On All Cylinders: Former Race Car Pro Fuels Up On Passion for Santa Barbara Wine

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/20/14
photos by Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com

“We’re not winemakers.  We’re you.  We’re consumers.”
For Jamie Slone, that distinction – that he and his wife are entering the wine arena as avid wine drinkers, first and foremost – may well be the biggest driving force behind Jamie Slone Wines.
“We’re coming at this totally from the consumer’s standpoint,” he says, as his wife, Kym, adds, “And we’re putting out wines that we, ourselves, would want to drink.”
The husband-and-wife team of 25 years moved to Santa Barbara recently, and they opened the doors to the Jamie Slone tasting room inside downtown Santa Barbara’s El Paseo just two months ago.  They got here by way of Tucson, via Sonoma, with plenty of turns in between, quite literally.
Until a few years ago, Jamie Slone was a professional race car driver.  It was, on the one hand, “the worst drug I ever had,” he says, admitting of the flashy vocation, “You get pretty full of yourself.”  But it was also a five-year career wrought with thrills, lots of buzz and plenty of trophy wins.  Home based at the Sonoma Raceway, it was a successful stint and the ideal adrenaline rush, actually, for a man who admits that, no matter what he does, “it’s all about the experience for me.”
Before revving engines, Slone was running radio stations out of his hometown of Tucson, where he grew a multi-million dollar family business from two stations to five, before selling them off at a handsome profit in the early 2000s.
Jamie Slone pours at a late summer Wine Collection of El Paseo event
But three years ago, when the Slones’ twin daughters left for college, the couple sought a new high-stakes chapter, and a new adventure to enjoy together.  They had shared a burgeoning love for wine since the late 90s, following an immersive trip to vineyards in France and Italy and myriad business trips to Northern California.  “What became my passion was sharing wine with others,” Slone tells me as we sit inside his elegant tasting room, where attention to Santa Barbara-inspired detail – from original stenciling to handmade furniture, and even a wood-burning fireplace – has created an elegant and intimate space.  “I loved seeing the reaction people had to good wine."
The Jamie Slone Wines tasting room features handmade furniture and a fireplace
They explored the burgeoning wine scene at home, in Arizona.  Then they focused on Napa.  But it was well-known consultant Cary Gott (his son, Joel Gott, drives a very popular wine label based in Saint Helena), who suggested Santa Barbara.  “Napa’s crowded, he told us,” remembers Slone.  “Don’t you want to go to where you’d be able to access such a wide array of great vineyards?”
What followed was a hands-on crusade to find really good fruit. They spanned Santa Barbara County, from the cooler Sta. Rita Hills AVA in the west to the comparatively hotter Happy Canyon AVA in the east.  They hired right: celebrated vintner and restaurateur Doug Margerum makes their wines.  And, along the way, they forged important relationships with grape growers and vineyard managers. 
“They appreciated that we were doing everything ourselves, and that we were small,” Mrs. Slone tells me.  “So small, so new, that we had no attitude.  We had no reason to have any ego!”
Her husband adds, “Building those relationships – it was a challenging and humbling process.”
What’s resulted is a portfolio of wines that aims to encapsulate Santa Barbara County.  The inaugural lineup – just 440 cases – includes a 2012 pinot noir ($49) made with Sta. Rita Hills grapes and a 2013 chardonnay ($47, dubbed Aloysius, after Mrs. Slone’s late father) from Santa Maria Valley grapes.  The 2013 sauvignon blanc ($28) was aged 50-50 in neutral French oak and stainless steel barrels.  And the 2011 BoRific ($48, that’s Jamie’s nickname for Kym) features Happy Canyon fruit and is merlot-based, with cabernet franc added to enhance aromatics.
The 2014 vintage is allowing the Slones to bump up production to about 1300 cases; a cabernet sauvignon and a Super Tuscan wine are also slated for release early next year.
Their tasting room, located across the street from De La Guerra Plaza, is also pushing them to promote El Paseo, the historic and distinctive enclave off the busy 800 block of State Street, as a premium wine destination.  The Mission-style and Spanish-colonial architecture, the Moorish overtones and the cobblestone pathways scream “classic Santa Barbara vibe,” says Slone.  Dubbed Wine Collection of El Paseo, six tasting rooms –Jamie Slone, as well as Margerum, MWC 32 (Margerum’s reserve room), Happy Canyon Vineyards, Au Bon Climat and Grassini – call this zone home now.  And, though officially linked to the Urban Wine Trail, with most members part of the electric Funk Zone, this is a polished destination all its own.
Jamie Slone Wines runs a three-tiered wine club, and the tasting room is open seven days a week, starting at noon.  Check out the Jamie Slone Wines website.

And in This Corner… Larner and Sigouin Prep for Grenache Smackdown!

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com

Turns out, Michael Larner and Mikael Sigouin have been keeping up appearances for years.

But this Saturday, all gloves are off, as the two go head to head in the ultimate winemaker showdown.

One grape.  Two styles.  And all gloves, off.

Kaena's Mikael Sigouin
“I’m the Grenache king,” Sigouin boasts.  And he’s serious about that.  On social media, in fact, that’s his calling card: #grenacheking.

And he backs it up with facts.

“I’ve been making a lot of Grenache for a long time,” he says.  He reminds me of his many years as head winemaker at Beckmen, where he helped put that label’s Grenache endeavors on the map.  And he tells me of his current, full-time efforts on his own Kaena label; he’s up to 2000 cases this year – Grenache noir, Grenache blanc and Grenache rosé. “I went big.  Because I want to dominate the Grenache market locally.  I’m like any passionate pinot maker, except I don’t take myself that seriously."

To hear Sigouin talk about his love for Grenache is to hear him talk about, well, love.

“I often think of Grenache the way I think of my wife.  Temperamental, sometimes difficult.  But voluptuous and sensual in every which way.  You treat it right, it’s the ultimate reward in the end.  And it’s a rollercoaster of a ride.”

Sigouin sources Grenache from multiple vineyards every year, but some of his best comes from Michael Larner’s vineyard, nestled in Santa Barbara County’s newest AVA, Ballard Canyon.  He’s been tapping this celebrated fruit since 2004.  “So I’ve been making Grenache way longer than Larner,” he adds, as the tough talk crescendos.

And it’s true: Michael Larner has only been using fruit from his family’s estate to make Grenache since 2009.  But for much longer he’s been selling the property’s six acres’ worth of Grenache to high-profile wine clients; his customers number 10 these days.

Larner Vineyard's Michael Larner
“So don’t forget it – I’m the source,” Larner boasts, in true challenger style.

And he tells me not to let his foe’s tales of a decade’s worth of Grenache-making experience fool me.

“He’s been making wine longer, true.  But I see winemaking as starting in the vineyard: 80% of wine is made in the vineyard. So it’s up to us to make sure everyone else starts with a good product.  We figured out Grenache really early on in our farming careers – before 2004 – and we’ve dialed it in and perfected it ever since as best we can.”

Larner makes 75 to 100 cases of premium 100% estate Grenache every year.  And what makes him champion, he says, is his classier style.

“I go for more refined, more elegant, a velvety style,” he tells me.  “I’m trying to find balance, and balance is achieved when you don’t pick fruit super ripe, when it still has natural acidity, so that it shows fruit characteristics as well as darker fruits, and some of those bramble qualities.  I want it to be expressive, not to hit you over the head.  Like Mike, who picks late, has higher alcohols, goes bigger, and has more forward fruit expression.”

Trash talking?  Sure.

But what is clear in my conversations with both Sigouin and Larner is that Grenache is special, malleable, capable of manifestation in myriad ways.  And, regardless of the style that two friends decide to showcase in the bottle, it’s always approachable, and always delicious.

Is bigger, better?  Or should finesse reign supreme?  You decide.

The ultimate “Grenache Face Off” takes place this Saturday, November 15th, from 4-7pm at the Buellton Bodegas, 65 Los Padres Way in Buellton.  Tickets are $50, with food by Bello Forno Catering and live music by Luke Sundquist & Friends.  And the two Grenache gladiators – Mikael and Michael – pouring their 2009, 2010 and 2011 Grenache wines, made exclusively from Larner Vineyard fruit, side by side.

Larner Vineyard in Santa Barbara Co.'s Ballard Canyon AVA
Whose Grenache will take home the title?  If you ask me, the only losers are the no-shows.  Team Kaena, RSVP to Chloe@kaenawine.com.  Team Larner, RSVP to Emily@larnerwine.com.

Need more proof that this is a serious smackdown?  Both winemakers have called each other out via 45-second YouTube messages.  View Larner's trash-talking by clicking here and Sigouin’s rebuttal by clicking here.

The gloves are also off on social media: #MikaelVSMichael.


By Marines, For Marines: Firestones Release New “Jarhead” Wines Amidst Son’s Return from Deployment

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

The Firestone family is celebrating a homecoming: 1st Lt. Nick Firestone has just returned from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.  The 26-year-old Marine arrived home in the Santa Ynez Valley on November 8th.  This was the second deployment for the young member of the well-known Santa Barbara County family, who ended his first tour, in the South Pacific, early last year.

1st Lt. Nick Firestone returns home from Afghanistan
“For me, it’s half excitement and anticipation, and the other side is parental nerves,” his dad, Adam Firestone, told me last year, right before his (and wife Kate's) son left for the Middle East.  “But I understand the tradition.”

And he should.  Adam Firestone is, himself, a former Marine, having joined in 1984.  He was promoted to Captain in 1988, ahead of his deployment to the Persian Gulf, and ended his service in 1991.  Mr. Firestone, 52, son of Kate and former 35th District State Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, has since gone on to spearhead the family’s business ventures in wine grape growing and craft beer making.

The Firestones' connection to the U.S. Marines has, in fact, inspired one of their ongoing winemaking ventures: the Jarhead label.  Adam Firestone admits that “jarhead” is a double-edged term.  “It’s a complicated name, because it’s pejorative on the one hand,” he says.  But because it’s also used as a friendly nickname among U.S. Marines, “it’s also a term of endearment.”

Jarhead is now on its 13th vintage, with two wines released just this fall.  The 2011 Jarhead Red ($15) is a Bordeaux-inspired blend of merlot from Paso Robles and petit verdot from Santa Ynez.  The 2011 Jarhead Reserve ($24) is a limited-edition wine composed primarily of cabernet franc from the Firestone family's Curtis Estate vineyard in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, along with some petit verdot; only 326 cases were produced.

The Jarhead wines are fruit-driven and approachable by design – “We want them to shoot right through the middle of the target,” Firestone told me – and, at their price points, remain some of the best wine values out of the Central Coast.

Proceeds benefit the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides education assistance to children of Marines, with special emphasis on families of fallen Marines.  “In the charity world, there are a lot of transitory causes,” says Firestone.  “But I wanted to back something that, at its core, was really pure and where the whole thing was completely authentic.  I had really studied these guys – they started in 1962, they’re really lean and all dollars go to the target.  And the fact it’s education-based – that funding is for a specific purpose – it sets a continuum.”

Firestone runs Jarhead with fellow former Marine Ruben Dominguez, a Texas native who served five years and who started his wine industry career at Firestone Vineyard in the mid-90s; today, he’s the lead foreman for grape maintenance experts, Coastal Vineyard Care.  The wines sell through a membership club (which ships out twice a year, around Veteran’s Day and around Memorial Day) and online, at jarheadred.com.


Winemaker's Milestone: Jaffurs Wine Cellars Celebrates 20 Years

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/6/14

When Craig Jaffurs pressed off the final grapes of the 2014 harvest this week, it marked a special milestone: 20 years of making wine (really good wine, actually) in Santa Barbara County.
Craig Jaffurs at the winery
Today, industry insiders and consumers alike will agree that Jaffurs is one of the premier producers of Rhone wines –syrah, especially – in Santa Barbara County.  But his road here was far from conventional.
It’s true that one of his first jobs, in the late 1970s, was in the tasting room, at Santa Barbara Winery.  “A fun, really cool gig,” he recalls, but one that only lasted a few months.  Jaffurs would go on, actually, to crunch numbers for the U.S. government, at Goleta-based Tecolote Research, where “we did cost analysis for several branches of the Department of Defense.”  It was a very successful career.
But, sometimes, Bacchus has a way of bringing some of his star acolytes back into the fold.
More than a decade later, through mutual friends, Jaffurs befriended Bruce McGuire who, coincidentally, had since become head winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery.  During backpacking treks into the High Sierras, the conversation naturally turned to wine.  He also helped McGuire with harvest a few years in a row, just for fun.  And then, one fateful vintage, he asked to take a few grapes home, just to dabble.

Jaffurs, right, with friend and Jaffurs Cellars GM Dave Yates: their first harvest, 1994
For four years, Jaffurs was high-stakes analyst by day and burgeoning winemaker by night.  The stuff he was making, though, was getting high marks.  And industry insiders, like wine distributor and fellow home winemaker (of Companeros fame) Antonio Gardella, were encouraging him to make the leap.
In 1994, Jaffurs got bonded and made 400 cases of wine – syrah, mostly, and a little chardonnay – at co-op winery Central Coast Wine Services, in Santa Maria.  “I was in my mid-30s and my wife had just given birth to our son.  What better time to totally change your life?” he jokes.
If one were to break down Jaffurs’ formula for success ever since, it might go something like this:
For one, it's been his focus on syrah.  “Being a cost analyst, I had to analyze this whole project to death and come up with a plan, of course,” he told me.  “I looked around and saw great winemakers making a lot of great pinot noir and chardonnay.  But there was virtually no syrah.  It was different, a really cool thing, an up and coming grape.”  It was a calculated move that paid off.  Today, syrah accounts for most of the 5000 cases Jaffurs produces each year, along with other Rhone varieties like grenache, viognier, roussanne and a mourvedre-based blend called High Tide (a nod to his passion for surfing spots like Rincon and Gaviota).
Like other wine folks, Jaffurs admits that syrah has yet to become a breakout star in the marketplace.  “Syrah is a chameleon.  It makes good wine in a variety of different ways.  But I don’t think people know what syrah is supposed to taste like and maybe that hurts peoples’ understanding of it,” he says.  “But they like ours!”
Indeed, through wide domestic distribution and brisk sales through the tasting room and wine club, Jaffurs’ wines sell out regularly.

Thompson Vineyard
The second element to Jaffurs’ success has been his focus on fruit.  He made the call early on not to own his own vineyard, so sourcing grapes from quality vineyards has always been a priority.  “You can’t make great syrah unless you have great grapes,” he insists.  “A great vineyard that’s farmed well – that determines everything.”  This year, he’s making four vineyard-designate syrahs: Thompson, Bien Nacido, Larner and Kimsey.  The vintage’s best six barrels will go into his premium Upslope Syrah while a larger-scale blend will become his more affordable Santa Barbara County syrah.
Bien Nacido Vineyard
Grapes aside, success has also hinged on Jaffurs’ own winemaking techniques – what he calls “an insurance policy that helps you reach that high bar.”  He admits to being “very fastidious” and to having “high standards in the winery.”  Sanitation and hygiene reign supreme.  And then, it’s all about “minimally handling grapes” – no crushing and nominal pumping.  “We just coddle them along,” he says, “because that preserves the freshness of the wine and makes it last a long time.”
The Jaffurs Wine Cellars brand is no one-man-band, of course.  Longtime friend Dave Yates, who also left Tecolote 20 years ago to help launch the label, manages the business and spearheads marketing.  And Matt Brady, a talent-to-watch who joined Jaffurs right after he graduated from UCSB in 2005, holds the title of co-winemaker.  The team works out of a working winery on E. Montecito Street in Santa Barbara; opened in 2001, it was one of the very first stops in the now-buzzing Urban Wine Trail.  “The real deal,” Jaffurs calls it, where “we like meeting people, talking to them and showing them how we make our wine.”
And what about the next 20 years?  “I’m struggling with that now,” admits Jaffurs, now 58.  His son, Patterson, just left for college and he and his wife of 31 years, Lee, are contending with that rather ubiquitous empty nest syndrome.  “Continue making better wine, that’s one thing,” he says.  But while the temptation to open another tasting room does exist, there’s one thing that this winemaker has learned after two decades in the business: “Being bigger is not necessarily the answer to everything."
Find out more at jaffurswine.com.
A few other anniversaries of note this year: Bryan Babcock, maker of some of the best estate pinot noir in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, hosted a party last month to celebrate 30 years in the biz.  Ryan Carr, with tasting rooms in both Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, celebrates 15 years of making wine this year.  And Blair and Sarah Fox launched their second label, a joint project dubbed Fox Wine Co., one year ago this month; they’re throwing an anniversary bash at their Funk Zone tasting room on November 28th.