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Lafond Vineyard – Pioneers and Pinot Noir

May 19, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 4 Comments

Santa Barbara, the American Riviera. First settled by the Chumash Indians and later colonized by Spanish Missionaries in the late 1700’s, Santa Barbara continues to be a cultural mixing pot. Santa Barbara straddles the line between Central and Southern California lifestyles. From hippie communes in the hills, to billionaire moguls, there is something for everyone in the city embraced between the mountains and sea. Few places in California allow for a surf session in the morning, rock climbing in the afternoon, and a fine dinner and Yo-Yo Ma in the evening, all without leaving the city limits. Almost the entire California experience can be had in Santa Barbara, if only Robert Iger would build a theme park.

The original Santa Barbara Mission, a key landmark within the city, founded in 1786, was rebuilt after it was destroyed by an earthquake-induced tsunami in 1812. The rebuilt mission remains one of the most impressive in California, affectionately called The Queen of the Missions. The Spanish colonization influenced Santa Barbara greatly through the centuries. The mission and other historic structures remain threads that tie the identity of the city together. History pairs with high fashion in a city known for its museums and shopping. Street names and neighborhoods bare Spanish names like Carrillo, Chapala, Sola, and San Roque. Interestingly, it was Sebastián Vizcaino in 1602, a Spanish soldier that gave Santa Barbara its name (he passed through the Santa Barbara Channel on Dec. 3, the eve of the feast of St. Barbara) along with Point Conception, and San Diego.

With the Spanish came ranching, which remains a major economic stimulus to the area, particularly in the backcountry regions. With an ideal climate farmers discovered almost anything would grow in the area and agriculture remains a key piece of the local economy Today, locally grown produce and meat are in abundance at the area’s many farmers markets, Co-Op’s, and CSA’s. Going green and local are practically hobbies in the city credited with starting the modern environmental movement.

Ironically, a second earthquake is what greatly shaped the look of Santa Barbara. On June 29, 1925, a powerful earthquake and the fires that followed destroyed large areas of the city. Many of the Victorian homes that came into vogue after the civil war were destroyed. However, the Spanish style adobes, with their emphasis on earthen building materials withstood the disaster in great numbers. Prior to the earthquake, a movement was underway to revitalize the Spanish colonial architecture the city was founded on and with the earthquake, the movement found a great deal of support. Ordinances were passed that assured the city would move forward in the Spanish style. Yet the Spanish dominance was not complete. Much like colonists of old, Spanish style homes jockey for attention in close proximity to English inspired Victorians and American Craftsman’s. The city is an architectural dream (there is a blog in that too).

The weather, beaches, shopping, surfing, hiking, natural beauty, and historic charm make Santa Barbara a premier destination for visitors from the world over. Sit on State Street with a latte on a June afternoon and you can watch the world pass by along with multitudes of beautiful people. I spend a great deal of time in the city I consider my “real” home, hiking, going to parks with my beagle, eating food, and drinking wine (of course). With its numerous festivals and parades, concerts and film festival, Santa Barbara is a Mecca for those who want a mix of natural living and the culture that comes with upscale life.

Wine is a large part of that way of life. With the Santa Ynez Valley only a half-hour drive from downtown, it is no wonder that many Santa Barbarians are well versed in the local wines. However, no winery has remained more at the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine culture than the one that bears its name: Santa Barbara Winery. I previously wrote about the winery in February, “The Fight for A Name.” The article focused almost exclusively on Santa Barbara Winery’s fight against The Foster’s Group’s use of the name The Santa Barbara Wine Company. Read about the controversy here.

If you can look past the controversy and legal battles, the winery has a unique story. I sat down with winemaker Bruce McGuire who manages the wine program for both Santa Barbara Winery and Lafond Vineyard, both owned by Pierre Lafond. Bruce has been with Pierre for nearly thirty years. We sat at a long table just outside their tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara. The region is known as The Urban Wine Trail and has seen the addition of many wineries in the blocks nearby over the past few years. Santa Barbara Winery is the “OG” of the group, calling the commercial neighborhood a few blocks from the beach “home” since 1964.

How did you become involved with wine?

“I met the right person at the right time. I came out to California to go to UC Davis Grad School. I went to the University of New Hampshire and had an entomology degree, and I was looking for agricultural systems that would be interesting. Growing grapes is probably the most sophisticated thing you can do. There are very few crops that are vintage dated…I guess the other influence I had was, I got my parents to give me a home wine making kit in the 10th grade.”

So it was a long term interest for you?

“Well I had an uncle that was a really good home winemaker. It was interesting science.”

Are you interested then in wine from a scientific standpoint, from the chemistry?

“Well for sure from an agricultural standpoint.”

Do you like working with Grenache?

“Quite a bit.”

Do you think it is going to become a more recognizable varietal?

“I don’t think it is going to be overdone like Syrah has been overdone. I think when people start to realize that a lot of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is primarily Grenache based, that kind of gives it a positive reference point. Growing up…my mother had Almaden Grenache Blanc in one of those jugs in the refrigerator. After trying other Rosé, Grenache Blanc was one of the better ones out there. But that was in High School.”

Do you have a favorite aspect of wine making?

“I tell you, it’s not bottling. I have to say, in those ten days or week before the grapes are ripe and you are starting to spend a lot of focus time in the vineyard trying to figure out how a field should be picked. That decision is probably the most important one you make, when do you pick?”

How does Sta. Rita Hills stack up to other Pinot regions?

“I think it blows Carneros away. The western Russian River and the Anderson Valley are both top notch. They are both different expressions. Santa Lucia Highlands is maybe more similar in some ways as far as the color and weight of the wines. Burgundy? Well, they have been going at it how long?”

Who has inspired you as a winemaker?

Bill Arbios basically trained me. I came out to California to work for a year to become a California resident so I could go to UC Davis and not pay out of state rates. He was working for a small winery in Sonoma called Field Stone. I was working 6 days a week swing shift at Château Suffrene, Coppola now has the property. Someone told me Bill was looking for a part time [guy] three days a week during the day. So I started doing that also. 8 to 4 working for him three days a week, then swing shift at Château Suffrene 6 days a week…He ended up placing me at another winery where he was consulting. After about a year and a half there he was consulting for Pierre. The situation changed here (Santa Barbara Winery), so I came down.”

At this point in the interview, Pierre Lafond came back to check on the interview and to put an end to the rumors about him that Bruce may have been telling me. Upon my arrival, Pierre showed me around the downtown winery, and introduced me to the staff before suggesting I might prefer to sit down with Bruce. He then said his goodbye and silently glided off in his Prius as Bruce and I headed back into the winery. In addition to Santa Barbara Winery and Lafond, Pierre also owns a bistro in Santa Barbara: Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro, and a clothing line. He is the only guy I know that can drink his own wine, at his own restaurant, while wearing his own clothes (although they are all women’s clothes, so I hope he doesn’t). Plus, I think he can bench press like 300lbs. or something like that.

Santa Barbara winery has been making wine here for going on fifty years, what do you think of the changes in the area?

PL: “It’s totally unanticipated. When we first started there were no wineries in Santa Barbara. Not only were there no wineries, but there were no vineyards…The whole thing was a real fluke…The real break came when Demati and Nelson came here, which that was like 65’ I think. But that changed everything. People realized the climate was ideal. As far as the Sta. Rita Hills, that was kind of a fluke too. We didn’t know it was going do that well for Pinot Noir.”

BM: “Well it was a property that was affordable…and it was definitely out of fashion compared to the “horsey” upper Santa Ynez Valley.”

Did you say horsey?

PL: “Santa Ynez was better known for horses.”

Can you tell me about the Lafond Garden?

PL: “It’s a little over an acre…It’s mostly stuff that the Chef wants, stuff he can use in the kitchen.”

For being a champion of Santa Barbara County wine for nearly a half-century, Santa Barbara Winery and Lafond have become adored local establishments.  I have spoken to locals about the winery, and they reflect on it as if it is more than a winery, it is a part of Santa Barbara. There is a reason so many other wineries are scrambling to open tasting rooms near the original Santa Barbara urban winery. So stop by their downtown tasting room, or the beautiful Lafond tasting room in the Sta. Rita Hills, and enjoy a part of Santa Barbara wine history.

Much more can be learned about Santa Barbara Winery and Lafond, including Pierre and Bruce on their website and on there well managed vineyard blog.

Lafond Vineyard is open daily for tasting 10am to 5pm.

6855 Santa Rosa Road, Buellton, CA 93427

(805) 688-7921

Santa Barbara Winery is open daily for tasting from 10am to 5pm.

202 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101

(805) 963-3633

Twitter: @sbwinery


Pictured above, Pierre left and Bruce right.

Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Vinogirl says:

    Congrats on your nomination in the wine blog awards.

  2. Wayne says:

    Thank you very much!

  3. Great article on Santa Barbara Wine Country history- and an amazing part of it, Lafond!

  4. Wayne says:

    Thank you so much Laura. I like what you are doing with your blog too. Have you seen Edible SB? There are some cool articles in the last one on raising honey bees and chickens as well.

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