Karen Steinwachs: Buttonwood Farm Vineyard & Winery


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Karen Steinwachs, winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Vineyard & Winery, speaks candidly about her winemaking philosophy and what it’s like being a female winemaker in Santa Barbara County.

Other topics in this unfiltered conversation include:

  • working on a farm that produces food along with wine
  • what goes into making her “Zingy” Sauvignon Blanc
  • optimism for the 2014 vintage based on current state of vines
  • anxiety over early bud break and possibility of frost

Host Gabe Saglie pulls from the Dirt Don’t Lie question grab bag, asking Karen Steinwachs about:

  • her secret viticulture weapon
  • why she thinks she would be Cabernet Franc if she was a grape
  • which winemaker she would trade places with for a week
GABE
This is the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast, unfiltered conversations with Santa Barbara County wine farmers. I’m Gabe Saglie and on today’s show Karen Steinwachs revealing the ultimate wine grower’s f-word. And does being a woman really make a difference when it comes to making wine? All that coming your way right now on Dirt Don’t Lie.So it’s always a pleasure to talk to Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood and Seagrape. Karen, welcome to Dirt Don’t Lie. And of course the idea here is to get as honest and as open about what you do as you possibly can, but this your life anyway, you wear your job on your sleeve, in essence, don’t you?

KAREN
Well, I did wash these clothes as well, they’re not dirty.

GABE
Now, you were at Buttonwood since 2007. You were at Fiddlehead before that. So quite a training ground for you at Fiddlehead, I would say. What are lessons you learned at Fiddlehead that ring true even to this day when you’re at Buttonwood making that delicious wine?

KAREN
Well, you know, Kathy is an amazing wine maker and very passionate about what she does, and we there art Fiddlehead made Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and a lot of what I do with Sauvignon Blanc, I learned at Fiddlehead. So she taught me a lot of things about being true to the varietal, but yet crafting it in different ways that impart different characteristics to different palates and different foods and different seasons.

GABE
You make a Sauvignon Blanc called Zingy, which is exactly that. You taste it, it brings your taste buds to life. Is that a product of the, and it’s 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, is that a product of Sauvignon Blanc or is that a product of what you’ve done to Sauvignon Blanc?

KAREN
Well, Sauvignon Blanc is really one of the most giving grapes that I work with, it is a grape that will wend its way into the way that you want it to go in some ways and yet still impart many of its own characteristics, so it’s a little bit different that dealing with Chardonnay, which is a lot about wine making, as well as growing, but Sauvignon Blanc has nice ways to just turn itself into something that you want it to do. Zingy is those little parts of the vineyard that I find each year that are the most Sauvignon Blanc-ish, they are jumping out of the glass aromatically with grapefruit or lime peel or gooseberry or all those kind of wonderful Sauvignon Blanc characters that the grape itself imparts. And that’s what it is, it is a selection of the different blancs that will be the zingiest, if that’s even an adjective. And the other Sauvignon Blancs we make two other styles, as well, have a little bit more of the winemaking or barrel protocol or something else in it, but I like to say that Zingy, I pick it pretty early, it’s always the first thing I bottle the next year, I bottle it in January. So it has a little bit of the passion of, you know, that first excitement of the first harvest and then the first excitement of the first bottling vintage, as well.

GABE
Wow, so it’s that much early, now Buttonwood is off Alamo Pintado in Solvang, and a testament to the fertility and the prowess of that land is the fact that you’re not just growing wine grapes there, I mean, I’ve tasted some of the juiciest peaches on that land, as well, you’ve got a variety of different ag projects going on that piece of property.

KAREN
Yeah, it’s a throwback to the old days of having your property produce everything that you want to have on the table, so the lower part of the property, which is where the tasting room is, also produces peaches and pears, pomegranates, almonds, olives, and then once you come up to the vineyard, which is on the mesa, if you imagine the basin was probably the bottom of the river in the early days of the dinosaurs, and the vineyard is on the top of the banks, and at the top, we grow, well, we have a sustainable forest for firewood and we have the vineyard, which is about 40 acres.

GABE
Yeah, today in 2014, is being a female in this industry not necessarily tougher, but different that if you were male?

KAREN
Well, you know that I acme out of the high tech market, and that was very much the same thing. I think that in Santa Barbara County, percentage-wise, we probably have a higher amount of women wine makers than in other regions. There was a study recently that said it’s about 10 percent of women who are winemakers in the global winemaking world. I think we have over 20 percent here, I’m quite certain of it, so we’re usually not counted separately as a region because we’re pretty tiny. It is not a challenge whatsoever. We just do things differently. I don’t try to pick up a barrel by myself, I use a pallet jack. I’m not as strong as men. I just do things differently. I use leverage rather than brute strength. There’s things about us having more taste receptacles. I don’t believe it, my husband actually has a better palate than I do and poor thing, has to do a lot of quality control for me. And it’s a very giving community here, we don’t run into really much of a competitive issue whatsoever. I mean, we hope that that never changes, but we’re mostly small family-owned wineries here.

GABE
Do you make wine differently because of your gender?

KAREN
I think maybe I pay an awful lot of attention to it, and I’m not sure if that’s my gender or just me. Well, when I was working at Foley and Norm Yost actually offered me a job after being a harvest intern in 2001, he tried to tell me that I was detail-oriented and I translated that as him really saying that I’m somewhat anal-retentive, so there’s a lot of just paying very close attention to almost every barrel and every vine and everything we do. Now, there are some things that I wish I had learned. I never learned how to spit. You have to spit a lot, so learning how to spit would have been a good thing. And then other things, it’s not gender-specific, but I wish I had learned the metric system, because that’s another challenge.

GABE
Yeah, yeah. Well, if it’s any consolation, when I taste wine, I never spit, either, so I’ve never put that to the test.

KAREN
Well, the other morning, 7:30 in the morning, I was tasting through every single barrel of 2012 Cabs.

GABE
At 7:30 AM, you got to spit. You got a point there. So let’s talk about the fruit at hand, 2014, and boy, I feel like every year it’s the same story. This is a challenging year, or certainly a unique year. But this is a unique year. 2014 has started out as certainly one of the warmest growing seasons that we’ve seen in quite a long tine. Does that scare you?

KAREN
I’m a worrier by nature, so yeah, it does. It was warm in January, I mean, it was Jan-June, you know, it didn’t feel like January, it was warm. Luckily, the nights where we are in the Santa Ynez Valley were very cold, so we had this very big diurnal shift between these 80 degree days and it went down to early 50s at night, so 40s, 30s. Kept the vines dormant for longer than I expected, which was good. But once they woke up, they have woken up with a vengeance. They are growing. They woke up early, about three weeks early for us. And we weren’t done pruning. The cover crop, which, you know, Ryan had spoken to, hadn’t started to grow until that early March. We had five inches of rain that weekend in March. Ad by the time the cover crop started to grow, it was time for us to mow it. We’ve got definite frost worry. We’re, you know, frost is the f-word in our vineyard and we’re worrying about it through the end of April because we’ve seen frost at that time. So far, so good, nothing bad, but it did catch us a little off-guard by waking up so early, although in hindsight, of course, I should have known. I should have been prepared.

GABE
Well, I liken it almost to being a new parent and putting your kid to bed. No one wants that kid waking up any earlier than it has to, right? Kind of throws a wrench into everything. I don’t think a lot of us as consumers realize just how devastating frost can be, I mean, you call it the f-word. So I’m even a little concerned about saying frost in front of you here, but I mean, what kind of relationship have you had with frost in the past that makes it such an enemy?

KAREN
So I came to Buttonwood in 2007, which was this gift from Bacchus. It was a lovely vintage, and then I thought, ’cause I had not done that with a vineyard before other than Foley, but we had lots and lots of vineyard guys. ’08 came along, and ’08, we had a horrible frost in April. Horrible frost, I mean, the vines were black, they were just dead. Now, they grow back, there’s a second crop, but you never get as much as you hoped to get and you’ve got survival of the fittest. You can make some really great wine, but normally at Buttonwood, we pick about 120 tons of grapes from our estate vineyard every year. In 2008, we picked 57. So although the wines were absolutely delicious, and probably will be some of the most age-worthy wines we made, economically, it’s a disaster. So that was pretty bad.

GABE
This was ’08. So I got to think about that, you think that at the end of the day, these are going to be, they’re going to be remarkable wines.

KAREN
They’re amazing.

GABE
So I got to go and get me some ’08.

KAREN
Good luck with that. There’s only 57 tons, yeah.

GABE
But for you, that’s a dark spot.

KAREN
There’s a number of emotional issues, too, because your whole psyche just kind of goes, like, “Ugh,” right? So it doesn’t matter how many tons you have, you’re gonna get as much of the equipment dirty when you’re harvesting whether you’re doing twice that. And when you’re trying to figure out how to process half of what you’re normally used to, you can’t use the same tanks, you can’t use the same press, you just can’t use a lot of things, and everything is reminding you that your harvest is so small. So there’s emotional issues with it, as well. Now, the wine is delicious. 2011 came along. 2011 frost was a weird frost, it did not sink like frost usually does. So it just sat at the tops of the hills with this massive cold air, and there was nothing you could even do from a frost prevention point of view. It was just blisteringly cold for three nights. And again, parts of the vineyard that had never seen frost before got zapped.

GABE
Now, 2014, it’s amazing how it’s started as such a hot season and that frost is still a concern at the back of your mind. But what is 2014 all about thus far? As far as you’re concerned, if you were gonna project forward and look back at 2014 and can speak about this particular vintage and its growing season, what are we already seeing happening there at Buttonwood that might give you a clue as to what you might expect by the time harvest comes along?

KAREN
Well, we start planning for 2014 before we harvest 2013, so as far as farming the vineyard, we’re actually looking to the next year, not the current one. So there’s a lot of nutritional analysis that we do. We farm our vineyard without using any kind of synthetics or chemicals. We make sure that we keep the plants very healthy so that they’re not just producing this year’s crop, but we’re looking to the following year’s crop. So 2014 looks good. There’s actually quite a bit of fruit so far, I mean, we still got to go through flowering and berry set and all that kind of other stressful little moments at times. There’s more to come. See these gray hairs?

GABE
Were they there yesterday?

KAREN
They were not there in 2001, I can tell you that. So there’s a number of stuff, but it looks good. It looks really good, and I’m frankly surprised because 2012 was a big crop, 2013 was a big crop, ad 2014 looks pretty big, too, so that speaks to the nutritional character of the vines. Now, we have a pretty big aquifer where we are in the Santa Ynez Valley, which is hopefully soon to be officially named as its own appellation, the Los Olivos district. There’s more water in this little triangle of space than anyplace else in the Santa Ynez valley. Our vineyard is 31 years old coming up, so those vines are going way down. So I think they’re getting water. We don’t have overhead sprinklers, we do use a little bit of drip irrigation. But I don’t think they seem to be water-stressed.

GABE
As hot as it’s been, have you been staying up at night, are you not able to sleep? Are you that worried? Although I feel like at the end of the day, we’re still seeing a relatively remarkably nice-looking growing season so far. But be cause of the anomalies in the weather. You mentioned you were a worrywart. Do you stay up worrying about this stuff?

KAREN
I get a very good weather forecast every morning from a gentlemen whose name oddly enough is Terry Snow. what else could he be, right? And the threat of cold, freezing temperatures just seems to be going away week to week. So there’s another cold front coming down the beginning of April, and we have to worry about frost really through the end of April at our vineyard just because of the swales. The swales are collected cold weather. The frost machine, we have one. We don’t have any overhead sprinklers, so we can’t do that overhead frost protection, but we have a big kind of upside down helicopter that will come on at 41 degrees and it will start moving air. So if we have a normal frost, one that sinks, that is going to keep moving that down through one of our right-pairing canyons. So that’s on. It’s set to go at 41, which is pretty high. It’s on automatic, so I don’t have to come in to the vineyard. And I just really rely on this weather forecast, because this guy has been really great. Right now, it looks like it’s gonna rain rather than freeze, so if I can get through the next couple of weeks, then I can worry about something else.

GABE
Yeah. But how often are you worrying?

KAREN
I’m worrying right now. Yeah. And every minute I’m awake and half the time when I’m asleep.

GABE
And what do you to get over that worry?

KAREN
Well, I wake my husband up and say, “I’m worried,” and he says, “What are you gonna do about it? Go back to sleep.” I don’t know, I can’t stop worrying, but maybe it helps. It’s like crossing my fingers, crossing my toes, burning sage, I don’t know.

GABE
Yeah. There is this sense that regardless of what curveball the season brings, you’re all in it together. That might be the case elsewhere, but I feel like there’s a particular communal sense about dealing with curveballs here. I wonder if that helps get through some of these ins and outs.

KAREN
It really does, and we have an amazing community of winemakers here, we are really not competitive with each other in any stretch of the means. We talk to each other all the time. We dine together, we have wine together. We’re at the hitching post on Mondays together. And it does help to talk it out with other people that are going through the same thing. Whether they’re winemakers or folks in sales and marketing, it’s an amazing community here in Santa Barbara. I don’t know other wine regions, I can’t imagine they’re quite like this.

GABE
I feel that there can easily be a tendency to kind of keep everything within your own head and kind of create these realities inside your mind as you’re standing there in front of a vineyard unaware ad really unable to tell for sure what the heck tomorrow’s gonna bring. So to be able to spread that and to be able to hear other people having similar concerns and maybe solutions for those concerns has got to be something that keeps you, as you look back at every vintage, helps you certainly get through it.

KAREN
It does, I mean, every vineyard is unique, so there’s not really one solution. Like I said, a lot of folks in frost years have overhead. I can’t do that with the sprinkler system because I don’t have the water pressure on the top of the hill. I have to rely on things like I have to make sure that my cover crop is mowed down to absolutely nothing because frost will stick on any kind of blade of grass and we don’t want it sticking, we want it moving. We have to make sure that not only is the frost machine primed and ready to go, but oh, yeah, we have to remember to put gasoline in it so that it starts. And those are a lot of things that we have learned on our own throughout the years, but there’s a lot of information about products that you might use to protect the vines if we’re getting later in the year, there’s organic things like silica to toughen up the leaves, make them less susceptible. But just kind of like anything, being able to talk it out with other people is really just helpful.

GABE
Is it too early to tell if there’s a particular varietal that 2014 might be especially challenging for? Or a varietal that in these rather unpredictable, unusually warm conditions this early on, might fare really well?

KAREN
Well, the Cabernet Sauvignon is less likely to be hit by the frost just by where it is in the vineyard, but it’s also a little bit behind everything, which is not unusual. Always the most problematic is cabernet franc. It’s the first thing that buds. It’s in part of a swale, and it’s the last thing I pick. So it’s got this incredibly long growing season. It’s one of my favorite reds on the property on top of everything else, so I’m doubly devastated when something happens to it. But it’s the one that I kind of walk through and encourage every day.

GABE
You see what I’m doing here, I’m about to grab into the Dirt Don’t Lie question grab bag, okay? A couple of random thoughts just to get some juices flowing here. Do you have a viticulture weapon? We talked about some of these curveballs; frost, obviously, or extreme heat. Any proprietary weapon of yours that you use that maybe others don’t know about?

KAREN
Turning clockwise on a full moon and burning sage, um, no.

GABE
That counts. Does it work?

KAREN
I don’t know.

GABE
I hope so.

KAREN
We do everything in a very traditional manner. We do micronutritional analysis, we make sure the vines are healthy, and we think of them as plants rather than vines, so a lot of my colleagues, they are very much into stressing vines and we are really not into that. We want the plants themselves to be very healthy. And one of the big things that we’re consistently doing, I swear we’re doing it all the time, is we’re weeding. Weeding is done mechanically, we have an attachment to the tractor so that we’re talking out any competition in the vine row to try to make sure that all the nutrition gets into the vine and to the grapes itself. But I wish there was a silver bullet. None that I know of.

GABE
I hear so many winemakers with honor talking about the idea of stressing a grape. So it’s interesting to hear you say that you’d rather treat it a little more kindly.

KAREN
A healthy plant is going to protect itself against insects and parasites and things that are attacking a plant are attacking an unhealthy plant.

GABE
Karen, if you were a grape, which one would you be? You work with so many beautiful grapes.

KAREN
You don’t look like Barbara Walters. If I were a grape…

GABE
That’s the goal here, you know.

KAREN
Wow. Well, I’m kind of difficult, and I’m rather thin-skinned. And I have kind of a dark complexion, so I might be a Cabernet Franc. Yeah, I’m kind of stubborn, quarrelsome, a little bit fussy. Yeah.

GABE
All right, and I love Cabernet Franc, so I think that makes perfect sense to me. If you could trade places with another wine farmer for a week, who would it be?

KAREN
For a week.

GABE
Amongst your so many wonderful colleagues that you have.

KAREN
I would trade places with a guy who makes wine on Maui.

GABE
Ah, you’d make some pineapple wine. Yeah. There’s actually vineyards. I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful workspace that they got over there, it’s nestled in the jungles at the bottom of the Haleakala volcano, s you can’t go wrong. So Maui it is, for a week, we’ll try to make that happen. Tell us a secret.

KAREN
What kind of secret?

GABE
Totally up to you. Something you thought you simply were not going to have to reveal today.

KAREN
Wow. I don’t think I have any secrets.

GABE
No secrets? What about something you’ve done in the winemaking arena that you’ve kept under wraps?

KAREN
Like I would say that.

GABE
Let me try this one. Karen Steinwachs does her last harvest and she reaches the Pearly Gates and before she’s allowed in, she’s given the opportunity to drink any wine made at any time and to enjoy with anybody you could imagine living or not. What wine, who would it be?

KAREN
Well, I’ve never had some of the great Bordeaux’s. I would love to have one of the first growths. I would love to meet Barack Obama. But I would meet him at the White House, not the Pearly Gates, when I’m pouring my wine there. So perhaps they’re different, but I would love to try some of the first growths and some of the older ones that I don’t think I’ll ever in my lifetime get to see.

GABE
Yeah, with the president.

KAREN
But not at the Pearly Gates.

GABE
The gates around the White House are certainly sturdy.

KAREN
I’m not sure I’m going that way anyway.

GABE
I don’t know about that. I’ve had your Zingy. I think you’ve earned your keep. Listen, Dirt Don’t Lie and neither does Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood and Seagrape. It’s always a treat for me to talk to you, so thanks for sharing some thoughts today.

GABE
This has been the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast where we like to keep conversations with Santa Barbara wine farmers totally unfiltered. I’m Gabe Saglie, your host, Senior Editor for TravelZoo.com and wine columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. This podcast was recorded live at Erickson Sound Labs in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. Our executive producer is Wil Fernandez, and our original music is by Jacob Edward Cole. Want more? Check out DirtDontLie.com. Cheers