A Taste of Green

Reds and whites have gone green in Santa Barbara County, where Sustainable Vine Wine Tours offers a biodiesel-powered cruise through the region’s eco-friendly vineyards.

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By Matt Kettmann
Photo by Lars Wanberg

 

Keep abreast of the appropriate astrological alignments. Bury manure-filled cow horns on strategic corners of your property during the autumnal equinox. Spray your crops with the ashes of dead animals to ward off future infestations. Harvest your fruit only when the moon hits the right lunar phase.

 

No, these aren’t the mad machinations of a lone farming freak; they’re the basics of biodynamic agriculture, a method of sustainable farming that’s exploding in popularity worldwide, despite its seemingly wacky ways. And much like the move away from pesticides and toward organics, there’s no place biodynamics is catching on faster than in the vineyards of California.

 

Now, wine tasters in Santa Barbara County can meet the region’s maverick makers of green wine—both those working in biodynamics and certified organics—thanks to a new company called Sustainable Vine Wine Tours. “We try and demystify the process,” says owner Bryan Hope, who founded the company after hearing about the organic techniques of longtime local grape-grower and California pinot noir pioneer Richard Sanford.

 

“I started realizing that there is an interesting behind-the-scenes story,” says Hope, a casual surfer type who had been working in the green building industry, “and that winemaking in general was unknown to the average wine drinker.” The more he started researching, the more he realized the potential for a unique tour, one unlike anything else in the wine country of Santa Barbara County. Since the first trip, Hope has developed a blossoming relationship with local growers, and his company has enjoyed packed tours to the greenest purveyors of red and white in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.

 

The early accolades are well deserved: His tours—conducted, of course, in a biodiesel-powered van—offer a more intimate, informative, and fun look at winemaking, giving behind-the-scenes insight into both age-old winemaking methods and the latest green-growing techniques. “On each tour I try to go to at least one stop where you’re face to face with someone in a vineyard or in an actual winery,” explains Hope, who customizes tours by getting the low-down on who’s doing what and where each day. “So it’s more of a personal experience, not just standing three-deep at a tasting bar.” Everyday wine fans will come away with something more than just a midday buzz, and even the snobbiest wino in your group will learn something new. (Trust me, I’m that guy and I learned quite a bit.)

 

A typical tour starts around 10:30 a.m. when Hope picks you up at your hotel. Around 11 a.m., you’re cresting the San Marcos Pass on Highway 154 and dropping into the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley, where rolling hills studded with majestic oaks slide up toward Figueroa Mountain. By noon, you’re pulling into the first winery, which will be one of six that Sustainable Vine currently visits, including the syrah masters at Beckmen Vineyards; the certified organic growers at Presidio Winery; and the Provencal-themed Sunstone Winery, surrounded by one of the largest organic vineyards in Santa Barbara County.

 

But most tours start at the Demetria Estate, a biodynamic vineyard and winery hidden on winding back roads and open by appointment only. Run by the charismatic John Zahoudanis, whose Greek heritage lives in his accent and zest for life, Demetria went biodynamic in 2005 and immediately noticed a positive change in their Rhone-based varietals. (They also make pinot noir and chardonnay sourced from other vineyards.) Zahoudanis, who chats with wine-sipping visitors in their kitchen before showing them into the tank room, is an ardent believer in the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian who invented biodynamic agriculture in the 1920s by treating farms as complete, self-sufficient organisms.

 

Biodynamic praise (and Greek influence) also comes a few minutes down the road from the Santa Rita Hills appellation, where a former corporate businessman named Peter Work owns the uber-eco Ampelos Cellars (ampelos means vine in Greek). Work, who’s Danish and runs Ampelos with his American wife, Rebecca, and son, Don, gives a hands-on tour of his vineyard, where irrigation is powered by gravity, insects are given sanctuary during vineyard operations, and all grape scraps are used as compost. The jovial Work will then sit down with tour-goers under his big oak tree for a wine-soaked lunch from New Frontiers, a green-minded deli in nearby Solvang whose sandwiches are made from free-range poultry, wild caught fish, and organic veggies and served in biodegradable packages.

 

For the last stop, Hope brings his guests back to where it all started: Alma Rosa Winery, run by Richard Sanford, who was the first to plant pinot noir in the Santa Rita Hills and became an eco-warrior long before it was fashionable. Like the other winemakers, Sanford has been supportive of Sustainable Vine from the get-go. “[The winemakers] were stoked on the fact that what I wanted to do was in line with what they were doing,” says Hope, explaining that they wanted to be lighter on the land and more responsible in their agriculture.

 

But don’t just take Hope’s word for it. “I think that Bryan has done a tremendous job,” said Sanford recently, in between flights to wine dinners in Texas and Miami. “He’s done a great service by bringing awareness to alternative ways of being in agriculture sustainably and responsibly. And it’s very cool. It’s something we should all become aware of.”

 

SUSTAINABLE VINE WINE TOURS

Group tours: Includes door-to-door service, complimentary wine tastings from each winemaker visited, and gourmet picnic lunch. For more details and information about private tours, visit SustainableVine.com or call 805.698.3911.

 

WHERE TO STAY

WINE VALLEY INN  Having recently undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation, the Wine Valley Inn offers contemporary style in the Old World setting of Solvang, nestled in the heart of Santa Barbara County wine country. 805.688.2111, WineValleyInn.com.

 

SPANISH GARDEN INN  Considered Santa Barbara’s finest luxury boutique hotel, the Inn is walking distance from all the wine tasting, restaurants, theaters, and museums of downtown. 866.564.4700, SpanishGardenInn.com.

 

INN AT EAST BEACH Celebrated for its warmth and character, The Inn at East Beach offers the best seaside value on the American Riviera. Just steps from the sand and a short taxi ride from downtown, this mid-century gem represents the best of all worlds. 805.965.0546, InnAtEastBeach.com.