Santa Ynez Valley AVA
A winery devoted entirely to the care and nurturing of Rhône varietals
If ever the perfect example of what has become known as a ‘niche’ winery truly exists, Curtis Winery of the Santa Ynez Valley most aptly fills the bill. The catch or niche at Curtis involves their production and development of Rhône varietals, namely Syrah, Viognier, Grenache Noir and Roussanne.
Curtis is a scene that would make Randall Graham proud (owner of Bonny Doon Winery), a winery devoted entirely to the care and nurturing of Rhône varietals. It is also interesting that even more wineries have not jumped on the Rhône bandwagon given the fact that their flavors and style seem to suit the American palate to the proverbial tee.
Curtis Winery is in fact, the old J.Carey Cellars formerly located in Solvang and recently moved to an attractive location in Los Olivos that was formerly an art gallery. The site about an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara, is bounded by Fess Parker Winery and Firestone Vineyard in an area that is fast becoming a much desired growing area in terms of acceptance by the wine industry. J. Carey Cellars was acquired by an entity called the Firestone Family Estates in late 1987, and was subsequently (in 1995) renamed Curtis Winery when the decision was made to concentrate on solely producing and developing Rhône varietals.
Chuck Carlson, a most precise individual and a winemaker, guide Curtis Winery’s fortunes with a very specific approach to his profession. He is the main reason for the winery’s entrance into the Rhône varietal arena. He sees a perfect situation in an emerging sector of the wine business as a plausible portal for his fledgling winery.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is the fact that there is a great deal of Syrah planted throughout California that is still counted by the State as non-bearing, and some estimates are as high as 40-50%,” Carlson offered. “During the next few years as these vines reach fruition, Syrah will become a bigger factor in the wine industry.”
And as most insiders concur, for anyone to be taken seriously as a Rhône varietal winery, classic Syrah must be the basis on which to build a following. Curtis and Carlson have a head start in that regard, thanks to some farsightedness on the part of Curtis’ owners, the Firestone Family.
“The Ambassador Vineyard on our property was planted back in 1990,” Carlson continued, “it sits on 20 acres and is all Syrah utilizing the well-known Estrella Clone. It is an extremely cool growing environment that suits the varietal well and allows it to reach its full potential.”
Carlson is also quite precise about the style of wines Curtis produces and will continue to expand in the future. He leans toward a more French-style Rhône that exudes elegance and typicality as opposed to the bigger and brawnier Australian wines that utilize sweet American oak as a major component. His choice of a cooperage (Francoise Freres and Tonnellerie Saury) indicates an attempt at producing a signature house style for Curtis, a style that is greatly influenced by the use of key coopers.
“Syrah, by its very nature is very expressive. Where it is grown creates a distinctive personality and I have the responsibility of guiding that personality into the bottle. It’s the little things like this that make this type of wine memorable, and I certainly want everyone to remember our wines,” relates Chuck.
At present, Curtis Winery is producing about 10,000 cases a year but will slowly grow its production during the next decade. This Spring, the winery will break ground on a new production facility that will be totally state of the art and will even include some two-level fermenters that Chuck Carlson believes will further enhance his progress in producing superior wines.
He concedes that he and his staff are still learning about the incredible Rhône varietals that make up his selection at Curtis. He is excited about new plantings of Mourvèdre and Cinsault that will come into fruit in the near future. He is also energized by the prospect of producing some single vineyard designated wines available in small quantities, but probably only for sale at the winery itself.
He is particularly pleased that this month’s Gold Wine Club selection is a product of the marvelous 1997 vintage that he heralds as one of the most workable he has encountered during his 18-year career as a winemaker. “It was great across the board,” he concluded. “It was warm enough to produce excellent ripe fruit, near perfect conditions for Rhône varietals. It was easy to make great wines from such wonderful fruit.”
We concur with Chuck Carlson, the acknowledged expert on such matters. We trust your enjoyment of this month’s Gold Wine Club Selection will match his personal endorsement.
The Firestone Family of Winemakers
When Adam Firestone was tapped by his noted father Brooks to become the President of Firestone Winery in 1994, it would have been easy for him to sit back and rest on the laurels of his family business and savor the fruits of its success. After all, he was the third generation winegrower of a family whose name was synonymous with the growth of our country’s automotive industry and a recognized icon in American business.
Adam’s early existence was well traveled as his family moved from Monterey to Akron, then on to Rome and finally London. His formative years were spent in England until his Father Brooks Firestone decided in 1972 to leave the famous tire and rubber company and relocate to California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Along with Brooks’ Father Leonard, the family established Firestone Vineyard as Santa Barbara County’s first estate winery. Adam was ten at the time, but quickly embraced the concept of winegrowing and winemaking.
Adam Firestone’s university career began at Middlebury College in Vermont and then to Pepperdine where he earned a law degree. To defray his expenses during that period, Adam enlisted in the Marine Corps and eventually rose to the rank of Captain. During Operation Desert Storm, he was deployed to Iraq with the 1st Marine Division in a special operations infantry task force. Adam returned to California and was involved in various aspects of his family’s wine business as early as 1991. When his Father decided to run for the California state legislature and was subsequently elected to office in 1994, Adam was chosen to take the reigns as President of Firestone Vineyard.
Adam made his presence felt immediately and embarked on an ambitious program that both expanded the family’s estate vineyards and updated the production facilities. Our vineyard acquisition was certainly the most dramatic action that took place,” Firestone confided. ‘We went from 225 acres to over 600 in plant.”
It was also a time for the insightful winery executive to take a long hard look at the entire Santa Ynez Valley operation. ‘What we realized was the fact that many of our customers were leaning heavily toward estate oriented wines, very similar to the tastes of many Europeans. It was necessary to maintain our status as a leading South Coast winery and also begin focusing on the estate aspects of our business.” It was also the time for Adam Firestone to create a dream list that would offer his operation a sufficient bridge into the future of the wine business.
At the time, Firestone Vineyard was producing a limited amount of a proprietary wine that was called cleverly called Prosperity. It soon developed a loyal following and gradually expanded its production until its present day level of 50,000 cases. Additionally, Adam and his family decided to buy out the Japanese giant Suntori with whom they had enjoyed a long-term relationship as a partner. That part of the Firestone evolution was finally ended in 1994, generally about the time Adam took over as President.
Meanwhile, Adam also able to turn his attention to the J Carey Cellars property that was part of their family operations that had been acquired in 1987. In the Solvang operation, he saw something that perked his attention.
‘Basically, J. Carey was the perfect vehicle for us to attempt something that was impossible at Firestone. Changing its direction and renaming it Curtis Winery after my Father’s mother allowed us to become more esoteric in nature,” he explained. ‘By becoming in essence, a niche winery, we were able to push the envelope. It was like taking a passenger on an aerobatic ride, only the aircraft was a most specific bottle of wine.”
Curtis’ winemaker Chuck Carlson persuaded him to turn the new Curtis Winery into a Rhône-only varietal operation, a move Adam Firestone agrees was fully endorsed by the rest of his family. ‘We all realize that the wine business is an ever-changing scenario that must be constantly reviewed and improved on. Some of Chuck’s new ideas that are being incorporated into the design of the new Curtis Winery are really on the cutting edge,” he added.
When Adam Firestone talks about Curtis Winery one gets the feeling that he is really enjoying Curtis’ role as an emerging esoteric winery and is pleased with the effect it has had on his ongoing customers. He looks forward to Curtis’ future releases and strongly believes these wines will leave a lasting impression on many consumers.
After talking with Adam Firestone about his wines and wineries, one gets the impression he is probably right.