As a teenager, Kris Curran would drive along the winding road through the Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Ynez Valley and marvel at the scenic beauty. One parcel in particular stood out to her -- a sweeping hillside vista that Curran imagined might be a perfect place to grow grapes.
Twenty years later, the smiley-eyed Curran, 36, is in charge of winemaking for Bob David's Sea Smoke Cellars, situated on a portion of the pristine property that she had once envisioned under vine. David, a wealthy entrepreneur who invented the handheld Draw Poker, Bass Fishin' and Pocket Solitaire games, established Sea Smoke on a piece of the coveted land in 1999.
Sea Smoke, which David named after the billowing ocean fog that snakes through the valley, comprises 100 acres of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara's newest appellation, the Santa Rita Hills. The vineyard is planted on a steep, rocky, south-facing grade. The winery is located in a warehouse area in Lompoc, to the west. David, who now splits his time between homes in Reno, Nev., and the Caribbean, where he likes to fish, doesn't plan to build a winery on the property because access to the vineyard is restricted.
It is here that fate united Curran with David, who hired her for what she considers a dream job. "I really love this area," she says as she maneuvers her four-wheel-drive pickup on the gravelly terrain. "I grew up here, went to high school here, and even when I left to go to college, I knew I always wanted to live here."
Her challenge, as she sees it, boils down to making great Pinot Noir, the kind of wine that will excite David, who collects from Burgundy's Leroy and Sonoma's Kistler, both of which make dark, rich, high-extract and oaky styles of Pinot.
The secondary challenge, says Curran, is "getting a grip on the fruit that's coming in and refining that quality." The goal is to have three tiers of Pinot Noir from the vineyard. The finest wine is called Ten; it takes its name from the 10 different Pinot clones in the vineyard. Botella, a second wine, is named after the predominant soil type. Southing reflects the direction the vineyard faces. Total production is expected to reach 15,000 cases.
"The [grape] quality appears to be there," Curran says of the dark-colored 2001s, the winery's first commercial releases, totaling 800 cases. Both the Botella and the Southing are rich in blackberry and blueberry fruit; I rated them 90Ð94 points in recent barrel tastings. The Botella ($25) offered a fascinating range of raspberry and blackberry flavors, with rich, plush tannins. The Southing ($45) was leaner and showed more earth and pencil lead commingling with the berry fruit. "
Essentially, it's a time game, where we figure out where the best parts of the vineyard are," explains Curran. "So far there's nothing glaringly bad and nothing sensational. But it's the most wonderful fruit I've ever had."
This is Curran's third winemaking job. She studied winemaking at UC, Davis, and has a degree from Fresno State University. After college, Curran worked at Cambria, in Santa Maria Valley, and for Koehler Vineyards before being hired as Sea Smoke's winemaker in 2000, a year after the vineyard was planted. "Obviously, I have a love affair with Pinot Noir," she says. And her romantic relationship with Bruno D'Alfonso, longtime winemaker at Sanford, which is across the Santa Ynez River from Sea Smoke, has only fueled her passion for the variety.
"Because we're both involved in winemaking and Pinot Noir, we're able to bounce things off each other. Bruno is highly opinionated and experienced, and sometimes you miss things [in a wine] that are obvious." Then she says with a laugh, "There's always something to talk about."
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