Here is a small winery in the Santa Barbara County,
Lo-Fi, it makes its wine from purchased grapes in a cooperative-style facility housing some 8 boutique wineries under its roof on the outskirts of Buellton, on US 101 in the Santa Ynez Valley. Mike Roth and associate Craig Winchester are making wines naturally using wild yeast and little or no sulfites, with the aim to make easy-drinking wines. I found the square grey building with ease, and we skipped inside where it was enjoyingly cool and the light more bearable. Inside was Mike Roth who greated us warmly, Mike was listed in 2015 by John Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle in the 10 young winemakers to watch.
I asked Mike, who is born in New Jersey, about how he ended up making wine, he says he initially wanted to be a chef, a cook, since he was interested by food as a kid already. Family pressure (father as often) pushed him to the university but after college he went back to the restaurants, this was around 1995/96 in North Carolina and through food he discovered wine, which made him move eventually to California. Now Mike even has a vineyard of his own in Los Alamos where they opended recently a tasting room and he buys grapes from Coquelicot while also making their wine. It's more contracted acreage than grape purchase and he can dictate the farming, and anyway he controls their farming in general because he makes their wine too. Mike Roth and Craig winchester (they know each other since they were teenagers) make wine under the Lo-Fi label since 2012, before that Mike was making wine for other people.
In addition to these purchased grapes or contracted parcels he has 3 acres (a little more than one hectare) of vines (Gamay & Cabernet Franc) of his own near his house which he farms himself, it's ungrafted vines planted on a shelly loam kind of soil with gravel. His wife who is a nurse also helps now and then for the vineyard work near their house, she loves gardening. Mike says that she is indeed an outdoor cat while he is more an indoor cat, that's why they get along so well...
Asked when he began to be interested in the non-intervention winemaking, Mike says first that he worked before for Napa wineries, Grgich Hills and Saddleback Cellars for example and both Brambila and Nils there were more traditionnal winemakers in the older style of California wines, so their wines aren't really the high-alcohol and powerful stuff California has turned to be known for. for example Miljenko "Mike" Grgich had crafted the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that was given the top white-wine award in the famous blind Paris tasting of 1976. At the time the California wines weren't as manipulated as today. Grgich which has now a vineyard surface of 213 acres (86 hectares) is also biodynamic (the largest Demeter-certified winery in the US). Then he went to work for another biodynamic domaine, Demetria Estate, also located in the santa Ynez Valley (Los Olivos), these two wineries hiring biodynamic consultant Philippe Armenier, a staunch Steinerist.
Mike says wine is important also for the way it makes you feel, not just the aromatic profile and components, and it was the reason wine was made at the origin in the first place. It's a natural thing which you find in other living beings, like monkeys who are known to like fermented fruits for the feel it gives them, and we're all primates after all... I can't but agree, I've been saying for a long time that you can't judge a wine without swallowing it, and the best wines are the one that get empty fast on the table. He adds that it's possible to imbibe and drive in America, as long as you don't speed and drive carefully, signal when you turn or change lane, you'll not get pulled over. I'd add, unlike France alas, where they hunt even careful drivers to extort money from them if they find the smallest excess in a breath check (or the smallest overspeed) : you feel safe here really from the institutional highway robbers that have become law enforcement in France, here you don't see hidden squads of gendarmes waiting in ambush for drivers instead of doing the job they're supposed to do, fighting crime.
Mike excuses himself because the bottles are not chilled properly (the whites) but he adds with a laugh that it's good because this way we'll see all the flaws... At this point and after I ask, he explains what means Lo-Fi and why this name, it's a music thing, means Low Fidelity, or straight to take, no digital editing, no trickery to arrange the recording. I like the association, and by the way all the labels are like LP labels, round with a hole in the middle, this is a reference to a movement in the 1970s' and 1980s' where they would record straght to tape instead of looping things over and cutting out portions and slicing together. Craig and himself collect records and they're sensitive to this no-intervention or correction in music.
__ Lo-Fi Riesling, Santa Barbara County 2016. Made from Coquelicot organic grapes (Los Olivos). 1st time he made a Riesling, native yeast, no SO2 at the crusher, no enzymes, no added acid, no water. 120 cases (12 bottles) of it. Unfiltered wine. SO2 (at bottling) : 15 mg/liter. Lightly perly in the mouth, nice mouth feel and chew, very nice Riesling. Great energy on the palate, although like he said while uncorking the bottles, the temperature of the wine is quite high for a white. Malolactic done. The pH was low (means high acidity) but it still refermented obviously. Stayed a year in barrel. Lovely wine. 22 $ retail. THey sell most of their wines to distribution but recently opened a tasting room in Los Alamos, it's open thursday-sunday from noon. Otherwise the wines are found in restaurants, for example in Los Angeles (which not far from here south) Gjelina on Venice beach, also Republique and A.O.C. plus a bunch of others in L.A. and San Francisco.
__ Lo-Fi Chenin Blanc 2017. He makes this wine since 2013. Grapes grown in a conventionally-farmed vineyard. Bottled 2 weeks before this visit. Made 200 cases of it. Barrel fermented (8 months) after pressing and 24-hour settling of the lees. Then they leave the wine quiet, no batonnage (stirring) for 8 months. He used old, neutral French oak which he buys from Grgich Hills : They're among the few place that make non-malolactic Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and because of that they take really care of the cooper, you don't worry about them being infected with anything. The wine is very Cheniny, he says with a laugh, in terms of texture. The vineyard is old and unrooted (no rootstock) and grows on sand soil, it's almost like a beach he says, hard to walk on. There's no phylloxera in Santa Barbara County and it's pretty easy and safe to grow ungrafted vines. And they don't have a phylloxera threat here it's just too dry, they have issues with nematodes instead. They overgrafted some Chenin Blanc at Coquelicot, this way they'll have son organic Chenin Blanc to work with.
Powerful chenin with also a good energy feel, nice character. Pascaline Lepeltier, the sommelière who also manages a small winery of her own in Upstate New York State (Chepika Wine) and who loves Chenin liked the wine wanted to pour this but it's not organic. Pascaline who worked 10 years at Rouge Tomate is now associate partner at Racines NY.
__ Lo-Fi Rosé of Cabernet Franc 2016, 50 % from Coquelicot vineyard and 50 % from his own vineyard, Clos Mullet. The Mullet is a haircut originally, short in front and long in the back, like a soccer player from the 1980s', he says with a laugh.
Enjoyable wrapping feel on the palate, here again the wine temperature is relatively high but the wine fels fine nonetheless, good sign. This is the 2nd vintage he makes this wine (his own vineyard is only 5 years old), it's barrel fermented and goes through malolactic. Bottled in february.
__ Lo-Fi Gamay Noir, Santa Barbara County 2017, 70 % from Rancho Real Vineyard (clone 358) just north of Los Alamos & 30 % from his own unrooted Clos Mullet vineyard. Now Rancho Real was sold to Gallo so they can't get the grapes anymore. Gamay Noir is the legal name in the US, like for Côt, you can only use the name Malbec here. Gamay is the first grape they bring in at the harvest season. Vinified in concrete tank and aged in demi-muids. Semi-carbonic, whole clusters, no crushing, no pigeage. Stomped over once a day during about 10 days. 12 % alcohol.
Very nice nose, although Mike feels some reduction; Aromas of flowers, dry leaves, rather delicate wine. there's very little sulfur here, maybe 25 ppm total. They tried some with no sulfur before but for this vintage they did a bit. He adds that people say they like without sulfur but the bottles don't sell fast, the problem is that domestic retailers will rather sell French no-so2 wines, kind of looking for the originators of the thing.
Here are the cement egg-shaped amphora or tanks where Mike has several of his wines ferment, particularly the Chardonnay. The advantage is here the thermo mass effect thanks to which the temperature fluctuation is narrow. He puts his Chardonnay in there on its lees. I didn't ask about who is the maker but they seem to be Nomblot Dolia eggs.
__ Lo-Fi Gamay Noir Clos Mullet 2017 (his own grapes, from around his house). 50 % destemmed. His vineyard is made from massal selections of different clones coming from a bunch different vineyards he took cuttings from, stored in his garage upside down with sawdust and prepared together with his wife and Craig, keeping them at 80 F (27 C) for 2-3 weeks. Then you put the wood in the ground around april and it just roots. The 1st time they got 95 % take, which is pretty successful. Then the hard thing is grow them, as the place is very dry, they got 10 or 11 inches of rain total (30 cm) which is low and they can't really dryfarm here. He says there was a study at Cal Poly the viticulture school in San Luis Obispo saying that the minimum you needed to dryfarm was 25 inches a year. He says his friends Philip at AmByth dryfarm in their arid region but sometimes they have no grapes.
__ Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc 2016, bottled in neutral-color bottles because the color of the wine is so nice, also because the wine is a springtime wine, not thought as a long keep one. 100 % whole clusters. 10-day maceration, a bit of barrel, unfiltered.
__ Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc 2017. Feels more alive, more joyful, very happy drink, Mike says the maceration was shorter, like 8 days, allowing for more fruity notes and easyness. Otherwise weather was about the same, maybe less rain in 2016. Craig and himself liked this wine with less maceration which gives more freshness and light fruitiness. Every year they make this type of light fruity wine, choosing the shorter maceration. They want something not complicated, easy to drink for this springtime cuvée. The idea is do like Pierre Breton and Cathertine when they make their Dillettante, just an enjoyable wine that is not supposed to be earth shattering. He met Pierre Breton at Café de La Promenade in Bourgueil, he says Ludo the owner is the nicest guy ever, the owners were so nice, he helped him recontact Pierre Breton who had initially said he was busy at first, Ludo grabbed the phone and told him it was an American winemaker wanting to see him, so he could visit the facility and the following they had dinner together at La Promenade with Catherine, great dinner ! I told Mike Ludovic had sold the Bar but the new owners keep the same wines and food style.
__ Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc 2016, organic grapes from Coquelicot, whole-clusters, 12-14 day maceration, fermented in both concrete tanks and stainless-fermenters outside, then aged in 4-year-old barrel for 9 to 10 months (was bottled august 2017). 35 ppm SO2. This is a more serious type of Cabernet Franc, with more tannin and structure. Lovely balance, goes down well, a pleasure. Lovely texture, very refined silky tannin. 325 cases, was released in december 2017 or january 2018. Almost sold out, which is understandable. Certainly still young for this type of Cabernet Franc but so good already. 28 $, very reasonable.
__ Lo-Fi Malbec 2017, organic grapes from Coquelicot. Whole bunches, foot-stomped in stainless-steel tanks outside once a day during 10 days (1,5-meter-high tanks stored outside and they walk barefoot from one to the other on the top), primary fermentation, and then racked into barrels. 11,5 % alcohol, very low indeed, but very herbal and aromatic, he says it tastes more like a Côt than an Argentina Malbec (which can reach 16,5 % or more). Picked very early and no leafing, and no green harvest alike, they leave the fruit hanging. He says concetually in California the common idea is the less fruit on my vine the better the wine but to do that you have to drop fruit in a green harvest and actually it's stressful for the vine. A vine has to find a natural balance and when you have a large canopy and little fruit there's a disconnect. When people see a big canopy and more fruit they think the wine will not be concentrated, but concentration doesn't mean better.
__ Lo-Fi Pinot Noir 2016, (non-organic) grapes from Kick-On Ranch Vineyards, they say sustainable but they use herbicides. For the 2017 vintage he sourced the grapes at Spear Vineyards which is certified organic. Whole bunches here too, foot-stomped once a day. 12,5 % alcohol. Lovely nose. High acidity, herbacious type of Pinot Noir, lighter and not as extracted. There's the fruit side of the California Pinot Noir but otherwise it's more herbal than the norm around here. He made 100 cases of this, priced 32 $. Grapes are more expensive, everyone wants Pinot Noir since Sideways, never ending he says with a laugh, it helped Pinot Noir in California and Santa Barbara, but it's time to put it to bed, we have to move on...
__ Lo-Fi, Natural Sparkling rosé of Gamay 2017. This Pet-Nat is disgorged, no sediment. From his organic vineyard near his house. No added SO2. Picked, pressed right away, fermented in tank, then bottled when it was about 27 grams residual sugar. They make a pet-nat once a year, last year it was from Mourvèdre (a rosé too). Very nice sparkling, delicious, even though again the serving temperature is too high for this type of wine. It's not bone dry, there this little sweet something that adds to the whole picture, very nice. 70 cases. 35 $. Sold out. It's a lot of effort with the disgorging (need one hour for 3 cases), they have to freeze the bottleneck upside down, they loose 10 % of the wine with the expelling of the sediment. Next year they might make one from Cabernet Franc.
__ Lo-Fi Chardonnay 2017, organic (not certified) grapes from Oak Savanna and some from Spear Vineyards (certfied organic); straight from the vat. The grapes were pressed then fermented in these egg-shaped concrete amphora, plus a little bit of barrel. They racked recently the wine in this stainless-steel tank before bottling, for a 3-week period.
Still turbid, there a tickling feel on the tongue but very nice, very fruity and juicy, I'd say keep it that way, no filtering, nothing. He says it's very high acid and makes only 12 % alcohol. He'll wait the trapped CO2 goes away, it looks like it's dry, there's no residual sugar here, but he'll wait because it's hard to sell cloudy wine. 24 $ when on the market. Not expensive especially that it's a small volume made on an artisanal way.
The next day we drove to Mckittrick, a typical middle-of-nowhere spot in the Midway-Sunset Oil Field (San Joaquim Valley), there's a lone bar there among a handful of buildings at a crossroads where i like to hang out and cool down (it's hot out there) where I'm in the area. On the way to Mckittrick we stopped in this lovely if dusty old museum in Taft 18 miles south, the West Kern Oil Museum, and Pauline, the volunteer who guided us through the different situation rooms made our day, this museum is a gem, don't change anything...
Good radio station for classic Mexicana (Ranchera & Norteño oldies) if you're in the area (but here's the link for online streaming wherever you are) : El Gallito 92.1, the radio is based in Bakersfield, CA.