Santa Barbara County region
At 3200’ — Barnwood’s high elevation vineyards in Santa Barbara County are above the rest.
This month’s Gold Series wine club selection, Barnwood Vineyards, began its existence as somewhat of a lark during the early 1980’s. A local gentleman named Larry Hogan, described by some as a ‘renaissance cowboy farmer,’ decided to plant vineyards in an extremely isolated area of the Eastern Sierra Madre Mountains chain. To make things more interesting, Hogan decided to locate his vines at the resolute altitude of nearly 3200 feet, easily among the highest growing elevations within California. He chose a site high atop some ground in the Southern Santa Barbara Mountains, in a specific area known as the Cuyama Valley, named for the dormant river of the same name that runs through the middle of the property.
Hogan felt the natural aspects of the location and the separation from the sharp coastal temperatures would provide an incredibly diverse environment in which the grapes would truly prosper. He set about growing his grapes and used a wide variety of local winery facilities to produce the first Barnwood Vineyard releases. The name for the wine was derived from the original house built on the property that was made of seed lot wood, more commonly called old barn wood.
Details of the initial production figures for Barnwood Vineyards are sketchy at best, and nearly two decades later, the grape growing-oriented entity changed hands. The new owner was a remarkable European businessman named Selim Zilkha, who had grown up in a normal English environment that had always been influenced by his family’s strong appreciation for wine as an everyday accompaniment with meals. When it came time for university, Zilkha left England and eventually received his degree from Williams College in Massachusetts.
After finishing college, Zilkha returned to England where his family was involved in a number of ventures including the venerable banking business. From the outset, Zilkha was extremely successful in several business ventures, but eventually he grew tired banking business. Seeking new horizons to conquer, he made a decision and moved his family back to the United States where he began a number of small ventures within the oil industry.
In 1998, after a particularly effective oil transaction had closed to his advantage, Zilkha decided to become involved in the wine industry and purchased Barnwood along with a close friend and associate. A French company was brought in as a consultant and soon declared the high altitude location a natural setting for both Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, both favorites of Zilkha and his family. A highly ambitious planting program was immediately begun between 1998-2001 that resulted in today’s whopping total of over 700 acres under vine. During this time, a lose relationship evolved with nearby Laetitia Winery who assisted in making the more recent releases of Barnwood.
A year of so later, Selim Zilkha bought out his partner in Barnwood and then acquired the well-established and incredibly affluent Laetitia Vineyards & Winery as well. Along with the purchase of Laetitia came a third entity, Avila Winery, a smallish entity that had been established to showcase fruit from the company’s prestigious Arroyo Grande vineyards. Today, Barnwood has leveled at around 15,000 cases, but has hopes for greatly expanded growth in the not-too-distant future.
“We would be delighted to see ourselves at the 80,000 case level within the next 3 to 4 years,” envisioned Nadia Wellisz, Barnwood’s Executive Vice President and owner. “To accomplish that goal we have done a bit of revamping with the brand.” The overhaul involves a major change in labels that Wellisz feels provides Barnwood with its own identity and a chance to present the brand in a positive aspect to the buying public. The label features a cowboy emblazoned across an old map of the region from which Barnwood Vineyards originates. The large supply of very high quality grapes available makes all of Barnwood’s wines estate grown but does not allow the estate bottled verbiage on the label due to the fact that the wines are actually made at nearby Laetitia Winery.
The task of achieving such lofty goals is not a certainty for Barnwood Vineyards, but the ingredients for ultimate success are most certainly there. Quality fruit from a truly exotic locale and consistent praise from wine writers and consumers alike made the future road for Barnwood a bit less bumpy. After all, who would have thought more than two decades ago that anything would ever come of planting vines at the 3200-foot level?
Nadia Wellisz - Winery Owner's Daughter
When she was growing up in London, Nadia Wellisz had no inclination she would one day be involved in the ownership and management of a high-caliber Santa Barbara County winery. In fact, Wellisz, now 50, considers her early involvement with wine as nothing more than commonplace in London.
‘As in most British families,” she retorted with a delightful English accent, ‘we were given small amounts of wine with our meals whenever we asked. It was just another beverage to us and we soon came to expect it.” After graduating from London’s University College with a degree in English Literature, Nadia eventually migrated to the United States in 1980 and moved to New York where she worked for Merrill Lynch as an account executive in its international department. She eventually met and married Tadzio Wellisz and had two children, Daniela now 20, and Julian, at present 18. Sometime in 1986, Nadia and her family moved to Los Angeles where she began an earnest career as a full time mother and self described ‘urban motorist and volunteer.” During this period Nadia and her husband, who had started a medical devices company, also became investors in a number of top rated and incredibly successful Los Angeles area restaurants, including Lucques, AOC and The Hungry Cat.
When her father Selim Zilkha moved to the United States and began his involvement in the wine industry, Nadia soon became a willing participant in her family’s growing wine endeavors. ‘To be quite honest,” Nadia explained further, ‘I always enjoyed drinking wine but I never had a clue that one day I would actually be involved in a winery. It was my husband Tadzio who was really passionate about wine. Along with my father, the two of them developed a really serious interest. Our experiences with the restaurants we invested in was very positive and I soon realized that my children were growing up and that I would one day become an empty nester.”
Just as the millennium began, Nadia’s involvement with wine became more involved. Conceding that she was tired of volunteer work and was interested in establishing an identity for herself in some form of business endeavor, time and circumstance opted to work together in her favor. When her father Selim took over complete ownership of Barnwood Vineyards, Nadia stepped in and soon became the face of the emerging company.
Calling upon her corporate skills, she decided the company needed a complete facelift in order to in her words, ‘represent itself and its wines correctly to the consuming public. The entire effort was a huge challenge for us, that of taking a very special set of wine from a most unique location and giving them their own identity.” Nadia Wellisz is also keenly interested in Barnwood’s attempt to represent specific terroir in its releases and to that end has championed a movement that would give AVA (appellation) status to Barnwood’s massive vineyards sometime in the near future.
‘We are asking to be called Sierra Madre Mountains Appellation,” she explained. ‘It would definitely differentiate us from the other Santa Barbara County AVA’s that we really have little in common with. The whole process is a bit difficult, and should take another two to three years.”
In the meantime, Nadia has overseen the sales and marketing of Barnwood Vineyards and has watched the winery come full bore to a mostly red production entity. She has also completed the UCLA Vintage Wine Course during 2002 — 2003 to further aid her involvement in her now family business and was promoted last March to the title of Executive Vice President for her efforts. Nadia currently travels to wine tastings and other public events, does most interviews concerning Barnwood Vineyards and its expansion plans and generally performs the duties of an owner/marketer. She is also delighted that her father Selim continues to be concerned with the winery and continues to follow the numbers involved with the winery’s progress ‘on an intimate basis.”
Nadia is also extremely proud of the fact that both of her children have indicated an interest of following her into the wine business. Both have worked summers at Barnwood, and with Julian soon off to college on the East Coast, Nadia feels that Barnwood will fill the void in her life that will soon be created. Soft-spoken Nadia Wellisz is atypical of many modern winery owners but seems intensely determined to see her pet project continue to do well.