Mail Road Wines
Sta. Rita Hills AVA
“The land is wild and unkempt....if you will, a haunted vineyard"
Michael Palmer has been a winemaker at one level or another for more than 25 years. As a resident of Santa Barbara, he took copious note of the quality of fruit and the extraordinary wines that were being produced from a particular vineyard by a number of different wineries.
The property, the Mt. Carmel Vineyard, was originally planted in 1990 by Ron and Nancy Piazza in cooperation with the Carmelite Nuns who owned and settled the site. Almost immediately, the plantings began producing extraordinary fruit for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietals. As its reputation grew, Michael Palmer began exploring the surrounding area for vineyard sites with no success. In 2011, he came up with an idea that has evolved into Mail Road Wines, our current Platinum Wine Club selection.
“I contacted my friend, Matt Dees, who was a noted winemaker and I proposed a project that involved making the first estate wines from the Mt. Carmel Vineyard. Matt was excited and we approached Ron Piazza who embraced the concept. We all agreed to become co-owners of Mail Road Wines. I consider this vineyard somewhat magical in that it produces legendary fruit from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones. The fruit had formerly been sold to a number of wineries and the resulting wines were all across the board due to differing winemaking techniques. Mt. Carmel Vineyard was already considered a premier vineyard in the area and when the Sta. Rita Hills AVA was granted, it became the darling of the AVA. You know what the AVA has become, especially with regard to Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.”
Part of the vineyard’s success can be traced to the fact that it lies in the exact epicenter of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. It’s a particular setting that few would expect to produce world-class grapes and the resultant wines.
Mt. Carmel Vineyard can be considered an anomaly of sorts.
“The land is wild and unkempt,” offered Michael Palmer. “It sits at an elevation of between 800 and 1,000 feet and its soil composition includes well-drained limestone, Botella clay, diatomaceous earth, calcareous deposits and sandy loam. For some reason, everything comes together and the vineyard produces spectacular fruit, even during off years when other vineyards encounter problems. It’s a fluke, a ‘happy accident’ if you will, a haunted vineyard.”
The first offerings of Mail Road Wines were rolled out in 2014, a tiny number (around 330 cases) that were warmly received by industry periodicals who tended extremely high scores for the initial wines. In the ensuing years, Mail Road Wines has become a top tier producer of fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and it ranks among the best in the state. This year, around 500 cases will be produced, due to the vineyard’s low yield.
The key to Mail Road Wines’ success? “We are experts at getting out of the way,” Michael Palmer informed. “Early on, we agreed to let the fruit do its own thing and allow it to speak for itself. We decided to spare no expense to permit this greatness to manifest itself.”
For the record, Mail Road is the road that leads up the hill to the vineyard.
Label-wise, the owners elected to follow a classic path in the marketing of their product. “We wanted an elegant yet simple label that magnified the importance of the wine. It’s neutral in design and something the ordinary person would take note of on the shelf. It only contains the name of the winery, the varietal involved, and the pertinent details of the AVA. Everyone involved believes it has stated our case perfectly and our customers agree.”
Mail Road Wines is an excellent example of correct planning and industry foresight by its owners. In the past decade, its wines have risen in statue and accolades have continued to accumulate. In the hard-fought world of successful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production, Mail Road Wines has risen to the very pinnacle of the heap.
Wineries such as Mail Road Wines are an important part of the California wine scene. Even though its production is tiny by comparison to others and will never increase, it maintains a meaningful status within the confines of its classification.
Mail Road Wines is rarely available due to its limited production and we are delighted to be able to offer it to our Platinum wine of the month club members. Enjoy!
Dear Platinum Wine Club Members,
Mail Road is the estate program for Mt. Carmel Vineyard, a 22.5 acre site that marks the epicenter of Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
The program is a partnership between winemaker Matt Dees, Michael Palmer and Ron and Nancy Piazza, who planted Mt. Carmel in the mid/late 1980’s. At the time, most of the local activity around winegrowing was focused on the valley floor and foothills south of the Santa Ynez River, where, in 1971, Santa Barbara pioneer vintner Richard Sanford (alongside his then-partner Michael Benedict) planted their now famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.
In search of a quiet, out of the way site for a weekend home and small, family vineyard, the Piazzas planted Mt. Carmel among remote, weed-choked hills, adjacent to an abandoned monastery of Carmelite nuns. They had no inkling that their little plot of land on the ‘wrong’ (i.e. north) side of the river, set 800 to 1,200 feet above the valley’s limestone cliffs would today, thirty years later, achieve the status it has as a world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyard.
Mt. Carmel is a difficult place to grow grapes. The vineyard, an exposed saddle of limestone, loam and sandstone, is hammered by constant sun and wind. There’s little to make you think that this site is as magical as it truly is. And yet, in winegrowing, as in life, sometimes there are happy accidents. Where most domestic vineyards rely on irrigation, especially in California, Mt. Carmel is, for the most part, dry-farmed. Disease-resistant rootstock? Mt. Carmel is own-rooted. In no way is this a textbook, idyllic, picture perfect property. It’s wild. Unkempt. Haunted, even. To make matters worse, the vineyard’s yields are minimal. And yet, it’s magnificent. In the wine world, there’s so much talk of terroir. Truth is, most vineyards don’t really show themselves in their wines. But Mt. Carmel? Year after year, we are amazed at how the power of this place shines through, perhaps more than any other property any of us has farmed or produced wine from.
The wines continue to amaze our team. From the power and ripeness of the initial 2012’s, through six years of drought, to the mix of balance and power and freshness and laser-like acidity that recent vintages display, it’s been an exceptional run, and the juice just keeps evolving, getting better and better.
It is rare in life that you get an opportunity to run a program that begins and ends with such an obsession with quality, where the raw materials support your intentions fully.
Mail Road Wines