, , , , , ,

About East to West: With a series of stories, I’ll share harvest with members of two very hands-on owner/winemaker teams as they pick, ferment and begin to age several grapes picked for the 2013 vintage. With “East to West,” I want to convey how the vast Santa Ynez Valley appellation encompasses two smaller AVAs: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara to the east, and the Sta. Rita Hills to the west. At the east end, various Bordeaux grapes thrive in the heat; on the west end, it’s all about pinot noir and chardonnay, which flourish in the fog. The players: Dragonette Cellars, based in Buellton, and featuring Lindley Wines of Lompoc. East to West. And so it begins … 

At 6:45 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 6, I parked my car alongside Happy Canyon Road, the southern border of Vogelzang Vineyard, to track down the Dragonette brothers and a harvest crew.

John Dragonette has told me the brothers’ plan for today is to have picking crews from Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, the management team at Vogelzang and many of the county’s other top sites, clip several tons from the remaining vine rows of sauvignon blanc that Dragonette Cellars sources from Vogelzang.

Brandon Sparks-Gillis, the third winemaker/owner in the trio of men who, with their wives, own Dragonette, is in New York on a marketing trip. Otherwise, he’d been out here, as well, as the three couples behind Team Dragonette take turns to help pick, sort and transport grapes, run the press, work in the cellar throughout the season, bottle wine, staff the Los Olivos tasting room and market the wine across the country.

John Dragonette says that the Vogelzang sauv blanc grapes have been sitting at 22-plus brix for about a week and partner Ben Merz of Coastal Vineyard Care has labor available. It’s a beautiful late-summer morning, and the temperatures are expected to rise into the mid-90s by mid-morning.

At Vogelzang, 26 of the 77 acres are planted to sauvignon blanc, Merz said. Most neighboring vineyards in this tiny AVA also grow the Bordeaux grape. “Sauvignon blanc has been hitting home runs in Happy Canyon since day one,” Merz added.

Freshly picked sauvignon blanc from Vogelzang Vineyard

Freshly picked sauvignon blanc from Vogelzang Vineyard

I find Steve and John Dragonette balanced on the edge of a trailer loaded with three half-ton picking bins as a tractor pulling it crawls down rows. Crews dump buckets of grapes into the bins, and the brothers hand sort clusters as they answer my questions. The sauvignon blanc clones are 1 and Musque, and the fruit is clean and ripe.

John Dragonette is very happy with the quality: “The pH and brix are all in line this year.”

Since Dragonette buys all of its sauv blanc by the acre, and “cluster weights are up this year,” we’re seeing a little extra weight (volume) this year … it’s higher than the expected yield,” he said.

Eno, a member of the Sparks-Gillis family, behind a glass of just-pressed sauvignon blanc

Eno, a member of the Sparks-Gillis family, behind a glass of just-pressed sauvignon blanc

Naturally, this is good news — as long as enough bins, tanks and barrels are also available to hold the additional weight. Since everything picked this morning ideally should be pressed today, the brothers know by 9 a.m. that a very long day awaits them back at the winery in Buellton.

Dragonette also sources the grenache and mourvedre for one of its rosés from Vogelzang. In terms of ripening, “the grenache is moving along nicely — it’s probably anywhere from 10 days to two weeks” from being ready, John Dragonette noted. Mourvedre is always one of the last grapes to be harvested; it needs extra weeks of sustained warmth.

This year, Mother Nature cranked up the thermostat early, and rainfall was extra scarce. Spring came early and July packed a heat spell. Then there was the annual Labor Day weekend heat spike, and the days since have remained warmer than average.

During a typical year, the mood come harvest is “hurry up and wait.” One day, it’s hot, and then it’s not. Days stretch into weeks, and still, most fruit needs more “hang time” on vines.

But this year, “hurry up and wait” morphed into “hurry up and hurry — HURRY!,” as right on the heels of sauvignon blanc (typically the most early to ripen) came the chardonnay and pinot noir grown in the Santa Maria Valley. Vineyard managers fretted they’d run short of enough hands to pick, as various single clones and multiple grape varietals seemed to be ripening at once.

“There’s just been no let-up in the heat this year,” Dragonette said. “It’s just been hot, hot, hot.”

Merz, who by late August spends most of his waking hours in the various vineyards he oversees for Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, agrees. This year will have “a very compressed” harvest, with the majority of Santa Barbara County’s grapes ripening about three weeks sooner than did last year’s, he said.

Coming soon in East to West: Jake and Francesca Lindley of Lindley Wines make the inaugural pick at their Sweeney Canyon Road vineyard on the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills, where they grow chardonnay and pinot noir.

Copyright Laurie Jervis and Central Coast Wine Press