40th Pick: Santa Barbara Wine Industry Celebrates Brander

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/6/16
updated November 2, 2016

Fred Brander greets guests during his 40th anniversary fete
“Some people call this place Branderland,” vintner Fred Brander tells the large crowd gathered before him, with a big smile. “And I like that.  It denotes a sense of place.  It implies that what you’re drinking has provenance and an origin.  And that’s what makes wine special.”
Brander Vineyard is certainly a landmark in Santa Barbara wine country.  In a youthful viticultural area dating back just to the early 1970s, this vineyard was one of the first.  And, 40 years after its first grape harvest, it remains one of the best.
Brander's Dia de los Muertos-inspired altar
The throng that that came to the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley estate a few Sundays ago to raise a glass and mark a milestone certainly knows that.  It was an impressive mix of winemakers, restaurateurs and culinary influencers – people who call Brander both colleague and friend.  They noshed on food by some of the area’s best chefs – Michael Hutchings doled out a cassoulet with homemade sausage while David Cecchini pulled dozens of handmade pizzas from the wood burning clay oven.  Plenty of Brander wines to go around, too, including the very first taste of the 2016 vintage – a cloudy, still-fermenting barrel sample of a sauvignon blanc-riesling blend.  A selection of top sauvignon blanc wines from around the world was poured inside the winery.  Pictures of past vineyard events – including the famous Bouillabaisse Festivals hosted here between 1989 and 2012 – hung on the walls of Brander’s private art gallery. And in a candlelit corner of the barrel room, on an altar inspired by the upcoming Latin American Dia de los Muertos holiday, black-and-white photographs honoring men and women now deceased who helped shape Brander’s career:  his parents, winemakers Andre Tchelistcheff and Chris Whitcraft, wine merchant Frank Crandall, chef Julia Child and wine critic Robert Lawrence Balzer, among others.
Dozens of international sauvignon blanc wines were poured
“This place has always been a family business,” Brander told his guests of his eponymous vineyard; his 25-year old son Nik, who helps manage the winery, was standing nearby.  The property was an investment by his parents – Swedes by way of Argentina – that allowed the UC Davis graduate to plant vines in 1975 and harvest his first grapes in 1977. 

Forty vintages later, some key things at Brander Vineyard have not changed: the focus on sauvignon blanc, mainly, the Bordeaux white grape that gained Brander recognition from the get-go.  In 1977, “we barrel fermented that first sauvignon blanc,” Brander told me recently.  “There wasn’t a lot of barrel fermentation going on back then, so it was a novel thing.  It captured a lot of attention, and a gold medal at the L.A. County Fair, and that was instrumental in my focusing on that variety.”
Several of those original sauv blanc vines remain on Brander Vineyard, and the grape accounts for 75% of its annual production today.
Hundreds came out to celebrate Brander Vineyard's 40th vintage
But sauvignon blanc is also part of what’s new and different here.  What was a single bottling in the beginning now sees up to 11 different renditions each vintage. “So we’re maintaining but perfecting what we do with this grape,” says Brander.  He’s also growing several different sauvignon blanc clones these days, versus just one back then.  “There’s so much diversity of plant material now, different clones and rootstock, that it gives us endless possibilities of expression of sauvignon blanc,” he tells me.  And the vineyard is farmed biodynamically now, with special attention to canopy management.
Brander’s won acclaim for other Bordeaux grapes, too, of course – merlot, cabernet franc and a collector’s worthy reserve cabernet sauvignon program.  And as he turns the page on another decade, he’s not settling.  Just a few weeks ago, his team, led by winemaker Fabian Bravo, harvested first estate petit manseng, a rare grape native to southwestern France that makes “a somewhat sweet but super high-acid” wine.”  It’ll be released in late 2017.
Brander’s 40th anniversary vintage is made further special by this year’s birth of the Los Olivos District AVA, recognition by the feds that the 23,000-acre area, which includes Brander Vineyard, is uniquely suited to grow world-class grapes.  It was the culmination of 10 years of research and petitions by Brander.  “It’s one more way of defining yourself,” the vintner told the revelers who’d come to celebrate him.  And, returning to the theme of provenance and origin, he adds, “It helps mark the discovery of who you are, and of how you hope to translate that into your wine."
Brander Vineyards & Winery, 2401 N. Refugio Rd., Santa Ynez. 805-688-2455. brander.com.

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