Visit to Santa Barbara Vineyard in the Cuyama Valley

Every time I return to our Santa Barbara Vineyard, I am struck anew by how stunning it is. This happens even when I’ve been a way for only a few days. But my return last week was after an absence of seven months.

I went up with Lino Bozzano, our vineyard manager. The vineyard was more exciting to me than ever. The vines were far better than in recent years, because we had no frost damage this winter. Our extensive new planting of Pinot Noir vines is due to come fully on line within the next few years. The first set of grapes came out in 2016, the second load will be harvested this year.

As we drove along Route 166, Lino pointed out all the recent development in the still relatively undiscovered Cuyama Valley. There is, for example, an organic apple farm. We saw the lush olive groves that were planted about 6 years ago. There is also now a 327-acre solar energy farm, with its many solar panels absorbing energy from the sun. They provide much-needed electric power for the area around San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

We stopped by our closest neighbor, the Organic Santa Barbara Pistachio Company. If you haven’t tried their wonderful pistachios, I recommend them. They come in all sorts of flavors. But I’m a traditionalist — and stick to the plain salted ones.

We also visited the Blue Sky Center, a foundation established by the local Zannon family to help revitalize the area. Tourists and  resident artists stay in the hip esthetic mobile tent-style huts made from canvas-covered steel frames. You can check-in for a weekend and explore the beauty of the region, staying in an eco-friendly environment with gorgeous art. It’s so picturesque I am tempted to stay there for a few days myself.

Vineyard Manager Lino Bozzano

Lino believes, places like the Blue Sky Center and farmers willing to grow specialty crops that carry the Cuyama Valley Brand to the outside world, it is the first step in moving away from the commodification of agriculture in turn creating a more sustainable community and greater quality of life for residents.

Seeing all this new development made me eager to get to our vineyard. We’ve undertaken an ambitious expansion program and have planted 400 acres of Pinot Noir grapes since 2013. The first set of grapes came on line last year and our final crop will be harvested in 2020, because it takes 4 years before a plant becomes fully productive.

Pinot Noir Leaf

As at Laetitia, we’ve planted different clones of Pinot Noir. One is the Pinot Noir Droit that grows straight up. It does well in the soils of  the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  Its upward-growing shoots make the canopy of leaves easier to manage with our Vertical Shoot Positioning Trellis system.

Walking around with Lino, I had my annual refresher course on identifying varietals through the shape of their leaves. The Pinot Noir leaf, for example, looks like a pine-cone with few indentations and a broad leaf surface.

The Cabernet Sauvignon leaf, meanwhile, is medium sized, deeply lobed and its leaves overlap each other on the vine.

We then went up to the high mesa, 3,200 feet in elevation. There I was able to hug and kiss the Cabernet Sauvignon vines that go into my namesake Cabernet. I enjoy being appreciative, warm and fuzzy, since I believe grapes respond to praise as we all do. I’m happy to report that they’re doing well, with even growth. We’ve been fortunate that this years’ weather has been fairly even, with no real frost damage. A relief.

Cabernet Sauvignon Leaf

One major concern at both our Laetitia and Santa Barbara Highlands vineyards – and indeed for the whole region — is our Syrah vine. Its growth has definitely not been even.  Lino speculated that these vines might be suffering because a cold snap in late winter interrupted sap flow. He hasn’t seen this condition since 2001. “Nothing to do about it,” he said, “we just watch.”

I was surprised about this unusual condition, but relieved that it’s appeared everywhere, not just our vineyards.

Even with this problem, I was still elated on my way back from Santa Barbara Highlands. I am so proud of our vineyards and proud of the work we’ve done there. And it is terrific to see that others are now discovering this extraordinary area.

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