The SOMM Journal

February / March 2016

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Page 70 of 132

70 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016 { meet the vintner } I THINK FOR ALL OF US, THERE ARE A HANDFUL OF SPECIAL days or moments that profoundly affect some sort of facet of our lives. The time I got to spend with winemaker Brandon Sparks-Gillis a few years ago was one such day that impacted my professional career as a sommelier. Following Brandon from barrel to barrel in the chilly warehouse of Dragonette Cellars in Buellton, California that day made me realize something very important: To truly know a wine, you must meet its maker. This was only affirmed for me when recently speaking with Advanced Sommelier Paul Sherman of Valentino who considers the "winegrower as the most important aspect of terroir." Yes, I know he said "winegrower," but in the case of Dragonette—Brandon and brothers John and Steve Dragonette— winemaker and winegrower are virtually one in the same. They may not own their Central Coast vineyards, but they are heavily involved in the farming process. Dragonette wine is fathered by finding the best sites and mothered by the soft and patient hand of the winemakers. Born from this approach are some of the best Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Rhône variety–based wines the Central Coast has to offer. It could be that this selfless, hands-off yet thoughtful practice is why Dragonette is one of my personal favorites; or maybe it's that Brandon is one of the most down-to-earth, genuine winemakers I've ever met. You can imagine then, my excitement when our Publisher, Meridith May, informed me that Brandon would be visiting to taste through the latest release of Dragonette Cellars. I was especially excited to hear they were working on a Chardonnay for the first time. We tasted the youngster as a tank sample, but the potential was there. While Brandon pours, he tells us, "This 2014 is from a single vineyard Chardonnay called Duvarita, formerly known as Presidio, the first biodynamic vineyard planted in the county in 2000." Meridith May immediately picked up on the signature spice of the Duvarita. I'm anxious to taste the grown up version of this spicy, nervy Chardonnay. Look for a 2015 Chardonnay, as this 2014 will mostly be available only for wine club allocation. The young Chard was great, but the Dragonette white that still reigns supreme for me is the Vogelzang Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. At the risk of using too many superlatives, it's one of the best versions of domestic Sauvignon Blanc I've ever had. Says Brandon, "We take a pretty different approach to it in that we farm it as intensively as Pinot Noir. Our average yield for Sauv Blanc last year was a ton and half per acre." The other thing that's different about this Sauv Blanc is the aging. Brandon says, "We like to give it time. It's rare to have a Sauvignon Blanc that's bottled after 16 months of aging [in large oak barrels and steel], but we believe that when you have that sort of power it makes sense, especially for the layers and the texture." In fact, to celebrate their ten-year anniversary they tasted through every Dragonette wine ever made. "The Sauvignon Blancs were especially interesting; 2008 was the first vintage and there's not a single bottle that's even close to hitting its peak yet," says Brandon. The 2013 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir showed just as beautifully— smoky and mineraly with a bright red-fruit center. Their Sta. Rita Hills is a blend of about half John Sebastiano, then 10% Fiddlestix, 25% La Encantada, 8% Bentrock, 10% Radian and pinch of Duvarita. "We wanted our Sta. Rita Hills Pinot to have the voice of the area rather than just a single vineyard and use the different vineyards to create some complexity. What's amazing is that the span from Radian to John Sebastiano is only about ten miles. But the flavor profile and the grape harvest of the wines are dramatically different." Following the Pinot, we tasted the 2013 single-vineyard John Sebastiano Grenache and also their highly acclaimed 2012 MJM Syrah-based blend. If only I had to room to wax poetic over these wines! But I don't. Just try them. Try anything from Dragonette Cellars. And when you do, keep in mind that my favorite thing about these wines is that they, very much like Brandon, don't try too hard. They're just good honest wines proud to be from the Central Coast. I told Brandon this and with a giant smile, he took that as a compliment and said, "That's pretty much what we're try - ing to do. We start with great vineyards, work our ass off through the farming so the fruit is in pristine shape and in the winery use that perfect fruit so we can be as hands-off as possible. So it's not like fitting a square peg into a round hole or any sort of style agenda—we're just there to give the vineyards a voice." PHOTO COURTESY OF DRAGONETTE CELLARS Unforced Greatness DRAGONETTE CELLARS TURNS TEN by Jessie Birschbach From left to right, brothers Steve and John Dragonette and Brandon Sparks- Gillis eyeing the vines of Happy Canyon at Grassini Family Vineyard.

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