From Barren to Beautiful: Kimsey Quality is Product of Special Vineyard

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/2/16

The Kimsey label is putting out some of the most intriguing and delicious wines out of Santa Barbara right now, and that’s not by coincidence.

“What drew me to this industry was the challenge of producing truly quality wine,” vintner Bill Kimsey tells me.  “It’s extraordinarily challenging, since there are so many good wines out there.  But we set out to do everything right to produce a quality product.”

Bill and Nancy Kimsey (and me) at the April release
event for the 2013 Kimsey Wines in Santa Barbara
Kimsey and his wife, Nancy, had long entertained the vintner idea.  When the L.A. couple was living in London in the early 2000s – he was global CEO for Ernst & Young as part of a 32-year career with the accounting firm – they almost bought a vineyard estate in Italy.  When retirement brought them back to Southern California in 2003, they considered buying vineyard property in Australia.  “But all these projects felt too far away, and that would have taken the fun out of it,” he says.

The Kimseys turned to property development when they moved to Santa Barbara a little over a decade ago, and they’re responsible for some of the prettiest buildings that line Summerland’s Lillie Avenue today.  But it was a barren lot in Ballard Canyon – “45 acres that were basically weeds,” Kimsey recalls – that struck a special chord.  They won it at auction, and the gamble that followed has really paid off.

Kimsey Estate was step one in that pledge to quality.  The sweeping vineyard, located in a private gated community and flanked by a barn and a lake, is planted to 22 acres of Rhone wine grapes – syrah, mainly, along with grenache, roussanne and viognier.  All the grapes from the property’s first vintage, 2011, were sold to outside producers.  The Kimsey label released its own proprietary wines in 2012, and the 2013s – a White blend, a Grenache and a Syrah, all priced $60 – hit the marketplace just a few weeks ago.

Matt Dees pouring me some more of the '13 Kimsey Syrah
The second critical element in this project has been the Kimsey team, including young winemaking whiz Matt Dees.  Dees, with previous stints in Napa and New Zealand, came on board in 2012, drawn by the Kimseys’ vision, he says, and by their vineyard’s promise.  “I wanted to find a property with potential that was through the roof,” he says, “and this little property is so unique.”

He continues: “Kimsey juts out where Ballard Canyon is just beginning and it acts, in an abstract way, almost as the far eastern side of Sta. Rita Hills.  You get the warmth you need, but it’s also a cool place at certain times, when the ocean winds come in.  It’s where both worlds meet – so distinctive.”

Dees’ partner is vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano, well known in Santa Barbara viticulture circles, who has “an eloquent touch in the vineyard,” according to Dees.  The friends’ symbiotic approach, which has evolved over myriad local projects in the last 12 years, may best be seen in Block 7, where seven different clones of syrah grow side by side and, during harvest, are picked simultaneously. 

“This block offers something beyond consistent purity,” says Dees, 37.  “It’s a mélange of flavors, acidity, texture, tannin – a mix of all the components that make syrah special.  When we pick, one clone may be very ripe and black and dense, whereas another clone may be more herbal, more pure meat, more spice-driven.  When you pick all those together, you get incredible complexity.”

What’s more, “Ruben and I don’t pick on numbers, but on a feel,” continues Dees.  “It’s a lot of blind luck and intuition, based on understanding the vineyard and on having faith in the wine we make.”

Kimsey Vineyard is in the Ballard Canyon AVA and planted to 22-1/2 acres of Rhone grapes
Kimsey Vineyard is on a 45-acre estate that also features a barn and a lake
At the April release of the 2013 Kimsey wines, Dees was joined by fellow Santa Barbara Co. winemakers
Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz, left, and Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton
Faith comes a bit easier, of course, when wines taste this good.  When I joined Dees and the Kimseys at the recent launch event for the 2013 wines, I was impressed by their complexity and concentration.  The Kimsey White, a roussanne-viognier blend, is creamy and vibrant at once, with lovely citrus and white stone fruit flavors.  The Kimsey Grenache is layered and juicy, with tastes of dried fruits and a plush mouth feel. 

The Kimsey syrah is dense and delicious.  Dees’ descriptors, as he pours: “Dark, brooding, velvet, which then moves to meatiness and black pepper, making this wines both charming and fascinating.”  One of the best Santa Barbara syrahs I’ve had.

Kimsey produces only about 400 cases a year, most of which -- about 250 cases -- is syrah.  The vineyard has an annual output potential of close to 3000 cases, so the majority of the fruit is still being bought up by other boutique projects throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.  “As we continue to build our brand on quality, our idea is to gradually reduce grape sales and increase tonnage for our own estate wines,” says Mr. Kimsey.

And innovation in the vineyard continues: Dees and Solorzano are grafting some of the viognier over to grenache blanc, a grape that the duo believes has a bright future in Ballard Canyon.  “This area carries acid really well,” Dees says, “and that’ll make for grenache blanc wines that stay freakingly fresh.”

For more on Kimsey, click here.


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