Wine tasting is fun any time of year, but tramping through a vineyard in December? It might sound crazy, except that we recently did just that and had a great tour of Stolpman Vineyards thanks to Stolpman ‘Passionista’ Joe Neenan.
Often when we visit a winery for the purpose of writing a winery profile, we begin in the tasting room, or in the winery itself among the barrels. Not so with our recent visit to Stolpman Vineyards. We began by driving through and walking the vineyard.
Stolpman Vineyards sits on 226 acres of mostly limestone soils in the recently designated Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon lies in the center of Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley AVA, sandwiched between the cooler Sta. Rita Hills AVA to the west and the warmer Happy Canyon AVA to the east.
Owner Tom Stolpman choose the property for its mostly limestone soil. The original idea was to find an investment that he and his wife Marilyn could be passionate about. They purchased the property and began planting vineyards in 1990. After noting the fruit they sold from their vineyards produced some very well-regarded wines, they decided to begin making wine themselves.
The vines at Stolpman Vineyards are hard workers. They are planted on largely limestone soils over rolling hills. Some areas are sandy loam and others have a bit of sandstone mixed in. They are dry-farmed (after being irrigated for only the first 4 – 5 years to help establish the root system). They are trellised in a variety of creative and experimental ways. They are asked to produce daughter vines. Some are planted in very high-density plantings so they must compete with each other for soil nutrients and moisture. The yield is very low — only 1 to 3 tons per acre. The goal is quality, not quantity.
Skill in the vineyard is essential to achieve the desired results. Ruben Solorzano began employment with Stolpman Vineyards as part of “the crew”, or la cuadrilla, working in the vineyard. He became vineyard foreman in 1994. He is a familiar figure and highly regarded in the area for his skills in the vineyard. He is equally well known for developing a highly-specialized crew, employed year round, who are capable of the complex and variable pruning styles used in the vineyards.
Ruben works closely with winemaker Sashi Moorman who began making wine at Stolpman Vineyards in 2001. Moorman brings a culinary background into the winery. In fact, he grows heirloom variety wheat on a property adjacent to Stolpman in order to produce flour for his bakery. These are but two of his interests, he’s a busy man.
Together they work to produce the most flavorful fruit the property can give them. Because of the rolling hills and the variable soil types, individual vineyard blocks produce unique flavors. Individual blocks and sub-blocks are vinified separately, then blended to achieve the flavor profile Moorman desires. Wines are crafted using native yeast, and without the addition of bacteria to facilitate malolactic fermentation. Moorman’s style generally tends toward lower alcohol, as well.
The Stolpman Vineyards variety map details 8 varieties planted on the property. Syrah is the largest planting, and the variety that is the focus of the Ballard Canyon AVA. Sangiovese comes in second, it is the personal favorite of Tom Stolpman. Roussanne, that difficult variety that can produce crisp, aromatic white wine is planted on the only flat section of land in the vineyard. It is the area formerly used as a landing strip by a prior owner in the 1930s and gives rise to the bottling’s clever name, L’Avion. Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah round out the plantings.
Though not a part of the vineyard map, there is a small block of Trousseau — that Jura variety that can be difficult, but that is capable of producing ageworthy reds. It is a project of winemaker Sashi Moorman and Sommelier Rajat Parr.
Here are the highlights of our walk through the vineyards.
The inspiration for this block came from a visit to the northern Rhone by Sashi Moorman and Ruben Solorzano. This head pruned Syrah vineyard is trained each vine to its own stake, similar to en echelas seen in Côte-Rôtie. This high-density planting is one meter square. Using this technique requires significant hand work, not to mention skill, by the vineyard crew. This trellising technique has made it possible to plant this very steep portion of the vineyard.
Six shoots per vine are trained onto the stakes. Just after veraison, shoots are tipped to encourage the vines to send their energy into the grape clusters rather than the canopy.
With only about 2 grape clusters produced per shoot, production per vine is low; the high-density planting helps balance production per acre.
The soil in this section of the vineyard is noticeably rocky. Syrah was first harvested from Ruben’s Block in 2008.
New vines in this Grenache vineyard are being creating by training a basal shoot from the prior season into the soil to take root. These own-rooted vines are generally healthier and heartier; both Moorman and Solorzano are proponents of this method of propagation.
The risk is that these plants are on their own rootstock and therefore not resistant to phylloxera. About 10% of the total vineyard is planted on their own roots.
The name of this blocks comes from the horizontal bars supporting the trellising on these vines, with the widest supports at the bottom. Fruiting wires begin very low to the ground.
This block of Grenache has been grafted onto Nebbiolo and using a quadrilateral cordon system shoots are trained up on wires and tied off in the middle of the vines to form a triangle. The idea is to shelter the fruit below the canopy to prevent sun bleaching.
Lowering Fruiting Wire
Vines throughout the vineyard are being trained onto lower fruiting wire. This makes it easier for the vines to move soil nutrients to the canopy because the distance between the two is reduced .
Variety and Experimentation
10-20% of vineyard is under experiment at any one time, but thanks to the large acerage, there is adequate production to remain profitable.
Stolpman Vineyards is not certified organic, but use very little in the way of chemicals in the vineyard. Cover crops, including clover and rye, are used to promote insect diversity.
There is a large population of predatory birds which keep rodents in check. Owl boxes are located in the vineyards in addition to “the cross” (essentially a huge perch built to attract hawks). We heard and saw many hawks in the vineyards during our visit.
A large block of ground on the property is farmed organically and produces a variety of vegetables. Olive trees are planted in several areas and olive oil is produced every year.
The Stolpman Vineyards’ tasting room is located in the historic town of Los Olivos, just a short drive from the vineyards. We finished our tour with a tasting as Joe told us about each of the wines. We will detail the tasting in our next post.
Until then, thanks again to Joe Neenan for his time and expertise. Our tour through the vineyards was the perfect reminder that great wine starts in the vineyard.