“We take each year as it comes. Recipes are boring. We look at what nature gives us and go from there.” Kitá’s winemaker Tara Gomez is a straight shooter. With some winemakers, you get the feeling they are thinking about their marketing strategy before they answer a question. With Gomez, there is none of this artifice or pretense; instead, there is a delicate and thoughtful honesty. This past week I tasted through numerous 2012 and 2013 barrels with Gomez and assistant winemaker Tymari LoRe, and discussed their approach in the vineyard and the cellar.
The young Kitá label was created by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, debuting with the 2010 vintage. Gomez herself is Chumash, and seeks to carry on the stewardship of the land that her ancestors have been part of for centuries, now via their estate vineyard, Camp 4. Fess Parker originally planted this large, stunning 256 acre vineyard with 19(yes, 19!) different grape varieties in total. In 2010 the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians purchased the land, and since taking over, they have fine-tuned the farming along with the team at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates (CVCA), working towards their goal of a more sustainable ecosystem and more expressive site character.
With the managing team of Rudy Bravo and Ben Merz, two of the stars of the renowned CVCA team, at the helm, they have addressed the needs of each block and variety in-depth, not an easy task for a vineyard with so much diversity. As part of their move toward sustainability they have installed owl and bat houses, moved away from using synthetic treatments in the vineyard (save for a couple of blocks that they’re still dialing in, and even then in miniscule amounts), and generally moved toward creating a more diverse environment. “Taking from the land only what we need and giving back to it is what we believe in,” proudly states Gomez. “We’re doing a pomace-to-compost program now, for example, which is a lot of work, but it’s important to us, so it’s worth it.”
While located in the extreme east of the Los Olivos District, Camp 4 still lies on the Positas series, part of the Ballard-Santa Ynez-Positas series that defines the AVA. Their close proximity to Happy Canyon is only hinted at by the chunks of serpentine present here that have come down from Figueroa Mountain. With the Rhone and Bordeaux varieties at Camp 4, there is an intense minerality present in the final wines that is distinct from Ballard Canyon to its west or Happy Canyon to its east. In the red varieties in particular there is a gravelly textural presence that unifies the wines.
In addition to their estate program for Kitá, Camp 4 sells fruit to around 60 different producers in the valley, many of whom vineyard designate the fruit or use it as the backbone for appellation bottlings. Grenache Blanc has jumped out as a star as it has in many vineyards within the Los Olivos District. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc also find a voice in this site that is strikingly different from the very-close-by Happy Canyon. “Cabernet Sauvignon is my baby,” states Gomez, and it shows in the details of the finished wine. While Happy Canyon Cab has a tendency to be brawny and ultra-ripe, reminiscent of modern Napa Valley’s powerful renditions of the grape, Kitá’s take on Cab is finessed, with notes of pencil lead and cassis that are more reminiscent of France’s Medoc. The sun-kissed character of California is still apparent, but with a great sense of balance and encouragement of non-fruit aromatics.
A graduate of CSU Fresno’s renowned viticulture & enology program, Gomez carefully blends science and intuition in her winemaking approach. “I look at everything when I’m picking,” she says. “I like to pick for acidity, because I like that brightness, but we look at brix and pH, we look at flavors, and we often do several picks to find the various components that we want to achieve.” This meticulous approach is present in the final wines. Tasting through barrels with the winemaking team here was fascinating, as they were constantly questioning what they could do to improve a wine the following vintage, or how they could blend barrels to make a more complete wine. “We try to be as true to the varietal as we can and deal with what we’re given. Of course, we strive for lower alcohol, we like that brightness, that acidity. We want age-ability. And I don’t believe in doing a bunch of additions to correct a wine.”
While a young label, Kitá is already making beautiful wines, and has a bright future ahead of it. They are taking a special site to even greater heights through devoted farming, and they are striving at every step to make wines that will age and showcase place. Tara Gomez is part of a great Santa Ynez Valley tradition of channeling the land that goes well beyond grapes, and ultimately, it is this love of a spiritual home that makes the deepest impression.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner Vineyard are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
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