New Hands at the Helm: Santa Barbara's Folded Hills Hires New Winemaker

An important change of the guard at Folded Hills: the popular winery has hired a new winemaker.
 
Michael Brughelli brings a diverse background to the Folded Hills project, which operates a sprawling estate and vineyard off Highway 101 in Gaviota and an elegant tasting room in Montecito. The 38-year-old Nipomo resident gained particular acclaim with Scar of the Sea, a label he co-founded that’s become a darling of wine media and consumers, and his stake in which he sold early this year. Mr. Brughelli has also been director of sales for renowned Bien Nacido Vineyard and currently operates the wine industry advisory company, Vignerons Consulting.
 
“Most winemakers are honed-in in one direction, running the vineyard or the winemaking,” he says. “What I bring to the table is that I know vineyards really well and I know winemaking really well, and the two form a unique perspective.”

Mr. Brughelli’s official title is consulting winemaker, though he says his role is far more hands-on than the position typically implies. And, as with his previous viticultural projects, his approach to the Folded Hills wines will be focused on the estate: its proximity to the coast, its exposure to winds and its unique soils. “We’ll let the vineyard guide the winemaking process,” he says. “You let the vineyard inform the decisions you make season after season.” 
Michael Brughelli
Mr. Brughelli is replacing winemaker Angela Osborne, a New Zealand native who’s been with Folded Hills from the beginning but who’s leaving now to focus on her own label, Tribute to Grace, which she founded in 2007. “It is a great honour to have a family’s trust be placed in one’s winemaking hands (or feet),” she sayidin a press release issued last week, “and I will always be grateful to [owners] Kim and Andy [Busch] for this privilege.”
 
Adds Kim Busch: “Angela Osborne has been a pivotal part of the success of Folded Hills. Her style of winemaking has been a wonderful expression of place.”
 
Mr. Brughelli says he’s excited about joining the Folded Hills team. “It’s a chance to work with great people and to tap into the great potential on that ranch,” he says.
 
Folded Hills launched in 2017 as the pet project of the Busch pair, members of the family behind St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewery in the world. Aside from close to 1000 animals, their 600-acre Gaviota farmstead is home to more than 15 acres of grapevines—grenache and syrah grapes that are farmed organically and biodynamically and that produce most of the Folded Hills portfolio of close to a dozen wines and an annual output of 5500 cases.
 
Mr. Brughelli’s role begins with oversight of the 2020 vintage, which he says “looks really good” thus far. Grapes will be harvested this fall and the wines will be made at the state-of-the-art Dierberg/Star Lane facility in the Happy Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley.
 
The Folded Hills tasting rooms are open but operating on a limited basis due to COVID-19. Reservations are required for visits to the Gaviota estate and are highly recommended for tastings at the Montecito salon. Find out more at foldedhills.com.
 
Mr. Brughelli is also working on his own eponymous label, Brughelli. His first wines, pinot noir and chardonnay from the 2018 vintage, should see public release this fall.
 
 
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No Corkscrew, No Problem: Latest Fess Parker Wines Come in a Can

You hear someone say that they’re about to enjoy a really good glass of rosé. So your ears perk up and you prepare yourself: will it be the pop of a cork you hear next, or the turn of a screwcap? With the latest releases from the Fess Parker family of wines, it’s the cracking snap-back of a pull tab that grips your attention, and then a big, refreshing, thirst-quenching gulp.

To hear more about this latest Epiphany release, check out Gabe sipping with Fess Parker Winery's Ashley & Tim Snider on Episode 5 of The Gabe Saglie Show!

Epiphany Cellars, a label specializing in Rhone wines that was launched by Fess’ son, Eli, and that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary, launched two wines this month that come in 375-ml. aluminum cans. True, wine-in-a-can is not new. But the caliber of what’s in these cans, along with their portability and approachability, makes them remarkable.

Both cans – a Grenache Rosé and a Grenache Blanc – feature grapes sourced from Rodney’s Vineyard, a noteworthy plot planted in 1989 that sits in the heart of the Parker Family ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley. For years, it’s produced sophisticated, complex, award-winning syrahs – some of the best syrahs out of Santa Barbara County. The 2017 Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah sells for $54 on the Fess Parker Winery website.

The fruit source alone, then, adds to these wines’ remarkable value: the cans, which are the equivalent of a half-bottle, or two tall glasses, sell in four-packs for $44, or $11 a can, or $5.50 a glass.

“It’s a personal portion, if you will,” quips Ashley Parker, Fess’ daughter, as we sip on the rosé. “Let’s be honest, hardly anyone I know has just one glass of wine, they have at least two!”

The Grenache Rosé is beautiful – worth pouring out of the can and into a glass simply to gaze at it, with its brilliant watermelon hues. It was 100% barrel fermented in neutral French oak for four months. Aromas remind you of cherries, flavors smack of pink grapefruit and the pop on the tongue is bracing. It’s delicious.

The Grenche Blanc was aged five months in a 100% stainless steel tank, so it’s zippy and fresh. “This one, I drink right out of the can,” adds Ashley. I ask if a straw would be OK. No problem. Honeydew hits the nose, zesty citrus hugs the palate.

“When we were going down this road and thinking thru this project, we wanted wines that were approachable right now,” adds Fess Parker Winery president (and Ashley’s husband) Tim Snider. “We wanted wines that were fresh and bright and that lent themselves to going to the beach, going on a hike – even, these days, socially distanced happy hours.

“Someone asked me, ‘What’s their shelf life?’” he continues. Both cans are super young, from the 2019 vintage. “These styles of wines are made to drink now, they’re not intended for aging. Enjoy them, drink them, we’ll make more!”

The artwork for the cans was inspired by the natural beauty of California as viewed from the family estate and Rodney’s Vineyard: the iconic California poppy for the Grenache Blanc, and hand-drawn roses for the Rosé. The cans were designed by Buffalo Brothers Studios in Santa Barbara, the same firm that led Epiphany’s original branding when the label launched in 2000.

The canned wines, ideal for summer sipping, are available for pickup at the Epiphany tasting room in Los Olivos or can be bought online at epiphanywineco.com; the winery is offering $10 flat rate shipping for any online orders through May 31.

An interesting side note: with tasting rooms mandated closed for more than two months, the Fess Parker team has pivoted hard toward e-commerce, which has resulted in online sales jumping an amazing 300%.  Find out more at fessparker.com.


Cheers!


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Clink for a Cause: Santa Barbara Couple Selling Unique Wine Glasses to Aid Restaurant Industry

Sarah Boggs likes to reminisce about living out her formative years in New Orleans.
 
“People were constantly outside, constantly enjoying neighbors and friends, constantly going to festivals,” she recalls.
 
“And they were always drinking!”
 
Her move to Santa Barbara provided much of the same: an outdoor-driven lifestyle and plenty of good wine to drink. “We’re always outside, hiking or going to the beach, and the weather is always perfect,” says the mother of two and professor of English at Santa Barbara City College.
 
But one thing was missing: “I just wanted to be able to drink good wine outside from a nice, unbreakable wine glass.”
 
Boggs and her husband, Peter Oblander, a geologist and environmental consultant, launched Wine Outside in 2015. The premise of their side business: provide a drinking vessel that looks good, feels good and makes sipping outdoors safe and convenient, even elegant.
 
Sarah and Peter and their daughters, Maddie and Grace
Wine Outside features a diverse line of 18-ounce stemless tumblers that look a whole lot like crystal.
 
“One of the things that’s extraordinary is that you can’t tell – until you pick it up – that it’s not glass,” says Boggs. “They also hold their shape, just like glass, unlike the give of some of those cheaper plastic glasses. And the rim is really smooth.”
 
Making it especially well-suited for sipping poolside or at the beach or in the middle of a forest: they are, for all intents and purposes, shatterproof.
 
“If you drop it on the floor, nothing happens, it just bounces,” says Boggs. It’s a quality that actually makes them indoor-friendly, too, especially in households with thirsty kids and mishap-prone adults who want something simple but stylish from which to sip.
 
The Wine Outside products are made from Eastman Tritan, a plastics alterative – a co-polyester – that is tough, lighter than glass and warp-resistant. The glasses are free of industrial chemicals like BPA and EA. And they are dishwasher-safe.
 
The glasses sell throughout the South Coast, including Santa Barbara Gift Baskets, the Riviera Towel Company and the El Capitan Beach Store. Gelson’s and the gates-side sundries shop at the Santa Barbara Airport carry them, too, at $25 for a four-pack of plain glasses or a two-pack of glasses printed with a Santa Barbara logo. The Canary Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara uses them for their guests’ welcome pour at check-in and when the rooftop bar – with those awesome 360-degree views – is open.
 
 
And now, a new set of Wine Outside glasses. Two weeks ago, driven to act by the COVID fallout, the company introduced glasses printed with logos in the shapes of California and Texas – golden backdrops with a single heart in red, pink, teal or silver. Fifty perfect of the proceeds from the sale of these limited-edition glasses -- $40 for a set of four and $24 for a pair – go to Houston-based Southern Smoke Foundation, whose emergency drive provides funds to people in the food and beverage industry affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
 
“Being a foodie, and going out to eat lot, I really feel for restaurant workers,” says Boggs. “It’s one of the most obvious parts of our community that needs our support.”
 
Check out wineoutside.com.
 
 
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Finding Opportunity in a Shutdown: How Santa Barbara’s Wine Industry is Taking on Coronavirus

The grinding halt wrought by a virus sprinting across the globe has certainly not spared the Santa Barbara wine industry. These are businesses that depend on foot traffic, on one-to-one connections, on personalized experience. Shut that down, as the recent mandate by Governor Newsom (understandably) did, asking all wineries and tasting rooms to temporarily close, and that critical connection, and the revenue it inevitably generates, comes to a standstill.
Even the big players get hurt. Most Santa Barbara wineries, though, are individual endeavors, passion projects, and labors of love for many of our friends and neighbors. For them, the current reality is a scramble to stay afloat until we’re all on the downward slide of the coronavirus curve.
And to that end, local winemakers are doing everything but standing still.

Riverbench used a 2-camera setup to livestream its virtual tasting on
Facebook last week and then archive the video on YouTube
This week, Riverbench Vineyards launched a virtual tasting of the wines in their latest wine club shipment, which went out to thousands of club members in early March. The tasting was led by the winery’s Director of Hospitality, Danae Smith, and was broadcast live on Facebook. Those who tuned in got insight into, and tasting notes for, Riverbench’s 2018 Estate Chardonnay, 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir and 2017 Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine, all grown from grapes on the label’s Santa Maria Valley property. They also got to sip with others, of course, which is always better than drinking alone.
A second DSLR camera recorded the session, which allowed the team to upload the video to YouTube.
“We didn’t want to something just for tomorrow,” says Riverbench communications director Wil Fernandez. “If we’re going to create content, let’s think long term, let’s do something we’ll continue to do [even after the coronavirus scare] because it just make sense.” Indeed, moving forward, Riverbench is planning on doing virtual tastings in conjunction with all wine club shipments, which go out three times a year.
Riverbench is hosting a virtual tasting of library wines on April 4th, a virtual vineyard tour on April 8th and a virtual Easter egg hunt on April 11th. Check out Riverbench's Facebook page.
Keeping wine club membership engaged is key for a company like Riverbench, whose club accounts for about a third of its business. The other two-thirds are almost entirely driven by visitation to its two tasting rooms in Santa Maria and in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, which remain shuttered. Third-party retail, a very small portion of the business under usual circumstances, is being ramped up now to offset the fallout, with distributors in states like Missouri and Kansas, along with California, pushing Riverbench wine into grocery store chains like Ralphs.
And to support employees in the short term, the way business is done at Riverbench has also changed. Instead of outsourcing wine club shipments, which can take weeks, tasting room employees have taken on the task. And the winery’s phone number – 805-937-8340 – has been turned into a wine tasting hotline, meant to encourage customers to call in with orders, questions or “just to chat with someone else,” says Fernandez. Calls are forwarded to the cell phones of different employees, who are working from home now, each day, and average call times have gone from under two minutes to more than 15.
Virtual tastings have become the flavor of the day across the wine industry, with myriad wineries tapping their customer base through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, among other platforms. With the J. Wilkes Wines tasting room inside the Hotel Californian closed to visitors, for example, winemaker Wes Hagen launched daily 5pm virtual tasting and educational conversation on his Facebook page. And the Wine Militia, an LA-based marketing company, this week launched daily virtual tastings at 6pm on their Instagram account (@thewinemilitia), featuring a different Santa Barbara County label each day; consumers are linked to online shops to purchase featured wines ahead of time so they can sip along when they tine in.
Online commerce, of course, is the primary defense against the coronavirus consequence. Most every local winery is offering incentives to get imbibers to shop online, in lieu of visiting their tasting rooms in person. Shipping is either included or deeply discounted on most orders. And then you’ve got creative hustlers like Jamie Slone, who, after having to close his tasting room in Santa Barbara El Presidio neighborhood to visitors, is hand-delivering wines for free to doorsteps from Goleta to Ventura; check out the Jamie Slone Wines website.
I
The Tercero Wines tasting rooms is ground zero for shipping orders
n Los Olivos, Tercero winemaker Larry Schaffer, who can’t welcome visitors at his popular Los Olivos tasting room right now, admits he’s concerned about the next few weeks. “Margins, in the short term, will not be good,” he admits. But he sees opportunity during the coronavirus crisis, too, especially in the way wineries like his, which are driven by direct-to-consumer sales, are now able to focus on bolstering client relationships. “I’m sending longer handwritten notes along with each shipment right now,” he says, “and I’m not sending anything out until I’ve confirmed addresses on my mailing list on a one-by-one basis.”
Schaffer is gearing up for his own virtual tasting soon, and he’s including shipping and offering a 20% discount (30% for his wine club members) on all orders of six bottles or more, at tercerowines.com.

Cheers.


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The Bet on Rhone that Paid Off: Epiphany Cellars Turns 20

When Eli Parker launched his pet project, Epiphany Cellars, 20 years ago, his dad had doubts.

“He was not thrilled with what he perceived to be a distraction at the time,” says the vintner, referencing Fess Parker, the Disney icon who launched his eponymous wine brand in 1989. Ten years in, the label, anchored on a sweeping 700-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley that remains the family homestead today, had already won fame for a diverse portfolio of wines. A new label might dilute its visibility in the marketplace.

The new venture was timed right, though, thanks to several factors that had come into play in the 1990s; indeed, the family’s beloved patriarch would soon have a change of heart. Syrah, the flagship grape of the Rhone grape varieties – as in, originating in the Rhone region of France – saw a surge in popularity during the final decade of the 20th century. It meant, on the one hand, that the marketplace became flooded with cheap renditions of syrah. “Consumers embraced it at the $10-to-$12 price point but then couldn’t understand the other, more expensive end of the spectrum,” recalls Mr. Parker.

But the younger Parker’s own travels in the 90s to places like France, where Rhone wine production was well established, and Australia, where wines like syrah were getting a fresh new spin, solidified his love for all things Rhone.  “The more I drank those wines, the more I loved those wines,” he says, and he quickly came to the realization that “the Rhone set is really what I had a passion for.”
 
Eli Parker
At this time – the clock was quickly ticking toward a new millennium – the Fess Parker label was fine-tuning its own focus in earnest, thanks to new leadership from Tim Snider, an E & J Gallo alum who joined the family business in 1999 (and who’d soon become Eli’s brother-in-law). The brand’s hard pivot toward pinot noir and chardonnay cleared the way for Eli to focus on Rhone varieties in earnest: syrah, for sure, plus lesser-known red grapes like grenache and mourvedre, and whites like viognier, roussanne and grenache blanc. The first releases of wine under the Epiphany Cellars label were small lot experiments that Eli conducted with then-winemaker Brett Escalera (who’s with the Sanger Family of Wines in Solvang now), including the syrah-grenache amalgam known as Revelation ($49), which remains a flagship Epiphany blend to this day.

Twenty years later, Epiphany Cellars is one of the best vintage-by-vintage snapshots in all of Santa Barbara County, and in all of California, of the potential of Rhone grapes. The label produces various vineyard-specific syrahs, bottles rare finds like the red grape counoise on their own and produces phenomenal blends, including one of my favorites, Gypsy ($29). Grapes are sourced locally, including Rodney’s Vineyard on the family ranch for some of the best bottlings, and as far away as Napa. With Eli taking a more supervisorial role, the label is in the hands of winemaker phenom Blair Fox.

“He’s a Rhone fanatic, too, and we have similar palates,” says Mr. Parker. “If I had to hand over the program to anyone, Blair was a no brainer. His whole team is amazing.”
The Epiphany tasting room in downtown Los Olivos

Indeed, Mr. Blair and his crew handle winemaking for the Parker family’s entire production of more than 70,000 cases a year, including the Fess Parker label, the Fesstivity group of sparklers and the Addendum line of high-end Napa cabernet. The Epiphany lineup is available for tasting daily at its sleek, breezy tasting room along Grand Avenue in Los Olivos.

Epiphany’s 20th birthday will be celebrated February 29th from 6-9pm during a special event inside the Fess Parker Winery barrel room. Open That Bottle Night, an annual commemorative day launched by Wall Street Journal wine writers Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, encourages wine fans to – finally – open and enjoy that special bottle that’s long been sitting in their wine racks, awaiting a special occasion. At the Parker family’s event, library wines, including bottlings from throughout Epiphany’s 20-year history, will be poured, and guests are encouraged to bring their own special wine to share. The event is limited to 80 people, so get your tickets at epiphanywineco.com. I’ll see you there!

Cheers!
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