Buttonwood Farm Winery
Santa Ynez Valley AVA
An equestrian facility, vineyard, winery, and organic farm in one
The story of Buttonwood Winery originated many years ago when founder Betty Williams left her New Orleans home and moved west to California. She lived in Pasadena in Southern California and eventually earned a law degree from USC. She also married and raised a family of three children and became an expert horsewoman. At one point, Betty Williams chose to escape the rigors of hurried city life and was charmed by the exquisite bucolic ambiance of the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.
In 1968, Betty found a piece of land that suited her purpose and Buttonwood Farm became a reality. She chose the name Buttonwood (another name for the Sycamore tree) in homage to the number of trees that dotted her new property. Always on the eye for a good usage for the farm, Betty initially thought the property well suited for growing grapes, a belief at the time that wasn’t held by many in the area.
Meanwhile, Betty’s daughter Barry, a medical doctor, had married Bret Davenport, whose career involved personal business management and investment projects. At one point, Bret got together with Betty and his sister-in-law, Seyburn Zorthian, and the trio decided to begin planting vines on an unused mesa on Buttonwood Farm. That was in 1983, and three separate thirteen-acre parcels were put under vine to get the new business started.
For the first few years, grapes were sold to other wineries as the trio awaited a quality level for the vineyards. In 1989, the winery was bonded as Buttonwood Winery and the first 500 cases were released to the general public. Buttonwood’s initial releases were well received and the company settled back to the chore of establishing the entity as an ongoing wine business. The Santa Ynez Valley was still something of an unknown in the wine arena, but Buttonwood persevered and garnered a large number of accolades.
Seyburn Zorthian became a noted artist in her own right, and provided the artwork for Buttonwood’s attractive labels. Bret Davenport started spending the greater amount of his time and energy at the winery while commuting from the Bay Area down to the winery.
Today’s Buttonwood Winery production falls between 6,000 and 8,000 cases, a level that Bret Davenport considers his “sweet spot.” During a recent interview, he also confided, “we might be willing to increase the case total to around 10,000, as long as it didn’t become a quality of life issue.”
For Buttonwood Winery, keeping things on the smallish side seems to have worked wonders. The Santa Ynez Valley has become one of the new found darlings of the wine world and a number of top-flight wineries have emerged to provide even more status for the area. The fact that the Santa Ynez Valley is the closest growing area to prosperous Los Angeles hasn’t hurt and the wineries have taken great advantage of that fact.
Buttonwood Winery has a wonderful tasting room that offers a complete look into the winery’s broadening portfolio that includes both Bordeaux and Rhône inspired varietals.
This is all okay with Buttonwood Winery’s owners – Bret Davenport, Barry Zorthian, and Seyburn Zorthian – who have had a hand in the managing roles since the winery’s start in 1989. Founder Betty Williams passed away in 2011 at the age of 92, and her spirit lives on through the success of her daughters and son-in-law at Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard. The family business continues to be a shining example of Betty’s original vision.
Today Buttonwood’s vineyards consist of some 33,000 vines with several new varietals added during the tenure of current winemaker Karen Steinwachs.
“Karen has infused a new vitality into Buttonwood,” remarked Bret Davenport. “She is keenly interested in some of the Rhône varietals and thinks that they may be able to add a degree of spiciness into our wines.”
Buttonwood Winery’s future looks extremely bright. Its solid foundation and loyal following ensure ample customer support for the future. It is a wonderful example of extreme foresight on behalf of Betty Williams and her family partners. Buttonwood Winery is a good-feeling winery that will continue to prosper. Would there were more like it to enjoy!
About the Vineyard
The Santa Ynez Valley is truly a dichotomy as far as a wine-producing region is concerned. It is correctly called the lower coast growing area but contains two widely variant parts. The area around the Santa Rita Hills AVA is more like the upper Central Coast, with cooler, breezy and often times moisture-ridden days and nights.
The older section of the Santa Ynez Valley, more often referred to as the central area, is much warmer and more conducive to varietals that require longer hang times before adequately ripening. All of Buttonwood Winery’s thirty-nine acres lie on a lovely mesa area almost in the middle of the central growing area. The valley itself is located directly north of fabulous Santa Barbara.
This is the neighborhood where the highly successful movie “Sideways” was filmed and which has since become a major tourist attraction. There are numerous grape varietals grown here and a wide variety of wines produced that display the accommodating nature of the entire region.
The Art of Fine Wine
Painted by artist Elizabeth Osborne. Her love of art has taken her around the world painting landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes.
Karen Steinwachs - Winemaker
Karen Steinwachs readily admits she is living her life long dream. Karen is now in her second career (the first involved the high tech industry) as winemaker for Buttonwood Winery.
She started with Foley Estates as a harvest worker and stayed over three years. Moving to Fiddlehead Cellars, Karen excelled and was eventually made assistant winemaker. She brings a new vitality to Buttonwood that shows in her award-winning wines.
More about Bret Davenport
Bret Davenport says he never expected to become part of the wine business, not even for a minute. He graduated from San Francisco State with a theatre major and dabbled in the arts world until deciding his future lay in other endeavors.
He married Barry Zorthian in 1967, the year before her mother Betty Williams decided to purchase the property that became Buttonwood Farm. Sometime in the early 1970’s, he’s not sure exactly when, Bret had a wine epiphany.
‘I started drinking a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon — I can’t recall exactly which one,” he related, ‘and a light bulb went off in my head. I looked down at the glass and thought to myself, this is really great stuff. I had always appreciated wine, but this feeling was totally different.” When the subject of planting vines at his mother-in-law’s came up, Bret jumped into the proverbial pot.
‘At the time I was doing mostly personal investment projects, and the idea of growing grapes really appealed to me. I wasn’t sure of how much of my time it would take, but I supported Betty’s project to its fullest.”
When Buttonwood Winery emerged in the late 1980’s, Bret found himself running the business. His keen business sense has helped develop the winery and insured its stability. Today, he keenly appreciates the difficulty of keeping a small winery competitive.
‘There are just so many factors to consider,” he informed. ‘As the business evolved, changes became necessary. Our winemaker of seventeen years had started another winery of his own and was very successful. We wanted to maintain our own identity and the decision was made to bring Karen Steinwachs aboard. She brought some new ideas with her and everything seems quite positive.”
Davenport also feels that being a smaller winery provides unique challenges. ‘We are not large enough to absorb any mistakes,” Davenport commented. ‘Every aspect of what we do and how we should proceed must be analyzed and decided upon.”
He cited last year’s vintage (2008) as a case in point. ‘We were only able to produce about 40% of normal and we weren’t even able to use our large tanks. Since we are an estate-driven winery, the tiny yield presented extra problems. We decided to be incredibly selective and actually found the fruit to be quite lovely. The berries were small but really intense. I think the wines will be remarkable and the vintage will come through much better than anyone thought possible.”
Davenport is also optimistic about his emergent growing area and sees good things for the future. He feels that a sub AVA for his particular growing locale is highly plausible and will afford Buttonwood and its immediate neighbors an appellation that clearly defines the fact that it is much warmer than any of the other AVA’s in the Santa Ynez Valley.
While still commuting to the Bay Area for his other interests, Bret spends much more than half of his time at the winery.
‘This is where my heart is,” he stated proudly. ‘It’s a place where you can see the wonders of nature on a daily basis. I feel fortunate to have the amiable members of my family to work with.”