4 YOUNG WINEMAKERS TO WATCH IN SLO COUNTY
by Sally Buffalo Taylor
A Renaissance of sorts is taking hold in the Central Coast’s wine regions. Paso Robles is being hailed as the most exciting appellation in the country. The Edna and Santa Maria valleys, too, are gaining renewed attention.
Driving that renaissance are people like Amy Butler, Brian Brown, Matt Villard and Ryan Deovlet — small-lot vintners who are willing to take risks with new varietals, untested blends and unique ventures, mostly all on their own.
At one time, a young winemaker in training may have worked in Paso or Edna Valley as a stepping stone to Napa or Sonoma.
Not anymore. These four winemakers have done time at the big estates and corporations and sought refuge on the Central Coast, a place they say grants them freedom to pursue their viticultural visions.
In the spring, we brought you profiles of four young winemakers making waves on the Central Coast. Here are four more.
Finding her vocation in the vineyard
Amy Butler | Ranchero Cellars
A chance encounter with a new varietal led Amy Butler to start her own label.
Butler, then winemaker for Edward Sellers, was wine tasting with friends when she had her first sip of carignan, a Spanish/Rhône varietal not common in this area. It was like a revelation.
She nudged her friend and said, “If I could get some carignan, I would totally start my own brand.”
“Well, he called my bluff,” she says. He found her some carignan grapes in Mendocino County, and Ranchero Cellars was born.
White wines are Butler’s true passion, however, and the label debuted with a 2008 grenache blanc called Chrome. It was the first varietal that had really struck her, early in her winemaking days, and not many wineries were making it.
“It is such a searing, balanced, delicious food wine, a delicious drinking wine,” says Butler, 38. “It does so well here in Paso, maintaining its natural acidity through hot, hot weather.”
In 2010, she added viognier, a varietal she initially hated but eventually fell in love with, and each summer also releases a rosé. Ranchero produced 750 cases in 2013, a number Butler would like to see grow to about 1,200.
Eventually, she’d like her own winery and tasting room, but for now she makes her wine at Denner Vineyards and sells through her wine club and tasting by appointment.
“The goal is keep it manageable so I can still do all of what needs to be done,” she says, “until I’m too old to do it anymore.”
Butler grew up in the desert near Death Valley, surrounded by her mother’s love of cooking.
“We always had all the food magazines, always had Julia Child on TV,” Butler recalls. “My mom was always cooking and reading about food and ripping out recipes, and looking through stacks and stacks of cookbooks, thinking about wine and food.”
But Butler started college unsure of what she wanted to do. Inspiration struck when she came across a piece in Gourmet magazine about a UC Davis student who went on to make wine in Italy.
“Once I knew that you could do this, I couldn’t imagine making any other decision,” she says. “It’s sort of arty and then also sort of scientific. It’s hands on, dirty, you have to wear rubber boots, but you also have to be academic, too.”
Butler headed to Davis, got her degree and began working in Napa. It wasn’t long, though, before she grew disillusioned. The lifestyle there was simply out of reach for an up-and-coming winemaker.
“I was never going to be able to have a little cute house there and do what I wanted,” she says. “It was also very limiting if you wanted to make your own wine.”
She came to Paso Robles for a weekend in 2000 and was struck by the potential.
“The soils are amazing; the plants are amazing; the weather and the climate and everything,” she says. “There are so many things that work here, and we’re still figuring it out. That’s fascinating and exciting for me.”
She moved to Paso without a job and drifted awhile, working various jobs at one winery or another before being hired on at Edward Sellers in 2004. Even today, Butler finds herself taking on a variety of opportunities.
She’s been a consulting winemaker for Red Soles for five years and makes wines for private ventures such as Paso’s LXV. She judges wine competitions across the state and recently started as winemaker at Four Lanterns, a new winery that just opened in the old Sycamore Farms.
“I don’t ever have a day that’s the same as the day before,” she says. “I love it. I still don’t know what else I would be doing with my life.”
[ONX produced about 3,000 cases of wine in 2013, though winemaker Brian Brown would like to see the label eventually grow to about 10,000 cases.]
Planting his roots in an estate vineyard
Brian Brown | ONX Wines
The son of an international hospital administrator, Brian Brown grew up all around the world — the United States, Singapore, Australia, Switzerland, Thailand.
“I went to four different high schools on three different continents,” he says. But when it comes to his winemaking career, Brown is an estate kind of guy.
“I’ve always worked on estates, been an estate winemaker, and I really like carrying that through,” says Brown, 35. “I like identifying that sense of place within the bottle.”
ONX, where Brown is head winemaker, is more of an estate in the making, and that’s what drew Brown here. His last winery, Napa’s Round Pond, went from producing less than 2,000 cases a year to 26,000 in just seven vintages. He also helped his parents turn a dilapidated Napa property into a successful commercial vineyard that was bought out last year.
Brown was still at Round Pond when he began working with Steve and Brenda Olson, developers who bought 60 acres on the southwest edge of Templeton with plans to turn it into an estate vineyard. Brown consulted as they began planting test blocks around the house, building the infrastructure for a commercial vineyard and experimenting with putting wine in bottles.
Brown left Round Pond and came to ONX (pronounced “onyx”) full time when it got too hard to make the big calls remotely. Working from the garage in the Olsons’ house, Brown and his small team are steadily transforming the former grazing land into the type of showcase estate Brown has worked in the past.
Blocks of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and tempranillo spread across the dips and rises of the estate. Malbec, zinfandel, petite sirah and other varietals have joined them. White grapes have been planted down by Santa Rita Creek, which runs through the property, because that’s where it’s coolest.
And there are plans to expand even further, onto an adjacent 60 acres the Olsons recently purchased. Next, Brown wants to plant petit verdot, one or two Portuguese varietals and some sangiovese.
ONX sells most of these grapes to other wineries, says Brown, and keeps about a third to bottle.
“We’re making wine to be better growers and having control of the fruit to be better winemakers,” says Brown, who considers himself a grower first. ONX produced about 3,000 cases in 2013, though Brown would like to see the label eventually grow to about 10,000 cases.
With such a bounty of varietals to work with, Brown and his team produce blends that would be considered off the wall in more buttoned-up regions.
“We like to tweak things a little bit,” Brown says. “People are like, ‘Why would you put cab and zin and mourvèdre together?’ Well, why not?”
There’s a freedom afforded to winemaking in Paso that you don't find many other places, Brown contends. “A big part of why I’m down here is I’m not just making chocolate and vanilla.”
The chance to develop an estate holistically is another.
“There are fruit trees, gardens, a riparian habitat that we helped shore up on the edge of Santa Rita Creek,” Brown says. They are building erosion control features to slow the watershed from the adjoining neighborhood and keep the water table charged. “We’re looking at stewardship of the land.”
What’s missing from the estate is the actual winery. The city won’t let them build one on the property, so ONX is pursuing plans to build a production winery and tasting room offsite.
But it’s more than building a single estate that lured Brown to Paso.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” he says. “Watching this area really gain the respect and notoriety that it deserves and being a part of that is attractive.”
When petite sirah meets a playful man
Matt Villard | MCV Wines
Once Matt Villard discovered winemaking, he knew he’d eventually start his own label.
“It just all happened sooner than I was expecting,” says Villard, 32.
It was 2011, and he had just started a stint at Beaulieu Vineyard, the national Diageo-owned label in Napa, when he was sidelined by a mysterious knee problem. Six weeks of doctor’s visits later, he had knee replacement surgery. It was too late to get his position at BV back, though, so he returned to Paso, where he had worked previously, and began calling around to see if anyone needed help.
Job pickings were slim — it was already into harvest, and not the best year to boot. But grape pickings were plentiful, with an excess that season, so he also asked around about unclaimed grapes.
He found some petite sirah, did a custom crush and bottled it under the label MCV, for Matt Christopher Villard.
“I just jumped headfirst in,” he says.
His leap was well received by wine drinkers and critics alike. He’s since added a red blend and rosé to his 500-case lineup and is working on a new blend of petite sirah, petit verdot and tannat called Black.
“It looked like I had poured black paint into my decanter,” he said of a barrel sample he poured at the Paso Robles Wine Festival. “It’s a completely bizarre blend — three different grapes from three different areas.”
That sense of experimentation is what Villard loves about Paso.
“I love to play, I love to do different things,” he says. “We’re big blenders down here, while Napa is very specific about their blends.”
Winemaking wasn’t Villard’s initially intended career. He went to UC Davis with plans to become a doctor or veterinarian, but the classes just weren’t clicking. The intro to winemaking class piqued his interest, but he took a few years off school to work selling vineyard equipment in Napa and Sonoma.
He eventually returned to continue his winemaking education, though, and then earned an internship at Quintessa in Napa Valley. From there, he worked at Justin in Paso, Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez and Chalone Vineyard in the highlands of Monterey County before getting the position at BV.
It was an incredible experience, Villard says: “Four great wineries in four great wine-making areas of California.”
It’s a great irony to Villard that he ended up in a career so intimately tied to farming, a vocation he had left home in Visalia to avoid.
“My family are all farmers in the Valley. I never had the desire to be a farmer,” he says. “With high-end grapes, though, you start becoming one.”
But while Villard certainly keeps watch over how the grapes he contracts are doing in the field, it’s what happens after harvest that appeals to him most.
“My passion is when the grapes arrive at the winery,” he says. It’s not easy work, but Villard is glad his path led him where it did.
“At the end of the day, I’m stained purple, I’m sticky, I’m wet, I’m tired, I’m hot, then I’m cold,” he says. “It’s a good feeling, especially when you get to the end of everything and taste your wine and realize all your sweat and blood and hard work is all there.”
A globe-trotting grape ‘geek’
Ryan Deovlet | Deovlet Wines
Ryan Deovlet’s first whiff of a life in wine came from a cup of coffee.
The scent has led him across the globe in search of inspiration and knowledge before bringing him to the Central Coast and his three current winemaking projects.
For Deovlet — winemaker at Refugio Ranch Vineyards, the new Biddle Ranch Vineyards in Edna Valley and his own label, Deovlet Wines — wine is a journey.
His began on the Kona side of Hawaii’s Big Island, visiting a cousin. They had gone deep-sea fishing and were cleaning the day’s catch over a cup of coffee.
“I remember having that ‘wow’ moment, like, ‘This coffee is amazing,’ ” Deovlet, then 21, recalls. His cousin pointed to the roaster down the hill and to the beans right behind him. “It was that first beverage farm-to-table notion for me.”
He finished up his sociology degree at UC San Diego, then headed to Australia in 2004 to volunteer with a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
“I circled all the vineyards because there was no coffee,” he said, figuring he’d give grapes a go. He was hooked after the first vineyard.
“The whole history, and the whole way things come together piece by piece to get a wine to bottle — I just ate it up,” Deovlet says. “Where it's grown, the weather, the bud break, the winter dormancy, everything is a part of the small segments that come together in the bottle.”
Deovlet (pronounced “dev-let”) went from the Hunter Valley, not far from Sydney, to the Yarra Valley, north of Melbourne, and then to the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, learning as he went. After harvest, he went to New Zealand to do pruning for the winter.
After a year, Deovlet returned home to Orange County to figure out his next step. Napa and Sonoma were long shots for someone with just a year of experience, he reasoned.
Plus, “there was a vibrancy on the Central Coast,” he says. He got his first big break with Stephen Dooley, of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, whom Deovlet still calls his original guru.
After two years, still seeking to expand his sphere of influence, he joined Red Car Wine Co., which exposed him to Sonoma and top vineyard managers and soil experts. That led to an opportunity in Argentina with Sonoma’s Paul Hobbs, so Deovlet headed abroad for another year.
Deovlet returned to the Central Coast and joined Refugio Ranch, a family-owned estate in Santa Barbara County, but he was itching to make his own pinot noir. He persuaded Richard Sanford to sell him one acre of fruit from the famed La Encantada vineyard in 2008.
“That started it all,” says Deovlet, who then got his hands on grapes from other esteemed vineyards. More pinot from Bien Nacido, chardonnay from Solomon Hills.
He’s producing about 1,200 cases now under Deovlet Wines, sharing winery space in an industrial park on the edge of Edna Valley with Refugio Ranch, where he became head winemaker in 2010.
Though his plate is pretty full, especially with the new winemaking position at Edna Valley’s Biddle Ranch Vineyard, Deovlet’s journey continues. He’s got a side project making sparkling wines with Paso’s McPrice Myers. He’s taken continuing education viticulture classes at UC Davis and Cal Poly and earned his level 1 sommelier certification.
“You can go so deep with such a long history in this craft, and all the appellations and different varietals,” he says. Then there are differences in sites, and vintages, and how you move wine from tanks to barrels. A current intrigue is biodynamics, and whether the same lunar cycles that affect tides could affect optimal timing for things like racking barrels.
“I hope the learning never stops,” he says. “That's where I really geek out.”