On our ten-acre property, less than a mile from our Cafe, four acres are devoted to Sangiovese, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and Cabernet grapes from which we create wines under our private label, Bernat wines. An additional 4-acres of prime land have been cultivated by local organic farmers for themselves through the years, but their focus wasn’t solely on providing produce for our restaurant. When Shu and Debby Takikawa, the last farmers to farm this section of land, took over the 40 acres behind us, Shu encouraged us to farm it ourselves. We were eager to try, but knew well that running a farm along with our current endeavors– a vineyard, winery, wine merchant, and restaurant– we needed help.
That’s when we found Matt McCurdy, or he found us, that’s another story. Eager to take on the project and apply his knowledge from his past endeavors– working at our local Windmill Nursery being one of them– Matt leaped in and started planting. Well, first we dived into organic heirloom seed catalogues. We chose all the flowers that would bring the bugs to benefit the farm and would also cut nicely for flowers to put on the Café tables. We brought chef Chris Joslyn into the discussion, and chose vegetables he would love to use for our restaurant’s menu. We’ve been very pleased with seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.
Our first summer was full of zucchini and cucumbers. The vision was growing…literally. We played around with various pickling recipes and pickled the cucumbers to place next to our Café’s burgers and sandwiches. Some of them we even put in jars and sold in our retail section, they were a hit and quickly sold out!
Well, it’s been almost a year now, our biggest lesson learned is the land has much to teach us. Will Rogers said, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” — That’s the truth!– We planted green beans, carrots, beats, and reaped nothing from them. Yes, we watered, weeded, and provided healthy soil and sunshine, but they never ended up on plates at our restaurant. Why you may ask?
What we learned:
We initially started by planting a large amount of different types of crops. Planting many different varieties of each plant, gives us an idea of which species not only grows best in each area, but which of those tastes the best. We pay close attention to each plant and learn which ones like which soils, climate preference, and which are affected by pests and how. All of the varieties of Kale we planted thrived through the winter; red lettuce, and romaine were also very successful.
Pests have been our biggest problem. Our first crop was planted when one of our dogs, Gypsy, was on vacation. The gophers and ground squirrels noticed and began moving into the farm. They ate almost all of the green beans we planted. Of 600 plants only 10 survived! They also ate the tops off of the carrot and beet plants. Although losing their tops did not initially kill them, since the plant was working hard to regrow the tops, the produce didn’t survive after all.
The other challenge all farmers face, are weeds, we are no exception. Since our farm is CCOF certified organic, using herbicides is absolutely out of the question, not to mention it would deplete the nutrients in the soil and affect the quality of our produce. Being a small farm with only Sam and Matt to do the weeding, we quickly realized that we must be missing something– there was no way we could keep up. The weeds aggressively took over and whole rows had to be plowed back in to the soil before the plants had a chance to grow to maturity. Weeding through the research (yes, that was a pun) of all the various farm equipment to assist with this problem was overwhelming, even to a veteran vineyard farmer, like Sam. It was time to seek the advice of someone who had more experience in large scale farming than us. Sam met with a local veteran farmer, Steve Loyal, who shared valuable information. Steve directed us on the best equipment for a farm our size. We bought a hand hoe on a wheel that as we push, it slices under the soil cutting the roots of the weeds. Our tractor also needs some additional equipment to mechanize weeding, which we can tell you more about by the next time we post a Cafe Farm Update. We now look forward to watching our seeds grow to their full potential before the weeds can take them over (hopefully).
Though we are still in the midst of a big learning curve, we have had much greater success now that Gypsy is back on the job maintaining the ground squirrel population. Thanks to our hard working farm dog approximately 1500 heads of lettuce, 200 pounds of snap peas, and many, many buckets of onion, garlic, kale, swiss chard, arugula, spinach, turnips, and cilantro—came from our Cafe Farm since July 2015. We are getting a healthy head start for this summer with 900 plants of various heirloom tomato varieties in the ground, 10 types of lettuces, and squash and pumpkins ready for fall; we are excited to continue to expand the beauty and bounty on our menu at the Cafe.
While we are talking about the farm, it’s worth mentioning that we have an annual benefit Farm Dinner event called In the Vineyard & On the Farm . If you’d like to experience our Cafe Farm and our Bernat Wines firsthand click here for information. It’s a beautiful event that sells out every year, so if you’re interested, don’t wait to reserve your seats!
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Blair Fox, of Blair Fox Cellars, is a Santa Barbara native who found the passion for wine and viticulture in his own backyard. Blair began attending UC Davis as a pre-med student, before transitioning into fermentation science for brewing. Due to uncontrollable circumstances he had to switch a class last minute, and Blair stumbled into his first viticulture course, which marked the moment he fell in love with the grape growing side of the industry. At first he thought he would solely be a grape grower, but once he realized that he would have to relinquish the grapes to someone else to turn into wine, he knew he wanted to have his hands in that side as well.
After graduating from college with a degree in both Viticulture and Enology, Blair began employment as head winemaker for a family-owned winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. This was the time he and his wife, Sarah, established their own label Blair Fox Cellars. As Santa Barbara wine country’s premier restaurant for highlighting local winemakers, we are proud to say the Los Olivos Café was the first to offer Blair Fox Cellars on a wine list! After a few years of making incredible wines, Blair traveled to the Rhone region of France, and shortly thereafter traveled to Australia to expand his knowledge of the extraordinary wines made around the world. After coming back to his roots in the Santa Barbara County, he began working for Fess Parker and now also makes the wine for Epiphany—yes, Blair stays very busy
The focus for Blair Fox Cellars is on Syrah and other Rhone varieties. The estate vineyard, planted by Blair himself and farmed organically, has Grenache, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Vermentino, and a small amount of Zinfandel planted. Blair feels it is very important to be part of the grape growing process as a winemaker. He enjoys being able to control the wine from vine to glass, not only in his estate vineyards but the ones he sources fruit from as well. Looking for grapes with beautiful concentration and intense varietal character, he currently sources grapes from Zotovich, Kimsey, Tierra Alta, Larner, and his own Fox Family Vineyards.
Blair and his family take pride in the creation of the small production wines for Blair Fox Cellars. While Blair manages the winemaking, Sarah does the marketing. His two adorable daughters love riding on the forklift and helping with Pigeage – foot stomping the grape cap! The grapes are hand harvested, hand sorted, fermented in small lots, and basket pressed to ensure the highest possible quality and true expression of the vineyard. The results of this family’s hard work are wines with a modern feel, while showing a reflection of historically made French wines.
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.