Downtown Debut: Much-Buzzed Sanguis Opens Winery in Santa Barbara

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on August 18, 2011)


This week, Sanguis becomes the newest winery to call downtown Santa Barbara home. 

It’ll be in very good company, of course, amidst the likes of Whictcraft, Kunin and Jaffurs.  It’ll give the consumer added choice.  And it will help better define the area as a legit destination to find and taste quality wine.

Sanguis is unique, though, on several fronts.  It’s a very small operation, with only about 1500 cases produced each year.  And, for several years, it has garnered the attention of especially serious drinkers and collectors; when I first heard of Sanguis, in fact,  the word “cult” was uttered in the same sentence.

Sanguis is the brainchild of Matthias Pippig, a German transplant who moved to the U.S. at age 18 with dreams of becoming a professional rock-and-roll drummer.  Life had other plans, though, and he eventually stumbled onto the L.A. food scene.  He became a waiter, and in time met Manfred Krankl, of La Brea Bakery fame, which whom he’d partner and work for several years.  Krankl, of course, would go on to launch Sine Qua Non in the mid 90s, an inarguably cult-status Central Coast wine label with a hard core focus on Rhone wines. 

Pippig, too, got the bug, and would spend much of the early 2000s making the lengthy drive from his Ojai home to the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Those vineyards became Pippig’s teachers, actually, since the man who now makes wines that sell out every year never took viticulture classes and never earned an enology degree.  He became winemaker for the Grassini label and, in 2004, began releasing wines under his own label, Sanguis.

Today, Pippig lives in Santa Barbara’s Riviera foothills, a recent move made necessary mainly by convenience and the demands of his own family, which includes two teenage sons.  His search for commercial space for a new winery wasn’t easy – inventory was extremely low – and took him even to industrial corners of Goleta.  But he feels like he’s hit the jackpot with the empty space he found just a block from the Milpas roundabout in Santa Barbara’s Eastside.  It once housed a furniture maker and, for the last five years, an architectural firm.  When I pulled up last week to meet Pippig, the scene was still busy with crews putting on the final transforming touches, which included cordoning off the just-poured concrete driveway. 

Inside, all the necessary proprietary winemaking equipment, from fermentation bins to bottling line, sits at the ready.   On the other side of frosted floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, a slick temperature-controlled barrel room.  And close to the front door, an elegant dark wood table where Pippig – starting this week – will host serious aficionados to tastings by appointment only.

It doesn’t take long into my chat with Pippig to realize that, for him, wine should appeal to all the senses, not just smell and taste.  As our tasting and conversation ensues, for example, I notice he’s set the mood with an eclectic mix of tunes that are piped throughout the property; mellow jazz gives way to breathy folk rock.  And then I notice the labels on the bottles, which may be better described as petite canvases. 

“We deal with nature, so each wine and each year should be different,” Pippig tells me.  “I want to make wine, not widgets.”

2009 Ode to Sunshine
Each label depicts unique artwork by Pippig, and most of it dramatic combinations of photography and graphic design.  As he pours his 2009 chardonnay, which he calls Ode to Sunshine, I ask about the turkey vultures depicted on the bottle.  “I took this photograph in Santa Ynez and then manipulated it,” he tells me.  “These animals sit on power lines like that, with their wings stretched wide for like 30 minutes, to warm up in the cold mornings.”  On the wall, I notice an original painting titled “The Wedding,” which served as the label for one of the first syrahs he ever made.  A few colors – white, black, red and a few drops of yellow – but wonderfully dramatic.

After we taste the 2009 Ode to Sunshine – a delicious, dynamic wine set to be released in October – we move on to a wine he calls Ramshackle and Threadbone.  The first half of the title was inspired by a song by modern rocker Beck; the latter, he nabbed off a running list of “cool words” he keeps on his desk.  I ask about the nomenclature on the labels and he admits, again, that they change with every wine, and every vintage.  ”The only thing that remains a constant here is quality,” he says.  “All else should be fun, excitement, and should inspire curiosity.”  

The 2008 Ramshackle and Threadbone is a fascinating white blend of rousanne, viognier and malvasia bianca.  All “expressive and exuberant on their own,” Pippig declares.  Combined, they’ve made for a wine exploding with bright flavors of white stone fruit tempered by a surprise peppery streak, and with a texture that’s, at one moment, almost oily and, in the next, softly chalky.

The 2007 Las Mujeres, a Grenache-based red blend, delivers brilliant sweet berry on the nose and delivers ripe fruit flavors balanced by notes of earth and smoke.

2007 Backseat Betty
The 2007 Backseat Betty – a cool wine just to order by name – was a title inspired by live performance by Miles Davis of a song by the same name.  “I’ve always loved that song,” Pippig says.  This wine is mostly syrah, with some grenache and viognier blended in, and is an incredibly tasty, mouth-filling drink.  In Pippig’s own words, Backseat Betty is “forward, inviting, perfumy and easy.”  How apropos.

The 2007 Oracle of Delphi, with a dramatic label to match, is a powerhouse red wine.  Amazing, made from 97% cool-climate syrah and 3% viognier.  Rich and inky, with seductive dark stone fruit aromas and a pleasing after taste of toasted vanilla and caramel.  It’s Pippig’s homage to the Cote-Rotie wines of France’s northern Rhone region.  “I’m not trying to emulate the French wines I admire,” he tells me, “but taking cues from them and adapting them to our own climate and growing region.”

Terroir, in fact, is critical to Pippig.  He has long-term contracts with only three cool-climate vineyards he greatly respects: Bien Nacido in Santa Maria, Watch Hill Vineyard in Los Alamos and John Sebastiano Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills.  He has secured very specific rows of grapes on each, and has complete, custom control over the grapes he uses, from planting and managing canopy to pruning and harvesting.    “I pick based on flavor and texture, and I use numbers and chemistry more as just warning signs,” he admits.  “For me, it’s all about balance and capturing the beauty of that vintage.”

Pippig’s barrel program is critical to the Sanguis wines, too.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a local winery that ages its wines in barrel as long as it’s done here; 16 to 20 months for whites, and 24 to a whopping 42 months for reds.  This approach is part of Pippig’s penchant for minimal intervention in winemaking.  “I do minimal racking to leave the wine more intact, and then leave the barrel to do the rest,” he says.  Such lengthy stints in barrel have not come without moments of concern and doubt; he tells me several stories of wines that seemed to lose flavor and body two or three years in but that came around simply by allowing for barrel aging to continue.  Part courage and part instinct, I suggest.  “And just willing things,” he adds, with intellectual flair, “like Babe Ruth looking the pitcher in the eye and pointing out to the bleachers.”

Home run, indeed.

Sanguis, which is Latin for “blood,” sells on wine lists at lucrative restaurants in major markets like New York, Chicago, L.A., Dallas and Las Vegas.  Its production is so small and in such high demand, sales to the consumer are done only by club membership and a first-come, first-served mailing list.  Whites range from $50-$65 a bottle, with reds commanding $60-$75 each.  And, again, tastings are done by appointment only at its brand new Eastside winery, starting this week.  For more information, check out www.sanguiswine.com.

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