Every fall, as the light shifts to a warm autumnal glow and summer crops are at last harvested, gratitude fills the air. Nowhere in the county is this more evident than in the Santa Ynez Valley. Following weeks of a frantic and exhausting grape harvest, crush, and the ensuing long days of wine production, the winemaking community exhales a collective breath of gratitude for the culmination of their hard, year-long efforts as well as those of their winery personnel and vineyard crews.
No winery displays this thankfulness quite like Stolpman Vineyards. Known for the consistent quality of its extensive portfolio of wines, ranging from rousannes and syrahs to Rh’ne blends and sangiovese, Stolpman Vineyards believes that much of this characteristic quality can be attributed to the individuals who care for each vine in the vineyard.
In 2003, the winery began a project called “La Cuadrilla”-Spanish for “the crew”-in which the group of year-round vineyard workers are allotted a section of the vineyard to manage as they please, making all pruning, watering, and fruit-yield decisions. “We wanted to find a way to honor the people on the crew-the backbone of our company,” said owner Tom Stolpman. During harvest, La Cuadrilla determines when to pick and, with the help of Stolpman’s winemaking team, the members vinify the fruit themselves. The resulting wine is divided among the crew to be enjoyed with friends and family. For the first few years, members of La Cuadrilla each received a few cases of their wine. As the program gained momentum, Stolpman expanded production and was able to begin offering the wine to wine club members. Going forward, the winery’s goal is to sell the wine and offer crew members a shared profit.
While the program initially began as a way to give back to the community that supports the winery’s efforts at the vineyard level, the benefits have proven widespread in that the La Cuadrilla Project allows the vineyard crew to experience firsthand the entire winemaking process-from vine, to grape, to glass-and understand how their efforts and early growing decisions directly affect the final product. Stolpman likens working in the vineyard without the benefit of the whole picture to working on an automotive production line, crafting steering columns without ever having driven the car. “Experiencing the entire process results in better teamwork, a sense of personal investment, and dedication to the ultimate goal,” he explained.
“The La Cuadrilla Project has been really rewarding for everyone involved,” agreed winemaker Sashi Moorman. “It is a joyful, educational experience that has created extraordinary qualitative benefits for the vineyard and all of our wines.” Moorman explained that many of the decisions made by vineyard managers throughout the growing cycle to drop fruit, stress vines, and plant small-berry varietals can seem counterintuitive to many workers, especially those with a background in farming for sustenance, and that understanding the reasoning behind these decisions inspires mutual respect and a sense of cohesiveness among the vineyard team.
The project also has inspired experimentation in the vineyard with nontraditional farming techniques. Working closely with Vineyard Manager Ruben Solorzano, La Cuadrilla makes farming recommendations and democratic decisions that directly affect their vineyard rows. La Cuadrilla’s membership decided a few years ago to try dry farming, only irrigating minimally during naturally precipitous months. As a result, vines that were problematically shallow-rooted in the limestone soil bore deeper in search of water. “We were able to use the information from La Cuadrilla’s experiment to benefit the entire vineyard,” said Solorzano.
The wine itself is a delicious manifestation of the crew’s hard work. The 2006 La Cuadrilla is a sumptuous merlot, grown on the 220-acre estate vineyard in Ballard Canyon, where the combination of climate, southern exposure, and limestone soil offer an intriguing terroir. With lush red currant, buttery almond shortbread notes, and an herbaceous finish, the 2006 La Cuadrilla exemplifies how sensual and expressive Santa Barbara County merlot can be.
The La Cuadrilla Project not only reflects Stolpman’s philosophy that wine is made in the vineyard, it reveals an admirable openness to new ideas, experimentation, and growth, as well as the deep sense of gratitude felt by owner, winemaker, and vineyard manager for the year-round dedication of their team.
For more info, visit Stolpman Vineyards’ tasting room in Los Olivos at 2434 Alamo Pintado Avenue or stolpmanvineyards.com.