Sonja owns Casa Dumetz, a wine Haus in Los Alamos, California, about 50 minutes north of Santa Barbara. Under the umbrella of the Casa Dumetz label, she also produces the single-label brand, The Feminist Party and Clementine Carter, focusing on Rhône & Grenache wines (both are being poured and sold as our featured wines this month).
Making world peace one bottle at a time…
“Making world peace one bottle at a time,” is the mantra that Sonja highlights on her website. A mantra she’s turned into a reality at her Los Alamos tasting room. Every Friday night, Sonja invites the public to join her as she opens the tasting room as a public forum, open to the free discussion of ideas, politics, wine, the environment, and other topics providing a neutral ground for cooperation and contemplation.
Sonja describes in one word the aspect of herself that gets infused into her wines,”Purity.”
Sonja is the brains, backing, and boss of Casa Dumetz. Sonja says that the expressions, effort, and emotions shown in her wine start with “Purity.” By blending the effects of the natural earth, the pure expressions of the vineyards, and her hands-off approach Sonja allows the wine and the vineyard to take a front seat on the nose and palate over any of her actions in the winery. “There’s not just a formula…” explains Sonja, on working with Grenache and other new varietals. “…you really have to understand. What is this varietal? What does it want to say? And, how do you want to usher it and chaperone it…?”
Casa Dumetz started like many other Central Coast small-batch manufacturers as a single varietal label. Pinot Noir was the focus – the only label — but through the years Sonja slowly grew Casa Dumetz and was able to branch out from the safety of Pinot Noir and began exploring new varietals and terroir to work with.
While today Los Alamos is starting to turn a big corner as a small but exquisite gastro-hub. However, when Sonja first opened her tasting room in the little farming town, frequently bypassed on the 101, Sonja was warned against it. “The idea was to really commit to winemaking and not be afraid of it,” says Sonja, who fortunately ignored the naysayers and opened the Los Alamos tasting room in 2011. Now others have followed suit and Los Alamos is on the map as another Santa Barbara Wine Country destination stop.
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, Erik Mallea of Mallea Wines has a remarkable talent for understanding the terroir of the vines he tends from which he creates his exquisite wines. As our featured winemaker for the month of January, Erik shared his foreseeable path to becoming a winemaker and the story behind his label.
Part One of our interview with Erik:
His love of farming took him to Oregon and New Zealand where he worked in viticulture and winemaking, but his fascination with fermentation began in his teen years back in his rural hometown in Minnesota with Chokecherries, apples, and oats. After receiving his Masters degree in Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State he came to Santa Barbara County in 2007 to pursue his career as a winemaker and vineyard manager. Currently managing vines for Sanford Winery and producing a stellar line up of wines for his and his wife, Amber’s, Mallea label.
“Observant” was the word Erik gave when asked to describe the part of his personality that gets infused into his winemaking. Instead of approaching winemaking with a specific style, Erik treats each vineyard with a unique approach that requires him to be observant of the land and the process. Mallea wines are sourced from five vineyards that Erik maintains from the ground up.
The thoughtful quality that can be tasted in every bottle can be experienced before the bottle is even opened. The coat of arms on the Mallea labels are a tribute to his father’s family coat of arms passed down from the Basque Country; the story behind this coat of arms takes you back into another time. If a wine label can influence the flavors and depths of character in a wine, either through it’s mere presence or the subtle feeling it evokes before sipping, then we suggest you listen to Part Two of our interview with Erik. The background story that makes up this coat of arms is inspiring and lives on not only in the Mallea family but also in the Basque region.
PART TWO of our interview with Erik:
Learn more about local Santa Barbara County winemakers at our blog here!
Larry Schaffer started off in the educational and trade publishing industry, but after a number of years felt he had finished everything he set out to do in that field, and started wondering about what was next. He had always been interested in winemaking, wondering how the process worked. How do you develop different wines from one grape varietal or another?
Learning more about winemaking was the challenge he was looking for, and he left his career to get a degree in Viticulture and Enology. After studying and working for years, Larry began his new career as the Enologist for Fess Parker Winery. He chose to settle in Santa Barbara County because of the openness of the winemaking community, their willingness to help each other, and because the Santa Ynez Valley is a great place to raise children.
After a year with Fess Parker, Larry started buying grapes to make his own wines, focusing on Rhone varietal wines under the label Tercero Wines. Tercero means “third” in Spanish, and the number three has many ties within Larry’s past and present. He was the third child in his family, he lived in the third dormitory complex at UC Davis, and he has three children of his own!
When asked, Larry describes his style of winemaking as “pragmatic”. He believes that if he’s done a blend correctly, the sum will be greater than the its parts. So, when he is putting his blends together, he’s never sure exactly what he’ll have. In his head, he’ll be thinking “This is going to add this and this is going to add this…” but in the end, sometimes it works out fine and sometimes it doesn’t. He believes that if he has done his job right, when one of his bottles is opened, he wants it to speak of the vintage, to speak of the vineyards that he worked with, the varieties he used, and he wants it to speak of his knowledge, education, or lack of knowledge – whatever it was that went into making that wine at that time. He says, “That’s an evolving process to me. My wines are never going to taste the same, or smell the same, and that’s ok! Because it’s going to hopefully be reflective of that time period when I made the wine. If I was going to be dogmatic, rather than pragmatic, I don’t think I would achieve that.”
Recently Shawnda Marmostein from the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, sat down with Matt Brady of Jaffurs Wine Cellars to learn a bit more about his wine making journey. In 2005 Matt started in winetasting and then, when harvest came around, he jumped in to help out with the picking of the grapes. Working through that harvest, Matt was bitten by the winemaking bug and was subsequently offered a full-time position. He has been there ever since, enjoying the diverse opportunities afforded by a small winery. Over the years, he has moved through 7 different job titles including cellar master to assistant winemaker and, a little over a year ago – to his current position as co-winemaker with owner Craig Jaffurs. While most of his training has been on-the-job, Matt has also taken weekend wine chemistry classes at UC Davis. In 2009, he took a sabbatical to travel to Australia and created a vintage at “Two Hands Wines” in the Barossa Valley. Matt is very appreciative of the benefits of working in a small winery where the few employees have the opportunity to become familiar with all aspects of the business and wear a number of different hats.
Craig Jaffurs, owner of the winery, began a career as a cost analyst for an aerospace company in Santa Barbara. On his off hours, he started exploring winemaking and creating his own home wines, learning from one of his best friends, Bruce McGuire, who works at the Santa Barbara Winery. After working a couple of harvests with Bruce, Craig fell in love with winemaking. Based on the success of his first few home vintages, he launched his own commercial brand and, in 1994, began making the Thompson Vineyard Syrah. His started with a couple 100 cases – which received rave reviews from the Wine Spectator. This initial success got the ball rolling, and Craig started doubling production – making his wine at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria through the year 2000. In 2001 Craig and his wife, Lee, bought the property where Jaffurs Wine Cellars is currently located. One block from the beach in Santa Barbara, the facility is off Milpas on Montecito St. After purchasing the property, the couple knocked down the little house on the site and began building their dream winery from the ground up. Visitors to the facility, which is open every day for tasting from 11am – 5pm, are in for a rare treat. The tasting room is located in the center of the production floor, surrounded by the tanks, barrels, and all the action. In fact, it is not uncommon for a casual winetasting to turn into an adventure for the lucky ones who come to taste and end up being invited to sort the grapes or do a little foot stomping – especially around harvest.
Matt related that Jaffurs philosophy is to have a minimalist approach. Beginning with great vineyards (strongly believing that the site trumps everything else), harvesting the best grapes they can get by hand, and working with vineyard managers so that everything is done to their specifications. They pick the grapes at night, trucking them to the winery in Santa Barbara by 7:00-8:00 in the morning. In the winery, the philosophy is “…to not do too much, so they don’t screw anything up.” Using a light touch, they hand sort the grapes, and employ gravity to move their wine, de-stemming most of their fruit without crushing it – while allowing for a small percentage to get whole cluster fermented before getting lightly foot stomped. Matt says, “We want our wines to be powerful and expressive, but we also want them to be elegant and balanced and together.” Currently Jaffurs has 25 acres of grape under contract, producing 5,000 cases, and 14 different wines. The produce small lots, with the majority of their wines being sold directly to their wine clubs. Matt feels, this gives them the opportunity to be “…a little more headstrong and experimental on what we want to do with our wines. Because we have a captive audience, so to speak, that are going to buy them – we can experiment with things like using more whole clusters or extending barreling.” Something larger wineries aren’t able to do, because they have to make the same thing every year. One of the things Matt is most excited about in 2016 is breaking some of their picks into multiple picks. For instance, if they target a harvest for a particular Wednesday, they will go in the Friday before to pick some of the grapes, pick the majority on that Wednesday, but then save some to be picked a few days later. This gives them some slightly varying levels of ripeness to work with – creating a way to increase complexity and add more layers to the wine. “Not the kind of thing a huge winery can do,” continues Matt. “but when you are small, agile, and dynamic- you get a winery team and winemaking staff that is excited to keep pushing the bar up and you get some really cool stuff!”
Matt loves his job. “Every year is different, every year we do some great experiments, every year your understanding of winemaking evolves. Things you thought you knew…you realize you don’t know. It’s one of those ever humbling processes. You get one chance at making wine each year and that’s pretty exciting.”
Learn more about Matt Brady and Jaffurs Wine Cellars from our interview at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe.
Blair Fox, of Blair Fox Cellars, is a Santa Barbara native who found the passion for wine and viticulture in his own backyard. Blair began attending UC Davis as a pre-med student, before transitioning into fermentation science for brewing. Due to uncontrollable circumstances he had to switch a class last minute, and Blair stumbled into his first viticulture course, which marked the moment he fell in love with the grape growing side of the industry. At first he thought he would solely be a grape grower, but once he realized that he would have to relinquish the grapes to someone else to turn into wine, he knew he wanted to have his hands in that side as well.
After graduating from college with a degree in both Viticulture and Enology, Blair began employment as head winemaker for a family-owned winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. This was the time he and his wife, Sarah, established their own label Blair Fox Cellars. As Santa Barbara wine country’s premier restaurant for highlighting local winemakers, we are proud to say the Los Olivos Café was the first to offer Blair Fox Cellars on a wine list! After a few years of making incredible wines, Blair traveled to the Rhone region of France, and shortly thereafter traveled to Australia to expand his knowledge of the extraordinary wines made around the world. After coming back to his roots in the Santa Barbara County, he began working for Fess Parker and now also makes the wine for Epiphany—yes, Blair stays very busy
The focus for Blair Fox Cellars is on Syrah and other Rhone varieties. The estate vineyard, planted by Blair himself and farmed organically, has Grenache, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Vermentino, and a small amount of Zinfandel planted. Blair feels it is very important to be part of the grape growing process as a winemaker. He enjoys being able to control the wine from vine to glass, not only in his estate vineyards but the ones he sources fruit from as well. Looking for grapes with beautiful concentration and intense varietal character, he currently sources grapes from Zotovich, Kimsey, Tierra Alta, Larner, and his own Fox Family Vineyards.
Blair and his family take pride in the creation of the small production wines for Blair Fox Cellars. While Blair manages the winemaking, Sarah does the marketing. His two adorable daughters love riding on the forklift and helping with Pigeage – foot stomping the grape cap! The grapes are hand harvested, hand sorted, fermented in small lots, and basket pressed to ensure the highest possible quality and true expression of the vineyard. The results of this family’s hard work are wines with a modern feel, while showing a reflection of historically made French wines.
In the past decade, Santa Barbara County has exploded with AVAs, and rightfully so. As we’ve tasted the wines and analyzed the nuances of soil and climate throughout our region, we have begun to carve out special sub-regions of note that have a distinctive voice. In addition to our early AVAs of Santa Maria Valley (est. 1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (est. 1983), we have Sta. Rita Hills (est. 2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (est. 2009), Ballard Canyon (est. 2013) and the pending Los Olivos District (likely to be established by 2015). Yet one of the County’s most historic regions remains without a designation of any kind: the Los Alamos Valley. This past week I spoke with numerous winemakers and farmers who have worked over the years with Los Alamos Valley fruit to hear their thoughts on the site character of Los Alamos, its various subzones, and the idea of an AVA. When researching a region, I always start with soil; my love lies in the dirt. Los Alamos, like most great regions, has a wealth of exciting soils. Shale, clay, sand, gravel, sandstone, and a bit of limestone can be found in various pockets. This variability within the region has led some to suggest that rather than a single AVA, the area should be broken down into several smaller AVAs. “I do think it would have to be broken down for it to be true to definition, and that in itself might make it less feasible or practical to do so,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. There is also a notable difference in temperature between the valley’s west end near Vandenberg Air Force Base, which can be quite chilly, and the eastern end near Alisos Canyon, where things heat up. Broadly speaking, Los Alamos Valley is 10 degrees cooler on average than Santa Ynez Valley, and 10 degrees warmer than Santa Maria, though again, there are more subtle nuances from east to west. As a result of these variations in soil and climate, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variety for the region to hang its hat on. Much like Santa Maria to its north or Santa Ynez to its south, Los Alamos has a multitude of varietal voices that express this place.
Starting in the east, near the northern boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we find perhaps the area’s most acclaimed sub-region: Alisos Canyon. Running east of Highway 101 along Alisos Canyon Road, this area is paradise for Rhone varieties, though Cabernet Franc and Gamay also have potential. The canyon is home to the famed Thompson Vineyard, which has produced legendary Syrahs for 20 years. Newer sites, such as Martian Ranch, Watch Hill, and The Third Twin, show equal promise. Despite being a very small region, Alisos Canyon is defined by several different soils, all of which have either sandstone or shale in their parent material. In the southeast, at Martian and Alisos, there is Chamise shaly and sandy loam. This acidic shale seems to imbue the wines, Syrah in particular, with brightness and lift even at higher sugars/alcohols. Across the road, at Thompson, is Tierra Sandy Loam, an alluvial soil providing more textural breadth in the wines. The Third Twin (formerly Los Tres Burros), Sine Qua Non’s site above Thompson, shifts into San Andreas-Tierra Complex, a much sandier, sandstone-derived soil. As we shift toward the mouth of the canyon, particularly at Watch Hill, we see very sandy Arnold series soils, making this prime real estate for Grenache in particular.
The climate is also ideal for Rhone grapes, a Goldilocks-like balance between not-too-hot and not-too-cold. “For Rhones, Alisos Canyon is still a cool area and fairly uniform in temperature from its mouth east of the 101 most of the way to Foxen Canyon,” says Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “As cool as it is, it is somewhat sheltered and warm enough that everything can get ripe yet have the long hang time that lets the flavors develop. Things can get ripe without being crazy sweet.” Kunin elaborates on this idea, stating “Alisos is in the Eastern corner of the hypothetical Los Alamos AVA, and so benefits from the warmer airflow of the Santa Ynez Valley. This tempers the predominantly cool coastal breezes that dominate the flats farther West and make them better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In general, I think that it is this hybrid airflow pattern that defines Los Alamos.” Many have suggested that Alisos Canyon should have its own AVA. Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care farms many of the sites here (impeccably, I might add), and believes in the potential of not only the Valley as a whole, but Alisos in particular. “I believe that Los Alamos Valley is special and deserves its own appellation,” says Finkle. “However, Alisos Canyon Road is unique and dominated by Rhone varieties. As you move west of the town of Los Alamos, the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. For this reason there should probably be at least two sub-appellations.”
Moving just north of Alisos Canyon, before the town of Los Alamos, we head into the Los Alamos flats along Highway 101. Lucas & Lewellen owns most of the land here, and has long advocated for the potential of Los Alamos. Their vineyards contain a wealth of interesting grape varieties, 20 in all, ranging from Nebbiolo and Freisa to Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca, functioning as a great window into what unexpected grapes may potentially shine in Los Alamos. Soil here is alluvial, mostly Botella series (also prominently found in the southern Sta. Rita Hills). As we continue up Highway 101, past the town of Los Alamos, we start to get into bigger plantings, often owned by larger companies such as Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home. This could go some ways toward explaining the lack of an AVA for Los Alamos Valley: these larger labels often blend the wines into Central Coast or even North Coast designated wines, rarely vineyard-designating or even putting Santa Barbara County on the label. “With so many large producers/growers in the area, there hasn’t been the grassroots inertia to garner the acclaim, promote the region or gather data for an AVA application,” explains Kunin.
Cat Canyon is the next area of note, located in the northern Los Alamos Valley, just east of Highway 101. While there are still some bigger corporate plantings, there are also two of the valley’s most noted sites: Verna’s and White Hawk. Verna’s Vineyard, owned by the Melville family, has served as the source for their more affordable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs. These are some of the top values in California today, particularly the Pinot Noir, driven by a purity of place and a strong core of hard spice. Jaffurs also produces a superb Syrah from Verna’s; to taste it next to their Thompson bottling is a great illustration of the large difference in site character between Alisos Canyon and Cat Canyon. Across the street from Verna’s is White Hawk, a lauded source for Syrah. Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl has utilized this site for many years, and it is one of only two non-estate vineyards he continues to work with, while his protégé Maggie Harrison incorporates it into her flagship Syrah for her Lillian label. Ojai’s White Hawk Syrah shows wonderful restraint, with great structure, purity and spice. Viognier is promising from both sites as well, and Ojai recently produced a beautiful Sangiovese from White Hawk.
Both Verna’s and White Hawk are essentially gigantic sand dunes, dominated by Arnold and Corralitos sands, and quite a bit colder than the southern and eastern portions of Los Alamos Valley (on a map, it lines up roughly with the eastern Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Bench). One can taste it in the Syrah, which has more pronounced notes of peppercorn and leaner texture, as compared to the meatier, broader wines of Alisos Canyon. “Verna’s is a cooler site- you can see the fog in Santa Maria from the top of the hill-side block,” says Jaffurs. “The north (south facing) side of Cat Canyon is a different site from Verna’s which almost faces north – hence its relative coolness.”
The final region of note is the valley’s far western edge along Highway 135, not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base. As a resident of this part of Los Alamos, I can attest that it is very cold, very foggy, and very windy. Again, there are some bigger/more corporate plantings to be found here, though the quality remains high, particularly in cool climate whites from the large White Hills property, one of the coldest, westernmost vineyards in Santa Barbara County. The two star sites, however, are Kick On Ranch and Los Alamos Vineyard.
Kick On Ranch has garnered the most acclaim for, of all things, Riesling. This should not come as a surprise given the early success of Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills with Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Economics forced those areas to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but these varieties remain and thrive in Los Alamos. Graham Tatomer was one of the first to latch on to this site for his Riesling-focused label, with his single-vineyard bottling a top example of the austere minerality to be found at Kick On. He has also recently planted Gruner Veltliner, a variety that should show great results here. Ojai’s Adam Tolmach has also been making beautiful Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, from the vineyard. J. Brix are crafting gorgeous examples of Kick On across the varietal spectrum, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir in several different iterations (their Petillant Naturel Riesling is one of the top methode ancestrale sparklers I’ve tasted from California). Soil in this part of the valley is quite sandy, consisting of Arnold, Corralitos, Betteravia, and Tierra series. In Kick-On’s upper blocks, however, one finds fossils and large pieces of sandstone and shale. “The ancient-beach soil is mesmerizing,” says Emily Towe of J. Brix. “We can’t walk Kick On without stopping over and over to pick up shells, stones, fossils. It’s a whisper of history from when it was the bottom of the sea, long before it became the Valley of the Cottonwoods. The vines get to live in both worlds, in a way.” The minerality in the whites here is amazing, with intensity rarely found outside of Europe’s chilliest climes. Pinot Noir showcases an intriguing herbal side, with tomato leaf and root vegetable notes, along with dark fruit and spice highlights that are distinct from Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria. The other site of note is the legendary Los Alamos Vineyard. Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen operated from a barn on the property here in their earliest days. Gavin Chanin, who is now producing stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyard, also has fond memories of his early time here. “During my first harvest in Santa Barbara I lived next door to Los Alamos vineyard in a bunk house, and we used to drink beer and watch them night harvest with huge flood lights,” recalls Chanin. “It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me.” Los Alamos Vineyard, like its neighbors in this part of the Valley, is quite sandy, with steep slopes and incredible exposures. Chardonnay exhibits an intense, almost searing minerality, with fruit playing a background role. These are not wines defined by aromatic intensity; rather, they are almost entirely about texture and mineral presence, in a fashion not found elsewhere in California. The Pinots exhibit a similar herbaceousness as that found in Kick On. “Los Alamos Vineyard is very unique,” says Chanin. “The wines are rich but held together with great acidity, freshness and minerality. It is my most coastal vineyard but also our warmest because Los Alamos is somewhat cut off from the ocean.” To taste the wines from Chanin, or Au Bon Climat through their “Historic Vineyard Series” bottlings, is a revelation: they are unlike any other Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. These are site-driven, beautifully balanced wines that speak loudly of their origins.
So, what is the future for Los Alamos Valley? The winemakers I spoke with were divided: some believe an AVA would be beneficial, some believe it should be broken into several small AVAs, some believe only Alisos Canyon should have an AVA, and some believe there shouldn’t be any AVAs at all. Given the diversity of the region, this is no surprise. “I hate the idea of type casting Los Alamos because it has the potential to do so much at a very high level,” says Chanin. “Very often with AVAs people only want to plant/produce what the AVA is best known for.” Craig Jaffurs shares his skepticism at an overarching AVA, though believes Alisos Canyon may be worth designating. “The larger Los Alamos Valley has not shown enough distinction to warrant becoming an AVA. Alisos Canyon would be a worthy AVA in the same sense Ballard Canyon is.” Bryan Babcock, a Sta. Rita Hills veteran who has worked with such sites as El Camino and Loma Verde in Los Alamos Valley’s northern sector, is quick to caution against Pinot Noir becoming Los Alamos’ flagship variety, and also points to the challenges of fractured AVAs. “I would not hang my hat on Pinot, at least not yet. If you try to be a Pinot appellation, you will be crawling out from under the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley for the next 100 years… Also be careful about fracturing your AVA and destroying any potential clout that you would have had otherwise. If you don’t put together a critical mass of interest and players, you will witness the still birth of your AVA.”
There are currently, to my knowledge, no plans in the works to establish an AVA within Los Alamos Valley, though there is constant talk about it among the area’s vintners. Perhaps we’ll never see an official designation for this area, which is a shame, as there are so many beautiful, unique wines coming from here. As Seth Kunin states, “the concentration of flavor combined with unique structure [in Los Alamos] allows for significant ageing. Certainly some of the best examples of older (5-10 year-old) Syrahs that I have tasted from Santa Barbara County come from Los Alamos.” I couldn’t agree more. With the influx of new producers working with the fruit here, and exciting new plantings such as Mike Roth’s Mullet site, there is renewed energy in Los Alamos, carrying on the work of early pioneers like Ojai, Au Bon Climat, and Bedford. Sites such as Thompson, Los Alamos Vineyard, White Hawk, and Verna’s are already legendary, and I have no doubt that we’ll be discussing Kick On Ranch, Martian, and Watch Hill with the same reverence in the years to come. I hope that, as we continue to further refine our knowledge of site in Santa Barbara County, we continue to argue the merits of place as passionately as those I spoke with have done here. It is this open dialogue and elegant exchange of ideas that will continue to elevate our area. A selection of Los Alamos bottlings to seek out:
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.
It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd. “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property. As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”. Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.
In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly. What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils. The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines. As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years. It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.
I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park. “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer. Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.
Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center). The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil. The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam. “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.” Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.
For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side. I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.” This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character. There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis. Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.
Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country. As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring. “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension. I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.” Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”
Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with. Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres. Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin. To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging. Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development. His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.
Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres. His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics. While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.
“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.” This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label. Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid. DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’. His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property. The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard. And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property. Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes. “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages. I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.” Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.
Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline. Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases. However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make. Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.
“This is a wonderful Pinot Noir, it’s very Burgundian”… “I think you’ll really enjoy this Syrah, it’s a dead ringer for something from the Northern Rhone”… “Their Chardonnay is beautiful, it drinks just like a great Chablis”. We’ve all heard these comments (and I’m certainly guilty of uttering them) in regards to Californian wines. It’s almost as if the greatest compliment we can pay a balanced wine from the New World is that it tastes like something from the Old World. After almost 30 years of high-alcohol, ultra-ripe wines, it’s understandable that those of us championing this return to wines of balance and place would want to connect the dots to Europe’s more classically structured, subdued wines. But if we expect to stand head to head with, rather than on the shoulders of, these old world giants, we have to start proudly owning our unique sense of place.
Santa Barbara County, despite its youth, has already carved out numerous small micro-regions with their own distinct site character. Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Bench, Los Alamos Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon, and the Los Olivos District all have distinctive soils, macroclimates, and topography found only in this special part of the world, and the producers advocating for these areas, now more than ever, are capturing their idiosyncratic essence.
Take Justin Willett. The winemaker behind Tyler, Lieu Dit, and Vallin (does he ever sleep?!?) is crafting wines at refreshingly low alcohols, with a vivid savor of place. While his inspiration comes from Burgundy (Tyler), the Loire (Lieu Dit), and the Northern Rhone (Vallin), the wines could clearly have come from nowhere else but California. The beet root and black pepper of his Bien Nacido Pinot Noir from Santa Maria; the guava, papaya, and musk notes of the Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon; the lush blueberry and cracked pepper of Vallin’s Santa Ynez Syrah; these are wines that stand on their own as benchmark examples of what our area is capable of.
Or sample the Grenache of Angela Osborne. It comes from Santa Barbara Highlands, a vineyard so remote and wild that it feels like stepping onto the moon; 3200 ft. elevation, soils so sandy that they look like a dune, scrub dotting the landscape, snow in the winter. This is a place with real character, from a winemaker who has tapped so deeply into her own wavelength that she’s essentially a genre of one. Tasting this wine, one senses the feral high desert in its origins, the California sunshine, the passion of a woman walking the vinous tightrope with no harness; the essence of what this new movement is all about.
And let us not forget our pioneers, the wild ones who started on this path of balance and never strayed from it even when fashion swung away from them. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat; Lane Tanner; Adam Tolmach at Ojai; Stephan Bedford; Fred Brander; they have helped shepherd and inspire this new generation, and are still making beautiful wines, further defining what makes our region so special.
It is a thrilling time to be a wine lover in Santa Barbara County. We have one of the most unique growing regions on the planet, with incredible soils, a huge range of climates, and topography to make any European envious. And now, in a big way, we have a wine culture that is starting to take proud ownership of this utterly singular sense of place. Perhaps one day, years from now, we will hear jealous murmurs in Burgundy: “Have you tried this? It tastes just like a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills…”
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