Santa Barbara on the rise

Santa Barbara on the rise

Jennifer Rofe

Lafond Winery

I spoke with David Lafond, general manager, and Bruce McGuire, winemaker, at the small Lafond Winery up the road from Sanford in the Santa Ynez Valley. Designed by Pierre Lafond and contracted by his son David, the winery is open and accessible–large windows keep harvest in clear view of visitors, and beautiful mahogany and glass doors separate the tasting room from the production room.

In 1962, Pierre Lafond started Santa Barbara Winery, the county’s first “Repeal” winery. Then, “in 1970, Pierre was looking for plantable lands,” David explains. By 1972, Pierre and viticulturalist Bill Collins established Lafond Winery, with the initial vineyards north of the Santa Ynez River. In 1981, Bruce McGuire became winemaker, and with the 1996 vintage, the Lafond facility started producing wines.

Lafond has vineyards north and south of the Santa Ynez River, with older vineyards to the north and new vineyards to the south. (Unfortunately, in 1997, 6 acres of old vineyard were lost to the river, which was once channeled. Government agencies no longer allow channeling.) The 100 planted acres–including the new onsite vineyard, which has produced two crops–grow mostly Pinot noir and Syrah, along with Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc.

Currently, Lafond uses grapes from its vineyards, the Santa Rita hills area and other sources, but the winery is focusing on its newer vineyards, although they will not mature for five to 10 years. Down the road, Lafond hopes to establish a reputation for Pinot noir, Syrah and Chardonnay from the Santa Rita hills. Lafond would also like to establish a Santa Rita Hills appellation, which, Bruce says, will be “very important to the identity of the area.” Once an appellation is instituted, Lafond will focus on producing Santa Rita Hills wines.

In the meantime, Lafond is taking added steps to improve wine quality. “Our philosophy in the field is to carefully observe all the vines many times during the growing season and achieve best canopy management, hand select fruit and develop the best product possible for (Bruce),” David says. “The top end of the industry is constantly increasing quality; the bar keeps getting raised higher,” Bruce says. “If we don’t do the most we can with the grapes, we’re not going to improve quality in the winery.” Fortunately, the climate that both men praise and SBC’s locale do not make growing quality grapes too difficult. “If I had to pick a place to grow grapes, it’d be here or the Anderson Valley in Mendocino,” Bruce adds.

Total production between the Lafond and Santa Barbara wineries is 35,000 to 40,000 cases, and Lafond produces the red wines for both wineries (Santa Barbara became a white wine producing facility in the 1980s). Products include vineyard designated Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, which Lafond is very aggressively pursuing. Prices range between $12 and $35. Production facilities include 8.5-ton jacketed open top Santa Rosa Stainless Steel tanks by Modern Stainless design, 7-ton Promac open top tanks, 12-ton jacketed open top Santa Rosa Stainless Steel tanks and a 2,600 liter Euro-press. Barrels come from Coopers De Mercury, Sirug and Dargau & Jaegle, corks are from Cork Supply USA and Caliber provides glass.

While Lafond uses a sales director to oversee nationwide distribution and international markets (Belgium, Germany and Japan), tourism and tasting room traffic is important to the winery’s business. Although the tasting room just opened in April, Lafond is receiving a healthy number of visitors, thanks in part to local wineries such as Sanford that direct visitors to Lafond. Still, with the Santa Barbara Winery in the city, and a Lafond deli, bakery and clothing store on Santa Barbara’s most popular street, attracting visitors and promoting the winery should not be difficult. And now with Lafond in the Santa Ynez Valley, both Lafond and the Santa Barbara Winery are gaining a presence there. “There are a lot of possibilities here,” David says. “It’s about promoting the area and educating people.”

Byron Vineyards & Winery

Byron “Ken” Brown is founder, winemaker and vice president of Byron Vineyards and Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. Ken generously gave me a comprehensive tour of his vineyards and winery, and a comprehensive tasting of his impressive lineup. I tried, among others, the rich, spicy 1999 Santa Maria Valley Pinot gris, $20; the complex and rich 1998 Neilson Vineyard Chardonnay, $34; the 1998 Nielson Historic Vines Chardonnay, which is rich, silky and exotic, $75; the 1998 Sierra Madre Pinot noir, which is rich mid-palate, $45; and Io, a Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre blend first released in 1996, $60.

“I was offered a job at Zaca Mesa to be the winemaker, to design and build the winery, and I thought why not work in somebody else’s winery for three years, make my mistakes and then I’ll go do my own winery?” relates Ken, who studied enology in Fresno State’s graduate program, where he headed up the research program in the school vineyard and winery. In 1977, Ken began his career with Zaca Mesa, and in 1984 he started Byron with his wife Deborah and several partners. On January 25, 1990, Ken sold Byron to Robert Mondavi, intending to showcase SBC’s potential. “What I needed were the resources to redevelop the vineyards and build the winery, and what they needed was somebody with passion and commitment,” Ken says.

Originally, Byron Vineyards and Winery had 10 acres–five of vineyard, five of hills. Today Byron has three vineyards: Nielson Vineyard (originally called Byron Vineyard, the name was changed with the 1998 vintage), over 600 acres; the 640-acre Sierra Madre Vineyard; and Geary Vineyard, roughly 300 acres. (The property also includes the original vineyard of SBC planted by Uriel Nielson in 1964, from which Byron uses the top 12 vines to make its Historic Vine Chardonnay.) “What we ended up buying was a vineyard that had two things right: the climate and the soil. If you have bad soil and good climate, there’s no way you can make a good wine. But if you have great soil and average climate, you have a better chance. Ideally, you line them both up.” Ken describes SBC’s soils as deep, old marine soils that stunt the vine and account for Byron’s high quality. “Smaller vines produce smaller clusters and smaller clusters produce smaller berries,” Ken says. “That’s the reason the quality is so good.”

Byron’s vineyards are planted to the very best standards in the industry, which, Ken hopes, will give Byron the highest quality products, and Byron has a 100-acre experimental vineyard program dedicated to research. The vineyards have 4 feet between vines, with 1,815 vines/acre. Shoots are positioned with spurs a good distance apart, and each spur has two buds that push a shoot, and each shoot typically has two clusters. Vines are spread so that the clusters receive better sunlight and air circulation, which helps minimize botrytis. This type of time, effort and expense put in manicuring and managing the Byron vineyards is what Ken calls “the concept of precision.” “When we’re thinking out the vineyard, part of that concept is the style of wine we’re making, and that’s not something they teach you in school, that’s something you learn through experience” he explains. “It takes time, but you have to know your site.”

In order to “know the site,” part of the Byron vineyards are separated into small lots, and Byron workers are responsible for caring and documenting specific blocks and rows. This makes documenting the history and progress of vineyards in a database more efficient, and is Byron’s way of competing with and having the same advantages as Burgundian producers that may be farming, hand-picking and documenting a 10-acre vineyard.

In 1996, Byron built a new two-level gravity-flow winery, constructed primarily for the production of Pinot noir. The winery contains a flexible 100-foot-long room used for red wine fermentation, barrel aging and bottling, and a system has been designed to take wine out of the barrels without pumping. In fact, Byron has not filtered a red wine in years. “This ended up to be a very cost-effective winery, and it’s very efficient,” Ken says. “The whole idea of building this winery was to go through the winemaking process and not compromise winemaking. Everything we’ve done is about absolute perfection.”

Ken’s next feat will be separate from Byron–he is embarking on producing what he calls “the Opus of Pinot noir.” A small winery for the project will be built most probably at the Geary property, with a production of 10,000 cases.

Vines have already been planted at both the Geary and Sierra Madre vineyards.

With a total production of 45,000 cases, prices ranging from $28 to $75, the 100% estate program wines are distributed worldwide. Byron’s marketing and sales is done under the Mondavi system and Byron has a marketing and brand manager located in Napa. Still, it is clear that quality is key to marketing wines, and Ken expects nothing short of high quality: “We always set our sights at the highest level and push hard to get there.”

Qupe

I met with Bob Lindquist, owner of and winemaker for Qupe, at the unpretentious Au Bon Climat (ABC)/Qupe winery, located next to the Bien Nacido Vineyards. I tried a heavenly 1990 Chardonnay and a delicious, softer, walnutty 1983 Chenin blanc.

In 1982, while working at Zaca Mesa, Bob decided to start Qupe (Chumash for “poppy”). He bought barrels and grapes, and used the Zaca Mesa facilities to make wine. The first vintage was released in 1982–900 cases, which included Chardonnay, Syrah and a vin gris-style wine that he no longer makes. In 1987, the owners of the Bien Nacido Vineyard approached Bob about building a winery facility on their property. “I brought Jim Clendenen (owner of ABC) into the picture at the same time because he was also looking for a permanent facility. The next thing we know, we had a winery.”

Today, Qupe and ABC share a strictly-functional, cooperative-style facility, and their combined production accounts for roughly 70% of production. With a coop facility, Bob and Jim can function as a large winery while using their equipment and staff efficiently. “I can’t think of any other facility that operates the same way we operate,” Bob says. “There’s a different synergy that comes out of this whole process.” In 2000, total production for the entire facility was roughly 90,000 cases–26,000 were Qupe.

Qupe purchases 90% of its grapes, mostly from Bien Nacido; however, Bob also grows 12 acres of grapes on a leased vineyard in Los Olivos, which he farms. The majority of Qupe’s production is Syrah, along with other Rhone varietals including Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre. He also makes around 4,000 cases of Chardonnay a year. Retail prices range from $15 to $40.

Bob is well regarded for his Syrah. In fact, when he started producing the varietal, only three other commercial producers of Syrah existed in California. In the future, he anticipates increasing his Syrah production, as well as other Rhone varietals. In the meantime, he and his wife are producing the Spanish varietals Albarino and Tempranillo under the new label Verdad. The wines were released May 1 and run $16 for the Albarino and $13 for the Tempranillo rose.

For Bob, the greatest challenges of SBC are the political and environmental constraints, although he appreciates them: “The majority of the wineries here like the space and the fact that there isn’t a lot of bumper to bumper traffic,” he says. Still, with the amount of undeveloped, “potential vineyard land,” he admits that the capability for growth in SBC is large, but the formalities necessary for implementing a project are frustrating. “When you think you’re doing things the right way, you have to go through all these forms and processes and red tape.”

Both Bob and Jim market directly, and California is their biggest market, followed by New York and the United Kingdom. Yet ABC/Qupe does not have a tasting room and the winery is not open to visitors (except during the two Santa Barbara Vintners festivals). When Bob and Jim started in the wine industry, their circumstances were not conducive to tourism–they were producing their wines at other facilities and they ensured the retail accounts they were selling to that they would not compete with them. “When we built this facility we could have easily set up a tasting room, but we didn’t want to deal with it, plus we still didn’t want to compete with our retail accounts.” Nor do they ever anticipate opening one. “We’ve gone this long without it, we don’t need it from a sales or marketing standpoint. I just can’t see us ever doing it.”

Longoria

I met with Richard Longoria, owner and winemaker of Longoria wines, on the patio of his Los Olivos tasting room, operated by his wife and business partner, Diana. I tried, among others, the new Pinot grigio, which is subtle and delicious.

“Having developed a kind of counter-culture perspective on things, I was looking for somewhere to live and some way to make a living that wasn’t the ‘establishment’ type of job,” says Richard, who has a decorated history in the industry. Although he originally planned on attending law school, after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in sociology, Richard worked on the bottling line at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. After two weeks, he quit. “Then I got to work with the wine, and I soon realized that this was something I was very interested in,” he says.

At Buena Vista, Richard worked with the late Andre Tchelistcheff, who was consulting for Firestone Vineyard, and he informed Richard of a job opening there. In 1976, Richard became cellar foreman at Firestone, but returned to Napa after two years and worked as cellarmaster for Chappelett Vineyards. In 1979, he returned to SBC as part-time winemaker for Carey Cellars and Rancho Sisquoc.

By 1982, he developed his own brand and in 1985 he became winemaker for The Gainey Vineyard. By 1997 Richard’s Longoria lineup had expanded, and he and Gainey amicably parted. In 1998, Richard moved into an industrial facility in Lompoc, where he makes his wines, and opened up his tasting room. “With a place to sell wine and a place to make it, we were pretty well set.”

Richard purchases his grapes from local vineyards, and having been in SBC since 1976, he has pinpointed vineyards that offer him the best material. Richard has also planted an 8-acre vineyard of Pinot noir on leased property in the Lompoc area. He will get first tonnage this year and hopes to produce 300 cases.

In 2000, Longoria produced 4,800 cases; however, believing that the industry is an exercise in history and evolution, this year Longoria is eliminating some varietals that no longer meet quality criteria and will produce 4,400 cases. New releases include a 2000 Pinot grigio, $18; Clos Pepe Vineyard Chardonnay, $28; and a 1999 vintage Italian red blend called Lusso (Italian for “luxury”), to be released in October. Longoria wines run between $18 and $36.

Opening a winery is not high priority for Richard, in part because he feels the realities of achieving it in SBC may be too difficult. “I am operating quite fine in an industrial park: nobody bothers me, the city of Lompoc received me with open arms and I have very little cost involved,” he says. “This is a very efficient, inexpensive way to get your operation going.” Richard’s production facilities include a Howard 2,600-liter membrane press, l,700-gallon jacketed Modern Brewing Santa Rosa Stainless tanks and some 750-gallon plastic tanks. Barrels come from Francois Freres, Tonnellerie Billon and Marchive, and Caliber supplies glass.

The Longoria tasting room receives roughly 8,000 visitors annually, and the winery has a wine club. Wines are distributed throughout the major California markets, 14 national markets, Canada and Germany, although Richard would like to increase international markets. Richard would also like to see California wines expand, and he believes education will help promote wine to the masses. “There’s no scarcity of black-tie dinners for $150 a plate and selling wines at auctions for certain amounts of money. But what about the other 99% of Americans?”

According to Richard, the ultimate place of wine is as a companion to food, and he finds that winemaking in California is overdone. “I want to respect the varietal, I don’t want to mask the varietal character or the grape,” he says. “In the case of blends, I want to create wine that’s balanced. I look for balanced harmony in the wines that I make.

Bonterra Buys Property

Bonterra, a brand of Fetzer Vineyards, purchased the McNab Ranch in Hopland. The property totals 378 acres in Mendocino County and the vineyard is certified bio-dynamic. The ranch will be a site for a new winery to support the growing Bonterra brand.

At present, the ranch is planted to 133 acres of vineyard, and the cultivars are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier and Petite Sirah. Plans are to increase planted acreage.

Dr. Paul Scliolten Dies At 79

Paul Scholten, M.D., a connoisseur of wine and food, died May 9 of cancer in his San Francisco home.

I met Dr. Scholten in 1974, in Paris, on my first trip to Europe with Leon D. Adams and the Medical Friends of Wine.

There is no question Paul Scholten was a friend of wine. As a gynecologist, he suggested pregnant women have a glass of wine at dinner or bedtime to ease the tension of pregnancy. He no longer could do that at some point because he was concerned, and rightly so, with possible lawsuits if a woman consumed too much with negative birth results.

As a physician, he delivered thousands of babies, and also taught at the medical centers of Stanford, UC San Francisco and what now is the California Pacific Medical Center.

Paul Scholten also was a journalist and wrote on wine and health and other subjects. He also published a very well-done guide to San Francisco and area restaurants. He was kind enough to send us his restaurant guide gratis.

The worlds of wine and medicine, at the very least, will miss his gentlemanly ways, intellect and humor.

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, three sons, two daughters and four brothers.

The family requested donations in his name to a favorite charity.

Philip E. Hiaring

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