Monday, August 6, 2018
Far off to the west, the curious white launch pads of Vandenberg. Deep in the east, the elongated peaks of Figueroa Mountain. Almost everywhere in the foreground, the iconic vineyards of the Sta. Rita Hills: the pioneering rows of Sanford & Benedict and rustic barn of Fiddlestix along Santa Rosa Road; the cult of Sea Smoke just above the Santa Ynez River; the steep hillsides of John Sebastiano toward Buellton; glimpses of Zotovich, Melville, and Babcock along Highway 246; even hints of Mt. Carmel and Rita’s Crown along the crest.
This is the hawk’s-eye view one gets from about 900 feet up at Spear Vineyards & Winery, one of the county’s newest estate domaines. But the vines halt a ways off from where I’m standing with proprietor Ofer Shepher and winemaker Kat Gaffney. “This whole middle is not planted,” says Shepher of his property, which is located in the actual Sta. Rita Hills between 246 and Santa Rosa Road. “That’s because of this ranch.”
Having lived next door at Gnesa Vineyard since 2005, Shepher purchased the 1,100-acre property in 2013 and started planting about 34 acres of grapevines — mostly pinot noir and chardonnay, but with grenache, syrah, and grüner veltliner to keep things interesting. The plan is to sell about half of the fruit and use the other half for the Spear brand, so what’s planted today is already enough.
“I have no intention of planting anymore,” Shepher explained as we drove past the old campground, sweat lodge, and beekeeper cabin that date back decades. “I’m not interested in, for lack of a better word, molesting any more land. We run Black Angus on the rest of it. They’re like lawnmowers for us.”
Even the main bowl-shaped vineyard — organically farmed, aligned with natural contours, nary an oak removed — is a testament to the winery’s light-touch intent, which, incidentally, is the way they describe the winemaking, as well. That side of the equation was originally spearheaded by legendary vintner Greg Brewer, who’d been buying Shepher’s Gnesa fruit since 2007.
But Brewer had to officially step back from Spear in January to focus on Brewer-Clifton upon selling his namesake winery to Jackson Family Wines. Following stints at Center of Effort in Edna Valley, Penner-Ash in Oregon, and wineries in New Zealand, Gaffney learned alongside Brewer before he left and is now doing what she can to make the Spear wines sing.
She calls her approach a “light-touch, minimalist interventionist policy,” which aligns with Shepher’s goal to make “wine that tastes like where it comes from.” Said Gaffney, “It’s exciting to start as a younger winemaker with a vineyard that has so much potential and is farmed so rigorously. Every time I go into the vineyard, I learn something. It’s a privilege.”
For the jovial and earnest Shepher, the privilege is being able to fully explore his dream. Born in Berlin, he was 4 when his family moved from Europe to the United States, where they were soon victims of a home-invasion robbery. That prompted his father to develop the Life Alert system, which quickly became — and still is — the go-to device for empowering older people to live independently much longer. (Remember “Help! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” That’s Life Alert.)
It was also a financial hit, so after attending Arizona State (political science, with a minor in ag mechanics) and graduate school at Cal State Northridge (mechanical engineering), Shepher smartly took a job with the family company, where he is now senior vice president. Along the way, he lived on the Mesa in Santa Barbara and camped at Figueroa Mountain on the weekends, eventually planning his outings around wine events.
He settled into wine country in 2005 and started exploring more. Eventually his neighbors, a longtime abalone fishing family, decided to sell him their ranch. Aside from the relatively unscathed landscape, it was also home to a large dairy barn, built by Portuguese farmers in the 1920s.
When it was time to develop the winery, Shepher and his architects at Jones & Jones completely preserved the exterior of the barn, which is clearly visible from 246. But now inside, and going 30 feet down into the earth, is an ultramodern, superefficient, ergonomically designed, gravity-powered winemaking facility, as designed with input from Brewer and winemaker Mike Roth.
The first wines, from the 2016 vintage, are very good, especially since they come from essentially virgin vines, which often offer tepid flavors. Shepher credits that early quality, in part, to the “sweet water” that his property enjoys. While Santa Rosa Road properties enjoy great soils full of white rocks, they are sometimes reliant on sulfur-laden Santa Ynez River water; along Highway 246, the water is better, but the soils are sandier.
Spear Vineyards gets that white-rock influence but with the sweet water of the Drum Canyon aquifer, explained Shepher. He’s the second winemaker in recent months to remind me that water purity can have an influence, if not a major impact, on the resulting wines.
“It really is in-between,” said Shepher of straddling the two main alleys of the Sta. Rita Hills. “It’s not one corridor or the other.”
And if you don’t believe him, look at the animals, as we did from high atop that hill. Said Shepher, “The deer come from all around to drink our water here.”
Tastings are available by appointment. See spearwinery.com.
Wine and Fire 2818
Spear Vineyards is just one of the many Sta. Rita Hills wineries participating in this year’s Wine & Fire weekend, which runs August 17-19 in various locations. See staritahills.com/wine-fire for tickets and information.