Cimarone Estate Wines
Santa Barbara County region
Growing some fantastic fruit in one of the most desirable areas of California
It was a typically dreary London morning more than thirteen years ago when Roger Higgins told his wife Cilla that he secretly dreamed of one day owning a vineyard. He wasn’t specific as to the exact time and place, but the seed of an idea was formed that morning in the minds of the successful British couple. For Cilla Higgins, the concept was much too simple. Born on a farm in Zambia, she was well aware of both the joys and pitfalls of agricultural involvement. Her father was an ecologist in sub-Saharan Africa who moved his family to Kenya when Cilla was a young girl.
After their marriage, Cilla became involved with physics and Roger with aeronautical engineering. Their work eventually brought them to Silicon Valley and the enriched atmosphere of the high tech environment. Needless to say, the Higgins family prospered. Throughout this period, both Roger and Cilla kept alive the earlier thought of one day owning some vineyard land.
The couple had enjoyed a life-long respect for good wine and finally chose to do something about it. Their proximity to both the Napa and Sonoma wine producing areas seemed tempting, but Roger felt the climate there was a bit too mature for their tastes. He insisted they look elsewhere instead. When the couple first viewed the almost pristine reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley, they both felt an immediate connection with the area as well as a site for a plausible investment.
Today’s Cimarone Estate Winery (Cimarone is the first two letters of each other’s names, along with that of their sons; Cilla, Mark, Roger and Neal) sits on nearly 130 acres and counts 26 of those acres under vine. Due to the property’s warm location, the acreage is planted almost exclusively in Bordeaux varietals that take advantage of the sun and heat.
Cimarone Estate’s first production was released in 2008, a mere two hundred cases. This year, a little less than 3000 cases will be produced with most distribution occurring in California and a few additional states.
“I’m quite happy to be this small,” Roger Higgins confessed. “It gives us the opportunity to focus on the quality of our wines. I guess you could say we have a different approach to our business. At Cimarone, quantity isn’t necessarily better.”
While Cimarone initially began its operations as a growing venture, Higgins admitted that he and his wife could be classified as “control freaks” when it came to the fate of their grapes.
“Here we were growing some fantastic fruit in one of the most desirable areas of California. Then we just handed off the grapes to the wineries to do what they wanted with them. While some good wines were made, we just felt we wanted to have more hands on regarding our estate-grown fruit’s further development. That’s when the winery aspect of Cimarone finally reached fruition.”
Higgins also admitted that he wasn’t really surprised that the resulting wines Cimarone produced were extremely well received. “We know what we have in the terroir around here,” he explained. “Wherever great fruit is produced, good winemakers will then produce great wines.”
Higgins puts in around 35% of his time in winery-related matters while Cilla Higgins is pegged for about half that time, mostly directing the pricing and marketing efforts. The couple is content with the knowledge that they are producing extremely high quality wines with excellent price/value correlations.
“When we started we were both a bit naïve about the wine business,” Higgins finalized. “But the industry is one where you must learn quickly in order to survive. The good thing was that we were both quick learners.”
About the Vineyard
The Three Creek Vineyard that provides the fruit for Cimarone Estate’s wines is a perfect example of modern research providing an excellent locale for an exceptional growing program. The Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara County is actually on an east/west axis, with the heat being concentrated on the eastern side. The soils found there are excellent for growing grapes, and in particular those varietals of the Bordeaux nature. The land possesses all the elements of an ideal vineyard locale: rocky, well-drained soils, steep hillsides, and south-facing slopes.
The benefit to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and other Bordeaux varietals who crave sun and heat is almost unbelievable. These varietals require long hang time and little rain to allow them to mature and develop their intense characteristics.
While the Central Coast isn’t particularly noted for Bordeaux varietals, a vineyard such as Three Creek Vineyard has begun to change many opinions within the wine industry. This excellent example of micro-climatization will continue to produce exceptional fruit and set lofty standards for the new AVA.
Andrew Murray - Winemaker
As one of the pivotal winemakers around the Santa Ynez Valley, Andrew Murray is a real plus for Cimarone Estate Wines. With more than twenty years of experience in winemaking on two continents, Murray has been noted for his incredible array of Rhone varietals made by his own Andrew Murray Vineyards label.
His scores and awards in competition are awesome, and he has been named Tastemaker of the Year by Wine and Food magazine. As a purchaser of Cimarone fruit for several years, Murray is completely familiar with the workings of the Three Creek Vineyard. A graduate of the classic UC Davis enology program, Murray combines technical and hands on aspects to his winemaking techniques.
More on Roger Higgins
Roger Higgins was born a Yorkshireman in Northern England who developed a fondness for France and its culture for life and wine. He credits his early business residency in France for enhancing his knowledge and appreciation of the grape and its eventual calling into the wine business.
‘What my wife Cilla and I were really looking for was a retirement project. I had always loved wine and one day we finally decided to do something about it. Now that I look back at things, you could also say that Cimarone Estate is a retirement project that simply got out of control,” he admitted.
The fact that Higgins chose the untested environs of Santa Ynez Valley over the more established Napa and Sonoma Valleys further north seems matter of fact to the cheery Brit. ‘We were looking for a place with more of an upside,” Higgins continued. ‘In addition to being spectacularly beautiful, our Happy Canyon location was deemed as ideally suited for my favorite varietals from Bordeaux. Since the Central Coast isn’t exactly known for Bordeaux varietals, it seemed the perfect challenge for us to attempt.”
Higgins set about making his dream come true by planting some 26 acres to exacting specifications. He called the vineyard Three Creek to honor the three flows that inhabit the property. Close attention to the vines brought immediate response from noted winemakers and wineries who clamored to buy Cimarone Estate’s fruit.
Along the way, Roger Higgins became one of the big movers in the effort to have Happy Canyon added to the list of Santa Barbara AVA’s. ‘It was a lengthy process that took up a lot of time,” he recalled. ‘And there were only a few other wineries that could help out. But, in the end it was well worth the time and effort. Happy Canyon AVA was established in November of 2009 and is already on its way to becoming a top-rated growing area. Some experts have already compared it favorably to parts of Bordeaux itself.”
How did Happy Canyon originally develop its name’
The legend goes all the way back to the 1920’s during the time of Prohibition. Certain bootleggers made use of the mostly uninhabited (and definitely unpoliced) parts of Happy Canyon to ply their trade thus producing many happy customers. The name stuck and today’s Happy Canyon is home to several wineries and additional vineyards that are in high demand.
Roger Higgins also admits that his Cimarone Estate is a handful in today’s ever-competitive wine industry. He had always managed to hire a top-notch winemaker to produce his wines and is enthused about Andrew Murray as his current winemaker.
‘Andrew is the type of person who can take us to the next level,” he assured. ‘His expertise and patience is well beyond the norm. No one can tell what the future holds, but his track record is such that we can expect some really great things from him.”
While there are only a small handful of transplanted British in the wine business, Roger Higgins stands out. His dedication and approach make Cimarone Estate Wines an entity that will achieve additional high accolades in the future.