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Dierberg & Star Lane – The Knight of Happy Canyon

April 8, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 10 Comments

“For what it’s worth, we call our place the “Wine Castle.” Complete with secret passages, orcs, and knights in shining armor (well, rain suits, actually).”

Two weeks ago I wrote about Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers. A day after I published it, I got the above email from Dave’s friend and fellow winemaker Nick de Luca of Dierberg & Star Lane. He went on to write, “I’m going to have to work really hard to elevate myself from the traditional “marble-halled-chateau” look that Dave so deridingly speaks of.”

Originally, I was scheduled to meet with Nick two weeks earlier, but he had to reschedule on account of the birth of his new baby girl. Her name is Gracie and she is an angel! I know, because the proud father sent me pictures of her, adorable pictures! Gracie is not Nick’s first daughter, just the first human one. The award of the de Luca’s firstborn goes to an eight-year old Coonhound named Bella, who although incredibly lick-happy, recently fought a coyote to the death. Seriously, she did.

When photographer David Royal encouraged me to contact Nick and the winery he calls home, Dierberg & Star Lane, I wasn’t very familiar with the name. However, Dave steered me in the right direction when he put me in touch with Paul Clifton at Hahn and Nick seemed like a fun guy.

Yet, there was part of me that remained a bit skeptical. I was worried Dierberg & Star Lane would be merely a trophy winery, not the real deal. Jim Dierberg, the proprietor, made his fortune as a banker in Missouri  before starting his wine operations in California. When Nick says they call it the “Wine Castle”, what he means to say is, “dude, I work at a castle”!  The place is insane. With towers and courtyards, and some 26,000 sq ft of caves dug into the mountains, the place is immense. I saw no fewer than three trolls and two orcs on my voyage with Nick, who insisted we tour on horse back and at one point jousted his assistant winemaker.

If J. Paul Getty had built a winery, this would be it. When Jim Dierberg and his wife Mary set out to build their winery in 2004, which by the way, isn’t even permitted for public use, they set out to build something fantastic. Jim: Job well done! As an enthusiast of architecture and wine, I was in heaven.

My skepticism about Dierberg being some kind of evil empire was weighed against my intense interest in meeting Nick. In email conversations, he sounded incredibly nice and was at least as excited about the interview as I was. Yet, I couldn’t help think; “I bet Mussolini would have sounded nice in email too. Hmmm, this will be interesting” I thought.

OK, I am not the kind of guy to write a hatched job and not tell you up front. So did I hate Dierberg & Star Lane and all they stood for? I will answer that question in my five-part documentary that Ken Burns is producing for me on PBS (I love Ken Burns). It is 21 hours long and is entitled: “Star Lane – The Rise of Jim Dierberg and Nick de Luca.” Episode one, “Hippie Mountain Biker and the Axis of Evil Cabernet.”

No, seriously, I love Star Lane and Nick de Luca! Star Lane, which boasts the hottest and highest vineyard spot in not only the Happy Canyon AVA, but the entire Santa Ynez Valley. It is the most amazing vineyard I have ever been too. We drove 100 yards into the private property and were giddy at its amazing-ness. There could’ve been a monkey riding a unicycle playing Chopin on the kazoo in the road in front of me, but I guarantee you, I would have run him down due to my intense interest in the beautiful valley I was entering. It was the same valley that in 2004, sold a skeptical Nick on taking the job as winemaker for Jim Dierberg. Star Lane is a dramatic vineyard with stunning views of the mountains and side valleys that snake from the center of the vineyard like tongues of flames, each beautifully planted. Wild flowers grew between the rows of Cabernet. Cows stare at you. “They don’t disc like most of their neighbors, it looks natural,” I thought! I was very excited!

Nick turned out to be as nice in person as in email form and was not much like Mussolini…not much anyway.

We spent some time bouncing around in his pick-up truck touring the vineyard. What might look to some as poor weed management, to Nick is a thing of beauty. “The hands off approach to the vineyard is an out growth of our hands off approach to winemaking”, Nick explained. “My basic theory is; terrior is an unplanted field and then everything you do to it from that point forward obscures the terrior. Farming is an unnatural act, anything you do in the vineyard. So the whole idea is to reduce as many of those factors as possible, you take it down to only the things that make the wine taste better.’

One of the fun aspects of spending time with Nick is he is as likely to quote a legendary winemaker as he is to reference an obscure Japanese farmer he read about. “There was a Japanese farmer by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka…He wrote a book called “One Straw Revolution” and invented this style of farming he called ”do nothing farming.”  Essentially he could farm about a hectare and a half and support his whole family and only work about 2 hrs a day and get yields bigger than his neighbors who were doing it in a scientific fashion. I read that and that was a huge eye opener to me and that’s how I came up with the whole concept that every time you intervene you take the terrior further away from nature.” We spoke about their efforts to promote sustainable practices at the three vineyards. “It’s the right thing to do,’ he said, “anything less is a cop out.”

After a thorough tour of the vineyards, castle/winery, and caves, we sat down in the boardroom with a few bottles and my trusty iPod to document what transpired.

Why is your canyon so “happy”?

“When you apply for an AVA, one of the things you have to prove is the historical significance of the name. The reason Happy Canyon is named such is, during prohibition this is where all the stills were. I thought it was just the goofiest name until I heard that. Now I actually really like it.”

You have the opportunity to make wines from several vineyard locations (Happy Canyon, Santa Maria, and Sta. Rita Hills), are there advantages this provides you as a winemaker?

“I don’t get bored! Every lesson you learn in one vineyard with one variety you can apply to another. The vineyard that we farm in Santa Maria is a real challenge because of the climate and fighting mold and mildew…I don’t like using harsh chemical products. I’ve been studying all of this organic gardening literature actually. I started using this concoction that I found in a gardening text from the turn of the century that was baking soda, olive oil, and soap. And we started spraying that for mildew and it works. And the other one that worked that I found…was 1% milk solution. So my pursuit of trying to find creative ways to handle mildew there, then I applied here (Star Lane).”

So it increases the size of your lab you have to work with?

“Yeah…In the process of trying to figure out one problem that a certain vineyard presents you, you get a whole bunch of different ideas that you can apply to the others.”

Has your time in Europe and New Zealand changed your approach to wine making?

“Yeah, absolutely. New Zealand was really cool for me because, let’s be honest, it rains everyday during harvest.…In New Zealand you make wine. The stuff arrives in the winery and it looks like mush…and you make it into wine. That’s when I learned the whole idea of no half measures. If you are backed into a corner and you have to fix a problem, you just fix it…. I don’t pursue that type of winemaking, but I saw what it’s like to be incredibly interventionists…”

“Then Europe, the “aha” moment in Europe was when I was in Spain a couple of years ago, my wife and I went to Spain. We went there for the bullfights; it’s a minor passion of mine. I love bullfights. I’d been to Madrid, I’d been to Pamplona, I’d been to Barcelona for the Corrida, but I had never been to Seville. Everyone you talk to says…‘that’s the heart and soul of bull fighting’. So we went to Seville for the Corrida. The next day we went to Sanlúcar for lunch…the next thing we know we are sitting next to this old guy Enrique Barbadillo …So it turns out that Enrique Barbadillo owns the biggest sherry house in all the area…which is Manzanilla…So he said ‘you have to come visit me tomorrow and I will give you a tour’. All of the barrel halls (bodegas) are right in view of the sea there and the style is based on the foam rubber yeast growing on top of the wine in the barrel…We walk through this one bodega and he say’s to me, “in this one we can’t make Manzanilla, only Oloroso.’ What he meant was in this bodega the floor (the foam yeast) does not naturally grow on the wine in barrel. And I asked him ‘why not?’, and he said, ‘oh the church is in the way’. What he was basically saying was, this church here blocked the ocean air from coming into his winery (to grow the yeast)….not only is your vineyard part of your terrior, but so is your winery, and so are your people. And for him to say so nonchalantly, “oh the church is in the way”. His father knew that, his grandfather knew that…that just opened my mind to everything. How much tradition exists in the world and how long we have to work towards that. And then coming back here and putting this crazy building (referring to the “Wine Castle”) together and realizing that this is going to be here for generations and generations and someone, maybe four winemakers forward from me says, ‘oh yeah, the pine tree is in the way.’”

Why did the Dierbergs settle in eastern Santa Ynez Valley instead of Napa or Bordeaux?
”They had an “aha” moment. They came here and it appealed to them. I think that’s so cool. I mean Jim really wanted to grow great Cabernet…he believed in this place so much he was willing to take a huge risk. The only criteria… he drilled a test well to make sure there was enough water.”

“The fact he was able to sit back and say, ‘OK, you all have whack ideas and I don’t know if I believe them, but I trust you,’ for him to say, ‘I’m going to trust this guy with a whacky idea to set my grandkids up,’ I walk around this place and I am not really sure what to make of it.”

Do you have a favorite aspect of wine making?

“Well the vineyard part would be easy to say, I love vineyards. The research side of learning about vineyards now that I am into all of the arcane gardening textbooks. You know what it is; it’s really just the psychology. I love selling people grapes because I love walking the vineyard with them and trying to understand what they’re seeing. I see the world this way, and that grass is green, but what does green look like to you? Are you seeing something I would call blue?…It was Don Blackburn who said, ‘wine business is people business’. When you start to consider people are a part of your terroir, it changes everything…I would say it’s the people, it’s the psychology.”

Who has inspired you in California wine? Who are you watching?

“Well Paul Hobbs deffinatley was the first person. I didn’t have a degree or anything and he basically encouraged me and said, ‘you have it in you, you can do this.’ So that was huge. When I met David Ramey I was developed in my thinking enough to actually be able to communicate with him as a peer and that changed everything. He didn’t teach me how to make wine, he tought me how to think about making wine, and that was enormous.…This viticulturalist name Daniel Roberts. He’s sort of the viticulturalist to the stars. His first language is also Yiddish and we would get a gas out of that.…And who to watch? I already told you Dave [Potter]. He is going to be the Riesling man. And then Andy actually, he works for me right now. He is far and away the best winemaker I know right now…I can give him terrible direction and he knows how to interpret it now. I pray he never leaves here because I would be dead with out him. If and when he does he is going to be a person to watch in California.”

There was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal praising the “true passion” of a new breed of millionaires traveling the world buying up vineyards. The article was alarming to me, as if passion existed solely in the ability to spend money. The thought of vineyards and wineries becoming the wealthy’s new “mega yachts,” so to speak, as a status symbol, is something that should alarm all honest hearted wine lovers. If we are to bridge the social gaps in wine, the millionaire trophy vineyard is not the way to do it. Winemakers like Dave Potter are a good way to bridge the gap. Nick de Luca is working hard to bridge the gap with his honest approach to wine and his down to earth (semi-hippie, come on Nick, you know you are!) personality.

Even though Dierberg & Star Lane’s winery is a “mega yacht” of wineries and Jim Dierberg has the assets needed to pursue just about anything he likes, I still believe they can help bridge that gap. With hard work, of course. I don’t mean to paint a negative picture of the Dierberg’s. What they have built is amazing and incredibly impressive, but it isn’t the whole story, it isn’t even the story. For example, when the Dierberg’s built a tasting room for the public, which is in the Sta. Rita Hills, it wasn’t a grand palace they built. They built a barn. Santa Barbara County wine country is still rather humble in its design and they blend in well. So, the story of the Dierberg’s is not their image or Jim’s finances. The real story of Dierberg & Star Lane is their winemaking philosophy and the potential they have to help make Happy Canyon a world recognized AVA.

The enemy in this social divide is not the wealthy. Not all of the wealthy at any rate. There are those of the wealthy class who actively promote the idea that more expensive and hard to get equals better quality. In reality, it actually just means more expensive and hard to get, there is no guarantee on the quality part.

What is most to blame for the great social divide in wine consumption, is the old approach to wine marketing: that it is an essential part of “fine living”. The sweater over the shoulder image of wine, which by conventional logic tells us ”wine is drank while sailing, not at BBQ’s, for heavens sake!” It is this image, (that you have to be well-off and loafers with no socks to enjoy wine) that we must escape. We need to embrace the European approach. Wine isn’t merely a part of  ”fine living”, wine is a part of life. If only it were that simple to convey to everyone.

Will an operation like the Dierberg’s, who are already embracing sustainable practices on a level I find extremely encouraging, see the light of the next generation of wine buyers? I hope so. Those in my age group, early 20′s to mid 30′s, are demanding more from the products they consume, especially food and drink. Past generations wanted to consume a wine that CAUSED their colleagues to smolder and smoke with envy, however, my generation wants to buy into an experience and share something unique with friends. We don’t drink wine to one up one another (trust me, I one-up’d my friends long ago), we drink it because it is good! We drink it, because it is fun to share a bottle amongst friends, plain and simple. We want to know about your land and how it’s farmed. We want to know about the people behind it and other interests they have. We want to see pictures of your vineyard in spring time and the new family of ducks that may have just moved in. We want labels that grab out attention on shelves packed with an overwhelming variety (we are the iPhone generation after all, used to bright flashy things). Why? We want to be a part of what you are doing. We don’t want to be sold wine, we want to be invited to enjoy it with you.

John Donne said, “no man is an island.” Yet, for generations capitalism has built untouchable CEO’s, aloof from the common man. With the next generation of CEO’s more likely to be spotted at SXSW then the Hamptons, and more likely to drink a local micro-brew than Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the wineries that embrace this concept now, will grow with their clientele in the long run. I am the exact desired market. I am young (26), I have a good job and disposable income to try new things, and most importantly, I will be buying wine for another 50-60 years! If you can grab me now, you might get me for a life-time.

There is a reward to be had and it is not merely a financial one. The wineries embracing the new market models, like Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, are finding that they gain not only financial success, but a genuine community as well. In the long run, they develop not only customers, but community members who are actively engaged in the process, from vineyard to bottle.

Nick was the coolest guy and the winery Jim Dierberg built blew my mind. In fact, that evening after the tour, I was talking to an acquaintance who mentioned Dierberg several weeks ago. “So what’s your connection to the winery?” I asked him. “I designed like 90% of it,” was his reply. I don’t remember what I said after that, I think it was “uhhhh, wow, uh, really?” Bob Klammer worked for the Architect who designed the “Wine Castle”, Berkus Architects. “Wait, you got to see it?” he asked me, with shock in his voice. We discussed its construction and the wines Nick makes (I gave him a Merlot Nick was generous enough to loan me. Jim, I will pay it back, with interest of course). Even these many years after Bob finished his work on the job, you can still hear the wonder in his voice about what they built in the far-east corner of the Santa Ynez Valley. He also spoke highly of the Dierbergs’ and how humble they were. “She (Mary)offered to make me a sandwich,” he recalled.

To all at Dierberg & Star Lane, keep pushing your own uncharted path and people will follow. It is wineries such as yours that have the ability to help bridge the social gaps of wine, if they are willing to take risks. You have taken risks in your vineyard and they have worked. You took a risk with a group of “whack-job kids” as Nick puts it, who run the winery, it’s working. Be open to taking marketing risks to gain market share in the new consumers that will work too. John Donne  added to his poem, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…” The bell of social change is ringing, it tolls for thee too.

To Nick, Dave got his own song at the end of his profile and I can’t leave you out. After I left the property, I was picking up dinner at the Santa Barbara Chicken Ranch. As I waited for my food, I thought about how great of a time I had that afternoon. I swear this song started to play in my head…and I broke into dance.

(Both man and women singing)

“I’ve had the time of my life
No I never felt this way before
Yes I swear it’s the truth
And I owe it all to you
‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life
And I’ve searched through every open door
‘Til I found the truth
And I owe it all to you”

On most days, Nick can be found wondering his vineyards in his big straw hat, his trusty Coonhound Bella at his side. Occasionally they stop to take in all they are blessed with, or to fight coyotes and orcs.

Visit the Dierberg’s tasting room and judge for your self if you like what they do. The 07′ Pinot from the Santa Maria Valley will be released soon…get it!

Dierberg & Star Lane

1280 Drum Canyon Rd. Lompoc, CA

(866) 652-8430

The main photo for this article, the gate with the star and the shot of Nick with the wine glass were shot by one of Nick’s very talented friends, David Royal, who once had a conversation with Robert Parker about surfing and push-ups when he was working with Nick. Photos copyright David Royal  www.davidroyal.net

Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. dp says:

    To all those who have said “you can’t grow cab in santa barbara county”… touché! Nick and the Star Lane / Dierberg team are nailing it. (Bloody good Chard and Pinot too!)

  2. Wayne says:

    I agree 100% Dave. I don’t do too much in the way of wine reviews on
    here as you know, but I will say Nick is does some awesome wines! The
    Chard and Pinot were fantastic and the Merlot was one of the best I
    have ever had from anywhere, period! I have a Syrah at home waitng to
    be opened that I hear will be amazing.

  3. Bob Klammer says:

    Wayne,
    I can’t thank you enough for sharing the Dierberg’s ‘Star Lane’ Merlot with its incredible depth of flavor and velvety texture (my wife was only so lucky to get home in time to have some). My compliments to Nick Deluca and Jim and Mary Dierberg for producing such wonderful wines (I think a road trip to Santa Ynez Valley is order-). Also, a quick note to Nick, Jim & Mary – I have fond memories of our experience working together on the design of your most exciting winery. Carry on….
    Bob

  4. Wayne says:

    Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Bob Klammer!

    Bob, it was my pleasure sharing the wine with you. My hat is off to you for your beautiful design on the Dierberg’s winery. Honestly, one of the coolest places I have ever been to.

  5. I had the pleasure of working alongside Nick, Andy, Jeff et al for the 2009 harvest. I was one of the Oompa Loompas in an orange rain coat. I came into it with all my years experience, and ideas about how wine should be made, and left with a whole new level of understanding. I am proud to have worked at the castle, and tour and taste those majestic vineyards. I share many the same philosophy as Nick, just not able to verbalize it so eloquently. It truly is a special place, and I agree it is as much the people involved in the processes, that can bring the lifeblood into a particular wine to help give it a sense of place and time. To all those who toil day in and day out, with aching backs and bloodied knuckles and meager paychecks, those are the heroes in this industry. To be a worker amongst workers, or a member of the flock. Without their part in the equation, it would be just another industrial soulless product.

  6. JB says:

    Best cab and merlot in SB County and I don’t typically even like merlot! Can’t figure out why everyone in the industry isn’t yet gushing about these wines. Those 3 Saints wines are some of the best QPR wines anywhere!!

  7. Wayne says:

    Give them some time and I think they could be a giant of our region. I agree on the Merlot too by the way. Real eye opener for me.

  8. Wayne says:

    Jonah, you said this well. I was up at a winery in Paso this afternoon chatting with some winemakers about the real workers behind wine, the gals and girls working the vineyard. As you said of Nick, I can’t put it into better words than you already did. Nick as understands this. I really appreciate his vision.

  9. [...] and winemakers. Each vineyard is unique. While a few stand out to me as exceptional pieces of land (Star Lane’s Happy Canyon vineyard, Jean-Pierre’s Wolff Vineyard), Jordan’s vineyard outside Healdsburg, is an absolute [...]

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