I was convinced we were never going to find this vineyard. “Turn down Happy Canyon Road,” said Tom Bryant, architect, caretaker and newly-anointed wine aficionado, due to his most current job working with Grassini Family Vineyards in Santa Barbara, California, a position he happened upon through the forces of the universe.
My friend and I were lost. Two ladies carrying notepads and cameras were frantically looking for this private family-owned and operated vineyard. We couldn’t manage to find it and I was due to meet Tom and visit the property to get a true sense of the terroir of the land and how the family produces their high quality wines. As the current vernacular says, “Epic fail”.
After a few more attempts to find it, we persevered making our way to the gated vineyard where we were greeted by Tom, a warm and friendly man who was just as excited to see us as we were to have found him.
Our first look inside the vineyard began with what we believed to be the family’s home, used for entertaining and tastings. As we toured around inside the home, seeing the bedrooms and living space, Tom suddenly hit one small button and a door opened to reveal the actual wine caves, something quite similar to what I believe the fictitious Batcave looks like, if Batman was a secret winemaker.
I stepped through the door into a small, but highly efficient wine operation created in part to pay homage to the ancient Romans who stored their wine in catacombs. The two-floored space not only had tasting rooms for smaller events and gatherings, but also an entire bottle making operation where they bottle all of their own wine on the premises.
Larry Grassini, the patriarch of the family, whose own family routes stem back to Pisa, Italy, is somewhat of a visionary, explained Tom. While he had owned the property for some time before converting it into a winery, he wanted to give back to the women in his life, including his wife and four daughters, and build a family business that would engage them and also be part of their own legacy and story for years to come.
While the caves look aesthetically pleasing, they also serve a purpose far greater than that. They are constructed in such a way that the caves ensure temperature control for the wine, allowing for the fluctuation in humidity and only using a fraction of electrical energy resources. The family is committed to sustainability with the overall operations at the vineyard. The property runs on solar power and all of the water used for irrigation comes from the property’s beautiful lake that is kept well stocked with bass. “Terroir is beyond the soil,” said Bryant, “but where you are located in the world.”
Bryant, while not a Grassini by blood, has been taken in as if he were family and certainly has developed a predilection for winemaking undoubtedly expressed in the way he talks about the terroir and different varietals that the vineyard produces. He’s worked diligently constructing the home and wine caves that are on the property today, but has also become a bona fide wine expert and conservationist. The love of his craft and the connection he has with the family led him to find extraordinary reclaimed antique fir that was milled from timbers that hail from the Columbia River. After finding such wood, he channeled his inspiration into beautiful wood work found throughout the house on the property in Santa Ynez, as well as the long wooden bar in the tasting room in downtown in El Paseo in Santa Barbara.
Luxury Resort and Winery in the Rolling Hills of Tuscany
Equipo is only one of the many Bordeaux varietals that Cardoza and his team produce, after planting every vine on the vineyard itself. Others include the likes of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot varietals along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Several unique Cabernet clones, tended by hand, enhance the exceptional wines produced on the estate, Grassini added.
Katie Grassini, one of Larry’s four daughters, is at the helm of the operations of the family business and can often be found behind that handcrafted bar, speaking with clients and wine lovers about her family history, the wines they’re producing and how they are continually evolving and keeping up with sustainable winemaking practices. One thing Grassini stressed was the importance of working with the right people like Bryant and those who they’ve chosen to work the vineyard. In turn, the family looks for ways to give back to their loyal staff. Take for instance, their Equipo wine. This is no ordinary varietal; rather it stems from a block of the vines that are given to the crew each year.
The dedicated crew, led by vineyard foreman Manuel Cardoza, even choose the word “Equipo” which in Spanish means “team” as the wine’s moniker. The staff manages and makes any top-level decisions including irrigation, fertilization, pest control, pruning and the like and any decisions on how to produce their wine. “We told our staff ‘we trust you’. We know they’ll make the best wine that they possibly can,” said Grassini, who added that the family gives a portion back to the workers for annual year-end bonuses.
“This all came about after a manager told my mother that one of their children had a birth defect and needed to have a costly surgery. We started this originally almost as an emergency fund where we could buy our staff gift cards to the supermarket or local grocery store. Now, as the project has grown, we think of it more as a scholarship fund.”
One such diamond in the rough steeped in deep family traditions is the family’s 2013 Articondo. The name of the wine is in honor of Grassini’s great grandfather who was the first in the family to leave Pisa in search for greener pastures in the United States. Her father Larry has very fond memories of his artisan grandfather. While he was a man who worked on the railroads his whole life, in his spare time he loved to garden and cook. Grassini explained that the Articondo wine is meant to be approachable, a red wine that you can drink with just about any type of food, something Articondo himself would’ve only dreamt about doing.
While the vineyard is strictly private and doesn’t allow visitors, the Grassini’s believe the work they and their team are doing on Happy Canyon Road is transformational—not only for themselves but for those who drink their wine. Theirs is not only a story of an entrepreneurial enterprise or an outstanding vineyard, for that matter. It’s a story of a people who not only love one another but also believe in what they do with their quality product that brings joy to others. I can say with certainty, after seeing the property and meeting Bryant and Grassini that I, too, hope to be a Grassini someday when I grow up.
Keeping it in the family.
by Kristen Oliveri