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Summerland Winery

Central Coast AVA

French passion and finesse best describes this Central Coast Collection

It’s an acknowledged maxim that this month’s featured Gold Selection, Summerland Winery, came into existence almost by accident. “I really wasn’t intending to get into the wine business when I bought this property back in 1993,” owner Nebil ‘Bilo’ Zarif explained, “I was actually buying a 250-acre dude ranch and discovered that a small ten acre section had already been planted in vines. The vines fascinated me to the extent that I wanted to learn more about them. Ultimately, I finally was able to get into the wine business, first with Barnwood Vineyards and now with Summerland Winery.”

For the record, Summerland Winery is named for the small, picturesque Santa Barbara County town (population 1545), whose main claim to fame is the fact that historic US Highway 101 winds its way through it along Southern California’s wonderfully majestic coastline. Summerland is also one of the small towns that have been caught up in the Central Coast wine explosion that has skyrocketed over the past two decades. Summerland Winery’s initial release of around 1500 cases came in 2003 and was the product of some significant factors that Bilo Zarif put into place. First, he employed Belgian Etienne Terlinden as Summerland’s winemaker and then added the services of noted French wine educator and author Michele Pignarre Le Danois as a consultant to Summerland’s wine staff.

The pair worked in complete harmony and the awards and accolades soon flowed for the emerging winery. According to Zarif, “Summerland is the type of operation where practically everything is done by hand, from hand sorting the grapes to hand punching the tanks. This process allows us to completely control our quality, but is also extremely labor intensive.”

Zarif admits to finally breaking even on his investment in Summerland Winery this past year, a feat he considers equal to any in his business career. “The competition in the wine business is so intense that it is very difficult to turn a profit, especially when you approach the business like we do at Summerland,” he continued. “There are always shortcuts I could take, but I prefer to do things in the right manner, and that means absorbing the expense of doing it correctly.” Production has grown during the past five years and Summerland Winery expects to produce around 10,000 cases during 2007. That level, according to Zarif, is where Summerland will remain for the foreseeable future.

“Summerland will always be a boutique winery,” he informed. “At that stage, we are able to control our destiny. Right now we are producing a number of estate-grown wines that have a fascinating background. We have selected six different vineyards from three distinct appellations from around this area and are producing Pinot Noirs from each of the vineyards. We believe that we can eventually bring out the best characteristics of each appellation in these wines. We will be able to identify and produce the very best flavors of each terroir involved. The style of the wines will vary from area to area and the end results will be fascinating to the real wine consumer.”

Such lofty goals seem to be the hallmark for both Summerland Winery and its energetic owner who has been in the winery business for almost fifteen years. When his association as President and co-owner of Barnwood Vineyards ended, Zarif immediately turned his energies to Summerland. At his new entity, Zarif was able to focus on one of his pet passions, ultimate grape maturity.

“I firmly believe that allowing the grapes to reach their fullest point of maturity is the key to a successful wine,” he added. “When you deal with Pinot Noir for instance, complete maturity is probably the most important factor in the development of the wine. It’s also important with other varietals, but with Pinot Noir, even the slightest departure affects the quality of the wine.” Zarif considers an incident that happened three years ago as his greatest accomplishment in the wine business. At that time, he presented a newly finished bottle of Summerland Winery to his French wine mentor and friend, Pierre Elby, who was then 80 years old. When Elby tasted the wine and turned to smile at Zarif, Zarif knew he had finally produced a truly great bottle of wine.

Elby died of old age not too long after returning to France, but the memory of his smile remains with Zarif to this day.

Map of the area

Bilo Zarif - Owner

Picture of Bilo Zarif - Owner

Bilo Zarif was just a youngster in his native Turkey when he first came into contact with wine. His aunt Marie had planted some Syrah and was making wines for her family and friends. Zarif thinks the vines may have originated in Iran, a country that was known at the time for planting and cultivating vinefera rootstock. After leaving Turkey to continue his education Zarif, now 51, went to Lebanon, France and England. In France, he attended the Ecole des Roches in Verneuil, near Versailles and close to Paris. It was in this setting that he was formally introduced to wine.

‘When we went to lunch and dinner, the students at Roches were offered a choice of a small .187 bottle of either Bordeaux (Rouge or Blanc) or Burgundy with their meal,” Zarif explained. ‘I really enjoyed the wine and food experience and started to learn something about wine and how it was made. It was simply part of the French meal culture.”

Zarif completed his college studies at the American University of Paris and came to the United States to achieve his masters at the University of Denver. His major was in business with particular emphasis in oil and gas exploration studies.

In 1980, he founded his own oil and gas exploration company called the Rock Oil Company in honor of his old French high school. Roches means rock in French. The company lasted more than ten years and in Zarif’s words, ‘did very well for me until I sold it.” During that time, Bilo Zarif became a serious collector of wines as well as an ardent student of grapes and vines.

When he purchased his first wine producing acreage in 1993, he felt it necessary to take his grape education to a higher level. He enrolled at the storied UC Davis and began taking a number of courses that increased his competency and understanding of the wine industry.

‘It was a wonderful time,” he explained further. ‘I would attend the Davis classes and then go home to my ranch and practice what I had just learned. I planted all my own vines and tended them so that I could get the most out of what I was being taught.” Zarif was also able to reestablish his old ties with France, and in particular the incredible wine city that is Bordeaux. He met and became fast friends with Pierre Elby, whose cousin happened to be Jean Pierre Moueix, the owner of Château Petrus, arguably the finest wine in the world. A luncheon with Moueix and Elby in 1995 opened Zarif’s eyes to the possibility of producing a world-class wine in California through his fledgling Summerland Winery. On another of his bi-annual visits to Bordeaux, Zarif was introduced to a well-known educator and writer named Michelle Pignarre Le Danois. Zarif had just hired his own winemaker and asked Le Danois to serve as a consultant. She agreed and the rest of the Summerland Winery success story is history.

‘It was really wonderful that the perfect chemistry existed between all the principals,” exclaimed Zarif. My winemaker, Etienne Terlinden, was much younger than Michelle or me, but he possessed the same basic outlook that we both had. Since the inception of Summerland Winery, plantings have grown and the number of varietals has increased. Zarif admits to a good deal of experimenting, in his opinion the only proven way to reach ultimate quality standards in the wine business.

Bilo Zarif is also a pioneer in another specific area of vine planting. In 2006, he planted a number of vines on property he owned in Beverly Hills, the first commercial plantings in that exalted piece of well-known real estate. Encouraged by the results of the initial plantings, he intends to plant more vines in the near future in an additional parcel of land he owns that is also in Beverly Hills. When these grapes reach fruition, Zarif will be able to bottle a true ‘wine of the stars’, a feat that Bilo Zarif will welcome with a smile.

‘The wine business is my true passion,” he revealed, ‘I put my entire heart and soul into it. It’s not really important that I make a great deal of money either, I’m completely satisfied if I am able to break even.” With the incredibly competitive nature of the wine business, that’s truly saying a lot.