Its planted acreage is half of Napa's, but, like Sonoma, the rambling coastal Santa Barbara County has so many microclimates that it offers wine lovers the variety of terroir it takes to produce wines from French varietals that span the whole of France. And it is the site of some of the most exciting Biodynamic wines from the U.S.
The county is known for the transverse mountain ranges that run east/west - instead of north/south. It grows a lot of Chardonnay for Big Wine, but at its best, it boasts some of California's finest wines. In particular, it's home to two of what I would call the "Great Estates" in the Biodynamic world. A third one may be in the making.
BIODYNAMIC BURGUNDY - STA. RITA HILLS AVA
Pinot Noir, the grape of Burgundy, feels right at home in the region's westernmost and most well known AVA - Sta. Rita Hills AVA - which lies closest to the coast and cooling fog.
Its Great Biodynamic Estate is Sea Smoke, which produces 17,000 cases a year of legendary Pinot Noir on a 175 acres of vines (the estate is more than 900 acres) that spans a three mile long spine of the Sta. Rita Hills. (Talk about real estate.)
Other Biodynamic growers in the region include Ampelos and Duvarita.
BIODYNAMIC RHONES - BALLARD CANYON AVA
Inland just a bit, in Ballard Canyon AVA, Rhones reign. Local vintners call this the "Beverly Hills of Syrah."
Ballard Canyon's Great Biodynamic Estate is Beckman Vineyards, just a few miles further inland. It's best known for Syrah. Beckman produces 17,000 cases of Rhone varietal wines on 96 planted acres on a 125 acre piece of prime Ballard Canyon real estate.
HAPPY CANYON AVA
Over in the easternmost section of the Santa Ynez Valley lies the lesser known Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA, where vintners favor Bordeaux varietals. It's a region that feels a bit like the Wild West, with the Los Padres National Forest - spanning 3,000 square miles - on its eastern border and the Santa Ynez Mountains, standing like a fortress wall on the south side of the AVA. The highest peaks here are 4,000 feet. Gazing off in the direction of Los Padres, you get that "infinity feeling" - endless mountains and big skies.
BIODYNAMIC BORDEAUX VARIETALS
It's here in Happy Canyon that you can get your Biodynamic Bordeaux groove on with wines from the new, 246 acre Grimm Estate, the first and only Biodynamic vineyard in this mountain fringed AVA.
The property sits on a magnificent bluff majestically overlooking the Santa Ynez River to the south with a spectacular view of the towering Santa Ynez Mountains. Grimm Estate extends one mile along the river; the bluff rises 300 feet above it.
Here Rick and Aurora Grimm have established 16 acres of vines, with the help of Biodynamic consultant, Philippe Coderey, a 25th generation Provencal vigneron, formerly with Chapoutier in France). (The family name Coderey comes from the French word "codurer" which literally means "to cultivate the vineyards.")
The vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (65%) and Sauvignon Blanc (30%); a tiny bit of Petit Verdot rounds out the last 5%. The Grimm's sell some grapes to Dragonette, Foxen and other local wineries and vinify the rest for their own brand.
I recently visited the estate on a tour - with Demeter co-director Elizabeth Candelario - and was treated to an owner tour by the Grimm's. (Our trip was part of planning the first International Biodynamic Wine Conference, which will take place May 6-7 of 2018 in San Francisco.)
|Rick Grimm with an essential ingredient - the Biodynamic compost pile at Grimm Estate|
|Head trained vines at Grimm Estate|
|Philippe Coderey at Grimm Estate; the Grimm's named one of the vineyard roads after him ("Rue Coderey")|
Today at Grimm's the vines are half on trellises and half head trained.
Head trained vines are typically planted less densely, enabling the vines to be dry farmed, once they are established. Dry farming in this way encourages the vine roots to go deeper into the soil, penetrating below clay layers into lower layers. It's here that vignerons say great wines are made.
|Head trained Cabernet at Chateau Latour in Bordeaux|
Head trained vines also produce fewer spurs, so the whole plant is in a better state of balance.
At Grimm Estate, the vineyard has a two foot layer of topsoil (quick sand or concrete like, depending on the water content), with six feet of clay soils below that. Underneath the clay layer lie old, riverbed gravel rocks and sand. Below you can see a photo from a few years ago that shows the head trained vines already penetrating the clay layer.
|Roots from head trained vines at Grimm penetration the clay layer after only a few years|
Today the vines are already 10 feet deep.
The decision to plant head trained vines also mitigates the risk of not being able to get water in the future, should droughts return to California, which experts believe will happen as a result of climate change.
|The young, head trained vines get half as much water as the|
trellised vines; the goal is to reduce the amount of
water applied so that over time, as the vine roots
become more established, the vines can be dry farmed
Biodiversity is a key practice in Biodynamics and Demeter certified vineyards are required to have a minimum of 10 percent of the property set aside for biodiversity. In addition, crop diversity is also encouraged.
More than 200 acres on the estate are uncultivated.
The Grimm's grow 5 acres of olive trees, making an estate blend of three different varieties.
They also have chickens and guinea fowl on the land, as well as a herd of Braunvieh cattle, a breed originally from Switzerland. (The name means "brown cow" in German.)
We met the irresistible Fancy and Blossom, a six month old calf, on our tour.
|The Grimm's keep a herd of Braunvieh ("Brown Cow" in German) cattle |
Grimm's Bluff produces two Sauvignon Blancs - a regular and a reserve - as well as three different bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, from 5 different clones.
One Cab - Cliff Hanger ($65) - comes from the trellised Cabernet; another - Contango ($75) - from the head trained vines. The third - the Estate ($48) - comes from a blend of both. The Contango is the darkest of the three.
Both of the 2014 Sauvignon Blancs won 93 point reviews from Galloni on Vinuous. I tasted both of them and thought they were exceptional.
I'd agree with Matt Kettmann, a wine writer for Wine Enthusiast (as well as the Santa Barbara Independent) who describes the wines "as deliciously complex and compelling as anything coming out of the Central Coast right now."
The wine critic Jeb Dunnuck (formerly of the Wine Advocate) went even further in his praise, rating the Cliff Hanger and the Contango Cabernets 93 points each and the estate 90 pts, calling the winery an up and comer. The Contango was his favorite of the Cabernets, which he said had "terrific notes of black raspberries, blackcurrants, toasted bread, spice and vanilla bean." He went on to compliment it for being "full-bodied, layered and beautifully concentrated..."
Those scores are higher than any of Dunnuck's ratings for Cabs from long established Happy Canyon brands like Fess Parker and Foxen.
Much credit belongs to Philippe Coderey, who made this vineyard, and to the Grimm's, who hired him and took his advice on viticultural decisions - the key ingredient in winemaking and one that is over underestimated. Having Paul Lato, a superstar winemaker of the Central Coast, has been a distinct plus, too.
Grimm Estate is the first Central Coast vineyard Coderey has planted from the start and as such represents the knowledge that only a 25th generation vigneron - coupled with a decade of California experience - brings to it. These vineyards are not built for cookie cutter vineyard management (the norm in California, often even among fine wine producers), but call upon a higher level of skills and sensitivity that has been passed down traditionally in European vigneron families.
In cookie cutter vineyard management, vines are typically sprayed at regular intervals, based on the calendar, not the vineyard condition. This is the norm not just in the Central Valley but in fine wine regions as well. Cookie cutter vineyard management is also responsible for overwatering most California vineyards, despite the best efforts of water conservation authorities, "sustainability" programs, and local citizens concerned about water resources.
All winemakers say fine wines are made in the vineyard. But too little emphasis is placed on looking at how the vines were planted. In reality, this is a core fundamental in the making of a wine, not just the ongoing vineyard care. Thanks to long conversations with Coderey, I'm starting to think of this now as "artisanal viticulture," a topic I hope to write about in a future post.
For now, it looks as though the bet on head trained Cabernet is a good one. Both Coderey and Dunnuck prefer the Contango Cabernet, which comes from the head trained vines.
A GREAT ESTATE IN THE MAKING?
It's good to see vintners like the Grimm's making bolder, smarter choices, bringing "artisanal viticulture" - along with artisanal winemaking - to the fore.
Is Grimm's Bluff poised to become one of the Great Estates of the Central Coast? Only time - and taste - will tell.
In the meantime, we can all enjoy drinking these nuanced wines and savoring the pleasures they bring - blackcurrants and raspberries and more, oh my.
You can make an appointment to tour and taste - and it's an owner tour - or find out what restaurants carry the wines by emailing email@example.com. The winery also has online sales of its Cabernets; Sauvignon Blancs are restricted to the wine club only.
For more info, visit www.grimmsbluff.com.
I'll be writing more on my further Central Coast adventures, from others who have hired Coderey and implemented Biodynamics. That list includes Duvarita Vineyard, west of the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, and Tablas Creek, in Paso Robles. Both have planted head trained vineyards that will be dry farmed.