Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Mission to Martian Ranch: A new wine tasting room near Los Alamos offers down-to-earth wines
BY WENDY THIES SELL
Not on the neighboring red planet, or in a galaxy far, far, away, but rather here on planet Earth will you find a place called Martian Ranch.
The 102-acre rural estate on Alisos Canyon Road east of Los Alamos is home to a bio-dynamically farmed vineyard, winery, and wine tasting room.
While the winery embraces astronomy and even has a little Martian mascot on wine corks and glasses, the name Martian doesn’t actually refer to an extraterrestrial.
It’s the combination of the names Martin and Ian, the sons of proprietor Nan Helgeland.
She owns the ranch with her husband, filmmaker and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who penned L.A. Confidential, Robin Hood, 42, and many other screenplays.
For two decades she kept the home fires burning raising their sons in Malibu while her husband jetted off to film locations around the world. But the time came when she was ready to follow her heart’s desire, and in 2007 they bought the property near Los Alamos with plans to plant a vineyard that would hopefully “live long and prosper.”
Raised in the cocktail culture of Cape Cod, Nan didn’t grow up around wine. It was something she discovered after moving to California decades ago.
The University of Massachusetts literature major was willing to get her hands dirty and learn all she could about viticulture.
She studied her way through the wine program at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, made friends in the local wine industry, and decided to not only grow grapes, but to also make wine and sell it in her own tasting room.
She planted the Rhone varieties grenache blanc, viognier, syrah, mourvèdre, and grenache.
She also wanted lesser-known Iberian varietals albariño and tempranillo, which a vineyard consultant tried to talk her out of, saying, “Nobody knows about those wines.”
A determined Nan replied, “Well, then we’ll teach them!”
“And you want to know something funny? It’s my biggest-selling white wine—the albariño,” she later told the Sun.
Today, Martian Ranch winery produces 3,300 cases of wine.
“We make very Old-World-style wine,” Nan said.
All of the wines are named after the stars and the universe, such as Perigee cabernet franc, Parallax mourvèdre, Mothership grenache blanc, Apogee chenin blanc, and Red Shift syrah.
Decisions in the vineyard are also based on the sun, moon, and planets and holistic farming practices, meaning there are no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
“People ask me why biodynamic and not organic? What I love about farming biodynamically is that it takes so much more thought, you know? You’ve got to be watching your biodynamic calendar because it’s all according to the lunar cycles,” Nan said. “It ties you to the land in a way that the other forms of farming do not.”
She calls it “present and observant farming.”
“When you’re farming biodynamically, you’re in your vineyard. You’re going through your vineyard twice as often,” she said. “I know when one particular vine’s not doing well.”
When Nan’s away, she misses the vineyard like it’s a person.
“It’s very much my baby,” she said.
The tasting room keeps an extra person on staff on weekends so someone is available to drive guests around the ranch in a Mule 4x4 and teach them about viticulture and biodynamics.
“The most important thing for me about the ranch is education,” Nan said. “Everybody loves it. It’s fantastic!”
In buying the ranch, the vivacious owner may have also tapped into the fountain of youth.
“The ranch, oddly enough, even though it’s a lot of work, it makes me younger because I have so much to think about,” Nan said.
She said friends tell her she seems younger “because it’s something new every day.”
Helping Nan to run the ranch, generate ideas, and put them into action is manager Dawn Wilson.
“We really want to be a learning center for biodynamics and for going back to the basics of goodness,” Dawn said.
So, this year, with produce prices skyrocketing because of the drought, they planted a garden next to the vineyard with organic tomatoes, cilantro, radishes, sweet peas, green beans, honeydew, watermelon, broccoli, and lettuce.
“Nan was really concerned that her Martian team would not be able to afford organic produce, and she wants us to eat organically, too,” Dawn said. “So Nan put in a garden for the vineyard team, so that we would have organic produce all summer long and not have to worry about purchasing it.”
The extra produce will be used to teach a new eight-week summer series of canning classes.
“Part of biodynamics is going back to the basics,” Dawn explained.
She will teach the classes at the tasting room in the new professional-grade kitchen starting Saturday, July 5.
Martian Ranch will provide wine to drink and all of the organic produce and canning supplies necessary.
“We’ll teach everybody how to do it, and then they’ll get to take home the products,” Dawn explained.
Every class will feature a different recipe made with Martian Ranch wine, and everyone takes home an instructional booklet.
Canning classes will cost $34 for wine club members or “Martians,” or $49 for “Earthlings,” meaning everyone else.
Interested in signing up for the classes or visiting Martian Ranch? Go online to martianvineyard.com.
Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell is reminded that wine tasting can, and should, be fun. Contact her at email@example.com.