Although technically it’s not part of Santa Barbara’s so-called Urban Wine Trail, the newly relocated winery and tasting room of Sanguis Wine is definitely one of the coastal city’s urban delights.
Matthias Pippig, winemaker and co-owner with his wife, Jamie Kinser, and their assistant winemaker, Jessica Gasca, moved the winery from a Happy Canyon facility shared with Grassini Family Vineyards & Winery to Santa Barbara mid-summer.
The current harvest is their first in the new digs on Ashley Avenue, a tiny cul-de-sac west of Milpas Avenue. The building formerly housed an architectural firm, and Pippig said that he ended up hiring its staff to assist with remodeling the space into a winery.
While the structure isn’t as large as what he hoped to find, Pippig said, it “feels right, and that feeling supersedes space requirements.” It houses offices, a tasting room, barrel room, a production facility sizable enough to house a press, and a back patio with “lots of natural light, perfect for harvest work.”
During our interview in early August, workers were excavating and leveling earth for a now-completed driveway that runs the length of the building, and the cement dried just in time for Sanguis Wines’ industry party the following week. Trucks carrying grapes harvested for Pippig have just enough space to motor down the narrow drive and turn around behind the winery.
While the winery-tasting room appears utilitarian from the street, inside it’s anything but. Visitors enter the building via the sparse but cozy tasting space, complete with table and chairs, with the winery itself at the rear. The “wall” dividing Sanguis’ barrel room from the winery is actually floor-to-ceiling panels made of acrylic and aluminum that glide open and shut.
The wines Pippig opened for tasting on that August day were Sanguis’ Rhone blends, including the 2008 Ramshackle & Threadbare, which contains 58 percent roussanne, 40 percent malvasia blanca and 2 percent viognier, he said. “All three are exuberant in their own way.”
Pippig, a native of Bavaria, Germany, journeyed from schoolboy to winemaker via his initial love: music. He left Germany for the United States at age 18 to study studio recording, but, in his words, discovered it to be “not so fun.” So he quit.
His subsequent career was in San Francisco Bay area restaurants with an emphasis on wine. He went to work for, and with, importer Mark de Gratzie, who, Pippig believes, “put Italy back on the map by telling winemakers there to make their own wines and no longer sell to the co-ops there.”
His years working for de Gratzie were “a great education” into wine.
From there Pippig spent 12 years working for La Brea Bakery in sales, marketing and business development. His years there were a good experience, Pippig said, “and how I funded the wine company” that would become Sanguis.
Another early inspiration for Pippig was meeting the late Michael Bonaccorsi in 2003 while the latter worked for Masa’s and the Cypress Club in Los Angeles. That same year, Bonaccorsi turned his long-held dream of winemaking into the Bonaccorsi Wine Company.
During Bonaccorsi’s first year, Pippig worked alongside him, soaking up his fellow winemaker’s enthusiasm for the craft. “He got a lot of free labor out of me,” Pippig recalled, smiling.
Bonaccorsi’s sudden death in March 2004 “was a big loss” for Pippig personally, as well as the Central Coast wine community, he noted.
Someone Pippig met while working with Bonaccorsi at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria was Ben Merz of Coastal Vineyard Care, and as the two developed a friendship, Pippig described to Merz the kind of grapes and viticultural techniques he hoped to utilize in his winemaking.
“I knew what wine style I wanted to achieve with a (particular) crop — something that would yield 1.3 to 1.5 tons per acres: a super low yield. Both farming, and then doing a good job with blending, are key.”
Blending, in fact, is a big part of what makes Sanguis tick, Pippig said, and it’s a two-step process that begins right on the heels of harvest. “In 2005, we began co-fermentation as an experiment.” Today, that step is as integral to the label as is Pippig, who considers the practice vital. “Co-fermentation is the magic we cannot control, and it’s really key” to our winemaking process.
The second blending follows fermentation, Pippig said, and by doing so, he, Kinser and Gasca seek flavor profiles that are bold but silky, seductive yet bright and reflect the soil and terrain from which they grow.
Once fermentation is finished and Sanguis wines are in the barrel, time is on their side. Literally. The 2007 Las Mujeres, for example, spent 42 months in barrel, Pippig explained. The wine, bright and elegant, is roughly 65 percent grenache and 30 syrah; roussanne and viognier make up the difference.
In order for wine to survive the test of barrel time, “one needs quality grapes, and the wine needs structure,” Pippig noted. He’s seen certain wines flatten out after two years in barrel only to “come back alive” after another year or more have passed.
Take the 2007 Backstreet Betty, a composite of 75 percent syrah, 20 percent grenache and 5 percent viognier that was released last fall, Pippig said. “It’s just now hitting its stride.”
While their vintages cellar away the years, Pippig and Kinser work hard to sell their wine before its time, creating an equation of success: Multiply more time in barrel times smaller lots of wines, and by the time release dates roll around, four years later, vintages are likely sell out quickly.
That was the case with the 2007 Las Mujeres, Pippig said; it was released, and then it was gone.
“Our wines appeal to a more discerning consumer — one who is willing to wait, and to age their wines longer. These are wines for people to decant for 24 hours or more, enjoy and then save some for day two,” he said, adding that “good wine has a life, and develops characters over decades.”
Pippig characterizes Sanguis wines as “big, expressive, powerful and with depth,” but notes that these characteristics do not come at the expense of balance.
Think of it, he said, as a “balance between both Australia (big) and France or Europe (elegant). (Creating that) is ideal — and difficult.”
While Pippig’s original vineyard source was Watch Hill in the Los Alamos Valley, he now sources from a handful of sites with blocks that are planted “100 percent” to his specifications. One of those is Bien Nacido. Another is John Sebastiano Vineyard, located on hillsides north of Highway 246, just inside the eastern border of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
In the years following his hands-on training with Bonaccorsi, but before Sanguis moved to Santa Barbara, Pippig made wine for the Grassini Family Vineyards in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County until 2009, and was instrumental in building its winery facility in 2007 and 2008.
As Sanguis’ case production continued to grow, and Pippig kept a hand in the food consulting and product development business in Los Angeles, all the while living in Ojai with Kinser and their two teenage boys, something had to give, and that was his gig at Grassini, he explained.
Pippig estimates that Sanguis’ case production will top 1,400 for 2011 — “still a tiny number” — and hopes to cap its size at roughly 3,000 cases per year, a volume he expects will allow him to balance business, creativity and lifestyle.
Speaking of creativity — how do Pippig and Kinser come up with these names? Backstreet Betty. The Oracle of Delphi. Kubernetes. And three new releases: Ode to Sunshine. Endangered Species. Polly Anne.
Pippig described the names as derivatives of “imagery, art, photos and paintings,” as well as personal experiences. The names stem from “what I think of as the wine’s personality. I ask myself, ‘What sort of character is it?’ ”
Taking individualism one step further, Pippig also bases bottle style (Bordeaux, Burgundian) on each wine’s personality; the majority of Sanguis’ Rhone-based wines are in extra-thick glass and Bordeaux-style silhouettes.
“Powerful, big wine gets a bigger bottle,” Pippig said with a shrug and a smile.