I have seen two of Bob Davids’ homes. One is a gorgeous tropical pavilion in the foothills of Mount Batur, Bali. The other, is a 20′ tow behind trailer perched high on a hillside overlooking his Sta. Rita Hills vineyard. The first I saw on page 68 of August’s Architectural Digest and the latter I saw in person a few weeks ago.
To understand the home in Indonesia, you need to know that Mr. Davids did well for himself as CEO of one of the world’s largest toy companies. To understand the second, the trailer, which seems an odd choice for a man with the ability to live where he pleases, you need to understand the vineyard he planted and what he has accomplished on its wind blown slopes. It is an unlikely home for both Davids and the Pinot Noir grapes he loves.
It was while living in Hong Kong that the American born Davids developed a love for fine Burgundian wines. This love turned into serious collecting and finally compelled him to search out a place in the world to produce his own Pinot Noir. It takes a great deal of money to make world class wine on any kind of a marketable scale and Davids was fortunate enough to be in the position to pursue his dreams where ever they took him. More importantly, Davids knew it would take a special piece of land and the right group of people to persuade the earth into producing something amazing, especially with the notoriously fickle Pinot Noir grape.
But it would not be Burgundy for or Carneros for Davids. It would be something all together different. And so it was that on a steep windy hillside, halfway between Buellton and Lompoc, Davids set out to create something great: a Pinot Noir vineyard he lovingly calls Sea Smoke.
Southern California is an unlikely home for world class Pinot Noir or for Pinot of any class. It is an anomaly, that a the Sta. Rita Hills produces some of the best Pinot Noir in the New World. Geological forces that started to exert themselves millions of years ago slowly rotated the chuck of land from a north-south orientation to an east-west. The difference? All along the Coast of California, where you get north south valleys you have one side (west) that is cool, often fog covered in the warmest months, and the other (east) that burns with a fury one might associate with a Mel Gibson outburst.
The west side is usually too cool for Pinot and the east too hot. And so like Goldilocks, Pinot Noir finds no pleasure in either location. But in the Sta. Rita Hills, the east-west orientation, with the Pacific Ocean on one end and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, the hot inland valleys suck in cool ocean air. With it comes the breath of the ocean, its sea smoke. When it is 70 degrees in Sta. Rita Hills, it may be 95 in Happy Canyon twenty minuets to the east.
The result is a corridor of Pinot paradise that would otherwise be a burning canyon of death. OK, a bit extreme but there would certainly be no great Pinot there and no Sea Smoke.
It is a standout vineyard, even in a region full of promising pieces of land. The former bean farm had been desired for years by local viticulturists and winemakers alike for it’s exceedingly exceptional Pinot terroir. Vineyard blocks cling to steep south facing slopes. The Santa Ynez River runs directly south of the property, hugging the land as it snakes towards the Pacific. The 350 acre site, seldom wider than a city block, rises and falls like a turbulent ocean and stretches the 100 acres of vineyards, so that they appear far more numerous. Utilizing the lay of the land, from “the bench” in the low lying half, to the steep plantings at the top, the site provides for a varied set of growing conditions and a perfect canvas for outstanding Pinot Noir.
The road through Sea Smoke drops and rises with the land, down a canyon, and back up. I made the five minute trip from the base of the vineyard to the top with Victor Gallegos, Sea Smoke’s contagiously friendly Director of Winemaking. As we quickly climbed the hills in his late model BMW, well worn with miles and dust, over ditches and rocks, sometimes hanging close to drops that would send us first into the vines below, then to the hospital, I thought, “this is why he told me to leave my car below.”
At the top of Sea Smoke vineyard, where others would build a grand estate to sneer down on the valley below, there are nine things of interest: a wooden deck, four chairs, a small shed, a piece of driftwood that looks exactly like a mountain lion (email me for the picture), a 20′ tow behind trailer, and a spectacular view of the Sta. Rita Hills. There in the late afternoon sun, Victor and I sat with a bottle of 08′ (soon to be released) Southing Pinot Noir, and took in all that is Sea Smoke…it was gloriously fun.
Where I live, on a late summer afternoon, one of my favorite things in the world is to watch the fog slide its grey ribbon fingers of mist up and over the mountains on the west end of town. A sunny afternoon can be swallowed in minutes by the dark shadows, silently taking back what the sun had laboriously burned away earlier in the day. Sea Smoke, like its namesake, rose to a level of notoriety in a similarly quick manner.
Early in its history, among many contributing factors, two things happened. Doug Margerum (The Wine Cask, Margerum Wine Company) got a Sea Smoke bottle into the hands of James Laube who loved it and the movie Sideways featured Sea Smoke in its notorious restaurant scene. Consumers went nuts. However, the demand quickly out paced the wineries small production…it still does.
“We count the movie as one of the worst days in Sea Smoke’s history,” Victor says with a warm chuckle. “The movie did amazing things for the valley in general, but I would argue, not really for Sea Smoke. It changed the nature of the conversation. Up to that point we were already sold out, we already had a list.”
A point not appreciated by those who called as a result of the film. While Sea Smoke didn’t have enough wine to meet consumer demand even prior to the film, to those now seeking an allotment, it seemed as though Sea Smoke was capitalizing on their film debut and that the fame had gone to their heads. It was particularly hard for their list manager who had to field all of the angry calls. “Katie would get reduced to tears daily,” he said, highlighting just how hostile some of the calls became. “So for us, it’s the day the conversation changed from being loving to kind of combative,” he said with a laugh.
But as such things go, the glare of the stage lights soon fade, and you are left doing what you did before. Sea Smoke has maintained an enthusiastic fan base who believe in what they are doing, Hollywood or not.
Sea Smoke’s quick ascension is certainly not the norm, but neither is the Sta. Rita Hills. Here is where I admit that the smart little bit at the beginning of the article about burning valleys where no respectable Pinot could call home and Mel Gibson meltdowns actually came from Victor. Well not the Mel part but the rest.
“This is probably one of the least likely places to produce great Pinot Noir. No really,” Victor had registered what must have been a somewhat incredulous look on my face.
“You think so,” I asked?
“Let me qualify that,” Victor began. “Let’s say you’re a guy with money and you love Pinot Noir and you’re looking for a place where you are going to start your passion project and you were taking Burgundy as your benchmark. If you started comparing Burgundy to here, this looks like a spectacularly bad idea. Let’s start with the fact that Pinot Noir is a cool climate grape. Burgundy is that. Burgundy is at the latitude of the Willamette Valley. Right here, we are standing at the latitude of Tunisia, so that’s strike number one. Second, Burgundy is a pretty wet place in addition to being cool. We’re in the middle of a semi-desert called Southern California. Then, if that weren’t bad enough, [you have] all the solar and day length of being at the latitude of Tunisia, and in this instance (Sea Smoke), you are all south facing and at elevation. So it doesn’t look like a bright idea at all. As Wes (Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe) has told you, the big mitigating factor is Pt. Arguello and Pt. Conception which sparing the plate tectonics lesson, creates the Santa Ynez Range so you get this funnel. That’s what makes what would otherwise not be a Pinot Noir region a Pinot Noir region…Kudos to Richard [Sanford] for figuring it all out.”
Sea Smoke isn’t a brand, it is an expression of the earth. While wineries who are not tied to set piece of land can grow with their market share by acquiring more fruit, wineries like Sea Smoke tie their production to what the vineyard can produce. They are married to the land. It was a choice Bob and Victor made from the beginning.
When he first entered into conversations with Bob about joining Sea Smoke, he wanted to know the end game, where was all of this going and how big would it become? ‘This is it,’ Bob had said referring to the Sea Smoke property. Bob had two objectives according to Victor: “produce the best Pinot Noir in the US and to have fun.” It’s why they don’t try to grow simply because there is a demand for the wine and it’s why they don’t buy grapes.
With a wait list several years long for their wines, many wonder why they don’t expand the operation to include fruit from outside the property. “Everybody asks, ‘why don’t you buy grapes?’ Well there are two answers,” Victor says. Number one: we are terroirists, we believe we couldn’t make Sea Smoke. This is Sea Smoke. We can’t make Sea Smoke by buying grapes from over the hill. Second, it wouldn’t be fun.” Victor, like other winemakers I know, believes that beyond a certain point, making wine ceases to be fun and becomes a job, a product and not a craft. It was a lesson he learned in years of working for a large multi-national brand. Bob shares the belief and so Sea Smoke remains a small operation with a half dozen full-time employees.
I have a great respect for winemakers that dedicate themselves to a piece of land. Like a marriage that lasts decades through good times and bad, there is an honor in it worthy of admiration. While some of my favorite producers are vineyard nomads, remaining free to source where they please, the winemakers I most admire have in effect said, “this piece of land is who we are and that will not change.” It is an idea maybe more European than American, where vineyards are passed down through family lines for centuries.
The intersection of European and American wine philosophy is a point of interest for me. American culture nurtures a need to compare ourselves with others instead of being who we are. We do it when we emulate celebrities or our friends and we do it with wine. So Santa Barbara County is no longer a unique place in the world, it has to be compared to a place people know. “It’s the Rhône of California,” they say, but it isn’t, it’s Santa Barbara County, home of Rhône style wines, and Burgundian style wines, and even Bordeaux style wines. While Sea Smoke has gained inspiration from the great Burgundian producers of France, I asked Victor if he felt we American wine consumers put too much emphasis on comparisons between Europe and California?
“Yeah, which I think is a self defeating conversation. Why do you need to be? It comes from an inferiority complex,” he said with a strong laugh.
“Relative to Pinot Noir, the line between Old World winemaking and New World winemaking is becoming increasingly blurred…Winemaking is evolving all over the world…So that old conversation between Old World and New World is becoming increasingly blurred, particularly at the top end producers. Their doing fun stuff and the goal is balanced wines, wines of elegance but with a yummy factor.”
ALP: “So is there a philosophy behind Sea Smoke?”
VG: “Yeah. Nobody with a winemaker card at Sea Smoke has the authority to change the wine and that includes me. Bob and I don’t ever have a conversation where we discuss how much more profit we’re making next year. So what I have to do is show him what we are doing to raise the bar from a quality standpoint. That’s what he cares about and the rest follows…After harvest we sit down and say, ‘what did we learn, what can we do to improve?’ It’s a constant learning process. The wine industry is littered with the corpses of those who thought they got it right and stopped evolving.”
“The style of Sea Smoke is set…The stylistic decisions were made very early on about what we were going to be in the world of Pinot Noir.”
ALP: “Do you have a favorite aspect of your job?”
VG: “There’s something very immediate about taking something from the soil and providing something that gives people true joy and getting that immediate feedback. There are very few other jobs where you get that…it’s really powerful…It’s like a drug in a sense. How do you walk away from it once you have had it?”
ALP: “Is there a particular inspiration to the Sea Smoke team?”
VG: “For us winemakers, one of the dangers of winemaking is cellar-myopia.”
VG: “Drinking what you make, being locked in your little world and thinking what you make is the greatest stuff. Most winemakers don’t make the kind of money our customers make, so our ability to taste a lot of different wines is more circumscribed. We’re really lucky that Bob has this ridiculous cellar and during harvest each year he brings down a ton of stuff for us to taste, specifically so we don’t get cellar-myopia. The inspiration for us as a team has been these cutting edge Burgundian producers who in some ways are breaking the mold of historical Burgundy by making these beautiful wines. Everybody on the team, and I mean everyone including the twelve people we bring in to do fruit selection, everybody taste all those wines. We’ll taste five-thousand dollars worth of wines at lunch. We have a cook everyday during harvest, so we’re eating together and tasting all those wines. It keeps our perspective and I really value that.”
I do not know Bob. I know what Victor told me and what little I have read about him. However, I would like to shake his hand for what he is doing.
He planted a vineyard not in Bordeaux or Napa, but in the then Santa Rita Hills, pre AVA status and in a time most Americans would pronounce it Pea-not No-ire. He built his winery, not on the hills over looking this stunning landscape, but in Lompoc, in an old industrial park called by locals the “Wine Ghetto.” He then built a new winery, again, not on the beautiful hillside, but behind Wal-Mart next to Lompoc Airport, affectionately called “Ghetto West.” He treats his staff to trips so they can spend time together as a team. He showers them with some of the world’s finest wines so they can protect their perspective. And on top of all of this, for several months each year during harvest, he lives in a small trailer on the side of a steep hill, sometimes sleeping on the deck under the stars.
I don’t know Bob, but like I said, I would like to shake his hand.
But Sea Smoke isn’t a man, it is a place and the sum of all parts that go into caring for it. Wine is not about the enigma of a personality, but the character of earth. No amount of money, time, technology, or ego will ever make sub-grade land produce wine of genuine substance and character. At Sea Smoke, in that skinny piece of wind scorched land, in the place where the ocean breaths its heavy breath on all before it, it is the land that remains at the heart. And while some customers may seek out their wines for some form of prestige, ultimately it is what the land does for the wine that keeps them engaged.
When asked what makes Sea Smoke Sea Smoke Victor paused for a long time. As he surveys the remarkably beautiful scene before us he finally says, “people have decided they like what this piece of dirt produces. At the end of the day it’s what this piece of dirt year in and year out continues to put out.”