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Wine & Vines revisits Santa Barbara wine country.

Wines & Vines revisits Santa Barbara wine country

Wines & Vines' association with wine growing in Santa Barbara County -- one of the newest wine regions in California's modern wine history -- began in the late Sixties, when we first heard that a San Joaquin Valley vineyardist, Uriel Nielson, had planted a 120-acre plot of classical wine grapes on a mesa near the Sisquoc river, not far from Santa Maria, on the northern edge of the county.

Research turned up the fact that he was selling his South Coast fruit to The Christian Brothers in the Napa Valley; they found the quality excellent, equal to that found on the North Coast.

The next development was chronicled in the November, 1971, Wines & Vines, which pictured Louis Lucas on the cover and had a detailed account of how Lucas, with his brother, George, Jr., and partner Al Gagnon, had planted 800 acres of mist-propagated wine grapes in the summer of that year, the same season that Nielson took off his fifth crop and continued selling his grapes outside the area.

After that article, the next journey Wines & Vines made to the new wine growing region was to report on the opening of the Firestone Vineyard in 1975 with Brooks and Kate Firestone welcoming guests. Their enterprise now turns out 80,000 cases annually in a handsome, state-of-the-art plant and is the largest producer in the county. (The Firestones also have acquired Carey Cellars at Solvang and make 7,000 cases a year under that label.)

As Louis Lucas (now a resident of Los Olivos) recalled for me during a visit last October to Santa Barbara County, the Lucas-Gagnon venture -- called Tepusquet Vineyard -- planted varieties recommended by Beringer Vineyards based on the Beringer experience in Napa.

Beringer was to be the buyer of the fruit when the vines bore three years down the road. Only trouble was that the white wine revolution intervened, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir and Merlot fell from consumer favor for a time. Even among white wines, Beringer-recommended varieties such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer commanded a fraction of the demand generated by Chardonnay.

About the same time, own-root plantings also were made by the Flood Estate and others. In those years, the harvest went north and east; there were no wineries in Santa Barbara County except that established in the city of Santa Barbara in 1962 by Pierre Lafond. Less than half the crop is crushed by local vintners. The rest goes to approximately 50 wineries outside the county.

Such names as Beringer, Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson have bought extensive vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, including Tepusquet. Of the three, only Jackson, on land once owned by Tepusquet, has installed a new winery (although Mondavi has acquired the 20,000-case Byron Vineyard & Winery). Jackson's plant is called Cambria Winery & Vineyard and its acre-square new cellar has a potential of a half-million gallons -- which would make it by far the largest in the county but is about at the 10,000-20,000-case level now. Beringer acquired the Estrella property nearby in San Luis Obispo County, modernized it, and re-named it "Meridian." It gets part of its fruit from Santa Barbara County where it has 3,000 acres of grapes.

Since the plantings of a generation ago, 26 small, quality-minded wineries have been established. The Flood Estate (building on the silver fortunes of Jim Flood in the 19th century) has its Rancho Sisquoc winery with a capacity annually of 3,000 cases, as part of a giant family ranch.

The industry in the county produces about 325,000 cases annually and has gone from nothing to a $21 million business in little more than 20 years.

The reason is climate. Unlike other Pacific Coast ranges, the Santa Ynez mountains run east and west, creating three valleys open to the Pacific and allowing fog and ocean winds to flow inland. The valleys are the Santa Maria to the north, the Los Alamos and the Santa Ynez. West of U.S. 101, near Lompoc (famous for Vandenberg Air Force Base and huge fields of flowers for the seed trade), the climate is Region I, coolest on the U.C.-Davis scale of I through V. Farther east along a 50-mile stretch, it is Region II. At Lompoc, the Babcock family (Walt and Mona with their winemaker son, Bryan, found Cabernet unsuited; it didn't ripen until January.) The Babcocks specialize in Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling, and share with the rest of the county's winemakers the knowledge that their Riesling is world-class but unappreciated by their customers. Firestone's general manager, Patrick Will, for example, considers Riesling "the greatest white wine in the world but it gets no respect except in Germany and Alsace."

Wines & Vines took part in the fifth media visit conducted by the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association in 1989 and 1990. It may be the last. The reason is that the California Wine Commission recently was voted out of existence and as a result $62,000 in matching funds formerly going to the SBCVA is no longer available. That money financed the media visits (averaging about $1,000 a visiting journalist) and made up about 30% of the Association's $200,000 budget. Ironically, it was small wineries like those in the county that voted out the Commission, while its revenue came mostly from large wineries.

A feature of the October visit was a helicopter flight over the three valleys and their vineyards. There are about 10,000 acres of wine grapes, all in the north end of the county, with 1,500 in the Santa Ynez Valley, 3,000 in Los Alamos and 5,500 in Santa Maria.

According to viticulturist Jeff Newton the best Chardonnay and Pinots noir come from the cooler area (Region I) west of U.S. 101 and the best Sauvignon blanc and reds such as Cabernet from the warmer Region II to the east. "But no one knew this 20 years ago," Newton added. The soils vary from limestone to sand and gravel, with more calcareous soils than many of the California wine regions. Sauvignon blanc, for example, needs deep and fertile alluvial soils, while Bordeaux reds do best on shallow soils with low pH.

Newton observed that Santa Barbara winegrowers have led in planting vines with more density and pioneered leaf removal and canopy management. He pointed out that, while traditional 12x7-feet spacing has about 500 vines to the acre, the trend is to plant 1,000 vines on 9x5 spacing. "The jury is still out" on which is best and he added that in Burgundy the cost per acre to farm a vineyard is $4,000, well over twice the Santa Barbara cost. He ascribed part of the French expense to 3x3 and 4x4 plantings.

Canopy management is increasingly important, in Newton's view. He recommended leaf stripping in mid-June and into July; it costs about $80 an acre. He sees better grape color resulting, and lower pH for fruitier wine. Trellising techniques to expose fruit to more light include the Geneva Double Curtain (GDC), particularly valuable in heavy yield areas. Newton considers the lyre trellis best for white varieties.

Summer temperatures reach 90 [degrees] but fall to 60 [degrees] by 6 p.m. Night fog creates more cooling. Because of drought in recent years, drip irrigation is prevalent, with sprinklers in frost-prone areas. Drip saves at least 20% on water and makes for better quality fruit with lower pHs. In the 1989-90 season, the area got only six inches of rain, whereas the need is for 18-20 inches to leach the soil. Salt levels build up otherwise and in 1990 Newton said some vineyards reached toxic levels. To counter this, gypsum is added and the land is ripped to bring up soil freer from salt.

With no history of phylloxera in the area, vineyards in the county are planted own-root. Newton said it was just a matter of time before all the vineyards would have to be replanted on resistant rootstock (SO4 or 3309) to defeat the root louse.

Because of the summer fog, botrytis often develops and sweet Rieslings are produced like the sauternes of Bordeaux. I tasted a Rancho Sisquoc fully-botrytized juice that was like a syrup and was 59% sugar. When fully fermented its wine will be between 6 and 7.5% residual sugar. There are only 160 gallons of it.

Newton and Lucas both were participants in a forum moderated by Jim Fiolek of Brander Vineyard on the subject "Santa Barbara County Enters the 1990s." Other speakers were winery owner Richard Sanford, who traced the region's geologic history, Patrick Will of Firestone and Jim Clendenen, co-owner of a winery with the unusual name of "Au Bon Climat."

Sanford began with the Jurassic period when the area was under the sea. In the Miocene, deposits of diatomaceous earth were laid down in pockets 24 million years ago. Relatively recently -- in the Pleistocene 1.25 million years ago -- sand and gravel were deposited. Where ancient stream beds were, the soil is gravelly and sandy and on the terraces clay-loam is found. Much is calcareous and in the helicopter swing across the wine valleys red earth patches containing iron were observed.

Lucas said that Santa Barbara fruit always has been well received by wineries outside the county. He cited among other examples the ZD Winery (Napa Valley) purchases of Tepusquet grapes from 1975 through 1988 and opened a bottle of 1975 ZD Chardonnay made from that fruit for an impromptu tasting; the wine was palatable although there had been some oxidation. He offered the forum a bit of philosophy, telling his audience that, just because a vintner may be big doesn't mean he's better, and just because an operator is small doesn't mean he's special.

The county has more room to plant wine grapes -- its fourth most valuable crop -- but as stated above water is critical. The vineyards are in the northern part, away from the semi-tropical city of Santa Barbara and north of Ronald Reagan's ranch. The area is a tourist favorite -- Danish Solvang draws throngs year-round -- and there are opulent horse ranches and sprawling ranch houses. Actor Fess Parker planted 31 acres of winegrapes on his ranch in 1990 and has a bond for a projected winery. Producer Doug Cramer has a vineyard nearby, but doesn't plan a winery.

Lucas counseled cautious expansion, noting that California farmers tend -- when a given crop turns out profitable -- to over-plant in a bandwagon syndrome.

A polite controversy had arisen -- at the time of our visit -- over whether to stick to the current Santa Barbara County appellation, limited to the county boundaries, or to adopt a "Santa Barbara Coast" designation including the southern part of adjoining San Luis Obispo County to the north where the climate is much the same.

Patrick Will said the relatively new vineyard district (although it has a vinous history going back 200 years to the Mission Fathers) produces premium and super-premium wines in an area cooler than any in the state with the possible exception of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County and coastal Monterey. About two-thirds of the plantings are in Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Riesling. In 1989 Firestone planted its first Syrah. Will estimated the county's Chardonnay plantings are equal to Chablis in France and its Pinot noir about the same as in Nuits St. Georges. The most increase in recent years has been Sauvignon blanc. Much grafting-over from less saleable varieties has been going on.

"Our interest," Will summed up, "is in the region's uncompromisingly high quality leading to wines different from any in the world." Paradoxically, it is better known for quality to winemakers than to consumers. Hence, such promotions as media visits. The money-maker and prime interest-getter is an outdoor wine and food festival each April that sells out and grosses about $100,000. Such activities are coordinated through the SBCVA and its executive director, Pam Ostendorf.

Most of the wineries are located in the Santa Ynez Valley and of the 285 square miles of vines most are in the Santa Maria Valley. The average yield is about three tons per acre.

Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat, led the tasting of "unusual" wines, including Dry Gewurztraminer. The latter was a part of this category only because, although the grape thrives in the area and makes an excellent wine, it is not in public favor and, like Riesling, is being grafted to other cultivars. As a case in point, Riesling fetches $250-$300 a ton while Chardonnay commands $1,500. In 1979 there were 1,500 acres of Riesling accounting for 30% of the county's white grapes. Ten years later the total was 19% and down the road Riesling is expected to level out at about 10-12%.

The truly unusual wines (for Santa Barbara County) included Viognier, Marsanne, Pinot blanc, Syrah, Brunello and Nebbiolo. All were eminently palatable and went far to justify the SBCVA'S claim that "all of the classic grape varietals are able to be grown in Santa Barbara County due to the many microclimates."

Besides the "unusual" tasting, the three-day visit included samplings of current releases of Pinot noir, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay. The Chardonnay reflected such winemaking differences as Bryan Babcock, who puts all his whites through malolactic fermentation, and Rick Longoria at Gainey Vineyard, who uses little or no MF. Besides making the wine for the Gainey Vineyard, which sells 70% of its product at the winery and which starts tours with a walk through a demonstration vineyard, Longoria has his own label on 200 cases a year of Pinot noir. The vintners are proud of their Pinots noir and rightly so. Equal in excellence is the Chardonnay. The Sauvignon blanc is a comer and the "unusual" cultivars bear watching.

When the media tasted the Vintners' Association made sure the winemakers were tasting along with the press, so questions could be answered Johnny-on-the-spot. Most of the winemakers are young and in many cases they are owner-winemakers. Where owners were older, they had young winemakers and obviously were willing to listen to young ideas.

It is a situation in keeping with one of the youngest wine regions in California, with great promise now and for the future.

PHOTO : Part of the demonstration trellising at Gainey Vineyard, with vineyard manager Jeff Newton at left and Daniel H. Gainey. The vineyard is the start of a 30-minute tour. About 40,000 persons visit each year -- one third of them in summer.

PHOTO : Martin Kossler, German wine importer, with Laila Rashid, publicity director for Santa Barbara Winery. Kossler, who also writes for Feinschmecker magazine published in Hamburg, was in California searching for additional labels to sell in Germany. Based in Nuremberg, he attended the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association 1990 Media Visit Oct. 25-27.
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Author:Hiaring, Philip
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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