Eric Mohseni of Zaca Mesa Winery

June 2, 2017

Winemaking is about storytelling, and the story behind Zaca Mesa is definitely worth telling. -Eric Mohseni, Zaca Mesa Winemaker

Winemaker for Zaca Mesa in the vineyard

Zaca Mesa, one of the most storied wineries around due to it’s history. Established in 1973 when there were only two wineries in Santa Barbara County. Zaca Mesa is the first winery in the area to plant Syrah grapes, which helped kick start the Rhone varietal love affair throughout California.

Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block of Syrah is the oldest in the Central Coast. The vines themselves came from Gary Eberle, who acquired them from a UC Davis professor, who had taken them from Hermitage in France! Black Bear Block is all original rootstock– a rare find these days.

(Fun fact: “Black Bear Block” earned its name when vineyard manager Ruben Camacho found black bears there munching away on the grapes!) Today, Zaca Mesa’s estate exclusively grows Rhone grapes, everything from Viognier to Grenache and Syrah.

The story doesn’t end with the grapes, though. Located in a big ol’ barn up in the Santa Rita Hills, Zaca Mesa has been lucky enough to experience such legendary winemakers as Ken Brown and Bob Lindquist. Zaca Mesa has consistently kept quality wines above all else, and it’s that commitment to quality that attracted current Head Winemaker Eric Mohseni.

But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”

Eric worked part time at The Wine Country in Signal Hill during his undergraduate days at Cal State Long Beach, where he majored in food science and chemistry. As his role quickly grew, he became the buyer for Southern Hemisphere wines, which launched an obsession with Sauvignon Blanc. That, in turn, lead him to move to New Zealand to work a harvest and fully immerse himself in winemaking. But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”

Still a chemistry major at heart, Eric loves experimenting with barrels and aging. Recent additions to the winery include massive concrete tanks and elegant clay amphorae, both of which are used to produce Syrah and a Grenache-Mourvedre blend. Those wines are big, deep, and tannic, as the concrete and clay are obviously less porous than oak barrels and allow very little air in. This kind of curiosity and experimentation allows Zaca Mesa to produce varied styles of wine from the same block of grapes, from smooth and round to big and bold.

winemaking team of Zaca Mesa
Cellar Master, Agustin Robles (left), Winemaker, Eric Mohseni (center), Winemaker Krisitn Bryden (right)

Eric credits Vineyard Manager Ruben Camacho, Cellar Master Agustin Robles, and the entire Zaca Mesa staff with the winery’s success because of their ongoing commitment and dedication. Ruben has been with Zaca Mesa for over 40 years, and Agustin isn’t far behind. Eric believes that the camaraderie found there is crucial to the finished wines.

Eric was our Featured Winemaker for the month of June in 2017. View our upcoming featured winemakers on our special event page here.

 

 


Shop our selection of Zaca Mesa wines in our Wine Merchant here.

Lane Tanner, Pioneering Femininity

March 2, 2020

Lane Tanner, One of the First Female Winemakers of Santa Barbara Wine Country

Lane Tanner of Lumen remembers the old days. She remembers the early days of Central Coast winemaking when the process was a lot more laborious physically and femininity wasn’t a desirable trait in a wine—or a winemaker.

Frequently, Central Coast Syrahs are made big, bold, and in a style that Tanner calls “manly.” So she decided to make wines that were the antithesis of that: softer, gentle, elegant, or what she calls, “feminine” wines.

But don’t be fooled, Tanner is a heavy hitter, a pioneer in the wine industry.

She was one of the first female winemakers with her own label in Santa Barbara County. For 16 years, she was also the only winemaker who produced only Pinot Noir. Tanner said there’s a sensuality to Pinot Noir. For her Lumen label, she likes to produce Pinots with low tannin and velvety mouthfeel, and a long, lingering finish. She believes the Santa Maria Valley produces the ideal fruit for Pinots that reveal bright, strawberry, and cherry notes with herb over notes.

If there’s a sensuality to Pinot Noir, there’s just as much sensuality in the way that Tanner handles her production. For instance, for her Grenache, she does everything by taste. She does test Brix, but otherwise, taste rules. She likes to harvest when the grapes are just ripe, slightly past green. Then, it’s very little oak, and she doesn’t adulterate her Grenache with Syrah. It’s pure, vibrant, and youthful.

Though Tanner got her start almost by accident, it turns out she had a natural talent for winemaking. As proof of that, she’s worked with some of the most infamous names in winemaking. In the early ’80s, she worked at Firestone prior to being asked by Ken Brown to work at Zaca Mesa. From there, she began working with Frank Ostini who wanted something exclusive to his restaurant, The Hitching Post. She worked with him until 1989 when Ostini realized he wanted to make his own wine. They split barrels with Tanner starting her Lane Tanner label.

Still, Tanner hopes to see one more change in the near future…

Since those early days, Tanner has seen a lot change. Winemaking may still involve a lot of manual labor, but things have gotten easier, and females are now embraced by the winemaking community. Still, Tanner hopes to see one more change in the near future—she waits for the day when female winemakers are seen simply as “winemakers.”

Hear her full thoughts on women in winemaking and how the industry has evolved on the Central Coast in this month’s featured winemaker interview.

 

If you enjoyed reading this blog

If you enjoyed reading this blog, you’ll enjoy gaining more insight about Santa Barbara Wine Country winemakers after these fun reads:

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August Featured Winemaker: Chuck Carlson

August 7, 2018

Wine Farmer: Chuck Carlson

Many winemakers “fall” into winemaking as a side project that grows into a full-fledged company or a passing of the torch in a family-run business. However, Chuck Carlson got into the wine industry from the get-go with an early inclination to make wine. Growing up on a farm in the balmy San Joaquin Valley, Chuck admits he wanted to live closer to the coast. Like so many other talented Santa Barbara winemakers, Chuck started out at “Zaca University,” a colloquial reference to Zaca Mesa Winery.

In his early years, Chuck and others were still learning how to grow the best grapes in the valley. Through “admittedly” everyone stumbled growing Cabernet or other grapes we know now are best suited to Napa and Sonoma. Chuck can certainly claim to have seen it all in our corner of the winemaking world.

Carlson Wines doesn’t have their own tasting room; keeping his operation low profile with a limited, but exclusive distribution. Between this month as our featured winemaker in our Monthly Featured Winemaker Series and his normal bottlings, Chuck typically only produces 2,500 cases a year.

 

Traditional Approach to Wine

We ask our featured winemakers to sum up their winemaking style in one word. Chuck didn’t hesitate; describing his style as “Traditional.” We can vouch for this! In his decades in Santa Barbara County and Arroyo Grande, he’s kept a consistent, traditional style of winemaking dating back to early California labels.

After 37 years of winemaking, if Chuck Carlson has a preference, it’s Pinot. When his label started in 2004, his focus was creating outstanding Pinot Noirs from the Central Coast. Over the years, Carlson wines have expanded to five different vineyards across multiple local AVAs.

In Chuck’s own words he describes his Pinot: “The 2014 vintage provided Pinot Noirs that tend to reflect the sun year. These wines are impacted by the climate throughout the growing season. There tends to be slightly darker and riper berry flavors that show a beautiful restrained balance. The chemistry of the fruit yields wines that can age gracefully and have a beautiful balance.”

 

Chuck Carlson’s wine adventure is one of many local vintners in Santa Barbara County. Read our blog for our interviews with several local winemakers as part of  our Featured Winemaker series.

Pete Stolpman our February Featured Winemaker

February 6, 2018

Meeting and interviewing Pete Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards and Winery offered a rare glimpse into how winemakers are born. Pete is the subject of our Featured Local Winemaker series.

We asked Pete to sum up in ONE word an aspect of his personality that gets infused into Stolpman wine. Pete’s answer:  “Crazy”! He chose this word as he reflected on his father’s sheer determination to find a property with the same soil characteristics as the European wines he loved. Pete’s father, Tom Stolpman, knew that if he found the limestone soil he was looking for, the rest would fall into place. And… it did.

Pete’s parents, Tom and Marilyn Stolpman founded Stolpman Vineyard and Winery in 1990.

Tom Stolpman, Pete's father
Founder, Tom Stolpman

The senior Stolpmans envisioned winemaking as an investment worth pursuing because they could enjoy the fruits of their labor… together. And now, Pete and his wife, Jessica are partners in their family endeavor.

Their 220-acre property in Ballard Canyon— of which a whopping 153 acres are currently planted to grapes– lies on three major limestone ridgelines. By implementing revolutionary viticultural techniques, their mission is to push the dry-farmed limestone vines to unprecedented levels of quality.

Stolpman Vineyards produces Syrah, Roussanne, Grenache, and Sangiovese within the Ballard Canyon AVA.  Petite Sirah, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc are also grown and produced in limited quantities, as well as some more obscure native French varietals that promise some very interesting wines in the not-so-distant future.

One of the first business decisions the Stolpmans made– a decision that gives them a reputation for being mindful of their role in our community– was to give all their workers full-time employment; they made a commitment to them and their families by providing careers, instead of temporary work. Ruben Solorzano is one of the key players that gives Stolpman wines their stellar reputation. As a 20-year veteran vineyard manager and local viticultural superstar, Ruben organically dry farms the vines for balanced concentration and a healthy ecosystem. Kyle Knapp, head winemaker, and consulting winemaker, Sashi Moorman, round out the team’s talent. Kyle and Sashi work hand-in-hand with Ruben and Pete in timing the harvest of their taut, fresh fruit. Kyle proudly sees himself as the steward, rather than the creator, of Stolpman’s “vineyard crafted” wines.

Here’s Pete Stolpman’s unique ‘how-I-became-a-winemaker” story:

After graduating from Georgetown University, Pete took a management job in Los Angeles. He became increasingly involved in his family’s vineyard operation until it became apparent that jumping into the family business was what he was meant to do. He quit his job, and embarked on a three-year wine training program; he refers to this as the “Master’s Degree by Tom Stolpman.” Pete made wine in Australia and in Italy before returning home to sell wine for the Henry Wine Group, where he was awarded the title, Fine Wine Specialist of the Year in 2008.  AT 26 years old! He was the youngest salesman to receive this award (and still holds the record!).

Ready for THE challenge, Pete took over day-to-day management of Stolpman Vineyards in 1990 and hasn’t regretted his decision for one moment.

Pete’s time at Henry Wine Group was not only a great learning opportunity, it was also life- changing in terms of his personal life.

Jessica Stolpman, Pete's wife
Jessica Stolpman

During his training at Henry WineGroup, he met his wife, Jessica. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where she fell in love with the world of wine through her involvement in the Vines to Wines Club. Upon graduation, she joined the Henry Wine Group, where, she met Pete, AND won the award for Highest Sales Growth.  After two years at Henry Wine Group, Jessica moved on to become the Western Regional Sales Manager for Zaca Mesa Winery, just 10 miles north of Stolpman Vineyards on Foxen Canyon Road. Now fully emerged in the family business, Jessica manages the California wholesale market for Stolpman Vineyards.

A long-term vision

The Stolpmans are recognized for their pivotal role in developing the Ballard Canyon AVA. Upon publication of the AVA, Pete was elected President of the Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance. Through his travels promoting Stolpman Vineyards around the world, Pete is also spreading the word about Ballard Canyon’s commitment to Syrah, leading the charge to establish the area as the benchmark Syrah appellation in the New World.

Ballard Canyon AVA Stolpman Vineyard
Stolpman’s Vineyard in Ballard Canyon AVA

The Stolpman Story is one very similar to many of the other local Santa Barbara Wine Country winemakers that we have interviewed. It started with a dream, that with hard work and determination has made our incredible niche in the world of wine something to be proud of. Having the legacy passed down to the next generation is a sign that our burgeoning wine country is here to stay!

If you enjoyed this blog, check out our current Featured Local Winemaker from this month!

 

Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat

August 2, 2017

Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat– Pioneer Winemaker of Santa Barbara

According to the Au Bon Climat website, Jim Clendenen grew up in Ohio in a “gastronomically impoverished” culture. It’s safe to say that he has since more than made up for that epicurially lost time during the last 30 years!

A Global Education

Like many of his generation, time spent in Europe during a semester abroad opened his eyes – and his mind – that food and wine could be more than burgers and California Mountain Burgundy. Such a transformative experience caused him to  dedicate his career to wine instead of law, which is what he was actually there to study.

After a stint at Zaca Mesa, which has become so well-known for cultivating future winemakers that it’s called ‘Zaca U,’ Jim partnered with Adam Tolmach to create Au Bon Climat. His time in France influenced both the name of the winery and Jim’s approach: he sought to craft more subtle, vibrant, and age-worthy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In other words, he wanted to create what he wanted to drink.

Francophile Tendencies and Shared Vision

Jim’s Francophile tendencies were shared by winemaking colleagues Bob Lindquist, Adam Tolmach, and Ken Brown.

Santa Barbara Winecountry Winemakers
Adam Tolmach, Bob Lindquist, and Jim Clendenen

They got together on a regular basis to drink the French wines they all loved so much, thereby cementing the future of Santa Barbara winemaking whether they knew it or not. Since then, all have become giants in the wine industry, but it’s still Au Bon Climat that stands out as the best Burgundian-styled using fantastic California fruit.

Jim is quick to point out that it’s the Clendenen Family label that’s actually his “first” label because the grapes are from his own vineyard and he has built it from the ground up. There, he creates wines from more esoteric French grapes like Mondeuse and Aligoté which are seldom seen stateside. Such wines are highly acidic and beg to be paired with richer foods, which is also a direct nod to his time in France as a young man.

Epic Meals

But winemaking isn’t the only way Jim carries out his quest to make up for gastronomical impoverishment of his youth: his lunch time meals for staff and visitors alike are legendary. He personally prepares a feast at the winery every day that he’s there and everyone sits down together at a communal table to enjoy it. You never really know what you’ll get since Jim usually cobbles together a meal

 

from what he has available – the veggies come from his garden and the meats are from local farmers. A thoughtful selection of wines are always present on the table. Truly an experience!

We, however, don’t need to wait for an invitation because we’re featuring Au Bon Climat wines through the month of August. We are offering the three featured wines below for 20% off throughout the month. We hope you get to take advantage of this fantastic deal!

Stop on in at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café to experience Jim’s wines and to have your own gastronomical epiphany! Shop our selection of Au Bon Climat wines here.

If you’re interested in our current featured Winemaker of the Month, check out our most recent post here!

 

 

Impossible Germany: Santa Barbara County’s Twisting History (And Future) With Riesling and Its Teutonic Brethren

January 26, 2015

santa barbara wine

Wine lovers often have the romantic notion that the land, the terroir, will always triumph above all else to dictate what grapes thrive where, and what defines a given region.  In reality, economics and the fickle nature of the marketplace often play just as big of a role.  Case in point: Santa Barbara County’s history with Riesling.  The early reputation of our area, particularly cooler climate regions like Los Alamos, Santa Maria Valley, and the Sta. Rita Hills, owes a great deal to Riesling, back when you’d see it labeled as White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling.  Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, however, economics forced Riesling out in favor of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Riesling is now making its long overdue comeback thanks to a new generation of consumers, critics, and sommeliers championing this truly noble grape.  I recently spoke with vintners in the area to discuss the history of Riesling, and its Teutonic brethren Gewurztraminer and Sylvaner, in our region, and their future in Santa Barbara County.

The story of Santa Barbara County Riesling begins in 1964 with Santa Maria Valley’s legendary Nielson Vineyard (now part of the Byron property).  Soon after followed Rancho Sisquoc’s planting in the southeastern portion of the AVA.  “A small test plot of Riesling was planted in 1968 and were the first grapes planted in any amount of acreage, followed by 9 acres in 1970,” says Sisquoc vineyard manager Ed Holt.  Other early plantings include Firestone, Tepusquet (now part of Cambria), Curtis Vineyard’s Area 51 (now owned by Andrew Murray), Sanford & Benedict, Zaca Mesa, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, Babcock, Koehler, White Hills, and Gainey.  Of these, Sisquoc, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, White Hills, Firestone, Curtis, Koehler, and Gainey have Riesling remaining.  More recent plantings plantings include Coquelicot, Camp 4, La Presa, Brander’s Los Olivos Vineyard, and Fess Parker’s Rodney’s Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley; Ampelos in the Sta. Rita Hills; Riverbench in Santa Maria Valley; and Kick On Ranch (formerly known as Careaga Canyon) in western Los Alamos Valley. The latter vineyard is perhaps the most promising for modern Riesling in Santa Barbara County, with a critical mass of independent, cutting edge winemakers culling from this spectacular site.

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The leader among this group is Graham Tatomer.  Tatomer, a Santa Barbara native who fell in love with the grape after his first taste of an Alsatian Riesling, has built his Riesling-focused program around Kick On.  “Kick On is by far the most important site I work with, and it’s a wonderful site,” says Tatomer.  “It’s a long-term contract.  Jeff Frey has done a great job farming the vineyard, but he leaves the executive decisions on my blocks to me, so I have complete control of the farming, from pruning to leafing to watering.”  Tatomer focuses on Block B, a newer planting from the early 2000s.  “I took B block because of greater vine density, it’s further up the hill, and it has a southwest exposure,” states Tatomer.  “Great aspect, there’s sun but plenty of access to the wind as well…  Jeff and I have been experimenting with weed control methods, trying to get closer to completely organic farming.”  Tatomer produces two different renditions of Kick On.  The vineyard designated bottling is lean, austere, inspired by Austria and Alsace yet uniquely California, with the mineral intensity of this site concentrated into a chiseled package.  His Vandenberg bottling, on the other hand, is focused on botrytised fruit, mainly sourced from Kick On, and is comparatively plush, with more pronounced stone fruit aromatics while still capturing Kick On’s precise character.  Other wonderful Kick On bottlings abound, from the bright and taut wines of Ojai, Municipal, Mes Amis, Stirm and J. Brix to the slightly off-dry expressions from Margerum and La Fenetre’s Josh Klapper under his Dr. Klapper moniker.

The most profound bottling of Kick On I had the pleasure of tasting in researching this article, though, came totally out of left field.  Fred Brander’s Brander label has long utilized Kick On fruit as part of its Cuvee Natalie blend; in 2014, however, they chose to do a vineyard designated, varietal Riesling from Kick On.  Winemaker Fabian Bravo casually shared this recently bottled wine with me this week after tasting through numerous soon-to-be-bottled Sauvignon Blanc tanks (which were great as always), and I was absolutely floored.  Reminiscent of great Auslese-level Mosel Riesling- sites like Erdener Treppchen or Urziger Wurzgarten come to mind- this was wild, singular stuff.  Notes of orange bitters, juniper, clove, Luxardo Maraschino, vanilla, cherry, even a perception of minerality reminiscent of the Mosel’s blue slate (though of course this is the glorious sand of Kick On) – the overall effect was reminiscent of my favorite classic cocktail, the Martinez, but with perfect balance and deceptively bright acid.  Bravo explained that the unique character of this wine resulted from a new winemaking approach.  “We stuck it in a tank that freezes the juice, then we turned the system off, cracked the valve, and basically concentrated the must, so almost reverse ice wine making,” laughs Bravo.  “You do lose a lot of volume, probably 70% or more.  It’s a slow process, someone sits there pulling off about a gallon an hour.  Early brix will be up around 50 at that point with the first lots, and it will drop over time as we pull juice off.  The resulting amount was so small that we fermented in beer kegs, and only ended up with 21 cases.”  The wine instantly became a new benchmark for me, and is a testament to the talents of Bravo and the always-experimenting Fred Brander.  If you can get your hands on a bottle of this precious nectar, consider yourself blessed.

Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo
Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo

Riesling’s other Teutonic compatriot, Gewurztraminer, has been particularly underappreciated in Santa Barbara County.  Unlike the Riesling renaissance that has happened over the past few years, Gewurztraminer remains a marginal curiosity, as evidenced by the fact that there remain only three sites planted to the grape here: Jim Clendenen’s Le Bon Climat in Santa Maria, and White Hills and Alisos, both in Los Alamos.  Los Alamos, with its less recognizable name and more affordable land, has proven to be a safe haven for many of these lesser-known varieties, and Gewurztraminer is no exception.  In the hands of producers like Kunin, Bedford, and Tercero, it produces varietally classic, wonderfully expressive and food friendly wines.  “My goal was always to make a wine that showed off the grape’s exotic bouquet, flavor profile and mouthfeel, but not to push the envelope style-wise as far as residual sugar or acidity,” says Seth Kunin.  “I found that, with the exposure and mean temperatures at Alisos, we could get enough ripeness to achieve the lychee aromatics and rich mouthfeel while keeping the sugar levels low enough to ferment the wine dry.”

Tercero's Larry Schaffer with his Outlier Gewurztraminer
Tercero’s Larry Schaffer with his Outlier Gewurztraminer

Some of the most legendary Santa Barbara County Gewurztraminer came from a site that no longer has the variety planted: Babcock Vineyard.  “The first grapes I ever crushed at the estate were Gewurztraminer,” recalls Bryan Babcock.  “It came in late August of 1984.”  The old guard of Sta. Rita Hills speaks of Babcock’s Gewurztraminers with the same awe reserved for the early vintages of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir or Au Bon Climat’s early Chardonnays, but there are, sadly, almost no bottles remaining of his Gewurz from this era.  Along with Babcock’s Riesling, the Gewurztraminer developed phylloxera in the late ‘80s, and had to be pulled out.  When the time came to replant, he went in a different varietal direction.

In the case of Riesling, “it’s one of the great conduits to terroir, but it didn’t hit the deep chord that it hits in Germany,” says Babcock.  “It never felt world class like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here does.”  And while Gewurztraminer made gorgeous wines in a range of styles for Babcock, from dry and bright to late harvest expressions inspired by Alsace’s vendange tardive bottlings, it was ultimately too much of an uphill battle in the market.  “In the late ‘80s, it wasn’t like it is now, where the public has been educated so much more and has been exposed to a lot of these lesser known varieties from around the world,” states Babcock.  “Nobody could pronounce Gewurztraminer when I’d pour at tastings.  Yeah, you can educate people, and yeah, it’s one of the world’s noble varieties, but I grew tired of being the educator.”  Despite the modern interest in Gewurztraminer brought about by sommeliers’ love of its expression in Alsace, as well as the genetically linked Savagnin of the Jura, it doesn’t appear to be making a Santa Barbara County comeback any time soon.  “Unfortunately, I do not see Gewurztraminer growing beyond its ‘niche’ status here in the Santa Barbara County area,” says Tercero’s Larry Schaffer.  “The best places for it to be planted – much cooler climates like are seen in the Sta. Rita Hills – are also perfect to plant grapes that yield much higher dollars for the grapes themselves and the subsequent wines.”

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The rarest curiosity in Santa Barbara County is Rancho Sisquoc’s planting of Sylvaner.  Other than Sonoma County’s Scribe Winery, Sisquoc has the only planting of this variety in California.  “6 acres of Sylvaner were planted in 1974,” says Sisquoc’s Ed Holt.  “3 of the original acres are still in production, all own-rooted.  We re-planted the other 3 acres in 2013 with plants from the original acreage.”  Planted in a mix of Elder and Botella series soils, Sisquoc’s Sylvaner is gorgeous, with its acid perfectly balanced by a touch of sweetness, and remains one of the best (and most under-the-radar) values in Santa Barbara County.  Sisquoc’s winemaker Sarah Holt Mullins says it’s a nightmare to deal with in the cellar, but is worth the effort.  “It comes off the vine sticky, snotty and dense,” as she vividly describes it.  “We put it through the ringer on its first day in the winery, sorting, crushing, must pumping and then finally pressing.  It will only allow us to press it gently because it will squirt through any passage it can find in the press.  Well worth the war for Sylvaner.”

One of the big questions with these grapes is whether to ferment the wine completely dry or leave some residual sugar.  Santa Barbara County has traditionally produced mostly off-dry or late harvest styles, though the recent Riesling resurgence has favored drier wines.  In the case of wines from the prized Kick On Ranch in particular, this often means Rieslings with almost punishing austerity, taut, saline expressions where the nearby ocean and the sandy soil underfoot are palpable on the palate.  Yet those who have chosen off-dry expressions here, such as Brander or J. Brix’s petillant naturel sparkling Riesling, tap into a similar core of place with residual sugar that offsets this high tension, high acid vineyard beautifully.  Ultimately, it is about balance, an idea that is, as with most things in wine, subjective.

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The sun-dappled slopes of Kick On Ranch

“The sweetness of my Gewurztraminer varies each year depending upon a number of factors, with the main one being ‘mother nature’,” states Tercero’s Larry Schaffer.  “When you ‘stick’ a fermentation by cooling it down and adding SO2, it is not an immediate process – yeast cells want to continue to do their thing. Therefore, the residual sugar levels in my wine are never the same from year to year.”  Some of the oldest producers in the area, such as Rancho Sisquoc and Santa Barbara Winery, have crafted off-dry Rieslings for decades, speaking to the great demand this style has in the marketplace.  These wines are often the gateway into appreciating wine for younger consumers, but make no mistake: these wines still strongly communicate a sense of place.  “The sweet Riesling style is very popular in this area and in outside sales; it would be hard to market a dry after so many years of sweet,” says Sisquoc’s Holt Mullins.  This balance between sugar and acid also allows the wines to age surprisingly well.  Many of my most profound experiences with older California wines have been late harvest Rieslings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, often acquired at auction for $10-15.  Many of those same wines are now $40-50 at auction, giving me hope for their continued growth in the vineyards and in the marketplace, if not for my pocketbook.

Beyond the crucial decision of sweetness, most of the winemakers I spoke with emphasized the relatively hands-off/subtle approach to working with these varieties in the cellar.  “I hardly change anything from site to site,” says Tatomer.  “I feel like those things get talked about more than they should.  It’s very minor things, such as the level of crush I get on the material or the level of dissolved CO2 at bottling.  My goal is to capture the best of these sites.”  Ojai Vineyard’s Fabien Castel, who has been making lovely Rieslings from Kick On along with Ojai founder Adam Tolmach, has taken a similar hands-off approach, with the twist of crafting several different bottlings in different guises from the vineyard, ranging from their flagship dry bottling to experiments with botrytis and ice wine.  “The variations around Riesling are more about us getting a good grasp on the potential for the site and the varietal. It is a byproduct of the way Adam is exploring vinification. The botrytis selection is maybe most compelling because it is rare and achieved great balance of sweetness and freshness. It has the varietal complexity of perfumes modulated by unusual earthy fragrances and concentration given by botrytis cinerea.”  Riverbench’s Clarissa Nagy also began exploring this multi-pronged approach to Riesling with the 2014 vintage.  “Our current release of Riesling is in an off-dry style. I have made a very small amount of completely dry Riesling as well. It’s a wine that is beautiful dry and off-dry.  Vintage 2014 gave us perfect conditions for a Late Harvest Riesling too.  We picked it at 38 Brix and hand sorted each cluster used. It has fabulous honeyed and botrytised notes.”

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Santa Barbara County Riesling (and Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner) is a thing of beauty.  Throughout a range of styles it expresses site cleanly and clearly, communicating place in an unadorned fashion.  From the mineral, brilliant wines of Tatomer to the exotic, innovative Riesling of Brander, from the experimentation of Ojai’s various bottlings to the old stalwarts of Sisquoc, SBC Riesling is distinctive and fresh.  Graham Tatomer, who has staked his reputation on Riesling, sums up the mix of regret for Riesling lost, and hopefulness for Riesling’s future, in Santa Barbara County.  “Riesling is the last noble grape that hasn’t really taken off yet in California.  I hope to find a vineyard as great as Kick On going forward, but it’s a challenge.  A lot of those amazing early plantings, like Sanford & Benedict and White Hills, are gone.  But this grape has thrived because it truly makes some of the greatest wines on the planet.”  Our region has something new to say about this legendary grape, and now more than ever there are winemakers broadcasting this unique voice loud and clear.

“This is what love is for
To be out of place”
– Wilco, “Impossible Germany”

A comprehensive guide to Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner in Santa Barbara County, followed by a breakdown of soil types if you’re feeling particularly nerdy:

Santa Maria Valley
– Clendenen Family- Le Bon Climat Estate Gewurztraminer
– Rancho Sisquoc- Estate Riesling and Sylvaner
– Riverbench- Estate Riesling
Solminer– Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling
– Tatomer- Sisquoc Vineyard Riesling

Los Alamos Valley
– Bedford- Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Brander- Kick On Ranch Riesling
Daniel Gehrs– White Hills Vineyard Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Dr. Klapper (La Fenetre)- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix- Kick On Ranch Riesling and Pet Nat Riesling
– Kunin- Alisos Vineyard Gewurztraminer
– Lucas & Lewellen- Estate Riesling
– Margerum- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Mes Amis- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Municipal Winemakers- Kick On Ranch “Bright White”
– The Ojai Vineyard- Kick On Ranch Riesling (Special Botrytis and Ice Wine Bottlings as well)
– Stirm- Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Tatomer- Kick On Ranch Riesling, Vandenberg Riesling
– Tercero- “The Outlier” Gewurztraminer

Sta. Rita Hills
– Lafond- Estate Riesling
Santa Barbara Winery– Lafond Vineyard Riesling (several different bottlings)
– Tatomer- Lafond Vineyard Riesling

Santa Ynez Valley
– Brander- Los Olivos Vineyard Estate Riesling
Demetria– Riesling
– Fess Parker- Rodney’s Vineyard Estate Riesling
– Firestone- Estate Riesling and Gewurztraminer
– Gainey- Estate Riesling
– Koehler- Estate Riesling
Lo-Fi– Coquelicot Vineyard Riesling

SOIL TYPES:
Santa Maria Valley
Le Bon Climat
– Gewurztraminer- Sandy loam with some shale fragments in the upper slopes (Chamise, Garey, and Corralitos series)

Rancho Sisquoc
– Riesling- Shallow Pleasanton sandy/gravelly loam
– Sylvaner- Elder and Botella series, alluvial soil, more of a clay loam

Riverbench
– Riesling- Mocho sandy loam intermixed with gravel, ancient riverbed soil

Los Alamos Valley
Alisos
– Gewurztraminer- Chamise shaly sandy loam

Kick On Ranch
– Riesling-Extremely sandy, with minor sandstone and shale fragments.  Arnold and Betteravia series.

Lucas & Lewellen
– Riesling- Botella loam

White Hills
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Extremely sandy.  Arnold, Betteravia, and Corralitos series.

Sta. Rita Hills
Ampelos
– Riesling- Tierra clay loam

Lafond
– Riesling- Alluvial sandy/silty soil, Mocho and Metz loamy sands

Santa Ynez Valley
Brander Los Olivos Vineyard
– Riesling- Ballard and Santa Ynez gravelly/sandy loam

Camp 4
-Riesling- Positas sandy loam

Coquelicot
– Riesling- Gravelly loam, Ballard-Positas series

Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard
– Riesling- Alluvial, Elder loam

Firestone
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Gravelly, sandy loam, Ballard series

Gainey
– Riesling- Positas gravelly loam

Koehler
– Riesling- Gravelly/sandy loam, Ballard series

La Presa
– Riesling- Sandy/clay loam, Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series

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