Revolutionary winemakers across Santa Barbara have reawakened the region’s booming viticultural scene, bringing environmentally conscious farming and minimal intervention to vineyards across the county. For lovers of California, terroir-driven Syrah, and all things chuggable wine, you need to meet our friend Pete Stolpman, a longtime pioneer and advocate for real winemaking in the Golden State. Get to know Pete better through our exclusive interview, here!
Name/Company/Position: Pete Stolpman/Stolpman Vineyards/Managing Partner
Where are you from: Southern California
Where do you currently live? Solvang (just south of Ballard Canyon, where the vineyard is)
Tell us a bit about your family's history in Santa Barbara and Ballard Canyon.
Dad got interested in wine early on and took my mom to Napa Valley for their honeymoon. Inspired by left bank Bordeaux, the Loire, and Burgundy, he started looking for limestone near the ocean along the Central Coast. Because we were based in Southern California, Santa Barbara was idea. Our parcel came up for sale in 1988 and Dad was able to buy it in 1990.
He originally planted Cabernet Sauvignon on that hill, but once the vines matured, we realized that our site is too cold for Bordeaux varieties. We ripped out the Cab in the early 2000s, and after laying low for a decade, I’ve replanted Mourvedre, Graciano, a Syrah clone we refer to as “Cornas”, and Serine. All of those new plantings are at 6,000 vines per acre, head trained, and all but the Serine are own-rooted. Because the vines are so tight together, all work must be done by hand, and we only require 2 bunches of grapes per vine.
Did you always want to get in on the family business? If not, what were your other career dreams?
Dad did a remarkable job of keeping me engaged and excited about the project while never pushing or forcing me in. I figured I would have my own career and then take over the operation later in life, when he was ready to retire. That process was accelerated because of our low yields and high labor costs.
I graduated college, moved back to LA, and had a good job, but I certainly wasn’t fulfilled. The opportunity to save the family business and make it economically sustainable for generations to come sounded like an adventure of a lifetime – and that’s what it has become.
Have you done vintages elsewhere?
When Dad and I agreed that I would take over management, we devised a 3 year training program. In 2006 I worked a double vintage: SoHem in Barossa Valley Australia making big, ripe, monster Shiraz (to learn the other way of making Syrah) and then I moved over the equator and worked for Alberto Antonini in Chianti Classico. That year solidified my knowledge of winemaking fundamentals. The next two years, I worked at Henry Wine Group as a distributor rep. Jessica, my wife, was also a rep at Henry-- we met there!
What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in Santa Barbara's wine scene over the last 10 years?
Things are changing at an exciting pace here. The post-Sideways Pinot Noir craze ended with the 2008 recession. Immediately upon recovery, a globally-strategic Pinot Noir planting boom, based on worldwide demand for Pinot Noir, occurred. Now, we are going to see an explosion of “other” grapes. Gamay will lead that charge.
Thanks primarily to the age of information, and the folks like Rajat Parr that influence social and wine media, the wine world became enlightened to the fact that California is a hell of a lot more than just oaky, ripe Cabernet. Europeans and Asian markets seek out the energetic, interesting, delicious, “other” California wines and Santa Barbara has reaped the benefits in a huge way.
What is your winemaking philosophy at Stolpman?
Like most wines one finds at Verve, we do as little as possible. Ballard Canyon has very little humidity and high winds (no fungal issues) and we can allow all of our primaries to natively ferment without sulfur. Because we don’t irrigate the vineyards, our grapes are extremely concentrated. The aim is a fine balance, and delicate, pretty – nuanced flavor, purity.
Tell us a bit about your vineyard manager, Ruben. How did you begin working together?
Ruben is the youngest out of 11 kids. His older brothers Marcos and Enrique came to Santa Barbara County to work in vineyards. Jeff Newton, the founder of high-level viticulture in these parts, immediately saw their potential and groomed them to be foremen and eventually vineyard managers.
The story goes super deep to their grandfather being shot to death on top of a mountain chasing cattle-rustlers in Jalisco. After his dad died in his arms, Ruben’s dad swore that all of his children would graduate high school and live easier lives. By the time Ruben jumped the fence, he had the charisma of the youngest: wit, smarts, and within a week he learned everything that Marcos and Enrique knew about vines. Unfortunately, the amnesty laws that allowed Marcos and Enrique to get papers, had just changed.
Jeff Newton introduced Ruben to my dad, as “your new vineyard manager” – all my dad had to do was get Ruben a green card. Back then, this was expensive but possible. Now, it is impossible for me to sponsor a worker for employment, which weighs on me, as I constantly meet hard-working folks who have come here for a better life for their families and all they crave is stability. Ruben is my son’s Godfather and a mentor/brother to me. Matt Kettmann of the Wine Enthusiast crowned Ruben, “the grape whisperer”, an apt description of a truly intuitive, inspired, world-class vintner. Back in 2009, when the bank revoked our credit lines, our relationship flipped. Ruben offered me a loan to keep up with payroll. That was a gesture I will never forget.
We can't get enough of your Syrah 'So Hot' cuvée right now. Where does the inspiration for that wine come from?
The short answer: to make delicate Syrah. We can’t extract from the skin at all. Syrah So Hot is a whole-grape fermentation, whole-cluster, carbonic wine. Because it is carbonic, it is juicy, a bit primary upon opening, and way delish when young. With a year or two of age, our noble intentions begin to reveal – and all the lovely, secondary olive, savory, dried herb notes begin to emerge – more like a Cornas, just still a bit juicy.
Which varieties are you currently working with/most excited about?
Over half the vineyard is Syrah and the new clones, including Serine. We also have Gamay and Trousseau, which I mainly drink because we don’t make enough Pet’Nat!! And coming soon: Monduse, Poulsard, and Savagnin.
Are there certain regions/producers that inspire you?
I look up to the nobility, principal, doctrine, and honor of the Old World. I also love the “David v. Goliath” situation of New Australia v. Establishment Shiraz. That fight is also happening all over the world. I’m particularly fond of the young folks in Italy finding old vineyards planted to esoteric varieties and making affordable, delicious wine.
What was wine that changed your life and why?
Dad took me to Barolo when I was 16 and ordered three vineyard designated 1982 Barolo wines (my birth year) with dinner. The world opened up! I smelled nuance, I smelled beauty, I tasted minutia – the world of wine opened for me that night. We have 900 Nebbiolo vines planted, but only for dad to drink. I’ll try it out of barrel.
What is your go-to beverage aside from wine?
When I’m not drinking wine, I drink two things: Fortaleza Reposado or Fernet Branca.
What do you love most about your job(s)?
Hiking the vineyard with Jess and the dogs. Auggie, my son, lasts a mile and then chills in the off-road-stroller. When I hike the vineyard, the sense of why we work so hard comes rushing through me. Hiking the vineyard makes me proud, fulfilled, and inspired to work harder and get more creative.
Where is a place that you recently visited that inspired you?
Certainly the 100-year-old Mourvedre at Enz and the other Serine and Syrah vineyards awe me. Just the realization that all of my projects will outlive me, that they will belong to my sons… I am proud and I’m hopeful. Ruben and I are also going to France in early June this year and I hope to get even more inspired then. That being said, we are fairly chalk full of experiments already.
What are some of your hobbies outside of food + wine?
Being a dad has become all-consuming in the best way possible. August (you might be able to guess which Syrah producer he was named after?) just turned 2 and his brother is due in July. Every moment not with Augs and Jess is a moment lost. I still love surfing, hiking, and of course, long days drinking chilled red wine at our reservoir – but everything is now about the family