photos by Mo McFadden & Fred Brander
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/29/18
“It’s a pretty crazy idea,” admits winemaker Fred Brander, “but it’s a neat idea.”
For obvious reasons, there’s little more that the Montecito community likely wants to do with mud than to discard it. Dump it somewhere far away.
Mud, along with boulders and debris, thundered with deadly force through the luxe enclave on January 9th, and as cleanup and recovery continue, much of it remains.
|Fred Brander at his Montecito property, post-mudslide|
Mr. Brander and his son, Nick, were among those affected that morning, when they became trapped in their house just off Mountain Drive and along Oak Creek. “A culvert at the bottom of the road got plugged up with mud, and that made water and debris go over the road and into our backyard,” he recalls. Crews from Montecito Fire would rescue them soon after.
There’s an emotional connection to this property, since it’s a house his parents built in 1983, where they resided until they both passed away in recent years, and where Mr. Brander has been living ever since. “I have roots to this property,” he says.
There are also roots to Fred Brander’s namesake vineyard in Los Olivos, which is home to the first sauvignon blanc grapes ever planted in Santa Barbara County. His parents, Erik and Virginia, bought that land in 1974. The Brander Vineyard, established there in 1977, remains one of the most awarded wine labels in California today.
And in the vineyard, that mud suddenly offered opportunity.
“The disaster of the fires and the food was a really unusual event,” Mr. Brander says, referring to the Thomas Fire that roared through Santa Barbara in December – the largest in California history – and the Montecito mudslides that followed it so quickly.
“All that debris was unusually high in wood ash.”
|Crews remove mud and rock from Brander's Montecito property|
Mr. Brander set himself to study the potential benefits of ash in soil. It’s no secret, he says, that previous generations regularly used ash to fertilize their vegetable gardens. “Those veggies got nutrition because wood is high in potassium and other nutrients and minerals.”
He also learned that alkaline soils, like the ones that coat the mountains that embrace Montecito, could benefit acidic soils, like the ones across the Santa Ynez Valley. “It can increase the pH of the soil to beneficial levels, and that’s a plus,” he says.
So when construction companies came to clear the culvert by his house, Mr. Brander intervened. “’Where are you taking all the mud and rock?’ I asked them. When they said, ‘Los Alamos,’ I told them I had a place that was a lot closer.”
No less than 60 truckloads made their way to The Brander Vineyard. More than 900 tons in all. Most of it is rock, actually, which Mr. Brander has earmarked for decorative landscaping across his 52-acre property. But that mud – that mud's become fertilizer.
After drying out and going through a sorter and being cleared for toxicity, Montecito mud has been spread across three acres of cabernet sauvignon vines. “That was the most labor-intensive part, hand-fertilizing each plant,” he says. Another two acres of cabernet in the same block are being used as a control, and when harvest comes around this fall, Mr. Brander will be able to quantify the effects of his unique peat.
|A sorter separates ash-rich mud from rock|
|Ash-rich mud is used to fertilize cabernet vines at The Brander Vineyard|
“When we pick, we’ll test pH and acid and sugar to see if there’s a difference,” says the winemaker. “But we should be able to track progress during the growing season, within weeks even, if the leaves start to look healthier, greener.”
Mr. Brander believes that this may be the first time wood ash has ever been used as vineyard fertilizer, at least to this extent. The grapevines they’re nourishing were planted 10 years ago and generate fruit for Brander’s award-winning reserve cabernet program. “So we’ll make a good quality wine either way,” he says.
|Mr. Brander is keeping a close eye on his vines|
And when that wine is made and released sometime in late 2019, it’ll become a tribute to victims of the Montecito mudslides. The commemorative wine, with proceeds tagged for relief efforts, will even feature a label specially designed by “a top artist from Oaxaca” that Mr. Brander commissioned just last week.
“We all want to do something good to bring awareness and to help the community heal,” adds Fred Brander. “So it’s important to see that something good can come out of a bad situation. Even here, there can be a silver lining."