All For One: A Dozen Santa Barbara Vintners Unite for Singular Wine

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/27/14)

As I saunter from room to room, I’m following a distant hum.  All is quiet inside the Sunstone Villa on this overcast February morning.  But the buzz of conversation coming from the kitchen is growing.

I’m sort of taking my time, though.  The Villa at Sunstone is one of those buzzed-about properties in the Santa Ynez Valley that’s rarely open to the public.  Set off Refugio Road and flanked by vineyards, this is the home of Sunstone and Artiste winemaker Bion Rice and his young family; the spectacular property is also being marketed these days as a sophisticated vacation rental.  Completed 10 years ago, it was made from materials reclaimed in France – from quarries in Burgundy and Normandy – and hand-picked by Sunstone founders (and Bion’s parents) Linda and Fred Rice.  The tiles on the roof, in fact, once graced a 19th century lavender factory owned by Queen Victoria.  Some 8500 square feet of living space, five suites, eight fireplaces, a billiard room and a bevy of terraces capitalizing on sweeping wine country views.  An old world-inspired gem.

The four winemakers prepare to blend
I finally amble into the kitchen – rustic and airy – and find four men engrossed in analysis and surrounded by beakers, funnels and calculators.  And surrounded by a lot of wine.  The Legacy II Cuveé is about to be born.

For the second year in a row, a band of celebrated Santa Barbara winemakers is collaborating to create a singular wine.  This year, it’s a Rhone-style blend that’ll be comprised of no less than 13 individual wines.  And when it sells – and these winemakers expect that their cuveé will sell out over the course of just a weekend next month – the proceeds will go to The Family School in Los Olivos.

“This wine is a testimonial for the passion we have for this school,” Rice tells me.

School fundraisers are nothing new in Santa Barbara County, of course, and neither are wonderful schools and passionate parents.  But in wine country, a large contingency of moms and dads are well-known makers of wine, naturally, and that can make for a pretty special collaborative creation that, if leveraged right, can inspire consumer demand and help fill the coffers of their children’s schools.  In fact, all the men and women contributing to the Legacy II Cuveé have, or have had, children enrolled at this 40-year-old school, with about 85 students enrolled in a preschool-through-5th curriculum.

The men around the kitchen table this particular morning are Rice, whose two kids attend, as well as Tercero Wines' Larry Schaffer and Crawford Family Wines’ Mark Horvath, each with one child enrolled.  The man tasked with directing the entire blending project is Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, who’s had two children graduate.

Among a sea of glasses, they’re tasting the 13 individual components first – spanning the 2011 and 2012 vintages, mainly – and discussing their particular merits.  Gut impressions go flying.  The Tercero Grenache is “perfumy.”    The Sunstone syrah, made from estate vines planted in 1990, has a “violet nose” and is “pretty tannic.”  A syrah donated by Andrew Murray has “complexity” and “a long finish.”  A grenache offered up by Standing Sun Wines' John Wright has “an almost sweet finish.”  The Artiste blend includes malbec.  And there’s a merlot from The Hitching Post’s Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini (a funny irony that won’t be lost on Sideways fans).

Also earmarked for the blend are a viognier by Cold Heaven Cellars' Morgan Clendenen and reds by Qupe’s Bob Lindquist, Tensley Wines' Joey Tensley, Ken Brown Wines’ Ken Brown and Beckmen Vineyards’ Steve Beckmen.

Jim Clendenen’s contribution is a mix of syrah and viognier that he picked and fermented together.  “When you’re blending these two, you’ve got to co-ferment,” he insists to his colleagues.  “There’s an enzyme on viognier that, when fermented together with syrah, brings out more color and more fruit!”

Rice types notes into his laptop as the computing now begins – about 25 to 30 ml. of each wine measured into an oversize beaker until it’s just about full.  A nascent version of the blend-to-be.

And then, the communal sampling and sharing of first impressions.  Schaffer declares the Legacy II Cuveé – in its most primal state – is “aromatically pretty.”  Horvath, too, likes the “floral influences” on the nose, and the “decent oak influence.”  Rice, after several minutes of swirling, points out that “it’s really blossoming.”

As the token fly on the wall, I’m given a taste, too, and admire the wine’s deep ruby hue, lovely aromatics, spicy edge, rich finish and integrated structure.

“Some key elements come out when wines are combined,” Schaffer tells me.  “The sum is always better than its individual parts.”

Clendenen makes the call that most components will remain unfiltered before they’re blended together to create the final wine.  “That way, you’re not stripping out aromas and flavors,” he says.

That final bottling, I’m happy to report, took place two weeks ago – about 125 cases and 20 specially earmarked magnums of a rare and historic wine, to be sure, representing the talents of a dozen of Santa Barbara’s best vintners.  The Legacy II Cuvée will make its public debut at the Bounty of the Valley fundraiser on Saturday, April 26, at 5pm at the Sunstone Villa.  Cases (12 bottles) of the wine will sell for $500.  Also, a slider competition will feature local chefs like The Ballard Inn’s Budi Kazali, Mattei’s Tavern’s Robbie Wilson and Cecco Ristorante’s David Cecchini.  And wineries including Falcone Family Vineyards, Kaena, Martian and Pence Ranch will pour.  Tickets to the event are $75.

For a more intimate and exclusive experience, Sunstone is hosting a dinner inside its famous underground cave the night before, on Friday, April 25th; priced at $1000, it’ll feature most every one of the contributing winemakers.  A select few wishing to spend that night in one of the Villa’s five suites  (and willing to spend $5000 a couple) will be treated to a private wine country excursion the next day, as well as tickets to the Bounty of the Valley event and a case of the Legacy II Cuveé.

The Legacy II Cuvee at its most nascent
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