Riding Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Wave
(James Sparks and Jeff Nelson of Liquid Farm)
You couldn’t paint a prettier wine vista than Santa Barbara County, where oak savannahs rise from songbird-serenaded creeks. Gently rolling hills lead toward craggy mountain peaks speckled with wildflowers. And, of course, grapevines are planted amidst it all.
Dozens of wineries dot the bucolic landscape, from the Bordeaux varieties-friendly heat of Happy Canyon to the fog-swept Pinot Noir lands of the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley.
The majority of Santa Barbara’s nearly 200 producers, however, make their wine in decidedly more urban settings, the hum of freeway traffic and taco shacks more prevalent than shrieking hawks or frolicking deer.
From Santa Barbara’s Eastside and the Santa Maria Projects to the Buellton Bodegas and Lompoc Wine Ghetto, some of the Central Coast’s best winemakers pump out vintages in industrial parks and converted warehouses, proudly celebrating the numerous advantages that these downtown digs offer.
Urban wine production is not a new phenomenon in the region. Santa Barbara Winery started near the city’s waterfront in the 1960s (long before it became known as the Funk Zone), and many esteemed vintners started their careers at Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) near Santa Maria Public Airport.
It’s a trend likely to continue. Many vintners fear that changing regulations for building new estate wineries in the county will make it harder to set up shop in the countryside.
Here are six urban producers to seek out.
Photos by Jeremy Ball
(From left: John Dragonette, Brandon Sparks-Gillis and Steve Dragonnette)
When Dragonette Cellars moved from Lompoc to Buellton in April 2013, it was the latest in a long line of wineries to settle in on Los Padres Way, next door to the auto repair shop and a football’s throw from the 101 Freeway.
Dating back to 1982, the space might be the county’s first purpose-built urban winery (rather than existing spaces that were converted), with Sanford, Zaca Mesa, Kahn, Roblar, Cargasacchi, Loring and others calling it home over the decades.
Dragonette’s owners, Brandon Sparks-Gillis and brothers John and Steve Dragonette, met through jobs at Wally’s Wine Shop in Los Angeles. They started at CCWS, and later had a taste of estate winemaking while sharing space at Demetria Winery for a couple of years, where Sparks-Gillis was assistant winemaker.
Then it was back to asphalt streets and warehouse space, which they shared with Ampelos Cellars on the far west side of Lompoc from 2008–12.
“Even the existing county rules are pretty onerous,” says Sparks-Gillis. “Tie that with the cost of land, and there is a pretty strong encouragement for a more urban setting.”
The new location is centrally located to the dozen or so vineyards that it sources from for its many boutique-sized bottlings, including Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon, Syrah from Ballard Canyon and Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills.
“It’s like spokes on a wheel,” says Sparks-Gillis, noting that many of the vineyards are roughly 10 minutes away. “It’s allowed us much more time in the vineyards, which is what we pride ourselves on.”
They readily admit there’s less romance in an urban setting. As Steve Dragonette says, “Having an estate property affords you a certain luxury with customers.”
But visitors to Dragonette see a real winery in action.
“We have a garagiste romance here,” says John Dragonette, who jokes about planting some small cypress trees next to the blacktop outside. “Guests are impressed with our entrepreneurial spirit.”
(Jeff Nelson, left, and James Sparks)
One of the more talked about hubs in Santa Barbara County urban winemaking is the Buellton Bodegas.
Winemaker Michael Larner opened the facility situated just down the road from Dragonette in September 2013. Larner has been grappling with the county to build an estate winery on his family’s Ballard Canyon property for the last five years.
The Bodegas hosts 12 producers, from Sonja Magdevski’s Casa Dumetz to Mikael Sigouin’s Kaena, all of whom could be seen sharing equipment and knowledge during the 2014 harvest.
One of the first tenants was Liquid Farm, the Chardonnay-focused project of Jeff and Nikki Nelson and Winemaker James Sparks that enjoys a strong national presence. The more introverted Sparks jokes that he sometimes locks the door to keep those seeking advice at bay, but Jeff Nelson enjoys the group setting.
“I like the camaraderie,” Jeff says. “I like to have people around. The energy is trapped in here in a nice way.”
That mix of tension and energy also finds its way into Liquid Farm’s bottlings, from the brisk, Chablis-inspired White Hills blend (a reference to the limestone soils of the Sta. Rita Hills) to the toastier, homage-to-Meursault vineyard blend Golden Slope (the translation of Côte d’Or, of course).
White Burgundies are Jeff’s passion, and the Sacramento native certainly knows what he likes. He’s worked in wine sales and marketing since 1991, including his most recent job with Henriot Champagne, which he left in August 2014 to focus on Liquid Farm full-time.
Liquid Farm quickly grew from its first 100 cases of Kessler-Haak Vineyard grapes to 5,400 cases in 2014, drawing from a half-dozen vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Its new home will allow growth to 6,000 cases.
“We built the brand from the beginning to be a house that can stand on its own in three to five years and last hopefully for 50 years,” says Jeff. “We have no plans on selling it. We only plan on getting closer together with James, Nikki and myself.”
(From left, Will Henry, Lane Tanner and Ariki Hill.)
By the time Ariki “Rick” Hill married Lane Tanner on her 50th birthday in 2005, both were veterans of the wine business.
Tanner started at Firestone in 1981 (at the insistence of California vine visionary Andre Tchelistcheff) and worked at Zaca Mesa through the 1980s before she helped create the Hitching Post brand and her eponymous Pinot Noir label late in the decade.
Hill, a former milk industry executive, cut his teeth Down Under before winding up at CCWS in the mid-1990s alongside Craig Jaffurs, Chris Whitcraft and other modern pioneers. He founded his Pinot Noir brand, Labyrinth, in 2000.
Today, they work just a roll-up door away from each other on their current projects. For Hill, that’s Labyrinth, Haka (founded during the recession as a brand for Tempranillo and other Paso Robles grapes) and Tantara, where he took over winemaking in 2011.
“We must be one of the largest buyers of single-vineyard fruit,” he said of Tantara, which bottles 12 Pinot Noirs (including various clonal selections) from across the Central Coast each year.
Tanner, meanwhile, got sick of the business and retired her brand in 2009. But she couldn’t stay away long, last year starting her new Burgundian grapes-plus-Grenache project, Lumen, with Will Henry, son of the Henry Wine Group founder.
The duo recently christened the tucked-away manufacturing neighborhood—which also includes Kevin Law’s Cotiere, Cameron Porter’s Amplify and former Tantara owner Bill Cates’s Challen (named after his actress daughter)—the “Santa Maria Projects,” and are expecting approval for a tasting room soon.
Heavy machinery repair shops and other industrial agriculture service businesses don’t necessarily espouse charm, but the couple appreciates the area’s contribution to the bottom line.
“Estate wineries are beautiful, but they’re costly,” says Tanner. “The real nice thing about an urban setting is that you don’t have the overhead. You have more ability to do what you want. You can sleep better at night.”
Matthias Pippig came from Germany to the United States when he was 18 to pursue a career as a drummer. He quickly became disenchanted with the music biz, eventually winding his way through careers in hospitality, wine buying, bakery distribution and food marketing. But his Sanguis Winery, founded at CCWS with 200 cases of Syrah in 2004, still reflects a rock ’n’ roll mentality.
His creatively named bottlings (The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea, Fractured Flowers and Ramshackle & Threadbare, to name a few) sound like band names, featuring edgy, homemade art on the labels, and harken back to his days working with Manfred Krankl at La Brea Bakery.
Pippig goes wacky with blends in “all manner of co-fermentations” from the 25-plus acres of 10 varieties that he has under long-term contract around the county, including a forthcoming Petite Sirah-Roussanne offering that he says is the darkest of the vintage.
“We always push the envelope every year,” says Pippig. “That’s our commitment to ourselves.”
And the wines are all made near the intersection of bustling Milpas Street and the oft-clogged 101, on Santa Barbara’s rough-and-tumble Eastside in a modernist facility that Pippig renovated in 2011.
“It’s a little small, but I actually like the fact that we’re limited,” he says. “You have to run the place like a submarine. Everything needs to be in its place. Organization is really important, and I think it makes us better at what we do. This is a very Japanese style of winemaking.”
He had a taste of the estate life making Grassini Family Vineyards wine in Happy Canyon for about three years. Pippig admits to often looking for his own vineyard to buy, but prefers the city setting.
“At a place like Grassini, if you needed a paper clip, you had to drive 40 minutes,” he says. “I like the fact we are in the middle of it. It’s good energy.”
(From left: John Faulkner, Tim Fimpler, Sashi Moorman)
Sashi Moorman started his winemaking career in 1996 at The Ojai Vineyard with Adam Tolmach, and saw his first urban winery soon afterward down the road in Ventura, where Manfred Krankl turned a dingy warehouse into Sine Qua Non.
“Manfred took what was probably the grossest place to make wine and turned it into something cool,” says Moorman. “You were entering his world.”
Hired by the Stolpmans to run their family winery in 2001, Moorman moved the operation into the industrial park that became known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, where Longoria, Brewer-Clifton and Presidio Winery had already set up shop.
“For me, Lompoc had a lot of advantages,” says Moorman, who’s also co-owner of Piedrasassi and Domaine de la Côte and consulting winemaker for Sandhi and Pence Ranch. Cool temperatures and high humidity make for perfect élevage, and being on a municipal utility grid is another plus. Today, dozens of labels call the Ghetto home.
Moorman insists that the urban model isn’t unique to Santa Barbara.
“It’s only weird to Californians,” he says. “If you go to most of the small wine-growing regions in Europe, from Sancerre to Burgundy to the Rhône to Piedmont, all the wineries are in town. It’s the same idea.”
Moorman took advantage of the centralized setup to create Provignage, which runs operations for different wineries from separate cellars in the Ghetto. Provignage employs winemakers John Faulkner, Tim Fimpler and others, allowing Moorman to expand his curiosity and partners to save money.
“We’re a poster child for the new sharing economy,” says Moorman. “We are a total product of the necessity to become more efficient, to share resources, to spread out your management costs.”
(Matt Brady, Dave Yates, Craig Jaffurs and Stephen Searle)
Craig Jaffurs got his first glimpse of urban winemaking while working at the tasting room of Santa Barbara Winery in 1979. After an initial career in high tech and six years of making wine at CCWS, he was the first vintner to build a winery from the ground up within Santa Barbara city limits. He opened Jaffurs Winery in a blighted area around the corner from the gas stations, liquor stores and Mexican restaurants of Milpas Street in 2001.
“I probably looked at every single plot of land that had a winery or vineyard on it,” says Jaffurs, whose wife convinced him to create something closer to their Santa Barbara home. “But I’m a better winemaker than I’d ever be a farmer.”
He still pines for his own vineyard occasionally, he says, but as General Manager David Yates says, “you don’t have to worry about pests and fertilizer and rootstock.”
To which Jaffurs adds, “Or driving a tractor at 5 in the morning when the frost alarm goes off.”
Instead, Jaffurs, Yates, co-winemaker Matt Brady and Cellarmaster Stephen Searle expanded their Rhône-focused program to include single-vineyard Syrahs along with Grenache, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and blends.
“This positions us well to do that,” says Brady. “If we were tied to one plot of land, we may not have started exploring what options were out there.”
Being in the middle of Santa Barbara also puts the Jaffurs crew much closer to their city-based customers, whether that means spur-of-the-moment deliveries or hosting restaurant staff for a tasting.
“We’re able to educate people who are interested by being down here,” says Yates. “We feel so much more connected to the scene, and we end up with a bunch of ambassadors for our wine.”