Interview with Ryan Zotovich – Zotovich Family Vineyards

Zotovich Family Vineyards

Attending wine tasting events can sometimes feel like an exercise in defining shades of gray. Each new table represents the possibility of a palate-rousing experience that sets this winery apart from the pack. Yet so often, it ends up being a very pleasurable, but uninspiring experience in which I find myself trying in vain to discern the standout qualities from one producer to the next. And so it was with the latest incarnation of the STARS of Santa Barbara event at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in January. After some great tastings at many of the SBC superstars present at the event, I found myself wading through six tables of perfectly respectable, but frankly forgettable wines. I was about ready to pack it in for the night. And then I happened across Zotovich Cellars.

The flight of wines that Ryan Zotovich was pouring that night started off with a bang and just kept on delivering until the very end. The 2010 Viognier – carefully chilled to highlight the racy acidity that provided a solid backbone for bright pear and lime flavors coupled with a honeyed, even finish – this wine just sang.

This was followed by a 2008 Pinot Noir with gorgeous black cherry fruit as it’s basis, a solid earthy undertone, slightly smoky tannins and hints of anise – this made the whole night worthwhile.

When I heard Syrah was the last pour, I would have been happy with mediocrity. Two hits out of three ain’t bad. And yet, here again was an outstanding wine – spicy yet finessed, priming the nose with dusty pepper and white rose, and then revealing robust fruit that is unmistakably Syrah, but with a restraint that allows the full complexities of the wine to unfold and reveal itself. This wine will make a Syrah lover out of anyone.

Ryan Zotovich

Ryan Zotovich

This just emerging wine maker in the Sta. Rita Hills became the hit of the night for me, and in very respectable company, I might add. I was pleased to visit the Zotovich tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto a couple months later to not only confirm my prior assessments of the quality of the wines, but to meet Ryan Zotovich once again and set up this interview.

Zotovich Cellars is in its early days, and in a transitional period that will be undoubtedly scrutinized in the coming years to see in which direction it trends. After spending time with Ryan, it’s clear that he’s on a hot streak, with a string of events that have matched good fortune with hard work to put Zotovich Vineyards on the fast track to becoming another top site in Sta. Rita Hills, and Zotovich Cellars as a top producer of Burgundian and Rhone varietal wines.

 

A Vineyard on Solid Footing

We met Ryan on an overcast morning at the Zotovich vineyard which is positioned quite squarely in the middle of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Owner Steve Zotovich (Ryan’s Uncle) initially wanted a premium Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard site, but ended up deciding to focus on Pinot Noir instead, and purchased the vineyard in 2004. Ryan explains, “We felt like in 2004, Sta. Rita Hills was just on the precipice of gaining greater recognition in the wine world. Of course Sanford had been here for a long time, and there were some other established names with Sea Smoke and Brewer-Clifton. But most of the vineyards here were planted in ’98 or ’99, with first vintages in 2001. I tried them and was really blown away by how good they were. So there was obviously a lot of potential here. At the time the land was also a lot cheaper than it was in Northern California. So all of those things, combined with the uniqueness of the topography made Sta. Rita Hills a natural choice for us.” It didn’t hurt that their timing was perfect, closing the deal just months prior to the release of Sideways, which soon had the effect of wildly inflating prices for vineyards in the area.

Zotovich VineyardThe Zotovich vineyard is a 30 acre site which features sandy, well drained soils that might come as a surprise considering its location at the base of a hill. “Normally you wouldn’t want a flat land vineyard with a hill behind you, because you’d be concerned that the vineyard would be all hill deposit with very rich soil, and you’d be fighting vine vigor, but that’s not the case here. The sandy soils are really well drained and allow us to precisely dial in our water stress.”

As Ryan was pursuing his wine education (more on this later), the focus for the business was squarely on developing the vineyard. “Building the vineyard by linking it with really good, competent wine makers that are making great wines was our first step. So now we have Tyler Winery with Justin Willett – one of the first to do vineyard designated Chardonnays from here, plus we have Paul Lato, Brewer-Clifton, Rick Longoria, Dragonette and Kenneth-Crawford all sourcing fruit from us.” If you’re not familiar with these names, you should be. Quite a lineup of producers, which speaks volumes about the quality of the fruit coming from the vineyard.

While those first steps have yielded early success, there’s plenty more in the works. Building up the clonal diversity in both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay programs has been a top priority, and next on the list will be to add some new blocks of own-rooted, head trained Grenache and Syrah to fill out the Rhone program as well. Under the careful guidance of Ryan and the vineyard management team brought in from Coastal Vineyard Care, the emphasis is very squarely on producing grapes that are a true expression of the vineyard.

 

Journeyman of the Stars

Ryan Zotovich

Ryan Zotovich Explains Grafting Technique

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – Ryan Zotovich is a young winemaker. There are active winemakers in SBC that have been making wine longer than Ryan has been alive. After experimenting with an education in computer science – “hated it”, Ryan quickly switched gears to pursue his wine making education at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. An internship with Palmina during his final year in the program started another string of good fortune that primed him with winemaking experience from two of the top Pinot Noir producers in Sta. Rita Hills. “In ’06 I was interning with Palmina, and a little bit at Brewer-Clifton”, Ryan said. “After the first harvest Steve Clifton asked if I’d like to come aboard full time, which I was of course very excited about. I was commuting from San Luis Obispo to Palmina every day, which was horrible, so Steve said ‘Hey – why don’t you stay with my friend, he lives 30 seconds from the wine ghetto, and you won’t have to deal with that commute.’ So I went over there and it was Victor (Gallegos – wine maker) from Sea Smoke! After harvest in ’07, Victor offered me a job at Sea Smoke, and Steve said ‘you have to take this’, so I moved on over. My big goal out of school was to work for a couple of the top Pinot Noir producers in the area, and with Brewer-Clifton and Sea Smoke I had done that in very short order, so I was very fortunate. Lots of hard work went into that as well, but I was definitely very lucky”.

Asked about the biggest takeaways from working with such top names in Pinot Noir in SBC, Ryan was quick to point out the differences in winemaking between the two. “I was able to see both ends of the spectrum when it comes to approaches for Pinot Noir – Brewer-Clifton with a lot of stem inclusion, and a non-interventionalist approach; and Sea Smoke with hand sorting of all the berries, removing all the stems, all the jacks, to get pure expression of the fruit.” And where does Ryan land in the spectrum between the two? “I think I’m a healthy balance between both of them. I’m not looking to make a huge Pinot Noir, but also not a thin, light wine either. I’m really shooting for a pure expression of Pinot Noir that’s indicative of the Zotovich Vineyard – a lush, well structured, but elegant wine with a little bit of that juicy fruit quality.”

 

A Cellar in Transition

Zotovich Pinot Noir

2007 Zotovich Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

While Ryan was off pursuing his education in winemaking – both formally and on-the-job with Brewer-Clifton and Sea Smoke, the Zotovich Family Vineyard was already selling fruit to other producers starting in 2004. After Steve Zotovich produced a few barrels of wine with the Zotovich label in ’05 and ’06 under the direction of Mac & Russell from Barrel 27, in 2007 the production expanded to a couple hundred cases. Following that initial effort, Ryan explained the transition for Zotovich Cellars wine production program to the present, “In 2008 Barrel 27 moved to Paso Robles, so my uncle was trying to figure out what to do to continue the label. I talked to Steve Clifton about making the wines, and he was very cool with the idea. So Steve made the ’08 and ’09 vintages, and I took over the winemaking duties in 2010.” Having the relationships to get as talented and renowned of a wine maker as Steve Clifton to produce the early vintages was another great move for the Zotovich label, and one that is clearly reflected in the wines themselves.

While the 2010 Viognier is currently the only released wine with which to judge Ryan’s winemaking abilities, it’s certainly an excellent one. Having been produced from what was by all accounts a very challenging year in the vineyard makes the wine all the more impressive. I don’t imagine we will be the only people anxiously awaiting the release of more of the 2010s to flesh out how Ryan’s first cut at winemaking on his own will turn out. Touring the Zotovich tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto also made plain that these early vintages from Ryan will entail a fair bit of experimentation, as he discussed the various cooperage he has been using in search of the perfect varietal and oak combinations.

Only time will tell, but with an emphasis on fastidious attention to detail in the vineyard and the cellar, I’m betting on great wines coming from this rising star wine maker in the near future. Don’t let Ryan Zotovich’s youth and good looks fool you. This guy means business.

Zotovich Tasting Room

Zotovich Tasting Room - Lompoc Wine Ghetto

More Q&A with Ryan Zotovich

Q: It’s apparent from your Uncle’s ownership of the vineyard and winery, and your Dad’s manning of the tasting room this morning that this is a family affair. Do you come from a wine family?

A: “I was always told that my grandparents on both sides made wine, even during prohibition; and I’m Serbian, so if you go to Serbia pretty much everybody is making wine. It’s in our blood, but the program here stems from my family’s mutual interest in wine. Obviously I got a degree – that’s how involved in wine I was, where I wanted to learn how to grow it and make it by getting a degree at the professional level. My Dad and Uncle have always just really been into wine, and always wanted to get into winemaking, but realized that they needed to have other jobs in order to afford to do this (laughing).”

 

Ryan Zotovich

Ryan Zotovich

Q: How early did you realize that winemaking was something you wanted to pursue?

A: “I had grown up with wine and wine was always on the table, so my Dad was pretty good about making me try different things. At an early age I was exposed to a lot of high end wines like Sea Smoke, Turley, Justin, Brewer-Clifton, Caymus – that’s the kind of stuff that my Dad and Uncle really liked, so for me growing up with that I always thought it was really cool, and wine was always in the back of my mind. Then I went through this weird phase after High School where I went to San Diego State and wanted to be a Computer Science major, and just hated it. I came back and realized that I can’t work inside an office. I wanted to be outdoors, so I was looking at agriculture, and all roads kept leading back to this. That’s when I really started appreciating wine. Before I was just drinking wine to drink and enjoy it. Now I was taking a step back and I felt my palate all of a sudden did a 180, where I could actually appreciate a wine for what it was. I would try a (Brand X) and compare it next to something else, and think ‘this is way better – so why?’. I wanted to know how a great wine came to be like this. It spurred my curiosity.”

 

Q: Everyone has their “a-ha” moments with wine. What were yours?

 

A: “My family used to go to the Formula 1 races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and when I went there after turning 21, it was kinda cool being able to actually drink wine in a public setting. My uncle bought a ’95 Caymus that we were having with dinner. I had just come back from San Diego, and didn’t know what I wanted to do, and was there drinking the wine and thought ‘This is it. If I could do this, it would be really awesome’.”

 

Q: What do you see for the future of Sta. Rita Hills as a wine producing region?

 

A: “I think we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg as far as potential in Sta. Rita. Rick Longoria, Richard Sanford, Bruno (D’Alfonso), Wes (Hagen of Clos Pepe), Peter Cargasacchi – all those guys started this AVA, and they’re all very important in terms of where it goes from here. But now there’s this new breed of younger wine makers that are learning from what they did, seeing where the vineyards are going, and putting their hand print on the area. So now we’re moving forward with that. The wine market is also evolving – there’s a younger generation that’s being drawn to wine. It’s up to us to make wines that are really good, and then captivate that audience and bring them into the wine world. I think that’s what my generation of winemakers is trying to do with the area here. But the potential for Pinot Noir in Sta. Rita Hills is – I don’t know if it’s ever even knowable, it’s such a great area. It’s only going to gain more and more strength.”

Q: Tell us about your time working for Steve Clifton.

 

A: “I knew Steve back in ’04 when we started the vineyard and I was at Cal Poly, so it was really cool to know him and have him as a mentor. At Cal Poly they have a mandatory internship as part of the program, so in ’06 I did my internship with him. Right after harvest in ’06 he said ‘I want you full time’, and I worked with him through the harvest of ’07, at which point Victor (Gallegos) at Sea Smoke offered me a full-time Assistant Winemaker position, which I very happily took (laughing). But Steve Clifton was a great mentor and really taught me a lot. He’s still a really good and close friend of mine.”

 

Q: We noticed that your Syrah is more retrained than many of the Santa Barbara County Syrahs we’re used to. Tell us what you’re shooting for with the Syrah.

 

A: “Well there’s not a lot of people doing Rhone varietals in Sta. Rita Hills. It’s been a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay region, but for me the Syrah does very well here. It’s a cool climate Syrah, so a lot of spice, a lot of pepper, but we don’t get super ripe. It’s a struggle to get it over 24 or 24-1/2 (Brix), so you’re picking early with high acidity levels. So we create a very fruit forward wine, not a concentrated fruit but more of a fresh fruit with great acidity to back it up. It’s a leaner, more elegant Syrah.”

Nursery at Zotovich Family Vineyards

Nursery at Zotovich Family Vineyards

Q: What other big decisions are you looking to make at the vineyard in the near future?

A: “In terms of grafting, we’ve got two blocks that we just grafted over to Clone 954 Pinot Noir. We’ve also introduced three different Chardonnay clones as well, so we’re adding clonal diversity to the Chardonnay program, and a little bit more to Pinot Noir. With that clone, we also have (in Pinot Noir) 113, 114, 115, 2A, 667 and 777.  Up on our hillside we’re going to introduce some own-rooted, head trained Grenache – kind of an inter-mixed field planting of Grenache, so I’m really looking forward to that.”