Winemaker Dieter Cronje of Presqu’ile Winery Shares His Energy
Dieter Cronje isn’t shy about what he needs as a winemaker – more storage! In helping build Presqu’ile Winery from the ground up, he’s acutely aware of the needs of his vineyard. As he puts it, “the problem is, an empty barrel of air takes up the same space as a full barrel!”
This month’s local Featured Winemaker showcases how a love of winemaking affects us globally, as South African Dieter Cronje takes us on his personal journey bringing him to Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria.
Out on the cold, windswept, and sandy hills of the far western side of the Santa Maria AVA, Dieter’s team works to perfect a select few wines that have made Presqu’ile stand out in North County: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rosé, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Dieter believes strongly in the philosophies behind making wine; the energy he puts into his wine shows in each varietal Presqu’ile showcases. Coming from a formal education as a winemaker, Dieter understands the science behind what makes wine taste so good; Presqu’ile’s large on-site laboratory and full-time wine chemist attest to their devotion to textbook-perfect wine.
The 73-acre Presqu’ile vineyard sits close to the western border of the Santa Maria viticulture area, where the cold Pacific air constantly blows over the ocean-facing hills. Dieter and the Murphy family, owners of Presqu’ile, built the winery and tasting room from the ground-up, to their exacting specifications. The result is a world-class, gravity fed winemaking operation focusing on exhibiting fascinating Pinots, Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs.
From South Africa to the Central Coast:
Dieter got his start with wine early, “when I realized I could make my own booze!” he proclaims. After his father encouraged him to get in the industry over a shared love of wine, Dieter studied at Elsenberg Agricultural College and the University of Bordeaux, before traveling the world to hone his skills in crafting excellent Pinot Noir. Finally, Dieter met his future business partner Matthew Murphy at Ambuello Winery, where after several years, Dieter chose to come on as Presqu’iles winemaker.
Presqu’ile got its start in Mississippi, as a beachfront property owned by the Murphy family. They owned a small vineyard which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Looking to start fresh on the West Coast, the Murphy’s searched up and down California from the Russia River, Napa, and Santa Barbara County to find the perfect place to grow cold Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. After settling on the Santa Maria AVA, the Murphys began growing grapes and had their first Presqu’ile Winery vintage in 2009.
Pursuit of Perfection
Whats next for this successful winemaker: the ceaseless pursuit of that perfect wine. “…I think if any winemaker tells you he has made the wine he’s completely satisfied with, he’s probably lying and should stop making wine because then there’s no more pursuit of perfection or pursuit of improvement.”
Dieter’s journey 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.
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!
For Ernst Storm, wine should tell a story: the story of the site, the story of the grape, and the story of the vintage. For us, his own story is an intriguing adventure that influences his unique approach to winemaking!
Ernst grew up along the Western Cape region of South Africa, an area made famous for winemaking. Although he did not grow up in a family of vignerons, his surroundings heavily influenced both himself and his brother. Ernst knew that he wanted to pursue a line of work that both involved creativity and nature, both of which logically lead him back to his roots.
Not content with just staying home, however, Ernst traveled extensively through Europe and eventually made his way to California, working in Amador County in the Sierra Foothills. There, he was able to balance out his knowledge of cool-climate winemaking that he learned in South Africa with that of the much-warmer Sierra Foothills AVA. He learned how to work with much higher levels of alcohol and pHs, and how to stabilize wines that are far out of balance, all of which have since come in handy with the varying microclimates around Santa Barbara County.
Ultimately it was a desire to explore a wider range of temperatures that drew him to Santa Barbara County. He became the winemaker for Notary Public Wines, drawing from the warmer Happy Canyon AVA to craft some delicious Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordeaux varietals. The microclimate range, though, is impossible to ignore, opening up unlimited possibilities for winemakers. After establishing his own eponymous label, Storm, Ernst set out to craft wines that tell the story of his background as well as their own.
A prime example is his Sauvignon Blanc: Ernst ages the wine in stainless steel, which is a decidedly New World approach, with lees (or spent yeast cells) included, which is decidedly Old World. The result is what he calls an “American Riviera wine”: one that is bright, refreshing, and infinitely quaffable. In fact, it’s the best selling white wine at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café month after month!
Owner of the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, Sam Marmorstein, got a chance to sit down with Ernst and learn more about his winemaking methods and path to finding himself as a winemaker in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Never one to rest on his proverbial laurels, Ernst is constantly exchanging ideas with his brother in South Africa. Since both are winemakers, they continue to inspire and advise each other. Ernst claims that most smaller wineries – and indeed, wine regions – have to figure out what works as they go along. This is a vastly different approach than that of bigger areas like Napa and Bordeaux where big money is spent on formulating wines that meet the specs for both public appeal and critical acclaim. Although that kind of money is helpful, making it up as you go allows the freedom to experiment, and that’s just what Ernst continues to do.
To step onto the Sunstone property is to step back into the Old World.
The gorgeous stone chateau is centered in a beautiful landscape, complete with tranquil space to sip your wine. It’s unlike any other winery in Santa Barbara County and is the result of an Old World sensibility passed down through the Rice family. In our interview, owner and winemaker, Bion Rice, shares the past, present, and future of Sunstone Winery.
According to Bion Rice, who now oversees the winery, his family relocated to Santa Ynez from Santa Barbara seeking better educational opportunities for his two sisters. His mother immediately saw the possibilities for what is now Sunstone. The landscape alone would inspire anyone, but Linda’s focus on “food, family, and friends” allowed her to pursue creating the best possible atmosphere for all. Linda and husband Fred planted Bordeaux varietals assuming they would sell the grapes off to winemakers but quickly became enamoured with making their own. And much like what would happen in a small Provençal village, their local friends were happy to help, pitching in to mentor their efforts and support them every step of the way.
Without any formal training in winemaking to start, Fred and Linda soaked up as much as they could – again, a very Old World approach! They began bottling their wine and by their second vintage, the family found themselves with a few thousand extra cases. Bion did what any loyal farmer’s son would do: he loaded the cases into his truck and began hawking his wares all over Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. His favorites stops were invariably at restaurants, where he’d end up chatting with chefs and tasting through fantastic dishes that opened up the possibilities of pairings for his wines even more. Sunstone’s production and demand increased exponentially and the Rice family soon sold their wines across the country.
Ironically, Bion sees the 2008 recession as a blessing in disguise because it forced the family to scale back and focus on what really mattered to them. This re-assessment renewed their passion for Linda’s initial pursuit of “food, family, and friends,” and the quality of their wine improved drastically. However, the Rices have never veered away from organic farming and are proud to operate the longest running organic winery in all of Santa Barbara. While this may have seemed ahead of its time, commitment to organic farming really just ties back to the Old World version of farming and was part of Linda’s overarching vision.
Today, Bion and his wife oversee operations, including winemaking. Bion plans to keep it in the family and is fostering his sons; in fact, his teenage son Miles helps in the blending process and has final say in which blend ends up in the “Milestone” bottle!
Before summer ends, give yourself a minivacation by visiting Sunstone winery. Step back in time and enjoy the chateau made from reclaimed materials and native stone. Grab a glass of their best-selling rosé and savour the warmth of family and friends that the Rice family has helped build.
Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat– Pioneer Winemaker of Santa Barbara
According to the Au Bon Climat website, Jim Clendenen grew up in Ohio in a “gastronomically impoverished” culture. It’s safe to say that he has since more than made up for that epicurially lost time during the last 30 years!
A Global Education
Like many of his generation, time spent in Europe during a semester abroad opened his eyes – and his mind – that food and wine could be more than burgers and California Mountain Burgundy. Such a transformative experience caused him to dedicate his career to wine instead of law, which is what he was actually there to study.
After a stint at Zaca Mesa, which has become so well-known for cultivating future winemakers that it’s called ‘Zaca U,’ Jim partnered with Adam Tolmach to create Au Bon Climat. His time in France influenced both the name of the winery and Jim’s approach: he sought to craft more subtle, vibrant, and age-worthy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In other words, he wanted to create what he wanted to drink.
Francophile Tendencies and Shared Vision
Jim’s Francophile tendencies were shared by winemaking colleagues Bob Lindquist, Adam Tolmach, and Ken Brown.
They got together on a regular basis to drink the French wines they all loved so much, thereby cementing the future of Santa Barbara winemaking whether they knew it or not. Since then, all have become giants in the wine industry, but it’s still Au Bon Climat that stands out as the best Burgundian-styled using fantastic California fruit.
Jim is quick to point out that it’s the Clendenen Family label that’s actually his “first” label because the grapes are from his own vineyard and he has built it from the ground up. There, he creates wines from more esoteric French grapes like Mondeuse and Aligoté which are seldom seen stateside. Such wines are highly acidic and beg to be paired with richer foods, which is also a direct nod to his time in France as a young man.
But winemaking isn’t the only way Jim carries out his quest to make up for gastronomical impoverishment of his youth: his lunch time meals for staff and visitors alike are legendary. He personally prepares a feast at the winery every day that he’s there and everyone sits down together at a communal table to enjoy it. You never really know what you’ll get since Jim usually cobbles together a meal
from what he has available – the veggies come from his garden and the meats are from local farmers. A thoughtful selection of wines are always present on the table. Truly an experience!
We, however, don’t need to wait for an invitation because we’re featuring Au Bon Climat wines through the month of August. We are offering the three featured wines below for 20% off throughout the month. We hope you get to take advantage of this fantastic deal!
If you look up the definition of “ground truth,” you’ll find many different definitions. Among soldiers, the “ground truth” refers to the strategic reality of a military situation. For a meteorologists, it refers to atmospheric information collected on location. Among poets, it refers to the fundamental truth. Before being a winemaker Garrett Gamache would collect ground-truth data out in the field when working as a geologist. But as a winemaker his label “Ground Truth” refers to what the French call terroir: the expression of grapes in specific soils and microclimates.
Garrett came to his own ground truth in a roundabout way. Like many young Central Coast winemakers, he didn’t come from a family of farmers. Instead, he discovered his calling after majoring in geology and growing frustrated with the office jobs he found after graduation. He worked for Ryan Carr of Carr Winery during his undergraduate degree at UCSB, and it was this call to be back in nature that led him to learn how to farm, essentially. He quickly realized that his favorite wines were the result of minimal winemaker intervention and instead tasted of their specific terroir.
Garrett’s minimalistic approach is immediately apparent in his wines. He strongly believes that wine should be an expression of the terroir above all else, and to achieve this, he keeps his production super small. Grapes for his wines are sourced from the best vineyards around Santa Barbara County, like Whitehawk Vineyard for his Viognier, Coquelicot Vineyard for his Rosé, and Kimsey Vineyard for his Syrah. The cooler temperatures in Whitehawk allow the aromatic nature of Viognier to fully develop while maintaining structured acidity. Similarly, the sandy soils of Kimsey are perfect for Syrah because it helps the earthy, spicy nature to show forth instead of big, jammy fruit. Finally, whole cluster pressing allows his Rosé juice to run free, with minimal skin contact, which naturally allows the earthy notes of Syrah to more subtly assert themselves.
Garrett also uses only indigenous yeast for fermentation, which means that yeast is not used to impart flavors that are not natural to the grapes, to the juice, or to the aging process. The resulting wines express pure, varietally-correct characteristics that speak of the beauty of soil and of climate and not of technology.
His smaller approach is aligned with his humble demeanor: when asked where he sees himself in ten years, Garrett replies that he’d like to keep making fantastic, small production wines. In fact, his current releases are his biggest yet at a combined 300 cases! While he probably wouldn’t mind being known as the great winemaker that he is, Garrett isn’t looking to become the next Robert Mondavi; in fact, he’d prefer that his label is recognizable, not him. In a time when so many are seeking to be the next rock star winemaker, Garrett’s approach is refreshing because his focus is purely on the wine and not on self-promotion. See for yourself and discover more in our interview that we had at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café:
We enjoyed hosting Garrett at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café on July 28th as he poured for part of our Final Friday Featured Winemaker series.
Winemaking is about storytelling, and the story behind Zaca Mesa is definitely worth telling. -Eric Mohseni, Zaca Mesa Winemaker
Zaca Mesa, one of the most storied wineries around due to it’s history. Established in 1973 when there were only two wineries in Santa Barbara County. Zaca Mesa is the first winery in the area to plant Syrah grapes, which helped kick start the Rhone varietal love affair throughout California.
Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block of Syrah is the oldest in the Central Coast. The vines themselves came from Gary Eberle, who acquired them from a UC Davis professor, who had taken them from Hermitage in France! Black Bear Block is all original rootstock– a rare find these days.
(Fun fact: “Black Bear Block” earned its name when vineyard manager Ruben Camacho found black bears there munching away on the grapes!) Today, Zaca Mesa’s estate exclusively grows Rhone grapes, everything from Viognier to Grenache and Syrah.
The story doesn’t end with the grapes, though. Located in a big ol’ barn up in the Santa Rita Hills, Zaca Mesa has been lucky enough to experience such legendary winemakers as Ken Brown and Bob Lindquist. Zaca Mesa has consistently kept quality wines above all else, and it’s that commitment to quality that attracted current Head Winemaker Eric Mohseni.
But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”
Eric worked part time at The Wine Country in Signal Hill during his undergraduate days at Cal State Long Beach, where he majored in food science and chemistry. As his role quickly grew, he became the buyer for Southern Hemisphere wines, which launched an obsession with Sauvignon Blanc. That, in turn, lead him to move to New Zealand to work a harvest and fully immerse himself in winemaking. But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”
Still a chemistry major at heart, Eric loves experimenting with barrels and aging. Recent additions to the winery include massive concrete tanks and elegant clay amphorae, both of which are used to produce Syrah and a Grenache-Mourvedre blend. Those wines are big, deep, and tannic, as the concrete and clay are obviously less porous than oak barrels and allow very little air in. This kind of curiosity and experimentation allows Zaca Mesa to produce varied styles of wine from the same block of grapes, from smooth and round to big and bold.
Eric credits Vineyard Manager Ruben Camacho, Cellar Master Agustin Robles, and the entire Zaca Mesa staff with the winery’s success because of their ongoing commitment and dedication. Ruben has been with Zaca Mesa for over 40 years, and Agustin isn’t far behind. Eric believes that the camaraderie found there is crucial to the finished wines.
Eric was our Featured Winemaker for the month of June in 2017. View our upcoming featured winemakers on our special event page here.
If you were to read a book about the history of wine making in Santa Barbara Wine Country, Foxen Winery would most definitely be a significant part of it. History is made when two people meet who’s personalities and talents compliment each other with a common vision, each bringing something to the table– or in this case the bottle– to make the vision a reality. And as Foxen’s popular, and rather catchy, adage goes, “If you don’t know FOXEN, you don’t know Dick… or Bill!”
Where did Dick Doré and Bill Wathen, commonly referred to as the Foxen Boys, meet? At a party… of course. You’ll enjoy watching our interview when they describe the details of the first time they met and their early years making wine. You’re sure to be entertained by their version of the story.
Though Dick and Bill get much of the well-deserved credit for Foxen’s success, their joint venture which began in 1985, is really a joint family business; which undoubtedly would not be the success it is without the expertise of their wives and all they do. Both Jenny Doré, Dick’s wife, and Becky Wathen, Bill’s wife, are behind the scenes keeping the business wheels turning and the Foxen boys on track– even their children play significant roles in running the family business.
Keeping it in the family is only natural since Foxen’s vineyard and winery is on Dick Doré’s historic family property. In fact, their original winery — commonly referred to as “The Shack”– is the old blacksmith shop that was in full operation when Dick’s great great grandfather, William Benjamin Foxen, operated the family property as a horse ranch. William Foxen was a sailor in the hide and tallow trade, who sailed around Cape Horn and came to Monterrey to pick up the hides and tallow, before dropping them off in Mexico and bringing back finished goods to California. On one of his trips he stopped in Santa Barbara at the Regional Commodant’s home. He met the Commodant’s youngest daughter, instantly fell in love and married. It was 1837, his new father-in-law arranged for William Foxen to purchase 10,000 acres from a Mexican land grant, which is now the Foxen property. William Foxen and his new wife started raising horses on the Foxen Canyon property and had 14 children! What better name for their winery than “Foxen,” with the logo adapted from the original cattle brand tilt head anchor.
So how did managing horses turn into producing wine? That’s where Bill comes in. More details are in our interview, but long story short, Bill knows what he’s doing in the vineyard where Dick says Bill, “makes the magic happen.” Clearly his talents are also in the winery because you’ll never find a Foxen wine that will disappoint– consider it a challenge and start with our three featured Foxen wines below. Even when they were operating in a 150 year old building, Bill still made incredible wines that built the reputation Foxen maintains.
When asked how they might sum up an aspect of themselves that may get infused into Foxen wines with one word, Bill said that he likes to borrow the term “Hózhó″ from the Navajo, meaning “walking in beauty – or living in a manner that strives to create and maintain balance, harmony, beauty and order.”
Foxen wines are just that… wines in balance.
We’ve had the pleasure of hosting a few Foxen Winemaker Dinners. They are always a great success– not only is the food amazing– but Dick and Bill bring their approachable demeanors and exceptional wine knowledge which always make for spirited conversation. After getting to know the Foxen Boys and their wives, it is apparent how they have become anchors of the Santa Barbara County wine industry.
“In order to get into the wine business, you have to be adventurous.”
Ryan Carr of Carr Vineyard and Winery is indeed adventurous! His first job was making snowboards, then went to the University of Arizona for graphic design and worked for a landscape company. It was in college that he took a class on plant science, a seed was planted, and since 1999 he has been farming vineyards and making wine– what an adventure! When Ryan made his way to the Santa Ynez Valley he thought he would start a graphic design business. Little did he know he know the adventurous path that laid ahead…
Starting on the farming side of the industry in 1998, Ryan began working for viticulturist, Craig McMillan. Getting outside to escape the computer was a no brainer for Ryan, he fell in love with being in the field, and before he knew it he was helping lay out and plant vineyards.
Developing relationships from his vineyard work Ryan was able to get his hands on some extra Cabernet Sauvignon fruit in 1999. With that and the help of some food grade trash cans, he made his first batch of ‘home’ wine, producing about 10 cases. That wine was given to friends and family, who actually LOVED it!
In 2000 Ryan was approached by Andy Kahn who had just started his own winemaking facility. Starting up his new business and tight on money, Andy suggested Ryan work for him (for free) in exchange for winemaking help and the use of the facility. Not willing to pass up the opportunity Ryan jumped in. He made his first 325 cases with 1.5 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5 tons of Cabernet Franc, and .5 tons of Pinot Noir. That was the beginning of the Carr label. Each year they continued to make more wine, and after several years Ryan really had a good thing going.
“As a farmer I am trying to represent the exact location more than anything. So it’s a hands off approach to wine making. Very minimal additions, and manipulation.”
One of the main factors that sets Carr apart from other wineries in our area is that they lease vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County; including Sta. Rita Hills, Los Olivos District, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon. Growing in all of these locations allows Ryan to get to know and see the differences in each growing region and make many different varietals.
California in general is a young wine region, so Santa Barbara is very new in the grand scheme of things. Being a young region we often look at older wine producing regions, such as France and Italy, for inspiration and advice. With that said, this is not Italy, or France, its California. We are finding our own techniches and styles over the years. You can see it happening in Santa Barbara, with all these sub appellations coming up. The basic understanding as to what our environment can do is increasing.
“Santa Barbara is such a special place, and without the influence of Burgundy we wouldn’t know that Sta. Rita Hills is perfect for the Burgundian varietals. Without the influence of the Rhone we wouldn’t know that Ballard Canyon is the place we should be growing the Rhone varietals, and same for Happy Canyon and the Bordeaux’s. It’s incredible what we can do within such a small area of California.”
Want to meet more local winemakers? Catch our current Featured Winemaker on our blog, or come meet them on the last friday of every month!
In 1997 Christine and Stevan Larner finally saw their dream of being in the wine business as a reality. Purchasing a 130 acre south facing parcel, perfectly situated in what is now Ballard Canyon, they began the Larner family legacy. Their son Michael was working as a Geologist in Colorado prior to the new family endeavor, but he always knew he wanted to come back to the earth, and being able to pass something down for multiple generations was fascinating to him. “The legacy aspect was my biggest selling point.” And so began the long and meaningful process of planting a vineyard and becoming a winemaker. Michael earned his Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and has been making wine since 1999.
Michael’s experience as a geologist before being a winemaker, allows him to see the winemaking and viticulture aspects much more from the land itself. He wants “to be firmly grounded to the earth” which has multiple meanings in Michael’s life. Leaving his career to join his family in their vineyard and winery endeavor gave him a sense of creating something that was always there, a legacy. His winemaking style is all about the site expression, allowing the wines to be the speaking word from the vineyard.
“Something there was present, this is the true essence of terroir, it’s coming from the land. As a geologist I am very comfortable with that, because I have studied the earth.”
As a winemaker Michael enjoys experimenting with different fermentation techniques, yeasts, and barrel choices. The process of giving and take allow the terroir to speak as loudly as it can through his wines. The Larner Vineyard and Winery team consist of more than just Michael, his wife Christina, mother Christine, and sister Monica each offer their own distinct look into the legacy. Figuring out where each wine will fit within the Larner program is a family affair. As a wine critic living in Rome, Monica looks at the wines from the eyes of the critic– how it’s going to do in the market. Christina is much more in tune with where the wines fit in from a generation standpoint, and Christine with her background in business is “the price guru.”
“The land was speaking louder than the winemakers.”
Michael is not only a fantastic viticulturist and winemaker but also co-founded the Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon is a north-south running valley totaling 7,000 acres, one of the smallest in California. Described as the ‘Goldie Locks’ AVA, because it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for a variety like Syrah. A slightly warm ripening interval, but also a cooling effect– so you get that pepper spice coupled with fruit which is essentially what Syrah— makes Ballard Canyon ideal growing conditions for the Syrah grape. There is 17 vineyards total in the Ballard Canyon AVA but just 6 produce wine, the rest is sold to other wineries. Currently, only 600 of 7,000 acres are planted, over 300 of those acres are planted to Syrah. Proving that “everyone sort of knew; ‘this is our champion’, this is what we want to bring forward.”
In Part One of our interview with Michael, he shares the backstory of how Ballard Canyon AVA evolved from an idea to reality.
In Part Two of our interview, Michael lights up about what makes Larner wines “Grounded”.
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.