When we reminisce about a March visit to Pence Vineyards & Winery, that’s our first thought. We toured the property on a bright, sunny day that was simultaneously windy and cold. This week’s guest offered up that perfectly appropriate descriptor. We were in refrigerated sunlight.
Our other takeaway was that the property was its own little world. In addition to the sustainably farmed estate vineyard, we saw olive trees, grain, and various food crops under cultivation. There is an equestrian facility. It is a gorgeous site.
This week we talk with Stephen Janes, the General Manager and Sales & Operations Director at Pence Vineyards & Winery. Stephen is an erudite, knowledgeable wine professional with years of experience in the Santa Barbara County wine business. His resume’ includes work at Kendall Jackson, Melville, Brewer-Clifton, and Diatom before starting his mission at Pence. Stephen is a fan of history, artisanal wine, and food. He’s also a consummate host and advocate for Santa Barbara wine. Let’s learn more about Pence Vineyards & Winery from a very informed source.
Randy: Pence Vineyards & Winery is a whole lot more than just a vineyard property, isn’t it?
Stephen: In today’s world a lot of winemakers may think that grapes grow on trucks. The idea of estate grown fruit is really important to us. Our wines are almost entirely estate grown. We really want to educate the consumer about our estate through those bottles.
The idea of having other agricultural pursuits on the property is part of that. It’s important to us. We farm our grapes organically. We follow suit with our other crops. We can show our guests olive oil that is grown right here and made by us. We grow Marcona almonds on the estate.
We farm organic produce for renowned chef Celestino Drago. Blair Pence got to know him through some Italian wine circles years ago. When Chef Drago mentioned one night that he’d always wanted a farm to grow his own vegetables, Blair offered up space here. We have a couple of acres designated for that. He’s up here every week grabbing what he’s growing for use in his Los Angeles restaurants. We also have access, so we can give tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash to our guests. That drives home the point that all this food came from here.
Wine can come from anywhere and often does. Winemakers can buy grapes from all sorts of places. The fact that our wines come from our dirt, our terroir, and our team is the biggest part of our story.
Randy: What drew Blair Pence to this site?
Stephen: It was his fifth ranch in Santa Barbara County. He bought this one specifically for vineyards. It was raw land at the time. It had a lot of great slopes and angles. It’s sort of shaped like a skateboard park. The water was also fantastic. There were already two wells on the property. Two more have been drilled since. Those tap into the aquifer. It’s beautiful ancient water. We drink directly from the tap with no filtration. That’s pretty rare in Santa Barbara County. Most people are on river water. River water is not potable. When you think about a grape being eighty percent water and irrigating with water you can’t drink…that’s a weird concept. At Pence our water is pristine. We drink it. We irrigate with it.
The other important thing about this site is that it had the space for Blair’s equestrian pursuits. He raises cutting horses. The ranch also had potential for raising cattle. This spot gave him the best of both worlds. He could plant vineyards on the raw land and pursue his horse hobby.
Randy: I’m assuming experts came onboard to help him plan out the vineyards?
Stephen: Totally. There was a guy named Paul Skinner in Napa Valley who used radar technology to analyze vineyard properties. He would drive across in an all terrain vehicle. The radar equipment would zoom down pretty deep. It would give you information about soil composition, the water flow, and all sorts of other data. The end results were recommendations on what to plant where and which rootstocks to use. It was cutting edge science at the time (2004-2005). We were the first people in Santa Barbara to use it.
We don’t have the history that the Burgundians have. Using tools like Skinner’s technology helped speed up the learning curve for us. It was pretty cool.
Randy: While we are on the subject of experts, tell me about connecting with Sashi Moorman and his team to make your wines.
Stephen: Sashi is one of the most unique winemakers in California. He has that intellectual equity that can allow him to talk to a Master of Wine, yet also allow him to communicate with a beginning wine drinker. He has a great ability to talk about wine so that everyone can relate.
I prefer winemakers who don’t have that U.C.-Davis training. Many of those winemakers rely too much on the chemistry and enology. They can get blinders on. There are other important sensory tools involved in winemaking like smell, touch, and vision. Either you are really good in using those sensory skills or you are not.
I love that Sashi came from a cooking background. Food and wine have been partners for centuries. Blair and I believe that food and wine should be essential parts of celebrations with friends. You can’t make wine in a vacuum. It’s definitely part of the food experience.
Sashi was known for producing more elegant, restrained, European style wines. He uses oak conservatively. All of that is important to the dining and food experience. Blair came to the wine world from an appreciation of Burgundy and other French wines. I like wines from all over the world, but prefer elegant and higher acid offerings. Sashi had all of that. He seemed a great match for what Blair and I were seeking. We knew that style wine could be made here. At the time most wines here were being made in a boozier style that cooked out terroir. If we were trying to be an estate winery, we thought it crazy to make wines that would not reflect this place. It didn’t make sense. Sashi had everything that was important to us. It’s been a great match.
Randy: One of the things that makes Pence Vineyards & Winery different is that your team is comprised of full-time employees. What impact does that vested interest have on your operation?
Stephen: Our team is salaried. That makes a huge difference. It’s been the same people tending the vines every year for the last decade. There’s very little turnover. The two guys who started the ranch with us are still here. They live on the property. Our assistant vineyard manager has had two sons born here.
We’re not motivated for speed, tonnage, or yield necessarily. The incentive is for quality. Our team knows the property, the equipment, their teammates, and the expectations.
Blair is very inspired by the idea of a self-sustaining ranch. Our chickens lay eggs that go to the crew. Blair just gave Daniel Garribay, our ranch manager, an Angus cow as a Christmas gift. That sounds funny, but it was a present that came from the heart.
Randy: One of the things we remember vividly from our visit is the “refrigerated sunlight” at Pence Ranch.
Stephen: I love that expression. People understand it. California is blessed with a lot of sun. Our growing season has this incredible dichotomy between a very powerful, luminescent sun and the cold ocean wind that comes in here daily. Essentially we have refrigerated sunlight.
Because the mountains are oriented in a transverse fashion, running east to west, a funnel is created for wind to blow in here. If the mountains weren’t oriented this way, we would not be a growing region. The wind mitigates our temperatures. It also extends our growing season. Things are very even-keeled here. We can have some frost pressure, but it’s not what other regions face. We don’t have hail or a lot of extreme weather. That helps grapes. We also have a lot of other agricultural pursuits here, like strawberries, avocados, cauliflower, and broccoli. It’s easy to grow food here.
That refrigerated sunshine manifests itself in the wines. Our Chardonnay is very citrusy. It has some elements that I find in Chablis or Meursault. Ours is obviously grown in California. The terroir helps us retain nice acid, but we also get a more decadent version of lemon in terms of flavor.
Randy: Pence Vineyards also sells some fruit. Does that collaboration help push both brands forward?
Stephen: It does. We’re on the lookout for clients. We have a list of people we talk about as potential customers. We’re down to one major buyer now, Drake Whitcraft. He makes great wines for his label. His dad made great wines. Whitcraft Winery is a classic Santa Barbara County winery that flies under the radar. Drake’s efforts push his label and ours. It’s like free advertising for us. I love the idea of other producers working with our fruit. It’s fascinating from a terroir standpoint to see what a different winemaker does with the same grapes.
When we first started, we were selling seventy to eighty percent of our fruit. We purposely waited until we could see what the vineyard could do before putting out our own wine. Sashi and John Falkner came on board in 2013. The wine quality was dialed in. We’re keeping a lot more fruit now for our own program. Things are going well for our own brand. We had to eliminate some fruit buyers as a result.
Randy: Any plans to add vineyard acreage?
Stephen: Funny you should ask. We have about six acres where we had planted rootstock. We’re going to graft in February. We plan to extend our selection of Pinot Noirs there. We’ll add some Calera that Josh Jensen is sending us. We’re also going to add some more Gamay; it’s been successful for us here. We’re toying with the idea of a half-acre of Aligote’. We’ll see.
Randy: What’s the sales model for Pence?
Stephen: When we began the thought was that we would be far more distribution oriented. We hoped at some point that direct to consumer sales would come around. The reality is that direct to consumer sales happened more quickly than anticipated. That’s great, obviously. It doubles your margins.
That success may partially lie with our accessibility to the highway. Proximity helps. The other key factor is that we do a great job of hospitality and customer service. We spend a lot of time and money on that part of our business. We take care of our staff. We make sure we have the venues for our customers to have an amazing wine experience. Because of that success, we’ve shifted our focus to direct to consumer sales. We also have a vibrant restaurant business in California and about ten other markets nationally. We’re pushing wines that are meant for food. It’s a natural fit. Estate Pinot Noirs grown organically on clay soils, produced in an elegant style…it works.
Randy: Pence Vineyards is really making a name for itself in terms of the visit experiences.
Stephen: People want to experience things in wineries and vineyards. It’s really important for our team to be educated in wine. Everyone has their level 1 sommelier designation and two of our team members are pursuing level 2 now. That’s critical. They are informed, intelligent, and articulate. They communicate well with our guests.
I’m a big fan of author Danny Meyer. He wrote a book called Setting the Table. It’s about hospitality. He emphasizes anticipating customer needs before they know they even need them. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about that topic. Say someone arrives here after a two hour drive. We offer them a glass of water. They likely need that more than anything when they walk in the door. We want to have everything covered that they may need before they even ask.
Blair is very social. He wants to have us welcome you into our family. That’s our approach. We share this wonderful property with people.
We’re on the finishing touches of a new wine club hospitality center. It will be exclusively for members. It’s situated on the back half of the ranch near the equestrian center. The main building will have a demonstration kitchen and a curing station for charcuterie. It will hold about a hundred people for dinner. It’s really going to be a nice place for our members.
Randy: There’s a real shift away from the open tasting room, taste five wines for ten dollars, and hit the door experience.
Stephen: Totally. I grew up in Pasadena. Blair spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. I moved to Santa Barbara because it’s bucolic, pastoral, and beautiful. I have horses and chickens for neighbors. A lot of our guests are coming from big cities. They don’t want a big city experience here. They want to be outside. They want to see, smell, and feel the property.
I used to work for Jess Jackson at Kendall-Jackson years ago. He was an amazing guy and a very passionate person. He used to tell me that once you had kicked the vineyard dirt somewhere, you’d never forget it. That resonated with me. When you get people on the property to taste the wine, feel the sun, and kick the dirt, that’s a customer experience. You can almost feel the acidity that’s developing in the grapes. You’ll never forget that.
Randy: Those memories come back to me when we open a bottle months later at home.
Stephen: That’s exactly it. That wine transports you. It’s great that those warm fuzzies come back to you after a great visit. Wines can also transport you in other ways. Maybe one of our Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs remind you of something you’ve had from Burgundy. That’s cool. I don’t want our place to be Burgundy, but if the wines help take you back to a great Burgundian experience, that’s awesome. Good, well farmed wines can be transformational. That’s very important. We’ve done our job if that happens.
Our gratitude goes out to Stephen Janes for his time. We owe thanks as well to winemaker John Faulkner, who visited with us last Spring. We also appreciate the use of the photographs in this piece.
This is another Santa Barbara winery to put on your itinerary. Pence Vineyards & Winery offers a number of visit options that can be tailored to your desires. The property is gorgeous and the wines are elegant, flavorful, and thought-provoking. The thought and care behind their farming is being demonstrated in the bottle.
Besides, where else are you going to experience refrigerated sunlight?