Santa Barbara/San Ynes/Santa Rita are among some of my favorite California regions — I’ve never had a bad wine from this place — so it was both a pleasure to know that the Wine Blogging Conference 2014 would be held here, and also that they kicked off Friday with a panel of Santa Barbara winemakers.
Poor Larry Schaffer had a TERRIBLE time with his slides but had an incredibly legit panel of first-generation, super-famous Santa Barbara winemakers: Bob Lindquist of Qupé, Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines, and Richard Longoria of Longoria Wines. Lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara of course, and over 50% of the grapes they grow here aren’t vinified here.
Panel question the first: Why Santa Barbara?
Richard Sanford studied geography in college, came back from Vietnam War wanting to get into agriculture. A bottle of Volnay inspired him to find a place to grow Burgundy-style wine. He thought the places that were growing CA Pinot Noir were too warm, so he wandered around with his themometer in the coastal valleys near San Luis Obispo and bought some land and started a vineyard. The land had never been electrified, and he used gas lights for 6 years. In 1976, they had their first production, and the wines were so well received that they sold out their vintage. They were the first vineyard to grow their grapes organically. He’s super-serious and adorable.
Side note: winemakers are not accomplished conference speakers.
Ken Brown started in sales in IBM and real estate of Sacramento with a degree in finance, but his love for wine started taking over his life, so he went back to school at Fresno State and studied both viticulture and microbiology. His love was Pinot Noir, and he headed up the school vineyard. One of his assignments was to prove the market viability of Santa Barbara wines (guess that worked out). He then herd about this vienyard doing this great Pinot Noir: he headed up there, met Richard Sanford and tasted the best Pinot Noir he’d ever had. Ken was hired by Zaca Mesa winery out of college, and then started his own winery (Byron) in 1984 while he was still the winemaker at Zaca Mesa. Byron Wines was sold to Mondavi in 1990, and planted a 17 acre of experimental Pinot Noir in 1991 to assess all the different clones they had planted. Working with the Mondavis was really important to the development of Santa Barbara County, and in 1993 Ken and his wife opened Ken Brown Wines.
Rick Longoria was taken under the wine by Andre Telecheiff at Buena Vista, who also told him about a new area he was excited about: Santa Barbara County. Firestone was looking for a cellar master, and Rick was hired in 1976 and met his wife there — she was the winery tour guide — and they married in 1977. There were only about 5 wineries in the county. “Napa was becoming Napa in 1978,” but Santa Barbara/San Ynes was still laid back. Longoria, their own brand, stated in 1982 part-time, and not until the 90s did they start doing it full-time. They make a diverse portfolio of wines, because they can — the climate here lets them grow diverse grapes, like Albariño and Tempranillo. Rick describes himself as a restless winemaker, and so what he loves about this region is that he can grow lots of different grapes.
Bob Lindquist has been in the wine business his whole adult life — got the wine bug when he was 25 in the 70s, and got excited about wine at this great wine store, High Times Cellars. He wanted to be a wine retailer at the time: worked for a wholesaler in Ventura for a time, and one of his customers was a little store in Los Olivos and got hired to manage the store in 1979. It was owned by the son of the owner of Zaca Mesa, so he got to know the local winemakers, and fell in love with the area. In late August in 1979, he got fired from the store, and got hired by the owner of Zaca Mesa as a tour guide there. In his spare time, he worked as the cellar rat, working under Ken Brown and Jim Clandenon. A few years later he started Qupé (at the age of 29), making the wines at Zaca Mesa and paying to use their equipment with sweat equity. He fell in love with Syrah, and bought his grapes from Paso Robles but had to add acid to those grapes which told him that Paso Robles was too hot for Syrah. Europeans are always amazed that they can grow excellent Syrah and Pinot Noir so close together here, but that’s the climate.
Panel question the second: Why are you still here?
Richard Sanford says the best is yet to come for Santa Barbara. What excites him is that so many young winemakers have chosen to make wine in the Santa Rita hills.
Ken Brown says once he really began to understand this region that things took off, and he says since vineyards here are only 15 years old, and so he’s excited to see what wines can be made as the vineyards age further.
Richard Longoria is building a new winery so he’s not going anywhere.
Bob Lindquist likes that you don’t need an air conditioner if your house is built the right way, and all his family has set down roots here, so he’s here to stay.
It was such a pleasure to listen to these trailblazing winemakers talk about how they got started in this superb region