Bottles in Buellton
Discovering the wine-tasting scene
By Jon Gold
Few culinary experiences combine art and science like winemaking.
The recipes are exact, the measurements correct, the timing precise and then it’s a test of hope. Hope that it all worked, that it comes out just right, and then that the taster likes it.
It’s almost too much for a winemaker to bear.
“It’s an odd place to be,” said John Wright, owner of Standing Sun Winery, one of Buellton’s many local wineries. “When you’re a chef, someone else delivers the food to the table. If you didn’t make a great meal, you can stay in the kitchen and be OK. Here, you’re standing there, and they’re taking this thing you’ve made, and they’re reacting to it on every single level. You’re criticized and judged throughout the day. Sometimes I have to step back from the tasting room, I try not to hover.”
Tucked into the serene rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley, a burgeoning culinary scene is thriving in Buellton with top-rated restaurants and bountiful wine tasting opportunities.
It didn’t always used to be this way.
Evolution of the experience
Ken Brown of Ken Brown Winery has seen the Buellton wine tasting experience evolve over the course of more than four decades. He tasted one of the region’s first Pinot Noir’s and became dedicated to the variety. He remembers when the scene was decidedly smaller.
“Some of my best memories are some of those first winery visits I had,” he says now. “When I started in the 1960s, most wineries wouldn’t have tasting rooms. You would call and ask, and they were honored if somebody called.”
No longer simply a place where wine is made, but now a place where it is celebrated and featured—most memorably in the 2004 film Sideways—Buellton is now a drinking and dining destination.
“I think of Buellton as a new culinary capital of the coast,” Brown said. “Industrial Eats is really a cool place with incredible food and some of the restaurants here are top notch. It’s pretty easy to predict where it’s going to go.”
Unlike Brown, Wright and his wife Laura, an actress on General Hospital, are relatively new to the scene. Their winery, Standing Sun, opened in 2011, four years after Wright decided to dabble with 100 cases of Syrah.
In his previous life, Wright had been an architect. Creating a finished product, building it from scratch, was nothing new to him and after making some friends in the industry, he became fascinated by the mechanics that went into winemaking—the steel, the glass, the wood, the hoses, the tanks, the fittings.
“You’re putting something together the way you want to construct it,” he says. “There’s a design element to it.”
Behind the scenes
At the Standing Sun tasting room, the machinery is on display—highlighted even—to create an immersive experience. Wright wants people to enjoy the winemaking process. Some of his customers have seen the grapes being pressed one year and then came back later to taste the finished product.
It creates a bond with not only the bottle but the bottler.
“I put together a tasting room that was what I wanted,” he said, “and what I enjoy about winemaking is the process. To see the process, to be part of the process; I want them all together. I want people to be able to see what’s going on.”
That transparency seems to be the growing trend all over Buellton.
There has been a concerted effort from the community to build the region into a place worth visiting. Considering the access to special varieties that are best grown next to the cold water of the Pacific Ocean up the central coast, Buellton is organically becoming that premier wine-tasting destination.
“I came here for the pinot, but the chardonnays and Syrahs really do well here,” Brown said. “There is no growing region cooler than the valley. It gives us all the opportunity to explore, to work with the wines, to really find the top quality. I actually think we have a natural inertia. It’s started. There’s no turning back.”
Interview with John Wright
John Wright was an architect for two decades before deciding he wanted to build something different: wine. In 2007, he and his wife Laura, an actress on General Hospital, produced 100 cases of Syrah, and a love affair was born—with grapes, with wine, with the entire process.
Their winery, Standing Sun, is a Buellton favorite, with a tasting room that features live music and tours of the winery and machinery.
Why did you decide to showcase the process with your tasting room?
JW: “The cool thing about that for me is you can go to a beautiful chateau and look at this vineyard, but the wine is made behind closed doors in a metal room. The process is not celebrated, it’s hidden. People only see the beautiful tasting room or the vineyard, but they don’t see the mess behind the doors. We decided that’s part of the deal. If you’re there, and it’s loud and it’s wet—well, we’re making wine. People love it. They come and they see what’s happening one year. And they remember when we were punching down, and then they come back the next year and they say we were pressing a certain grape. And we can say, “This is that bottle!” To me that’s one of our distinguishing factors. We’re celebrating all aspects of wine.”
You were an architect before becoming a winemaker, so you’ve always been someone who’s made things for people. Are the processes the same?
JW: “The only difference is something I realized after I got into this. As an architect you have more control. With wine, you have an idea, you have a goal—but the end result is up to a lot more than just you. You can push this thing, you can influence it, but you can’t make it what it’s not. You have to put a lot on your gut instincts. You have to trust a lot that it’s going to be OK.”
Is that difficult for you to handle, the wondering?
JW: “A lot of winemakers are worried, stressing about it. I do, too. Once, when a wine first went to bottle, I didn’t like it at all, and a year later, it ended up being amazing. It totally brought itself back around. We sold out. Gone. It was one of those things where there were things I could’ve done to it, but I have a philosophy: I’m not in this as a chemist. I’m in this as a winemaker. I’m going to let it play itself out. You have to sit back every once in a while and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ You really don’t have ultimate control.”
Once the wine is ready for the public, do you enjoy the tasting process, putting yourself—and your wine—out there?
JW: “You’re on display again, and you’re presenting yourself individually, wine by wine, to multiple people, who all have different taste buds. You can’t please everyone. Luckily, 99 percent of people love the wine. To be standing there and be the creator, to talk about it with someone—it’s a weird place.”
The critiques you may get in a tasting room—did you have to eventually learn that wine is experienced differently by everyone?
JW: “I’m more on the simple side and always have been. I know what I like in a wine, and I know if I like a wine or if I don’t. I don’t feel like the people should always feel the need to understand every part of the wine. In the end, I learned this from a 98-point winemaker: It is just a beverage. It really is. You can talk about it all day long. But the point for me is what happens with the wine. It’s the conversation, it’s the people—one couple from San Diego, one from New York City, and they’re talking and laughing and having a good time, and there’s music going and the sun is shining. All of that is what makes wine so fascinating. It’s not the notes of pepper and cherry. That’s all well and good. I’m thinking to myself, do I like this? And that’s about it.”
When you’re in the tasting room and someone starts asking about the different notes and flavors, what do you say?
JW: “That is one thing that happens in a tasting room. You get someone who wants to talk about the intricacies of wine, and they want to know my take on it. I have to cut these people off every time. Your tasting experience has nothing to do with mine. You asking me what I get out of this shouldn’t be a question. This is your tasting, not mine. I try to ask what they’re getting out of it.”
Experience the taste of Buellton for yourself.