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.
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.
Here are the TWO SELECTED WINNING STORIES of our, “Our Los Olivos Cafe Story” contest. First Place winner receives two seat at our 20th Anniversary Celebration, December 12th. Second Place winner receives lunch for two with Bernat wine. These are two well told, true stories, worth reading. Each uniquely reflect an experience at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe that is an honor to share. Vote for the story you pick for 1st Place on Facebook!
A Few, Small Steps Away By: Patricia M. Mahon
It was a cold and rainy afternoon in town. The tasting rooms were quieter in the rain, but the wine was louder. There’s something about inclement weather and a glass of pinot that is deafening. The sidewalks thundered with downpours and drizzle. The hillsides bellowed with streaming lavender and chamomile and the vineyards resounded with the rhythm of fruit ripening, developing, and evolving into perfect maturity.
As I walked with friends in and out of the welcoming counters and table-tops of smiling wine purveyors, we came across an elderly couple in the rain moving slowly toward a cafe. The older gentleman leaned heavily on his cane as a small, bent woman clung to his elbow. Rain cascaded off his plaid, newsboy cap and rolled down his ruddy face as he enquired about lunch. A young woman informed them that the café was “in-between” serving hours … meaning they were done with lunch and not yet ready for dinner. Looking aside to his wife who was unsteady beneath her bucket rain hat, the man turned back to the girl and asked if they could wait, or stand inside, or simply come in out of the rain. They were met with an “I’m sorry, no, and I can’t have you in the doorway so please clear the area.”
The man pivoted his cane back down into the street with his wife tightly hinged to his hip. With a chivalrous glare he pulled her close as sheets of rain undulated across Grand Avenue whipping the flag pole and rousing the tasting room canopies and awnings. Water erupted from down spouts and drive-ways as the run-off of the younger, mobile generation rushed along the curb side and swirled around their lace-up walking shoes.
As I watched them slowly move away, I thought about how many battles he had fought and how many wars he had won. I thought about how many tiny steps she had steadied and how many small hands she had held. I decided that we can do better … that we must do better. I ran ahead and intercepted them.
“Please, come with me.’ I said. “I know another place right across the street where you can have a late lunch and get in out of the rain.” The man looked at me with surprise and uncertainty. The woman looked up at him and then back down at her wet shoes.
“I’m sorry about that young girl,” I added gesturing back to the café. “That’s not how we are or how we should be.” His face slowly emitted a half-smile. He straightened up and said, “Okay. You lead the way. We’ll walk.”
I toddled beside them for what was mere minutes but seemed like a life time. I commented on the rain and the flowers. I talked about traffic and tourists. I chatted about wine and horses. They did not engage me. The walk was enough. As I looked across at him, I saw a man that had lived. His soft eyes and still-strong hands told a story of a patriarch and a provider. He was strength and resolve wrapped cavalierly in a British Khaki London Fog rain coat.
She was a caretaker. Her face was furrowed with the fine lines of patience and the deep folds of compassion. She was the kind of woman upon whose back generations were raised and upon whose fortitude the tradition of family endured. In a place where we revere classic cars and clamor for vintage wine, these two shuffled quietly along the sidewalk, moving inconspicuously through a world that had quite simply left them behind.
Step by step I felt the absurdity of the aging process. It is, after all, as Yeats said “tied to us like a tail to a dog.” Getting old is not random selection. It is not the luck of the draw or a tug of the short straw. But for the grace of God there go I, you and all of us.
As we reached, “the other place,” the old woman looked up at me for the very first time. She did not speak. She examined me, and I examined her. In the soft hollow beneath her cheek, I saw my grandmother’s face from so long ago when she confided in me one snowy afternoon back in New York … that life was 5 minutes.
I opened and held the door to the new café as the couple shuffled in. We were greeted by another young woman with a warm smile. “Three?” she queried. I said, “Well no, we are not together. You see, I just walked them over … they are looking for a warm place.” She smiled again, caught my eyes, and nodded, “Of course” and quickly seated the pair at a table by the fire. She set the man’s cane beside him, placed their hats by the mantle, and hung their wet coats on a spare chair. The old gent and his grand dame looked across at each other and seemed utterly transformed. I would be lying if I did not admit that they looked young again.
I quietly slipped out the door as the young woman popped her head out and called after me, “Thank you for bringing them,” she said. As I bounded into the street, I replied, “Of course,” and we shared an existential nod, and I felt in that moment that I had passed a torch.
I never saw the old couple again or since, and I know that bringing them some comfort was really a small gesture in the grand scheme of things. But, I firmly believe that it is the consistency of small deeds that can bring about monumental change. Sometimes life presents us moments that allow us to simply be people again. I firmly believe that part of our membership in the human race includes an inherent responsibility to protect and safeguard those that are weaker and more vulnerable than ourselves.
The Wine Merchant Café presented the better side of us that day, the quintessentially human side in a world that in so many ways has lost focus and perspective and manners. It truly is a gathering place where friends meet, stories are told, wine is shared, and despite an outside world that often rages beyond our control, we can take personal moments and make our part of everyday life a little more perfect.
Perhaps the larger lesson here is that within every tempest there is a calm harbor and within every storm there is a safe place. And that despite the tragedies that we have endured as a society, as a people, and as a town there is always a warm fire and a friendly smile … just a few, small steps away.
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a celebration at Los Olivos Cafe! By Rachel Scott Everett
We first dined at Los Olives Cafe back in 2003 on a weekend getaway from LA. Driving into Santa Ynez Valley, the stress of our advertising jobs melted away. We were smitten with the beauty of the countryside, the quaintness of the area and the carefree vibe that instantly made us relax.
After a day of wine tasting, we ended up at Los Olivos Cafe, eating dinner in the corner seats of the bar. Everything about it was perfect – the wine, the food, the ambience. We were hooked. Little did we know how special this unassuming cafe would become.
While in LA, we visited wine country often and always got our Los Olivos Cafe “fix” when there. Our careers eventually took us to New York and later, Las Vegas – we even spent a combined 2 years backpacking around the world. But no matter what, we always made sure to return to Santa Ynez Valley, our favorite place of all our travels. When we did, it was at Los Olivos Cafe that we’d talk about our hopes and dreams for our life together. Sitting there in “our” corner of the bar, enjoying The Good Life… it felt like we had all the time in the world and that anything was possible.
Finally, after 12 years of love, loyalty and friendship, we made the momentous decision to elope to Santa Ynez Valley on December 31, 2012. We stayed at the Vineyard Retreat and enjoyed our first dinner as husband and wife that very evening at Los Olivos Cafe. It was a magical time!
We now live in Virginia, but always think of Santa Ynez Valley and our special spot at Los Olivos Cafe. In fact, we’ll be out there again to celebrate our anniversary next month. Who knows, maybe one day, we’ll stay for good…
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:
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.
My memories of the weather growing up as a kid in Santa Maria aren’t exactly the stuff of idyllic Norman Rockwell paintings. The howling wind blowing clouds of dust from the nearby strawberry fields into my grandparents’ yard where I was playing, families freezing at Little League games, and relentless fog even in the middle of summer. Ironically, given the career path I’ve chosen, this weather also makes for one of the planet’s most ideal locations for Pinot Noir. In the past year I’ve fallen in love all over again with the wind-battered, fog-shrouded west end of the valley in particular, and the thrilling Pinots emanating from this tiny corner of the world. This week I spoke with several of the farmers and winemakers who are crafting incredible Pinot Noir here.
While this area doesn’t have a specific name yet, some have begun referring to it as the Solomon Hills (also the name of one the most prominent vineyards here). Beginning in the southwest portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA along the transverse Solomon Hills range, directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean, this is an area defined by its extreme maritime conditions: harsh winds, constant fog, and lots and lots of sand. The nearby Guadalupe Dunes Complex is the second largest dune series in California, and walking the vineyards, one gets a sense of just how coastally influenced the soils here are. Over millennia, wind deposited all of this sand among the vineyards of what is now the west end of Santa Maria Valley. “This is pure sand, essentially no rocks or pebbles, and growing grapes in this soil is very difficult,” says Trey Fletcher, winemaker for Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. “It doesn’t hold water at all, so irrigation has to be managed very carefully. These vineyards could probably never be dry farmed.” The two dominant soil series in the far west along the Solomon Hills are Marina and Garey sands. As one heads north or east, the Pleasanton, Positas and Sorrento series begin to enter the picture, with more loamy, pebbly textures, marking the transition out of this small subsection of the Valley.
The Westside is separated from the eastern part of the valley by a gradual change in soil, climate, and exposure, beginning with the shift into riverbed soils that occurs at Cat Canyon Creek and the Santa Maria and Sisquoc Rivers. As the valley floor rises into what is referred to as the Santa Maria Bench, the soils undergo a more dramatic shift, showing the origins of volcanic uplift, with shale, limestone and more clay entering the picture. Much of the bench also moves to a southern exposure, warmer and slightly sheltered from the direct wind. When tasting Pinot Noir from riverbed sites such as Riverbench or benchland sites such as the famed Bien Nacido next to Pinot Noirs from the Western edge, the stylistic differences are readily apparent. “Solomon Hills looks to the sky. Bien Nacido looks to the earth,” says Fletcher. To elaborate on this idea, the wines from the valley’s west end, particularly those within the Solomon Hills such as Presqu’ile, Solomon Hills, and Rancho Real/Murmur, are shaped by refrigerated sunshine, pummeling wind, and wind-deposited soils, leading to sun-kissed Pinot Noirs driven by fruit and spice. Vineyards on the bench on the other hand have much rounder textures and more overt notes of organic earth thanks to the loam and stones that define this part of the Valley.
“There is a very apparent spiciness in the wines here when made in a delicate style,” says Ernst Storm. “In the case of Presqu’ile, it is exciting to work with a young vineyard that is already showing so much terroir.” Many producers, such as Storm, choose to highlight this character by utilizing whole-cluster fermentation. “I find that the Solomon Hills area is more conducive to whole-cluster,” says Luceant’s Kevin Law. “You get all of this beautiful savory spice, along the lines of Italian herbs.” Others feel that the fruit already provides so much spice that stem inclusion isn’t needed. “My tastings prior to 2013 of other producers and our own verticals seemed to show a more brooding character to the fruit and spice profile. As a result I was more reticent with our use of whole cluster, not believing there was much to gain in terms of spice and structure from the stems,” says Dierberg’s Tyler Thomas. “For the most part we found this to be true of 2013 though I would say 2012 and 2013 highlight fruit over spice more than I observed in vintages past.” Personally, I love the use of whole cluster here, particularly from the Presqu’ile vineyard. The intense spice these producers speak of, which for me leans somewhere between Christmas spices and dried Italian herbs, is distinctive, not only within the Santa Maria Valley, but within California as a whole.
Another facet that producers speak to about the area is its ability to capture perfectly ripe fruit at low brix and, therefore, low alcohols. “With the soil being so sandy, early-ripening Dijon clones do incredibly well, and there is beautiful phenolic character at perfect pH and brix of only 22 or 22.5,” says Law. “With those vineyards by the river, I find it can be harder to get that perfect triangulation of pH, brix, and phenolics.” These lower alcohols could also be due to the fact that most of the producers working with fruit in this area are a new generation of winemakers seeking a return to balance. Names like Storm, Luceant, Presqu’ile, and La Fenetre are associated with this movement, and it is not uncommon to see alcohols in the 12% range from these sites.
It will be interesting to see where this region goes in the coming years. While it is currently defined by a small handful of sites, there is still a lot of available land that hasn’t been utilized. Most of the vineyards are also quite young, and I expect their character to become more pronounced and refined with time. For now, it is one of the most consistent and unique Pinot Noir regions on the Central Coast, and for lovers of the balance and spice-driven profile that makes Pinot Noir so wonderful, this should be at the top of the list for new areas to explore.
Enjoy this brief video journey through the West end shot this past week, heading north and east, through the Solomon Hills, Ca del Grevino (Addamo), Presqu’ile, Dierberg, and Garey Vineyards.
Great wine starts with a great story. A vineyard tells us a story through its soil and its climate; the farmer frames this story with agricultural tradition and the stewardship of the land; and the winemaker captures both of these stories, along with their own imprint of self and style. This past Thursday we held a special event at the Café called Under the Influencethat sought to give four local winemakers the opportunity to tell their stories and the stories of the wines that have inspired them. It was a night that exceeded my greatest expectations.
South African native Ernst Storm began the evening by pouring his 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc alongside Ashbourne’s 2008 “Sandstone,” a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon grown in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The latter wine was crafted by Storm’s brother Hannes, whose wines under the Ashbourne and Hamilton Russell labels are some of the most acclaimed in South Africa. While one could see a certain similarity between the two, the overall contrast was striking. Storm’s youthful Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the extremely sandy soils and cool climate of Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile site, was bright and fresh, with its pyrazine notes of grass and jalapeño accented by guava, gooseberry, and a really unique hint of oak. As it turns out, that noticeable oak accent comes from the use of acacia barrels, which also provide a distinctive textural presence to the wine. The Ashbourne, on the other hand, 4 years older, was already developing some tertiary nuances, with notes of lanolin, beeswax, and bruised apple starting to appear. Nevertheless, the varietal character was unmistakable, possessing a similar herbaceous character as the Storm, joined to wet-stone minerality (sandstone soils here) and a more voluptuous texture. The most fascinating thing for me about tasting these side by side was to see the shared family passion from these two brothers, and the level of commitment they both bring to their different projects. While the winemaking details may be different, they are united in their desire to express site as clearly as possible.
Our next course saw the team from Liquid Farm sharing their 2012 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay next to Francois Carillon’s 2011 Puligny-Montrachet. Liquid Farm’s goal from the outset has been to create a domestic interpretation of the wines they had fallen in love with from Burgundy, so their choice came as no surprise. The differences between the two wines were, as with the first course, quite vast. The Francois Carillon, despite a splash decant, was still a bit reduced, showing a fairly high amount of SO2 on the nose. I have found this character in quite a few 2011 white Burgundies, which may be in response to all of the premox issues that have plagued the region over the past decade. Overall, though, Carillon’s Puligny was incredibly precise and soil-driven, with an intense mineral presence. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the “Golden Slope” bottling still came across with admirable restraint and balance against one of Burgundy’s benchmark producers. The fruit and textural power of the wine were unmistakably California, traits I believe should be celebrated, and the minerality of the Sta. Rita Hills in all of its saline glory was an intriguing contrast to the limestone origins of the Carillon. Paired with Barramundi and Manila clams, both wines were delights to ponder and savor.
Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe chose to honor our local pioneers for the third course. The Pinot Noir from his estate has become a modern benchmark in American wine, with examples from his own label as well as those purchasing his fruit achieving great recognition. He poured a 2006 Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir next to the 2010 Clos Pepe Estate, and spoke of Rick Longoria’s influence on his own path as a farmer and winemaker. He also honored two other local innovators, Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. It is sometimes easy to overlook the originators in favor of the hot new thing, but these three men are still crafting some of the most site-driven, balanced wines in Santa Barbara County, so it was beautiful to see Wes, who himself is a bridge between the first generation and our current new crop of young winemakers, honor this trio. The wines shown wonderfully, with the power and richness of the heat-spike-affected 2010 Clos Pepe contrasting nicely to the more developed, earthy Fe Ciega bottling.
While all of the wines on the night were complex and worked beautifully at table, the final course was perhaps the highlight for me: The 2010 Luminesce Syrah from Thompson Vineyard next to Domaine du Coulet’s 2010 Cornas ‘Brise Cailloux.’ Thompson Vineyard is one of the great sites of Santa Barbara County. Tucked back into Los Alamos Valley’s Alisos Canyon, the Syrahs from here are legendary, with a structure and precision rarely found outside of the Northern Rhone. Luminesce’s rendition leans toward the Old World in its balance and approach: just 13.4% alcohol, it was fermented with around 30% whole clusters and aged in puncheons. The wine showed amazingly well, with white pepper, gravel, smoked meat, and blueberry on the nose, along with a poised, beautifully structured palate. The overall balance in this wine could easily stand head to head with the greats from Hermitage or Cornas, and on this night it did just that. Coulet’s Cornas is a personal favorite, and for me captures the essence of this tiny appellation. The 2010 did not disappoint, with aromatics of iron, kalamata olive, blood, and bacon leaping out of the glass. There was also a touch of Brettanomyces, which sparked an interesting discussion among the winemakers. Luminesce’s Kevin Law somewhat jokingly said that he liked a little “imported Brett,” i.e. bretty wines from the Old World, while others found the Coulet close to their threshold for tolerance. Personally, I thought it added to the wine, particularly texturally, and was a great example of how a flaw can actually enhance a wine’s beauty. With smoked New York steak and mushroom & spinach strudel, it was an incredible end to the night.
The evening was deeply moving both emotionally and intellectually. Giving these winemakers an opportunity to discuss their inspirations allowed us to see their joy and passion as tasters, and hear the stories behind their influences. It can be easy as professionals in the wine business to get bogged down in the minutiae of winemaking or French Appellation law. This evening was such a treat because it allowed all of us a return to the pure elation as imbibers that made us fall in love with wine in the first place.
Special thanks to Matthew Negrete for the wonderful photos
It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd. “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property. As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”. Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.
In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly. What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils. The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines. As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years. It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.
I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park. “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer. Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.
Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center). The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil. The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam. “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.” Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.
For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side. I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.” This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character. There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis. Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.
Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country. As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring. “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension. I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.” Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”
Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with. Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres. Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin. To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging. Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development. His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.
Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres. His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics. While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.
“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.” This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label. Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid. DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’. His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property. The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard. And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property. Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes. “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages. I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.” Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.
Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline. Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases. However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make. Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.
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.