Minerality at the Margins: Chardonnay in the Northern Sta. Rita Hills

February 17, 2014

california wine vines“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.”  Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills.  Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock.  However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him.  These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else.  This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.

The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific.  As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall.  In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California.  “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen.  “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.”  Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions.  The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.

Elder Sandy Loam
Elder Sandy Loam

The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam.  Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay.  The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils.  This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power.  Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in the southern half, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.”  Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel.  I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”

srhmap

One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar.  From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle.  Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label.  “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer.  “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally.  Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.”  Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s.  Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.

For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock.  His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area.  “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson.  “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.”  They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent.  The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes.  The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.

db1

In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed.  This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region.  Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners.  Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place.  In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.

Special thanks to Hollie Friesen for the photos

Purchase select Chardonnays from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills:

Rock Solid Happy Canyon AVA

March 12, 2020

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Emerges

The 2004 Academy Award-winning movie, Sideways, tours its way through the Santa Ynez Valley but doesn’t mention Happy Canyon. Perhaps that’s a blessing, considering the damage done to Merlot from the meltdown Miles had in our alley in one of the pivotal scenes. The movie’s torrid love affair with “thin-skinned and temperamental” Pinot didn’t leave much room for Miles to praise Happy Canyon’s hearty reds with notes of polished leather saddles and Santa Maria steak seasoning. Even if Miles had planned a day at the newly emerging wineries, the way he’d drive the hills and twists of Happy Canyon Road would’ve sent his red Saab convertible careening into an oak tree much earlier in the film!

Thankfully, discerning drinkers have ensured that Happy Canyon Merlot is still part of the Wine Merchant’s top-selling and most age-worthy wines, but this was far from assured when the movie debuted in 2004. The “Sideways effect” was a blindside blow for the growers, since Happy Canyon’s vineyards were only in their fourth vintage. Formal recognition of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA wouldn’t follow until 2009. Longtime fans may know the region got its name from hiding a secret distillery during Prohibition. However, an even more amusing aspect of the story is that the “of Santa Barbara” suffix had to be added because Prohibition moonshiners left ravines named Happy Canyon spangled all over the American West. The patriotic heart swells with pride.

The AVA spans 23,941 acres, but fewer than 1,000 are under vine.

Even today, Happy Canyon’s story is very much still being written. The AVA spans 23,941 acres, but fewer than 1,000 are under vine. Sauvignon Blanc has long threatened to steal the show, but Happy Canyon remains a red-dominated appellation led by powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon alongside a vibrant showing from the Bordeaux supporting cast of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec.

Aerial view of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Photo Courtesy of Crown Point Winery

Nature dictates that thin-skinned and temperamental Pinot has no place there. Granted, Happy Canyon does enjoy sheltering mountains and generous sunshine which can boost the temperature up to thirty degrees warmer than the Sta. Rita Hills, but that’s where the easy road stops. Grapevines contend with massive nightly temperature swings, along with constant crosswinds whipping down the canyon and shearing between the carefully oriented vineyard rows. Vine growth is further harried by lean soils packed with cobblestones of serpentine and chert, whose added magnesium and calcium conspire to further reduce grape yields and pressure vines to put down deep roots.

Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, is exalted by this crucible. The ripening grapes forge a thick skin and tannin-rich seeds with a snap pea’s crunch. Some winemakers walk through the vineyard chewing Cabernet’s tough hide like jerky for minutes at a time, hoping to coax out clues about the complexities of their finished wine. This expertise, supported by elite local vineyard management and occasionally by world-famous French vineyard sustainability consultants, means that the third decade of Happy Canyon vintages looks very promising indeed.

Try a never-jammy Happy Canyon red with grass-fed or aged steaks, dry rubs, hard-seared char crusts, and meats from the smoker. These pairings bring our staff and guests no end of joy, especially now that Chef Chris has his new wood-fired smoker up and running!

At the Los Olivos Wine Merchant, we provide an in-depth selection of California Central Coast wines. We will always provide the most sought after wines of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and the other stellar AVA’s in our wine region. Make yourself happy and pour Happy Canyon wines at your table. Here are some suggestions that are sure to bring a smile!

If you enjoyed reading this blog

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D’Alfonso-Curran: A Perfectly Pleasing Pairing

February 4, 2020

Some things just make the perfect pairing. Like, a summer day and a fine breeze. Or a crisp, peachy, highly acidic Grenache Blanc and spicy Thai food. Similarly, winemakers Kris Curran and Bruno D’Alfonso of D’Alfonso-Curran wines are that complementary pairing.

The Recipe for D’Alfonso-Curran Success

It’s in their winemaking philosophy. Curran believes a winemaker must be flexible enough to treat each wine individually, taking into consideration, things like its ripening time or the size of the lot.

D’Alfonso sees a need to be rational. He believes a winemaker must anticipate the potential fails in order to be prepared to deal with such an eventuality.

Individually those winemaking styles give their respective labels identity. Together, they represent a union of strengths, forming the D’Alfonso-Curran line of wines designed to pair with food. And the Santa Ynez Valley is the perfect place for a culinary adventure as they determine the foods that pair best with the wines they are working on.

Our Interview with Kris and Bruno

D’Alfonso and Curran joined us recently to discuss their winemaking, their backgrounds, and their individual and D’Alfonso-Curran labels.  Learn more about what makes their winemaking styles unique in this month’s video interview.

The History of these Two Established Winemakers

D’Alfonso, who’s earned a reputation for producing outstanding Pinot Noirs, celebrated his 40th year as a winemaker last year. His career started at Chalone in the Edna Valley in 1980. A few years later he joined Richard Sanford at Sanford Winery. D’Alfonso became a partner at Sanford where he spent 25 years, before starting his own Badge and Di Bruno labels.

Curran, whose name is often cited as one of Wine Spectator’s Top Winemakers, started her winemaking career as the assistant winemaker at Cambria Winery in Santa Maria right after college. From there she became a founding member of Koehler Winery. She went on to become the first winemaker at Sea Smoke and helped build that wine’s cult status. After producing seven vintages at Sea Smoke, she accepted a winemaking position at Foley Wines where she made wines under the Foley, Lincourt, and Two Sisters brands. She built her Curran label in 1996 and was one of the first vintners in California to popularize Grenache Blanc, which she started making in 2003.

Together, the two renowned winemakers started the D’Alfonso-Curran brand in 2006 producing ultra-premium vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs from Sta. Rita Hills and Chardonnays from Santa Barbara County.

 

About us:

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 browse our over 30 interviews and blogs featuring local winemakers HERE.   

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The Visionary & the Winemaker behind Liquid Farm

January 4, 2020

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 Wines at the Los Olivos CafeLiquid 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.

James Sparks of Liquid Farm in warehouseSparks 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.

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From textbooks to tasting: Aaron Walker of Pali Wine Co.

September 5, 2019

If all had gone according to his plan, Aaron Walker would be steeped in academia shaping the minds of the next generation. Instead, those warm, magical SoCal breezes changed his fate. Now, he’s influencing palates and educating wine aficionados about the virtues of California-style wines as winemaker for Pali Wine Co.

An easy-going Southern California native living the surfer lifestyle, Walker was planning on getting his teaching credential while studying at San Diego State University. Like many college students, Walker waited tables to pay the bills. It turns out the job suited him. He made several attempts at working in other industries, but he always went back to waiting tables.

A life-changing harvest

As fate would have it, his girlfriend (who is now his wife) steered him away from pursuing the culinary arts and opening a restaurant. She instead suggested that maybe her father’s Central Coast contacts might have some opportunities for him in the wine industry.

Aaron Walker at work at Pali - pouring wine from barrel into glass

Walker spent part of 2016 working the harvest with Jenne Bonaccorsi of Bonaccorsi Wine Co., and instantly forgot about teaching, forgot about restaurants, and forged a career in wine. The hands-on physical work followed by the reward of seeing that work come to fruition gave him a deep sense of satisfaction.

Embracing the California winemaking style

By 2017 he was hired by Pali Wine Co., which turned out to be a great fit. Short for Pacific Palisades, which sits between Malibu and Santa Monica, Pali was established in 2015 bearing reference to the hometown of owners Tim Perr and Scott Knight. At the time, Pali’s winemaker was producing wines that didn’t accurately reflect the California wine style. Originally, the wines were big, rich, high in alcohol, and didn’t age well. Walker throttled that back a little bit, showcasing low-alcohol California wines that are big, yet approachable and can still age well. Pali especially favors Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills, an area that has become renowned for its ideal growing conditions for the varietal because of its moderate warmth tempered by coastal influences.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Aaron to hear his story and would love to share it with you. We invite you to pour a glass of wine and join us as we uncover his tale in our interview at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe.

Walker shared with us an example of that California style with the new release of the 2018 PCH. Pali produced 600 cases of this dry, crisp, and refreshing wine, which highlights flavors of watermelon, lime zest, and sweet summertime stone fruits.

Aaron Walker of Pali Wine Co.The California influence is evident in the winery’s operating philosophy as well. Pali has five tasting rooms throughout the Central Coast and Southern California, where staff has created a brewery approach to the tasting room experience. This has helped Pali foster loyal “communities of wine club members,” and allows them to occasionally roll out experimental blends like the Zinfelder—a blend of Zinfandel and Dornfelder.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Science of Wine with Tara Gomez of Kitá Wines

August 7, 2019

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.

Tara Gomez of Kita Wines in the vineyardsA 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. Kita WineShe 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.Kita Harvest - team with headlights in vineyard

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! We welcome you to check out more of our interviews and blogs here.

Michael Speakman: Westerly Wines

July 6, 2019

A good wine can enhance a meal and contribute to that warm feeling among family and friends, but a phenomenal wine—well, that can change the course of your life. At least, that was the case for Michael Speakman, owner of Westerly Wines.

Love at first sip

It was a Côte Blonde that stole Speakman’s heart. Three days after he had his first sip, he was in escrow to buy the winery. He fell in love with all the wines, but he thought the Côte Blonde was simply amazing.

A blend of Syrah with just 5 percent Viognier for balance, the Côte Blonde is a fan favorite. It’s a wine that can stand up to a steak, but with the floral essence provided by the Viognier, the wine multi-tasks as a wine for all seasons.

From play time to wine down

Westerly Cote Blonde with Angels hat and ball

The effect of the Côte Blonde on Speakman is even more remarkable considering that he wasn’t even looking to get into the wine industry. A serial entrepreneur, Speakman started selling baseball cards when he was just 9 years old. Eventually, that first endeavor became a trading card company. He followed that with more businesses inspired by youthful trends–like the milk cap game POGs and then Beanie Babies. After those successful businesses, he turned to real estate before taking some time away from business.

These days he enjoys making his own wine deliveries and “hasn’t worked a day” since he purchased Westerly. He considers himself fortunate that he has good wine that he gets to share with friends and his family, which includes his wife and 17- and 19-year-old sons, who he hopes will follow him into the wine industry.

 

A tradition of Bordeaux

Westerly Wine Owner
Michael and Joyce Speakman, owners of Westerly Wines

Westerly Wines has been producing wines in Happy Canyon for more than 20 years. It’s one of very few

wineries located there, but that’s just another reason it’s so special Speakman said. He calls it the best wine-producing region on the Central Coast, citing a recent increase in national recognition.

Because it’s well-established, Speakman has no plans to make major changes to Westerly Wines. The wine will still come primarily from Happy Canyon, while the pinot will come from the much cooler and coastal Sta. Rita Hills appellation.

This month you can fall in love with the Côte Blonde, too. It’ll be available by the glass or as a tasting flight along with the 2017 Happy Canyon Rosé and 2013 Westerly Red, a fruit-forward blend of Cabernet, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

 

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 by subscribing to our YOUTUBE CHANNEL or checking out our BLOGS– you too can get to meet our talented local winemakers!

The Wines of Seagrape Wine Co. and their Maker: Karen Steinwachs

May 4, 2019

Karen Steinwachs with her latest Seagrape wines including Gewurztraminer

Curiosity guides the choices made in not only what wines she makes, but how she makes her wines. You may recognize her name, she’s one of Santa Barbara’s most prolific women in winemaking, Karen Steinwachs. Widely recognized as the talented winemaker behind the wines of Buttonwood, however, her private label wines of Seagrape Wine Co., express another side of Karen that will leave a stamp on the history of Santa Barbara County wine country.

Where did the name Seagrape come from?

Karen and her late husband were fond of their time spent abroad. While living in St. Croix they would marvel at the Seagrape trees on Grape Tree Beach. These grape trees, as the locals would call them, became the muse for their label, recalling a time of togetherness and fond memories from which their Seagrape wines were created. Seagrape Wines Los Olivos Wine Merchant Featured WinesKaren is often asked if her wines are made with these sea grapes– they are not. They are made from grapes that grow beautifully from the Santa Barbara County’s ocean influenced vineyards. Initially, the focus of Seagrape was on Sta. Rita Hills, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the primary varietals she produced. Karen continues with that tradition but has expanded to welcome room for exploration and with that, we are excited to promote her first release of Gewurztraminer. (Surely not her last, you’ll have to taste for yourself!)Seagrape block at Rancho la Vina - sign on vineyard

Why Gewurztraminer?

This unique German grape may be intimidating to pronounce but in Karen’s skilled hands she made it into a lovely approachable wine. This grape is not commonly seen in this area and can be made in many different ways similar to  Reisling. One may expect this to be a sweet wine. However, Seagrape’s 2017 Gewurztraminer is bone dry, with a nice balance of plushness and vibrancy with a zesty finish.


In our interview with Karen she shares what she enjoys about having her own label in addition to making wines for a bigger winery like Buttonwood– being able to explore a new varietal like Gewurztraminer is one of them.

We featured Karen’s unique story on how she and her husband fled their lives in the fast-paced tech world for a quieter life in Santa Ynez Valley and henceforth Karen found her calling as a winemaker, in our 2018 interview and blog. Her story is one about creating one’s own destiny, and her wines, whether Buttonwood or Seagrape, reflect her ability to go with the flow and know when to take the driver’s seat. This balance is one that all winemakers grapple with but Karen makes look effortless.

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.

Kat Gaffney – The New Face of Spear

February 6, 2019

From the heart & the hills of Sta. Rita

Spear makes full use of the unique coastal geography of the Sta. Rita Hills. In one of the states only east to west valleys, foggy, cool winds prolong the ripening season and define the cold-climate terroir of the valley. Over 60 vineyards dot the AVA, totaling nearly 3500 acres of planted grapes.

Spear vineyard sits on the southern face of the main valley, facing highway 246. As a hallmark Sta. Rita vineyard, the primary grapes they grow are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The vineyard is uniquely one of the highest elevation vineyards in the AVA, topping out at 900 feet above sea level. With a vineyard-forward approach to winemaking and a CCOF organic certification, Spear prides themselves on sustainable, eco-friendly wine farming. Spear wines are made in a gravity flow facility, gently flowing downhill. No oak flavoring, no new French oak. The vineyard was planted in 2013 with a winery and tasting room (appointment only, please!) Wines are meant to be a taste of the whole vineyard, essentially blends of different areas of the vineyards.

Kat Gaffney joined Spear after a world tour, that began in her native Colorado at a hotel wine bar. After a brief stint as a sommelier in training, Kat wanted to take a more active role in the winemaking industry and sought out apprenticeships and harvests to work, going from our Central Coast to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and out to New Zealand for practical winemaking experience in the flourishing Kiwi wine trade.

Humility in Winemaking

Kat at Spear Winery.
PC: Craft & Cluster

After heading back stateside, Kat worked at Spear under winemaker Greg Brewer, before taking over operations as head winemaker in 2017. Kat’s winemaking style is about removing all intention in the winemaking. “I don’t want people to taste the wine and say…’ Kat your signature is all over this wine’… I want the vineyard to be front and center”.

This month, we are featuring three Spear Wines from the high-elevation estate vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. The Estate Chardonnay is Spear’s bread and butter (forgive the pun), sourced from blocks at varying elevations around the vineyard, north facing in sand and clay loam. Spear’s Estate Pinot Noir is one of Kat Gaffney’s first vine-to-bottle creations as winemaker, with blocks from the tip-top of the Spear estate to down near the 246, this all-estate/all-blocks Pinot was 15% whole cluster fermented. Rounding out our Featured Wines, the Spear Syrah is a Jeb Dunnuck 91-point rated estate creation featuring Alban clones and a white pepper and pomegranate nose.

SAMsARA Wines: A new chapter with Matt Brady

July 3, 2018

A local favorite with a cultured name

This July, we’re pleased to welcome back Matt Brady, already a veteran guest of our Featured Local Winemaker series. Since our previous interview over a year ago, Matt has found a new calling and a new home at SAMsARA. SAMsARA Wine’s namesake comes from Sanskrit: The Buddhist interpretation of the word is the process of coming into being as a unique, mortal being. In Hindu culture, SAMsARA is the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth of all life. This circle of passion, oneness and harmony are core values in SAMsARA’s winemaking process. The label produces only small batches of Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache from “carefully selected micro-sites” in the Sta. Rita hills region.

Samsara's detailed vineyard map in the Sta. Rita AVA.

Fundamental to Matt’s winemaking is whole cluster fermentation – you’ll find this wine style in every SAMsARA wine. Whole cluster leads to greater aromas in their wines and a full mouthfeel profile without making the wines too strong.Stem inclusion is commonly a way to raise the PH of a wine, bringing natural acidity to the flavor profile. The cool climate vineyards, which SAMsARA exclusively selects for its retinue of grapes, are emblematic of very aromatic wines.

Matt’s favorite word to describe his wines: “Depth.” These wines are complex, multi-faceted, and appeal to those looking for an extra layer in their wines. Since 2005, Matt has worked almost every job in the California wine industry, most notably working his way from cellar master to co-winemaker at Jaffurs. When current SAMsARA owners Dave & Joan Szkutak acquired the winery, they had one name in mind to lead the operation: Matt Brady.

Joan, Dave & Matt at the Los Olivos tasting room.
Joan, Dave & Matt at the Los Olivos tasting room.

Currently, Matt spends as much time as he can in the vineyards, exploring new vineyard sites to add to the SAMsARA portfolio that match their style. The team is opening a new winery in Goleta and are expanding the Los Olivos tasting room, so there’s plenty to keep fans of the label occupied!

What’s next? While SAMsARA typically focuses on Pinot, Grenache and Syrah, the first vintage of Chardonnay should be available soon, so keep your eyes peeled for new offerings!

 Each month, we sit down with a winemaker we feel represents the best qualities of Santa Barbara County winemaking: Transformative, curious, and brilliant individuals that make the Central Coast stand out in the ever-changing wine business. For more of our interviews with winemakers, check back in our blog for our recent features.

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