Santa Barbara County region
93 Points, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar
LIOCO (pronounced lee-oko) is the result of a years-long conversation between Matt Licklider, a seasoned wine import specialist, and Kevin O’Connor, wine director at the esteemed Spago-Beverly Hills, about whether or not California could produce a true ‘wine of origin.’ After gathering opinions and drawing inspiration from some of the world’s greatest wine producers, the duo concluded that it could indeed be achieved. What is a true ‘wine of origin?’ According to LIOCO, “it’s a wine that successfully portrays the voice of the vineyard through unique flavors and aromas tied inextricably to the soil.” In short, it is a wine with a clear representation of where it came from. Thus is the philosophy behind LIOCO’s vineyard-designated wines and French-influenced, gently treated Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
Co-founder Matt Licklider, who had his wine epiphany during the winter of 1995, got his start in the industry by going to work for Boulder, Colorado-based boutique wine distributor, The Maxwell Company, where he soon became a leading sales person. He went on to represent Napa wine importer Dalla Terra, and finally the esteemed North Berkley Imports, for which he represented some of the classiest French and Italian producers in the United States. His friend and colleague Kevin O’Connor of Irish-Italian descent, found his calling at a much younger age, when his parents served “Old World” wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux at the dinner table growing up. With a great-grandmother who single-handedly made Italian Trebbiano d’Abruzzo two generations prior, it seems that O’Connor was pre-destined to a career in wine. After a series of high-profile sommelier positions, an experience as wine director at Spago-Beverly Hills, and a winemaking stint at Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria Valley, O’Connor joined forces with his friend Licklider and together, formed the principles and philosophy that made LIOCO a reality.
LIOCO, which cleverly enough is a fusion of the cofounders’ last names, LI-cklider and OCO-nnor, finally laid its foundation in August of 2005. The duo produced their first vintage of 1,200 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards that included Michaud in the Chalone appellation and Stuhlmuller on the edge of the Alexander and Russian River valleys. LIOCO has since been an escalating success, with sommeliers and top industry periodicals raving about the winery’s unique point of view and refreshing take on California winemaking. Wine & Spirits magazine even wrote, “consider LIOCO as a concept and you’ll find what’s arguably the best Chardonnay being produced on the West Coast.” And their Pinots are hitting all the right marks as well. In fact, their latest vintages have been called a “revelation” and they’re only slightly influenced with oak, also reflecting the team’s minimalist winemaking approach. When asked what distinguishes LIOCO from other wineries, aside from their “building wine from the ground up” credo, the response is their philosophy on the production process:
“We buy fruit from independent growers throughout California and make the wine in a state-of-the-art cooperative in Santa Rosa. We do not own any vineyards, nor do we own a winery. All of our resources are directed toward the sourcing of grapes from the state’s premier vineyards.” LIOCO’s dedication to finding California’s most compelling and best-suited vineyard properties ensures their wines represent authentic flavors and aromas. They seek out vineyard sites with tougher soil, older vines, and some stress-producing aspect (altitude, extreme temperature, or poor soil), and then shepherd the grapes from bud to bottle in the least intrusive way possible.
LIOCO knows their vineyard selection is critical, and the team has been fortunate in building relationships with some of Sonoma County’s most exceptional growers. Since their standards for grape quality is so high, their wine offerings do tend to change year to year as different opportunities change or present themselves. Licklider and O’Connor are accompanied at LIOCO by diligent winemaker Kevin Kelley, who gained his formal education at UC Davis. Kelley also resided in Burgundy for a period of time, which gave him an intimate perspective on the philosophy and history of traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When he returned to California, his experience landed him into top winemaking opportunities, before finding a home at LIOCO.
Today, LIOCO has grown to a modest 7,000 cases with no immediate plan to significantly raise the ceiling. With a remarkable following for their portfolio of distinctive, vineyard-expressive wines, LIOCO stands as an excellent example of a winery that truly, and successfully, produces “wines of origin.”