With the publication of my first wine story in my new local paper, The Santa Barbara Independent, I had the chance to discover Santa Barbara County Rieslings. The grape has a really cool story here in Santa Barbara and I was anxious to spread some Riesling love.
When I made the decision to move to Santa Barbara, one of the most compelling reasons for coming here was the wine scene. There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on with wine in California and even more specifically, in this little corner of it. So while I knew that Santa Barbara County, specifically, had a lot going on besides Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, I really had no idea of the scope of experimentation that is going on here.
My mind was completely blown when I learned that there were a decent amount of producers making Riesling in Santa Barbara County and that they’ve been doing it since the 1970’s. Cue explosion noises.
While I lived in New York, Paul Greico was leading the Riesling crusade and had made a sort of religion out of the grape. Wine professionals across the city continue to preach its gospel of food-friendliness and affordability and I have long since been converted. I am a Riesling believer. I know, however, that outside major metropolitan bubbles, across large swathes of the country, Riesling is still dismissed as something sweet and sticky. And to be honest, I was a little scared (wasn’t it too warm here for Riesling?) at what I might find when I opened my first bottle of Santa Barbara Riesling - a 2013 from Kick-On Ranch made by Tatomer that cost $35.
My first glass was a revelation with a hit of lime zest and a slick of minerality. This was good. This was really good. This was totally surprising and not at all the rich flabby fruit explosion I was fearing. I was elated. This was exciting.
Turns out I had started with one of the best local Rieslings I could have possibly tried. Graham Tatomer (who made it) is a very cool guy who loves Riesling. He grew up in Santa Barbara and was inducted into the wine industry by local legend, Pierre Lafond, who, coincidentally, was one of the first to make Riesling here.
Graham, fascinated by Austrian wines, moved to Austria where he learned to make wine with Emmerich Knoll in the Wachau. From there it was no turning back for Tatomer – give him Riesling or give him death (histrionics mine, not his)! He returned to Santa Barbara and by 2008 had launched his eponymous label, Tatomer, placing him at the vanguard of Riesling production in Santa Barbara County.
Another chance encounter led me to Ryan Stirm, who had just bottled his first vintage of 2013 Rieslings (also from Kick On Ranch) and was pouring his brand new babies at a local wine bar, Les Marchands. I happened to mosey in that night and when they asked me if I wanted to try some new local Rieslings I said “DUH.”
Ryan’s wines were impeccable – laser focused, clean, austere, and razor sharp. He’d done a version with native yeasts and another that had been inoculated with a commercial strain. Same fruit, different yeasts and the results were fascinating. Ryan also travelled to the Wachua region and worked for a winery called Weingut Tegernseerhof, which is, coincidentally, in the same village and only a few doors down from Emmerich Knoll. Stirm said that he really caught the riesling bug while working for a winery in Margaret River, Australia drinking ozzie rieslings. Stirm was compelled to make riesling in Santa Barbara County, he said, because of the history of great wines made here.
It's a risky game these guys are playing up here. Grapes are generally pretty expensive in Santa Barbara County – which is why most of our wines are too. Riesling is less so, but you’re still going to have to pony up at least $20 for a bottle of local juice compared to a totally decent German Riesling that could be as little as $12. As a consumer, what are you going to try? The more expensive local stuff that has no reputation or the cheaper stuff from a region that’s renowned for its Riesling?
And that’s not the only challenge to making good Riesling in Santa Barbara – the marine layer that keeps the region cool can also cause trouble.
“The challenge to growing Riesling in Santa Barbara County is our marine layer. While this maritime influence is crucial […] it is also by nature, ‘wet’, which is conducive to rot,” said Tatomer. “Hand sorting is crucial, but rarely done due to economic reasons.”
Tatomer also said that despite his efforts, he hasn’t managed to convince any vineyard owners to plant new Riesling vines but that he is happy with the available supply and that it seems to be secure for now.
Although there are plenty of winemakers producing a SB County Riesling, Ryan and Graham are the only two who have dedicated themselves to the grape (almost) exclusively in a land awash with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rhone varieties. Both winemakers are doing a superb job with this noble grape and are worth seeking out.