A hungry crowd gathers around a large table at Hitching Post II, a shrine to grilled beef in Santa Barbara wine country. A longtime favorite of winemakers, it's the sort of restaurant that practically demands a hearty bottle of red. Winemaker Brian Loring, who produces some of California's most robust Pinot Noirs, calls the group to order and brings out nearly a dozen wines from his personal cellar—all of it Champagne.
There are all kinds of winemakers in the world, and then there's Loring. He's a man who knows what he likes, and he likes expensive Champagne even when hamburgers are the menu. He's a connoisseur of fine food, as long as it's strictly meat and potatoes. He doesn't eat vegetables or fruit, except for lettuce, which he calls "a blue cheese dressing delivery vehicle."
The preferential attitude extends to the wines he makes, which are extracted, fruit-forward and not lacking in alcohol, exactly how Loring likes them. And although Loring's are widely regarded as among California's top Pinot Noirs, the vintner refuses to even taste grapes before they ferment. He shudders at the thought. "It's a texture thing. It's like biting into a little eyeball," says Loring, 52, who often jokes about his foibles.
While Loring was growing up, his parents, Edward and Helen, owned a craft store near the family's home in Arcadia, Calif., located just outside Los Angeles, near Pasadena. Next to the craft store was a wineshop, and when Loring was 17, he took a job there as a stock boy. His parents weren't wine drinkers at the time. "The night manager was a wine geek, and hearing him talk about wine got me curious," Loring recalls. "So I had my mom buy bottles that the manager suggested, and we'd try them on the weekends."
His first big discovery was Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. In college, when his friends were chugging beer, Loring drank the 1974 BV. In the 1980s, while working at a wineshop in West Hollywood, he discovered red Burgundies such as Domaine Dujac and Henri Jayer, and soon became hooked. He sampled the California Pinots of the era but found them lacking, except for Calera, which would become an inspiration.
Loring intended to become a doctor, but by the time he finished his bachelor's degree in biology at California State, Fullerton, in 1984, he had lost interest in a career in medicine. Instead, he joined Kimberly in Cal State's computer science department, where he earned his second B.A. Brother and sister both got jobs in the field in Los Angeles after graduation: Kimberly worked on hardware for McDonnell Douglas and later Bank of America, and Loring wrote software as an independent contractor for Hughes Aircraft and other aerospace companies. "I worked on mostly Navy projects, including missile and torpedo launch systems for submarines, as well as sonar systems for various platforms," Loring explains.
In his time off, he studied wine books and explored Napa, Sonoma and other regions. After a few weeks working the harvest at Cottonwood Canyon in Santa Maria in 1997 and 1998, he made his own wine, even though he lacked any formal training. Cottonwood Canyon owner Norm Beko sold him 3 tons of Pinot in 1999, and Loring made 150 cases at the winery, under Beko's guidance.
Kimberly, then living in the San Francisco Bay Area, often joined her brother down in Santa Maria, assisting him with his winemaking projects. When Loring's 1999 vintage was ready to sell, West Coast wine specialist K&L agreed to buy most of it. Loring's career in wine took off from there, and while the siblings' day jobs helped pay the bills, production grew each year. In 2003, they equipped their own winery, located in an industrial unit in Lompoc—known locally as the "Wine Ghetto"—that houses many small wineries.
With Loring living in Glendale and Kimberly in the Bay Area, Santa Barbara wine country presented a long commute for both. But since Loring worked as an independent contractor, he could take nearly a month off every harvest.
In the early years, Loring had a strict rule about which vineyards he would use: "They had to be willing to sell me fruit," he says slyly. Loring admits his timing was fortuitous. Vineyards such as Garys' and Rosella's in Santa Lucia Highlands, which went on to become Pinot stars, were just getting started, and the growers were committed to quality—a coup for the plant-averse Loring. "I hate gardening. I hate houseplants," Loring says. "I can kill a cactus."
Grower Gary Franscioni, who oversees both Garys' and Rosella's, chuckles at the thought. "I can't see him farming. He just doesn't have the passion for the earth." But, Franscioni adds, Loring is always in touch with what's happening in the vineyards.
It wasn't until the 2006 harvest that the Lorings left their technology jobs to focus on wine full-time, and it took another two years after that to finish building their winery, in an industrial park on the northern edge of Lompoc. At 20,000 square feet, there's room to spare, even when the 2012 vintage yielded some 8,500 cases, the bulk of it Pinot. Loring doesn't like to feel crowded. He never stacks barrels, ensuring each is readily accessible.
"We're pretty minimal. We're pretty Amish," Loring says as he tours the winery. But the description may not be completely accurate; Loring has equipped the winery with three different iPod docking stations, so music is always handy. He prefers techno.
During the tour, Loring stops to introduce his mother, Helen, who at a spry 80 years old is busy washing barrel bung caps. It was less than two years ago that Brian and Kimberly, with a little help from Helen and a handful of temps at harvest, did everything in the winery. After her husband died, in 2005, Helen moved to Lompoc. "She helps every day that we crush fruit, and she is the one who tops the barrels throughout the year," Kimberly says.
Befitting his singular character, Loring has a distinctive approach to winemaking. "Brian has always had a very clear vision of what wines he likes," Kimberly says. The fact that he refuses to taste grapes at harvest is "counterintuitive," she concedes, but they have learned to operate as a team despite his eccentricities.
"He gets the samples ready and I taste through them," she explains. "Over the years he has built up a sixth sense [where he] can take a cluster and [just by] looking at the berries and squishing them in his fingers and examining the pulp and seeds—and looking at pH, sugar and acid levels—can be pretty darn spot-on. And together we make the call on when we're going to pick."
Vingiello says Loring approaches winemaking like an engineer. Fermentation for each vineyard site follows a similar pattern, which is varied slightly each vintage, and most lots spend about 10 months in oak barrels. The amount of new oak differs; except for the Cargasacchi Pinot, which gets no new oak, the Pinots are aged in a mix of about 30 percent new and older oak. "We want to showcase the terroir of the wines. If they all tasted the same, what would be the point?" says Loring.
Alcohol levels in the 2012 Pinots range between 14.6 percent and 15.1 percent-still on the riper side but dialed back from previous vintages. "In our early years, it was all about trying to figure out what true ripeness was in California. Many of us newer winemakers kept walking up the ripeness ladder, making bigger and bigger wines," Loring says. "We probably went a bit too far, but I think we needed to find the boundary of what worked in California in general, and in each vineyard specifically."
Many of the vineyards Loring works with were planted in the late 1990s, and as they have matured the wines they produce have evolved. Ripeness and full flavor is achieved at a lower sugar level, he says, and the older vines hold better acidity levels. "I think we've gotten to a point where our wines are much better balanced while still retaining the bright fruit and depth of flavor," Loring observes.
But the Lorings take no issue with those who have, as Kimberly puts it, "jumped on the low-alcohol bandwagon"—you do your thing, they believe, and we'll do ours.