The next installment of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s educationally epicurean Wine & Cheese Botanic Lecture Series — a program now in its third year that pairs intriguing winemakers with eye-opening talks — features Steve Gliessman from Condor’s Hope Vineyard on May 25 as both the vintner and the lecturer. A Santa Barbara native who recently retired after 30-plus years of teaching at UC Santa Cruz as a professor of agroecology (the study of how to make agriculture sustainably in tune with both the environment and economics), Gliessman will present Bracken, Fennel, and Calochortus: What Santa Cruz Island Taught Me About How Nature Works.
Those interested in wine, however, might be even more intrigued by his vineyard, which is planted on the backside of Los Padres National Forest high up Cottonwood Canyon in the notoriously dry, high-desert landscape of the Cuyama Valley. Though enamored with the area thanks to backpacking Los Padres his whole life, Gliessman purchased the property 20 years ago to prove what he’d been researching for decades. “How can I teach something if I can’t do it?” he asked. “It was a test to myself.”
After first experimenting with grapes in 1995, Gliessman planted the main four-acre vineyard in 1998 with zinfandel, shiraz (from an imported Australian clone of syrah), and, more recently, Pedro Ximénez, the grape used traditionally in sherry that he’ll make into a still white wine this year. Designed in the old Californian style, the vineyard is head-trained and dry-farmed, and the whole property is off the grid and powered by the sun. The resulting wines boom with intensity and complexity, as the minimal irrigation produces smaller berries that allow more flavor extraction during fermentation. His test has steadily received high marks, with Condor Hope’s 450 cases a year — which are made at River Run Vintners in Aromas — fetching “rave” reviews and selling out solely through the website and his weekly farmers market stand in Santa Cruz.
Though proud to say that it’s a family operation, with Gliessman and his wife, son, and daughter-in-law as the “main work crew,” he’s also rather pleased to see his academic work as an agroecologist succeed in the real world, and perhaps be a model for the future. Said Gliessman, “There’s satisfaction in really being able to see the concept and principles at work in a way that’s truly sustainable in terms of affecting the soil and minimizing water use, which in California is a big deal and going to become a bigger deal, with the growth of the population, the demands on water, and climate change all rolled up into one.”