More cutthroat regions frown on the practice as controversial, but in friendly and casual Santa Barbara County, it’s almost expected for winemakers to live double lives: making thousands of cases for a bigger winery during the day to claim a steady paycheck while moonlighting on personal projects producing just a few hundred cases of usually boundary-pushing wine.
A shining example of why this should be encouraged is Ernst Storm, a South African graduate of the country’s acclaimed Elsenburg Agricultural College who came to America in 2003 to work for a Sierra Foothills winery before becoming winemaker of the Santa Ynez Valley’s Curtis Winery (curtiswinery.com) a few years later. In addition to churning out Curtis’s reliably impressive Rhône-focused wines, the 33-year-old also makes his own Storm Wines (stormwines.com). “I was exposed to wine early,” said Storm, who first toiled in a vineyard 15 years ago and was influenced by his winemaking brother, who works for South Africa’s Hamilton Russell winery. “I knew I wanted to do something creative with nature.”
Curtis is the remaining Firestone family wine project, with Adam Firestone as president and Chuck Carlson as general manager, and makes about 8,000 cases a year, plus another 5,000 cases under the Rock Hollow label and a few more under the Jarhead brand, which donates the proceeds to scholarships for families of U.S. Marines. “We make a lot of different wine,” said Storm. “We try to make fun and new things every year.” In addition to single varietals, that includes two of the best bargains in the county: the Heritage Blanc, a blend of 60 percent viognier/40 percent rousanne with a vanilla-peach nose, and the Heritage Cuvee, which contains 39 percent grenache, 26 percent mourvèdre, and 16 percent syrah, but gets its tobacco spice from the 19 percent cinsault, according to Storm.
The roughly 400 cases of Storm Wines, meanwhile, are a study in how to make our region’s sauvignon blanc more like South Africa’s, which means letting some of the grape’s greener elements, such as grass and kiwi fruit, outshine the passion fruit and guava typical in many Santa Ynez bottlings. He also makes very delicate pinot noirs under the Storm label, but must be continually careful with his low-impact, nature-driven approach. “When you make it like this, it’s very fragile,” said Storm of his 2008 pinot from Le Bon Climat vineyard, which he believes is just now hitting its stride. “I want it to be very feminine, but it breaks very easily.”