History of one of the fathers of Santa Barbara Winemaking: Rick Longoria
Few have the opportunity and privilege to run a winery for as long as some fine wines age. In a season filled with newcomers, fresh faces, and advanced winemaking technologies, we’re pleased to interview a man who has been a part of the Santa Barbara wine industry for over 4 decades. Rick Longoria is truly one of the masters of Central Coast winemaking; we sat down to learn his story through wine, which started at the University of California.
Rick’s time at UC Berkeley opened him to what he calls the “hippie mentality” of getting back to nature. Fueled by this zeitgeist, he frequently found himself in nearby Napa Valley at wine tastings (which were free to college students in the 70’s!), which connected him with the world of fine wine. It was in these visits where Rick decided to pursue a career in the wine industry, learn how to make wine, and see what options lay in his future.
Rick’s first wine gig came at famed Sonoma winery Buena Vista, the oldest winery in California (est. 1857) in 1974. During his time at Buena Vista, he worked with consulting winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, considered by many to be the father of modern California winemaking.
It was Andre who encouraged Rick Longoria to drive south to Santa Barbara, where he kicked off his long career in Central Coast winemaking in the wine cellar at Firestone in 1976.
Longoria’s intent in winemaking is to identify the best sources of grapes; he believes in basic winemaking without manipulations to the wines themselves in order to showcase the best the grapes have to offer.
Spanish Wines in Lompoc
The 2016 Albariño is a product of Clover Creek Vineyard, a special place for Rick where the current owners asked him to lay down some vines for stellar winemaking. Clover Creek benefits from the breezes coming from the nearby Santa Ynez River to keep his Albariño and Tempranillo grapes cool.
These days, if you don’t see Rick actively in the cellars or tending to his vines at Fe Ciega or Clover Creek, he’s throwing himself into revitalizing the tourism industry in Lompoc. His group aims to renovate old town Lompoc, attract more people to the old theater, and put the area squarely onto the wine tourism maps of Central and Southern California.
Want to learn more about your local Santa Barbara County Winemakers? Read about our other Featured Winemakers here!
“All of these wines are grown for the table.” With this one sentence Karen Steinwachs sums up the philosophical core of Buttonwood. A working farm as well as vineyard and winery, Buttonwood is centered on the idea that wine’s ultimate purpose is to shine at table, where it can spark conversation and communion with friends and family. I spoke with Karen this week about her farming and winemaking approach, as well as the unique environment that is Buttonwood Farm.
After years in the high-tech world, Steinwachs decided to leave the rat race and pursue a long-held dream of working in the wine industry. An ardent fan of Santa Barbara County wines, she managed to secure a gig at Lincourt in the fall of 2001, working her way up from the bottom as a cellar rat. “I kept talking to the winemaker about ways that the winery could be more efficient, because once you’ve been in management as long as I have been, it’s hard to drop that attitude.” A great student, she quickly worked her way up the ranks of such notable wineries as Foley and Fiddlehead. When the opportunity to take over as winemaker at Buttonwood arose in 2007, she jumped at the chance.
“I was very familiar with Buttonwood from attending their many events. I loved the concept of it being a farm as well as a vineyard.” Aware of the fact that she was stepping into a winery with a style people were familiar with, she approached her first vintage with the goal of learning about the character of the fruit, vinifying every lot separately to gain knowledge about the site character. Through this meticulous approach, she was able to see the strengths and needs of the vineyard, and has gradually brought her own style to the wines to accentuate the site’s best characteristics. “There have been changes since I took over. The wines are now a little more approachable while still being age-worthy. We work a lot on tannin management, because I want to be able to enjoy the wines while I’m still alive. We’ve also worked on bringing more freshness to the whites.”
There is no recipe here; rather, the vagaries of the vintage are allowed to shine and adapted to. “We approach every single wine differently and adjust from year to year as we fine tune the needs of each wine. I grow 10 different grape varieties here, and we’ve sought to make the wines more distinct from each other and really give them their own voice.” This experimentation and exploration extends to the vineyard, where new grape varieties have been planted in the name of making more complete wines. “We’ve grafted some of our Merlot to Malbec and plan to plant some more. And on the white side, we’ve grafted quite a bit of Grenache Blanc, which grows beautifully here. I see it becoming a signature grape of the Los Olivos District AVA.”
The soils at Buttonwood are mostly Santa Ynez series, part of the uniform Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series that defines the Los Olivos District, though there is some diatomaceous earth, serpentine and sand in pockets. They also sit on the aquifer that is common throughout the AVA. “We have a very big aquifer here, and a lot of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley are in this part of the valley. There are also a lot of own-rooted vines, and the roots here go incredibly deep.” Much like Fred Brander, the architect of the Los Olivos District, Steinwachs feels the area is still defining itself, but has all the makings of a great AVA. “It’s going to be a tough area to define because it truly is different than the other AVAs here. Our defining factor is that our soils are totally uniform, unlike Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon. I always get a minerality, which is a word that can be hard to define, but there is a rocky quality in our site that I find throughout the AVA. The wines also tend to have great acidity, in part due to the big temperature shifts from day to night we have here.”
Like many vineyards in the area, Buttonwood excels with several different Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. However, Steinwachs sees two standouts in her work there thus far. “I have to credit Chris Burroughs for the tagline ‘Blanc and Franc.’ Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have been here since the beginning and grow beautifully.” Even in cool years like 2010 or 2011, the Cabernet Franc here (as with all of their Bordeaux varieties) isn’t green or vegetal; rather, there is earth, cigar box, and raspberry fruit, with only a hint of pyrazine, an unmistakably Californian expression of the grape that has the balance and presence of great Bourgueil. “Cabernet Franc is a fussy little diva, it’s like Pinot Noir. You have to grow it perfectly or it throws a tantrum, you have to baby it in the cellar, but it makes great wines. We do focus on leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard to avoid that green character, but generally we don’t find that bell pepper character from this site.”
The farming at Buttonwood is some of the most thoughtful in the Valley. While it incorporates elements of organics and biodynamics, it is most reminiscent to me of Japanese iconoclast Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy, adapting to the natural needs and environment of the site. “We say that we’re farming ‘biologically.’ We don’t use any synthetic herbicides or insecticides,” says Steinwachs. “Our theory is that if we keep the plants healthy and maintain a diverse environment, they’ll protect themselves. Philosophically, we’ve really got our own way of farming, which is organically minded, self-contained, and focusing intensely on what nutrients the soil may need. We’re constantly testing the soil to see how we can address the needs of our plants.” As her friend and fellow winemaker Nick De Luca (a proponent of Fukuoka-inspired farming) says, “terroir is an unplanted field,” and in this sense, the farming at Buttonwood seems geared towards capturing the essence of the land as accurately and naturally as possible.
Buttonwood Vineyard and Farm looks and feels very much like old school California. Yet it also points the way to what the vineyard of California’s future will likely look like: wider spacing to address our growing water issues; cover crops growing wild; polyculture, with fruits and vegetables growing alongside grapes; in essence, a self-contained ecosystem where the farming adapts to the needs of the place rather than dogmatically following a prescribed set of rules. “It’s not about me as a winemaker,” says Steinwachs. “We farm for deliciousness, whether that’s tomatoes or wine. We love the fact that people are coming back to the table. It’s not just the eating and drinking, it’s the communal aspect of people getting together. And that’s what Buttonwood is about.”
Can a bottle of wine be judged by its closure? In many cases (no pun intended), you can tell a lot about the nature or purpose of the wine by whether it is sealed with a cork or a screw cap. That is because many winemakers often carefully select the sealing method for each type of wine they produce, and the cost isn’t the only consideration.
Is wine better with a cap or screw top?
There is so much versatility in wine, and these nuances can impact the experience found inside each bottle. Wine novice or aficionado, you likely gravitate to certain characteristics over others; such as white vs. red or sweet vs. dry. How it is bottled is another important attribute and is often factored into the selection process.
You may also think it is a trivial matter, but there are distinct benefits and downsides to both methods. Understanding the differences between corks and screw caps can make you the hero of your next dinner party or help you craft the perfect response when your in-laws question why you brought a bottle of wine without a traditional cork.
Screw caps are notorious for cheap wine bottles, but this is a misnomer. You shouldn’t be surprised if you find an expensive bottle of wine with a screw cap, especially one from Australia or New Zealand. So set aside your assumptions (like screw tops are only used on “cheap” wine), and let’s dive into the facts.
Production of the Materials
How the materials are produced and their impact on the environment are important considerations for many wine lovers.
How Corking Got Started
Corks have been the primary method of bottling since the 1400s because of their excellent properties for sealing and aging the wine. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber) found in Spain and Portugal. It was discovered that the cork allows for minimal leakage but sustained aeration; excellent for the gradual aging of wine.
This method is not only environmentally friendly but is also sustainable for the climate. The process does not harm the tree since the bark is carefully cut away. The cork is harvested when the tree turns 25-30 years old, and then every 9 years after that, but the tree is kept alive. In addition, the manufacturing of cork stoppers creates minimal carbon pollution.
The Evolution to Screw Caps
Screw cap seals have been the preferred method of wine bottling throughout Australia and New Zealand since the 1950s. These countries have since paved the way for the acceptance of screw caps by wine aficionados and wine makers throughout America. Many Old World wine countries, such as Italy, Spain, and France, have not as tenderly adopted this new method, however. Screw caps are a more affordable option for bottling and they can be recycled; not bad for an alternative to cork!
Screw caps are becoming the go-to among many winemakers. Larry Schaffer, owner and winemaker of Tercero Wines in Santa Barbara County says that he is not anti-cork but has “been using screw caps for all of my wines since 2006. I am happy with the results, as are my customers.”
It’s a Tale as Old as Wine
Lovers of cork favor this method because of the tradition and romanticism involved. Our very own wine director, Jonathan, transports us to the vineyard-laden hills of the Central Coast when he says, “I love the romanticism of the cork, the cutting of the foil, the twisting of the wine key, the pulling of the cork.” There is nothing like the popping sound of the cork when it ejects from the bottle to lift the spirits of a gathering.
A downside to using screw caps is that they are not as pretty to open and you lose a bit of the romantic nature of the wine experience without the traditional cork removal process. For the less traditional, this might just be a perk though. Jonathan plays the devil’s advocate to his original statement by saying,
“I love the ease of the screw top and the fact that it makes wine a little less snobby.”
Proper Aeration & Aging of Wine
There are practical reasons why wine makers choose corks as well. The material is pliable, which means it can effectively hold wine inside the bottle with minimal leakage. It is an excellent sealing method for long-term aging, making it a suitable choice for wines that are best consumed once matured. The right amount of aeration is beneficial for wine to develop the complexities you would want in age-worthy wines. The ideal cork would permit around one milligram of oxygen to enter the bottle in a span of a year to naturally remove the sulfites added during bottling.
In some cases, a cork can allow for too much aeration. If a bottle of wine is exposed to too much air, the wine can develop a nutty and old taste. Eventually, it can even start to taste vinegary.
Optimum aeration depends on the type of wine as well as the preference of the wine drinker. For instance, if you are swinging by the Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafė on your way home from work to grab a crisp white or rosė intended to be drunk as young as possible, you might opt for a screw top. Wines with screw tops are generally made to be drunk relatively soon since they are not intended to age. If you want a complex red for your already impressive wine cellar collection, go for a bottle with a traditional cork.
TCA and “Corked” Wine
Screw caps were designed to resolve many of the deficiencies of the cork. The primary issue they aim to address is the “corking” or tainting of the wine. This is caused by microorganisms in the cork reacting to other substances, such as chlorine, and creating a chemical called Trichloroanisole (TCA). When wine comes into contact with too much TCA, it becomes “corked”.
Screw caps are composed of a metal casing with a plastic insert. With the reduced capacity for aeration, the wine won’t age as quickly nor take on qualities of the cork; helping it avoid harmful oxidation. This also makes the wine very consistent between batches so that each bottle tastes virtually identical, a definite perk for many winemakers.
Does screw top wine last longer after opening?
In general, screw top wine will last longer after being opened than corked wine. The length of time that your open bottle of wine will last depends on a number of factors, however. How the wine is stored will impact how long the contents of the bottle stays fresh more than whether it is closed with a screw top or cork. Opened bottles should be stored in a cool and dark area away from direct sunlight and heat. To keep the wine a bit longer, it can be stored in the refrigerator.
Just Put a Cork in It! (or Don’t)
Before browsing the wine shelves, you should consider the characteristics of the wine desired, when it is expected to be consumed, and the expectations of the consumers. Whether you choose a bottle with a cork or a screw cap, we hope you lift your glass in the air and cheers to the wonderful complexities and variations of wine. If you are looking for your next bottle, we welcome you to visit our wine store. We have something for everyone and plenty of opportunities to try something new or just outside of your comfort zone.
Some ventures are fueled by inspiration, and others begin simply with the pursuit of passion. For Liquid Farm, it was a little of both.
Jeff Nelson and James Sparks of Liquid Farm began their venture with the desire to create Chardonnay in the Burgundian-style they enjoy so much. Prior to establishing Liquid Farm, the duo strived to eat and drink local, but they found something lacking with the local wines they were coming across in the early 2000s. Like many entrepreneurial-spirited individuals, they decided to take matters into their own hands and create wines that showcased some of the stellar cooler-climate vineyards in the Central Coast area while incorporating the Old World style that they both personally loved.
Liquid Farm began in 2009 and by 2010 they were available by the glass in Santa Ynez Valley restaurants like Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe. The wine quickly found a following because of its earthy minerality and delicately nuanced style. In Old World tradition, the wines feature lower alcohol, high acidity, and more earth-driven characteristics. Fruit from the cool-climate and ancient soils of the Sta. Rita Hills complements this European winemaking style.
Working together Nelson and Sparks bring balance to Liquid Farm in many ways. As owner and CEO Nelson works on getting the wine to its audience, Sparks makes the wine. That balance also spills over into their winemaking philosophy.
Sparks said he likes to make wines that reflect his personality, delicate and layered with much to explore. It’s a balance between science and artistry, with a little less emphasis on the science and more attention to craft and treating each barrel of wine individually.
We got to meet Jeff & James and now you can too!
Though they started Liquid Farm intent on making a stellar Old World Chardonnay, they shared a glass of their Pinot Noir with us at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant during their recent Featured Winemaker interview. In the video interview, they share how the evolution to include red wine in their production transpired, as well as how the label has found its niche in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Get to know James Spark’s winemaking style this month at Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant. Taste LIQUID FARM wines by the flight or purchase one of three featured bottles at a 20% discount throughout the month of January!
Stock up and Save Big! January Only!
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.
Would you like to get to know more local winemakers and stay informed about our upcoming wine deals like our Final-Day-of-the-Month Blowout Wine? Sign up for our NEWSLETTER here.
A love of wine attracts a number of future winemakers to the industry, but for Tara Gomez, the winemaker for Kitá Wines, it was a love of science and a Fisher-Price microscope.
A love of science leads to a career in wine
Gomez said the microscope that she had when she was 4 years old fostered her love of science and nature exploration. As a child, she would tag along when her parents went wine tasting. The sight of the giant stainless-steel vats and aromatics of the winery cellars sparked her curiosity but walking by the lab set her career trajectory. The young Gomez saw people in white lab coats using chemistry to test the acidity in the wine and that created an instant connection with her.
With the financial help of her Chumash Tribe, she sought out a career in enology in high school and then went on to Fresno State to get her degree. She got her feet wet at Fess Parker and J. Lohr wineries, and then went on to work two harvests in Spain. When she came back to the states, the Chumash Tribe was in negotiation to purchase the Camp 4 property that produces the majority of the label’s grapes, and so she returned home. It was a fitting return, according to Gomez, because the Chumash had financially supported her educational efforts and now she gets to pay it forward.
Dedication to each varietal
A producer of small-batch, ultra-premium wines, Kitá Wines produces 19 varietals on the 256-acre vineyard that sits on Camp 4 at the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. One of the hottest microclimates, it’s the farthest east Santa Barbara County AVA before transitioning into the Happy Canyon AVA. Kitá does produce Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because of the cooler influences from that area and because the tasting room is located in Lompoc, in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
As a winemaker, Gomez considers herself a purist. She believes in minimal manipulation to maximize varietal characteristics. While Kitá does produce three blends that allow Gomez to tap into her artistic side, the rest are 100 percent varietals. As proof of her dedication to a varietal, Gomez travels to Europe each year, picks a varietal she wants to work with, and learns everything she can about it. Armed with that knowledge, she returns to incorporate a blend of Old World and New World winemaking techniques in Kitá wines. Taste the result by the glass or flight throughout the month of August, or take one of this month’s featured bottles home!
Check out our exclusive interview with Tara!
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! Meet more of our featured wine makers here!
For Ernst Storm, wine should tell a story: the story of the site, the story of the grape, and the story of the vintage. For us, his own story is an intriguing adventure that influences his unique approach to winemaking!
Ernst grew up along the Western Cape region of South Africa, an area made famous for winemaking. Although he did not grow up in a family of vignerons, his surroundings heavily influenced both himself and his brother. Ernst knew that he wanted to pursue a line of work that both involved creativity and nature, both of which logically lead him back to his roots.
Not content with just staying home, however, Ernst traveled extensively through Europe and eventually made his way to California, working in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills. There, he was able to balance out his knowledge of cool-climate winemaking that he learned in South Africa with that of the much-warmer Sierra Foothills AVA. He learned how to work with much higher levels of alcohol and pHs, and how to stabilize wines that are far out of balance, all of which have since come in handy with the varying microclimates around Santa Barbara County.
Ultimately it was a desire to explore a wider range of temperatures that drew him to Santa Barbara County. He became the winemaker for Notary Public Wines, drawing from the warmer Happy Canyon AVA to craft some delicious Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordeaux varietals. The microclimate range, though, is impossible to ignore, opening up unlimited possibilities for winemakers. After establishing his own eponymous label, Storm, Ernst set out to craft wines that tell the story of his background as well as their own.
A prime example is his Sauvignon Blanc: Ernst ages the wine in stainless steel, which is a decidedly New World approach, with lees (or spent yeast cells) included, which is decidedly Old World. The result is what he calls an “American Riviera wine”: one that is bright, refreshing, and infinitely quaffable. In fact, it’s the best selling white wine at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café month after month!
Owner of the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, Sam Marmorstein, got a chance to sit down with Ernst and learn more about his winemaking methods and path to finding himself as a winemaker in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Never one to rest on his proverbial laurels, Ernst is constantly exchanging ideas with his brother in South Africa. Since both are winemakers, they continue to inspire and advise each other. Ernst claims that most smaller wineries – and indeed, wine regions – have to figure out what works as they go along. This is a vastly different approach than that of bigger areas like Napa and Bordeaux where big money is spent on formulating wines that meet the specs for both public appeal and critical acclaim. Although that kind of money is helpful, making it up as you go allows the freedom to experiment, and that’s just what Ernst continues to do.
To step onto the Sunstone property is to step back into the Old World.
The gorgeous stone chateau is centered in a beautiful landscape, complete with tranquil space to sip your wine. It’s unlike any other winery in Santa Barbara County and is the result of an Old World sensibility passed down through the Rice family. In our interview, owner and winemaker, Bion Rice, shares the past, present, and future of Sunstone Winery.
According to Bion Rice, who now oversees the winery, his family relocated to Santa Ynez from Santa Barbara seeking better educational opportunities for his two sisters. His mother immediately saw the possibilities for what is now Sunstone. The landscape alone would inspire anyone, but Linda’s focus on “food, family, and friends” allowed her to pursue creating the best possible atmosphere for all. Linda and husband Fred planted Bordeaux varietals assuming they would sell the grapes off to winemakers but quickly became enamoured with making their own. And much like what would happen in a small Provençal village, their local friends were happy to help, pitching in to mentor their efforts and support them every step of the way.
Without any formal training in winemaking to start, Fred and Linda soaked up as much as they could – again, a very Old World approach! They began bottling their wine and by their second vintage, the family found themselves with a few thousand extra cases. Bion did what any loyal farmer’s son would do: he loaded the cases into his truck and began hawking his wares all over Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. His favorites stops were invariably at restaurants, where he’d end up chatting with chefs and tasting through fantastic dishes that opened up the possibilities of pairings for his wines even more. Sunstone’s production and demand increased exponentially and the Rice family soon sold their wines across the country.
Ironically, Bion sees the 2008 recession as a blessing in disguise because it forced the family to scale back and focus on what really mattered to them. This re-assessment renewed their passion for Linda’s initial pursuit of “food, family, and friends,” and the quality of their wine improved drastically. However, the Rices have never veered away from organic farming and are proud to operate the longest running organic winery in all of Santa Barbara. While this may have seemed ahead of its time, commitment to organic farming really just ties back to the Old World version of farming and was part of Linda’s overarching vision.
Today, Bion and his wife oversee operations, including winemaking. Bion plans to keep it in the family and is fostering his sons; in fact, his teenage son Miles helps in the blending process and has final say in which blend ends up in the “Milestone” bottle!
Before summer ends, give yourself a minivacation by visiting Sunstone winery. Step back in time and enjoy the chateau made from reclaimed materials and native stone. Grab a glass of their best-selling rosé and savour the warmth of family and friends that the Rice family has helped build.
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.
Journey just past the Santa Ynez River, into the hills off of Refugio Road, up a steep gravel driveway, and you will be greeted by the spectacular vistas of Refugio Ranch. Rising dramatically into the Santa Ynez Mountains, this 415 acre ranch is a sprawling piece of property, comprised mostly of open spaces; just 27 acres are currently planted. I met with Ryan Deovlet, Refugio Ranch’s contemplative winemaker, on an overcast Monday to explore the intricacies of this special site.
We climbed into the ranch’s Polaris, and went zooming up a precipitous hill. Rounding a bend, I was greeted by a tiny block of Syrah. “This is the Escondido (hidden) block, Clone 383, which is a little bit compromised by daylight hours.” Tucked way back into a canyon on the ranch, one can understand both the name and the challenges of ripening in this spot. “Because of the shadowing in this block we lose a couple hours of sunlight compared to the rest of the ranch. It tends to be a little more red fruit, with a lot of the carpaccio, pepper, meaty character. It actually inspired me to create a second red wine blend because it is so distinct from our other blocks.”
In talking with Deovlet, I quickly saw his desire to grow with the Ranch, willing to abandon previously held ideas or techniques if it meant better expressing a sense of place. “I have total autonomy, but it’s a collaboration between all of us, Niki and Kevin Gleason (the Ranch’s owners), Ruben Solorzano, (of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates), and myself. We’ll pull corks together and talk about the direction of the property and evaluate what we’re doing. With these small lots, you take a risk sometimes and it doesn’t always work. But for the most part, things are working out and they’re putting their trust in me and giving me autonomy.”
The farming here is essentially organic, though there aren’t currently plans to pursue certification. Like many properties I’ve visited in the valley recently, I was impressed by the diverse ecosystem they’ve preserved and nurtured here and how they’ve adapted to the unique needs of the site. “Kevin and Niki were cognizant of what they had here. It’s a nice, cool sanctuary,” says Deovlet. “They were very conscientious of where to plant and how to preserve the natural terrain. It still has a raw, wild feel.”
The diversity of the Ranch also applies to their choice of plantings: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, and Malvasia Bianca for the whites; Syrah, Grenache, a recent addition of Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah for the reds. Deovlet also plans for some new additions, perhaps Picpoul or Bourboulenc to bring more acid and minerality to the whites, as well as some Grenache planted in their sandier river blocks. One of the most intriguing varieties on the property is Malvasia Bianca. Deovlet crafts a beautiful Spring white from this fruit, with a touch of residual sugar, a hint of spritz, and great acid, balancing the minerality of the Ranch with an easy-going exuberance.
Speaking of minerality, the soils here are some of the most exciting I have seen in Santa Barbara County. Black and lunar-like, with lots of rocky topsoil, it’s a clay loam with mudstone in its origins, quite different from the soils of the Los Olivos District AVA that stops just north of here. “It’s organic, heavy earth, alluvial mountain runoff all captured within this little bowl we have here,” states Deovlet. “We have great water retention. The goal is to eventually dry farm everything, which we’ve been working with Ruben on.” While these are mostly sedimentary soils, there is a bit of igneous material in their Petite Sirah in the form of granite, perhaps helping to explain why this grape expresses itself in such a singular way here.
“The Petite, for me, sort of serves as our Mourvedre, bringing a little more structure and putting a California twist on a Southern Rhone-inspired blend,” states Deovlet. He and Ruben are also exploring a new farming technique, using a crossbar to spread the canopy in the fruiting zone on the Petite, with the goal of giving the fruit longer hang time while preventing issues with rot or mildew. “We have to be very focused on canopy balance and low yields, with the intention that we can get all the fruit off before we hit the late October rains. In ’09 and ’10 we had those storms come through before we got everything in and we learned some hard lessons. That being said, if low yields over and over and over again mean the project never gets into the black, that project isn’t sustainable. There has to be a balance in the farming.”
Deovlet and Solorzano have had to make some big strides very quickly in approaching the farming at the Ranch as the growing conditions are so particular. “We haven’t had the most consistent of vintages, so we’ve had to learn on the fly. I’m blessed to be working with Ruben; everyone calls him the grape whisperer, and it’s true, he’s very intuitive in his approach.” While Deovlet initially had some concerns with the slightly higher pHs/lower acids the site was giving him, he’s learned to accept them, particularly after speaking to old world winemakers like Chave who see similar numbers. In place of acid, the structure of Refugio Ranch comes from tannin. “When I’m pulling fruit, it might be 25 or 26 Brix. At those numbers, we see that ideal tannin development, and at this site the vine isn’t starting to shut down.”
When the subject of Chave, one of the great iconoclcasts of the Northern Rhone, arose, I asked if Deovlet still saw the Old World as his benchmark. He thoughtfully replied, “I’m certainly inspired by the Old World, and you do find some of those aromatic markers here. That being said, I like to have a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New. I certainly take some ideas and inspiration, but we have this California sunshine, and these unique growing conditions, and I want to create something that speaks to the character of the Ranch.” To that end, the project is expanding their lineup of wines based around what the vineyard has shown them thus far, from 3 different bottlings to 8. While this may initially present challenges from a sales standpoint, their motivations are solely quality-driven. “It’s not diluted in moving from 3 wines to 8; it’s the opposite, it’s listening to the vineyard and fine tuning our style,” emphasizes Deovlet. “We’re making great strides in learning to understand the property, and how distinct it is.”
For such a young property, Refugio Ranch has made incredible leaps in quality very quickly, due in no small part to the passionate team in place. “The Ranch, generally speaking, has been a beautifully organic evolution to learn, block by block, how to approach viticulture from a very individualistic approach, and the same in the cellar,” says Deovlet. “I think that process has kept us in tune and taught us to listen to the wine. The ultimate question is, stylistically, are we doing justice to this property? They’re coming out of the gate delivering pleasure, and I think and hope they’re going to age as well.” Their current lineup indicates that they are indeed listening intently to the voice of this place, and I expect it to become ever more clear and distinct in the coming years.
Discussing vintages is a tricky thing. It’s all too easy to let the generalizations of a handful of critics define something which, by its nature, requires nuance. California’s 2011 vintage is a perfect example. A challenging year in terms of weather- frost, rain, and atypically cool weather that never really warmed up- it has been panned by many of the mainstream wine media, citing what they perceive as wines lacking in concentration, shrill and weedy in their structure and flavor profile. Having tasted hundreds of ‘11s from the state, particularly from the Central Coast, over the past couple of years, I must emphatically disagree; on the contrary, I have found the wines to possess a freshness and structure rarely achievable in California, with plenty of fruit and concentration to boot. I wanted to assess this further with others in a blind format, so I set about organizing a tasting of 2011 California Pinot Noir wines from throughout the state. The event took place this past Saturday, with many winemakers and sommeliers in attendance to join in the analysis (and reveling).
Tasting wines with winemakers blind, especially when they know their own wines are in the mix, makes for a fascinating study in human behavior. The flow of ideas seems to coincide with the flowing of wine; the fear of offending others or speaking freely about a wine’s attributes and flaws doesn’t seem to subside until liquid courage has opened the mind and the mouth. Knowing this, we prefaced the Pinot tasting with several whites from 2011 to loosen the room. Again, the freshness of the vintage spoke loud and clear, from Viognier to Chardonnay, with minerality and acidity unified with fruit.
On to the Pinot tasting, seventeen wines were tasted in total, single blind, with wines brought by the various guests. To give context to the personal biases of myself, as well as those in attendance, palates in general leaned toward wines with an Old World sense of balance: lower alcohol, higher acid, and a desire for spice, earth, and floral character over fruit. As a vintage, 2011, given its quasi-European weather, definitely encouraged and allowed for these characteristics in the wine. That being said, I was surprised at the amount of ripeness present. While many critics have maligned the vintage for its lack of heft, there was certainly not a lack of richness, even in the earlier-picked examples. Perhaps these wines have gained body with age, as upon release there was a tightly coiled character to 2011.
One of the most significant factors with 2011 is that it was one of the first vintages where a major shift in terms of ripeness was present. While this was certainly helped along by the vintage, it was mostly a stylistic choice. Across the board alcohols were lower in a year where, despite the relative cool, it was still possible to achieve 15 or 16% alcohol in Pinot Noir. It brought up a question that hasn’t been heard in regards to Californian wine in quite a long time: when is a wine not ripe enough? Without a doubt there was wine present here that may have been picked too early. In the same way an ultra-ripe wine can have a one-note character, some of these had a simplicity to them that made for a rather dull drinking experience. There were also a few examples where producers utilized high percentages of whole-cluster (stem inclusion), a practice I’m typically quite fond of, that came off as green and overtly vegetal. In general, the wines that really stood out were those that accented the best characteristics of the vintage and captured not only their vineyards, but their own sense of style and artistic interpretation of the year.
There were 3 consensus favorites among the group, all of which are great examples of site-driven Pinot Noir. Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast bottling under his Kutch label was gorgeous, and many thought reminiscent of old-school Santa Maria Valley Pinot. With 25% whole cluster, 30% new oak and just 12.8% alcohol, all of its elements were perfectly in balance, its notes of rhubarb, underbrush, and sea shell making for a compelling, mineral wine. Ryan Deovlet’s eponymous label rendered one of the best examples of Bien Nacido I’ve tasted. Sourced from both old vines and newer plantings within this iconic site, it was classic Bien Nacido in its aromas and flavors of blood orange and black pepper, with a textural depth rarely found outside of Burgundy. Last but not least, everyone loved Luceant’s 2011 Laetitia Vineyard Reserve bottling. Seeing the most whole cluster and the most new oak of the 3 (50% of both), this was overflowing with spice, though again, all the elements were in balance. This showed the power and pedigree of the Laetitia site, with forest floor, clove, and blackberry.
One of the marks of a great wine region is its willingness to periodically assess itself in an honest way. I take a lot of pride in the fact that tastings like these are constantly happening in our area, often with winemakers pitting their wines against examples from the old world or from other local producers. There is a desire to elevate not only their wines, but the region as a whole, a trait that I hope we continue to encourage. What tastings like these continually assert to me is that these are wines that can play comfortably on the world stage, and that are only getting better.
The full lineup of wines tasted in no particular order, all 2011:
– Luceant, Laetitia Vineyard Reserve, Arroyo Grande Valley
– Kosta Browne, Russian River Valley
– Kita, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Presqu’ile, Estate, Santa Maria Valley
– Tantara, Lindsey’s Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Tantara, Corral, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Labyrinth, Sta. Rita Hills
– Siduri, Sta. Rita Hills
– Paul Lato, Wenzlau Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Kutch, Sonoma Coast
– Deovlet, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Tyler, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Hirsch, San Andreas Fault, Estate, Sonoma Coast
– Longoria, Fe Ciega Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– J. Brix, Kick On Ranch, Santa Barbara County
– Qupe, Saywer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.