The Ballad of Ballard Canyon – Peter Stolpman on Stolpman Vineyards
Stolpman Vineyards’ story is reminiscent of the early pioneers of American winegrowing; they started with a dream of cultivating the land with their family and producing world class wine. Since then, their family has grown to include a full-time staff of over 30 people and their grapes have brought Ballard Canyon AVA to the forefront of California Syrah and beyond.
When Stolpman Vineyards joined the portfolio early in 2022, our American Wines Portfolio Manager, Michelle Cove, prefaced Peter Stolpman’s first, official introduction to the team by saying, “… I’ve heard this presentation four times already, but I can’t wait to hear it again, because every time I hear a new story that makes me fall in love with these wines even more!” As soon as we heard the news, we knew that we needed to find some time to sit down and get the full story from Peter himself, and after meeting with him a few weeks ago during this interview, we couldn’t agree more with Michelle’s initial sentiment.
To be clear, there really isn’t a linear, singular Stolpman story here – rather, there are what feels like dozens of important and pivotal stories that come together to make Stolpman, Stolpman. To preview, Peter’s father, Tom Stolpman, didn’t just happen upon limestone-laden vineyards in Santa Barbara County, he sought them out, specifically (see our first question below). The vineyard was founded in 1988, but Ballard Canyon didn’t become a proper AVA of its own until 2013, due in part because of Stolpman. There’s Ruben, an actual ‘Grape Whisperer’ and the keeper of these vineyards since 1994, who seems to have infinite knowledge of the vines that he works with (see our fifth question). We could go on, and on, and on, and on…
Our team has jumped at the opportunity to work with this brand, and we couldn’t be more excited to share our latest, greatest USA interview with you today to unpack all things Ballard Canyon AVA, Peter and Ruben Solorzano’s winemaking philosophy, Ruben’s ‘La Cuardilla’ profit-sharing program for vineyard workers, and somuchmore.
YOUR PARENTS STARTED STOLPMAN VINEYARDS IN 1990. HOW DID THEY CHOOSE BALLARD CANYON AND HOW HAS THE STOLPMAN BRAND DEVELOPED TO WHERE IT IS TODAY?
Stolpman Vineyards was founded by my parents, Tom, and Marilyn; my father got into wine at an early age and his love just continued and almost became fanatical. Eventually, he began researching and delving into the possibility of owning a vineyard. He was truly inspired by Ridge Monte Bello up in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Josh Jensen at Calera, and when he started to look deeper into why he loved these wines, he realized the commonality was limestone.
Luckily, the federal government has geological survey maps to help identify regions where there’s limestone. There are little outcroppings around the west side of Paso Robles, and everybody knew there were outcroppings in the Northern Ballard Canyon area. The key is that limestone is seashell. Shelled creatures lived in this giant freshwater estuary — that is now all of Santa Barbara County wine country — between two and three million years ago. We actually have a Syrah that we call the Pliocene, partially named for the era when that limestone was developing.
The reason that limestone and these shells are so important is that they don’t have acidity, so anything you grow in limestone will be the opposite. If it’s tomatoes, you’re going to have great tang and freshness. With grapes they’re energetic and lively and we cater to that. We’re obsessed, even with our bigger, bolder red wines, with picking fresh. We never want to pick baggy, droopy, dehydrated grapes, since you want to capture that acidity, that energy.
When my dad finally found his perfect limestone and bought the property in 1990, his plan was to only be a vineyard. He is a lawyer and to this day practices out of Long Beach. He knew that he didn’t have the bandwidth to be a lawyer and create a wine-making style, to figure out what equipment was needed and hire winemakers, and then you need to have a great message and packaging to bring the wine to market… so throughout the nineties we were just a vineyard.
The problem was that, at the time, California wine was based on the use of migrant labor. Vineyards needed a lot of help during pruning and harvest and then [to the employees], it’s often, “Good luck, see you later!” My dad understood how unhealthy that is. Whole families are traveling around California for different crops, or workers are leaving their kids with relatives… neither situation is optimal. So, my dad told Ruben, our vineyard manager, “I don’t want any part of that. If my dream is to come true, I want it to positively affect everybody involved. Can we figure out a way to employ full time?” And Ruben’s like, “Tom, our plan is to plant 152 acres. We can keep people busy year-round for the next decade. No problem.”
My dad’s vision was to create world class wine grapes that the best winemakers in California would want for their wine, but the combination of Ruben’s low yields to achieve the quality and our high labor meant we weren’t even operationally profitable. My dad was forced to vertically integrate.
The only way to make it work was to actually sell our product– to sell our wine and hopefully make enough money from that to justify all our expenses. And it’s funny we didn’t even have a name in mind. Back then, my dad hired a consultant to help decide what we were going to name the brand and they looked at my dad like he was crazy. They said, “All of these wineries have already made Stolpman a household name for California collectors.” Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non was getting a hundred points from Parker, Adam Tolmac from Ojai vineyard, Jim Clendenen, and Bob Lindquist, you know, all the godfathers of Santa Barbara were buying our fruit and most of them were vineyard designating it. So, it was sort of by default that the brand became eponymous.
We hired Sashi Moorman who was 27 at the time. He had been the Assistant Winemaker at Ojai and was our winemaker from 2001 through 2015. And the wine was great! But my dad was getting more and more stressed out because his decision to vertically integrate meant that we were taking about 40% of our crop for our own production. As a result, fruit sales were down by 40% and now all that money that would’ve been accrued is in a barrel. My dad had dug himself into a way deeper hole than he had expected. We had a second mortgage on our family home, my dad had personal credit lines and it started to come up, that he might have to sell. So, I quit my job and started looking for a solution.
I ended up going to Australia to study winemaking. Then I made wine in Chianti Classico, Italy. And then I worked in distribution for a couple years. During that time, I took over the vineyard contracts and began to cut even more of them out because I knew that once I joined, I would be here to go to New York, and go all over the country, and eventually the world to explain our wines, getting our brand out there. That was the way that we could get economically sustainable by making the vast majority of our grapes into wine. That began in 2008 and then I officially took over in 2009. We still do sell a little bit of fruit, but it’s mainly to our long-term relationships.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT MAKES THE TERROIR OF STOLPMAN VINEYARDS UNIQUE?
There’s a lot going on with our terroir and luckily, we’re blessed with a 30-person full-time crew where we can micro-pick the different exposures to capture each optimally. It’s a lot of fun trying to optimize.
The coolest thing about Ballard Canyon is when we got our AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 2013, we had all the growers and winemakers up to my dad’s house on the vineyard to celebrate. It was a ton of work, a ton of research to prove to the federal government that we deserved this designation.
So first off, we wanted to celebrate, and then we sat down like, “Okay, now that we have the AVA, what is our message to the world?” Everybody agreed that because Ballard Canyon is one big wind tunnel and Syrah was bred in a wind tunnel, Syrah should be the torchbearer of Ballard Canyon. The Northern Rhône is a shoot of cold continental, European weather, trying to escape and then fill the vacuum of the hotter Mediterranean. Over millennia, Syrah vines have adapted to excel in the wind. So, it was cool that everybody agreed, even though, especially at the time almost ten years ago, Syrah was a challenge in the market.
We have 174 total acres planted. We still do everything by hand, even at our scale, but we also can deliver relevant, compelling price points that will be ordered off the wine list or picked up off the shelf. For a lot of people in America, our wines don’t have to be special occasion wines or only for the collectors. So hopefully that’s the message: amazing Syrah made in a classic style, at relevant price points.
TELL US ABOUT THE ‘LA CUADRILLA’ PROJECT? NOT ONLY IS STOLPMAN’S CREW FULL-TIME, BUT THEY PRODUCE THEIR OWN WINE, CORRECT?
Yes, we have a profit-sharing program for our vineyard workers to give back to our crew and make sure that we have the best crew in California. We call that wine ‘La Cuadrilla,’ and it’s at least 10% of our production. All of the profits from sales of ‘La Cuadrilla’ are given back to our vineyard workers.
It all started with my dad mandating full-time employment for all our vineyard workers. He wanted this to be a career, not just a seasonal job. Ruben took the idea and ran with it. He cultivated an amazing culture, just hardworking people, one familial unit, you know, carpooling together meals together.
Then once our initial planting wave subsided after the ‘90s, Ruben saw that we fell into a rhythm. Ruben wanted to continue to further the crew members, so he began giving them their own Cuadra, their own block of vines that they farmed. They were the farmer, not the worker. They immediately took pride of ownership, and began to look at and engage in why we’re doing different things on different exposures. And again, thinking and talking about it and collectively making decisions on what they wanted to do with their Cuadra.
Part of why I loved going up to the vineyard was that we would always throw a barbecue, drink Corona and once the sun set tequila would come out, but nobody drank wine. Ruben conveyed how much pride our workers took in farming their own block. Well, what if they could share their own wine with their friends and family? And my dad just thought, “Well, not only will they take pride in it, but they’ll also learn to appreciate and enjoy wine. They need to learn to enjoy the fruit of their labor.” And that’s what we did. It ended up being too much wine for, at the time, fifteen people to drink every year. We began selling the rest and giving the crew members the money from the bottles we sold.
And then when I took over, in 2009, it was right in the pit of the recession. We lost our credit lines. The bank just told us straight up, “We’re not renewing any credit lines in your genre.” It was a stressful time. Ruben came to me and offered me a personal loan because he knew I didn’t have credit lines and I was struggling to make payroll every week.
When we finally got refinanced, that’s when Ruben said, “Okay Pete, you’re out of excuses, you and Jessica need to finally make a trip to my hometown in Jalisco, and only then we will celebrate. I knew our crew well, but I had never met their cousins and their moms, their aunts, and uncles who still lived in Mexico. It was a real full circle moment where, all together, we got to enjoy the wine their familes were responsible for, just as my father intended. Ever since then, ‘La Cuadrilla’ has been 10% of our production and the profits go back to the crew, divided by seniority.
RUBEN HAS BEEN WITH STOLPMAN SINCE 1994, WHAT HAS HIS IMPACT BEEN ON THE BRAND?
Ruben came over from Mexico in the late 1980s. He learned about vineyard management from his two older brothers, Marcos, and Enrique, and that was the starting point. Ruben caught the attention of Jeff Newton. Jeff was the first vineyard manager in Santa Barbara County who thought about how to raise the benchmark of quality. From there, Jeff introduced Ruben to my dad, “This guy is really smart. He’s ambitious.” … and so, my dad was able to sponsor Ruben for a green card. It took a while, a lot of back and forth and a lot of paperwork and attorneys. Ruben officially became vineyard manager in 1994, when he became legal here in California. Now Ruben and Maria, his wife, are both full citizens.
Until Ruben started, I don’t think we realized just how windy our vineyards are. Back in the day, about twenty years ago, we were pushing the envelope of cutting irrigation. On normal rainfall years, we can completely dry farm our old vines, but ‘normal’ doesn’t happen often and that was really risky. The powers that be, the academia would tell us, ‘You don’t get enough rainfall. You’re going to kill your vines. You have to irrigate.’ But we just started testing how thirsty the vines were, throughout the day. Ruben would pressure test leaves every 10 minutes and we realized they were only pulling for water for an hour, maybe two hours in the morning. Then once they began fluttering in the wind they chilled out and they weren’t actually thirsty. The wind is crucial to our approach to farming and Ruben was the one who figured that out.
The smartest thing that my dad did was build Ruben and Maria a home on the vineyard.
It was eighteen years ago and that was a game changer. The home is in a valley, and it’s literally surrounded by the vines. Living there and feeling the temperature drop, feeling the cold night air, and then feeling the wind kick up mid-morning, the fog burning off the vines, you feel what the vines are feeling. It’s made Ruben even better, more in sync and in tune with the vineyard.
Throughout the growing season if you follow Ruben around the vineyard, he’s always subconsciously touching, touching all the shoot tips. Looking at them, just feeling how moist or dry they feel. “Do they need a little help?” and often the answer is ‘No.’ At this point it’s all just by touch, sight, and intuition.
It’s been an incredible, incredible journey. Ruben is twelve years older than me, so he is like a big brother to me. It’s an amazing relationship and he’s definitely the most important guy in our company, which is why not only do we have the Para Maria partnership, which is an amazing Rosé inspired by Domaine Tempier and Bandol, but then my family gave Ruben and Maria four acres of our land that they own and Ruben planted. The wine they produce is a field blend because Ruben’s wine has to be all about the vineyard. It’s not about the winemaking. It’s called Sun & Earth, the English translation of Solorzano, Ruben’s last name. The wine is Ruben’s pride and joy. It’s his legacy; amazing, voluptuous, intense, complex wine.
YOU MENTIONED WATER CONSERVATION. WHAT IS STOLPMAN’S APPROACH TO SUSTAINABILITY?
The other cool thing about limestone in California is that it can retain water. The West is in a perpetual drought, and we don’t see that changing, but Stolpman is in a unique position. We have a very dense top-layer of clay, and when that clay gets wet, it acts as a seal for the water, which allows the limestone to sponge up moisture. We don’t irrigate for long durations, even during drought years because we’re forcing the vines to root down further into the limestone and look for moisture, creating a stronger vine.
And so, the vines wake up every spring and they know they’re not going to get much water. Even if we have perfect conditions, like we did in 2018, when other vineyards that irrigate every week were going nuts, quantity-wise, we were only up a grand total of 2%. However, this was a huge benefit for a vintage like 2020. Everywhere up north was devastated by wildfires. We didn’t have any major fires, but we did have the same heat waves that were fueling those fires; on that Labor Day weekend we had record-breaking temperatures. A lot of vineyards that are irrigated often don’t root down deep and are therefore weaker because they’re drinking from the topsoil — those vineyards crashed. The winemakers had to wait for dehydration just to get enough sugar to make any semblance of wine.
In 2020, we had a little heat damage here and there in our older vines, we picked that fruit off immediately and made a killer estate Rosé and then our red wines were phenomenal. The vast majority of our vines marched on through the heat wave. What you see at the vineyard is just the tip of the iceberg; even if the tip of the vine’s head feels hot, the vines have 40-feet deep roots that are cool and damp. We believe it’s the future of viticulture in the Western United States.
If you look at the counter to what we’re doing it gets kind of sad because people are irrigating every week. Most of that water is wasted on weeds and because you’re having to weed so much, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to spray herbicide. Then for the water that does get to the vine you’re hedging, you’re pulling off shoots, you’re pulling off leaves, so that’s more waste, throwing all that growth on the ground. And then to achieve what has become the California style of really ripe, hundred-point wines, you’re letting the grapes dehydrate. Then to bring the wine back to 15% alcohol, you’re adding thousands of liters of water to every fermentation, more water, water, water. Water all the way through to bottle.
So, for us, limestone is just incredible. It really tells the tale not only with our balance and acidity, but then the consistency that we can deliver, even on challenging vintages, for instance the 2020 Estate Syrah is one of the most delicious we’ve ever made. And it would be a much different wine if it wasn’t for our optimization of our soil.
SPEAKING OF OPTIMIZATION, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT STOLPMAN’S MOTHER VINE?
We started with just 50 special cuttings that were inspired from an epic, long meeting with Olivier Clape, the grandson of August Clape, in Cornas. They’re pre-clonal. They’ve never been bred year after year for profit and for bigger grapes, so we knew they would be very low yielding. We own rooted them, the majority of our vines are own rooted because there’s not enough moisture and fertility in our soil to support the Phylloxera bug, so we don’t need to worry about protecting our vines from the root louse. We put these 50 cuttings right in the ground. 49 of them went up and down two different rows.
But then with the 50th cutting, rather than cutting the growth and planting separately the next year, we just dug a little trench, layered the growth underground, poked the vine back up at the next post and then covered the root up with dirt. When the vine wakes up anything in the dirt will grow roots. Anything above ground will grow leaves and eventually grapes as one vine. From the first mother, we layered three daughters using her three shoots, and then from those four vines, we got nine granddaughters, eighteen great-granddaughters, on and on and on. From one vine in 2013, to, as of today in 2022, 800 vine heads now grow all connected. The vine is not only going to have 40-foot-deep roots, but it’ll have a vast half acre of 40-foot-deep roots to rely on.
So, it’ll be strong enough to endure the challenges that any year can provide and deliver hopefully amazing wine every year. Currently, she is producing grapes from the older generations where we’ve cut off irrigation. The vines feed off of the younger generations on the periphery. This way we’re forcing the vine to stay united and work together amongst all the different generations.
By 2031, she’ll be at 2000 heads. The dream is one vintage, one vineyard, one vine making a few hundred bottles of wine one day. It’s an eighteen-year investment. Customers come out and they’re like, “Wow, this is amazing! Is this your only one? How many of these do you have?” I don’t think I can afford more than one. At the very least, I think we’ll probably wait to taste her before we try and replicate her again.
IN THE PAST YOU’VE HINTED THAT JESS, YOUR WIFE, WILL BE COMING OUT WITH HER OWN PROJECT… CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
I haven’t talked about this much at all, but we have a two-acre block of Savagnin– the ancient white varietal from Jura. Jess, right before we got married in 2013, went to France to hang out with her dear friend who was living in Paris. They wanted to do one wine trip outside the city and they both loved Jura. I had never been to Jura, but it ended up being one of those magical trips where everything just goes right. You know, your tasting appointment with an old, wise winemaker turns into dinner, and then baking bread in the morning, and they just had the most incredible time.
She came home obsessed, especially by the whites. And this inspiration led us to plant three different Savagnin strains, inspired by Overnoy, Tissot, and Macle, that are just coming to production as a two acre field blend. Raj Parr, who we work with on our ‘Combe’ brand envisions an intentionally oxidative version ala Vin Jaune. And then Jessica’s vision is to make a clean, pure Savagnin. We also have four-and-a-half acres of Chardonnay, so we have the option to blend. It’ll be fun that Jessica, who was the first of all us to go to Jura, even including Raj, will now make a Jura-inspired white wine. There’s a lot to look forward to at Stolpman Vineyards!
• Practicing Organic • 50% Pinot Gris, 23% Orange Muscat, 19% Semillon, 8% Gewurztraminer
• Sourced from old vines, mainly planted in the 1970s in the Los Alamos Corridor and Los Olivos District of Santa Barbara County
• De-stemmed, left whole grape
• Carbonic fermentation for 7 days in shallow stainless-steel tanks
• Pressed into stainless-steel tanks to complete fermentation
• Bottled unfiltered, no sulfur added
• 4,700 cases produced
• 12.5% abv
• Practicing Organic • 60% Mourvèdre, 20% Grenache, 20% Syrah
• Sourced from four vineyards in Santa Barbara County
• Immediate press, cold, native fermentation
• Fermented in stainless steel tanks at 55 degrees Fahrenheit
• Held at 31 degrees Fahrenheit until bottling
• 2,300 cases produced
• 12.5% abv
• Practicing Organic
• 70% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 10% Sangiovese
• A vineyard-wide blend of all Syrah, Sangiovese, and Grenache blocks at Stolpman Vineyard (Ballard Canyon AVA)
• 67% de-stemmed, 33% whole-cluster
• Fermented in open top concrete tanks for 21 days
• Aged 6 months in 100% neutral French Ermitage 500L oak Puncheons
• 8,400 cases produced
• 14% abv
• Practicing Organic • 100% Syrah
• Sourced from almost all Syrah blocks at Stolpman Vineyards (Ballard Canyon AVA)
• Vines planted from 1990s-2000s
• Concrete fermenting tanks for 21 days
• 30% whole-cluster
• Aged 5 months in 100% neutral French oak 500L Puncheons
• 2700 cases produced
• 14.1% abv
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