Winemaker Gary Burk has got the blues.
“Music and wine are both universal languages,” the accomplished guitarist and owner of Costa de Oro Winery explains. “They speak to people on an emotional level — no translation necessary.” Burk finds many parallels between playing music and crafting dynamic wines — primarily, trusting the intuitive rhythms of the creative process.
As he picks out a tune on his cream-colored Stratocaster in the winery’s Santa Maria tasting room, he recalls tip-toeing to the living room early in the morning as a child to listen to top 40 radio — B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Motown — while his family slept. By age 12, he had picked up his sister’s guitar and begun to strum solo.
After graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in business, he took a music industry job in Los Angeles working as a royalty accountant for a major record label. Though his client list was extensive (including the likes of Bob Seger, Heart, and Ike Turner), Burk longed to be on the other side of the desk making the music. So he left his job and played folk, blues, and rock throughout the early ‘90s at a variety of L.A. Venues, including The Palomino, Whisky, and The Roxie.
Burk’s family — in partnership with the Espinola family — has farmed broccoli, spinach, and cilantro in the Santa Maria Valley, sold under the Gold Coast Farms label, since the 1970s. In 1989 they took the advice of vineyard consultant Dale Hampton and planted pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in a location with light sandy soil where vegetables traditionally struggled. The vines began producing top-quality fruit that, upon his return from L.A., Burk sold to local winemakers. “The grapes themselves really sparked my interest in winemaking,” he explained.
Ironically, it was through playing music (at his sister’s wedding) that Burk met winemaker Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat Winery. Burk was playing lead guitar in the wedding band. “It was late in the evening,” he recalled, “and everybody was having a good time. We started playing a song and realized that nobody was singing. This guy [Clendenen] jumped on stage, took the microphone, and sang. We’ve been friends since.”
Clendenen later offered Burk a harvest position at Au Bon Climat, where he then worked from 1994 to 2002. The opportunity not only provided him with valuable hands-on winemaking experience but allowed him to taste an extensive array of international wines and helped him hone his winemaking philosophy. The first harvest he made one barrel of his own pinot noir and chardonnay, expanding production each year until he reached 2,500 cases in 2002 and chose to venture out on his own. Today, Costa de Oro produces upwards of 6,500 cases.
Burk is moved by blues music. “There’s just something about the blues that reaches deep down into your soul,” he said. And he makes every effort to produce wines with a similar expressive, emotional quality that are balanced, layered, and subtle.
His reductive, less-is-more winemaking style thoughtfully combines technical expertise with passion. As a winemaker, he feels that it’s important to be conscious of chemistry but be able to act on an instinctive level. “I go with gut feeling with wine as much as I would a guitar solo,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to sense when to play softly and when to rip and really go for it.”
Burk has the luxury of harvesting his Gold Coast Vineyard estate-grown grapes at various points throughout the picking season to create a spectrum of wines of varying acidities and ripeness. Then, by blending these wines, he is able to create harmonies. “Each of these wines has a different frequency,” he explained. “There are deep dark bass tones like cello and bright shiny, high notes like piano. In blending, we’re able to layer these frequencies like you would to create a chord in music.”
Today he plays mostly for his family, as well as the occasional gig, and has partnered with his wife Teresa Gasca-Burk and their two sons to write and record two beautiful children’s CDs.
In addition, his music connections, coupled with the tasting room’s Central Coast location, have attracted an impressive lineup of acoustic artists to play at the tasting room’s Friday Night Wine Downs. And every once in a while, if the vibe is right, Burk and his Fender Strat join guests on stage to jam.
“At this point I feel like I play fewer notes and really make them count,” he said. “Because I’ve come to realize that the space between the notes is just as important.”
Here are a few to try:
2009 Pinot Noir Rosé: Berry and citrus aromas give way to flavors of nectarine, melon, and lemon drop with subtle minerality and smokiness at the finish. Dry with refreshing acidity.
2008 Estate Chardonnay: Aromas of tropical fruit and caramel lead. Luscious pineapple and vanilla flavors are accented by hints of basil, toast, and wood spice. The wine’s rich, supple texture is balanced by swirls of lively acidity.
2008 Reserve Pinot Noir Estate: The wine opens with aromas of rose petals, clove, earth, and baking spice. It is soft on the palate with lovely acid definition. Crushed raspberry and cherry flavors are layered with citrus, tea, and white pepper extend through the wine’s finish.
2008 Dijon Clone Selection Pinot Noir: Clones 115 and 777 produce rich blueberry, earth, and cherry flavors in this wine that are complemented by prominent tannins, a twist of orange, smoke, and subtle minerality.
For more information visit www.cdowinery.com. Friday Wine Downs take place each week from 5 to 8 p.m. in the tasting room, located just off the 101 at Stowell in Santa Maria.