Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 18
Brave new wine worldHow several tech-savvy wine producers in Santa Barbara County are changing the ancient art of winemaking
BY WENDY THIES SELL
When I learned that Los Olivos winemaker Joey Tensley not only crafts outstanding Santa Barbara County Syrah, but that he makes wine in France and Argentina, I knew I had to track him down and hear his story. I discovered that was easier said than done.
Our first conversation started a little like this: “Hi, Joey. I write the wine column for the Sun and I’m interested in local winemakers ‘going global.’”
Tensley’s reply was something like, “It’s after midnight. I was asleep. I’d be happy to talk with you, but can you call me another time?”
Turns out he was 5,000 miles and several time zones away in South America.
This enterprising enologist crosses the equator, the Prime Meridian, and the International Date Line multiple times a year.
In February, he was judging wine in Argentina. In May, he was selling wine in Hong Kong. Each summer, he makes wine in France. And he’s not the only local winemaker doing more than just racking wine; he and several others also rack up frequent flier miles.
The self-described mind behind Santa Maria’s Au Bon Climat Winery, Jim Clendenen, was one of the first winemakers in Santa Barbara County to labor on multiple continents. He worked the grape harvest in Australia and in Burgundy, France, in 1981—upon leaving Zaca Mesa Winery and the year before he started Au Bon Climat.
Clendenen still travels the globe 180 days a year, selling wine and promoting the Santa Maria Valley.
Another pioneering Santa Maria winemaker, Bob Lindquist, who started Qupé Winery 30 years ago, was the consulting winemaker for Chateau Routas in Provence, France, for three vintages, 1996 to 1998.
The winery owner wanted to target the U.S. market, “so he thought hiring a known California Syrah producer was the ticket,” Lindquist explained. He went to France six times a year, usually for a week at a time.
“The first year was great. It’s in a very beautiful part of France,” Lindquist said. “The second year was still enjoyable, but the air travel started to wear on me, and by the third year it became a bit of a grind. Plus, I was growing Qupé during this period, so I was working all the time.”
That’s when he handed over the reins to the French winery owner’s son—and Lindquist focused full time on his own winery and vineyards on the Central Coast.
Many young, energetic American winemakers begin their careers working on wine projects in both hemispheres, because harvests don’t conflict.
Lompoc winemaker Steve Clifton is a good example. He traveled to Argentina 16 times from 2003 to 2007, spending five vintages making wine and improving viticulture practices at Bodega Mayol Winery in Mendoza.
Clifton flew to South America and back to Santa Barbara County three times a year. Now he stays close to home, dedicated to his Palmina and Brewer-Clifton wine.
Passionate about place
Victor Gallegos is another world-traveling winemaker. He’s the director of winemaking at the highly acclaimed Sea Smoke Cellars, in the Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc. Sea Smoke wine is so in demand, there’s a three-year wait to get on the member list to buy the high-end Pinot Noirs.
“My first job is to Sea Smoke. That’s my first priority,” Gallegos said, but he also has a side project 6,000 miles away in Spain.
In 1999, Gallegos and his UC Davis roommate, Javier Lopez, bought property in the world-class Priorat wine region, a two-hour drive from Barcelona.
The friends restored century-old Carignane grape vines and developed another 17 acres, for a total of 20 terraced acres of Grenache, Carignane, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They call it Melis Vineyards; Melis means “handcrafted” or “quality,” after the furniture made by Carthusian monks out of Melis pine.
Gallegos and Lopez planted the vines with their own hands and muscle, using sledgehammers and pounding spikes into the soil, which is a combination of volcanic schist and llicorella slate.
“The land speaks to me. At the end of the day, I’m a dirt farmer. I love the feeling of being there. Being in that landscape—it’s a very harsh and unforgiving place to grow grapes. It’s sort of tough love. You have to love it. You have to have a compelling reason in your soul to do this, because it’s certainly not for the money. … I mean, it’s farming on the lunatic fringe,” Gallegos proclaimed.
“In the first several years, I’d spend two weeks here, two weeks there, two weeks here, two weeks there,” he said, laughing at the insanity of flying what adds up to 24,000 miles a month!
Nowadays, Gallegos goes to Spain in the spring to blend his sophisticated and high-scoring red wines, and in the fall to harvest the grapes.
Throughout the year, he’s in constant contact with his Spanish partner and their enologist, in a much “smarter” way.
His whole team has iPhones, or the equivalent, to use for instant picture exchanges.
“When we’re looking at [grape vine] canopy development or we’re looking at véraison (the onset of grape ripening, when grapes turn color), we’re taking photos and sending them back and forth,” Gallegos said, adding that ultimately, grape picking decisions are made on taste, not pictures.
“We have Skype calls all the time, because otherwise it would be too expensive,” he said. “Skype is our friend, especially on my iPhone, which is amazing. I don’t know how I would do this without technology being the way it is now. I would not have survived without technology, for sure.”
Sea Smoke and Melis have been technology-centered companies from the start.
“We were the first European winery that I’m aware of to offer our wines for sale over the Internet and delivered to U.S. consumers by FedEx,” Gallegos said. “For a Spanish website, that’s highly unusual. I don’t know anybody else that does that.”
Another longtime Santa Barbara County winemaker embraces technology while making wine on multiple continents. Renaissance man Doug Margerum often jumps time zones without stepping on a jet. From his Margerum Winery in Los Olivos, he has Internet videoconferences with his wine distributors.
“I can be tasting the same wine and talking about the same wine and I don’t have to travel,” he said. “I still travel a lot, but you don’t have to travel so much.”
For the past six years, Margerum has been a consulting winemaker for an upper echelon French winery called Chêne Bleu, in the Southern Rhône Valley near Gigondas.
“I go over there two to three times a year and help them with the assemblage, which is a fancy word for blend,” he said. “I work on the winemaking and help them with the wine style. We talk about marketing and distribution in the U.S., and do a lot of tasting, and try to figure out where we really fit in.”
Every June, the owners of Chêne Bleu hold a five-day, intensive wine course called “Extreme Wine,” which they describe as the “ultimate boot camp for wine enthusiasts.”
When not attending in person at the luxurious 9th century wine estate, Margerum teaches from his Los Olivos winery.
“I’m a Skype contributor. They have a big screen, I can see all of them, and then I’m on the big screen talking about it,” he said. “I can carry my laptop around my winery and show them my barrels and my winery. Of course I get the biggest reaction when I show them my dog. They’re like, ‘Aww.’”
“We want the input and expertise from people in different time zones, with people with very complementary knowhow; it takes nothing to beam them in and have them participate in the discussions,” said Chêne Bleu co-owner Nicole Sierra-Rolet, a brilliant American woman married to a Frenchman: Xavier Rolet, CEO of the London Stock Exchange.
I met and interviewed Sierra-Rolet in April when she came to California and attended the international wine event, Hospice du Rhône, in Paso Robles.
As a former programs director at a think tank, Sierra-Rolet believes in the round table concept and the value of exchanging experience. The motto of the couple’s 75-acre estate, La Verrière, is Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis, which in Latin means “not mine, not yours, but ours.”
“We really believe in the value of listening to other people, having them listen to us, and together making something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Sierra-Rolet said. “And Doug has been very influential in that capacity.”
In addition to making exceptional wine, Margerum and his family started the Wine Cask restaurant in Santa Barbara in 1981. His wine tasting room is next door—but his palate is always with him.
“When I have the shameless self promotion hat on, I ran the restaurant for 30 years, I tasted every wine in the world, and I really know what a world class wine is, whereas a lot of winemakers don’t,” he said. “That’s just the truth! They don’t get a chance to taste wines for 30 years and with food and with winemakers and traveling. I really feel like I bring a lot to the table when someone’s really setting out to make a world-class wine because I actually know what world-class wine tastes like.”
“Unlike many people in the wine business, Doug actually has a 360-degree view because he’s been on every different side of the business,” Sierra-Rolet added. “He’s able to take a bird’s eye view and look at our project from soup to nuts. Many other consultants are only experienced in one specific area. That was very helpful and exciting.”
She told me the global wine industry is quickly evolving, that technology is opening up new ways of thinking and doing things.
“A lot of the clichés that used to be true a few years ago about the Old World being Europe and the New World being California, Australia, South America, and South Africa have really been turned on their head,” she said.
“In fact, many Old World or European winemakers are using some New World techniques. A lot of New World winemakers are bringing European knowhow or winemakers over here,” Sierra-Rolet added. “The world is going beyond the traditional boundaries, and I think our collaboration is a very good manifestation of where the future of this industry lies.”
Margerum calls it a great sharing opportunity to learn from the team in France, and they from his real world experiences in Santa Barbara County.
“It’s like parallel universes. Their problems are not our problems,” he said. “They have a lot of rain at harvest. We don’t have that much rain at harvest. They tend to fight for ripeness. We don’t have a problem getting our grapes ripe. From a real winemaking standpoint, they add sugar and we add water and acid. Everything is so different, the soils are different, the climate is different, winemaking is different. But you go over there and there’s so much the same, too. We’re fermenting around the same temperatures, using the same yeast, using the same barrels, so there’s things that are very much the same and things that are very much different.”
Fellow Los Olivos winemaker Joey Tensley can also be found a few times a year in France.
He has a partnership there with the winery Domaine de Montvac. Together they produce a blend of 50 percent Santa Barbara County wine and 50 percent French wine. They call it Détente (French for relaxation and good relations).
The 2009 Détente, a dark, silky red wine, is half Grenache from 80-year old Rhône Valley vines. The American half is Tensley Colson Canyon Syrah, from a vineyard high in the hills above Tepusquet Canyon, east of Santa Maria.
“We will taste the wine together at least two times before deciding on the final blend, sometimes three times,” Tensley said.
Talented Tensley also teamed up with a prodigious winery in Argentina’s most prominent wine region, Mendoza.
“I’m making wine in Argentina with Trapiche Wine, which is the largest winery in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said. “We’re doing a wine called Iscay, which means ‘two’ ... .”
He teamed up with Trapiche’s chief winemaker, Daniel Pi, one of the most knowledgeable enologists in South America.
Trapiche, which sells 2 1/2 million cases of wine worldwide, chose Tensley, because the owners consider him “one of the best Syrah producers in the world.”
In April 2011, Tensley went to Argentina for harvest. For the 2012 vintage, they communicated entirely by e-mail and phone. He gets daily updates from the winemaking team there.
Tensley’s last visit to Mendoza was in February when he was an international guest judge at the Argentina Wine Awards. In a blind tasting by the esteemed jury, Tensley’s 2010 Iscay won a gold medal for a Syrah over $50.
There is no continental divide here. All of these worldly winemakers are collaborating to blend Old World and New World winemaking knowhow and new advances in technology, and sometimes even the wines themselves.
It’s a whole new age for an ancient art. And Santa Barbara County’s superb winemakers are in demand worldwide by wineries where only the best will do. So what does this say about international relations?
“It’s good, of course,” Margerum said. “It’s good! Anytime people sit down at the table and drink good wine, it’s good.”
Contributing columnist Wendy Thies Sell writes the Sun’s food and wine column. Contact her at email@example.com.
Ed. note: This story was amended to correct a founding date in the Trapiche caption and omit an incorrect reference to the language in which "Iscay" means two.