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.
“It is fairly easy to get interested in wine, it’s alcohol, it’s fun to drink, you are usually surrounded by great times and friends. However, there is a lot of work behind it. Long hours, early mornings, and late nights.” Fabian Bravo, winemaker for Brander winery has been devoted to the craft of winemaking since his first harvest in 2007.
Like many, Fabian didn’t take a direct path into winemaking. He grew up in Gonzalez California, in the Santa Lucia Highlands. One of California’s premier cool-climate winegrowing districts. Surrounded by agriculture Fabian decided to take a different path. He attended Cal Poly for electrical engineering, and after college began working for a company in Goleta. He worked 4 years in his field but realized he couldn’t see himself growing old doing that type of job. Entering an early “mid-life crisis” he began to explore other career paths.
During his soul searching he dabbled in baking bread at a bakery, looked into law enforcement, and taught high school geometry and algebra. Eventually he went back home to work as an engineer again. Shortly after, he met a friend who offered him a harvest position, he would have to take a leave of absence from work if he decided to do it. As harvest crept closer he finally decided to take the leap and began working for Siduri winery in Santa Rosa, California. That was the point where he decided this industry was something he could see himself doing for a while. Watch Part 2 of our interview with Fabian to hear his inspiring journey in his own words here.
Right after harvest Fabian celebrated his birthday in Santa Barbara County, he went wine tasting, of course! One of the wineries he found himself tasting at was Brander winery. As fate would have it, the next Monday he saw that a winery had posted a job for assistant winemaker, which turned out to be Fred Brander, of Brander Winery. About a week after harvest at Siduri he started working as assistant winemaker for Fred at Brander. He is about to celebrate his 9-year anniversary there.
Fabian’s passion for winemaking is easy to see, as he describs his devotion to the craft. “You want to capture the vintage, the vineyard, the varietal. You have one shot at each vintage. Keeping that in mind, you only have a certain amount of years to make wine, a certain window to capture each year. Getting up early and staying late in necessary. You want to make sure you showcase the vineyard and hard work that goes into the fruit and production.”
Brander is well known for their Sauvignon Blanc production, which is celebrating its 40th vintage. Making 11 different bottlings every year. The vineyard was planted in 1975, and was first harvested in 1977. 44 acres are devoted mostly to Sauvignon Blanc, with a few other varietals planted on property. Brander has been practicing bio dynamic farming since 2010 which Fabian observed has given the wines a cleaner, fresher feel than before.
Fred Brander has been working for many years to get the Los Olivos District AVA approved. All of his hard work has finally paid off, the 2015 vintages will be the first with this AVA on the label. Great work Fred!
Enjoy learning about the story behind the Los Olivos District in Part 3of our interview here.
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.
I like on the table, when we’re speaking, the light of a bottle of intelligent wine. -Pablo Neruda.
“This is what wine is to me, sharing with friends, fantastic conversation, the light and energy of a wine, but not just any wine– an intelligent brilliant wine.” -Jessica Gasca
Jessica Gasca is an intriguing woman who dipped her toes into the wine industry interning in 2009. She described her first harvest as “absolutely magical.” Born and raised in southern California, Jessica realized in her late twenties she wasn’t passionate about the career path she had been working towards. The summer before starting a masters program, she quit her job, left her friends and family, and moved to the central coast to dive into the wine business.
Jessica landed a job with Matthias Pippig of Sanguis, at Grassini Family Winery, and has worked as an enologist for Blair Fox. Jessica is currently working at Dragonette Cellars while pursuing her dream of making her own wine under the label, Story of Soil, formerly ITER [e’tair]: n. (Latin) the journey.
Jessica is grateful to her uncle, Gary Burk, for his inspiration and mentorship along her journey as a winemaker. Gary has been making wine in Santa Barbara County for 20 years. He previously worked as the GM and assistant winemaker for Au Bon Climat and Qupe, and now has his own highly-acclaimed winery, Costa de Oro wines.
Jessica’s intention for her wines is to see what Mother Nature provides each year and follow her intuition. Each vintage, varietal, and vineyard is different. It’s about connecting to the earth, sculpting the wines to show a sense of place and style—following what’s inside.
Jessica describes harvest as her favorite part of winemaking. Waking up before the sun, picking the grapes, processing, crush, getting sweaty and dirty. It’s a beautiful process, one that she fell in love with immediately.
Santa Barbara County is a remarkable place for grape growing and for making world-class wines that Jessica is grateful to be part of. She is passionate about the industry and this region, and hopes to continue helping it become more widely known and recognized for the quality wines being produced.
Like most winemakers, Jessica Gasca’s career started as a dream—a passion to create “intelligent” wine—a dream she nurtured. We are honored to pour the fruit of her labor created from the grapes lucky enough to express themselves through Story of Soil.
Nestled in the heart of Santa Ynez’s Happy Canyon AVA you’ll find Grassini Vineyards, a family owned vineyard and winery dedicated to making overall balanced wines with beautiful aromatics, and elegant mouth-feel. Happy Canyon is an area blessed with warm days and cool marine influenced nights with few variations. The combination of warm days and cool nights makes Happy Canyon ideal for growing Bordeaux grape varietals.
The Grassini family are firm supporters of sustainable and renewable business practices. The vineyard and winery are not only solar powered but irrigated with a well-fed lake on the property, in addition all the water used in the wine production is reclaimed and used to irrigate the landscaping surrounding the winery. The wine cellar is embedded in a hillside to ensure humidity and temperature control using limited energy sources.
The vineyard management team has been with the family since planting the vines in 2001. They have 35 acres planted to vine, varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Each lot from the various vineyard blocks are fermented individually to ensure proper fermentation temperatures. After generous amounts of time in barrels the wines mature to express the unique character of this special estate and those who work there. Their 2014 Sauvignon Blanc is a uniquely floral addition to our by the glass options.
Tune in every month to our Featured Local Winemaker series.
The Los Olivos Wine Merchant offers visitors over 400 labels to choose from – many of them sourced from local, family-owned boutique wineries dedicated to producing excellent, small production wines. With such an extensive selection, it could be a bit challenging to pick just the right bottle, but savvy owners Sam and Shawnda Marmostein have knowledgeable staff on hand to help make sure you chose a wine that will please your palate.
Andrew Scherer, Wine Director, has been with the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café since early 2015. Starting out as a busser in the hospitality industry at the Pebble Beach Resort in Monterey, CA, Andrew worked hard to make his way up from a busser to becoming a server and sommelier. His professional progression included passing the first two levels of the Court of Masters Sommeliers, an independent examining body established in 1977 that offers certificates and diplomas for Sommeliers, and a move to Beverly Hills, where he became part of the team opening Wally’s Vinoteca – with 1,000 labels in their retail space. Although he learned a lot about the wine industry’s retail side, Andrew missed the Central Coast. So, when the opportunity came to work at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant, he jumped at the chance. Andrew has loved working with Sam and Shawnda. He feels they provide a working environment that is comfortable and caring. And, he has appreciated their mentorship. One of the “perks” of his job is the opportunity to get out into the community and develop relationships. Los Olivos is a close-knit township with 48 tasting rooms, which have a long-standing tradition of mutual respect and support, something Andrew says is unique and that you won’t find everywhere. The Santa Barbara County is home to 6 AVA’s (the latest addition, the Los Olivos AVA, was officially added February 22, 2016). Andrew enjoys the opportunity of meeting and supporting winemakers from operations of all sizes. He is proud that the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe’s labels include many from small family wineries and is excited to introduce their product to the public. Since moving to the Santa Ynez Valley, Andrew has begun learning how to horseback ride.
Sarah Farley, Wine Merchant, spent some time studying wine in Europe through a vineyard apprenticeship in Tuscany and wine classes in Bordeaux, before moving to Temecula, CA, where she managed a wine tasting room. Gradually she developed an interest in learning more about the Central Coast’s Pinot and Chardonnay varietals. While searching for more information, she found a job posting for the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café, and immediately called to set up an interview. Recognizing a great opportunity, Sarah accepted the position and has been happily working with visitors to find just the right wine for the past 6 months. Sarah feels her job is to be a liaison between the producers and the buyers. As one of the largest local wine providers in the area, there is so much to offer – many of them unique mom and pop labels that she is excited to represent. She is fascinated by the people who walk through the door, many from Los Angeles, and feels that she learns so much about wine from their conversations and exchange of ideas. Sarah is delighted to work in a place where she feels empowered to learn and do better. She feels that Sam and Shawnda lift people up with positive reinforcements rather than micro management. Because of that, everyone does well – because everyone wants it to do well, this makes for a happy, warm environment that is felt by everyone who walks through the door. With the encouragement of Sam, Shawnda, Andrew and the rest of the staff, Sarah is currently studying for her level 1 Sommelier exam in April. When she isn’t studying, Sarah likes to play a mean game of pool.
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Cassy Misiewicz is the latest Wine Merchant to join the staff. After graduating in 2014, she moved back to the Central Coast. At the time she didn’t know much about wine, but a close friend of hers offered her a job in a tasting room. Although she was nervous, the experience opened her eyes, and she found herself wanting to learn more about wine. Eventually, she decided to make the move to the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe when a position opened up. She enjoys working with the people who come in and feels that part of her job is to interpret – trying to figure out what the buyer likes and match it to a wine they will enjoy. Cassy also enjoys the mutually beneficial relationship with the other winetasting businesses in Los Olivos. She likes to share new wines, and gets a lot of enjoyment from seeing the changes. Cassy feels that Sam and Shawnda take the heart of food and wine and bring it all together. When she first arrived, she felt there was a true communal effort to help her learn, with a respectful exchange of information and knowledge. She enjoys knowing she can be herself, which makes coming to work and meeting with buyers fun. Eventually Cassy would like to take WSET courses to learn more about the technical aspects of the wine business. Perhaps she will also expand her knowledge of the little French and Russian languages she speaks too.
With all of the choices before them, the wine all three were most excited about at this time was ‘A Tribute to Grace’ 2015 Rose of Grenache, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, California Wine. Winemaker Angela Osborn, born in New Zealand, does not have a tasting room, so Andrew works with her directly to get her wines into the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café. “Exceptional” was the word used to describe this offering. Sarah also remarked that she was getting very excited about the Pinot from the Santa Maria Valley – learning about the specific traits they had in common. And Cassy has been enjoying a lot of Syrah, especially ‘Zotovich’ 2013 Syrah, Blair Fox.
No matter where your tastes lead you, one thing is clear. When you visit the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, you will be met by wine merchants who are knowledgeable, friendly, and who will take the time to talk with you about your preferences – making sure that you leave with a bottle (or two) you will truly enjoy.
“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis. “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.” Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc. While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy. The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates. This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.
Great wine often requires context. While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting. I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group. These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them. The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly. In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.
The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon. While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region. “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis. “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us. And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.” Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion. And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon. “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”
Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement. “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis. “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage. We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.” They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality. “Sauv is all about minerality. There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”
The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples. The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes. “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis. “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.” This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well. “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine. I think part of that has to do with our lower yields. Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”
The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality. Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages. “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette. “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.” Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.
The two sites they are currently working with, Grassiniand Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils. The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality. Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site. “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe. This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.” Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.
In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet. Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it. Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression. “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work. We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’ And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”
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.
“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.”
I vividly remember the first time I tasted a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc. It was 2008, on a breezy Sta. Rita Hills afternoon, in the Dierberg tasting room. In my narrow-minded view at the time, I was more interested in checking out their Pinots; my affection for Sauvignon Blanc was reserved almost entirely for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The tasting began with a Sauvignon Blanc from their Star Lane Estate, which I was expecting to be, like so many California Sauvignon Blancs, pleasant but no more. Sticking my nose in the glass, however, was a whiplash-inducing double take experience. Exotic tropical fruits (guava, papaya); a distinctive herbal character (Shiso leaf perhaps?); flowers galore; acid for days; yet underneath all of this exuberant varietal and climate-induced character was a mineral presence I had never experienced in New World Sauvignon Blanc.
Their tasting notes referred to it as “wet gravel.” Yeah, sure, that was there, but it went deeper. This was wild, animal, and primal. As with all great wines, it was clear this came from a special place. Soon after, I took a drive out on Happy Canyon Road, spying the great, dramatic vineyards of this place from afar: Vogelzang, Happy Canyon Vineyard, Westerly (now McGinley), and of course, Star Lane. Further research showed the source of this unique character: ancient, magnesium-rich serpentine soils laced with chert.
Since that first encounter I’ve tasted numerous Sauvignon Blancs from Happy Canyon, and have found this mineral presence, in greater or lesser amounts, in just about every wine. There have been some truly stellar examples from the area that showcase this site character, and I am amazed at the quality coming out of such a young region (20 years is “old vines” here). Yet the most exciting thing about Happy Canyon is that no one has really nailed it yet. And to be present in the midst of so much experimentation, so much adventurousness, devoted to this tiny region, is truly thrilling.
One school of thought seems to favor treating the area like the Loire Valley, picking early, emphasizing the high acid (for the geeks: even at very high brix, pH can still be 3.1 or 3.2 here), showcasing that minerality, putting the tropical fruit character in the background, and using neutral or no oak. Producers such as Lieu Dit, Ojai, and Habit are crafting wines of incredible purity, laced with that HC funk and structured for mid-term aging.
Another approach is to take cues from Bordeaux Blanc, utilizing barrel fermentation and aging, often with a fair amount of new wood, later/riper picking, and even incorporating a bit of Semillon into the mix. These wines are lush and lavish, typically needing bottle age to shed the more overt wood and get to the mineral core. Dragonette’s bottlings, particularly their Vogelzang Vineyard, are beautiful iterations of the style. Doug Margerum’s small production “D” and Fiddlehead’s various cuvees are other powerful examples. Aged bottles from these producers show style married to site in distinctive fashion.
Perhaps the most exciting for me are those taking a uniquely Californian approach: influences from the Loire, Bordeaux, and Marlborough, along with a Friulian/Slovenian inspiration in the form of skin contact and/or fermentation, joined to other subtle techniques borrowed or dreamt. This is a style that has a high degree of difficulty, but the risks are rewarded in the form of incredibly complex wines. Star Lane is one of my personal favorites in this genre: they vary their skin contact dependent on the vintage; wines are sometimes fermented in oak, sometimes not; stainless steel is utilized in the form of both barrels and large tanks; lees are occasionally stirred; basically a melting pot to capture every possible facet of this site in a cohesive package. In each vintage since I initially tried their estate Sauvignon Blanc, they have tinkered with their approach, with each year further amplifying the intense serpentine funk of this very special place.
The other practitioner of this style that I am greatly anticipating is Roark. Ryan Roark received Happy Canyon Sauv Blanc for the first time in 2013, and had the opportunity to do a couple of different picks. I recently tasted these with Ryan out of barrel, and was blown away. One selection, picked early for acid and intensity, and aging as we speak in neutral oak, showcases the wet stone minerality and herbal/floral character capable here. The other selection gave me goosebumps: fully skin fermented, it didn’t show the sameness that can often occur with skin fermented whites; rather, this magnified that primal funk with amazing power and weight, like someone crafted a cocktail from rocks and guava. If he can get the marriage of these two picks into the bottle with that same intensity, it may very well be a benchmark for the area.
If you have not experienced a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc, run to your nearest wine shop and start exploring, as these are some of the most visceral, exhilarating wines coming out of California right now. For me, this is the essence of everything great about New World wine culture: a new region, still being discovered, capable of delivering an experience found nowhere else in the world.
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