Vines on High: Big Bear Mountain Wine Project Has Santa Barbara Ties

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/28/14

The drive up the mountain range that towers over San Bernardino offers a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.  It’s an escape to greener ground, a flight away from urban sprawl, a climb toward far fresher territory.  And now, it’s also a threshold to serious winemaking.

Sycamore Ranch Vineyards grow at an elevation of about 4600 feet
The new Sycamore Ranch Vineyards and Winery project isn’t the only winemaking operation I’ve heard about in these mountains, located about an hour’s drive northeast (and well inland) of L.A.  A couple of grapevine projects are underway here.  But I’ve tasted the wines that vintner Richard Krumwiede is making, and this one may well be the best.

Krumwiede is no stranger to things that look good.  He’s run Architerra Design Group for the last 25 years, a successful architecture landscape firm with clients that run the gamut from city parks and water agencies to well-to-do homeowners throughout Southern California.  He lives in Crestline – the elevation here is about 4600 feet – but happily makes the regular drive to his office in Rancho Cucamonga, about 45 minutes away.  For him and his wife, Elizabeth, the fresh air and natural setting are worth it.

The Krumwiedes bought their 3-1/2-acre property in 1999; the aesthetic improvements they made soon after earned it a feature in a 2007 issue of Sunset Magazine.  Sycamore trees stand tall here.  And there are dozens of apple trees, some of which date back to the early 1900s, planted by Mormon migrants to the mountain.  But when the nasty bark beetle ate through the pine trees here several years ago, Krumwiede sought something else to plant, and this driven wine aficionado turned to grapevines.

Sycamore Ranch syrah on the vine
“I started thinking more like a landscape architect – what would look good here, and do well?” he told me during a recent visit.  I’d shown up with my father-in-law, Claude Ising over the 4th of July weekend; we were staying in Lake Arrowhead, about 1000 feet up the mountain, where he and wife Joan have designed and built a shoreside home that's become a regular holiday respite for my family.

“I figured wine grapes were a calculated gamble,” he added, as he led us on a tour of the 1-1/2 acres of ag space he’s designed in his backyard.  There’s a playground for adults here – a swings-and-slides zone he calls Snake Island, built with rocks right off the property.  And there are syrah and zinfandel vines, all clipped, trimmed and shaped in a wonderfully manicured display.

I ask him how he determined which grapes to plant, and how he learned how to care for them.  After all, summer humidity and winter mildew are regular visitors to this elevated setting.  “Winemakers can be especially generous with the information they share,” he says.  He mentions Mike Carhartt and Tom Beckmen, both accomplished grape growers from Santa Barbara County.  Krumwiede has done his homework.

Krumwiede ages his wines in oak barrels from Hungary
And he takes on most of the hands-on labor, too.  “It’s a lot of work,” this viticultarist admits.  “But it’s also a calming effect from my day job.”
Claude and I get thirsty.  We transition to Krumwiede’s home office, which he’s anxious to convert into a by-appointment tasting room one day soon.
But the barrel room, right next door, is already up and running.  About a dozen 60-gallon, medium-toast barrels from Hungary line the wall.  “French oak barrels are pricey,” he tells us, “about $1100 apiece.  American is cheaper, about $500 a barrel.  I paid $600 each for Hungarian oak barrels, and I think the tight grain imparts some really nice vanillin on the wines.”

Blending in action
Armed with a graduated pipette, Krumwiede starts doling out barrel samples.  “The 2012 vintage has been the best one up here to date,” he says as he shares sips of his estate zinfandel.  A smooth mouthfeel and a dark pepper finish prevail; the granitic soil and the forest floor here have imparted a restrained wildness onto these flavorful wines.

But I quickly realize this budding winemaker is partial to blends – a creative outlet to be sure.  He’s barrel aging several varietals from vineyards he’s visited in Paso Robles – merlot, cabernet, petit sirah and primitivo – as well as syrah, grenache and mourvedre that he’s contracted from Saarloos & Sons Vineyard in Los Olivos.

Inside a chem lab cylinder, he adds petite sirah to the zin, and the pours into our glasses: flavors of boysenberry and blueberry emerge.

To cabernet, he adds measured splashes of mourvedre, syrah and petite sirah: complexity and red currant flavors come to life.

His two-to-one blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon delivers black cherry and rich tannins.

Krumwiede nabs a bottle of Primitivo from the cellar rack
The 2013 syrah is are well-structured and distinctive, with notes of oak and even butterscotch.  But the revelation among all these wines may be the 2012 Primitivo.  Garnished with 20% petite sirah, this is a jammy wine with plenty of bramble. Big on flavor, big on texture, just big all around.  It’s not shy – 16.8% alcohol.  But the integration and layers of flavor are remarkable.

As we prepared to leave, I ask about opening up this special winemaking endeavor to the public.  With a target goal of 500 cases a year, and with the help of a consultant, the permitting process is underway, he says.  “We should be licensed and bonded to sell our wines in about six months.”

Until then, it’s a small group of about 20 of Krumwiede’s friends and investors that’s getting dibs on the Sycamore Ranch wines.  A wine club in the making, certainly.  Because this little wine project, set off a lush and curvy mountain road, just may be one of the next big Southern California wine stories.

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