Thursday, July 25, 2013

Looking for Millennials in Santa Barbara Wine Country

We had rented a place in Santa Barbara in the Mesa neighborhood on the other side of Highway 101 from the downtown.  We’d never visited there so we had some anxiety about the VRBO house we had rented for the long weekend.  Everyone in the car was saying it was going to be a loser which would mean we’d spend half the weekend going over the missed clues in the website description and blaming me, the guy who picked the house, for missing them. 

But the place turned out terrific -- a little house, a bit odd -- but leafy, private and completely delightful.  We soon had the wine out and were chatting happily over the buzzing hummingbirds and some lovely cheese and salami.  A Scrub Jay who apparently owned the yard insisted on getting some of our bread but soon shut up when we tossed an almond his way and he flew off to a fence post where he puzzled over what to do with it.

We talked our way through the early evening, watched the sun alter the Santa Ynez Mountains by the minute, cooked perfectly moist chicken breasts on the nifty adjustable level barbecue and tossed almonds at the Scrub Jay until the can was empty.  Later, we went to the other side of the yard with our strawberries and clumsily slid into the hot tub as the last light fell, calling it a fine day.

We had just a handful of items on the agenda.  We wanted to hang with our friends who were headed back to Ireland and its weather after three years in sun rich Santa Monica.  We wanted to cook some delicious food at our now favorite VRBO house in the Mesa neighborhood.  We wanted to visit the wine country on the other side of those lovely mountains.  And, a bonus, it was close enough to Barbara’s birthday to call the trip a present.

Santa Barbara uses the term “America’s Riviera” to describe itself, but really, the true comparison to the Riviera is only the climate.  Santa Barbara has a much more survivable scale than the French Riviera version.  In 2012, 800,000 people went through Santa Barbara’s Airport while the Nice Airport handled 10,000,000 passengers.  

Santa Barbara is small – about 85,000 people.  Combined with nearby municipalities -- Summerland to the north and Goleta to the south -- this narrow strip between the Pacific and the Santa Ynez Mountains has a population of about 120,000 people.  At the far north end of the county and a bit off the coast is Lompoc, about 45 miles from Santa Barbara. 

Santa Barbara’s unique geology is, in part, an interaction between the rising and falling of the sea and the rising and falling of the land.  For the past 20,000 years, beaches form at different sea levels and later the land is pushed up, starting the beach on its trip to the mountain top.  Each new sea level and new upthrust create a series of uneven steps leading up to the oldest events, now the eroding peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains, lines of sedimentary rock reaching upward. 

Santa Barbara rises, on average, from two to five millimeters a year.  The hummingbirds, the Scrub Jay and we four are located on one of those old beaches at our mesa house, perhaps 125 feet in the air, as we have coffee and cantaloupe on our ancient beach and prepare to head out.  We’re headed for the downtown farmers' market that turned out to be as good as we had heard.  The markets move around the county and even across the Santa Ynez Mountains into the Northern part of the county and are in Santa Barbara two days, Tuesday and Saturday.

It is every urban market you see, white tents crowded with earnest people selling mostly organic.  It is distinguished by its wonderful products.  The agricultural bounty of Santa Barbara County is headlined by the strawberry, a crop that brings $450 million a year with many, many small organic growers growing with the big guys.  It’s a year round crop there and the market was full of them and they were very good. 

We also found some Shishito Peppers, a Japanese varietal that I’d just had for the first time on this trip.  They were fantastic, sweet and thin-skinned, simply prepared by blistering in a little oil, squeezing lemon over them and sprinkling with sea salt.  They had an amazing taste though we found one of them whose genes overrode the pepper’s sweet, gentle taste and was as hot as any Jalapeno.  Turns out that about one in ten Shishito carry the heat and this little genetic risk makes them taste even sweeter.

The melons were astounding and you could find Rock Crab, rare up in the Northwest, but common here where there are few Dungeness.  We bought mussels and bread, a big sack of Shishitos and headed up to our ancient beach on the hill for lunch.  Though the mussels were fabulous, I regretted not getting a couple of Rock Crab. 

California’s agriculture, like much of the agriculture in the west for the past several years, seems to have hardly noticed the Great Recession.  After a down year in 2009, in which California’s agricultural output dropped about 6% in value, it returned to its steady, China-like growth rate.  In 2012, California was generating agricultural products worth $55 billion dollars annually, more than 70% of them crops and the rest cattle and other animal products.  By comparison, the Boeing Commercial Airplane Division reported 2012 revenues of $49 billion in 2012.   Santa Barbara ranks 14th  in agricultural production of the 58 counties that make up California, but still provides nearly $1.5 billion a year in farm income, four times less than the state’s powerhouse, Fresno County, but still substantial.  After strawberries, you’d think wine grapes.  But you’d be wrong.  Humble broccoli beats out the grapes for second place in the Santa Barbara agricultural pantheon.

After all those mussels at lunch, we thought twice about going back to town but wanted to check out what Santa Barbara calls the Urban Wine Trail which led us directly to the Funk Zone, a chaotic 16 block area of low slung commercial and warehouse buildings near the beach, bisected by one of the two North/South rail lines serving the state.

In the mid-eighties it was zoned for hotels and related tourist uses and the pressure was building for major development.  Artists always find these cool, yet endangered spaces and were moving in and putting art not only on the inside of their studios but on the outside walls of the buildings containing their studios.  In the mid-nineties it had truly become an artist colony, home to one winery, surf and marine
equipment shops strung along its dark streets.  As the pressure to tear down and build grew, some members of the council and the mayor began to advocate for a new kind of zoning that would protect the funkiness of the place.  Ultimately, they adopted a code that requires activities there to be mixed use residential/commercial, tourist serving and marine light manufacturing. 

Three or four years ago the wineries began moving in and with them the food trucks, the restaurants and the music that flows after the wine.  From one winery tasting room back in the old days to more than 20 today, it has evolved from funky to cool.  A similar set of events is happening in Lompoc, creating a warehouse district there called The Wine Ghetto.  Places like these are growing up all over wine country and they demonstrate just how volatile and adaptable the retail side of the industry has become, seeking, as it does, more direct sales to its customers.  It is what happened to Woodinville outside of Seattle in the last five years and what has happened in downtown Walla Walla. Washington state law changed to allow wineries an additional tasting room outside of where the wine was actually made.  Soon, 120 or so wineries and a few distilleries took over those little mini-mart mini-malls, warehouses, old bungalows and storefronts.  It created an easier destination tasting experience and consumers like us in Seattle don’t have to drive several
hours to try new wine.  Though Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is small with lots of change ahead, all of them are terrific and authentic.  We focused on the young people in those places, the family atmosphere, the young tasters lounging on a wicker couch, their kids at their feet with crayons marking up some old wine cases.

Real estate in Santa Barbara is now back to full throttle and property in the Funk Zone is changing hands in all cash, asking price deals.  All of this makes the artists anxious as they look at their relatively short leases and see all this success around them. It will be tough to stay.

We sat in the tasting room at Kunin Winery, owned by Seth Kunin and his wife Magan Eng, and tried their wine.  They made big boys, plenty of alcohol, though they managed to keep the tasty fruit around that they started with.  Kunin came from New York to UCLA and its medical school, but veered off into the restaurant business and then wine via the Gainey Vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley where he first signed on as a volunteer at crush.  Eng comes from Chicago’s retail wine world and the newspaper business -- growing up, her Mom had a long relationship with the late Roger Ebert, the film critic.

In 2009, Kunin was one of a handful of wineries offering tastings in the Funk Zone and recently doubled down with a new concept tasting room called AVA Santa Barbara, just around the corner from his first place.  Kunin and Eng will offer very small batch wines – 120 cases or so – from the American Viticulture Areas in Santa Barbara County and from other areas that will, over time, qualify as AVAs.  This will allow customers to have wines from the many different micro-climates in Santa Barbara County in one place.
 
These places seem to have captured one of the elements that bring in the Millennials, the generational cohort on which the future of the wine business
in large part depends.   The idea of pulling together many wineries in a relatively small geography seems to really work with their generation.  Born between roughly 1982 and 2000, a little more than half of them are now drinking wine legally.  By 2021, all 70 million of them will be legal drinkers.  Just as the boomers discovered wine and nurtured the industry in the sixties and seventies the Millennials will shape wine’s future by the tastes and preferences they discover themselves or learn from winemakers and marketers.  The bad is that every day, 10,000 Boomers retire.  The sort of good news is that they are replaced by 15,000 Millennials.

They are a make or break generation.  Without the Millennials, John McCain would have been President of the United States.  More Millennials voted in 2012 than citizens over 62 -- 16% of the electorate versus 14%.  In 2020, 40% of the electorate will be Millennials.  As in political life, the wine industry is struggling to figure out what to do about the Millennials, how to gauge their impact and what kind of wine to make, package and sell to them.

While the research shows that many Millennials like wine, there is a substantial debate about whether Millennials will buy good wine or buy wine on the cheap.  Rob McMillan, who writes a breezy “State of the Wine Industry Report” for Silicon Valley Bank, believes that the Millennials don’t have the kind of net worth that justifies the purchase of premium wines over $20 a bottle and that other, older generations will have to foot the bill for better wines, reducing market share for them.  He’s down on the Millennial contribution to the wine industry at the moment, and I wondered reading his report whether a child has moved back into his house.  He believes they are
Silicon Valley Bank
all about "caring about color, price and varietal."  He thinks they have little respect for where the wines come from.  He observes that millennials buy a lot more imported wines, cutting into US market share.

However, California’s Wine Market Council says that Millennials are driving the growth in wine consumption in the US.  More of them drink wine daily, 28%, considerably more than other generations.  Because of the high percentage of Americans who say they do not drink any kind of alcohol, 43%, the rate at which Millennials drink is important.  Driving the abstemious number down to 30% means a great deal to the US wine market.  By comparison, only 5.3% of Germans don't drink alcohol and 6.3% of French. Millennials drink on more occasions and in non-traditional venues and they drink more per sitting, all good news to the industry.  Other consultants think that the food lovers populating the Millennial generation will have good food be the gateway to premium wine consumption. 

A problem in the Millennial population is that it is so racially and ethnically diverse.  It has a large Hispanic segment, a particularly difficult group to attract to the wine life, if not the picking part of it.  

The amazing generational research done by the Pew Charitable Trusts tells us this about the Millennials:

“Generations, like people, have personalities, and Millennials — the American teens and twenty-somethings who are making the passage into adulthood at the start of a new millennium — have begun to forge theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”


Despite a rough time entering the job market in recession, the Millennials tend to be confident about the future, according to Pew.  They are on-line, green, educated and say they have enough money on hand to meet their financial goals, despite the fact that 37% in 2010 were out of work or not in the job market.

They have, according to Pew, a quiky kind of self expression.  Four in ten of them have a tattoo and half of that number have multiple tattoos, though most say their tattoos are obscured by their clothing.   A much larger number than other generations reports a body piercing other than in their ear lobes.  More say they want to help other people than say they want to own a home or have a high paying job. 

Along with the financial factors, marketing wine to them is a challenge and the industry seems a bit perplexed about how to meet it.  The branding I’ve seen “OMG Merlot” and the Be. Brand – “B. Flirty, B. Radiant, B. Bright” -- seem to be trying to take the pretension out of wine with a condescending tool.    

I think of my Millennial daughter’s friends and, to them, the scene at Kunin would work, starting with the gobs of red wine being served.  But also fun.  No pretension.  No hard sell.  Authenticity.  Forget the pear and pomegranate finishes.  Remember that price, for now, matters.  The crowd at Kunin was a Millennial outfit and they were indeed having fun.  It was as much drinking wines, as tasting wines, bottles on tables, full wine glasses sloshing about.  One couple sat on the stairs leading up to the porch, a bottle of Syrah between them, sharing a store-bought salad from a plastic container, one plastic fork working just fine for the two of them. 

As five o’clock came, no one was scurrying out.  Most of the tasting rooms stay open at least until 6PM and some to 7PM, another feature of the urban wine zones.  We went back with a couple of Kunin Syrahs for dinner and, despite the blood oath we took on the way to the airport in Seattle, we had a new wine club membership.

For those of us who love Walla Walla but don’t like the 4-1/2 hour drive, the 39 mile drive North and West of the city and across the Santa Ynez Mountains into Santa Barbara’s rural wine country is a gift.  The unique land forms create many different micro-climates and soils that help distinguish Santa Barbara wines.  The county sits in a westward bulge in the North American land mass that gives it a south facing
shoreline running east and west.  Most of the valleys have the same east/west orientation due to the way the mountains have folded over time.  All this makes it easier for the marine air to move in and out of many of their vines, creating hot weather in the day and cool, even cold weather at night.

The variety of soils is also fairly dramatic.  Some vineyards are perched on seabed limestone and sandstone and decomposing clay rich in magnesium.  Others are in a smooth, loamy mixture, on which stand those noble California oak trees, solitary in some places, in others bunched together as if sharing a secret.

The movie “Sideways” is still playing in Santa Barbara’s wine country.  The story of Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and their tour of the the valley prior to Jack’s wedding is memorialized in several maps and marketing initiatives.  You can get the same room, sit in the same booth at the Clubhouse Sports Bar and, if you want, take a swig from the spit bucket at Fess Parker’s Winery.  We saw a couple of large banners flapping “As seen on
Sideways.”  Released in 2004, the residual value of “Sideways” helped the valley get through the Great Recession.  And, the hits just keep on coming.  A Japanese version of Sideways was made in 2009 although, it was shot in Napa.  The author of the novel "Sideways" is Rex Pickett and he's playing the movie again as well.  After writing "Vertical," where he travels with his Mom through Oregon and to Wisconsin, he's now got a new project.  He's in Chile. 

There are 90 wineries in the county and some 16,000 acres of wine grapes, a slightly higher acreage than Washington’s Yakima Valley.  Nearly half the grapes are Chardonnay with another 20% in Pinot Noir. 

We stopped at a couple of the older wineries, Sunstone, where barrels are stored in caves and the wine dispensed in a lovely building.  They make a really good Merlot and we shared a glass, smacking our lips as if Miles might hear us. 

We drove to Solvang, an old Danish settlement that is the largest town in the
grape growing country, though we never stopped once we saw the crowds of tourists, the mall-like look of the place and the fake building fronts tarted up in some kind of Danish village theme. 

We did stop at a place called Los Olivos for lunch.  A wide spot in the road, but to me, it looked like what a village in wine country should look like.  It had several storefront wineries, among them Longoria, another wine pioneer.  

A college kid at UC Berkeley, Rick Longoria and his friends would drive up to Napa and Sonoma on weekends and soon were falling in love with the wine life and the beautiful landscapes in which it thrives.  In the early seventies, he was a cellar man for Buena Vista Winery in Napa, one of those kids you see hanging around the winery at the end of the day, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking a glass.  After some courses and a couple more years, he moved on to the Firestone Vineyard as a cellar manager and began the process of becoming a winemaker by borrowing gear and buying grapes from others and making a few bottles.  Among the wineries he worked as a winemaker was Gainey Vineyard, the place Seth Kunin threw his hat in as a volunteer.  He began producing his own label in 1982, though he continued to work as a winemaker a several wineries.   

He worked for others until 1997, always making a few hundred cases of his own.  Finally, in 1997, he and his wife began working full time for their own label and purchased his tasting room storefront in Los Olivos in 1998.  He planted his first vineyard in 1998.  If you are counting, that is a 23 year apprenticeship. 

After he built his first vineyard, in the hills above Lompoc, he needed a place to make his wine that was nearby and inexpensive.  He leased space in a Lompoc warehouse with aluminum siding and soon others like him were moving in, creating the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, a country cousin to the Funk Zone.

Among his wines are those that call up his Spanish heritage and we decide to eat lunch in his side yard that is home to three simple tables and the shade of a plum tree on a day that has become just a bit hot.

We choose a bottle of Alberino, a Spanish favorite of ours, to go with the wheat thins and a couple of salads from the deli in the small grocery store across the street.  We took the cold bottle to the side yard and, in a moment of weakness, joined the wine club.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Vernonia. Been there, biked there from Longview.. At the time, the big mill was still operating and the saw logs were huge. Haven't been there since - I suspect it's no longer a "mill town" but a
    village.

    ReplyDelete