Wednesday, October 24, 2018
The tasting room experience is the gasoline of the wine industry’s direct-to-consumer engine. DTC, as it’s called, is the most profitable type of business since wineries can sell their bottles for the desired price rather than at a deep discount, which is what must be done for retailers and restaurants. But as wineries proliferate nationwide, the tasting room, which once felt special and exclusive, is becoming commonplace, so estates everywhere are strategizing on how to stop their DTC fuel from getting further watered down.
“Providing an elevated experience” is the leading tactic now, adopted by optimistic producers from Napa to Paso Robles, and now being employed in the Santa Ynez Valley by Brave & Maiden Estate. Generally speaking, it means providing visitors with a more informed, comfortable, and longer tasting, almost always in an opulent setting that’s just as transcendent as the wine, and usually with a choice between multiple formats.
That’s the basic formula for Brave & Maiden, which opened to appointment-only visitors in September (though will take last-minute visitors if they have space). Since I first wrote about them in 2015, the winery — which was started in 2011 by the Indonesian industrialist Rizal Risjad and managed by family friend Jason Djang, who works for YouTube during the day — has stayed true to their charted course of becoming one of the region’s top-tier properties.
The all-star team is the same: vineyard managing by Ruben “The Grape Whisperer” Solorzano, winemaking by Central Coast veteran Joshua Klapper, and consulting on both by legendary vintner Paul Hobbs, who was part of the team that started Napa’s Opus One decades ago and now runs wineries from Armenia to Argentina. John Kochis is still the marketing mastermind (he says “elevated” the most) and the estate wines show as much promise as they did then, including zesty sauvignon blanc and rich but spicy spins on syrah and Bordeaux varieties.
But the place looks entirely different. Where there once was a scrubby hill along Refugio Road, today there is a stunning trio of structures designed by Backen & Gillam Architects, the first Central Coast project by the San Francisco firm renowned for iconic Napa estates. Home to the winery, offices, and hospitality center, the Brave & Maiden facility is about as dramatic as Santa Barbara gets, but done so in a modernized, barn-like style that doesn’t feel out of place.
Once inside, you’re in the hands of estate manager Lesley Ann Couture, who can host several different groups at a time, spread throughout the property: one group can be lounging by the fireplace, while another enjoys a catered lunch from S.Y. Kitchen under the olive trees in the courtyard, another hangs in the library, and so forth. It’s worth a day trip all by itself, or certainly serves as a strong centerpiece for a longer day of exploring wine country.
“This is bigger than Brave & Maiden,” said Kochis when I visited in June, explaining that the plan is to amplify all of Santa Barbara wine country. “There hasn’t been a shiny new toy to talk about in a while.”
As you may expect, shiny new toys are a bit pricier than the typical $15 tasting room fee. At Brave & Maiden, the seated tasting is $30 each for 45 minutes; the 90-minute tour and tasting is $60; the two-plus-hour tour, tasting, and S.Y. Kitchen lunch is $90; and there are add-ons from Cailloux Cheese Shop available for $25 to $45, depending on group size.
The wines are also on the upper end of the region’s price scale, but that’s also one of the keys to elevation: asking for prices that are relative to the value compared to other regions like Paso and Napa, which still charge much more. Said Kochis, “Apologizing for price is not something we’re going to do.”
This is certainly not the first Santa Ynez Valley property to try out this model — Vincent Vineyards was all about “upscale” in 2015 — but Brave & Maiden may be pulling out more stops than any winery yet. At the very least, it’s the only one that enlisted Paul Hobbs, who’s been spending quite a bit of time in town recently.
In August, I joined Hobbs and Djang for dinner at Leonardo’s in Solvang, where we tasted barrel samples of upcoming vintages and connected with veteran winemaker Ken Brown, who was sitting at an adjacent table. The venerated vintners first met more than three decades ago, and they had a good time reconnecting that long career loop.
As for Brave & Maiden, Hobbs is visibly excited, very much appreciating the sustained level of long-term commitment. “I’m feeling pretty bullish,” he said.
Book your elevated experience at braveandmaiden.com.