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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Co-operative winemaking: Eight great wineries share the same roof at the Buellton Bodegas

BY WENDY THIES SELL


LIQUID GOLD
Winemaker James Sparks uses a wine thief to sample Liquid Farm chardonnay in the barrel at the Buellton Bodegas.
PHOTO BY WENDY THIES SELL

In Spanish, a bodega is a wine cellar or a small grocery store, usually in an urban area.

In Santa Barbara County, the Buellton Bodegas is a building housing eight boutique wineries in an industrial area.

The 30,000-square-foot building, located east of Highway 101 on Los Padres Way in Buellton, was sitting empty early last year when industrious vineyard owner and winemaker Michael Larner imagined its potential as the home of several little wineries.

“I saw the layout, and I saw the way this building was situated with some stuff already in place, like air conditioning systems, electric panels, and a little light went off,” Larner said. “We created what we’re calling now the Buellton Bodegas. The principle is co-op; we have common crush equipment, presses, de-stemmers, [and] even a filter.”

Larner needed a convenient place to make his Larner Wines while working his way through the difficult permitting process for his estate winery project in nearby Ballard Canyon.

Larner Wines moved in, and the entrepreneur quickly rented out the rest of the space to seven other boutique wineries: Bonaccorsi Wine Company, Carivintas Winery, Casa Dumetz, Coquelicot Wines, Liquid Farm, Municipal Winemakers, and The Central Coast Group Project.

Everyone was moved in just in time for the early harvest.

“It was like, ‘Holy mackerel!’” Larner exclaimed. “Literally, one day I was hooking up water lines and the next day we were bringing in fruit.”

Larner Wines produces 1,000 cases of mostly Rhône varieties.

“I do eight different wines from our vineyard; all estate fruit, all Larner,” he said.


WINE GURU
The Buellton Bodegas is the brainchild of Michael Larner, Ballard Canyon estate owner, grape grower, winemaker, and educator.
PHOTO BY WENDY THIES SELL

Next door, James Sparks, Liquid Farm’s “wine whisperer,” likes being in the heart of Santa Barbara County wine country, and cutting down on his commute was a bonus.

“Most of us live in Solvang or Santa Ynez, so for us to go to Lompoc, that’s a long drive when it’s 4 in the morning,” Sparks said.

Liquid Farm, owned by Jeff and Nikki Nelson, has specialized in chardonnay grown in the Sta. Rita Hills made in an Old-World style.

“It seems to be the new norm. From our standpoint, what we want to do is have the grape express itself, not overpower [the wine] with new French oak, or … add so much new French oak that that’s all you’re tasting,” Sparks said. “It’s really about finding balance between the acid, the flavors, that earthiness, that fruit-forwardness, the lushness versus the leanness, [and] making it enjoyable to drink. And really that’s what we’re all about. What do we want to drink? Let’s make that!”

Liquid Farm welcomes consumers to make an appointment and taste “liquid from farming” at the winery with the vintners. 

Another dedicated man handcrafting wine at the Buellton Bodegas is winemaker-to-watch Scott Sampler.

“I’m one guy alone in here making all the wine, but you depend on so many different people to make it happen, from the growers, the farmers, the vineyard owners, the vineyard managers, the ranch hands, and ultimately the people who drink the wine. So I got this kind of romantic, collective spirit name idea: The Central Coast Group Project,” Sampler explained.

His winery’s first release will debut by early fall; the 2012 vintage is 290 cases of a few different bottlings, including a White Hawk Vineyard syrah and a GSM (grenache/syrah/mourvedre) from Larner and Thompson vineyards.


WINE IS HANDCRAFTED HERE
Scott Sampler gives the Sun an inside look at The Central Coast Group Project’s winery space at the Buellton Bodegas.
PHOTO BY WENDY THIES SELL

Sampler studied philosophy and fine arts at UC Berkeley, and then worked in film in his native Los Angeles before following his passion—wine.

“I started getting into wine, and then I was hooked, and then I became obsessed with winemaking,” he said.

Sampler is now obsessed with extended macerations, a process that softens grape skins through soaking in an effort to enhance flavors and complexity.

His 2012 wines spent 40 to 65 days on the skins; his 2013 fruit macerated an unusually long 101 days to more than 120 days.

“It’s almost … like alchemy because this is kind of going against the grain of the advice of winemakers,” Sampler admitted.

The technique is labor and time intensive; he opened up the plastic-wrapped bins, stirring them each and every day.

“It’s kind of a 24/7 operation of work,” Sampler said. “So, I spend a lot of time here!”

His hard work is paying off because the results are impressive. 

Celebrate chardonnay
The annual Chardonnay Symposium is May 17 through 19. The grand tasting is Saturday, May 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach. For more information on other events and tickets, visit thechardonnaysymposium.com.

“They’re really tasting good,” Sampler said. “I’m following the tannin cycle and letting the flavors develop … I like earthier wines. If they are going to be fruity, I want them to be really complexly fruity and I want them to be layered. I want there to be some tannins-—I want them to age.”

The Central Coast Group Project is the only winery at the Buellton Bodegas without a website. Sampler can be contacted at TheCentralCoastGroupProject@gmail.com.

Larner and Coquelicot have wine tasting rooms in Los Olivos. Casa Dumetz’s tasting room is in Los Alamos. The Carivintas tasting room is in Solvang, and Municipal Winemakers’ tasting room is located in Santa Barbara.

 

Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell can be contacted at wthies@santamariasun.com.