Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat– Pioneer Winemaker of Santa Barbara
According to the Au Bon Climat website, Jim Clendenen grew up in Ohio in a “gastronomically impoverished” culture. It’s safe to say that he has since more than made up for that epicurially lost time during the last 30 years!
A Global Education
Like many of his generation, time spent in Europe during a semester abroad opened his eyes – and his mind – that food and wine could be more than burgers and California Mountain Burgundy. Such a transformative experience caused him to dedicate his career to wine instead of law, which is what he was actually there to study.
After a stint at Zaca Mesa, which has become so well-known for cultivating future winemakers that it’s called ‘Zaca U,’ Jim partnered with Adam Tolmach to create Au Bon Climat. His time in France influenced both the name of the winery and Jim’s approach: he sought to craft more subtle, vibrant, and age-worthy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In other words, he wanted to create what he wanted to drink.
Francophile Tendencies and Shared Vision
Jim’s Francophile tendencies were shared by winemaking colleagues Bob Lindquist, Adam Tolmach, and Ken Brown.
They got together on a regular basis to drink the French wines they all loved so much, thereby cementing the future of Santa Barbara winemaking whether they knew it or not. Since then, all have become giants in the wine industry, but it’s still Au Bon Climat that stands out as the best Burgundian-styled using fantastic California fruit.
Jim is quick to point out that it’s the Clendenen Family label that’s actually his “first” label because the grapes are from his own vineyard and he has built it from the ground up. There, he creates wines from more esoteric French grapes like Mondeuse and Aligoté which are seldom seen stateside. Such wines are highly acidic and beg to be paired with richer foods, which is also a direct nod to his time in France as a young man.
But winemaking isn’t the only way Jim carries out his quest to make up for gastronomical impoverishment of his youth: his lunch time meals for staff and visitors alike are legendary. He personally prepares a feast at the winery every day that he’s there and everyone sits down together at a communal table to enjoy it. You never really know what you’ll get since Jim usually cobbles together a meal
from what he has available – the veggies come from his garden and the meats are from local farmers. A thoughtful selection of wines are always present on the table. Truly an experience!
We, however, don’t need to wait for an invitation because we’re featuring Au Bon Climat wines through the month of August. We are offering the three featured wines below for 20% off throughout the month. We hope you get to take advantage of this fantastic deal!
“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis. “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.” Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc. While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy. The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates. This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.
Great wine often requires context. While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting. I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group. These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them. The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly. In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.
The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon. While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region. “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis. “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us. And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.” Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion. And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon. “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”
Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement. “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis. “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage. We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.” They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality. “Sauv is all about minerality. There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”
The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples. The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes. “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis. “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.” This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well. “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine. I think part of that has to do with our lower yields. Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”
The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality. Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages. “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette. “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.” Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.
The two sites they are currently working with, Grassiniand Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils. The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality. Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site. “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe. This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.” Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.
In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet. Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it. Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression. “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work. We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’ And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”
It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd. “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property. As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”. Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.
In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly. What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils. The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines. As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years. It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.
I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park. “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer. Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.
Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center). The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil. The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam. “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.” Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.
For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side. I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.” This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character. There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis. Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.
Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country. As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring. “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension. I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.” Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”
Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with. Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres. Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin. To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging. Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development. His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.
Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres. His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics. While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.
“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.” This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label. Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid. DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’. His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property. The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard. And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property. Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes. “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages. I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.” Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.
Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline. Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases. However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make. Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.
There was a time during the late 1980’s, where winemakers came together with a unified goal– to put Santa Barbara County on the wine map of the United States. Little did they know, but their first steps paved the way for the explosion of our popular Santa Barbara wine region. Winemakers like Jim Clendenen from Au Bon Climat or Brian Babcock of Babcock wines created a culture which enabled Brewer-Clifton and others to find success in their footsteps. These pioneers succeeded in getting Santa Barbara County on the map as a premier California wine destination, rivaling Napa in some regards.
Embracing this spirit of collaboration, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton put Sta. Rita Hills on the map. Together they started their label in the 1990’s before the Lompoc-based Viticultural area even existed. Greg attributes the success of Sta. Rita Hills to the diversity of Santa Barbara County and his team’s ability to focus on the best grapes of the area, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While other local AVAs may focus on Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc, Brewer-Clifton has always highlighted their flagships, which we’re currently featuring this month!
Santa Barbara Roots
At 21 Greg was a French-language professor at UCSB when he found his calling in the wine industry. He moved on from his previous passion for teaching to join Santa Barbara Winery in the tasting room for a meager $5.50/hour. He was hooked!
Greg Brewer met Steve Clifton in 1995 while working at Sunstone winery. Their friendship grew as they fed their desire to be part of Santa Barbara’s burgeoning wine region and soon discovered that their personalities blended well for business as well. Greg and Steve represent the best of the “next chapter” of the Santa Barbara wine story, after the premiere of the old guard. Their first 240 cases of wine came about in 1996, back when even some “established” wineries were still nothing more than young, green vines on a hill. The rest, as they say, is history. Greg considers his work in founding the appellation (which became an official AVA in 2001) his greatest accomplishment.
Back in 2017, Brewer-Clifton was purchased by the Jackson family (of the Kendall-Jackson winery). Greg is still the master winemaker of Brewer-Clifton winery, and considers the Jacksons the “largest champion of Santa Barbara County for decades”. He’s left to make his wines as he sees fit with his own spin on making premier Pinot and Chardonnay wines. If Greg isn’t making wine, he’s focusing on the education of newer, younger winemakers, and promoting the area here and abroad.
Humility & Vulnerability
Greg’s favorite part of winemaking: “the humility that comes with never being able to replicate anything” in his wines. Every vintage has a slight difference that provides a humble aspect to his life’s work. The spirit of Brewer-Clifton comes from transparency and vulnerability, with all wines “raised in a state of neutrality,” using old barrels. Greg’s team handles the wines from vine to barrel, ensuring the Brewer-Clifton touch on each stage of their grape’s lives. As a winemaker, Greg Brewer wants to eliminate his personal bias or prejudice on the wine, “to enable other componentry” to be louder than him in the wine.
Want to learn more about your local Santa Barbara County Winemakers? Read about our other Featured Winemakers here!
Karen Steinwachs, the winemaker for Buttonwood, is an inspirational example of following your dreams. Although she has been a fixture at Buttonwood since 2007, her journey did not begin with anything close to where she is now. She was instead working in management in the technology industry, sitting in an office in a tall urban building and donning a suit. After 20 years in the tech world Karen decided it was time for a change, she wanted a new career one that allowed her to be outdoors working with her hands, a career change that would become a reality for her with hard work and persistence.
After several attempts to be hired to work the seasonal harvest, Karen was accepted to work at Foley Winery for just $7 an hour and only for a 6-week contract. She was warned that it might not be what she was imagining as many people romanticize the winemaking profession until they try it out and realize how dirty your hands really do get. However, after that 6-week harvest internship, she remained working for Foley for three more years and learned everything she could from highly respected local winemaker Norm Yost (who now has Flying Goat Cellars).
After three years at Foley, Karen was ready to take things to the next level and went to work at Fiddlehead cellars with Kathy Joseph, another local legend. It was while working for Fiddlehead that Karen began to learn about Buttonwood and their philosophies.
After three harvests as the assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead Karen went for her ultimate dream and has been with Buttonwood ever since. Betty would be proud, looking down at her farm where Karen works every vintage to express the land and craft a “wine that will provide pleasure at the table and in the glass.”
We invite you to discover more in our interview with Karen Steinwachs, winemaker for Buttonwood Winery.
Betty Williams (1918-2011), was the founder of Buttonwood Farms in 1968. Her mission statement is all about having a “balanced ecological microcosm;” a living, functioning property with the vineyard, farm, animals, and employees all working together sustainably and in harmony. Betty was a founder of the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County and was very involved in local arts and humanities as well. All of this continues to shape Buttonwood as things grow and the world changes.
Buttonwood was sustainable before a sustainable certification was a thing. With vineyard plantings dating back to 1983, the now 39-acre vineyard boasts several different varietals. Sauvignon Blanc is what locals know Buttonwood for first, but taste the lineup and you’ll soon discover that the excellence doesn’t stop there.
What takes Buttonwood’s sustainability to the next level is how the land is used, it’s not just a winery, it’s also a very productive farm.
Having the diversity of fruit trees along with the vineyard is how Betty’s mission to have a “balanced ecological microcosm” comes to fruition. A visit to this special tasting room in Solvang, California is an experience, and different throughout the year depending on the season. Peach season is one of our favorites!
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”.
Did you enjoy this blog? You might enjoy some of our other blogs about our local winemakers. We’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stories of winemakers like Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood, and Wes Hagen of J. Wilkes, to name a few. Shop our online Wine Merchant anytime to enjoy the fruits of their labor!
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.
Wine lovers often have the romantic notion that the land, the terroir, will always triumph above all else to dictate what grapes thrive where, and what defines a given region. In reality, economics and the fickle nature of the marketplace often play just as big of a role. Case in point: Santa Barbara County’s history with Riesling. The early reputation of our area, particularly cooler climate regions like Los Alamos, Santa Maria Valley, and the Sta. Rita Hills, owes a great deal to Riesling, back when you’d see it labeled as White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling. Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, however, economics forced Riesling out in favor of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Riesling is now making its long overdue comeback thanks to a new generation of consumers, critics, and sommeliers championing this truly noble grape. I recently spoke with vintners in the area to discuss the history of Riesling, and its Teutonic brethren Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner, in our region, and their future in Santa Barbara County.
The leader among this group is Graham Tatomer. Tatomer, a Santa Barbara native who fell in love with the grape after his first taste of an Alsatian Riesling, has built his Riesling-focused program around Kick On. “Kick On is by far the most important site I work with, and it’s a wonderful site,” says Tatomer. “It’s a long-term contract. Jeff Frey has done a great job farming the vineyard, but he leaves the executive decisions on my blocks to me, so I have complete control of the farming, from pruning to leafing to watering.” Tatomer focuses on Block B, a newer planting from the early 2000s. “I took B block because of greater vine density, it’s further up the hill, and it has a southwest exposure,” states Tatomer. “Great aspect, there’s sun but plenty of access to the wind as well… Jeff and I have been experimenting with weed control methods, trying to get closer to completely organic farming.” Tatomer produces two different renditions of Kick On. The vineyard designated bottling is lean, austere, inspired by Austria and Alsace yet uniquely California, with the mineral intensity of this site concentrated into a chiseled package. His Vandenberg bottling, on the other hand, is focused on botrytised fruit, mainly sourced from Kick On, and is comparatively plush, with more pronounced stone fruit aromatics while still capturing Kick On’s precise character. Other wonderful Kick On bottlings abound, from the bright and taut wines of Ojai, Municipal, Mes Amis, Stirm and J. Brix to the slightly off-dry expressions from Margerum and La Fenetre’s Josh Klapper under his Dr. Klapper moniker.
The most profound bottling of Kick On I had the pleasure of tasting in researching this article, though, came totally out of left field. Fred Brander’s Brander label has long utilized Kick On fruit as part of its Cuvee Natalie blend; in 2014, however, they chose to do a vineyard designated, varietal Riesling from Kick On. Winemaker Fabian Bravo casually shared this recently bottled wine with me this week after tasting through numerous soon-to-be-bottled Sauvignon Blanc tanks (which were great as always), and I was absolutely floored. Reminiscent of great Auslese-level Mosel Riesling- sites like Erdener Treppchen or Urziger Wurzgarten come to mind- this was wild, singular stuff. Notes of orange bitters, juniper, clove, Luxardo Maraschino, vanilla, cherry, even a perception of minerality reminiscent of the Mosel’s blue slate (though of course this is the glorious sand of Kick On) – the overall effect was reminiscent of my favorite classic cocktail, the Martinez, but with perfect balance and deceptively bright acid. Bravo explained that the unique character of this wine resulted from a new winemaking approach. “We stuck it in a tank that freezes the juice, then we turned the system off, cracked the valve, and basically concentrated the must, so almost reverse ice wine making,” laughs Bravo. “You do lose a lot of volume, probably 70% or more. It’s a slow process, someone sits there pulling off about a gallon an hour. Early brix will be up around 50 at that point with the first lots, and it will drop over time as we pull juice off. The resulting amount was so small that we fermented in beer kegs, and only ended up with 21 cases.” The wine instantly became a new benchmark for me, and is a testament to the talents of Bravo and the always-experimenting Fred Brander. If you can get your hands on a bottle of this precious nectar, consider yourself blessed.
Riesling’s other Teutonic compatriot, Gewurztraminer, has been particularly underappreciated in Santa Barbara County. Unlike the Riesling renaissance that has happened over the past few years, Gewurztraminer remains a marginal curiosity, as evidenced by the fact that there remain only three sites planted to the grape here: Jim Clendenen’s Le Bon Climat in Santa Maria, and White Hills and Alisos, both in Los Alamos. Los Alamos, with its less recognizable name and more affordable land, has proven to be a safe haven for many of these lesser-known varieties, and Gewurztraminer is no exception. In the hands of producers like Kunin, Bedford, and Tercero, it produces varietally classic, wonderfully expressive and food friendly wines. “My goal was always to make a wine that showed off the grape’s exotic bouquet, flavor profile and mouthfeel, but not to push the envelope style-wise as far as residual sugar or acidity,” says Seth Kunin. “I found that, with the exposure and mean temperatures at Alisos, we could get enough ripeness to achieve the lychee aromatics and rich mouthfeel while keeping the sugar levels low enough to ferment the wine dry.”
Some of the most legendary Santa Barbara County Gewurztraminer came from a site that no longer has the variety planted: Babcock Vineyard. “The first grapes I ever crushed at the estate were Gewurztraminer,” recalls Bryan Babcock. “It came in late August of 1984.” The old guard of Sta. Rita Hills speaks of Babcock’s Gewurztraminers with the same awe reserved for the early vintages of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir or Au Bon Climat’s early Chardonnays, but there are, sadly, almost no bottles remaining of his Gewurz from this era. Along with Babcock’s Riesling, the Gewurztraminer developed phylloxera in the late ‘80s, and had to be pulled out. When the time came to replant, he went in a different varietal direction.
In the case of Riesling, “it’s one of the great conduits to terroir, but it didn’t hit the deep chord that it hits in Germany,” says Babcock. “It never felt world class like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here does.” And while Gewurztraminer made gorgeous wines in a range of styles for Babcock, from dry and bright to late harvest expressions inspired by Alsace’s vendange tardive bottlings, it was ultimately too much of an uphill battle in the market. “In the late ‘80s, it wasn’t like it is now, where the public has been educated so much more and has been exposed to a lot of these lesser known varieties from around the world,” states Babcock. “Nobody could pronounce Gewurztraminer when I’d pour at tastings. Yeah, you can educate people, and yeah, it’s one of the world’s noble varieties, but I grew tired of being the educator.” Despite the modern interest in Gewurztraminer brought about by sommeliers’ love of its expression in Alsace, as well as the genetically linked Savagnin of the Jura, it doesn’t appear to be making a Santa Barbara County comeback any time soon. “Unfortunately, I do not see Gewurztraminer growing beyond its ‘niche’ status here in the Santa Barbara County area,” says Tercero’s Larry Schaffer. “The best places for it to be planted – much cooler climates like are seen in the Sta. Rita Hills – are also perfect to plant grapes that yield much higher dollars for the grapes themselves and the subsequent wines.”
The rarest curiosity in Santa Barbara County is Rancho Sisquoc’s planting of Sylvaner. Other than Sonoma County’s Scribe Winery, Sisquoc has the only planting of this variety in California. “6 acres of Sylvaner were planted in 1974,” says Sisquoc’s Ed Holt. “3 of the original acres are still in production, all own-rooted. We re-planted the other 3 acres in 2013 with plants from the original acreage.” Planted in a mix of Elder and Botella series soils, Sisquoc’s Sylvaner is gorgeous, with its acid perfectly balanced by a touch of sweetness, and remains one of the best (and most under-the-radar) values in Santa Barbara County. Sisquoc’s winemaker Sarah Holt Mullins says it’s a nightmare to deal with in the cellar, but is worth the effort. “It comes off the vine sticky, snotty and dense,” as she vividly describes it. “We put it through the ringer on its first day in the winery, sorting, crushing, must pumping and then finally pressing. It will only allow us to press it gently because it will squirt through any passage it can find in the press. Well worth the war for Sylvaner.”
One of the big questions with these grapes is whether to ferment the wine completely dry or leave some residual sugar. Santa Barbara County has traditionally produced mostly off-dry or late harvest styles, though the recent Riesling resurgence has favored drier wines. In the case of wines from the prized Kick On Ranch in particular, this often means Rieslings with almost punishing austerity, taut, saline expressions where the nearby ocean and the sandy soil underfoot are palpable on the palate. Yet those who have chosen off-dry expressions here, such as Brander or J. Brix’s petillant naturel sparkling Riesling, tap into a similar core of place with residual sugar that offsets this high tension, high acid vineyard beautifully. Ultimately, it is about balance, an idea that is, as with most things in wine, subjective.
“The sweetness of my Gewurztraminer varies each year depending upon a number of factors, with the main one being ‘mother nature’,” states Tercero’s Larry Schaffer. “When you ‘stick’ a fermentation by cooling it down and adding SO2, it is not an immediate process – yeast cells want to continue to do their thing. Therefore, the residual sugar levels in my wine are never the same from year to year.” Some of the oldest producers in the area, such as Rancho Sisquoc and Santa Barbara Winery, have crafted off-dry Rieslings for decades, speaking to the great demand this style has in the marketplace. These wines are often the gateway into appreciating wine for younger consumers, but make no mistake: these wines still strongly communicate a sense of place. “The sweet Riesling style is very popular in this area and in outside sales; it would be hard to market a dry after so many years of sweet,” says Sisquoc’s Holt Mullins. This balance between sugar and acid also allows the wines to age surprisingly well. Many of my most profound experiences with older California wines have been late harvest Rieslings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, often acquired at auction for $10-15. Many of those same wines are now $40-50 at auction, giving me hope for their continued growth in the vineyards and in the marketplace, if not for my pocketbook.
Beyond the crucial decision of sweetness, most of the winemakers I spoke with emphasized the relatively hands-off/subtle approach to working with these varieties in the cellar. “I hardly change anything from site to site,” says Tatomer. “I feel like those things get talked about more than they should. It’s very minor things, such as the level of crush I get on the material or the level of dissolved CO2 at bottling. My goal is to capture the best of these sites.” Ojai Vineyard’s Fabien Castel, who has been making lovely Rieslings from Kick On along with Ojai founder Adam Tolmach, has taken a similar hands-off approach, with the twist of crafting several different bottlings in different guises from the vineyard, ranging from their flagship dry bottling to experiments with botrytis and ice wine. “The variations around Riesling are more about us getting a good grasp on the potential for the site and the varietal. It is a byproduct of the way Adam is exploring vinification. The botrytis selection is maybe most compelling because it is rare and achieved great balance of sweetness and freshness. It has the varietal complexity of perfumes modulated by unusual earthy fragrances and concentration given by botrytis cinerea.” Riverbench’s Clarissa Nagy also began exploring this multi-pronged approach to Riesling with the 2014 vintage. “Our current release of Riesling is in an off-dry style. I have made a very small amount of completely dry Riesling as well. It’s a wine that is beautiful dry and off-dry. Vintage 2014 gave us perfect conditions for a Late Harvest Riesling too. We picked it at 38 Brix and hand sorted each cluster used. It has fabulous honeyed and botrytised notes.”
Santa Barbara County Riesling (and Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner) is a thing of beauty. Throughout a range of styles it expresses site cleanly and clearly, communicating placein an unadorned fashion. From the mineral, brilliant wines of Tatomer to the exotic, innovative Riesling of Brander, from the experimentation of Ojai’s various bottlings to the old stalwarts of Sisquoc, SBC Riesling is distinctive and fresh. Graham Tatomer, who has staked his reputation on Riesling, sums up the mix of regret for Riesling lost, and hopefulness for Riesling’s future, in Santa Barbara County. “Riesling is the last noble grape that hasn’t really taken off yet in California. I hope to find a vineyard as great as Kick On going forward, but it’s a challenge. A lot of those amazing early plantings, like Sanford & Benedict and White Hills, are gone. But this grape has thrived because it truly makes some of the greatest wines on the planet.” Our region has something new to say about this legendary grape, and now more than ever there are winemakers broadcasting this unique voice loud and clear.
“This is what love is for
To be out of place”
– Wilco, “Impossible Germany”
A comprehensive guide to Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner in Santa Barbara County, followed by a breakdown of soil types if you’re feeling particularly nerdy:
Santa Maria Valley – Clendenen Family- Le Bon Climat Estate Gewurztraminer
– Rancho Sisquoc- Estate Riesling and Sylvaner
– Riverbench- Estate Riesling
– Solminer– Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling – Tatomer- Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling
Los Alamos Valley – Bedford- Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Brander- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Daniel Gehrs– White Hills Vineyard Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Dr. Klapper (La Fenetre)- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix- Kick On Ranch Riesling and Pet Nat Riesling
– Kunin- Alisos Vineyard Gewurztraminer
– Lucas & Lewellen- Estate Riesling
– Margerum- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Mes Amis- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Municipal Winemakers- Kick On Ranch “Bright White”
– The Ojai Vineyard- Kick On Ranch Riesling (Special Botrytis and Ice Wine Bottlings as well)
– Stirm- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Tatomer- Kick On Ranch Riesling, Vandenberg Riesling
– Tercero- “The Outlier” Gewurztraminer
Sta. Rita Hills – Lafond- Estate Riesling
– Santa Barbara Winery– Lafond Vineyard Riesling (several different bottlings)
– Tatomer- Lafond Vineyard Riesling
Santa Ynez Valley
– Brander- Los Olivos Vineyard Estate Riesling
– Demetria– Riesling
– Fess Parker- Rodney’s Vineyard Estate Riesling
– Firestone- Estate Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Gainey- Estate Riesling
– Koehler- Estate Riesling
– Lo-Fi– Coquelicot Vineyard Riesling
SOIL TYPES: Santa Maria Valley Le Bon Climat
– Gewurztraminer- Sandy loam with some shale fragments in the upper slopes (Chamise, Garey, and Corralitos series)
– Riesling- Shallow Pleasanton sandy/gravelly loam
– Sylvaner- Elder and Botella series, alluvial soil, more of a clay loam
– Riesling- Mocho sandy loam intermixed with gravel, ancient riverbed soil
Los Alamos Valley Alisos
– Gewurztraminer- Chamise shaly sandy loam
Kick On Ranch
– Riesling-Extremely sandy, with minor sandstone and shale fragments. Arnold and Betteravia series.
Lucas & Lewellen
– Riesling- Botella loam
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Extremely sandy. Arnold, Betteravia, and Corralitos series.
On Thursday September 18th, we’ll be hosting a dinner here at the Café featuring Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Trey Fletcher of Bien Nacido Estate to celebrate 40 years of Bien Nacido Vineyard. It’s very rare to get this legendary brain trust in one place to share their stories, so it should be a pretty magical evening. Leading up to the dinner, I’ve been reflecting about what makes Bien Nacido so distinctive, and, in a larger sense, the things that make a vineyard special beyond the usual talk of soil and climate.
Beginning in 2008, I had the privilege of working at Bien Nacido for 2 ½ years as a cellar rat for Tantara, whose winery was located on the property. From our location in the central flats of the property, I could see our neighbors Ambullneo down the road (Dieter Cronje and Matt Murphy, who would go on to create the formidable Presqu’ile property, were part of the cellar team there at the time), and ABC and Qupe’s massive cellar across the river. Driving into work each morning, checking out the various blocks was a visual roll call of the who’s-who in Santa Barbara County winemaking: that slope is Foxen’s Block 8; that little wedge of Syrah belongs to Paul Lato; there’s Manfred from Sine Qua Non checking on his fruit. And of course, there were the legendary parcels made famous by the likes of u Bon Climat, Qupe, and Lane Tanner, each its own piece of history with a story to tell. Great vineyards have a certain energy to them, a soul if you will, and Bien Nacido is one of the most soulful sites I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in.
Where does this presence of place come from? I don’t think it’s something that can be separated from the human element. All of the factors that have come together in Bien Nacido- the passion of the Miller family, who founded the property and own it still; the fervent passion of Jim Clendenen, who spread the gospel of Bien Nacido throughout the world; the brilliant modern stewardship of vineyard manager Chris Hammell- have given form and voice to the natural elements of this piece of land in a way that is singular and special. A site whose natural factors suggest something merely good cannot be willed into greatness; by the same token, a site with the seeds of greatness can’t realize its potential without the vision of human beings like those mentioned above. In this way, wine may be the ultimate expression of the union between Mother Nature and Man.
If I were to use one word to describe the character of Bien Nacido Vineyard, it would be verve. Whether it is a late-picked, luscious Syrah, a spice-driven, lithe Pinot Noir, or a mineral, lean Melon, there is a brightness and vivaciousness that gives lift and precision to wines from this site. The cool climate of the Santa Maria Bench, coupled with calcium-rich shale soils, is a large part of the reason for this, though again, the personalities behind the wines are a huge factor. When one observes the passion and attention to detail given by Justin Willett of Tyler and Lieu Dit, or the acuity of Trey Fletcher for Bien Nacido’s estate program, it’s no surprise that this lively, precise quality can be tasted across the varietal spectrum.
There is a story in the soil, a voice waiting to be broadcast that will shout to the world the character of a great site. Bien Nacido is such a site, with translators who have managed to magnify and capture its unique personality. I look forward to hearing from Jim Clendenen, Trey Fletcher, and Bob Lindquist as they delve deeper into the story of Bien Nacido; no matter how much you think you know about a familiar place, there is also a new layer to be uncovered.
To purchase tickets to our event Rock Steady: 40 Years of Bien Nacido Vineyard,
In the past decade, Santa Barbara County has exploded with AVAs, and rightfully so. As we’ve tasted the wines and analyzed the nuances of soil and climate throughout our region, we have begun to carve out special sub-regions of note that have a distinctive voice. In addition to our early AVAs of Santa Maria Valley (est. 1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (est. 1983), we have Sta. Rita Hills (est. 2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (est. 2009), Ballard Canyon (est. 2013) and the pending Los Olivos District (likely to be established by 2015). Yet one of the County’s most historic regions remains without a designation of any kind: the Los Alamos Valley. This past week I spoke with numerous winemakersand farmers who have worked over the years with Los Alamos Valley fruit to hear their thoughts on the site character of Los Alamos, its various subzones, and the idea of an AVA. When researching a region, I always start with soil; my love lies in the dirt. Los Alamos, like most great regions, has a wealth of exciting soils. Shale, clay, sand, gravel, sandstone, and a bit of limestone can be found in various pockets. This variability within the region has led some to suggest that rather than a single AVA, the area should be broken down into several smaller AVAs. “I do think it would have to be broken down for it to be true to definition, and that in itself might make it less feasible or practical to do so,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. There is also a notable difference in temperature between the valley’s west end near Vandenberg Air Force Base, which can be quite chilly, and the eastern end near Alisos Canyon, where things heat up. Broadly speaking, Los Alamos Valley is 10 degrees cooler on average than Santa Ynez Valley, and 10 degrees warmer than Santa Maria, though again, there are more subtle nuances from east to west. As a result of these variations in soil and climate, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variety for the region to hang its hat on. Much like Santa Maria to its north or Santa Ynez to its south, Los Alamos has a multitude of varietal voices that express this place.
Starting in the east, near the northern boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we find perhaps the area’s most acclaimed sub-region: Alisos Canyon. Running east of Highway 101 along Alisos Canyon Road, this area is paradise for Rhone varieties, though Cabernet Franc and Gamay also have potential. The canyon is home to the famed Thompson Vineyard, which has produced legendary Syrahs for 20 years. Newer sites, such as Martian Ranch, Watch Hill, and The Third Twin, show equal promise. Despite being a very small region, Alisos Canyon is defined by several different soils, all of which have either sandstone or shale in their parent material. In the southeast, at Martian and Alisos, there is Chamise shaly and sandy loam. This acidic shale seems to imbue the wines, Syrah in particular, with brightness and lift even at higher sugars/alcohols. Across the road, at Thompson, is Tierra Sandy Loam, an alluvial soil providing more textural breadth in the wines. The Third Twin (formerly Los Tres Burros), Sine Qua Non’s site above Thompson, shifts into San Andreas-Tierra Complex, a much sandier, sandstone-derived soil. As we shift toward the mouth of the canyon, particularly at Watch Hill, we see very sandy Arnold series soils, making this prime real estate for Grenache in particular.
The climate is also ideal for Rhone grapes, a Goldilocks-like balance between not-too-hot and not-too-cold. “For Rhones, Alisos Canyon is still a cool area and fairly uniform in temperature from its mouth east of the 101 most of the way to Foxen Canyon,” says Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “As cool as it is, it is somewhat sheltered and warm enough that everything can get ripe yet have the long hang time that lets the flavors develop. Things can get ripe without being crazy sweet.” Kunin elaborates on this idea, stating “Alisos is in the Eastern corner of the hypothetical Los Alamos AVA, and so benefits from the warmer airflow of the Santa Ynez Valley. This tempers the predominantly cool coastal breezes that dominate the flats farther West and make them better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In general, I think that it is this hybrid airflow pattern that defines Los Alamos.” Many have suggested that Alisos Canyon should have its own AVA. Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care farms many of the sites here (impeccably, I might add), and believes in the potential of not only the Valley as a whole, but Alisos in particular. “I believe that Los Alamos Valley is special and deserves its own appellation,” says Finkle. “However, Alisos Canyon Road is unique and dominated by Rhone varieties. As you move west of the town of Los Alamos, the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. For this reason there should probably be at least two sub-appellations.”
Moving just north of Alisos Canyon, before the town of Los Alamos, we head into the Los Alamos flats along Highway 101. Lucas & Lewellen owns most of the land here, and has long advocated for the potential of Los Alamos. Their vineyards contain a wealth of interesting grape varieties, 20 in all, ranging from Nebbiolo and Freisa to Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca, functioning as a great window into what unexpected grapes may potentially shine in Los Alamos. Soil here is alluvial, mostly Botella series (also prominently found in the southern Sta. Rita Hills). As we continue up Highway 101, past the town of Los Alamos, we start to get into bigger plantings, often owned by larger companies such as Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home. This could go some ways toward explaining the lack of an AVA for Los Alamos Valley: these larger labels often blend the wines into Central Coast or even North Coast designated wines, rarely vineyard-designating or even putting Santa Barbara County on the label. “With so many large producers/growers in the area, there hasn’t been the grassroots inertia to garner the acclaim, promote the region or gather data for an AVA application,” explains Kunin.
Cat Canyon is the next area of note, located in the northern Los Alamos Valley, just east of Highway 101. While there are still some bigger corporate plantings, there are also two of the valley’s most noted sites: Verna’s and White Hawk. Verna’s Vineyard, owned by the Melville family, has served as the source for their more affordable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs. These are some of the top values in California today, particularly the Pinot Noir, driven by a purity of place and a strong core of hard spice. Jaffurs also produces a superb Syrah from Verna’s; to taste it next to their Thompson bottling is a great illustration of the large difference in site character between Alisos Canyon and Cat Canyon. Across the street from Verna’s is White Hawk, a lauded source for Syrah. Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl has utilized this site for many years, and it is one of only two non-estate vineyards he continues to work with, while his protégé Maggie Harrison incorporates it into her flagship Syrah for her Lillian label. Ojai’s White Hawk Syrah shows wonderful restraint, with great structure, purity and spice. Viognier is promising from both sites as well, and Ojai recently produced a beautiful Sangiovese from White Hawk.
Both Verna’s and White Hawk are essentially gigantic sand dunes, dominated by Arnold and Corralitos sands, and quite a bit colder than the southern and eastern portions of Los Alamos Valley (on a map, it lines up roughly with the eastern Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Bench). One can taste it in the Syrah, which has more pronounced notes of peppercorn and leaner texture, as compared to the meatier, broader wines of Alisos Canyon. “Verna’s is a cooler site- you can see the fog in Santa Maria from the top of the hill-side block,” says Jaffurs. “The north (south facing) side of Cat Canyon is a different site from Verna’s which almost faces north – hence its relative coolness.”
The final region of note is the valley’s far western edge along Highway 135, not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base. As a resident of this part of Los Alamos, I can attest that it is very cold, very foggy, and very windy. Again, there are some bigger/more corporate plantings to be found here, though the quality remains high, particularly in cool climate whites from the large White Hills property, one of the coldest, westernmost vineyards in Santa Barbara County. The two star sites, however, are Kick On Ranch and Los Alamos Vineyard.
Kick On Ranch has garnered the most acclaim for, of all things, Riesling. This should not come as a surprise given the early success of Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills with Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Economics forced those areas to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but these varieties remain and thrive in Los Alamos. Graham Tatomer was one of the first to latch on to this site for his Riesling-focused label, with his single-vineyard bottling a top example of the austere minerality to be found at Kick On. He has also recently planted Gruner Veltliner, a variety that should show great results here. Ojai’s Adam Tolmach has also been making beautiful Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, from the vineyard. J. Brix are crafting gorgeous examples of Kick On across the varietal spectrum, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir in several different iterations (their Petillant Naturel Riesling is one of the top methode ancestrale sparklers I’ve tasted from California). Soil in this part of the valley is quite sandy, consisting of Arnold, Corralitos, Betteravia, and Tierra series. In Kick-On’s upper blocks, however, one finds fossils and large pieces of sandstone and shale. “The ancient-beach soil is mesmerizing,” says Emily Towe of J. Brix. “We can’t walk Kick On without stopping over and over to pick up shells, stones, fossils. It’s a whisper of history from when it was the bottom of the sea, long before it became the Valley of the Cottonwoods. The vines get to live in both worlds, in a way.” The minerality in the whites here is amazing, with intensity rarely found outside of Europe’s chilliest climes. Pinot Noir showcases an intriguing herbal side, with tomato leaf and root vegetable notes, along with dark fruit and spice highlights that are distinct from Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria. The other site of note is the legendary Los Alamos Vineyard. Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen operated from a barn on the property here in their earliest days. Gavin Chanin, who is now producing stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyard, also has fond memories of his early time here. “During my first harvest in Santa Barbara I lived next door to Los Alamos vineyard in a bunk house, and we used to drink beer and watch them night harvest with huge flood lights,” recalls Chanin. “It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me.” Los Alamos Vineyard, like its neighbors in this part of the Valley, is quite sandy, with steep slopes and incredible exposures. Chardonnay exhibits an intense, almost searing minerality, with fruit playing a background role. These are not wines defined by aromatic intensity; rather, they are almost entirely about texture and mineral presence, in a fashion not found elsewhere in California. The Pinots exhibit a similar herbaceousness as that found in Kick On. “Los Alamos Vineyard is very unique,” says Chanin. “The wines are rich but held together with great acidity, freshness and minerality. It is my most coastal vineyard but also our warmest because Los Alamos is somewhat cut off from the ocean.” To taste the wines from Chanin, or Au Bon Climat through their “Historic Vineyard Series” bottlings, is a revelation: they are unlike any other Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. These are site-driven, beautifully balanced wines that speak loudly of their origins.
So, what is the future for Los Alamos Valley? The winemakers I spoke with were divided: some believe an AVA would be beneficial, some believe it should be broken into several small AVAs, some believe only Alisos Canyon should have an AVA, and some believe there shouldn’t be any AVAs at all. Given the diversity of the region, this is no surprise. “I hate the idea of type casting Los Alamos because it has the potential to do so much at a very high level,” says Chanin. “Very often with AVAs people only want to plant/produce what the AVA is best known for.” Craig Jaffurs shares his skepticism at an overarching AVA, though believes Alisos Canyon may be worth designating. “The larger Los Alamos Valley has not shown enough distinction to warrant becoming an AVA. Alisos Canyon would be a worthy AVA in the same sense Ballard Canyon is.” Bryan Babcock, a Sta. Rita Hills veteran who has worked with such sites as El Camino and Loma Verde in Los Alamos Valley’s northern sector, is quick to caution against Pinot Noir becoming Los Alamos’ flagship variety, and also points to the challenges of fractured AVAs. “I would not hang my hat on Pinot, at least not yet. If you try to be a Pinot appellation, you will be crawling out from under the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley for the next 100 years… Also be careful about fracturing your AVA and destroying any potential clout that you would have had otherwise. If you don’t put together a critical mass of interest and players, you will witness the still birth of your AVA.”
There are currently, to my knowledge, no plans in the works to establish an AVA within Los Alamos Valley, though there is constant talk about it among the area’s vintners. Perhaps we’ll never see an official designation for this area, which is a shame, as there are so many beautiful, unique wines coming from here. As Seth Kunin states, “the concentration of flavor combined with unique structure [in Los Alamos] allows for significant ageing. Certainly some of the best examples of older (5-10 year-old) Syrahs that I have tasted from Santa Barbara County come from Los Alamos.” I couldn’t agree more. With the influx of new producers working with the fruit here, and exciting new plantings such as Mike Roth’s Mullet site, there is renewed energy in Los Alamos, carrying on the work of early pioneers like Ojai, Au Bon Climat, and Bedford. Sites such as Thompson, Los Alamos Vineyard, White Hawk, and Verna’s are already legendary, and I have no doubt that we’ll be discussing Kick On Ranch, Martian, and Watch Hill with the same reverence in the years to come. I hope that, as we continue to further refine our knowledge of site in Santa Barbara County, we continue to argue the merits of place as passionately as those I spoke with have done here. It is this open dialogue and elegant exchange of ideas that will continue to elevate our area. A selection of Los Alamos bottlings to seek out:
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