“Without the sun, we wouldn’t be in business,” says Dick Doré of Foxen Wines. Like all winemakers, he relies on the sun to supply vines with energy and mature the grapes to perfection, but Doré and business partner Bill Wathen also depend on the sun for much more than ripening their crop — they rely on the sun’s energy to power their entire business.
In fact, every decision Doré and Wathen make relates to maximizing the sun’s effects. They deliberately plant in north-south rows to ensure that both sides of the vines receive the same amount of sunlight and achieve even maturation. They use vertical trellising and leaf-pulling techniques to allow the sun to penetrate the canopy and ripen each cluster. And they dry farm, meaning that after the first two years, their vineyards only receive the amount of water and sunlight that nature provides. Though this practice yields very little fruit, it produces grapes with optimum acidity and ultra-concentrated flavors.
This concentrated, sun-ripened fruit translates into extraordinary wines — from chenin blanc and chardonnay to syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir — that are rich, complex, and exquisitely balanced. Foxen Wines owns and farms 50 percent of their vineyard sources and meticulously oversee all agricultural decisions on their outside sources. This control allows Wathen and Doré to craft an array of vineyard designate wines — about 23 different bottlings each vintage — that express the unique flavors of varying areas.
Since they rely on the sun to cultivate and create their product, Doré and Wathen thought it only appropriate to incorporate that connection into the architecture of their company. Thus Foxen Wines’ new 23,000-square-foot facility runs exclusively on solar power. Topped with 216 glistening solar panels, the winery building is a model of energy conservation with a state-of-the-art night cooling system, water conserving steam cleaners, and ultra-efficient appliances.
The elaborate photovoltaic system — installed by REC Solar, a San Luis Obispo-based company — is 99.9 percent efficient in generating energy. The four-by-eight-foot panels positioned on the building’s roof collect energy and convert it to alternating current, used to power all of the winery’s equipment. Excess electricity travels to the utility grid where it’s stored for future use, causing the winery’s meter to spin backward at times. And in the course of its 25-year lifespan, this system should produce about 1.5 million kilowatts of energy and reduce the winery’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than two million pounds.
While Foxen’s system was the first of its kind in Santa Barbara County, Isabelle Cristensen of REC Solar explained that others have already begun to follow suit: “The wine industry is particularly well-suited to solar energy use since wineries share a profound connection with the environment and typically use quite a bit of energy with pumps, cooling systems, and equipment.” Though the initial expense is steep — in Foxen’s case, totaling a quarter of a million dollars — with the help of tax incentives and power company rebates, owners can expect a 10 to 15 percent return on their investment and a six- to eight-year payback.
Expense aside, the decision to go solar was an easy one according to Doré. “This is my family’s land,” he explained. “Our goal is to treat it with respect and preserve its beauty.” In fact, Doré’s great, great grandfather, English sea captain William Benjamin Foxen, bought the original 9,000-acre Spanish land grant in 1837. Today the Wickendon and Doré families together still own about 2,000 acres of scrub oak-studded grassland, 17 acres of which are planted to vineyards.
It was therefore very important to build a structure that fit with the natural beauty of the place and had as little impact on its surroundings as possible. “We made wine for 25 years in the old blacksmith shop and barn where our footprint was minimal,” Doré said, “but it was time for us to expand and we chose to do so consciously.” While Foxen Wine’s new solar-powered facility and tasting room is much larger than the original space, it is a symbol of the winery’s whole-hearted collaboration with the environment as well as a fitting tribute to the sun.
Taste Foxen Wines at 7600 Foxen Canyon Road or see foxenvineyard.com.