October 17, 2014
“If there is one overarching philosophy in my winemaking, it’s finding the middle path.” Nick de Luca, winemaker and co-owner of Ground Effect, is not expressing a desire to make middle of the road wines. Rather, he is referencing the enlightened Middle Path of Buddhist philosophy, where one transcends extremes to find a centered, balanced way of living. I had the opportunity to work under de Luca at Dierberg/Star Lane, and always found him to radiate this attitude, with a balance that is also reflected in the wines he is making. I sat down with him over coffee this past week to discuss his work at Ground Effect, as well as his new position as consulting winemaker for Richard Sanford’s Alma Rosa.
“I had this philosophy about terroir, and then I realized that I was making blends from all these different vineyards, which was kind of farcical,” laughs de Luca “so I’ve moved back to focusing on single sites and single varieties.” The initial idea behind Ground Effect was that the wines would be distinctive blends, which have been the trend up until 2014, and quite successfully I might add. Like many winemakers I’ve spoken with this year that are part of Santa Barbara County’s current winemaking generation, however, de Luca had to follow his muse regardless of the branding implications. “I switched up this year. It was hard to contract a ½ ton here, a ½ ton there, so I committed to 100% Chenin Blanc. And I also started working with Presqu’ile Syrah.” He has also focused his attention entirely on Santa Barbara County fruit. “I shifted out of Paso Robles because it’s just too far away,” he says.
The other major change for de Luca in 2014 was joining Richard Sanford and the venerable Alma Rosa label as consulting winemaker. “I got a call on a Wednesday, Richard and I had lunch on a Thursday, and I was signing papers Friday,” recalls de Luca of the fortuitous hiring. “It was really sudden and really exciting.” Sanford is a Sta. Rita Hills legend, and makes a great philosophical match for de Luca. “Richard Sanford is so committed to farming sensitively. He’s a big observer of Eastern philosophy, and there’s a lot to be said within that philosophy for finding personal balance and having that reflected in the wines.”
This desire to farm for balance leads de Luca to the topic of water, a subject that is on the mind of every Californian in these dry times. “Farming with less water is really important. We have to learn to pull these big crops with less water, or learn to live with smaller crops, and I hope the latter is true.” While the environmental need to conserve water is unquestionable, for de Luca, the desire to farm with as little water as possible extends not only to drought concerns, but to site representation. “Vines have a memory. You can totally delete terroir with irrigation. I think it’s important to think of it in those terms; you are deleting terroir.”
Stylistically, de Luca’s winemaking has seen a fairly dramatic shift over the past 5 years. While he gained fame at Dierberg for ripe, powerful wines, he has moved to a style that is brighter, fresher, with lower alcohols and, for my palate, more precise expressiveness. “I’m certainly not in the ripeness camp anymore. I don’t know where I fall. I try not to be overly self-conscious; I try to be true to the vintage.” While de Luca’s recent wines could certainly be grouped into the fashionable In Pursuit of Balance or Natural genres, he prefers not to follow dogma or fit easily into a particular clique. “I’m definitely not natural. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when there’s a problem just fix it. I’m not scared of sulfur, I’m not scared of acid… I’d prefer to have all those things worked out in the vineyard, and not have to do that in the wine, and sometimes it works out that way; I think the best wines do work out that way. But if something goes wrong, I’m going to handle it.”
Alma Rosa’s wines have traditionally been fairly large scaled, but de Luca has approached his work there much as he has Ground Effect, with an eye toward balance. “I don’t like wines to be purely about fruit. That’s been my challenge at Alma Rosa, as the style has traditionally been more fruit-driven, so I want to find the balance between that fruit and the more interesting non-fruit aromatics the Sta. Rita Hills can give.” He is also a strong proponent of low yields, and feels that they are not only necessary for great wine, but for sustainable agriculture. Having observed yields shifting higher in the Sta. Rita Hills recently, a trend he is not fond of, he has worked with Sanford to keep their yields low, farming for intensity rather than tonnage. “It’s no secret that low yields make better wine; Europe has realized it for centuries,” states de Luca. “But people are getting greedy, and there’s a lot of overfarming going on out there.”
The wines of Ground Effect have found a devoted audience, and while they may not get as much press as some of de Luca’s more vociferous peers, they are some of the most mineral, intense, well balanced wines coming out of the New World. “The sad part to me is that the two extremes are what get the press,” he laments. “The ultra-ripe wines get the press, and the people on the extreme opposite end, in part because they’re bashing those ripe wines, get the press. And the people who are just trying to make good, middle path wines get looked over, and that’s too bad.” For my palate, the great wines of the world are found on this middle path; centered, balanced, and sure of what they have to say. While they may not have the immediate sexiness of the extreme, they possess a pure, unbridled joy within them, a soulfulness that makes casual wine drinkers have the “a-ha!” moment to make them wine obsessives. Open a bottle of Ground Effect’s 2012 “Gravity Check” and you’ll see exactly what I mean…