Journey just past the Santa Ynez River, into the hills off of Refugio Road, up a steep gravel driveway, and you will be greeted by the spectacular vistas of Refugio Ranch. Rising dramatically into the Santa Ynez Mountains, this 415 acre ranch is a sprawling piece of property, comprised mostly of open spaces; just 27 acres are currently planted. I met with Ryan Deovlet, Refugio Ranch’s contemplative winemaker, on an overcast Monday to explore the intricacies of this special site.
We climbed into the ranch’s Polaris, and went zooming up a precipitous hill. Rounding a bend, I was greeted by a tiny block of Syrah. “This is the Escondido (hidden) block, Clone 383, which is a little bit compromised by daylight hours.” Tucked way back into a canyon on the ranch, one can understand both the name and the challenges of ripening in this spot. “Because of the shadowing in this block we lose a couple hours of sunlight compared to the rest of the ranch. It tends to be a little more red fruit, with a lot of the carpaccio, pepper, meaty character. It actually inspired me to create a second red wine blend because it is so distinct from our other blocks.”
In talking with Deovlet, I quickly saw his desire to grow with the Ranch, willing to abandon previously held ideas or techniques if it meant better expressing a sense of place. “I have total autonomy, but it’s a collaboration between all of us, Niki and Kevin Gleason (the Ranch’s owners), Ruben Solorzano, (of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates), and myself. We’ll pull corks together and talk about the direction of the property and evaluate what we’re doing. With these small lots, you take a risk sometimes and it doesn’t always work. But for the most part, things are working out and they’re putting their trust in me and giving me autonomy.”
The farming here is essentially organic, though there aren’t currently plans to pursue certification. Like many properties I’ve visited in the valley recently, I was impressed by the diverse ecosystem they’ve preserved and nurtured here and how they’ve adapted to the unique needs of the site. “Kevin and Niki were cognizant of what they had here. It’s a nice, cool sanctuary,” says Deovlet. “They were very conscientious of where to plant and how to preserve the natural terrain. It still has a raw, wild feel.”
The diversity of the Ranch also applies to their choice of plantings: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, and Malvasia Bianca for the whites; Syrah, Grenache, a recent addition of Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah for the reds. Deovlet also plans for some new additions, perhaps Picpoul or Bourboulenc to bring more acid and minerality to the whites, as well as some Grenache planted in their sandier river blocks. One of the most intriguing varieties on the property is Malvasia Bianca. Deovlet crafts a beautiful Spring white from this fruit, with a touch of residual sugar, a hint of spritz, and great acid, balancing the minerality of the Ranch with an easy-going exuberance.
Speaking of minerality, the soils here are some of the most exciting I have seen in Santa Barbara County. Black and lunar-like, with lots of rocky topsoil, it’s a clay loam with mudstone in its origins, quite different from the soils of the Los Olivos District AVA that stops just north of here. “It’s organic, heavy earth, alluvial mountain runoff all captured within this little bowl we have here,” states Deovlet. “We have great water retention. The goal is to eventually dry farm everything, which we’ve been working with Ruben on.” While these are mostly sedimentary soils, there is a bit of igneous material in their Petite Sirah in the form of granite, perhaps helping to explain why this grape expresses itself in such a singular way here.
“The Petite, for me, sort of serves as our Mourvedre, bringing a little more structure and putting a California twist on a Southern Rhone-inspired blend,” states Deovlet. He and Ruben are also exploring a new farming technique, using a crossbar to spread the canopy in the fruiting zone on the Petite, with the goal of giving the fruit longer hang time while preventing issues with rot or mildew. “We have to be very focused on canopy balance and low yields, with the intention that we can get all the fruit off before we hit the late October rains. In ’09 and ’10 we had those storms come through before we got everything in and we learned some hard lessons. That being said, if low yields over and over and over again mean the project never gets into the black, that project isn’t sustainable. There has to be a balance in the farming.”
Deovlet and Solorzano have had to make some big strides very quickly in approaching the farming at the Ranch as the growing conditions are so particular. “We haven’t had the most consistent of vintages, so we’ve had to learn on the fly. I’m blessed to be working with Ruben; everyone calls him the grape whisperer, and it’s true, he’s very intuitive in his approach.” While Deovlet initially had some concerns with the slightly higher pHs/lower acids the site was giving him, he’s learned to accept them, particularly after speaking to old world winemakers like Chave who see similar numbers. In place of acid, the structure of Refugio Ranch comes from tannin. “When I’m pulling fruit, it might be 25 or 26 Brix. At those numbers, we see that ideal tannin development, and at this site the vine isn’t starting to shut down.”
When the subject of Chave, one of the great iconoclcasts of the Northern Rhone, arose, I asked if Deovlet still saw the Old World as his benchmark. He thoughtfully replied, “I’m certainly inspired by the Old World, and you do find some of those aromatic markers here. That being said, I like to have a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New. I certainly take some ideas and inspiration, but we have this California sunshine, and these unique growing conditions, and I want to create something that speaks to the character of the Ranch.” To that end, the project is expanding their lineup of wines based around what the vineyard has shown them thus far, from 3 different bottlings to 8. While this may initially present challenges from a sales standpoint, their motivations are solely quality-driven. “It’s not diluted in moving from 3 wines to 8; it’s the opposite, it’s listening to the vineyard and fine tuning our style,” emphasizes Deovlet. “We’re making great strides in learning to understand the property, and how distinct it is.”
For such a young property, Refugio Ranch has made incredible leaps in quality very quickly, due in no small part to the passionate team in place. “The Ranch, generally speaking, has been a beautifully organic evolution to learn, block by block, how to approach viticulture from a very individualistic approach, and the same in the cellar,” says Deovlet. “I think that process has kept us in tune and taught us to listen to the wine. The ultimate question is, stylistically, are we doing justice to this property? They’re coming out of the gate delivering pleasure, and I think and hope they’re going to age as well.” Their current lineup indicates that they are indeed listening intently to the voice of this place, and I expect it to become ever more clear and distinct in the coming years.
“We take each year as it comes. Recipes are boring. We look at what nature gives us and go from there.” Kitá’s winemaker Tara Gomez is a straight shooter. With some winemakers, you get the feeling they are thinking about their marketing strategy before they answer a question. With Gomez, there is none of this artifice or pretense; instead, there is a delicate and thoughtful honesty. This past week I tasted through numerous 2012 and 2013 barrels with Gomez and assistant winemaker Tymari LoRe, and discussed their approach in the vineyard and the cellar.
The young Kitá label was created by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, debuting with the 2010 vintage. Gomez herself is Chumash, and seeks to carry on the stewardship of the land that her ancestors have been part of for centuries, now via their estate vineyard, Camp 4. Fess Parker originally planted this large, stunning 256 acre vineyard with 19(yes, 19!) different grape varieties in total. In 2010 the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians purchased the land, and since taking over, they have fine-tuned the farming along with the team at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates (CVCA), working towards their goal of a more sustainable ecosystem and more expressive site character.
With the managing team of Rudy Bravo and Ben Merz, two of the stars of the renowned CVCA team, at the helm, they have addressed the needs of each block and variety in-depth, not an easy task for a vineyard with so much diversity. As part of their move toward sustainability they have installed owl and bat houses, moved away from using synthetic treatments in the vineyard (save for a couple of blocks that they’re still dialing in, and even then in miniscule amounts), and generally moved toward creating a more diverse environment. “Taking from the land only what we need and giving back to it is what we believe in,” proudly states Gomez. “We’re doing a pomace-to-compost program now, for example, which is a lot of work, but it’s important to us, so it’s worth it.”
While located in the extreme east of the Los Olivos District, Camp 4 still lies on the Positas series, part of the Ballard-Santa Ynez-Positas series that defines the AVA. Their close proximity to Happy Canyon is only hinted at by the chunks of serpentine present here that have come down from Figueroa Mountain. With the Rhone and Bordeaux varieties at Camp 4, there is an intense minerality present in the final wines that is distinct from Ballard Canyon to its west or Happy Canyon to its east. In the red varieties in particular there is a gravelly textural presence that unifies the wines.
In addition to their estate program for Kitá, Camp 4 sells fruit to around 60 different producers in the valley, many of whom vineyard designate the fruit or use it as the backbone for appellation bottlings. Grenache Blanc has jumped out as a star as it has in many vineyards within the Los Olivos District. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc also find a voice in this site that is strikingly different from the very-close-by Happy Canyon. “Cabernet Sauvignon is my baby,” states Gomez, and it shows in the details of the finished wine. While Happy Canyon Cab has a tendency to be brawny and ultra-ripe, reminiscent of modern Napa Valley’s powerful renditions of the grape, Kitá’s take on Cab is finessed, with notes of pencil lead and cassis that are more reminiscent of France’s Medoc. The sun-kissed character of California is still apparent, but with a great sense of balance and encouragement of non-fruit aromatics.
A graduate of CSU Fresno’s renowned viticulture & enology program, Gomez carefully blends science and intuition in her winemaking approach. “I look at everything when I’m picking,” she says. “I like to pick for acidity, because I like that brightness, but we look at brix and pH, we look at flavors, and we often do several picks to find the various components that we want to achieve.” This meticulous approach is present in the final wines. Tasting through barrels with the winemaking team here was fascinating, as they were constantly questioning what they could do to improve a wine the following vintage, or how they could blend barrels to make a more complete wine. “We try to be as true to the varietal as we can and deal with what we’re given. Of course, we strive for lower alcohol, we like that brightness, that acidity. We want age-ability. And I don’t believe in doing a bunch of additions to correct a wine.”
While a young label, Kitá is already making beautiful wines, and has a bright future ahead of it. They are taking a special site to even greater heights through devoted farming, and they are striving at every step to make wines that will age and showcase place. Tara Gomez is part of a great Santa Ynez Valley tradition of channeling the land that goes well beyond grapes, and ultimately, it is this love of a spiritual home that makes the deepest impression.
“All of these wines are grown for the table.” With this one sentence Karen Steinwachs sums up the philosophical core of Buttonwood. A working farm as well as vineyard and winery, Buttonwood is centered on the idea that wine’s ultimate purpose is to shine at table, where it can spark conversation and communion with friends and family. I spoke with Karen this week about her farming and winemaking approach, as well as the unique environment that is Buttonwood Farm.
After years in the high-tech world, Steinwachs decided to leave the rat race and pursue a long-held dream of working in the wine industry. An ardent fan of Santa Barbara County wines, she managed to secure a gig at Lincourt in the fall of 2001, working her way up from the bottom as a cellar rat. “I kept talking to the winemaker about ways that the winery could be more efficient, because once you’ve been in management as long as I have been, it’s hard to drop that attitude.” A great student, she quickly worked her way up the ranks of such notable wineries as Foley and Fiddlehead. When the opportunity to take over as winemaker at Buttonwood arose in 2007, she jumped at the chance.
“I was very familiar with Buttonwood from attending their many events. I loved the concept of it being a farm as well as a vineyard.” Aware of the fact that she was stepping into a winery with a style people were familiar with, she approached her first vintage with the goal of learning about the character of the fruit, vinifying every lot separately to gain knowledge about the site character. Through this meticulous approach, she was able to see the strengths and needs of the vineyard, and has gradually brought her own style to the wines to accentuate the site’s best characteristics. “There have been changes since I took over. The wines are now a little more approachable while still being age-worthy. We work a lot on tannin management, because I want to be able to enjoy the wines while I’m still alive. We’ve also worked on bringing more freshness to the whites.”
There is no recipe here; rather, the vagaries of the vintage are allowed to shine and adapted to. “We approach every single wine differently and adjust from year to year as we fine tune the needs of each wine. I grow 10 different grape varieties here, and we’ve sought to make the wines more distinct from each other and really give them their own voice.” This experimentation and exploration extends to the vineyard, where new grape varieties have been planted in the name of making more complete wines. “We’ve grafted some of our Merlot to Malbec and plan to plant some more. And on the white side, we’ve grafted quite a bit of Grenache Blanc, which grows beautifully here. I see it becoming a signature grape of the Los Olivos District AVA.”
The soils at Buttonwood are mostly Santa Ynez series, part of the uniform Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series that defines the Los Olivos District, though there is some diatomaceous earth, serpentine and sand in pockets. They also sit on the aquifer that is common throughout the AVA. “We have a very big aquifer here, and a lot of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley are in this part of the valley. There are also a lot of own-rooted vines, and the roots here go incredibly deep.” Much like Fred Brander, the architect of the Los Olivos District, Steinwachs feels the area is still defining itself, but has all the makings of a great AVA. “It’s going to be a tough area to define because it truly is different than the other AVAs here. Our defining factor is that our soils are totally uniform, unlike Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon. I always get a minerality, which is a word that can be hard to define, but there is a rocky quality in our site that I find throughout the AVA. The wines also tend to have great acidity, in part due to the big temperature shifts from day to night we have here.”
Like many vineyards in the area, Buttonwood excels with several different Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. However, Steinwachs sees two standouts in her work there thus far. “I have to credit Chris Burroughs for the tagline ‘Blanc and Franc.’ Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have been here since the beginning and grow beautifully.” Even in cool years like 2010 or 2011, the Cabernet Franc here (as with all of their Bordeaux varieties) isn’t green or vegetal; rather, there is earth, cigar box, and raspberry fruit, with only a hint of pyrazine, an unmistakably Californian expression of the grape that has the balance and presence of great Bourgueil. “Cabernet Franc is a fussy little diva, it’s like Pinot Noir. You have to grow it perfectly or it throws a tantrum, you have to baby it in the cellar, but it makes great wines. We do focus on leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard to avoid that green character, but generally we don’t find that bell pepper character from this site.”
The farming at Buttonwood is some of the most thoughtful in the Valley. While it incorporates elements of organics and biodynamics, it is most reminiscent to me of Japanese iconoclast Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy, adapting to the natural needs and environment of the site. “We say that we’re farming ‘biologically.’ We don’t use any synthetic herbicides or insecticides,” says Steinwachs. “Our theory is that if we keep the plants healthy and maintain a diverse environment, they’ll protect themselves. Philosophically, we’ve really got our own way of farming, which is organically minded, self-contained, and focusing intensely on what nutrients the soil may need. We’re constantly testing the soil to see how we can address the needs of our plants.” As her friend and fellow winemaker Nick De Luca (a proponent of Fukuoka-inspired farming) says, “terroir is an unplanted field,” and in this sense, the farming at Buttonwood seems geared towards capturing the essence of the land as accurately and naturally as possible.
Buttonwood Vineyard and Farm looks and feels very much like old school California. Yet it also points the way to what the vineyard of California’s future will likely look like: wider spacing to address our growing water issues; cover crops growing wild; polyculture, with fruits and vegetables growing alongside grapes; in essence, a self-contained ecosystem where the farming adapts to the needs of the place rather than dogmatically following a prescribed set of rules. “It’s not about me as a winemaker,” says Steinwachs. “We farm for deliciousness, whether that’s tomatoes or wine. We love the fact that people are coming back to the table. It’s not just the eating and drinking, it’s the communal aspect of people getting together. And that’s what Buttonwood is about.”
Discussing vintages is a tricky thing. It’s all too easy to let the generalizations of a handful of critics define something which, by its nature, requires nuance. California’s 2011 vintage is a perfect example. A challenging year in terms of weather- frost, rain, and atypically cool weather that never really warmed up- it has been panned by many of the mainstream wine media, citing what they perceive as wines lacking in concentration, shrill and weedy in their structure and flavor profile. Having tasted hundreds of ‘11s from the state, particularly from the Central Coast, over the past couple of years, I must emphatically disagree; on the contrary, I have found the wines to possess a freshness and structure rarely achievable in California, with plenty of fruit and concentration to boot. I wanted to assess this further with others in a blind format, so I set about organizing a tasting of 2011 California Pinot Noir wines from throughout the state. The event took place this past Saturday, with many winemakers and sommeliers in attendance to join in the analysis (and reveling).
Tasting wines with winemakers blind, especially when they know their own wines are in the mix, makes for a fascinating study in human behavior. The flow of ideas seems to coincide with the flowing of wine; the fear of offending others or speaking freely about a wine’s attributes and flaws doesn’t seem to subside until liquid courage has opened the mind and the mouth. Knowing this, we prefaced the Pinot tasting with several whites from 2011 to loosen the room. Again, the freshness of the vintage spoke loud and clear, from Viognier to Chardonnay, with minerality and acidity unified with fruit.
On to the Pinot tasting, seventeen wines were tasted in total, single blind, with wines brought by the various guests. To give context to the personal biases of myself, as well as those in attendance, palates in general leaned toward wines with an Old World sense of balance: lower alcohol, higher acid, and a desire for spice, earth, and floral character over fruit. As a vintage, 2011, given its quasi-European weather, definitely encouraged and allowed for these characteristics in the wine. That being said, I was surprised at the amount of ripeness present. While many critics have maligned the vintage for its lack of heft, there was certainly not a lack of richness, even in the earlier-picked examples. Perhaps these wines have gained body with age, as upon release there was a tightly coiled character to 2011.
One of the most significant factors with 2011 is that it was one of the first vintages where a major shift in terms of ripeness was present. While this was certainly helped along by the vintage, it was mostly a stylistic choice. Across the board alcohols were lower in a year where, despite the relative cool, it was still possible to achieve 15 or 16% alcohol in Pinot Noir. It brought up a question that hasn’t been heard in regards to Californian wine in quite a long time: when is a wine not ripe enough? Without a doubt there was wine present here that may have been picked too early. In the same way an ultra-ripe wine can have a one-note character, some of these had a simplicity to them that made for a rather dull drinking experience. There were also a few examples where producers utilized high percentages of whole-cluster (stem inclusion), a practice I’m typically quite fond of, that came off as green and overtly vegetal. In general, the wines that really stood out were those that accented the best characteristics of the vintage and captured not only their vineyards, but their own sense of style and artistic interpretation of the year.
There were 3 consensus favorites among the group, all of which are great examples of site-driven Pinot Noir. Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast bottling under his Kutch label was gorgeous, and many thought reminiscent of old-school Santa Maria Valley Pinot. With 25% whole cluster, 30% new oak and just 12.8% alcohol, all of its elements were perfectly in balance, its notes of rhubarb, underbrush, and sea shell making for a compelling, mineral wine. Ryan Deovlet’s eponymous label rendered one of the best examples of Bien Nacido I’ve tasted. Sourced from both old vines and newer plantings within this iconic site, it was classic Bien Nacido in its aromas and flavors of blood orange and black pepper, with a textural depth rarely found outside of Burgundy. Last but not least, everyone loved Luceant’s 2011 Laetitia Vineyard Reserve bottling. Seeing the most whole cluster and the most new oak of the 3 (50% of both), this was overflowing with spice, though again, all the elements were in balance. This showed the power and pedigree of the Laetitia site, with forest floor, clove, and blackberry.
One of the marks of a great wine region is its willingness to periodically assess itself in an honest way. I take a lot of pride in the fact that tastings like these are constantly happening in our area, often with winemakers pitting their wines against examples from the old world or from other local producers. There is a desire to elevate not only their wines, but the region as a whole, a trait that I hope we continue to encourage. What tastings like these continually assert to me is that these are wines that can play comfortably on the world stage, and that are only getting better.
The full lineup of wines tasted in no particular order, all 2011:
– Luceant, Laetitia Vineyard Reserve, Arroyo Grande Valley
– Kosta Browne, Russian River Valley
– Kita, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Presqu’ile, Estate, Santa Maria Valley
– Tantara, Lindsey’s Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Tantara, Corral, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Labyrinth, Sta. Rita Hills
– Siduri, Sta. Rita Hills
– Paul Lato, Wenzlau Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Kutch, Sonoma Coast
– Deovlet, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Tyler, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Hirsch, San Andreas Fault, Estate, Sonoma Coast
– Longoria, Fe Ciega Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– J. Brix, Kick On Ranch, Santa Barbara County
– Qupe, Saywer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
A good wine captures its vineyard. A great wine captures its vineyard AND the personality of its winemaker. When I think of the wines that have inspired me- Didier Dagueneau’s various expressions of Pouilly-Fumé, Soldera’s Brunello, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bob Travers at Mayacamas- I think of them not only as the essence of the place they grow, but as an encapsulation of their creators. To that list I would add Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace. She puts her heart and soul into every bottle, and one can sense her presence in the glass, a feminine, ethereal, joyful rendering of site and self. I spoke with her this week about her new spring release and the character that makes these wines so distinctive.
Cynicism is impossible around Angela Osborne. She radiates such positive energy that even when she discusses the more esoteric aspects of her winemaking philosophy or her views on farming, there is such genuine belief and lack of artifice that one can’t help but be compelled. Take the hummingbirds that grace the corks of her current vintage. “The Chumash believe the hummingbird represents the grandmother energy, and both of my grandmothers became angels last year, so now they watch over all the bottles of Grace,” says Osborne. “There were 13,776 hummingbirds that came into the world this vintage, which was really powerful for me.” It is these little details- imbuing something as mundane as a cork with so much love- that make her wines stand out.
This detail-oriented approach extends to the winemaking. Her varied experiments in the cellar are some of the most thought-out and intriguing I have seen. Techniques that may have worked in past vintages will be altered or abandoned completely if the current vintage or a burst of inspiration calls for it. Her new release is a great example of this, in particular her Grenache rosé. Angela’s 2013 is a wildly different take than her 2012. The ’12 came from Coghlan Vineyard on the western fringe of Happy Canyon, was aged in large neutral oak puncheons, and went through full malolactic fermentation, making for a rosé with heft and richness. The ’13? “The 2013 spent 24 hours on the skins, and then fermented cold in stainless, aged entirely in stainless, no ML. It’s also from the Highlands this year. Bottled on my birthday, March 3rd.” Despite the critical acclaim she received for her previous rosé, she felt the need to do a total 180 and explore a new winemaking approach. “I really liked the ’12, it was really soft and approachable, but I wanted to experiment this year with something a little higher acid, especially working with the Highlands. It feels like it’s got lighter feet, a bit more playful, which suits me at the moment.”
The Highlands that she speaks of is the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. It is a site so perfectly suited to Osborne’s style, and her chosen medium of Grenache, that it’s difficult to imagine her without the Highlands and vice versa. Located on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County, in Ventucopa, this lunar-looking site is one of the most unique in California. “It doesn’t really feel of this world. It’s very moon like. Kind of silences you a bit,” says Osborne. At 3200 feet elevation, and subject to an extreme continental climate, it is separated into two sections: the valley floor and the Mesa. Angela’s single vineyard Grenache has typically been a mix of both, but with 2012, she has shifted to utilizing entirely Mesa fruit, with the valley floor being used for rosé and her Santa Barbara County blend. While the valley floor is very sandy, the soils of the mesa are loamier, and, more importantly, laced with igneous rocks- basalt, quartz, gneiss, and granite- making for soil conditions that are singular within Santa Barbara County.
“The ’12 has an entirely different tannic structure. This is the first year I’ve bottled the Mesa by itself, and there’s much more strength there. It’s 50% whole cluster, whereas my valley floor blocks are all destemmed,” says Osborne. Her Grenache from the Highlands has always been noted for its delicate nature and elegant texture, though she doesn’t worry about losing this with the addition of whole cluster; rather, she is seeking more structure, with the hope of giving the wines the ability to age like the great Chateauneufs, particularly Chateau Rayas, which she admires. “I’ve yet to come to a point where the whole cluster becomes too much. I hope it will give longevity, in a different way energetically than acid, but hopefully with the same ability to age. I don’t want it to be overt, but I love the spice of Grenache, and I feel a lot of that comes from whole cluster.” She also chooses to make the stylistic separation in the cellar between her varying lots of whole cluster or destemmed fruit in typically creative fashion. “I always separate the fermentations into whole cluster, layered, destemmed, and whole cluster and destemmed,” says Osborne. “I label my barrels as sun and moon, because I feel the moon energy is represented by the whole cluster, and the sun is the fruit. So each barrel lists percentages of sun and moon.”
The future for A Tribute to Grace is wide open. The Osborne clan is hoping to eventually split their time between Santa Barbara County and Angela’s home country, New Zealand, working two harvests a year, having a small patch of land to call their own, and raising a family. It’s a goal that, like the wines of A Tribute to Grace, is beautiful and true.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner Vineyard are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
Starting a winery in the New World, especially California, can be a daunting financial prospect. Unless one is already wealthy from another career, making even 100 cases of wines can be an economic challenge. And if you’re a young cellar rat on a tight budget, it takes real perseverance, scrounging every available penny to pursue your dream. Rick Hill is a winemaker who did just that. A New Zealand native, Hill took a circuitous route to achieve his goals. “In the early ‘80s in New Zealand, there really wasn’t an opportunity to find a career path in wine. It was all small mom and pop operations that couldn’t afford employees, and I figured I needed a way to make money to create a path for my interests in winemaking,” says Hill. “So, I actually ended up in the milk and fruit juice industries, which I had a background in, and traveled the world doing that and building up capital.”
Through his travels Hill came upon an internship opportunity with Simi Winery in Napa in 1997. Hearing of his love for Pinot, the crew there suggested he head down to Santa Barbara County instead, where he landed a gig at the renowned Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) as a cellar rat. “My job would be anything from picking up pizzas at 4 in the morning to doing 4 punchdowns a day at a winemaker’s whim, and by ingratiating myself to them they gave me a lot of trust. Many young winemakers feel the need to jump around every year, work a vintage in Tuscany, then Argentina, etc., but when the harvest ended, I felt I’d really found my own little niche here and wanted to stay.” Though still splitting his time between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, he committed to returning each year to CCWS to work harvest.
Rick’s fourth vintage in the area (2000) saw a fortuitous event that would forever alter his winemaking path. One of CCWS’s main clients, Lane Tanner, injured her knee and needed a full time assistant. “She said, ‘look, I don’t have a lot of money to offer you, but if you work exclusively for me, I will give you two tons of any grapes that I have sources from,’ and I thought, ‘perfect.’” Those two tons, which would come from the venerable Bien Nacido Vineyard, were the birth of the Labyrinth label. This was also the beginning of a relationship that would blossom from a close friendship into a romance. In 2004, after dating for a few years, Rick and Lane decided to marry, turning Hill into a full time Central Coast resident. “My plan was a 2 year transition; hers was immediately, so I moved within 6 months to the U.S. full time.”
Hill’s approach in the cellar and resultant wines speak to a love of Burgundy. Elegant, with an emphasis on spice and structure over fruit, they are the essence of great California Pinot Noir. “Essentially, for anyone growing up in New Zealand, we didn’t have much in the way of local wine or other New World wine available, so European wines were the benchmark, and for me in particular it was about Burgundy,” says Hill. “Those early years of drinking Old World wines that shunned high alcohol and lots of new oak really laid the foundation for my winemaking philosophy.” Hill utilizes a variable approach in his assessment of when to pick, relying on numbers, flavors, and instinct honed over years. “You’re looking for that point in time when there’s no herbaceous flavor in Pinot, particularly if you’re doing whole-cluster.” He finds the ideal flavor profile in the fruit when picking to be along the line of cranberry or pomegranate with a hint of black cherry. “I want to avoid those darker flavors, the blackberry and prune. That’s just Shiraz in drag.”
Hill’s sister label, Haka (a Maori war cry, honoring his Maori heritage and connoting power or boldness), was born out of the economic turmoil caused by the recession. As with his winemaking approach, he is very forthcoming about the economic realities and challenges of being a small producer. “When the economy tanked, from 2007 to 2011, people stopped buying most of those high end Pinots. I didn’t want to destroy the Labyrinth brand by discounting, because people have long memories when it comes to pricing, so I founded Haka as a way to bring value-driven wines, as well as a different varietal focus, into the marketplace.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and through his Haka label he has found a new niche through his exploration of Tempranillo. “I’ve been passionate about Tempranillo since the New Zealand days when the early imports first came into the country. You can pick it early and get those nice sinewy tannins and dried cherry, you can pick it late and get more of the black licorice and coffee grounds; for Haka, it’s really my benchmark wine.” He has explored, and is still exploring, numerous interpretations of the grape, picking at different ripeness levels, utilizing both French and American oak, and working with sites in warm-climate Paso Robles and cooler sites in Los Alamos. His ‘12s and ‘13s out of barrel are some of the most exciting expressions of the grape I’ve yet tried from our state, matching the power and minerality of Toro with a uniquely Californian presence of fruit.
After a brief hiatus, the Labyrinth label bounced back in a big way with the 2012 and 2013 harvests. Working with new vineyard sources in Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, there’s renewed vigor in Hill’s Pinot program. While the Haka label has allowed him to work with more powerful grape varieties and a slightly riper style of winemaking, his Labyrinth Pinots are still classically balanced, site-driven, and filled with notes of earth and spice. He also chooses to work with only one cooper, Alain Fouquet, for his Pinots, a decision he believes helps communicate the differences between sites more clearly. “If I start utilizing different coopers, it’s like ‘where is that change coming from? Is it the site, is it the picking, is it the oak?’ I really want those vineyard differences to be apparent, and for my style to stay consistent, which is why I stick with one cooper.” Lovers of California Pinot with a Burgundian sensibility should keep an eye out for the release of his 2012s later in the year.
There is an intuitive nature to Hill’s winemaking that can be tasted and felt throughout his entire program. It is an approach he describes as “habitual practices but no fixed rules.” While there is a desire for consistency of quality and a certain sense of style, the vagaries of vintage are adapted to and allowed to speak, making for wines that beautifully marry time and place with a sense of self. In these wines one tastes the ebullience of a young cellar rat from New Zealand, whose desire to express himself through wine has only grown with time.
My memories of the weather growing up as a kid in Santa Maria aren’t exactly the stuff of idyllic Norman Rockwell paintings. The howling wind blowing clouds of dust from the nearby strawberry fields into my grandparents’ yard where I was playing, families freezing at Little League games, and relentless fog even in the middle of summer. Ironically, given the career path I’ve chosen, this weather also makes for one of the planet’s most ideal locations for Pinot Noir. In the past year I’ve fallen in love all over again with the wind-battered, fog-shrouded west end of the valley in particular, and the thrilling Pinots emanating from this tiny corner of the world. This week I spoke with several of the farmers and winemakers who are crafting incredible Pinot Noir here.
While this area doesn’t have a specific name yet, some have begun referring to it as the Solomon Hills (also the name of one the most prominent vineyards here). Beginning in the southwest portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA along the transverse Solomon Hills range, directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean, this is an area defined by its extreme maritime conditions: harsh winds, constant fog, and lots and lots of sand. The nearby Guadalupe Dunes Complex is the second largest dune series in California, and walking the vineyards, one gets a sense of just how coastally influenced the soils here are. Over millennia, wind deposited all of this sand among the vineyards of what is now the west end of Santa Maria Valley. “This is pure sand, essentially no rocks or pebbles, and growing grapes in this soil is very difficult,” says Trey Fletcher, winemaker for Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. “It doesn’t hold water at all, so irrigation has to be managed very carefully. These vineyards could probably never be dry farmed.” The two dominant soil series in the far west along the Solomon Hills are Marina and Garey sands. As one heads north or east, the Pleasanton, Positas and Sorrento series begin to enter the picture, with more loamy, pebbly textures, marking the transition out of this small subsection of the Valley.
The Westside is separated from the eastern part of the valley by a gradual change in soil, climate, and exposure, beginning with the shift into riverbed soils that occurs at Cat Canyon Creek and the Santa Maria and Sisquoc Rivers. As the valley floor rises into what is referred to as the Santa Maria Bench, the soils undergo a more dramatic shift, showing the origins of volcanic uplift, with shale, limestone and more clay entering the picture. Much of the bench also moves to a southern exposure, warmer and slightly sheltered from the direct wind. When tasting Pinot Noir from riverbed sites such as Riverbench or benchland sites such as the famed Bien Nacido next to Pinot Noirs from the Western edge, the stylistic differences are readily apparent. “Solomon Hills looks to the sky. Bien Nacido looks to the earth,” says Fletcher. To elaborate on this idea, the wines from the valley’s west end, particularly those within the Solomon Hills such as Presqu’ile, Solomon Hills, and Rancho Real/Murmur, are shaped by refrigerated sunshine, pummeling wind, and wind-deposited soils, leading to sun-kissed Pinot Noirs driven by fruit and spice. Vineyards on the bench on the other hand have much rounder textures and more overt notes of organic earth thanks to the loam and stones that define this part of the Valley.
“There is a very apparent spiciness in the wines here when made in a delicate style,” says Ernst Storm. “In the case of Presqu’ile, it is exciting to work with a young vineyard that is already showing so much terroir.” Many producers, such as Storm, choose to highlight this character by utilizing whole-cluster fermentation. “I find that the Solomon Hills area is more conducive to whole-cluster,” says Luceant’s Kevin Law. “You get all of this beautiful savory spice, along the lines of Italian herbs.” Others feel that the fruit already provides so much spice that stem inclusion isn’t needed. “My tastings prior to 2013 of other producers and our own verticals seemed to show a more brooding character to the fruit and spice profile. As a result I was more reticent with our use of whole cluster, not believing there was much to gain in terms of spice and structure from the stems,” says Dierberg’s Tyler Thomas. “For the most part we found this to be true of 2013 though I would say 2012 and 2013 highlight fruit over spice more than I observed in vintages past.” Personally, I love the use of whole cluster here, particularly from the Presqu’ile vineyard. The intense spice these producers speak of, which for me leans somewhere between Christmas spices and dried Italian herbs, is distinctive, not only within the Santa Maria Valley, but within California as a whole.
Another facet that producers speak to about the area is its ability to capture perfectly ripe fruit at low brix and, therefore, low alcohols. “With the soil being so sandy, early-ripening Dijon clones do incredibly well, and there is beautiful phenolic character at perfect pH and brix of only 22 or 22.5,” says Law. “With those vineyards by the river, I find it can be harder to get that perfect triangulation of pH, brix, and phenolics.” These lower alcohols could also be due to the fact that most of the producers working with fruit in this area are a new generation of winemakers seeking a return to balance. Names like Storm, Luceant, Presqu’ile, and La Fenetre are associated with this movement, and it is not uncommon to see alcohols in the 12% range from these sites.
It will be interesting to see where this region goes in the coming years. While it is currently defined by a small handful of sites, there is still a lot of available land that hasn’t been utilized. Most of the vineyards are also quite young, and I expect their character to become more pronounced and refined with time. For now, it is one of the most consistent and unique Pinot Noir regions on the Central Coast, and for lovers of the balance and spice-driven profile that makes Pinot Noir so wonderful, this should be at the top of the list for new areas to explore.
Enjoy this brief video journey through the West end shot this past week, heading north and east, through the Solomon Hills, Ca del Grevino (Addamo), Presqu’ile, Dierberg, and Garey Vineyards.
Great wine starts with a great story. A vineyard tells us a story through its soil and its climate; the farmer frames this story with agricultural tradition and the stewardship of the land; and the winemaker captures both of these stories, along with their own imprint of self and style. This past Thursday we held a special event at the Café called Under the Influencethat sought to give four local winemakers the opportunity to tell their stories and the stories of the wines that have inspired them. It was a night that exceeded my greatest expectations.
South African native Ernst Storm began the evening by pouring his 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc alongside Ashbourne’s 2008 “Sandstone,” a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon grown in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The latter wine was crafted by Storm’s brother Hannes, whose wines under the Ashbourne and Hamilton Russell labels are some of the most acclaimed in South Africa. While one could see a certain similarity between the two, the overall contrast was striking. Storm’s youthful Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the extremely sandy soils and cool climate of Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile site, was bright and fresh, with its pyrazine notes of grass and jalapeño accented by guava, gooseberry, and a really unique hint of oak. As it turns out, that noticeable oak accent comes from the use of acacia barrels, which also provide a distinctive textural presence to the wine. The Ashbourne, on the other hand, 4 years older, was already developing some tertiary nuances, with notes of lanolin, beeswax, and bruised apple starting to appear. Nevertheless, the varietal character was unmistakable, possessing a similar herbaceous character as the Storm, joined to wet-stone minerality (sandstone soils here) and a more voluptuous texture. The most fascinating thing for me about tasting these side by side was to see the shared family passion from these two brothers, and the level of commitment they both bring to their different projects. While the winemaking details may be different, they are united in their desire to express site as clearly as possible.
Our next course saw the team from Liquid Farm sharing their 2012 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay next to Francois Carillon’s 2011 Puligny-Montrachet. Liquid Farm’s goal from the outset has been to create a domestic interpretation of the wines they had fallen in love with from Burgundy, so their choice came as no surprise. The differences between the two wines were, as with the first course, quite vast. The Francois Carillon, despite a splash decant, was still a bit reduced, showing a fairly high amount of SO2 on the nose. I have found this character in quite a few 2011 white Burgundies, which may be in response to all of the premox issues that have plagued the region over the past decade. Overall, though, Carillon’s Puligny was incredibly precise and soil-driven, with an intense mineral presence. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the “Golden Slope” bottling still came across with admirable restraint and balance against one of Burgundy’s benchmark producers. The fruit and textural power of the wine were unmistakably California, traits I believe should be celebrated, and the minerality of the Sta. Rita Hills in all of its saline glory was an intriguing contrast to the limestone origins of the Carillon. Paired with Barramundi and Manila clams, both wines were delights to ponder and savor.
Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe chose to honor our local pioneers for the third course. The Pinot Noir from his estate has become a modern benchmark in American wine, with examples from his own label as well as those purchasing his fruit achieving great recognition. He poured a 2006 Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir next to the 2010 Clos Pepe Estate, and spoke of Rick Longoria’s influence on his own path as a farmer and winemaker. He also honored two other local innovators, Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. It is sometimes easy to overlook the originators in favor of the hot new thing, but these three men are still crafting some of the most site-driven, balanced wines in Santa Barbara County, so it was beautiful to see Wes, who himself is a bridge between the first generation and our current new crop of young winemakers, honor this trio. The wines shown wonderfully, with the power and richness of the heat-spike-affected 2010 Clos Pepe contrasting nicely to the more developed, earthy Fe Ciega bottling.
While all of the wines on the night were complex and worked beautifully at table, the final course was perhaps the highlight for me: The 2010 Luminesce Syrah from Thompson Vineyard next to Domaine du Coulet’s 2010 Cornas ‘Brise Cailloux.’ Thompson Vineyard is one of the great sites of Santa Barbara County. Tucked back into Los Alamos Valley’s Alisos Canyon, the Syrahs from here are legendary, with a structure and precision rarely found outside of the Northern Rhone. Luminesce’s rendition leans toward the Old World in its balance and approach: just 13.4% alcohol, it was fermented with around 30% whole clusters and aged in puncheons. The wine showed amazingly well, with white pepper, gravel, smoked meat, and blueberry on the nose, along with a poised, beautifully structured palate. The overall balance in this wine could easily stand head to head with the greats from Hermitage or Cornas, and on this night it did just that. Coulet’s Cornas is a personal favorite, and for me captures the essence of this tiny appellation. The 2010 did not disappoint, with aromatics of iron, kalamata olive, blood, and bacon leaping out of the glass. There was also a touch of Brettanomyces, which sparked an interesting discussion among the winemakers. Luminesce’s Kevin Law somewhat jokingly said that he liked a little “imported Brett,” i.e. bretty wines from the Old World, while others found the Coulet close to their threshold for tolerance. Personally, I thought it added to the wine, particularly texturally, and was a great example of how a flaw can actually enhance a wine’s beauty. With smoked New York steak and mushroom & spinach strudel, it was an incredible end to the night.
The evening was deeply moving both emotionally and intellectually. Giving these winemakers an opportunity to discuss their inspirations allowed us to see their joy and passion as tasters, and hear the stories behind their influences. It can be easy as professionals in the wine business to get bogged down in the minutiae of winemaking or French Appellation law. This evening was such a treat because it allowed all of us a return to the pure elation as imbibers that made us fall in love with wine in the first place.
Special thanks to Matthew Negrete for the wonderful photos
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.” Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills. Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock. However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him. These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else. This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.
The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific. As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall. In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California. “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen. “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.” Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions. The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.
The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam. Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay. The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils. This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power. Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in thesouthernhalf, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.” Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel. I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”
One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar. From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle. Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label. “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer. “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally. Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.” Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s. Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.
For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock. His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area. “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson. “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.” They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent. The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes. The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.
In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed. This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region. Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place. In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.
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