(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on January 15, 2014)
Andrew Murray Vineyards has a new home: the Foxen Canyon Road facility that, for years, has housed Curtis Winery.
Inked in August, the lease deal between two of the most recognizable players in the Santa Barbara wine scene – which was publicly announced Tuesday – signifies a shift in the careers of several high-profile winemakers and in the futures of several well-known wine labels.
For one, it gives the Andrew Murray Vineyards label a home. The brand, which was launched in the mid-1990s, sold off its grape-growing estate in the Santa Ynez Valley in 2005. Winemaker Andrew Murray took a few years off and has, most recently, been making wine in a remote area on the Firestone’s ranch dubbed “Area 51.” The chance to take over the roadside portion of the property that also includes a thriving tasting room “is a huge, huge opportunity,” says Mr. Murray. “This story is really about the Firestones’ trusting gesture, allowing us to continue their legacy with the love, attention and energy they know we bring to the table.” Mr. Murray runs his label with the help of his wife, Kristen.
For the Firestones, this deal represents another step back from day-to-day winemaking operations. The family, which became local wine growing pioneers when Brooks Firestone launched the first Firestone wine in 1975, sold off two-thirds if its vineyards and the Firestone brand to fellow vintner Bill Foley in 2007. The family’s Curtis brand, with a focus on Rhone-style wines, now falls in the hands of Mr. Murray, who’s been tasked with paring it down significantly.
“We are, as a family, over the moon about expanding our relationship with Andrew,” says Adam Firestone, who runs the family’s various businesses. But, he insists, “the Curtis label is by no means going away.” Rather, it will shed several varietals and focus almost exclusively on the production of a high-end syrah and the popular budget-friendly Heritage Cuvee blends. And, along with a handful of other private Firestone family wine projects, it will continue to be sold at the onsite tasting room.
Mr. Firestone will continue to oversee the 100 acres of vineyards on his family’s land. Mr. Murray, who plans on taking over vineyard management in the future, will have access to most of those grapes, especially Rhone fruit like syrah and grenache, which have helped define his eponymous label’s success.
The former Curtis winemaking team has transitioned out. Winemaker Ernst Storm is now focusing exclusively on his own brand, Storm Wines, which has already won commercial success with pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. “It’s a natural for me to also focus more on Rhone wines, though at a really small scale,” says Mr. Storm. Former Curtis Director of Winemaking Chuck Carlson, who will play a consulting role for Mr. Firestone, is now focusing on his own private wine project, Carlson.
The Andrew Murray Vineyards brand officially takes over the tasting room at 5249 Foxen Canyon Road by the end of March, when new signage will be installed and a “modest remodel,” according to Mr. Murray, will be unveiled.