Sauvignon Blanc's Santa Barbara Debut: May Marks 40th Anniversary of Brander Brand

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/21/15

The Brander Vineyard
In May of 1975 – 40 years ago this month – Fred Brander wasted little time.  The 24-year-old, who had just earned his Master’s Degree in food science from UC Davis, began putting grapevines in the ground.  And those grapes – the classic white Bordeaux grape known as sauvignon blanc – would go on to make history.

That vineyard, planted in Los Olivos on land that Brander’s parents had bought the year before, would become the very first commercial sauvignon blanc vineyard in Santa Barbara County.  Today, it’s the county’s most widely planted white wine variety, after chardonnay.  But four decades ago, Brander’s decision really was agricultural entrepreneurship – a bit of a maverick move – based on a little data and a big hunch.

Fred Brander
Small amounts of cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux’s premier red variety, had been planted nearby in 1969 and 1970, “so we already had a good indication that cabernet would do pretty well,” Brander recalls.  “The data showed the soil and the climate were right.”  In fact, some cabernet sauvignon, along with small amounts of cabernet franc and semillon, were part of the original Brander Vineyard.  But his own personal exposure to the white wines of Bordeaux inspired Brander to make sauvignon blanc his new vineyard’s biggest player. 

“I enjoyed sauv blanc more than the California chardonnays of the time, because it had more complexity,” Brander says.  “Plus, you didn’t have a lot of choice back then.  Today, you have other whites to choose from to plant, like albariño, viognier, marsanne, roussane.  It was either Burgundy or Bordeaux for me.  And with our suitable conditions, I picked sauvignon blanc.”

Brander didn’t have to wait long to see if his instinct was right.  The first harvest from those initial vines came in 1977.  The following year, at the prestigious wine competition at the L.A. County Fair, the 1977 Brander Sauvignon Blanc took home a gold medal – the first gold medal win at a major competition for any Santa Barbara County wine.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes growing on Brander Vineyard
“I still have two or three bottles of that wine, but the corks aren’t in very good shape, so there’s probably a lot of oxidation,” Brander admits.  “But every so often you’ll find an ’82, ’83 or ’84 vintage that’s still pretty drinkable.”

Fabian Bravo
Over the years, the reigning traits of Brander’s sauvignon blanc wines – they’re zesty and brilliant, refreshing and bright, with racy minerality and crisp, clean flavors – have been best savored in their youth.  With little exception, his style has never wavered – he ferments and ages his sauvignon blanc in stainless steel tanks, with zero influence from oak.

“That keeps the spotlight shining on the fruit itself,” says Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo, “and on the place they came from.”  Bravo, 37, joined the winery in 2007 and was promoted to winemaker last year, as Brander expanded his own supervisorial role to Director of Winemaking.

Today, the sauvignon blanc focus not only continues at Brander, it’s growing.  The 52-acre estate off Highway 154, which features its own winery and a hugely popular tasting room, features 44 acres of grapevines, 30 of which are sauvignon blanc.  Periodic replanting has been taking place over the last decade, and less than three of those original 1975 sauvignon blanc vines remain.

Five years ago, farming at Brander also turned totally biodynamic, so no pesticides and no fertilizers.

Of the label’s 15,000-case annual production, 13,000 cases are sauvignon blanc.  The vast majority of that – more than 10,000 cases – is Brander’s Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which blends estate grapes with fruit from a handful of other nearby vineyards.  At under $15, many will say it’s the best wine value in all of Santa Barbara County.

A handful of other yearly sauv blanc bottlings have always been Brander favorites.  His all-estate “Au Naturel” is treated with 24 hours of skin contact for added depth.  Two wines are named for Brander’s twins: the Cuvee Natalie, an homage to his late daughter, is blended with pinot gris and riesling for enhanced aromatics while the Cuvee Nicolas, a tribute to his son (a lacrosse phenom of sorts who also works at the winery and for the brand), is enhanced with semillon and made in a riper style.

Last year, Brander stretched out his lineup by adding a whopping seven vineyard-designate sauvignon blancs.  Source selection was meticulous and, aside from the well-known Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, they’re all celebrated Los Olivos neighbors, like Mesa Verde and Coquelicot.

That brings the total number of Brand sauvignon blancs for the 2014 vintage to 11.

Forty years later, Brander is modest about his pioneering role in Santa Barbara winemaking and focuses, instead, on “continuing to perfect sauvignon blanc.”  Crafting more world class cabernet sauvignon remains his other pet project.

And his decades-old hunch is finally about to get industry credit: the Los Olivos District AVA, a petition Brander authored and recognition of the area’s unique ability to grow specific grapes like sauvignon blanc and cabernet, is expected to get federal approval in a few weeks.

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The Brander Vineyard st sunset


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