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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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 placein 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)
– Riesling- Shallow Pleasanton sandy/gravelly loam
– Sylvaner- Elder and Botella series, alluvial soil, more of a clay loam
– 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
– Riesling and Gewurztraminer- Extremely sandy. Arnold, Betteravia, and Corralitos series.
Prior to my life in the wine business, I worked for a small record label based in Los Angeles called Plug Research. Operating an independent record label, and putting together a roster of artists that reflect a forward-thinking curator, is in many ways like creating a winery: the vineyards you work with are your artists, and your role in the cellar functions much like that of a producer, guiding your artists to their highest expression without losing the essence of what makes them special. David DeLaski, a veteran of the Los Angeles music scene, understands this concept better than anyone, as reflected in the beautiful wines he is making alongside his wife Anna under their new label, Solminer. I met the two of them at their vineyard and home in Los Olivos this past week to discuss life after the music business, organic farming, and winemaking with an eye toward the natural.
“Music is something you can get deeper and deeper into, with a great community, and there’s a bit of an obsession there,” says David DeLaski. “There are a lot of parallels with wine in that sense.” As both winemakers and musicians can attest, there is an all-consuming quality to these passions; once you’ve got the bug, you can think of nothing else. “I came to wine through my dad,” recalls David. “He was a businessman who enjoyed wine and so I got exposed to it at a very young age. I don’t have a cellar of old dusty bottles, though. I never became a big wine collector; wine was never a huge part of life until all this, until we started making wine. Some people are big collectors of music, but I was never an obsessive record collector; I loved to create it.”
Solminer did not begin with the grand ambitions of becoming the next cult winery or building a 10,000 case brand. Rather, it grew naturally out of the love of the craft of winemaking and the joy of farming. “Honestly, we weren’t quite sure how we’d fit into all this,” says David. “At first it was like ‘well, we’ll be weekenders and make a barrel of Gruner Veltliner.’ But you get sucked into this community in a really wonderful way. So we took a chance on it all, and we’re really glad we did.” The two also fortuitously connected with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton fame to guide the winemaking and help them focus their goals in the cellar. “We got hooked up with Steve because we loved his wines, and I think he was open to what we’re doing because it was something different, Gruner Veltliner,” recalls David. “If we were just another producer making Pinot Noir I don’t know if he would have been interested.”
While their first vintage of Gruner came from John Sebastiano Vineyard, going forward it will come entirely from their estate DeLanda Vineyard in Los Olivos. Their small home vineyard is a beautiful property, with a palpable energy that one can sense upon entering the driveway, originally planted entirely to Syrah when the DeLaskis took it over. Starting with a clean slate, they made the decisions to alter the varietal focus and to farm it organically, in large part because of concerns for their young son Linus. “The bottom line is, it was never a choice, because Linus is down there playing, in the vineyard, in the dirt,” emphatically states Anna. “So we decided from the beginning, if we have to deal with something, it’s going to be done organically.” The couple has also begun incorporating biodynamic practices in the vineyard, a philosophy which, again, grew out of the development they saw in their children first. “Our background in biodynamics comes from the side of Waldorf education, which has opened us up to a lot of ideas and philosophies that Steiner had,” says David. “My older boys go to a Waldorf school, and if our vines grow anything like they have, then maybe there’s something to Steiner’s philosophy.”
Though their vineyard still has quite a bit of Syrah planted, they’ve grafted increasing amounts to Blaufrankisch and Gruner Veltliner. Anna, a native of Austria’s famed Wachau region, guided the couple towards this decision to plant two of Austria’s most noble grapes, rarely seen outside of their homeland. They’re also making the unique choice to create a Blaufrankisch-Syrah blend, the first of its kind to my knowledge. “Adding a little Blaufrankisch to the Syrah is amazing,” smiles David. “Just 5 or 10%, it’s really cool.” Their winemaking, following along the lines of their farming approach, leans toward the natural, utilizing native yeasts, mostly neutral vessels, and minimal sulfur. “We never really made a conscious decision to be ‘natural winemakers’,” states David. “It’s kind of ingrained with the rest of our philosophy. The more I understood about the winemaking process, the more I started to taste the difference in those kinds of wine, and the more I taste them, I find myself drawn to them. I appreciate mistakes or natural occurrences from year to year.” The DeLaskis interpretation still means that there must be a core of deliciousness first and foremost; these wines are natural, but they are also clean, precise, and bright.
Tasting through the current Solminer lineup was a revelation. Their Gruner, utterly distinctive, seemed to marry the lentil and pepper notes the variety is known for with a textural weight reminiscent of Roussanne, as well as autumnal notes of baked apple and cinnamon. Their estate Syrah was also singular, sort of Crozes-Hermitage meets the Langhe in its marriage of iron, pepper, earth, and dried leaf. The star of the lineup, however, was their sparkling Syrah, “Nebullite”. It reminded me of one of my favorite wines on the planet, Camillo Donati’s Lambrusco. There was a living quality to the wine, imbued with the same notes of earth their still Syrah possessed along with extra dimensions of macerated raspberry and a thrilling sous bois, Balsamic character. “As a musician, I was never classically trained. I always liked to improvise, and to me, natural wine has that improvisatory nature, it’s like jazz.” To continue the jazz comparison, that sparkling Syrah was like the first time I heard Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come: You either get it or you don’t, but if it speaks to you, it is an experience like no other.
When I first met Anna and David months ago here at the Café, I noticed their exuberance and air of positivity, qualities that were in abundance on my recent visit. One immediately senses that these are two people in love, living their dream, and that joy radiates through their wines. “The key was meeting Anna and coming here, and falling in love with her and with this place,” smiles David. “And then going to Austria together, and seeing how ingrained wine is in the culture and the community there. When we returned, we realized we had that same community here, and that we could create that same lifestyle in Santa Ynez.”
“If there is one overarching philosophy in my winemaking, it’s finding the middle path.” Nick de Luca, winemaker and co-owner of Ground Effect, is not expressing a desire to make middle of the road wines. Rather, he is referencing the enlightened Middle Path of Buddhist philosophy, where one transcends extremes to find a centered, balanced way of living. I had the opportunity to work under de Luca at Dierberg/Star Lane, and always found him to radiate this attitude, with a balance that is also reflected in the wines he is making. I sat down with him over coffee this past week to discuss his work at Ground Effect, as well as his new position as consulting winemaker for Richard Sanford’s Alma Rosa.
“I had this philosophy about terroir, and then I realized that I was making blends from all these different vineyards, which was kind of farcical,” laughs de Luca “so I’ve moved back to focusing on single sites and single varieties.” The initial idea behind Ground Effect was that the wines would be distinctive blends, which have been the trend up until 2014, and quite successfully I might add. Like many winemakers I’ve spoken with this year that are part of Santa Barbara County’s current winemaking generation, however, de Luca had to follow his muse regardless of the branding implications. “I switched up this year. It was hard to contract a ½ ton here, a ½ ton there, so I committed to 100% Chenin Blanc. And I also started working with Presqu’ile Syrah.” He has also focused his attention entirely on Santa Barbara County fruit. “I shifted out of Paso Robles because it’s just too far away,” he says.
The other major change for de Luca in 2014 was joining Richard Sanford and the venerable Alma Rosa label as consulting winemaker. “I got a call on a Wednesday, Richard and I had lunch on a Thursday, and I was signing papers Friday,” recalls de Luca of the fortuitous hiring. “It was really sudden and really exciting.” Sanford is a Sta. Rita Hills legend, and makes a great philosophical match for de Luca. “Richard Sanford is so committed to farming sensitively. He’s a big observer of Eastern philosophy, and there’s a lot to be said within that philosophy for finding personal balance and having that reflected in the wines.”
This desire to farm for balance leads de Luca to the topic of water, a subject that is on the mind of every Californian in these dry times. “Farming with less water is really important. We have to learn to pull these big crops with less water, or learn to live with smaller crops, and I hope the latter is true.” While the environmental need to conserve water is unquestionable, for de Luca, the desire to farm with as little water as possible extends not only to drought concerns, but to site representation. “Vines have a memory. You can totally delete terroir with irrigation. I think it’s important to think of it in those terms; you are deleting terroir.”
Stylistically, de Luca’s winemaking has seen a fairly dramatic shift over the past 5 years. While he gained fame at Dierberg for ripe, powerful wines, he has moved to a style that is brighter, fresher, with lower alcohols and, for my palate, more precise expressiveness. “I’m certainly not in the ripeness camp anymore. I don’t know where I fall. I try not to be overly self-conscious; I try to be true to the vintage.” While de Luca’s recent wines could certainly be grouped into the fashionable In Pursuit of Balance or Natural genres, he prefers not to follow dogma or fit easily into a particular clique. “I’m definitely not natural. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when there’s a problem just fix it. I’m not scared of sulfur, I’m not scared of acid… I’d prefer to have all those things worked out in the vineyard, and not have to do that in the wine, and sometimes it works out that way; I think the best wines do work out that way. But if something goes wrong, I’m going to handle it.”
Alma Rosa’s wines have traditionally been fairly large scaled, but de Luca has approached his work there much as he has Ground Effect, with an eye toward balance. “I don’t like wines to be purely about fruit. That’s been my challenge at Alma Rosa, as the style has traditionally been more fruit-driven, so I want to find the balance between that fruit and the more interesting non-fruit aromatics the Sta. Rita Hills can give.” He is also a strong proponent of low yields, and feels that they are not only necessary for great wine, but for sustainable agriculture. Having observed yields shifting higher in the Sta. Rita Hills recently, a trend he is not fond of, he has worked with Sanford to keep their yields low, farming for intensity rather than tonnage. “It’s no secret that low yields make better wine; Europe has realized it for centuries,” states de Luca. “But people are getting greedy, and there’s a lot of overfarming going on out there.”
The wines of Ground Effect have found a devoted audience, and while they may not get as much press as some of de Luca’s more vociferous peers, they are some of the most mineral, intense, well balanced wines coming out of the New World. “The sad part to me is that the two extremes are what get the press,” he laments. “The ultra-ripe wines get the press, and the people on the extreme opposite end, in part because they’re bashing those ripe wines, get the press. And the people who are just trying to make good, middle path wines get looked over, and that’s too bad.” For my palate, the great wines of the world are found on this middle path; centered, balanced, and sure of what they have to say. While they may not have the immediate sexiness of the extreme, they possess a pure, unbridled joy within them, a soulfulness that makes casual wine drinkers have the “a-ha!” moment to make them wine obsessives. Open a bottle of Ground Effect’s 2012 “Gravity Check” and you’ll see exactly what I mean…
On Thursday September 18th, we’ll be hosting a dinner here at the Café featuring Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Trey Fletcher of Bien Nacido Estate to celebrate 40 years of Bien Nacido Vineyard. It’s very rare to get this legendary brain trust in one place to share their stories, so it should be a pretty magical evening. Leading up to the dinner, I’ve been reflecting about what makes Bien Nacido so distinctive, and, in a larger sense, the things that make a vineyard special beyond the usual talk of soil and climate.
Beginning in 2008, I had the privilege of working at Bien Nacido for 2 ½ years as a cellar rat for Tantara, whose winery was located on the property. From our location in the central flats of the property, I could see our neighbors Ambullneo down the road (Dieter Cronje and Matt Murphy, who would go on to create the formidable Presqu’ile property, were part of the cellar team there at the time), and ABC and Qupe’s massive cellar across the river. Driving into work each morning, checking out the various blocks was a visual roll call of the who’s-who in Santa Barbara County winemaking: that slope is Foxen’s Block 8; that little wedge of Syrah belongs to Paul Lato; there’s Manfred from Sine Qua Non checking on his fruit. And of course, there were the legendary parcels made famous by the likes of Au Bon Climat, Qupe, and Lane Tanner, each its own piece of history with a story to tell. Great vineyards have a certain energy to them, a soul if you will, and Bien Nacido is one of the most soulful sites I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in.
Where does this presence of place come from? I don’t think it’s something that can be separated from the human element. All of the factors that have come together in Bien Nacido- the passion of the Miller family, who founded the property and own it still; the fervent passion of Jim Clendenen, who spread the gospel of Bien Nacido throughout the world; the brilliant modern stewardship of vineyard manager Chris Hammell- have given form and voice to the natural elements of this piece of land in a way that is singular and special. A site whose natural factors suggest something merely good cannot be willed into greatness; by the same token, a site with the seeds of greatness can’t realize its potential without the vision of human beings like those mentioned above. In this way, wine may be the ultimate expression of the union between Mother Nature and Man.
If I were to use one word to describe the character of Bien Nacido Vineyard, it would be verve. Whether it is a late-picked, luscious Syrah, a spice-driven, lithe Pinot Noir, or a mineral, lean Melon, there is a brightness and vivaciousness that gives lift and precision to wines from this site. The cool climate of the Santa Maria Bench, coupled with calcium-rich shale soils, is a large part of the reason for this, though again, the personalities behind the wines are a huge factor. When one observes the passion and attention to detail given by Justin Willett of Tyler and Lieu Dit, or the acuity of Trey Fletcher for Bien Nacido’s estate program, it’s no surprise that this lively, precise quality can be tasted across the varietal spectrum.
There is a story in the soil, a voice waiting to be broadcast that will shout to the world the character of a great site. Bien Nacido is such a site, with translators who have managed to magnify and capture its unique personality. I look forward to hearing from Jim Clendenen, Trey Fletcher, and Bob Lindquist as they delve deeper into the story of Bien Nacido; no matter how much you think you know about a familiar place, there is also a new layer to be uncovered.
To purchase tickets to our event Rock Steady: 40 Years of Bien Nacido Vineyard,
“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis. “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.” Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc. While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy. The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates. This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.
Great wine often requires context. While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting. I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group. These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them. The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly. In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.
The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon. While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region. “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis. “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us. And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.” Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion. And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon. “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”
Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement. “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis. “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage. We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.” They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality. “Sauv is all about minerality. There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”
The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples. The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes. “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis. “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.” This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well. “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine. I think part of that has to do with our lower yields. Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”
The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality. Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages. “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette. “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.” Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.
The two sites they are currently working with, Grassini and Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils. The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality. Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site. “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe. This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.” Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.
In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet. Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it. Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression. “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work. We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’ And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”
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:
As wine lovers, we hear stories again and again of Pinot Noir’s difficulties in the vineyard and the cellar. Often described as “the heartbreak grape,” it has perplexed and exasperated many a vigneron across centuries. But talk to Nebbiolo producers in California and you soon find out that the “heartbreak” of Pinot is the stuff of puppy love compared to the torrid, depression-inducing love affair that is Nebbiolo. I spoke this week with Steve Clifton, a man who has devoted himself to crafting great Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County, about his long relationship with this maddening grape variety.
“If a producer is not willing to invest in the time and anguish necessary to produce Nebbiolo and be proud of it, don’t bother,” states Clifton. “Ours is at least a 5 year project. I wish I could afford to hold on to it longer. My accountant wishes he had never heard of Nebbiolo.” Steve Clifton’s passion for Nebbiolo is palpable. Taste his various expressions of the grape, from 5 different vineyards in Santa Barbara County, and you can see the meticulous care given to let the site character of each express itself. His passion has even inspired our owner here at the café, Sam Marmorstein, to plant a bit of Nebbiolo for his Bernat project. Marmorstein also is quick to note the obsessiveness required of the grape. “It’s the first to bud and last to harvest in November,” he says. “It’s definitely a labor of love. I don’t think many wine makers will attempt it.”
Of the winemakers I’ve spoken to in the past about Nebbiolo, from the Sierra Foothills and Santa Cruz Mountains to Paso Robles and Santa Maria Valley, one complaint has constantly arisen: the challenge of getting pH to rise. For most, it is not uncommon to pick with pH between 3.0 and 3.2. To provide context, those pH levels are more like what one might see with a very high acid white, or even some sparkling wines; to experience those numbers in a red wine is almost unheard-of. Through his years of farming adjustments, and assistance from the masters of Piemonte, Clifton has been one of the lucky few to get this issue under control. “Those numbers were definitely the case in the early days before we asked for help with farming,” Clifton says. “In 2000, Maurizio Gily, Luciano Sandrone and others gave time to come and help us with farming and changed all of that. We harvest Nebbiolo between 3.4 -3.6 pH and around 23.5 brix now.”
This may be one of the great keys to his success with the grape: the wines have a beautiful balance between generosity of fruit, textural presence, and acid, allowing them to handle long times in barrel and bottle without losing freshness. Clifton attributes this success to forgoing the idea that grapevines have to struggle. “When I was finally taught to farm for health, strength and virility for Nebbiolo, everything changed. I have applied that philosophy to all of our farming and am very happy with the results.” Clonal material has played a major role in Nebbiolo’s New World success (or failure) as well, with the availability of better clonal material in the early 2000s marking a huge shift in quality. “Before 1997 we were working almost exclusively with Lampia and Rosé clones,” states Clifton. “In 1998 we made Michet available. To me 2002 and the first Michet harvests were a major turning point.”
The debate over modern vs. traditional has been a fierce one for decades in Piemonte, much as it has taken hold in Californian wine culture over the last few years. The traditionalists embrace lengthy fermentations with long extended macerations, large neutral casks for aging, and longer stays in barrel and bottle before release. The modernists employ shorter fermentations and may utilize small barrique, sometimes new, for aging, striving for riper and/or fruitier, more generous characteristics in their wines. Clifton proudly falls into the traditionalist camp, deeply inspired by one of my personal idols in Barolo, Giacomo Conterno. “I love that you make reference to Giacomo Conterno,” smiles Clifton. “He is by far the most enduring influence on our Nebbiolo style (not to mention Barbera as well). The highest compliment I have ever received was to be mentioned in Piemonte as a part of the ‘traditional’ group of producers, even though we are New World.” Clifton is also quick to point out that both sides in the modernist/traditionalist debate in Piemonte are moving a bit more toward the middle. “I think the modernist-vs -traditionalist fight has lost its punch recently as most producers have reverted to a more restrained and traditional style over the last 8 vintages.”
Even Clifton’s style has grown and changed a great deal as he has had more experience with the grape. “In the earliest years, I treated Nebbiolo like Pinot Noir because that is what I knew and because I thought the two grapes share a lot of similarities. I was dead wrong. If I ever treated Pinot Noir the way that I treat Nebbiolo now, it would look like apple butter.” Despite the success he had achieved with Brewer-Clifton, he was willing to abandon what was comfortable and start anew in the name of expressing the truth of Nebbiolo. “I had to start at the beginning and learn from scratch. I had to be willing to say ‘I don’t know’. It was very hard. I made many attempts early on with whole cluster Nebbiolo. I don’t show those off.” Clifton has also settled on a relatively stable regime of extended maceration, though even here he still lets the vintage and intuition dictate his decisions. “Extended maceration is typically 32 -46 days. Again, it is all about lengthening the tannin chains. The only determining factor is taste.”
While clearly a lover of great Piemonte Nebbiolo, Clifton is not trying to produce Barolo in California. Like all great New World winemakers, his desire is to capture a singular take on the grape with the unique voice of his own surroundings. “I strive to make translations, not replications,” Clifton emphasizes. “The most profound statement Nebbiolo can make is to reference where it is grown. I feel that it is necessary both that our Nebbiolo is varietally correct and identifiable, but also that it tastes of Santa Barbara and the vineyards that it is from. If it doesn’t, then I have missed the mark. Every great Nebbiolo exclaims where it is from.”
Much like Barolo, where one finds very different wines from the calcareous marl of the west (La Morra, Barolo) and the sandstone of the east (Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba), Clifton finds the soil-driven differences to be very apparent in his Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County. “We have Nebbiolo on both limestone and clay based soils,” says Clifton. “The difference is demonstrably obvious. The limestone base always delivers a lighter, more fragrant wine; the clay a more muscular, hearty wine.” While he currently works with 5 very different vineyards, he still would like to explore additional terroirs within the County. “I want to plant Nebbiolo in the Santa Rita Hills. I think that with proper, extreme farming… It could be amazing…”
Clifton is still exploring and tinkering, always with the end goal of creating his Nebbiolo masterpiece. While many would argue he’s already crafted several, there is a continual push to be greater, to tame this mysterious mistress. “If you fall under the spell of Nebbiolo, your choices are taken away. It’s an obsession. The closer you get to her, the more obsessed you become. Any fleeting brush makes you try harder. I have 20 or 30 years left, maybe, but I will always make Nebbiolo.”
I’m fortunate that I am in a position to taste some amazing wines from around the world on a regular basis. As a result of this, when I assess wines from our area (or any area for that matter), I compare them not just with their local peers, but with my personal benchmarks for great wine on a global scale. Santa Barbara County, I am proud to say, is making the best wines in its history, and it only seems to be getting better. I am consistently pleased and excited by what is coming out of our little corner of the world. Every now and then, however, I taste something that goes a bit deeper, that burrows into my mind and truly blows me away, forcing me to recalibrate the way I view a particular grape variety. This past week I had that experience with the Zinfandel of Eric Bolton.
A graduate of CSU Fresno, Bolton has vast knowledge of the science of winemaking. Yet he is not a mad scientist in the winery; rather, he prefers to focus on bringing in healthy, balanced fruit from properly farmed sites and let it do its thing. Fermentations happen with native yeast, and there are no additions beyond sulfur. Bolton first gained acclaim as head of the winemaking team for the Ambullneo (now known as Greg Linn) label. While these have flown somewhat under the radar locally, they are stunning expressions of Pinot Noir: lots of whole-cluster, alcohols in the high 12s to mid 13s, an incredible array of floral and spice aromatics, and great longevity. 2013 marked Bolton’s first year stepping out on his own, making just around 40 cases of Zinfandel.
“The vineyard source is Tres Niños, right across the street from DePaola Vineyard near Lake Lopez in Arroyo Grande. It’s a rocky clay loam,” Bolton states matter-of-factly. (Okay, so technically we’re in San Luis Obispo County here, but Bolton is making his wine in Santa Maria and he is the essence of SB County’s spirit through and through). Despite being picked quite late in the season, the fruit was just barely/perfectly ripe, clocking in around 13% alcohol, almost unheard-of for modern Zinfandel. Bolton also embraced Zin’s textural resemblance to other thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Grenache and fermented the grapes 50% whole-cluster, a somewhat atypical decision that proved wise. Nick de Luca of Ground Effect recently did the same with his Zinfandel out of Paso Robles and the results were equally stunning. “You don’t really pick up the whole-cluster much now other than texturally. It’s really shifted a lot in barrel,” says Bolton.
The Arroyo Grande Valley may be one of the most underrated locations in the state for great Zinfandel. Colder than many of Zin’s more fashionable locales, yet warm enough to ripen Zinfandel to extreme levels should one choose to do so, it is a perfect spot for more classically balanced Zin. Saucelito Canyon has long produced legendary wines from their estate here, particularly their small parcel of vines dating back to the 1800s. Bolton’s rendition, however, is without comparison. Opening with classic varietal notes of peach and brambly red fruits, it unfolds to more exotic aromatics of wet gravel, white pepper, and violets. Texturally, the whole cluster provides precision and a lithe presence, with an intensely mineral finish reminiscent of chalk. To find Zinfandel in this style, one would have to go back to the early iconoclasts, such as Ridge and Joseph Swan. “I have to say Ridge would be the biggest inspiration,” smiles Bolton. “Those Zins they made in the ‘90s were great. I had an ’87 in 2006 and it was a wonderful wine, still going strong. I also worked with Michael Dashe and liked what he was doing; he’s certainly an inspiration as well.”
Bolton will continue to make this wine in 2014, and hopes to add Sangiovese to his roster in the near future. “I would love to do something that could stand head to head with great Brunello, but I have to find the perfect source,” Bolton says. Given the beautiful wines he’s crafted thus far, I have no doubt that he could do great things with a grape that has perplexed many of California’s best. For now, I’ll be grabbing all I can of his Zinfandel, as it is a singular wine of inspiration and place, and a new favorite.
In the Old World, farming grapevines without irrigation is the standard. Even on the Greek island of Santorini, which averages just 3-4 inches of rainfall per year, the vines are, miraculously, not irrigated. By comparison, Santa Barbara County’s average of 12 inches per year sounds like a deluge. Yet the vast majorities of vineyards in our area, as well as the rest of California, are irrigated. While grapevines require less water than many crops, the issue of water conservation in the vineyard is one that will need to be addressed more seriously in the coming years as our drought events become more frequent and extreme. This week I spoke with two of Santa Barbara County’s dry farming practitioners, Bill Wathen of Foxen and Peter Stolpman of Stolpman, about how they manage the challenges of dry farming and the character of the resulting wines.
The growing conditions at these two sites are strikingly different. At Stolpman Vineyards, in the heart of Ballard Canyon, “we are blessed to sit on a 3 foot layer of moisture and nutrient retaining clay with a 300ft deep slab of limestone beneath,” says Stolpman. “Not only does the clay retain moisture, but it also retains the cold temperatures of the night. The clay makes our land even better suited to dry-farming, as the impact of day-time heat is lessened.” Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard, on the other hand, has much more challenging conditions, with a lot of sand, a soil whose extremely well-draining nature poses one of the greatest challenges for dry farming in Santa Barbara County. “The soil profile at Tinaquaic is a little magical, as in I don’t know how these vines do it every year with only annual rainfall,” states Wathen. “It is a deep sandy loam, unsure of the Series (ed. Note: the USDA soil map says it’s Arnold Sand), with pockets of Careaga sand. In years of normal rainfall the vine canopy can be quite aggressive, so there is a lot of retention. We generally average 2 to 3 tons per acre (3-4 pounds per vine) yields historically.” Amazingly, even in these difficult growing conditions, Wathen is able to get sustainable yields and make it work without water.
Spacing in vineyards where the goal is dry farming is an important factor. When one observes California’s historical vineyard plantings pre-1960s, which were essentially all dry farmed, spacing was very wide, and the vines were often untrellised. As modern farming has looked to top sites in the Old World such as Burgundy and their farming practices for inspiration, California’s vineyards have moved to much tighter spacing, often as tight as meter by meter, occasionally even closer. This poses much greater hurdles for dry farming as the competition for water increases. Stolpman, who has variable spacing on his property, believes that the type of trellis is just as important as the spacing. “Our spacing ranges from 10×5 to 3×3 in the vineyard. The 10×5 blocks certainly adapt the best to dry farming, but we’ve also seen positive results in our 3×3 block,” he says. “Key with the tightest spaced blocks is head-pruning and not expecting much yield per vine. The jury is still out regarding our conventional 3×6 blocks where the six foot rows allow us to trellis the vines. These vines are set up to carry more canopy and more clusters than the tighter head-pruned blocks.”
Wathen’s property has more space between vines, though he believes going even wider from the get go may have been more advantageous. “When Dick (Doré) and I planted Tinaquaic in 1989, we really didn’t think through the irrigation issue. We planted what was high density at the time (8X4), and assumed that water grew on trees here at the ranch,” Wathen states. “We were able to give each vine 1 gallon of water every 10 days through the first two growing seasons. After that, they seemed fine without water, so we changed strategy. Ideally, yet after the fact, we should have gone on a 10X10 or 12X12 planting without a trellis, enabling us to cross cultivate.”
Both sites utilize cover crops, and are very cognizant of the timing in planting and plowing. “We plant cover crop every year for erosion control and green manure,” says Wathen. “The cycle here goes 1) disc and plant cover crop after harvest. 2) Disc the cover crop under early to late spring, depending on the annual precipitation that year; dry years earlier, wet years later. 3) Disc and roll a few times late spring to seal the surface.”
With 3 years of drought, culminating in 2014’s extremely dry conditions, farming adjustments have been made at both sites to make dry farming possible. “We have elongated the weaning periods for younger vines,” Stolpman says. “This year for instance, we gave all of the vines 12 years and under an overnight drink once in January and February to imitate normal rainfall. We gave the very young vines another drink in April and early May. We only irrigate during root days and from our own measurements know that water goes 8-12 inches deeper into the Limestone with less Lunar gravity.” Wathen has also had to shift his approach. “This year has been extremely challenging balancing the canopy,” emphasizes Wathen. “You always need to be thinking about next year. Adjustment farming is the key. The rule of thumb is >20 inch shoot, 2 clusters. 12-20 inch shoot, 1 cluster. Less than 12 inch shoot, 0 clusters.”
So, is the character of dry farmed vines detectable in the glass? Wathen and Stolpman have different opinions on the subject. “We find we get a natural balance from dry-farmed vineyards as the vines regulate themselves,” says Stolpman. “Because of the lack of water, the vines want to go dormant in the fall, and we try to pick while the vine is on its last breath, giving us a perfectly ripe crop. Irrigated vines will continue green and happy, with no sense of the seasons, and winemakers may choose to pick much later at higher sugars.” Wathen has a different take. “I really have not seen any difference in ripening curves vs. irrigated fruit. Believe me though, if I had the water, I would irrigate.”
As a lover and seeker of site character in wine, the issue of dry farming is one I’m passionate about. There is a representation of vintage and place in these wines that can’t be denied. While I love many, many wines that come from irrigated vines, most of whom are also managing their water use meticulously, there is a truth in wines from completely dry farmed fruit that seems to set itself apart. “Balanced vines give balanced wines. Dry farming allows the vineyard to give a truer expression of itself rather than the more modern, homogenous approach of irrigating, green-dropping, and picking late,” emphasizes Stolpman. And when one tastes a bottle of Stolpman’s “Originals” Syrah or Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard Cabernet Franc, it’s hard to argue this statement. I hope that the conversation about dry farming becomes a more prominent one in the future of Santa Barbara County, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.
I was a teenage indie rock obsessive. As such, I embraced the genre’s most lo-fi practitioners, particularly Guided By Voices. Their best works, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, are laden with tape hiss, false starts, songs that stop abruptly and cut into other songs, and a generally shambolic aesthetic; rather than trying to mask the economic shortcomings of their recording devices, they celebrated them, creating a whole universe that felt like a direct line from their bedroom to mine. In the past few years, a handful of vintners in California have taken an analogous approach in their winemaking and farming, creating soulful wines despite their shoestring budgets. Associated most closely with the natural wine movement, these are analog wines for a digital era, looking back to go forward. Mike Roth, formerly of Martian Ranch and now launching his own project, the aptly named Lo-Fi, has been at the forefront of this movement in Santa Barbara County. I met with him this week in the record-high heat at his new estate vineyard in Los Alamos to discuss the future and taste his first releases.
“So this is the Mullet,” declares Roth. “Business on the front slope, party on the back.” Roth’s vineyard name befits the nature of his new venture. While the approach and technique are quite serious and methodical, the project is meant to be fun and accessible, “wines for the proletariat” as Roth likes to refer to it. Planted just a few weeks ago, the vineyard was created using solely recycled materials from other local vineyards, installed by Roth with the help of friends and family. The steeper, southwest-facing front slope is planted to Gamay, while the gentler back slope is Cabernet Franc, unique varietal choices that have shown early promise in Los Alamos at other sites.
Roth gained notoriety at Martian for his idiosyncratic approach to farming, carrying heavy crop loads early on and dropping fruit late to offset our area’s tendency toward fall heat spikes, allowing for ripe fruit at low brix and in turn, lower alcohols. He plans to farm his estate in a similar fashion, with an approach that embraces the natural ecosystem as much as possible. “Farming here will be organic, though I’d really prefer to avoid any additions for the most part.” The soils at Mullet, like most of Alisos Canyon just east of here, are Chamise shale loam. These acidic shale-based soils, which contain a fair amount of clay, have shown great promise for Cabernet Franc in particular at sites such as Thompson and Martian. “Planting here is meter by meter. I hope to eventually dry farm it, there’s enough clay here that I think it could work,” states Roth.
Roth’s first release under the Lo-Fi label is as much a mission statement as a wine. Sourced from the organically farmed Coquelicot Vineyard near the Santa Ynez River, it is 100% Cabernet Franc, fermented with native yeasts, aged in neutral vessels, made entirely without the use of sulfur. Philosophically, it encapsulates everything Roth is about. “It definitely has a bit of a Bourgueil thing going on,” proudly states Roth. He is referencing one of the Loire Valley’s great Cabernet Franc regions, and while I see a family resemblance, I find his rendition under Lo-Fi to be distinctly Santa Ynez. Its generosity of fruit and texture are unmistakably California, and the herbal and spice nuances, which range from fresh tobacco and roasted tomato to exotic notes of Oaxacan mole negro and wild sage, aren’t found outside of this area. There is a similarity to other local practitioners working in an early-picked style- Lieu Dit, Roark, and Buttonwood– though the soulfulness of Roth’s take is his own.
While it is still early going for Roth’s new projects, I anticipate the future for his label and his vineyard highly, with forthcoming releases of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gamay to fill out his portfolio. He is an artist working in the medium of grapes, following a vision that does not adhere to trends. As he dives into this new work, unencumbered by the expectations of others, I’m reminded of a classic Guided By Voices lyric: “Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled See an opening and bust into the field Hidden longings no longer concealed”
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.