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.
The path to how Timbre Winery came to be is somewhat straight but far from narrow. Josh Klapper’s curiosity for how wine was made, led him to our beautiful Santa Barbara wine country in 2005. However, his passion for wine began early on at one of his first jobs as a waiter on the East Coast where he grew up. It all started with a bottle. A bottle of 1945 Bordeaux from Chateau Latour (a $7000 bottle!). One of his guests had ordered it and invited him to have a taste. Josh was hooked! From that moment on Josh knew, the wine business is where he wanted to be. It wasn’t necessarily the price that wowed him, it was the fact that for various reasons that bottle held something special, something to savor, and he set out to find out what that was.
Josh eventually moved to the West Coast and became a sommelier at a restaurant in LA that during his time there received the honorable Wine Spectator Grand Award. With his wealth of experience at such a young age (25), Josh could have done very well in the restaurant business as a sommelier. However, he yearned for more. He wanted to jump in and learn about the process of how the wines he loved were created. Like many local winemakers, their journey to becoming full-fledged winemakers started with a mentor, in Josh’s case, Bob Lindquist of Qupe welcomed him into the world of winemaking.
Some things are meant to be…
But how did Timbre Winery come to be? Elvis couldn’t have sung it better, “Like a river flows surely to the sea. Darling so it goes. Some things are meant to be.” As a fan of Bob’s Qupe wines, Josh promoted them as a sommelier at the restaurant he worked at in LA. He seized on his connection and made a phone call that changed his life course. This call seamlessly led to Josh assisting in the next three Qupe harvests and the creation of Josh’s first label, La Fenêtre (which Bob welcomed him to produce at Qupe). From there Josh’s voice as a winemaker has fine-tuned with clarity and harmony in his Timbre Winery label that he began in 2012. In Josh’s words, “Timbre is my voice as a winemaker.”
We invite you to watch our entertaining interview with Josh where he not only shares his story in his own “timbre” but also shares his wealth of knowledge about the Santa Barbara wine region. As he describes it “…crazy geology and so many microclimates.”
Timbre (pronounced TAM·ber or TIM·ber) is the “color” of music. Josh successfully uses the name of his wine label as an inspiration for the wines he produces. Each label uniquely characterized by a musical metaphor. His well-balanced beautifully harmonized flavors in his Supergroup Pinot Noir is the perfect example. “Supergroup” is a term used for a band of famous musicians from various other bands. Josh’s Supergroup Pinot Noir is sourced from three of Santa Maria Valley’s most well-known vineyards: Bien Nacido, Presqu’ile, and Riverbench. Three unique parts of Santa Maria Valley each with something remarkable to add to the wine. (Fun Fact which Josh shares in our exclusive interview: Bien Nacido planted in 1973, is the most vineyard designated vineyard in history. Meaning more wines have had Bien Nacido on the label than any other vineyard in the world!)
At the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe we focus on providing a true wine country experience. Much of our produce for the Café is organically grown at our Café farm in Los Olivos. And our award-winning wine selection of over 500 mostly local wines compliments our fresh wine country cuisine. As a hub for the local California Central Coast wine scene, we love getting to know our local winemakers and sharing their stories with you! We welcome you to check out more of our interviews and blogs here.
We are thrilled to introduce Julie Cox, our new Wine Director at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant. Julie brings an impressive resume with tenured experience in the wine industry. She speaks fluent French perfected by her time living in France under the tutelage of French winemakers. Julie is an expert of local Central Coast wine, learning the various aspects of our local wine industry by working with local winemakers at tasting rooms and first-hand through creating her own locally-sourced wines. Now, we are lucky to share her wealth of knowledge at the Wine Merchant.
At the Wine Merchant, we always strive to bring a high level of personal connection to our restaurant and wine shop. Getting to know the tastes and needs of our customers is what we can do well, and is what sets us apart. We want to showcase the very best of Central Coast wine, and it is our hope that you will enjoy learning a little more about who we’ve entrusted in selecting the wines that make it onto our wine list and our shelves
We hope you enjoy this Q & A with Julie, our new Wine Director!
Q: Julie, the wine industry has inspired professionals from all backgrounds, one thing they have in common is they share a similar “Aha” moment when they decided to dig deeper into the world of wine. Did you have an “Aha” moment like this?
Julie: I didn’t grow up with fine wines in my house, but as a native Santa Barbarian, I was always surrounded by the wine culture. I grew up with great cooking in my household, and I feel like food is a natural segway for wine to be involved. My grandmother bought my first bottle of wine for me to use with cooking, and it was my first foray into the relationship of wine and food. My ‘Aha’ moment came to me on my first wine tasting trip to the Santa Ynez Valley. I was 21 (just before “Sideways” took the area by storm) and went down the Foxen Canyon Trail to stop at Curtis Vineyards. I tasted a Syrah made by Chuck Carlson and instantly knew wine was going to be in my life forever. I knew little to nothing about wine, but I knew that magic and nuance could be discovered in every individual bottle. I’ve spent every day since gaining a better understanding of what exactly creates our attraction to wines.
Q: I know you make wine as a hobby on the side. Will you share a little bit more about this and what you’ve learned from the process?
Julie: My background is in biology and chemistry, so I was naturally curious about how wine was made. I have participated in seven harvests in France, Switzerland, and our beautiful Santa Barbara Wine Country. I started to make wine on my own four years ago to create my own stamp on the wine world. It has given me insight into the small-production process and how it affects the wine. This is very important working in a close-knit small-production community.
Q: From your years of experience in the wine industry, what do you think is the greatest misconception about wine?
Julie: That is easy! Sulfites. The most common misconception about wine is that the sulfur dioxide in wine is responsible for allergies and headaches. Truth be told, there are more sulfites in apple juice or dried apricots. More likely people are having a histamine reaction to the tannins or other compounds naturally present because of the winemaking process.
Q: Do you have any guidelines or rules of thumb that you use for pairing wine with food?
Julie: For me, food and wine pairing is part education and part instinct. It is important to take into consideration the components of the dish as well as the elements and nuances of the wine. My rule of thumb is to consider the primary characteristics in the dish and find a wine that will highlight or counterbalance them. If I am unsure of what wine to pair, I often choose a red or white wine blend. The beauty of a blended wine is that by the winemaker’s intention the wine is meant to have a balance of acidity, fruit, and tannins. This makes them a safe bet when pairing with food and sharing among friends.
Q: What do you enjoy about working at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and what are some things you look forward to bringing to it?
Julie: The Wine Merchant is focused on personalized customer service. Having a restaurant and wine shop gives everyone who visits a well-rounded and wonderful wine country experience. With over 20 years of having an experienced staff makes and adapting to the needs of this community, the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café is a welcoming place to dine and shop. This is why I am delighted to be the new Wine Director and share the experience with everyone.
Julie or another member of our fabulous Wine Merchant staff are always on-hand to assist anyone looking for their next great bottle of wine, at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe! Shop for wine online at shop.WineMerchantCafe.com or visit us at 2879 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos.
Rancho Sisquoc- Steeped in history and still keeping things fresh.
Over the last four decades, Rancho Sisquoc has become a household name in local winemaking and wine tourism. Located at the end of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail in Santa Maria, the property of Rancho Sisquoc is a destination every wine lover must experience to fully appreciate.
As a major stop on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the winery is a 300-acre slice of a roughly 38,000-acre working ranch, mine, and farm. As one of the oldest wineries in Santa Barbara County, Rancho Sisquoc’s name is an important piece of California history. The San Ramon Chapel (the label art of Rancho Sisquoc’s wines) has been a staple on the Ranch for over 140 years and became the county’s first State Historic Landmark in 1977.
Vines were first planted on the Ranch in the late 1960s, with the first vintages produced in 1972 by a Ranch Manager, rather than the traditional Head Winemaker of today. The unique Sylvaner wines come from the former Ranch Manager, who fell in love with the grape while serving under General Patton in Europe. We’re pleased to offer the 2016 Sylvaner vintage of these same vines as one of our featured wines this month!
Sarah Holt Mullins, our Featured Winemaker, was born and raised on Rancho Sisquoc. Her parents moved to the Ranch in 1976 as farmers, working their way up at the Ranch. Sarah’s father is responsible for many of the vine plantings on the vineyard. Growing up, Sarah worked many odd jobs on the Ranch, working her way into the winery on her own journey. Over time on the Ranch, she began to appreciate the effort put into every wine, from grape to bottle. The experimentation with wine, responsibility over the grapes, and experience of tasting wine that you created was an experience that sold Sarah on the wine business completely.
In her own words, “it’s all-consuming; your whole life has to be in [the wine business].” Sarah credits everyone from her Oenologist, assistants, grape-growers, salespeople, and her customers (some of which have been wine club members for 20+ years!) in the process of creating famous Rancho Sisquoc wine. Everyone’s love and effort in the process is vital to creating the wines, and each is a vital part of her process. If she could sum up her winemaking style, she’d use “Love”. Sarah loves the wine, loves the process, the business and most of all, Rancho Sisquoc. Sarah’s family and others who work the Ranch live on the property, putting their time, effort and love into the soil they call home.
Rancho Sisquoc works with over 14 different varietals, which they believe is for everyone from the wine novices to the budding sommeliers. Part and parcel with this theory is how they market their wines, as wines that everyone can afford, bringing fine wine to everyone who is curious about the taste, process, and subtleties between great wines.
Sarah’s favorite grape is Merlot; another featured wine from Rancho Sisquoc in October. The tasting room Mantra at Rancho Sisquoc; everyone is allowed 6 free tastings, but if they didn’t try the Merlot, that becomes the 7thfree tasting. The wine is a classic albeit currently underappreciated staple to the winery’s oeuvre.
Sarah plans to keep “taking chances in the vineyard”, a trait she attributes to her father’s influence on her winemaking. As grape growers who have been in the industry for 40+ years, taking chances keeps their work fresh to consumers and their business. For example, in the “Tre Vini” Red Blend release, Sarah’s team might change the blend based on the year’s harvest, to perfectly balance each release. You can find this wine with the other aforementioned two as another Featured Wine at the Wine Merchant & Café!
Sarah’s long relationship with winemaking reflects the story of many local winemakers. Check out more of our monthly interviews with featured local winemakers here!
Meeting and interviewing Pete Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards and Winery offered a rare glimpse into how winemakers are born. Pete is the subject of our Featured Local Winemaker series.
We asked Pete to sum up in ONE word an aspect of his personality that gets infused into Stolpman wine. Pete’s answer: “Crazy”! He chose this word as he reflected on his father’s sheer determination to find a property with the same soil characteristics as the European wines he loved. Pete’s father, Tom Stolpman, knew that if he found the limestone soil he was looking for, the rest would fall into place. And… it did.
Pete’s parents, Tom and Marilyn Stolpman founded Stolpman Vineyard and Winery in 1990.
The senior Stolpmans envisioned winemaking as an investment worth pursuing because they could enjoy the fruits of their labor… together. And now, Pete and his wife, Jessica are partners in their family endeavor.
Their 220-acre property in Ballard Canyon— of which a whopping 153 acres are currently planted to grapes– lies on three major limestone ridgelines. By implementing revolutionary viticultural techniques, their mission is to push the dry-farmed limestone vines to unprecedented levels of quality.
Stolpman Vineyards produces Syrah, Roussanne, Grenache, and Sangiovese within the Ballard Canyon AVA. Petite Sirah, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc are also grown and produced in limited quantities, as well as some more obscure native French varietals that promise some very interesting wines in the not-so-distant future.
One of the first business decisions the Stolpmans made– a decision that gives them a reputation for being mindful of their role in our community– was to give all their workers full-time employment; they made a commitment to them and their families by providing careers, instead of temporary work. Ruben Solorzano is one of the key players that gives Stolpman wines their stellar reputation. As a 20-year veteran vineyard manager and local viticultural superstar, Ruben organically dry farms the vines for balanced concentration and a healthy ecosystem. Kyle Knapp, head winemaker, and consulting winemaker, Sashi Moorman, round out the team’s talent. Kyle and Sashi work hand-in-hand with Ruben and Pete in timing the harvest of their taut, fresh fruit. Kyle proudly sees himself as the steward, rather than the creator, of Stolpman’s “vineyard crafted” wines.
Here’s Pete Stolpman’s unique ‘how-I-became-a-winemaker” story:
After graduating from Georgetown University, Pete took a management job in Los Angeles. He became increasingly involved in his family’s vineyard operation until it became apparent that jumping into the family business was what he was meant to do. He quit his job, and embarked on a three-year wine training program; he refers to this as the “Master’s Degree by Tom Stolpman.” Pete made wine in Australia and in Italy before returning home to sell wine for the Henry Wine Group, where he was awarded the title, Fine Wine Specialist of the Year in 2008. AT 26 years old! He was the youngest salesman to receive this award (and still holds the record!).
Ready for THE challenge, Pete took over day-to-day management of Stolpman Vineyards in 1990 and hasn’t regretted his decision for one moment.
Pete’s time at Henry Wine Group was not only a great learning opportunity, it was also life- changing in terms of his personal life.
During his training at Henry WineGroup, he met his wife, Jessica. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where she fell in love with the world of wine through her involvement in the Vines to Wines Club. Upon graduation, she joined the Henry Wine Group, where, she met Pete, AND won the award for Highest Sales Growth. After two years at Henry Wine Group, Jessica moved on to become the Western Regional Sales Manager for Zaca Mesa Winery, just 10 miles north of Stolpman Vineyards on Foxen Canyon Road. Now fully emerged in the family business, Jessica manages the California wholesale market for Stolpman Vineyards.
A long-term vision
The Stolpmans are recognized for their pivotal role in developing the Ballard Canyon AVA. Upon publication of the AVA, Pete was elected President of the Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance. Through his travels promoting Stolpman Vineyards around the world, Pete is also spreading the word about Ballard Canyon’s commitment to Syrah, leading the charge to establish the area as the benchmark Syrah appellation in the New World.
The Stolpman Story is one very similar to many of the other local Santa Barbara Wine Country winemakers that we have interviewed. It started with a dream, that with hard work and determination has made our incredible niche in the world of wine something to be proud of. Having the legacy passed down to the next generation is a sign that our burgeoning wine country is here to stay!
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.
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!
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café have selected the perfect wine to accent all of the romantic moments you have planned for your day. The “Cupid’s Choice” features three local wines from distinct wineries that pride themselves on the love and care that goes into each vintage. Each winery is unique, yet shares a common thread – that of close family and friends, coming together to pour their heart and soul into creating wine that reflects their own joy in life and pride in the land and grapes they love. Let “Cupid’s Choice” lead you on a day of mutual discovery! Start with a lovely burst of brunch-time bubbles courtesy of a sparkling “Brut Rose.” Then, after a day of adventures, you can look forward to a “Slice of Heaven” served with a great meal. As the evening deepens, bring your Valentine closer for a “Sweet Ending” with a premier dessert wine. “Cupid’s Choice” has romance written all over it! The collection sells for only $93 (regularly $108) and if you come in to purchase in-store, it includes a beautiful Italian Wine box, a suitably charming gift for your favorite Valentine.
Riverbench 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose
Riverbench Vineyard & Winery was established in 1973. Located on the southeastern side of the Santa Maria Valley, the alluvial soils proved a match made in heaven for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes planted on the property. The winery is committed to sustainable winegrowing practices, and their wines brilliantly reflect their inspiration – Champagne in France, the country of romance and celebration. Their tasting room, located on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, is in a restored 1920s craftsmen style house. The garden includes a bocce ball court and a horseshoe pit, and is a lovely property to visit for a wine country picnic. Riverbench presents a small portfolio of wines from their outstanding vineyard, which results in wine of “uncommon character and dimension.”
Riverbench’s 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose is lightly perfumed with aromas of lilac and a hint of rosewater. This palest blush pink wine boasts noticeably fine bubbles, and in the mouth, flavors of meringue, marzipan, and raspberries are made all the more intriguing by a sensual hint of sauvage.
Babcock 2012 Pinot Noir, “Slice of Heaven”
Babcock Winery & Vineyards was established in 1978. Mona and Walter Babcock purchased the 110-acre property, off hwy 246, in the western side of the Santa Ynez Valley. Originally planting 20 acres to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, in 1983 they created their first experimental vintage. Encouraged by the results, the couple decided to move forward with plans for a small winery. In the meantime, their son decided to investigate the “wine thing” with his parents, which prompted a change in his education plans. He spent a couple of years of enology course work, but after crushing some Gewurztraminer in 1984, he forgot about school and ended up being awarded gold medals at the L.A. and Orange County Fairs for his 1984 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc. From there, a love affair with wine has been blossoming over the last 40 years. Says Brian “…I do like the idea of pulling corks on wines that are like a dream come true.”
Babcock’s 2012 Pinto Noir, “Slice of Heaven” is dry and bright in acidity, and would be excellent with beef, pork, and dishes of wild game. The tannins are fairly thick for a Pinot Noir. The winemaker notes, “If you want to get a handle on what the excitement is all about in the Sta. Rita Hills, just taste this wine that was grown in the absolute epicenter of the place.”
Foxen 2013 Sweet Ending Dessert Wine
The Foxen Vineyard and Winery lies deep in the Santa Barbara wine country. By following the quaint, twisting, rural Foxen Canyon Road, visitors will discover the historic Rancho Tinaquaic, on what remains of the original Mexican land grant ranch that covered most of the current Foxen Canyon. Once there, stop first to see “The Shack.” Renamed foxen 7200, the small, rustic building is where it all began when friends Dick Dore and Bill Wathen founded the Winery in 1985. Then, travel a little bit farther up the road to the new solar-powered winery and the FOXEN tasting room. Although far from the sea, the name of the winery is in memory of Dick’s great-great grandfather, Benjamin Foxen, who was an English sea captain in the early 1800s before coming to Santa Barbara and purchasing the land. His love of the sea is reflected in the distinctive anchor which became his cattle brand, and then later the trademark of the Foxen Vineyard & Winery.
Foxen’s 2013 “Sweet Ending” Dessert Wine brings to mind a walk through a blossom-filled meadow in the prime of spring. It’s taste, like an unforgettable kiss.
Let “Cupid’s Choice” 3-pack collection from the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café provide the romantic notes of a very special Valentine’s Day!
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 Au 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 winemakers and 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:
In the Old World, farming grapevines without irrigation is the standard. Even on the Greek island of Santorini, which averages just 3-4 inches of rainfall per year, the vines are, miraculously, not irrigated. By comparison, Santa Barbara County’s average of 12 inches per year sounds like a deluge. Yet the vast majorities of vineyards in our area, as well as the rest of California, are irrigated. While grapevines require less water than many crops, the issue of water conservation in the vineyard is one that will need to be addressed more seriously in the coming years as our drought events become more frequent and extreme. This week I spoke with two of Santa Barbara County’s dry farming practitioners, Bill Wathen of Foxen and Peter Stolpman of Stolpman, about how they manage the challenges of dry farming and the character of the resulting wines.
The growing conditions at these two sites are strikingly different. At Stolpman Vineyards, in the heart of Ballard Canyon, “we are blessed to sit on a 3 foot layer of moisture and nutrient retaining clay with a 300ft deep slab of limestone beneath,” says Stolpman. “Not only does the clay retain moisture, but it also retains the cold temperatures of the night. The clay makes our land even better suited to dry-farming, as the impact of day-time heat is lessened.” Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard, on the other hand, has much more challenging conditions, with a lot of sand, a soil whose extremely well-draining nature poses one of the greatest challenges for dry farming in Santa Barbara County. “The soil profile at Tinaquaic is a little magical, as in I don’t know how these vines do it every year with only annual rainfall,” states Wathen. “It is a deep sandy loam, unsure of the Series (ed. Note: the USDA soil map says it’s Arnold Sand), with pockets of Careaga sand. In years of normal rainfall the vine canopy can be quite aggressive, so there is a lot of retention. We generally average 2 to 3 tons per acre (3-4 pounds per vine) yields historically.” Amazingly, even in these difficult growing conditions, Wathen is able to get sustainable yields and make it work without water.
Spacing in vineyards where the goal is dry farming is an important factor. When one observes California’s historical vineyard plantings pre-1960s, which were essentially all dry farmed, spacing was very wide, and the vines were often untrellised. As modern farming has looked to top sites in the Old World such as Burgundy and their farming practices for inspiration, California’s vineyards have moved to much tighter spacing, often as tight as meter by meter, occasionally even closer. This poses much greater hurdles for dry farming as the competition for water increases. Stolpman, who has variable spacing on his property, believes that the type of trellis is just as important as the spacing. “Our spacing ranges from 10×5 to 3×3 in the vineyard. The 10×5 blocks certainly adapt the best to dry farming, but we’ve also seen positive results in our 3×3 block,” he says. “Key with the tightest spaced blocks is head-pruning and not expecting much yield per vine. The jury is still out regarding our conventional 3×6 blocks where the six foot rows allow us to trellis the vines. These vines are set up to carry more canopy and more clusters than the tighter head-pruned blocks.”
Wathen’s property has more space between vines, though he believes going even wider from the get go may have been more advantageous. “When Dick (Doré) and I planted Tinaquaic in 1989, we really didn’t think through the irrigation issue. We planted what was high density at the time (8X4), and assumed that water grew on trees here at the ranch,” Wathen states. “We were able to give each vine 1 gallon of water every 10 days through the first two growing seasons. After that, they seemed fine without water, so we changed strategy. Ideally, yet after the fact, we should have gone on a 10X10 or 12X12 planting without a trellis, enabling us to cross cultivate.”
Both sites utilize cover crops, and are very cognizant of the timing in planting and plowing. “We plant cover crop every year for erosion control and green manure,” says Wathen. “The cycle here goes 1) disc and plant cover crop after harvest. 2) Disc the cover crop under early to late spring, depending on the annual precipitation that year; dry years earlier, wet years later. 3) Disc and roll a few times late spring to seal the surface.”
With 3 years of drought, culminating in 2014’s extremely dry conditions, farming adjustments have been made at both sites to make dry farming possible. “We have elongated the weaning periods for younger vines,” Stolpman says. “This year for instance, we gave all of the vines 12 years and under an overnight drink once in January and February to imitate normal rainfall. We gave the very young vines another drink in April and early May. We only irrigate during root days and from our own measurements know that water goes 8-12 inches deeper into the Limestone with less Lunar gravity.” Wathen has also had to shift his approach. “This year has been extremely challenging balancing the canopy,” emphasizes Wathen. “You always need to be thinking about next year. Adjustment farming is the key. The rule of thumb is >20 inch shoot, 2 clusters. 12-20 inch shoot, 1 cluster. Less than 12 inch shoot, 0 clusters.”
So, is the character of dry farmed vines detectable in the glass? Wathen and Stolpman have different opinions on the subject. “We find we get a natural balance from dry-farmed vineyards as the vines regulate themselves,” says Stolpman. “Because of the lack of water, the vines want to go dormant in the fall, and we try to pick while the vine is on its last breath, giving us a perfectly ripe crop. Irrigated vines will continue green and happy, with no sense of the seasons, and winemakers may choose to pick much later at higher sugars.” Wathen has a different take. “I really have not seen any difference in ripening curves vs. irrigated fruit. Believe me though, if I had the water, I would irrigate.”
As a lover and seeker of site character in wine, the issue of dry farming is one I’m passionate about. There is a representation of vintage and place in these wines that can’t be denied. While I love many, many wines that come from irrigated vines, most of whom are also managing their water use meticulously, there is a truth in wines from completely dry farmed fruit that seems to set itself apart. “Balanced vines give balanced wines. Dry farming allows the vineyard to give a truer expression of itself rather than the more modern, homogenous approach of irrigating, green-dropping, and picking late,” emphasizes Stolpman. And when one tastes a bottle of Stolpman’s “Originals” Syrah or Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard Cabernet Franc, it’s hard to argue this statement. I hope that the conversation about dry farming becomes a more prominent one in the future of Santa Barbara County, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.
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