When you hear about Napa and Sonoma, it's easy to forget that a three hour drive north can land Southern Californians in the lesser known wine regions within Santa Barbara County. However, lesser known does not mean inferior, as you will easily discover when tasting any of the three, small production wines — Native9, Alta Maria, and Autonom — from winemaker Paul Wilkins, and viticulturist James Ontiveros.
Wilkins and Ontiveros met in college, bonding over their interest in wine. Wilkins then spent nearly a decade working as the assistant winemaker for the Rhône specific Alban Vineyards. Ontiveros, on the other hand, went to work as a grape buyer for Kendall-Jackson and Gallo of Sonoma prior to becoming the Director of Sales and Marketing for the famed Bien Nacido vineyard group. He also happens to be a ninth generation Californian who has family ties to the first and second citizens of the state.
The two men lost touch, but reunited in the early 2000's over Ontiveros' 8-acre pinot noir vineyard located on his family's ranch (Rancho Ontiveros), land once owned by his ancestors in the now recognized Santa Maria AVA. It was thought to be “worthless, mineral-lacking soil housing 127 oil wells,” but when Wilkins visited the vineyard, what he saw was incredible: svelte vines averaging 1.5 bunches of grapes per shoot (branch) of flavor-potent fruit. Since then they've been inseparable, marrying their dedication to vineyard and cellar in their three quiet specific passion projects.
Wilkins' and Ontiveros' three labels are all unique to one another in their indenity and flavor profiles. Autonom, Wilkins' desired undertaking, is the most fruit forward and palette rich of the three. The 3 wines under Autonom are Rhône-styled (granache, syrah, and a red cuvee) ranging from $28 to $38 in price and sourced by Ontiveros from Central Coast vineyards. Similarly, Native9 is Onterivos' tribute by way of his California heritage: a luxurious pinot noir ($55) crafted by Wilkins solely from Rancho Ontiveros grapes. Lastly there's Alta Maria, a wine by two men determined to make pinot and chardonnay ($23) that reflects their central coast home.
A couple of weeks ago, Gary Vaynerchuck (famed for his online Wine Library TV videos, larger than life personality, and JET's football helmet spittoon) posted an episode: a taste off between two Wine Enthusiast scored, 93-point, California pinot noir's made by two winemakers named Paul. Vaynerchuck takes his usual “sniffy sniffs,” going on about the hints of burnt vineyard found in Paul Wilkins' Alta Maria ($23) and the baby black cherries noted in Paul Hobbs' CrossBarn ($32). Who's wine does he prefer? Vaynerchuck's preference is clear.
Watch the episode or taste it for yourself. Which you can do by heading to Bar Covell to drink Alta Maria by the glass, or picking up a bottle of Native9 at The Wine House, or a bottle of Autonom at Silverlake Wines.