Meeting and interviewing Pete Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards and Winery offered a rare glimpse into how winemakers are born. Pete is the subject of our Featured Local Winemaker series.
We asked Pete to sum up in ONE word an aspect of his personality that gets infused into Stolpman wine. Pete’s answer: “Crazy”! He chose this word as he reflected on his father’s sheer determination to find a property with the same soil characteristics as the European wines he loved. Pete’s father, Tom Stolpman, knew that if he found the limestone soil he was looking for, the rest would fall into place. And… it did.
Pete’s parents, Tom and Marilyn Stolpman founded Stolpman Vineyard and Winery in 1990.
The senior Stolpmans envisioned winemaking as an investment worth pursuing because they could enjoy the fruits of their labor… together. And now, Pete and his wife, Jessica are partners in their family endeavor.
Their 220-acre property in Ballard Canyon— of which a whopping 153 acres are currently planted to grapes– lies on three major limestone ridgelines. By implementing revolutionary viticultural techniques, their mission is to push the dry-farmed limestone vines to unprecedented levels of quality.
Stolpman Vineyards produces Syrah, Roussanne, Grenache, and Sangiovese within the Ballard Canyon AVA. Petite Sirah, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc are also grown and produced in limited quantities, as well as some more obscure native French varietals that promise some very interesting wines in the not-so-distant future.
One of the first business decisions the Stolpmans made– a decision that gives them a reputation for being mindful of their role in our community– was to give all their workers full-time employment; they made a commitment to them and their families by providing careers, instead of temporary work. Ruben Solorzano is one of the key players that gives Stolpman wines their stellar reputation. As a 20-year veteran vineyard manager and local viticultural superstar, Ruben organically dry farms the vines for balanced concentration and a healthy ecosystem. Kyle Knapp, head winemaker, and consulting winemaker, Sashi Moorman, round out the team’s talent. Kyle and Sashi work hand-in-hand with Ruben and Pete in timing the harvest of their taut, fresh fruit. Kyle proudly sees himself as the steward, rather than the creator, of Stolpman’s “vineyard crafted” wines.
Here’s Pete Stolpman’s unique ‘how-I-became-a-winemaker” story:
After graduating from Georgetown University, Pete took a management job in Los Angeles. He became increasingly involved in his family’s vineyard operation until it became apparent that jumping into the family business was what he was meant to do. He quit his job, and embarked on a three-year wine training program; he refers to this as the “Master’s Degree by Tom Stolpman.” Pete made wine in Australia and in Italy before returning home to sell wine for the Henry Wine Group, where he was awarded the title, Fine Wine Specialist of the Year in 2008. AT 26 years old! He was the youngest salesman to receive this award (and still holds the record!).
Ready for THE challenge, Pete took over day-to-day management of Stolpman Vineyards in 1990 and hasn’t regretted his decision for one moment.
Pete’s time at Henry Wine Group was not only a great learning opportunity, it was also life- changing in terms of his personal life.
During his training at Henry WineGroup, he met his wife, Jessica. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where she fell in love with the world of wine through her involvement in the Vines to Wines Club. Upon graduation, she joined the Henry Wine Group, where, she met Pete, AND won the award for Highest Sales Growth. After two years at Henry Wine Group, Jessica moved on to become the Western Regional Sales Manager for Zaca Mesa Winery, just 10 miles north of Stolpman Vineyards on Foxen Canyon Road. Now fully emerged in the family business, Jessica manages the California wholesale market for Stolpman Vineyards.
A long-term vision
The Stolpmans are recognized for their pivotal role in developing the Ballard Canyon AVA. Upon publication of the AVA, Pete was elected President of the Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance. Through his travels promoting Stolpman Vineyards around the world, Pete is also spreading the word about Ballard Canyon’s commitment to Syrah, leading the charge to establish the area as the benchmark Syrah appellation in the New World.
The Stolpman Story is one very similar to many of the other local Santa Barbara Wine Country winemakers that we have interviewed. It started with a dream, that with hard work and determination has made our incredible niche in the world of wine something to be proud of. Having the legacy passed down to the next generation is a sign that our burgeoning wine country is here to stay!
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.
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