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Black Sheep Finds – By the Will of the People

November 18, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks, Santa Barbara County 5 Comments

It is human nature to respect great efforts of time. Be it a work of art, the sculpted beauty of a National Park, or a long overdue title win, we value more so what takes longer to achieve. For those wine enthusiasts with a larger vocabulary than “mmm grapes!” we too value and esteem great efforts of time. We respect the Grand Cru vineyards, the storied Chateau, and even the great vintages. We do so because we respect the time they represent and the effort, determination, and foresight behind them.

This respect of time is evident when considering wine regions and the importance we place upon them. France is the undisputed King of wine and for many it will always be so. It is more difficult and subjective to crown a Queen, but for now, France still has a powerful monarch named Wine and his influence is strong and his dominion wide.

France’s kingly rule is established not on a claim to all the best wines, although they make many of them. It isn’t that King France has pioneered all of the newest practices of viticulture. No, France is King because few other places have accumulated the same depth of wine wisdom. It is the accumulated wisdom amassed over hundreds of consecutive vintages and bound together by generations of vintners that creates an elaborate and complex understanding of wine. We love the freedom of California winemakers. We love the quality and bargains from South America. However, France demands our respect.

Knowledge though is becoming easier to access, even for the peasants living in the shadow of the King. Given the enormous capacity for information sharing today, the vast history of wine is available to any that are willing to search it out. Where winemakers were once students of a region, even of a single vineyard, they can now be students of World oenology.

With some study and patience, in goes the knowledge of Rhône and Burgundy. In goes Bordeaux and Alsace, Piedmont and Tuscany. In goes Germany, and Spain, and Chile, and Oregon, and California. In go hundreds of years of collected wine knowledge. Younger generations of winemakers, like Peter Hunken of Black Sheep Finds, then take this mass of collected knowledge (holus-bolus) and sift from it what is right for them. In the end, what they produce is a continuum of everything that came before, yet entirely new.

I first came across Black Sheep Finds, a small producer from Santa Barbara County, a few months back. I was at a local haunt in Santa Barbara called The Winehound. “I want something new Bob, what do you have?” Bob, from behind his counter, pointed to a shelf well endowed with local Santa Barbara Rhône varietal wines, some of the most praised of the region. “That,” he said, pointing to the 2007 Hocus Pocus Syrah sitting on the third shelf. “That’s the best Rhône style I have in here right now.” Bob loves Rhône wines so I took the compliment seriously and at $18 it was a bargain considering the low production. I took it home eager to enjoy its enchanted juice. The label with vintage influenced artwork reminiscent of an 1800’s circus poster was enticing, as was the name, Hocus Pocus. At home, the purple black potion poured from the bottle into my glass. It was lush, it was balanced, and it was beautiful. Hocus pocus, I was hooked.

Black Sheep Finds, which produces a Hocus Pocus Syrah and Hocus Pocus Pinot Noir as well as wines under the Genuine Risk label, comes from the husband and wife team of Peter Hunken and Amy Christine. Splitting their time between Los Angeles (where they sell much of their wine) and Lompoc, the story of Black Sheep Finds is in many ways the story of the young California winemaker. Peter is a student of Old World wines, favoring the finesse often found at lower alcohol levels to the ultra ripe and high octane wines that have become a trademark of California. But orthodox he is not.

For a guy making a Pinot Noir sourced from Carneros when he is literally ten minuets from one of the most praised Pinot regions in California, I asked him if the choice made him a renegade.

“Probably I guess. We just released the wines a few months ago, so not too many people have really said anything. There are defiantly great Pinot Noir sites in the Sta. Rita Hills, no question. But the fruit tends to be pretty expensive. I’ve made some expensive wines and its been really hard to sell [them], at least for us these last 2-1/2 or 3 years.”

With such wide choices in Pinot fruit available throughout California, I was interested in how they decided on a vineyard from Carneros. It was a choice of both style and economics. “I am not a fan of the ripper, cola-y, full bodied Pinots that I taste a lot from the Russian River and some from this area for sure. I find that style even less pleasant than New World Syrah. I much more enjoy a Pinot that has some acidity naturally, has aroma and spice, wines that don’t have a ton of alcohol. So [I was] looking for a place that could do that and Carneros seemed like a good option.”

While the choice to source his fruit from Northern California is somewhat unorthodox by local standards, the vineyard was as well. “It’s a fairly old vineyard,” he explained, “it’s 30 to 35 year old Martini clone. You can talk to people and they say Martini is like the worst.”

ALP: “To work with?”

PH: “It’s not like all of the newer clones, like 667, all the French clones that have smaller clusters and darker color and bigger flavor. But those are not the kind of wines I am interested in. I find it intriguing that here is this kind of funky old clone that’s probably originally from Switzerland, so it’s just kind of weird and different. So that was part of it. Obviously the affordability of the fruit and then the people we work with, the Thomsons, they’re super nice and even though they are 350 miles away I probably have more communication with them because they are owners and growers. So it’s just a really nice fit, a nice feel.”

In addition to the Pinot, which they have not produced for several years, they are introducing a white to the program; a Roussanne sourced from the McGinley Vineyard (formerly Westerly) in Happy Canyon. “We wanted to make something other than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc,” he said of his choice to work with a Rhône white. “I really like interesting Rhône whites, Châteauneuf whites that have some Roussanne in them usually. So I am looking forward to that.”
In winemakers like Peter, I find a particularly poignant parallel between two of my passions: wine and music, particularly the LA indie scene. A band I came in contact with five or six years ago, Red Sparowes, is a perfect example of what I mean. Made up of members from Pleasure Forever, the Nocturnes, and the now sadly dormant ISIS, nearly all of the members have other projects. At one point, a few years ago before the retirement of ISIS and the departure of one of the members, the list was longer. Like Red Sparowes, it is not uncommon for indie bands especially in LA, to consist of members from multiple projects, sometimes from different parts of the Country.

Such has been the way for Peter and a growing number of young winemakers who are finding success in a multitude of projects.

The one time assistant winemaker at Stolpman Vineyards, Peter collaborates on a label with Sashi Moorman called Piedrasassi. Another project which started out as Peter and Sashi as well as Chad Melville of Melville Winery & Brewer Clifton, and Jim Knight of Jelly Roll resulted in a Syrah program called Holus Bolus.  Black Sheep Finds is the label he manages with his wife Amy which includes Hocus Pocus, Genuine Risk, and an Italian collaboration with a friend back in Chianti.

Much of the collaboration in music and wine is economically based. For Peter, working out of Lompoc’s famous “Wine Ghetto” has meant close contact with some of the most talked about producers in Santa Barbara County. In the same way it is natural for bands that may share studio space or tour vans to work together, collaboration is natural for winemakers accustomed to sharing both space and equipment. The cramped wineries of these up-and-coming winemakers find a fitting comparison to the cramped and aging Dodge Ram “tour vans” and half-rusted tow behind trailers many of my friends traversed the Country in. While superstar wineries have the funds to enjoy climate controlled mega-wineries, and arena rock bands have air conditioned mansions on wheels, our young winemakers and musicians must toil and sacrifice to get by, hoping they have just enough gas to get them to the next show or harvest. It is hard to chase our dreams.

But it is the struggle and voyage that many find rewarding. For the winemaker, the long hours on the road spent by touring bands is substituted for long hours in the vineyard and winery, where it is often cold and damp. While it provides a rewarding lifestyle and even a comfortable one for some, more winemakers travel by Jetta than private jet.

But where does all of this sharing of ideas go for California winemakers?  In Los Angeles, the collaboration across bands and genres has resulted in a more dynamic, creative, and stable music scene. It’s why indie bands from all over the country flock to LA, even from other established music scenes. More music happens in LA or New York because more is going on there. It is shaping up the same way for California wine.

In Santa Barbara County, the collaborative spirit has already led to the birth of some exciting projects like Holus Bolus, as well as Thread, a collaboration between Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers, Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines, and Blair Fox of Blair Fox Cellars (all winemakers for Fess Parker). It will no doubt lead to more.

Trends change, in music, in fashion, in wine. Ska was the next big thing for awhile, until we decided it wasn’t. Swing then took the Country by storm, until we decided it shouldn’t. So far, boots over jeans and stretch pants has lasted longer than I thought it would, but its day is coming too. Syrah was the savior Red, the next big thing, the future of wine in much of the New World. And then it wasn’t. Although Peter makes several wines, it is Syrah that is his workhorse. So with all the debate over the last few years about the future of this bold flavorful wine, I thought I should ask Peter where he thought it was all headed.

PH: “I think a lot of damage has already been done. You don’t get a lot of second chances with the public. So there is a lot of damage that’s been done with poor Syrah from the Southern Hemisphere to be very broad, or from the Northern Hemisphere, from California. There is a lot of pretty average Syrah from California, Washington, and Oregon. But I hope that the styles will change. That’s the thing, there are a lot of really great Syrah producers in California that run the gambit of styles… We still sell more Syrah than anything else in our portfolio. Hocus Pocus is still our best seller and maybe that’s because it’s the cheapest. I am not going to be a fool to economics.”

“People still like Syrah, but I look at the market place and as great as wines from Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie are, I don’t see those flying off the shelves. They’re expensive, $75-100, and those are great wines and they will last as long as anything will. [But] I feel like all over you see a lot more interest in less expensive Syrah…People are happy paying $25 for a bottle of wine. I hope that people will realize it is a good wine not only at the value level but also at the premium level.”

For any winemaker playing the odds to build their own project, all the numerous factors and challenges that conspire against them make the endeavor a genuine risk. You can imitate the best and fail. You can do everything right only to be ignored, for it is the people who will decide “who gets to win and who gets to loose” as Peter puts it. So how does one proceed? Does one chase trends that are in constant change and hope they get the timing right? Or does one follow what is right for them? “You kind of get to the point where you want to make the wine you like,” Peter has concluded.

For those who have the determination to chart their own path, who follow their own vision, there is no magic formula, there is only hard work and dedication to their goals. At the end, it will be the people who decide who is genuine and who is not. No magic, no trickery, no hocus pocus.

Black Sheep Finds

Peter has become one of my favorite winemakers in Santa Barbara or anywhere. Although his portfolio is not massively large like some, everything he makes is spot on. His Pinot Noir is the way I want  Pinot to be and it is the same with his Syrah. I will follow his developing career with much interest. He is also very nice.

Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wayne Kelterer, Peter Hunken, Bertromavich Reibold, Dave Williams, Wayne Kelterer and others. Wayne Kelterer said: Today on ALP: Black Sheep Finds – The Will of the People http://bit.ly/a1L149 [...]

  2. [...] content was originally published late last year on A Long Pour, Fifty-two weeks with California wine. It seems appropriate to publish it this week on the Thomson Vineyards blog because I’ll be [...]

  3. [...] came across Jennifer Thomson by way of Peter Hunken at Black Sheep Finds. Peter produces a wonderful Pinot Noir from the Thomson’s Carneros [...]

  4. [...] A Long Pour {Fifty-Two Weeks With California Wine} » Blog Archive …Nov 18, 2010 … This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wayne Kelterer, Peter Hunken, Bertromavich Reibold, Dave Williams, Wayne Kelterer and others. … [...]

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