By Laurie Jervis
In the weeks after the annual Wine & Fire event, but before harvest, I tracked down winemakers Nikki Nelson
and Dan Kessler to get some perspective on the recent celebration of all things Sta. Rita Hills.
Both were first-time panelists on the seminar held Saturday morning during Wine & Fire weekend Aug. 17 to 19.
With her husband, Jeff, Nelson
is co-owner of Liquid Farm, and Kessler farms Kessler-Haak Vineyard and makes wine under a label of the same name with his wife, Ellen Haak Kessler.
Both labels focus on chardonnay, and each produces a rosé (Liquid Farm's is a mourvedre and Kessler Haak's a pinot noir). Kessler Haak also produces estate pinot noir, and syrahs from fruit grown at adjacent Sta. Rita Hills' vineyards.
The intrepid winemaking trio behind Dragonette Cellars — brothers John and Steve Dragonette and Brandon Sparks-Gillis — team with the Nelsons to produce Liquid Farm's wines. In addition to farming his 30-acre vineyard, Kessler works with longtime local legend Bruce McGuire as assistant winemaker for Lafond Winery and Vineyards.
There's a special bond between the Nelsons and Dan and Ellen Kessler: Nikki and Jeff were married on Sept. 10, 2011, in Kessler-Haak Vineyard, and Liquid Farms sources fruit for one of its chardonnays from the site. Both Kessler and Nikki Nelson
were first-time panelists on the 2012 seminar, which, for the first time, was divided by varietal. Nelson
and Kessler both "represented" chardonnay.
Here's how Kessler and Nelson
, both passionate about the Sta. Rita Hills, responded to questions I sent them via email.Question:
As new participants on the Wine & Fire panel, what are your thoughts on the panelists as a team, as well as on the overall chardonnay and pinot noir production in the Sta. Rita Hills?Kessler:
"I thought the panel was a broad mix of knowledge, experience, wine styles, winemakers and winemaking growers, and veterans and newbies (in terms of length of time the group had been making chardonnay). Each participant has a different perspective with which they "understand" the Sta. Rita Hills. (For example:) Wes (Hagen) and I are both growers and winemakers. Nikki is new, with a different, stylistic approach than most, producing wines that emphasize the minerality of wines from our area. Karen (Steinwachs) and Steve (Fennell) both bring hands-on and educational-based perspectives to winemaking.
"One thread that I think runs thru Sta. Rita Hills' chardonnay and pinot noir is a somewhat consistent winemaking style (at least for winemakers who live in or near the AVA). Many who make wine here at some time or other worked for a small core of original winemakers in this AVA, and were experientially trained by that core (Bruce McGuire, Rick Longoria, Kathy Joseph, Ken Brown — some of the core players). I think some of the SRH "signature" is related to winemaking practices of that core that were transferred to the people who worked for them and later became winemakers themselves.
"In general, I thought the wines presented were an outstanding example of the diversity of styles and typicity (to steal Nikki's word) of the Sta. Rita Hills as a place: great fruit, spice, structure, balance and acidity. Wines with age worthiness …"Nelson:
"We were honored to be asked, as certainly we are new kids on the block, with Liquid Farm's first vintage being in 2009. It was extremely gratifying to see every single seat in the room full. I think that sent the message to the panelists and other guests from the very get-go that we were all there for something special.
"The dialogue was open, and as the chardonnay went down and we progressed into the pinot, social lubrication was at its best, and there was even more humor infused into the questions and commentary. Josh Raynolds did a wonderful job as a moderator. The lunch following gave a further chance to enjoy the seminar's wines and revisit conversations while breaking bread. It was a really enjoyable way to kick off the day!"Question:
What makes the Sta. Rita Hills so special when it comes to both chardonnay and pinot noir? Kessler:
"The cool climate plus long growing season equals ripe fruit with great acidity and without high sugars. Cool-climate fruit also has spice components that other chardonnay/pinot noir growing regions seem to lack. (The SRH) creates flavorful wines with ripe (not jammy) berry notes, good structure and great balance.
"I have also noticed that berries from my vineyard, and maybe the Sta. Rita Hills in general, tend to have thicker skins (due to the calcium-based diatomaceous soils) and lots of smaller berries, which equal more flavor components per unit of juice for both chardonnay and pinot noir, and more intense color for pinot noir.
"The other thing I think is interesting about our AVA is that the Sta. Rita Hills' wines give consistent signature of this place, but it is one of the few areas where I can often determine which vineyard the fruit came from (terrior influence, soils, microclimate, farming approach, etc). I haven't been real successful being able to do this in warmer growing regions."Nelson:
"(Our first vintage, in 2009) was actually super cool, and was our latest harvest date in three vintages — (it was) 33 degrees (almost freezing!) on Oct. 5 at Kessler-Haak Vineyard. 2010 was cool throughout, but the region did see a heat spike toward the tail end of veraison and picking times so the sugars and alcohol levels are a hair higher than in 2009, as well as (in) 2011, which was undoubtably a consistent long, cool growing season.
"The salinity and acidity, however, is present in all three vintages and bottlings. Even the 2010 Golden Slope (chardonnay), a tad richer than we would have preferred, still has that verve and minerality to it despite the relative bigness."
When I asked Nelson
to describe the most important characteristic of chardonnay grown in Sta. Rita Hills' vineyards, she answered promptly: "Salinity. You cannot get that flavor profile anywhere else in California. It reminds me of Burgundy."Question (asked only of Kessler):
"As the owner of a chardonnay and pinot noir vineyard perhaps just "perfectly" situated in the Sta. Rita Hills, how do you think the AVA will continue to "represent" what is considered by many to be the best of what Santa Barbara County has to offer?"
"I think our unique geographical location is the main influence for what makes Sta. Rita Hills a premier chardonnay/pinot noir growing region. I am not aware of a similar growing region elsewhere in Santa Barbara County. So, unless we botch the farming aspect of things (or global warming is real), we should be able to continue to maintain our SBCO pre-eminence.
"A few challenges could muddy this: The first is that many vineyards are managed by one or two vineyard managers. You might consider them "core" growers (similar to core winemakers). These managers manage vineyards in SRH and elsewhere in SBCO (or further away). They have a consistent farming style. They have future small-operation vineyard managers currently working with them whom they are "training." The same or similar farming practices applied in other AVAs could start to dominate overall quality of the fruit coming from these AVAs and minimize the differences in wines coming from these areas.
"The second is the pressure to keep fruit prices down. This translates to less and less organic farming practices and more industrial and automated practices (especially from these large core managers). Originally, people farming the Sta. Rita Hills were more to the organic and manual side of farming. Now things are turning to "sustainable farming," which is a term I don't really like, because sustainable is defined by the people who are trying to maximize profit from grape to wine. There are numerous studies with other crops that show things like herbicides, non-organic fertilizers, etc., produce "pretty" crops, but the nutritional value of those crops is considerably different than those same crops grown organically (consider heirloom and grocery store tomatoes, for example).
"The same thing is present in grapes — delicate flavors and nuances in our AVA fruit could be blunted and result in less differentiated wines. Kessler-Haak grows organically. But it is very
expensive. Wines from our fruit garnered 90-plus (point) ratings by more than one winemaker from our first vintage up until now (young vines like those in our vineyard are not known for producing 90-plus wines). The organic price differential can easily be two times for the farming cost.
"Winemakers (and perhaps wine drinkers) in this economy aren't willing to pay those kinds of price differentials. So, eventually, organic/manual wine-grape farming practices may get brushed away. As time goes on, we will forget how great those wines were compared to non-organically/automated grown wines, and the current 87-point rated wines will become the new 90-plus point rated wines. It's something to contemplate."
I asked Nelson
if she and Jeff would participate in Wine & Fire in upcoming years. Her response:
"We will always participate in Wine & Fire, as it is the main collective celebration of the wine region which we are so passionate about, and lucky enough to work within. Organized by the members of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, it's a killer event, and throughout the year we are proud to be advocates of the Sta. Rita Hills (we carry a map and a piece of diatomaceous earth with us to every tasting/festival and meeting with sommeliers and wine buyers) and band together with the SRHWA producers in other tasting and "field trips."
"This year we were up in San Francisco at RN74 for a trade and consumer tasting and a month or so later did the same in Los Angeles at the Wine House," she said.
Kessler emailed me a second time, and raised an intriguing point:
"I would hazard a guess on the future of Sta. Rita Hills' wines: In addition to pinot noir and chardonnay wines, we will slowly become one of the premier producers of affordable high-end sparkling wine. I think you have begun to see the resurgence of sparkling wines from our AVA. Flying Goat was the beginning (winemaker Norm Yost produces "Goat Bubbles").
"In the next two years, based on discussions I've had with other winemakers, nearly every Sta. Rita Hills producer (including us) is planning on releasing a sparkling wine. I think this is really exciting, and a fantastic opportunity to reposition affordable great sparkling wine from something you drink at holidays or on special occasions to something you choose to have with food just like we do now with still wine."