Upper Ojai, Ventura Country
Roll Ranch is located under the dramatic striated bluffs of Topa Topa mountain in Upper Ojai, and the roots of our vines there plunge deep into poor rocky soil that was once part of those bluffs. It’s a warm generous climate and the wines from this site are gutsy.
Our history with Roll Ranch goes back to 1992, when Suzanne and Richard Roll’s ranch manager Larry Finkle approached me for advice about planting a vineyard at their place in Upper Ojai. Suzanne was just launching her eponymous restaurant in downtown Ojai, and they had the momentum to get several acres under vine too. They wanted to plant some Chardonnay and Cabernet Aauvignon because, well, that’s what most people want to plant. I told them Syrah and Viognier would be better choices for our climate, and so Richard bought a bottle of Guigal’s famous Coté Rotie called La Moline, which is made from Syrah and a dollop of Viognier in the northern Rhone. He tried the wine and thought if I could make something like that it would be okay, so we planted five acres of syrah and two of viognier (all own-rooted) and harvested the first crop in 1995.
What’s unusual and consistent over the years with Roll Ranch is that the fruit there retains acidity remarkably well for a warm climate vineyard. Warm sites tend to give grapes with lots of sugar and too little acidity, which often means overstuffed and sweet flavored wines. I’m not sure if there’s some soil voodoo to thank, or the magical abilities of vineyard manager Martin Ramirez (who planted Roll Ranch with Larry and has farmed it since), but some combination of factors has contributed to what seems to be an inherent balance to this site.
No doubt though, there used to be a real Californian exuberance to Roll Ranch wines. In the early years, many Roll Ranch Syrahs were big bruisers with over 15% alcohol, and the viognier was often so unctuously ripe that I would only make dessert wine with it. After a while I felt the over-ripeness presented a problem: our wines from the Ojai Valley were so saturating you would only want to drink them on cold rainy winter nights, and we rarely have them in our warm climate!
So, over the years we’ve tinkered in the vineyard and the cellar to temper some of that opulence. We’re fermenting the Syrah fundamentally differently than our cool climate sites now. And these days we’re finding no shortage of flavor when harvesting a bit earlier. The wines are better for it actually (when a wine has so much to say it does not need to yell!). They are fresher with more cut and intricacy than ever. Making wine from Roll Ranch has been a 20-year evolution; learning to listen to what a vineyard has to say and trying to capture its spirit is a slow process!
Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
For many years I harbored a prejudice against whole clusters in my fermentations. The house I interned at in Burgundy in 1981 utilized methode ancienne with 100% of the fruit left on stems, and the stems made their pinot noirs taste positively green, tannic and mean! Just around that time the famous Henri Jayer in Burgundy popularized using destemmed fruit to make a purer expression, and I decided that made more sense to me.
It wasn’t until recently, when some of my younger staff at the winery starting talking a lot about stem inclusion, that I decided to reexamine the idea. The trick with stems is that they impart a lot of potassium into the wine, which can raise the pH and cause an unwanted flabbiness. The other issue is that some wines are improved by stem inclusion, while others are ruined—and this all depends on the vineyard site and the maturity of the stems. I’ve begun using subtle amounts of stem inclusion in many wines lately, but I first toyed with using a lot of whole-clusters in our 2013 carbonic pinot noir from Bien Nacido’s iconic clone 22 fruit in T Block. It was a brash success, but I had ideas about how to better employ the technique. I needed a site that gave an especially tart pinot noir that needed a bit of greenery to balance out the fruit.
By coincidence, it came up that my son’s drum teacher’s father-in-law owns Kessler-Haak Vineyard in the Sta Rita Hills. Planted out in the Northwest corner of the Sta Rita Hills, Kessler-Haak is right next door to Clos Pepe vineyard, which we worked with from 1999-2008. This patch of the appellation, which is cool and dominated by sandy loam soils, produces pinot noir that is vibrantly fruity and high acid.
Assuming a similar profile to Clos Pepe, I imagined that Kessler Haak could be a great site to toy with some hefty stem inclusion. So in 2014 we did an experiment, fermenting half the Kessler Haak fruit carbonically (whole cluster and not punched down) and the other half destemmed. The results were startling. The whole cluster wine was softer in acidity, pleasantly pucker-y with tannins and generally quite herbal. The destemmed lot was zippy, fresh, fruity, but a little too straightforward and simple. Blended together the wine was sublime, and people loved it and it sold out quickly!
I’m super excited about working with Kessler Haak, the wines are proving to be dramatic and delicious, plus it’s been a pleasure to work with Dan Kessler, he’s so willing to adapt to my ideas in vineyard care. Check out what’s happening with our 2015 Kessler Haak Pinot Noir—you will not be disappointed!
Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara County
Sauvignon blanc has been dear to my heart since my start as a winemaker. When I was studying at UC Davis in the mid 70s I’d often make a jaunt to Berkeley to browse the shelves at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, and I’d often bring home northern Rhone syrahs and Loire sauvignon blancs to reflect on. Those bottles made indelible impressions during those formative years. So, a few years later when I planted my first vineyard in Ojai, I chose to plant syrah and sauvignon blanc.
I’ve been making sauvignon blanc from McGinley Vineyard since 1998 (back when it was called Westerly) and we’ve farmed the same two little blocks since. The site provides an exceptionally gorgeous example of the varietal, thanks largely to soils that would be abysmal for just about any other crop. In some sections the topsoil is as shallow as a foot and a half, with serpentine rock and fractured shale underneath. The wines from these poor soils are amazingly flavorful because the vines sense the scarcity of resources and, fearing death, direct all their energy toward maturing fruit rather than growing leaves (that way their genes may persevere).
I’ve been lucky to have connected with so many people who love our sauvignon blanc’s unique style. It’s a dazzling drink to pair with fresh cuisine—the folks at Chez Panisse have offered it on their wine list for years—I love it with oysters, or some good bread and goat cheese. As for aging, I begin to like our sauvignon blanc after a couple of years in bottle, though the 1998 is still drinking great, so this is a worthy white to exercise your cellar discipline!
Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
White Hawk vineyard produced its first crop in 2000 and the wine we made from those grapes was so bizarre that I chose to blend it into our Santa Barbara County bottling. The unusualness of its expression of syrah scared me that year, but I began to understand it a bit better by 2001 when we begun bottling it as a single vineyard wine. What I didn’t understand at the time was that great vineyards have large personalities and nobody has ever made a great wine from a vineyard that is pleasant and innocuous. This was an important lesson to learn, and it has been great fun to see White Hawk’s fascinating iodine and seaweed aromatics express themselves through the vintages.
The vineyard is planted on hillsides of pure sand in Cat Canyon near Los Alamos, California. The Syrah vines struggle to survive, since sand can hold neither nutrients nor water well. The production is absurdly low, making them some our most expensive grapes. The wine that’s made from this spot is as unique as the vineyard looks. There is an intense but lovely red berry fruit character followed by an intriguing seaweed-iodine spiciness–this aromatic association perhaps because the soil here is an ancient seabed. In any case, it’s quite unique. The tannins are copious, but super fine textured. The climate is just cool enough that we never have to worry about the acidity level of the grapes, there is always a zesty tang that keeps this wine lively.
Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County
John Sebastiano Vineyard was planted in 2007 and produced its first crop in 2010. It is located on the northeastern edge of the Santa Rita Hills appellation way up in the hills so it catches the ferocious winds that come in from the ocean at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The vineyard is predominantly inside the appellation and mostly planted to pinot noir, however there is some syrah and grenache planted just outside and that is where we get our fruit. The vines were planted on a steep southern slope and the soil has quite a bit of clay with some shale-y bits that pop through here and there. The vines struggle to develop a full canopy of leaves and the fruit ripens late in October or early November, but each year the wine possesses a knockout aroma of crushed raspberries with a solid structure of tannin and acidity.
Vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano pays attention to every detail, which is good because grenache is finicky. Assuming flowering goes well, grenache produces clusters that are so big that they need to be individually hand trimmed in order for the fruit to mature evenly. Also, the clusters become bleached if they receive too much sunlight, so Ruben trains the vines in a way to encourage just the right amount of shading. This extra effort really shows in the finished wine, as each year the color of the wine is dark and the flavors are impressive.
This vineyard has produced wines that are imbued with what can only be described as dramatic personalities. Planted on the climatic edge where the vines barely ripen their fruit, the structure of this grenache is different from what I have seen elsewhere in California, or for that matter from the southern Rhone or Spain. The wines are simply fresher and more alive.
Sta. Rita Hills Appellation – Santa Barbara County
Melville’s Santa Rita Hills vineyard site is situated in the cool Santa Rita Hills area, and the climate has a profound effect on the character of this wine. There are peppery, spicy and floral notes that you never see in syrahs from warmer vineyards. We use some of our edgiest winemaking techniques with this wine because the raw material demands it, and its potential would not be realized if we used more conventional methods. And, while we are big fans of low yields in the vineyard, in this case we have no choice because we couldn’t consistently ripen the syrah here unless we kept the crop small, as it is harvest rarely occurs before the last week of October.
Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
Winemaker Rick Longoria lovingly farms this terrific site and generously allows us to purchase a small portion of his vineyard’s production. Rick and I agree that there is only a moment in time when the character of the vineyard fully expresses itself. Picked a couple of days too soon or too late and all is lost. The raw material here at Fe Ciega is so interesting–it has the acidity that is needed for good balance and it possesses a unique vineyard personality that is intriguing. While it is always fruit filled, deeply colored and dense, it is not particularly fruity—this is a wine that speaks of its earthy origins!
Much like its famous neighbor to the east, Sanford and Benedict, Fe Ciega is planted on light clay soil over a fractured shale base. This soil seems to give the grapes excellent acidity and a richness of flavor that is quite satisfying. Rick generously sells me a small amount of each of the three clones he has planted there: Pommard, Dijon 115 and Dijon 667.
Background: A few years ago, I was at Jim and Bob’s 50th birthday bash and met up with Rick Longoria. He told me the most amazing story of how, at a luncheon at Sweeney Canyon vineyard, near the western edge of the Santa Rita Hills appellation, he had looked at the lovely hills above and commented to the person sitting next to him that he could see a perfect vineyard site across the way. The fellow said he owned that property, and, not long after, he invited Rick to design, plant and grow a vineyard for him-with Rick the exclusive buyer. When Rick asked me if I would like to buy a small portion of the fruit, I hesitated (because we already make so many different wines) until I got my first glimpse at the site, which truly is fantastic. Rick is doing an excellent job farming the vineyard, and I am excited with my first endeavor with it. The vineyard name was originally called Blind Faith (from rock music fame), but because the name was already copyrighted, Rick chose the Spanish translation: Fe Ciega.
Sta Rita Hills Appellation – Santa Barbara County
La Cote vineyard, a new site on the far western edge of Santa Rita Hills that we are very excited to work with! Domaine de la Cote is a new venture of my first employee Sashi Moorman and the esteemed sommelier Rajat Parr near Lompoc. The Property consists of six vineyards planted on clay, diatomaceous earth and shale soils with vines spaced at a very tight five feet by three. Organically farmed from the start by the talented Chris King, this vineyard has produced extraordinarily unique wines, unlike anything else from the Sta Rita Hills appellation. Sashi and Raj offered me a small amount of the fruit from the interesting La Cote site in 2013 and I didn’t hesitate to take it, having driven by the vineyard numerous times on my way to Fe Ciega. The ideal aspect of the vineyard, the shale and clay soil, the smart farming and close planting of the vines informed me of the seriousness of intent here—I knew the wine made from these vines would be quirky and profound. And we produced a wine that is immensely aromatic and at the same time unusually delicate and fine.
Santa Ynez valley – Santa Barbara County
Puerta del Mar is our coldest vineyard. It’s a small and relatively new planting that’s way out by Lompoc—a stone’s throw east of Highway 1—actually West of the already chilly Sta. Rita Hills. There are six level acres, evenly split between Dijon clones of pinot noir and chardonnay. And If I were to win the lottery and plant a vineyard myself again, this is exactly how it would be: densely planted (3 by 5.5 feet) vines trained to a narrow vertical trellis, in a site scoured by cool ocean air.
It was planted in 2007 as an investment property by CalPERS, the state employee retirement system. I’m not sure I’d have made the investment, seeing as when the boundaries of SRH were agreed on it was thought that land this far west would be too cold to ripen grapes. But call it ignorance or a changing climate—the nay-sayers were wrong, because the wine has proved it was a fabulous good gamble! Today the site is owned by the folks at Jonata, but we’re still the only winery that gets this fruit. And it’s well farmed thanks to Ruben Solorzano, who farms our John Sebastiano Vineyard fruit and many other top Santa Barbara County sites, and consistently produces exceptional results.
One might look at a map and guess this spot to be freakishly coastal, the kind of place from which only a quirky and sinewy wine might be possible. But the vineyard also sits within a bowl-shaped depression, a little dimple of the earth that opens toward the final meandering S-bends of the Santa Ynez River. This protects the vines from what would be a relentless attack of cold westerly winds, and allows for some exuberance to develop in the fruit. Still, it’s our coolest vineyard. On a day that’s warm in almost every other vineyard in Santa Barbara County, Puerta del Mar is temperate and breezy. The soils reflect the site’s placement between the Santa Ynez River and Salsipuedes Creek: some clay with lots of rocky alluvial river wash and chunky bits of white shale.
We’ve released five vintages from Puerta del Mar now, and each has a strikingly different profile. Part of why I love cool-climate sites is the vivid expression of vintage that comes with them. What’s consistent year to year is an enticing and exotic spiciness lurking in both the pinot and chardonnay—discrete puffs of crushed cardamom pop up among other layers. There’s also a consistent fineness and subtlety to these wines, which I attribute to the ocean’s ever-present influence.
Los Alamos Valley – Santa Barbara County
The Vineyard was planted in 1991 by Bob Stevens to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some are on rootstock some on their own roots. Steve Lyons bought the vineyard in 2007 and expanded the acreage by one third to 108 acres. Now it has Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and a new planting of Gruner Veltliner.The ranch was used only for cattle grazing before being planted to vines
We make A single vineyard Pinot Noir and Riesling along with a Riesling dessert wine.
The soils of Kick On Vineyard are composed primarily of ocean floor sandy loams. Because it is the most westerly vineyard in the area, it is perhaps the most maritime of all vineyards in this growing region. With the Pacific coastline only miles away, a constant maritime influence results in wines of crisp acidity, bright fruit and an inherent balance.
Soils are marine-based, and can be variously described as sandy, sandy loams, clay loam, shaley loam, loam or shaley clay loam. Numerous series of soils exist, but the most common are the Chamise soils, which are, typically, well-drained and rest above deep gravelly beds of silt, clay and sand. The other soil series that is widely found is the Elder series. These originated from alluvium deposits derived from sandstone. The Elder series occurs on alluvial fans and in flood plains. Most of the soils in which vineyards are planted are considered to be of low or moderate vigor. They purposely stress the vines somewhat, resulting in grapes of greater flavor and concentration. While the yields tend to be low to moderate, the concentration and extraction of the grape materials tends to be intense and quality-driven.
In many ways the little Los Alamos valley is inhospitable for vines. Located between Point Sal and Point Conception, just before the California seashore takes a 90 degree turn to the east, this is one windy spot. For centuries mariners have been terrified by this stretch of the coast because of the funneling effect that the three river valleys (Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez) have on local meteorology. The same wind and fog that make ocean navigation difficult also makes it tough on vines. They struggle to grow in such cool conditions, the wind actually inhibiting vine vigor and messing with pollination. But what is bad for the vine is good for wine quality; cool conditions preserve the delicate fragrances that make pinot so special. And specifically here at Kick On the wine expresses its provenance with an earthiness and mineral quality that is beguiling.
Santa Barbara County
There’s much about Duvarita Vineyard that is unconventional. Probably foremost is the farming, where biodynamic practices are employed. This method—basically a mystic’s mash-up of organic farming, astrology, homeopathy, and Wiccan principles—produces fruit that is often compelling and highly expressive of terroir. We’ve found this true every year with our Presidio syrahs (the vineyard’s former name), which come from grapes doted upon to the exacting standards of certified biodynamics. We’re not sure whether to attribute credit to the unseen “elemental beings” that coax the grapes toward ripeness, or simply the fact that so much more time is spent paying attention in the vineyard when farming this way.
In any case, we have always been fascinated by the wines we’ve made from this vineyard, which—biodynamics aside—is odd in that it’s a decidedly marginal location for syrah vines. Duvarita is way out near Lompoc, even further west than the already windy and chilly Sta. Rita Hills! It was planted in 2000, just as the boundaries of that venerable AVA were being established. At that time, it was considered a gamble whether grapes would ripen any closer to the coast, so neither Duvarita’s nor Puerta Del Mar Vineyard’s locations were included in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
Granted, it is a struggle to ripen syrah here. The gentle southerly slope provides some reprieve, but the fruiting zone of the trellising has to be low—partly to protect the vines from the relentless wind, and partly to capture some radiant heat and light from the poor sandy soil. We admire the throw-caution-to-the-wind spirit of plantings like Duvarita. We also find these marginal locations provide a more vivid and unique expression of vintage (when compared to warm-climate sites). That said, what’s consistent with this wine is its voluminous intensity, which was not expected from such a cool climate spot. It showcases elegant power and savory depth coupled with high-toned acidity, and has all the bones to age well.
Santa Maria Valley
Solomon Hills Vineyard is the most coastal vineyard up in cool foggy Santa Maria Valley. It’s also the sister vineyard to Bien Nacido, so it too is farmed with same doting attention to detail. The site consists of a series of gently rolling hills of sand next to Highway 101, at the western edge of the appellation. Being so close to the ocean, Solomon Hills is exceptionally cool and foggy in a region where that is the norm (the Miller family also grows blueberries here, which might give you an idea of the climate).
The marginal weather and the extremely poor sandy soils make low yields and intense fruit the name of the game. When the vines are flowering in spring the weather is often moist and cool, which makes it difficult to get good fruit set. And being planted on nutrient-poor sand means the berries and clusters stay quite small, which is great for making wines with vibrancy and character.
With these influences only Dijon clones make sense for the site, as these clones are better equipped to ripen in chilly vineyards where “California clones” like those at Bien Nacido might give under-stuffed and overly nervy wines. The Dijon fruit benefits from the cool, gradual ripening here. Our wines that come out of this vineyard are always radiant and bold offerings with lots to say, but also elegant and precisely balanced—just a joy to drink!
Santa Maria Valley
Bien Nacido Vineyard was planted by the Miller family in 1973, amidst the first wave of Santa Barbara County vineyard plantings, out in the eastern part of Santa Maria Valley where the foothills rise out of the coastal flood plain. It’s a site with an impeccable climate for gently ripening both Rhone and Burgundian varietals, graced both by warm sun and cool, fog laced ocean breezes. And there’s an array of great soil types for winemaking.
I’ve been working with this site since 1988, sourcing chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, and most recently, roussanne. Our grapes are purchased not through tonnage contracts, where you get what has been grown for you, but instead through more hands-on long-term acreage contracts, which allow us to farm the fruit to our liking and maintain the same rows from year to year (or decade to decade, as is the case at Bien Nacido). Because of this we’ve become intimately acquainted with our blocks and have figured out how to get intensely flavored fruit at relatively moderate levels of sugar ripeness. While talented vineyard manager Chris Hammell probably needs no advice, he has been very patient and diligent with accommodating my exacting requests.