Handcrafted in More Ways Than One: Couple's Los Olivos Venture Features Jewelry and Wine

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 28, 2011)

As the Santa Barbara wine buzz has exploded over the last decade, Los Olivos has become an oenophile’s mecca.  But as dozens of tasting rooms have opened their doors, the quaint Santa Ynez Valley town has seen many art galleries make way by closing theirs.  Now, one young couple is putting the spotlight back on art, with a venture that highlights the creative merits of both jewelry and wine.

“Both industries are extremely similar,” says jeweler Samantha Coghlan, 29.  “It’s the idea of taking something the earth is giving you – a rock or a grape – and transforming it into a beautiful handcrafted product.”

Mrs. Coghlan and her husband, Eric, fell in love with the Santa Ynez Valley when they celebrated their first anniversary here in 2008 and spent several days wine tasting.  The small-town feel appealed to them, and felt familiar; she’s from Sun Valley, Idaho and he hails from Kosciusko, a Mississippi town of about 7,000 residents.  When they returned on their second anniversary, they looked at real estate in earnest and stumbled upon a 100-acre property near Happy Canyon, about a mile inland from where Highway 246 meets the Chumash Highway. 

“There was a cabernet vineyard already on it, but it had been neglected for years,” admits Mr. Coghlan, 28.  But farming was in his blood; his father and grandfather had tended land in Mississippi since he was a boy, so this was a challenge Mr, Coghlan welcomed.  “We added 10 acres of vines and took it totally organic,” he says, noting that the property where they grow grapes is also the home where they’re raising their two sons, four-year-old Ozzy and eight-month old Cash.  “It’s important for us not to have chemicals affecting our children and our animals.”  Official organic certification of the Coghlans’ land is pending.

But there’s more than just the penchant for farming that runs through the Coghlans’ veins.  The two are graduate jewelry gemologists, having received their accreditation from the prestigious Gemological Institute of America, or GIA, in San Diego.  The organization is readily seen as a global leader in diamond grading, jewelry education and gemology.  “Getting a degree from here is seen like having a PhD after your name” Mr. Coghlan says.

This is where the couple met.  He was there pursuing the family business.  In 1956, his grandfather had bought what is now the longest running jewelry store in Kosciusko, run today by Mr, Coghlan’s parents.  His father, himself, had ventured to Southern California to get his training at GIA, and taught there for several years.  The younger Coghlan’s focus was on jewelry manufacturing arts and gemology.  “Doing work on a bench,” he explains, “like stone setting and metal snipping.”

She was there following her dream.  The young girl who once considered a career in the CIA or FBI began handcrafting jewelry at age 16, “making leather cuff bracelets with antique fabric,” Mrs. Coghlan recalls.  She got such positive response for her work, she evolved to working with gem stones and, by the time she attended college in Arizona and became active in the trunk show circuit, wire wrapping with beaded work.  “Making jewelry was my passion, and by now I felt that I really needed to have an education,” she says.  “Doing it just as a hobby was not fulfilling enough.”

The couple was engaged in 2006, and the pair reminisces with a laugh about the engagement ring that sealed the deal.  “The bad part about that was that whatever diamond I bought, she’d know what it was,” he jokes.  “I couldn’t pull the wool over her eyes.”  Mrs. Coghlan’s ring finger is now adorned with a champagne-colored diamond.  “We both love color,” he says, “and colored stones is what we enjoy working with the most.”  His wife agrees, and adds, “Our jewelry is an expression of artistic abilities and colored stones add a beautiful spectrum to that.”

So what’s a couple with a penchant for the artistic – not to mention newly-acquired degrees in jewels and a newly-acquired plot of vines -- to do?

Coghlan Vineyards and Jewelers opened its doors along Alamo Pintado Road in Los Olivos on May 19.  A unique venue, it features myriad jewelry handcrafted entirely by Sam and Eric Coghlan, as well a tasting room for their new line of wines.

The Coghlans’ handiwork is featured in displays throughout the store and on the walls, as well as inside the bar where wine curious visitors must rest their glasses between sips.  Talk about a captive audience.  The team crafts their pieces both at a studio at home and a small shop setup inside the tasting room.  And the work load is steady.  “We have to provide all of the inventory,” Mr. Coghlan says, “and we don’t repeat anything, it’s all one-of-a-kind.” 

Output demand varies.  “Eric works a lot with 18-carat metals and he may make three rings in a day,” says Mrs. Coghlan.  “More intricate rings could take three days or more to make.”

“And when we were getting ready for a street fair [in Los Olivos] recently, Sam was beading like crazy, pumping out five or six pieces in a day,” Mrs. Coghlan says.

Among the best-selling jewels are wire-wrapped bird nest rings that she makes.  At $30 apiece, “we can’t keep them on the shelf,” she says.  Her husband is gaining a reputation for a high-end line of real antique Roman coins, which he sets in gold.  “They sell like crazy,” she adds.

Thanks to a large selection of handmade beaded items, the Coghlans says they can keep price points competitive.  Gem stone earrings sell for $30 a pair.  Intricate necklaces can range from $90-$150.  “The most expensive item we have is an 18-carat gold bracelet Eric made,” Mrs. Coghlan says.  It sells for $5000.

Custom design is quickly becoming an important part of the Coghlans’ jewelry business.  “We’re updating, resetting, recreating pieces for many clients,” says Mrs. Coghlan, “and they can walk away wearing something for the first time in a long time and feeling good about it.” 

Modern technology also plays a role.  The couple uses sophisticated computer programs to help clients design and visualize jewelry pieces before they’re cast.  “We can see a rendered photograph of what they want us to make that’s so real, they can tell us right away what we need to adjust,” says Mr. Coghlan.  “Before, we had to do it all with wax.”

The Coghlans’ wine business is no less diligent.  They’re brought on celebrated local winekaer Alan Phillips to handcraft a lineup that currently includes a 2009 estate cabernet sauvignon and a 50-50 cabernet-merlot dubbed Fusion, made with grapes off the family’s Happy Canyon plot.  “We make them so it’s not highly extracted, not like the Napa Valley standard,” says Phillips.  “Instead, we’re going for elegance and balance, and luscious wines that are ready to drink as soon as you open them.”

Many of the new planting on the Coghlans’ property will come online next year, so the output of estate wines will increase.  For now, though, they’re sourcing grapes for their other wines from other established vineyards.  That includes a Grenache blanc and two pinot noirs, one made with fruit from Richard Sanford’s celebrated La Encantada Vineyards and the other from Rio Vista Vineyard grapes.

Just like any two pieces of handcrafted jewelry are unique, the two Coghlan pinots are distinct.  “My mantra is, let the grapes dictate your style,” says Phillips.  “Rio Vista is in the warmest, eastern-most portion of the Santa Rita Hills, so it’s more round and accessible, not as extracted.”  Le Encantada is in the much cooler, windier western stretch of the appellation, and the resulting pinot is “more dense, darker, fuller,” Phillips adds.

The Coghlan wine production is small – about 300 cases per lot.  They’re sold exclusively through the tasting room and, within a few weeks, the company’s new web site at www.coghlanvineyard.com.

The jewelry and wine store on Alamo Pintado is on a one-acre piece of land which the Coghlans also own, and which houses two other enterprises.  One is the Art Outreach Gallery, a space the Coghlans donated to the nonprofit group that promotes the arts to students throughout Santa Barbara County.  “It’s a rotating art gallery where teachers can showcase their work,” says Mrs. Coghlan, who’s also vice-president of the group’s board.  “They can sell their work and proceeds go back to Arts Outreach.”

The Coghlan showroom’s other neighbor is another tasting room: Fontes-Phillips.  This is Alan Phillips’ own boutique label, which he owns with his wife Rochelle, and which features a highly-regarded pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris; their celebrated Rhone rosé is playfully called Panky.  Suffice it to say, beyond their business relationship, the Coghlans and Phillips have become good friends, and the winemaker appreciates the Coghlans’ efforts at bringing two seemingly disparate industries together. 

“They’re both artistic expressions in a different way,” he says.

Harvest Lessons: Local Winery Hosts International Interns

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 20, 2011)

Vanessa Guardia and Romina Regules have a lot in common.  The budding winemakers both work in the wine-buzz region of Mendoza in their native Argentina.  And, coincidentally, both are working on the same thesis toward their enology degrees, on winemaking’s carbon footprint and environmental impacts.  But the two have just recently become friends.

“We actually didn’t meet until a week before harvest started,” says Guardia, 32, in Spanish.

And that’s because the two women have something else in common: they are wrapping up their first harvest internship at Lucas & Lewellen Winery in Buellton.  They met just a few days before flying north for the summer, just before grape picking in Santa Barbara County got underway.  And now they, along with three other international winemakers, have new friendships, and plenty of new know-how, under their belts.

Lucas & Lewellen hosts interns every harvest.  The paid positions run about four months, to coincide with harvest season from beginning to end.  Winemaker Megan McGrath Gates, who’s been in charge of selecting interns for the last five years, finds prospects through an agricultural exchange program run by the state.  “We screen them digitally first, online, and then narrow them down to people with skills we’d be interested in,” she says.  “I require they either have some wine education or at least some hands-on experience.  I want people who show initiative and real interest in wine.”

This year, McGrath Gates picked five candidates with impressive global reach.  Joining Guardia and Regules for the 2011 harvest are Umberto Gaia from Italy’s Piedmont region, Gustavo Assandri from Uruguay and Mehul Patel from India.  The five are paid a stipend – they get time-and-a-half if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week – and are hosted as a group in a private home that’s walking distance from the winery on East Street.  “They love it because it’s a family setting under one roof, with home cooking, Internet access and TV,” says McGrath Gates.

The workload is steady, often six days a week, based on the volume of grapes that are picked and the day-to-day demands inside the winery.

“My goal was to basically gain more experience and learn new techniques to take back home,” says Regules, 26, also in Spanish.  “And, of course, to learn new cultures and to better my English.”  She admits that most Argentinians think Napa when they think California wine, and that zinfandel, California’s purported native variety, has notoriety.  “But I have been very surprised by the variety of wines here,” she declares.  “In Mendoza, most wineries focus on two, three, maybe four varietals.  But here we’ve been working with more than 20, which is great because we’re exposed to grapes we never get to work with.”

Truth be told, Lucas & Lewellen, which was co-founded by pioneering viticulturist Louie Lucas, is one of Santa Barbara County’s most prolific producers.  The company grows some 24 grape varieties on three estate vineyards in Santa Maria, Los Alamos and the Santa Ynez Valley.  It also sells grapes to myriad wine producers throughout California.  “We made less of our own wine this year because Louis sold more fruit to other wineries, especially up north where yields were dramatically down this year,” says McGrath Gates.  “Our own yields were down, too, but not nearly as much.”

For Guardia, seeing the differences in the malbec produced by Lucas & Lewellen and that made in Argentina has been a fascinating lesson.  The Bordeaux grape is readily considered Argentina’s flagship variety.  “The softness of the tannins is similar, but here it tends to be silkier and the color is so deep and intense,” she says.

Guardia also noticed some distinction in the way wine is made.  “In Argentina, we make wine in large quantities,” she says.  “But here, they work a lot in smaller batches, and each is different and unique, often with different alcohol and acidity levels.”

Regules adds, “To work with small batches at a time is great, because you can closely see the evolution of your wine.”

It hasn’t been all work, of course.  The group has gotten to know their temporary community well.  “Everybody has been so kind and giving,” Regules says.  And they’ve done their fair share of travel, visiting tourist hot spots like the Grand Canyon and Hollywood.  “Las Vegas was a lot different than Solvang,” Guardia says with a laugh.  For her and Regules, this was their first visit to the United States.

“For me, this has been an amazing opportunity both professionally and personally,” adds Guardia.  “We all formed friendships, talked about life in our respective countries, shared stories and expanded our experience in so many ways.”

The experience is always enlightening for McGrath Gates, too.  “I ask them about techniques they’re using back home all the time,” she says, but speaks most enthusiastically about the relationships she’s forged.  “I recently visited one of our former interns from Portugal,” she says, “and she took us all over Lisbon, introduced us to these amazing cheeses and Ports, and to all these cultural treasures.” 

Methodology can change, after all, but friendships can last long.

This year’s internship officially ends on Tuesday.  But Guardia and Regules are not planning on heading back home until early December.  “We’re still hoping to visit Miami,” they echo each other with a laugh.