Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Heard it through the grapevine: The year kicks off with several changes in Santa Barbara County wine country
BY WENDY THIES SELL
With the New Year come new partnerships in the Santa Barbara County wine industry. Longtime Santa Ynez Valley winemaker Andrew Murray has started leasing the former Curtis Winery estate vineyard, winery, production facility, and tasting room from the Firestone family.
Murray began his winemaking career 24 years ago, focusing primarily on the production of small-lot syrah and Rhone-inspired blends.
Longtime friend Adam Firestone asked him if he had outgrown his current location, the warehouse-style production facility behind Firestone Vineyard known as Area 51.
When Firestone posed the question, Murray said he was “in the unfortunate position where we were selling out of our wines too soon; three, four, six months after releasing them. Pure economics says there are two things you can do: [one is to] raise prices and slow distribution down. … That’s the safe way to grow.
“The less safe way,” Murray said, “the one that gets all of the butterflies going again—the one that feels like I’m starting in the wine business again, like I’m falling in love again—is to say, ‘OK, grow. Reach more people. Reach more states.’ And that’s what we decided to do with this opportunity.”
Of the venture, Firestone said, “We view this as a new branch of our family’s winemaking tradition and as a continuation of the estate’s reputation for producing remarkable Rhone-style wines.”
The Firestone family will continue to farm the estate’s 200 vineyard acres.
Murray will also produce the Firestone family’s Jarhead line of wines. All net proceeds from the sale of Jarhead wines are donated to the Marine Corps Foundation Scholarship, enabling children of fallen Marines to attend college.
Firestone, a former U.S. Marine captain and Gulf War veteran, has given more than half a million dollars to the fund and other efforts, supporting what he calls the “Jarhead Nation.”
The Curtis label will continue in the form of limited-production bottling by Andrew Murray Vineyards.
Murray’s website is AndrewMurrayVineyards.com.
A storm of activity
Curtis Winery’s former winemaking team of Chuck Carlson and Ernst Storm has transitioned out of the winery.
Both are now focusing on their own personal wine brands.
Storm told the Sun, “All is great! I have decided to put my energy into Storm [Wines].”
The South Africa native launched his own boutique label in Santa Barbara County in 2006 called Storm Wines.
“With all the changes happening, it was a good time to take a step back and to look at the future,” he said.
Storm is focused on cool-climate sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. He has garnered excellent reviews for his handcrafted wines, but has been careful about expansion.
“I have always wanted to grow Storm organically and slow. I think we have built strong relationships locally and in Southern California. It is now time to broaden the reach and to take it to the next level,” he said.
“I am adding a chenin blanc and a Rhone blend to my lineup, which will be out later this year. I am super excited about the 2013 vintage and the exciting things happening this year. There is a lot more to come!”
The winery’s website is Storm Wines.com.
A new pairing
It’s also an exciting time at Alma Rosa Winery.
Founder Richard Sanford—one of California’s most recognized pioneering winemakers and a champion of the Sta. Rita Hills winegrowing region for 40 years—has teamed up with a new financial partner, Robert Zorich.
Sanford, a 2012 inductee into the California Vintners Hall of Fame, will continue making his wines under the Alma Rosa label and overseeing the vineyards.
Sanford planted the first pinot noir grapes in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1970, co-founding Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. He and his wife, Thekla, founded Sanford Winery in 1981 and sold it in 2005.
In 2012, their Alma Rosa Winery filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11.
Zorich, a Houston-based businessman with a private equity pedigree, recently purchased Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, located on the Santa Rosa Road corridor of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
“I really wanted to do something with Richard Sanford. He has been creating great pinot noir and chardonnay, with integrity and class, for nearly 40 years in Santa Barbara County,” Zorich said. “In private equity, we back highly experienced management teams and give them the tools to create value. This is a very similar situation.”
Added Sanford, “We will now have the opportunity to plant additional vineyards, and we will have state-of-the-art winemaking resources fully available to us. This is truly a dream come true.”
The winery’s website is AlmaRosaWinery.com.
• The Chardonnay Symposium, a popular wine event based in Santa Maria Valley for its first several years, is moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2014. Organizers recently announced that Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach would be the event’s new home. Now in its fifth year, the symposium brings together winemakers, sommeliers, media, and food and wine enthusiasts to taste, explore, learn, and enjoy.
The Chardonnay Symposium will be held May 16 and 17.
The full event schedule and ticket information will be announced soon. The website is TheChardonnaySymposium.com.
• Dolphin Bay Resort and The Cliffs Resort had both been host to World of Pinot Noir (WOPN), but in 2014, the wine event dedicated to pinot noir will relocate to Santa Barbara County. Read Eats next week for details on WOPN’s move to the Bacara Resort & Spa this February.
Even while sipping wine at oceanfront wine events, Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell can be contacted at email@example.com.