"You mean where they shot the movie Sideways? I've had some pretty good Pinots from there." Like it or not, this is the answer many wine lovers outside of the state of California give when pressed about Santa Barbara County.
Recently, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have become the grapes of choice when grabbing a bottle of vino from one of the three Santa Barbara AVAs- Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley. The relatively cool climate found in the vineyards that break up the miles of brush grass along Highway 101 is a veritable Garden of Eden for varietals that thrive in a slow and steady growing environment. Even the vineyards themselves read like a who's who on the local wine scene: Stolpman, Bien Nacido, and Melville.
But believe it or not, grape growing and wine making started before the movie that captured the hearts of Pinot lovers everywhere was released in 2004. In fact Santa Barbara County has one of the oldest traditions of viticulture, dating back to Father Juniper Serra who brought the Mission grape to this bucolic region back in 1782. There were almost as many acres under vine before Prohibition as there are now.
So it might surprise you to note that one of the world's best Sauvignon Blancs hails from the Santa Ynez Valley, right smack dab in the heart of Santa Barbara County. It might also surprise you that this wine has been winning awards and palates for thirty years now.
Therein lays the beauty of the wines of Brander Vineyards. Just to the north of Highway 154 in Los Olivos, a town known more for its thriving art community than for Bordeaux varietals sits the Brander winery. This peach-tinted facility looks like someone started with a paint-by-numbers template of a Bordeaux chateau but only had pastels to work with.
Yet the colors work, just like the wines even though Brander Vineyards specializes in Sauvignon Blanc and other Bordeaux Varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Chardonnay? Only tiny amounts of an un-oaked version carry the Brander name. Pinot Noir? Forget about it. This is Sauvignon Blanc territory first and foremost.
A Sauvignon Blanc specialist, if you will? Such has been the case for Fred Brander since he planted his family's vineyard to Bordeaux varietals back in 1975. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at age twelve Fred's parents moved the family to California and settled in picturesque Santa Barbara. A degree in Chemistry, a Masters in Enology at U.C. Davis, and stints as both a wholesaler and as an importer followed. But the siren song of crafting his own wines won out, and finally 1977 marked the first vintage of Brander Sauvignon Blanc.
All it did was win a gold medal at the 1978 L.A. County fair, the first such honor bestowed a wine from Santa Barbara County in a major wine competition. Not a bad start.
At the time Santa Barbara was quite different than it is today. "Firestone had just started making wine," says Fred. "Santa Barbara Winery was making fruit wine. Today there are fifty to sixty wineries, with thirty in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez alone."
In the years since the production at Brander has increased, but only ever so slightly. 8,000 total cases are divided into sixteen different wines that range from Syrahs and Cabernets to white blends and even a limited-production rosé called Chateau Neuf du Pink. But at the end of the day it is the Sauvignon Blancs that Brander is known for.
For years this grape languished on the back burner of the California wine stove. Over the decades some versions have been too bitter and herbaceous, others too ripe or given enough oak to knock all but the biggest Chardonnays out of whack. Finding a Sauvignon Blanc not named Brander that was minerally, refreshing, crisp, clean and in perfect balance seemed nearly impossible.
As of late Sauvignon Blanc has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, as winemakers in Sonoma and Lake Counties have found just the right climates and clones to work with. But in Santa Barbara? The land of Pinot Noir and Syrah?
As it turns out the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley is a perfect spot for not only Sauvignon Blanc but also sturdier grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot. The climate is warmer than other areas to the west which lay closer to the ocean. But just as it is to many a winemaker across the globe, to Fred the real qualities of Santa Ynez lay under his feet: "The most important factor is the soil. In the Sta. Rita Hills areas are sandy with a bit of clay. But the best soil for Cabernet is gravelly soil. In Los Olivos we have quite a bit of gravelly spots." Sound familiar? Graves, anyone?
Even with this beneficial mix of soil and sun, it is the treatment the grapes receive in the winery that sets the wines of Brander Vineyards apart from the rest. Mostly French oak is used, of which only a scant 20% are new barrels. Different techniques are used to match the style of fruit coming from the vineyards: Some wines receive the most minimal of handling without going through malolactic fermentation before a brief sojourn in stainless steel, while others receive extended skin contact and barrel aging to accentuate their rich qualities.
"We are looking for more refined wines, and we are doing much less oak than in the past," says Fred about the overall style of his wines. "We used to use much more oak with the Sauvignon Blanc to achieve a Bordeaux style. But of course the fruit is a little riper here than it is in Bordeaux, and now we are going away from using the oak in the Sauvignon Blanc to accentuate the fruit. But for the Cabs we use all French oak for more tradition and to bring out the best qualities in the wine."
As for the trend in California and around the world towards higher alcohol wines, Fred isn't afraid to let the grapes and the wine dictate their style: "Balance is super-important, concentration is super-important. You can have powerful wines that are still balanced due to the concentration. Some would say that with Sauvignon Blanc 13% alcohol is a good threshold, but if you have the concentration the levels can be higher if it is balanced."
At the end of the day though, the wines of Brander Vineyards veer more towards balance, elegance and typicity than towards volume and weight. And what wines they are!
Starting with the 2006 Early Release Sauvignon Blanc, this wine is bright, fresh and floral, with racy acidity that calls out for a shellfish partner. The wine spends one month in fermentation at cool temperatures and then another month in stainless steel to stabilize and then it is out the door. The intent is to preserve the fresh fruit flavors that can become dulled by too much time in stainless steel or in bottle. Sort of a white version of a Beaujolais Nouveau if you will.
The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Valley has a touch more body due to a portion of the wine going through fermentation in barrel. Hints of citrus and fresh melon emerged on both the nose and the palate, while a delicate floral aroma that ranged from lavender to iris played in the background. Racy acidity refreshed the palate on the finish.
The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Cuvée Nicolas is made in the traditional Bordeaux style, with 25% Semillon added to the mix before the wine was aged sur-lie in French oak. Soft and supple, more of the tropical notes of Sauvignon Blanc were found in this wine than the others, with juicy nectarine, guava and blood orange notes mingling with a touch of Semillon-inspired clover honey. The finish was long and lively.
This is the fourth vintage of the Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Cuvée Au Naturel that I have tried, and it remains my favorite domestic Sauvignon Blanc year in and out. Only the best grapes are selected for this cuvee from estate grown fruit, and the wine sees no oak or malolactic fermentation. The 2005 version is a wild Loire Valley style that inspires comparisons to Cotat and Dagueneau. Racy, complex and mineral-driven, with aromas of honeysuckle, lime zest and wild mint and flavors that range from citrus to fresh herb to flint and dry rocks. Long and lovely.
Though I did not get to sample them at this time, Brander also produces an un-oaked Chardonnay, a few single-vineyard Sauvignon Blancs, a Grenache Blanc and Sauvignon blanc blend and even a couple hundred cases per year of a Muscat Canelli called Moscato di Fredi and a rosé called Chateau Neuf du Pink which is described on the winery website as being "explosively fruity and deliciously dry." Sounds tasty.
Last but not least in the lineup of whites is the Cuvée Natalie, which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc named after Fred's daughter just as the Cuvée Nicolas is named after his son.
As for the reds, the 2005 Santa Barbara County Syrah was a well-made example of an elegant and refined Syrah with blackberry perfume and subtle hints of smoke, leather and allspice. Juicy and smooth on the palate, the finish was just tannic and acidic enough to ask for a little red meat to be served along side it.
The 2004 Merlot Santa Ynez Valley was like liquid velvet in the glass. Aromas of black raspberry and cocoa powder drifted above a palate filled with lush dark fruit and a hint of earthiness. The finish was soft and supple with chewy tannins and a hint of tapenade.
The flagship of the Brander lineup is the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Santa Ynez Valley. Big, chewy and boisterous, this Cab had everything you could want in a robust red- tannins, acidity, fruit, earth, spice and length. Black currant, cedar and rosemary aromas led to a palate that was at once big, refined and rich but not overwhelming. The finish was long and chewy, with enough tannin to suggest five years or more of bottle age would turn this baby into a work of art.
After thirty years of awards, accolades and fantastic wines, it would be very easy for Fred to sit back and relax on his success, but with sixteen wines of all different styles it hardly sounds as though he is resting much at all. Due to the tiny amounts of cases produced of many of his wines, the name Brander may not be on the tips of everyone's tongue, but it should be, and we can only hope that there will be another thirty years of great wines to follow.