osborne. “There were 13,776 hummingbirds that came into the world this vintage, which was really powerful for me.” It is these little details- imbuing something as mundane as a cork with so much love- that make her wines stand out.
This detail-oriented approach extends to the winemaking. Her varied experiments in the cellar are some of the most thought-out and intriguing I have seen. Techniques that may have worked in past vintages will be altered or abandoned completely if the current vintage or a burst of inspiration calls for it. Her new release is a great example of this, in particular her Grenache rosé. Angela’s 2013 is a wildly different take than her 2012. The ’12 came from Coghlan Vineyard on the western fringe of Happy Canyon, was aged in large neutral oak puncheons, and went through full malolactic fermentation, making for a rosé with heft and richness. The ’13? “The 2013 spent 24 hours on the skins, and then fermented cold in stainless, aged entirely in stainless, no ML. It’s also from the Highlands this year. Bottled on my birthday, March 3rd.” Despite the critical acclaim she received for her previous rosé, she felt the need to do a total 180 and explore a new winemaking approach. “I really liked the ’12, it was really soft and approachable, but I wanted to experiment this year with something a little higher acid, especially working with the Highlands. It feels like it’s got lighter feet, a bit more playful, which suits me at the moment.”
The Highlands that she speaks of is the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. It is a site so perfectly suited to Osborne’s style, and her chosen medium of Grenache, that it’s difficult to imagine her without the Highlands and vice versa. Located on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County, in Ventucopa, this lunar-looking site is one of the most unique in California. “It doesn’t really feel of this world. It’s very moon like. Kind of silences you a bit,” says Osborne. At 3200 feet elevation, and subject to an extreme continental climate, it is separated into two sections: the valley floor and the Mesa. Angela’s single vineyard Grenache has typically been a mix of both, but with 2012, she has shifted to utilizing entirely Mesa fruit, with the valley floor being used for rosé and her Santa Barbara County blend. While the valley floor is very sandy, the soils of the mesa are loamier, and, more importantly, laced with igneous rocks- basalt, quartz, gneiss, and granite- making for soil conditions that are singular within Santa Barbara County.
“The ’12 has an entirely different tannic structure. This is the first year I’ve bottled the Mesa by itself, and there’s much more strength there. It’s 50% whole cluster, whereas my valley floor blocks are all destemmed,” says Osborne. Her Grenache from the Highlands has always been noted for its delicate nature and elegant texture, though she doesn’t worry about losing this with the addition of whole cluster; rather, she is seeking more structure, with the hope of giving the wines the ability to age like the great Chateauneufs, particularly Chateau Rayas, which she admires. “I’ve yet to come to a point where the whole cluster becomes too much. I hope it will give longevity, in a different way energetically than acid, but hopefully with the same ability to age. I don’t want it to be overt, but I love the spice of Grenache, and I feel a lot of that comes from whole cluster.” She also chooses to make the stylistic separation in the cellar between her varying lots of whole cluster or destemmed fruit in typically creative fashion. “I always separate the fermentations into whole cluster, layered, destemmed, and whole cluster and destemmed,” says Osborne. “I label my barrels as sun and moon, because I feel the moon energy is represented by the whole cluster, and the sun is the fruit. So each barrel lists percentages of sun and moon.”
The future for A Tribute to Grace is wide open. The Osborne clan is hoping to eventually split their time between Santa Barbara County and Angela’s home country, New Zealand, working two harvests a year, having a small patch of land to call their own, and raising a family. It’s a goal that, like the wines of A Tribute to Grace, is beautiful and true.
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.