Pulling up to Piedrasassi New Vineland’s tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto one Thursday afternoon near the end of harvest, my nose is greeted not with the juicy scent of the tons of grapes in various stages of the crush visible in every direction, but with an aroma even more intoxicating, the one I’m here for: the yeasty, rich smell of baking bread. It’s an odor that’s utterly at odds with the surroundings: Inhabitants of the Ghetto produce some of the best wines our area has to offer, yes, but it’s not much to look at — a block of warehouses, really — which makes the Pied Piper effect of that sweet smell all the more compelling.
This is convenient because inside the tasting room, it seems no one is home. But locating the bread-baking action — a recent addition to the winemaking side of the biz — isn’t difficult. Inhaling deeply, I head around the back of the bar, through one door and then another, and find the baker, Kate Heller, working before an oven so large it nearly consumes an entire wall. She’s dusting the last of the raised “harvest loaves” with fresh durum — the remains of the wheat used for the durum loaves, the third sifting of which is too coarse for bread dough, but makes a perfect topping — and scoring each with the razor blade she holds between her teeth. When the loaves (called “harvest” because they’re studded with wine grapes: half from the fermenting vats and half fresh) are ready, she hoists several into the oven at a time, using a large wooden peel. She doesn’t talk much, but I’m mesmerized nonetheless. So much so that I barely notice the arrival of Melissa Sorongon — one quarter of the dual-couple team behind Piedrasassi New Vineland, along with her husband, Sashi Moorman, and Peter and Amy Pastan. “There’s a cool Russian proverb,” Sorongon said, getting a load of my hypnotized state. “People can spend a long time looking at water, fire, and other people working.”
And, indeed, if one is going to get mesmerized by someone baking bread, there’s hardly a better someone than Heller.
Peter Pastan, chef and owner of D.C. restaurants Two Amys Pizzeria and Obelisk, comes out each year for harvest — and, every time, bakes bread, the enjoyment of which (along with some wine) planted the proverbial seed. (It should be noted that Moorman has plenty of pro cred in the kitchen, too.) When that germ of an idea — let’s have a bakery — took root, Peter thought of Heller, whom he knew from D.C., her hometown. But Heller’s bread-baking pedigree stretches far beyond the Beltway: while spending a summer at a writing camp in Skowhegan, Maine, she worked on a farm, a farm that hosted the first Kneading Conference (who knew?), which she attended. Also on her résumé: some time in Michigan, where “I got into oven building,” she said.
Things began lining up: Heller came out for harvest in 2011 and stayed on to get the bread baking started. They brought out Turtlerock Masonry Heat all the way from Vermont to build their brick, wood-burning oven. They researched heirloom wheats and began sourcing three varieties — Desert King Durum, Red Fife Canadian, Sonora — from NorCal-based Community Grains, varieties that they milled fresh using their own mill. All that was left to sort out was the business side of things.
While the romantic dream of a bakery fueled the endeavor to a certain extent, the harsh truth is that “Lompoc can’t support a bakery,” Sorongon said. “People like the Ghetto because traffic is light; it’s easy. But any traffic we get here wouldn’t be enough to support a bakery.” And the persnickety reality of permits and licensing put the kibosh on running a conventional bakery from the get-go, anyway. So, while they can’t sell the bread from their space in the Ghetto, they can produce it there. But selling their bread directly to the people who’d be enjoying it was important to them. So they started a breadshare, a CSA-like operation with fresh-baked loaves available weekly for subscribers, keeping one eye trained on area farmers markets. Ojai’s proved to be a relative snap; they began selling there in May. But they learned that if they wanted to sell their bread at the Santa Barbara and Montecito markets, they’d have to use flour made from wheat they grew themselves.
“As a business owner, I was like, ‘What?’” Sorongon said. “But as a consumer, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s awesome.’” And so, despite the fact that, given the lack of big expanses of prairie land, it really doesn’t make financial sense to grow wheat in this area, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Sorongon noted that one of the advantages of being part of a vibrant, tight-knit ag community is that you can simply start asking around when you’re cooking up an endeavor like this, and soon enough, you’ll find the information — even the land — you’re after. And so it was that they scored their two little lots, some of it Rusack land, across the street from Stolpman’s vineyards (Moorman also works as the winemaker for Stolpman), where they share a lease with their friend Jacob Grant of Roots Farms. “He knows so much about non-grape farming,” Sorongon said. Sharing the same plot of land, his knowledge comes in even handier: “With farming, your understanding, what you can predict, is so local …. We pelt him with our dumb questions all the time.”
Of course, it’s as much art and magic as it is agriculture and science. As Heller said, “You can fire the exact same loaves twice, but they’ll react totally differently.” Added Sorongon: “The fire decides; the oven decides; once it’s done, it’s done. It’s not like you can push a button.”
The first batch baked with their own wheat (harvested around the same time as pinot and chardonnay, “early on in harvest, when morale is still high,”) came out of the oven in September. That moment, said Sorongon, was “a total nail-biter. At first, we were so excited we could make something! It was just relief. But then it was like, how’s it going to taste? And then, it was like, wow! This is good bread.”
And the bread reflects all of this work, luck, knowledge, and passion. Whether the tangy, chewy sourdough, or the gooey indulgence of the durum — which will appeal to those who prefer their brownies just this side of fully baked — each bite feels like a revelation. And each will spoil you for bread that’s run-of-the-mill (ahem), just a little bit more.
As of October, you can find Vineland bread at the Friday Montecito Farmers Market, which is what Heller’s baking for now — as she does each Thursday afternoon and evening. At 4 a.m. on Fridays, Sorongon loads the 150 still-warm loaves — a mix of Ballard Durum, Sonora Walnut Wholegrain, and Red Fife Sourdough — and makes her way to Coast Village Road. (Saturday, Heller bakes for the Sunday Ojai Market.) “We’ve always really loved the farmers markets,” Sorongon said. “To be on the other side of the table is pretty great.” Not only that, but, because the majority of production is sold offsite (thanks to the markets), they are now able to sell the bread retail at the tasting room on Fridays and Sundays.
When it comes to wine and bread, there are obvious similarities. But there’s one major difference: “Wine you put in a bottle, and it just sits there; you can hang on to it,” Sorongon said. “Bread’s like the exact opposite, which is kinda special. There’s something you should hang on to and something that’s best that day …. Bread is universal in a way that wine isn’t. But together, it all seems so much more complete.”