The view from the northeastern corner of Cambria Winery’s 1,600-acre vineyard in the deep heart of the Santa Maria Valley tells the whole story.
Down toward the riverbed are old chardonnay and pinot noir vines, planted east to west as far back as 1970 by Louis Lucas in a large vineyard called Tepusquet, a Chumash word for “copper coin.” Then there’s the sleek winery itself, built by Jess Stonestreet Jackson and Barbara Banke, whose Jackson Family Wines purchased the property in 1986 and made it the core of their Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, America’s top-selling chardonnay for the past quarter-century. Coming up the increasingly steep slopes are younger vines, planted north to south in the 1990s and 2000s with both classic and modern pinot noir and chardonnay cuttings. They serve as the base for Cambria’s popular Benchbreak Chardonnay as well as much tinier lots of clone- and site-specific bottlings.
And right in front of me is the protagonist of this tale: winemaker Denise Shurtleff, who joined Cambria in 1999. She’s as modest as they come in an industry of the opposite, even though her ability to produce some of the best bottlings in the region while also churning out the most wine each year in Santa Barbara County, at 150,000 annual cases, is unrivaled.
From this perch, Shurtleff talks with reserved confidence about the goods and bads of east/west versus north/south orientations, the effects of drought on the vines, and the way grapes on the east of the property ripen much sooner than those on the cooler west. Like any expert who’s been in their field long enough, Shurtleff is wise enough to respect that the more you know, the less you really do. That comes out bluntly when we’re discussing how much bottle age matters, especially for vintages like 2011 and, likely, 2015 when the pinot was tight early on but blossomed magically with a bit of patience. Said Shurtleff, “We’re still learning.”
Yet she has little reluctance in explaining how Cambria succeeds at both quantity and quality. “Having the winery and vineyard on the same property is one of the keys to producing the amount of wine we do at a certain quality level,” explained Shurtleff. She also credits an experienced, dedicated staff — hers has an average of 20 years on the job, with two celebrating their 26th vintage this year — and the continued support of Jackson Family Wines to innovate, experiment, and use the same small-lot mentality when making big batches of wine.
That really comes into play on bottling 100,000 cases of the Benchbreak Chardonnay (formerly known as Katherine’s), the winery’s widely available and, at $22, affordable workhorse. There’s also the $25 Benchbreak Pinot Noir, which was formerly known as Julia’s and named wine of the year in 2009 by Wine Enthusiast.
When it’s time to sit down in the tasting room, we dive into the quality side of the Cambria formula, which, like the Benchbreak series, was recently relaunched. Now there are bottlings that reflect explicit corners of the vineyard, such as the Fog-Tied and West Point chardonnays and the Mesa Terrace pinot noir. Another series examines the expressions of individual clones, such as Pommard Clone 4 or Clone 2A pinot noirs, and a third, called Seeds of Empowerment, gives attention and proceeds to global leaders on women’s issues. It raises about $100,000 for new charities each year and features a label explaining the beneficiary, whose portrait is painted by Julia Jackson, Jess and Barbara’s daughter.
“These wines allow us to better tell the story of our vineyard,” said Shurtleff over the phone last week, as harvest wound down. “We always talk about it, and this just gives people a better idea and a mental picture of what we work with.”
Cambria Estate Winery’s tasting room is located at 5475 Chardonnay Lane deep in the Santa Maria Valley. See cambriawines.com.
Celebration of Harvest Weekend
The Santa Barbara Vintners’ annual Celebration of Harvest features numerous tastings, dinners, open houses, panels, and more Thursday-Sunday, October 6-9. That includes the grand tasting on Saturday, noon-4 p.m., at Old Mission Santa Inés (1760 Mission Dr.) in Solvang, where Cambria Winery will be among nearly 100 producers pouring wines. See celebrationofharvest.com for tickets and details.