June 18, 2012 |
MIscellaneous Wine Fun! , Wine Country Travel |
Sustainable and Delicious--Buttonwood Farm Winery
"It is possible here," says Karen Steinwachs, "they will let you do here what you could never do in Napa Valley." Karen is describing her evolution from a career in the technology world to winemaker for Buttonwood Farm Winery. In Napa, winemakers need degrees in enology--in the Santa Ynez Valley, winemakers can still be made the old fashioned way--from the ground up, learning the skills and techniques on the job. Karen spent two decades in the tech world before trading her business suit for jeans. She and her husband had travelled extensively in wine country and loved the people they met in Santa Barbara County. So, when they decided to make a change, they picked the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley. Not afraid of hard work, Karen took an entry job for $7 an hour working the harvest at Foley Estates. After three years working at the winery, she took an assistant winemaker job at Fiddlehead Cellars for another three before becoming Buttonwood's winemaker.
Now, Karen crafts elegant wines from the carefully tended estate grapes. A tour through the farm--which includes organic herbs, olives for olive oil, hay for the livestock, flowers, vegetables and perfect peaches--shows the care lavished on the land and produce. Before organic and sustainable were popular, Buttonwood's forward-thinking founder Betty Williams protected the 106 acres from pesticides and worked to keep the farm sustainable.
Today, 39 acres are planted to vineyards and the wines are garnering acclaim. This last week, Buttonwood's 2007 Trevin won a Gold Medal Award and "Best of Class" in the prestigious Los Angeles International Wine Competition. Remarkably, this 94 point wine (sold out, except to wine club members) is listed for just $36. Most of the Buttonwood wines are in the $14 to $24 range, though they taste the same as wines double or three times the price. The pricing is due to the philosophy of Karen and Buttonwood. "Everyone should be able able to afford wine with dinner." This fair pricing helped the winery sail through the recession while others struggled.
If you are driving through the area on Alamo Pintado, the main road connecting Solvang to Los Olivos, turn in when you see the Buttonwood sign. A lovely tasting room awaits with many treats besides the noteworthy wines. You can buy jars of jelly made from Buttonwood Sauvignon Blanc or Red Hawk table wine, organic spices and herbs, raspberry merlot chocolate sauce, peach chutney…to many to list. Then, go next door to the barn and buy the juiciest, most flavorful peaches ever. Lovingly hand-tended and picked by orchard manager Fred Munch, these beauties are at the peak of ripeness now. I'm dreaming of those peaches and may have to make another drive over the mountains to buy a box for pies and canning!
The labels for the wines and jelly jars were designed by Betty Williams' talented daughter Seyburn Zorthian, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, Chouinard, California Institute of the Arts and spent a year studying calligraphy with master Shiryu Morita in Kyoto. Her lovely artwork can be seen in the Buttonwood tasting room as well as at Indigo in Santa Barbara.
Speaking of mountains--the transverse range of the Santa Ynez Mountains lies between the city of Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley and are the reason grapes grow so well. All the mountain ranges in the Western Hemisphere run north - south except three transverse ranges that run east - west: Denali, Alaska; Southern California; and the two bordering Colchagua, Chile. Vineyards need ample sun for ripe fruit but also cool air for acidity. The Santa Ynez and San Rafael transverse ranges funnel moist, cool air from the Pacific Ocean into the hot, sunny interior land mass. The unique geography of the Santa Ynez Valley makes it an ideal location for wine. Robert Parker, Jr., arguably the most famous wine critic in the world, has said of the region (including the Central Coast): "No viticultural region in America has demonstrated as much progress in quality and potential for greatness".
Our tour of the farm included a drive up to the pond where Buttonwood events, like the upcoming "Reds, Whites, and Blues" picnic and blues concert, are held and the top of the hill. A 360 degree view of the vineyards and pastoral hills can be seen from the top. We were hosted on the tour by marketing manager Becky Firth, who also has an interesting back story. I'd asked her if she found life in the Santa Ynez Valley slow after living abroad in China and being raised in the Los Angeles area. "No, this is an eventful place," she says, "with so many interesting people, there is always something interesting going on." She loves the safe community for her kids and the friendliness of the people. Friendly, interesting people + great food and wine = a great community and future.