Santa Barbara County region
Sophisticated and Modern, Yet True to it's Nature . . Serenity Vineyards
It is fairly safe to say that recently-formed Serenity Vineyards’ origins are virtually dissimilar to most wineries in California. That being stated, there is a perfectly logical explanation as to how the already high flying Santa Barbara County entity has evolved into one of California’s fastest growing wineries. Serenity Vineyards actually had its beginning sometime in 2003 in Southern France, when it began producing a Merlot in the Languedoc Region that was soon followed by a premium white wine that were both intended for the American market.
Serenity’s entrepreneurial owner, David Willey, at the time a worldly 37-year-old, accomplished the feat of producing the first European Serenity wines under the longest of odds. “It was truly a labor of love,” Willey recalled, “I had made a number of trips to France and had fallen in love with Southern France and in particular, the Rhone Valley. There I found a wonderful assortment of grapes that were capable of making some really interesting wines. After a year or two of experimenting, I felt I knew enough to attempt to produce some wines that would be interesting to the American palate.”
Willey had searched for vineyards in a number of different locales and finally settled on property that had become available through the Spanish wine bodega Ferrer, whose operations in the United States are conducted under the Gloria Ferrer label.
With Ferrer’s assistance, the first Serenity Merlot was produced and shipped to the United States and the brand began its existence. In 2004, the first premium white was produced and also shipped stateside for distribution.
According to owner David Willey, the two imports were simply precursors of California varietals that he had intended to produce from the very beginning. He also attributes the winery’s name to the fact that at one point in his life he was deeply rooted in the intricacies of yoga and the calming effects the postures offered. Willey considered the name Serenity as a natural extension of the art of yoga and its practiced results.
The California extension that we call Serenity Vineyards was another instance of being in the right place at the right time. Dennis Stroud, David Willey’s previous boss at Sonoma’s Kenwood Vintners, informed Willey that one of his clients who owned some 10,000 acres of prime vineyards was interested in diversifying his client base.
When Willey found out that fruit from the noted Los Alamos Vineyard was immediately available through the new source, he jumped at the chance and Serenity Vineyards’ California operation was soon underway.
“I have always been a strong believer that great fruit must be the basis for a great wine,” Willey added. “The Los Alamos grapes are among the most revered in the wine industry and I simply couldn’t afford to miss out on the chance. These grapes from Santa Barbara County were the basis for Au Bon Climat’s success, and also other top wineries. I would never have expected to be able to buy them for my operation. It was very similar to my luck with the Merlot in France that really put Serenity on the world map.” Serenity’s first California release came in July of 2005, which was comprised of some 5,000 cases of the single-vineyard designated Chardonnay. The wine was produced at the new Monterey Wine Company facility in King City, where a number of iconic wineries (Chalone, Bonny Doon, and Estancia to name a few) have production facilities.
“The place is incredible,” Willey exclaimed, referring to the Monterey Wine Company.
“It gives me complete flexibility and insures the finest production possible for us.” The ‘us’ in Serenity includes winemaker Allison Crowe, herself an accomplished UC Davis-path winemaker with stints at both Chalone and Bonny Doon to her credit. With Crowe at the helm, Serenity’s immediate growth should top the 30,000 case level, an impressive mark for a startup winery.
“It is nice that we have been successful in a wide number of states,” Willey concluded. We have reaped the benefit of our French wines’ success in some places. We are looking at producing a few more varietals, but it’s totally dependant on the vineyards that become available. Right now there really are not a lot of quality grapes available, so we’ll have to be patient.”
A bit of patience might not be bad for Serenity, an entity that has grown significantly since its inception. We also expect Serenity to continue its excellent attention to quality, most important to new wines. Enjoy!
Winemaker David Willey and Consulting Winemaker Alison Crowe.
It’s pretty difficult to pinpoint the exact spot in his career that propelled David Willey, now 40, to attempt the most difficult task of establishing his Serenity Vineyards as a significant player in the highly challenging California wine industry.
Willey began is career in the business through the industry’s proverbial back door. As a native of tiny Alfred, Maine, Willey received a business/social work degree from the University of Maine and started his career as a social worker. One of his early bosses taught him that one way to help society was to create jobs and become independent.
To that end, Willey became interested in the restaurant business and opened his own place in Kennebunk in 1988. The restaurant soon prospered and Willey became interested in cooking. He also saw the advantages a really good wine list offered and shifted his interests to wine. When his business partner left in 1993, Willey decided to sell the restaurant and accepted a job with a wine broker in Maine whose portfolio included a number of California luminaries.
‘I think the whole idea of the wine business was a really neat experience,” Willey explained. ‘I saw how everything worked and what made some wineries better than others.”
His sales abilities propelled him to one particular winery, Kenwood Vineyards, who soon offered him a job that brought him to California in 1995. He remained with Kenwood and started taking trips to France at vacation time and whenever the situation presented itself. He soon found himself enamored with the wines of Southern France and the Rhone Valley.
In 2001, Kenwood became part of the huge Korbel Champagne operation, and David Willey saw the opportunity to set out on his own in the wine business.
‘If Kenwood would have stayed as it was I would still be there today,” he related. ‘It was a great family winery and a great place to be. When Kenwood became more corporately-oriented, I felt it was time to leave.”
His interest in France prompted a two-year search for vineyards and a place to produce some French wines that Willey thought would interest his former clients in the US. According to him, he begged, borrowed and almost stole in order to make his dream come true. All the time, he remained true to his concept that great grapes would eventually be the basis for his success in the wine business.
‘I never lost sight of the fact that I needed great grapes to start out,” he added. I finally found some through a Spanish friend and we were able to produce our first wine. Due to French bureaucracy, the process took much longer than expected. It took almost a year to locate black capsules I felt was necessary for the package I wanted. It was incredibly difficult and used up what little money I had available.”
Once the French aspect of his business was established, Willey was drawn back to the opulent Central Coast of California where he had previously toiled for Kenwood. It was in late 2003 and the landscape and grape production of Santa Barbara County caught his attention.
‘I had always loved the wines of the lower Central Coast,” he went on. ‘You could really do some wonderful things with the fruit. The fruit forward aspect of the grapes blended perfectly with my own ideas of the type of wines I wanted to make.”
After hooking up with winemaker Alison Crowe (her specific experience with winemaking in Argentina was particularly interesting) Willey was able to produce his first Serenity Chardonnay with grapes from the famous Los Alamos Vineyard.
‘I was able to produce all single-vineyard designated wines,” Willey concluded. ‘It was like a dream, ultimate quality and enough quantity to meet our business plan.”
David Willey has accomplished all this while still living in Maine and commuting between France, Maine and California, no mean feat even in this age of easy air access. He realizes he will eventually have to move to Santa Barbara, a decision most would find quite rewarding.
Serenity Vineyards will also soon add a tasting room (probably in Santa Barbara) and eventually a new winery facility and will also produce its first Pinot Noir later this year.
It’s all in a day’s work for David Willey, whose days sometime span an entire 24 hours thanks to the time differentials in France and California.