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Making the Most from Mud

Fred Brander Deposits His Montecito Yard into His Los Olivos Vineyard


Longtime winemaker Fred Brander and his son, Nik, were trapped on their Montecito property when the mountains turned to mush during the January 9 debris flow and needed the help of a passing fire engine to escape. When they returned two weeks later, Brander found his house unscathed but the entire landscape transformed, the trees covered in mud, the creek bed filled to the brim.

Crews were already digging out of the culverts, with plans to take the dirt to Los Alamos. “Well, I have a ranch in Los Olivos that’s a little closer,” Brander told the crew, and they took him up on his offer. “That’s how we got to get ahold of 60 truckloads of dirt and rock.”

His initial thought was that the boulders harvested from the 900 tons of earth might make nice landscaping; he used materials he collected following a Highway 154 widening project years ago for just such purposes. “Then I also thought that this stuff that’s been burned or partially burned would be really good for the soil,” said Brander, explaining that wood ash is often added to vineyards to deliver minerals and nutrients.

Brander sent in soil samples to be analyzed and learned that there were no toxins and that it was high in manganese, magnesium, and potassium. “The pH is a little alkaline, but like most of the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos has slightly acidic soil, so a little alkalinity helps,” he explained.

The next step was fashioning a rock separator, which functions like an oversized sand sifter, with tractor loads of dirt falling through the metal grate and large rocks rolling to the side. “It’s very low-tech, and it works, but it takes time to do it,” said Brander, whose employees then drive through the vineyard rows to deposit the mudslide soil on each vine as a fertilizer of sorts.

Of Brander’s 42 planted acres, about five acres of cabernet sauvignon are getting the treatment this year, and there’s enough dirt to do it for another two years. Winemaker Fabian Bravo will be bottling the resulting wines under a special label, likely with Montecito in the title; proceeds will go toward recovery efforts.

“We hope that it will be really conducive to better growth and better grapes,” said Brander, who hopes to see the first release by the end of 2019.

See brander.com.

ROOMS TO ROAM: Brewer-Clifton wines are now easier to find than ever, as the longtime Sta. Rita Hills producer just opened a tasting room at 2367 Alamo Pintado Road in Los Olivos. “I realized that for all the years we hosted customers at our Lompoc winery, we were only engaging people who were already aware and committed to our work,” said Greg Brewer, who cofounded the brand in 1995 with Steve Clifton. Clifton is no longer with the brand, but Brewer — who sold the winery to Jackson Family Wines in May 2017 — remains the very engaged winemaker. The tasting room will also serve his Diatom wines and a new syrah called Ex Post Facto. … El Paseo’s tasting options keep improving: Benjamin Silver moved from his Eastside winery to open a room there in February, and just last week, Grassini Family Vineyards celebrated a grand opening of their expanded tasting room, which occupies a more centralized spot on the interior courtyard. … And, last, but most historical, Hitching Post Wines is opening its first tasting room ever this July at 420 East Highway 246 in Buellton, the former site of Loring and Cargasacchi wines. There will also be some food options from the adjacent Hitching Post II restaurant.

TASTINGS TO DO: Wine + Beer is hosting a Juicy IPA tasting with eight beers from Modern Times, Mikkeller, Offshoot, Lord Hobo, and Alvarado Street on May 24, 5-7 p.m., for $15. Then on May 31, 7-9 p.m., the wine bar is serving a five-course pairing dinner featuring food from around the S.B. Public Market for $35. See wineplusbeer.com. … On June 3, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., the entire town of Los Olivos is coming together for a Locals Love block party, with free and discounted tastings, live music, and a town-wide bocce ball tournament. See LosOlivosCA.com. … Presqu’ile Winery is hosting concerts again this summer, with The Molly Ringwald Project on May 26, Led Zepagain on June 22, and Journey Unauthorized on July 14. See presquilewine.com.

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