Upon my arrival in the Santa Ynez Valley, I instantly felt the spirit of the wine country and could not wait to start exploring the vineyards and wineries—let alone to taste some wines. I decided to focus on five sustainable winemakers to find out what do they share in common and what sets them apart from their non-sustainable competitors.
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards
A spectacular drive on Santa Rosa Road, a quiet country road stretched between farmlands and vineyards, leads to Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. The ranch property and vineyards are located in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, a recognized American Viticultural Area. Adjacent to the vineyards, a small rustic building bounded by old cactus trees invites visitors inside into a wine tasting room.
Thekla and Richard Sanford founded this vineyard in 2005 as a culmination of their 40 years of experience in wine agriculture and winemaking. The owners believe that nature and agriculture should coexist in sustainable harmony. Their philosophy focuses on “creating high-quality wines and setting a benchmark for organic farming, sustainable agriculture methods, and environment-friendly commerce.”
The Alma Rosa estate consists of over 100 acres of certified organic vineyards planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The company promotes organic farming, sustainable agriculture, eco-packaging, responsible business practices, and green building practices. All wine bottles are uniform in shape and size to facilitate production. Traditional corks have been replaced with twist-off caps to protect the wines from mustiness caused by bad corks. All these practices guarantee high-quality wines that are “grown, produced, and distributed in harmony with nature and environment.”
Coquelicot Estate Vineyard
The Coquelicot Estate Vineyard is located the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. A stunning view of the vineyard is accessible from an overlook terrace at the famous Santa Inez Mission in Solvang. Coquelicot’s tasting room, with an impressive backyard enclosed underneath old trees, stands out among the competition in downtown Los Olivos.
Founded in 2005 by Bernard Rosenson and Louis Van Tonder, Coquelicot has been applying sustainable and organic faming since 2007. Its organic story is “founded on healthy and balanced soil, water conservation, composting, natural critter and weed management, renewable resources, and cover crops.” These methods exemplify a true commitment to growing the highest quality grapes and producing excellent wines.
The estate produces Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir grape varietals—all planted on 58 acres of vineyards.
Sunstone Vineyards & Winery
Sunstone Vineyards & Winery is situated near the rustic town of Santa Ynez. The focal point of the 28-acre vineyard is a hilltop Provencal French countryside villa with lavender and rosemary courtyards. The tasting room is located downhill and welcomes visitors into a big front courtyard and picnic area with picturesque views of the adjacent hills. Along with the tasting room, the building features a kitchen with a wood-burning oven and two stone barrel-aging caves.
Sunstone is owned by the Rice family and managed by an award-winning winemaker and viticulturist, Nicholas “Nick” de Luca. According to Nick, “One must always remember that winemaking cannot add anything to a wine, only subtract.” Following this philosophy, the winery produces only naturally made wines using organically grown grapes and a holistic approach to winemaking.
Sunstone has been committed to producing eco-friendly wines since 1990, when it planted the vineyard with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Viognier. It is now certified organic. This commitment to sustainability stems from the Rice family’s values, which focus not only on toxin-free soils and grapes, but also on health of employees and consumers.
Presidio Vineyard & Winery
Douglas Braun founded the Presidio Vineyard & Winery in 1991, based on the European viticultural philosophy of high density and low yield per vine. Presidio’s vineyards are located in the cooler western part of the Santa Ynez Valley, where optimal conditions for growing Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay exist. Presidio’s wine-tasting room is situated in the heart of Solvang, which gives its wines an excellent exposure to thousands of tourists every year.
Presidio uses certified organic and biodynamic farming based on findings that chemical fertilizers contribute to “unbalanced wines with undesirable aromatics.” To prevent that, Presidio focuses on using “composts to create a healthy and more balanced soil, accentuating the desirable aromatics of the fruit.”
To maintain the quality and flavors, grapes are hand picked, sorted, and processed right after the harvest. Presidio produces mostly unfiltered wines, claiming that “along with improving clarity, filtration strips wine of aromatics and flavor constituents.” All of the wines are aged in French oak barrels and bottled unfined and unfiltered. This minimal manipulation guarantees high-quality, premium wines.
Demetria Estate is located above the Foxen Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley and operates two separate vineyards. The vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley produces biodynamically farmed Rhone-style blends, while the other vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills produces sustainably farmed Burgundian varietals. Rhone blends include red varietals such as Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, and white varietals such as Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. Burgundian varietals include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc.
Demetria Estate is an impressive property comprised of 213 acres of vineyards stretched on “steep, north-facing hillsides.” The estate has been using biodynamic practices since its purchase by John Zahoudanis in 2005. Phillippe Armenier, a pioneer of biodynamic farming, and Michael Roth, an exceptional winemaker, supervise the winegrowing and winemaking processes.
Similar to organic and sustainable practices, but with some significant differences, the partners’ biodynamic farming focuses on healthy soil. As Demetria’s approach indicates, “biodynamic farming is based on the philosophy that our entire property is a living organism. We use no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers (much like organic farming), and, in addition, we farm by the phases of the planets and the moon and treat our vineyards with various preparations to promote health and vitality in the soil, plants, and animals.” These holistic methods eliminate the destructive effects of pesticides on humans and environment and promote a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture.
What do all of these winemakers share in common?
It is not surprising that all five winemakers share one common thread: a genuine love for nature and stewardship for the environment, which are two values deeply ingrained and nurtured throughout the years. And what seems to be a common but predominating secret to great-tasting, sustainable wines? Healthy soil and quality grapes—two byproducts of a well-balanced and well-preserved natural ecosystem.
Photo credit (#5)