I was a teenage indie rock obsessive. As such, I embraced the genre’s most lo-fi practitioners, particularly Guided By Voices. Their best works, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, are laden with tape hiss, false starts, songs that stop abruptly and cut into other songs, and a generally shambolic aesthetic; rather than trying to mask the economic shortcomings of their recording devices, they celebrated them, creating a whole universe that felt like a direct line from their bedroom to mine. In the past few years, a handful of vintners in California have taken an analogous approach in their winemaking and farming, creating soulful wines despite their shoestring budgets. Associated most closely with the natural wine movement, these are analog wines for a digital era, looking back to go forward. Mike Roth, formerly of Martian Ranch and now launching his own project, the aptly named Lo-Fi, has been at the forefront of this movement in Santa Barbara County. I met with him this week in the record-high heat at his new estate vineyard in Los Alamos to discuss the future and taste his first releases.
“So this is the Mullet,” declares Roth. “Business on the front slope, party on the back.” Roth’s vineyard name befits the nature of his new venture. While the approach and technique are quite serious and methodical, the project is meant to be fun and accessible, “wines for the proletariat” as Roth likes to refer to it. Planted just a few weeks ago, the vineyard was created using solely recycled materials from other local vineyards, installed by Roth with the help of friends and family. The steeper, southwest-facing front slope is planted to Gamay, while the gentler back slope is Cabernet Franc, unique varietal choices that have shown early promise in Los Alamos at other sites.
Roth gained notoriety at Martian for his idiosyncratic approach to farming, carrying heavy crop loads early on and dropping fruit late to offset our area’s tendency toward fall heat spikes, allowing for ripe fruit at low brix and in turn, lower alcohols. He plans to farm his estate in a similar fashion, with an approach that embraces the natural ecosystem as much as possible. “Farming here will be organic, though I’d really prefer to avoid any additions for the most part.” The soils at Mullet, like most of Alisos Canyon just east of here, are Chamise shale loam. These acidic shale-based soils, which contain a fair amount of clay, have shown great promise for Cabernet Franc in particular at sites such as Thompson and Martian. “Planting here is meter by meter. I hope to eventually dry farm it, there’s enough clay here that I think it could work,” states Roth.
Roth’s first release under the Lo-Fi label is as much a mission statement as a wine. Sourced from the organically farmed Coquelicot Vineyard near the Santa Ynez River, it is 100% Cabernet Franc, fermented with native yeasts, aged in neutral vessels, made entirely without the use of sulfur. Philosophically, it encapsulates everything Roth is about. “It definitely has a bit of a Bourgueil thing going on,” proudly states Roth. He is referencing one of the Loire Valley’s great Cabernet Franc regions, and while I see a family resemblance, I find his rendition under Lo-Fi to be distinctly Santa Ynez. Its generosity of fruit and texture are unmistakably California, and the herbal and spice nuances, which range from fresh tobacco and roasted tomato to exotic notes of Oaxacan mole negro and wild sage, aren’t found outside of this area. There is a similarity to other local practitioners working in an early-picked style- Lieu Dit, Roark, and Buttonwood– though the soulfulness of Roth’s take is his own.
While it is still early going for Roth’s new projects, I anticipate the future for his label and his vineyard highly, with forthcoming releases of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gamay to fill out his portfolio. He is an artist working in the medium of grapes, following a vision that does not adhere to trends. As he dives into this new work, unencumbered by the expectations of others, I’m reminded of a classic Guided By Voices lyric: “Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled See an opening and bust into the field Hidden longings no longer concealed”
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.
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