Winemaking a Mano
An Interview with the Men Behind Dragonette Cellars
Though “hand-crafted” is an expression often overused in the wine industry, the purple-knuckled gentlemen of Dragonette Cellars — brothers John and Steve Dragonette and close friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis — employ it very literally in describing the conscientious handling and hard labor that goes into making their wines. From grape, to barrel, to bottle, theirs are the only hands that come in contact with their wines. “Consequently,” explains Sparks-Gillis, “from June to August our hands are dirty from the vineyards and stained deep purple from September to November.”
The trifecta works meticulously to balance old world elegance and top-quality Santa Barbara County fruit. The result? Wines that are beautifully structured and representative of their logo: an alchemist’s symbol for the “elixir of life” or “drinkable gold.” From the 2009 rosé’s scrumptious blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre fruit, to the crisp sauvignon blanc, intricately layered pinot noirs, and array of toothsome syrahs, their lineup of wines is consistently impressive.
We caught up with the dynamic trio as they took turns behind the bar of their Los Olivos tasting room (2445 Alamo Pintado Rd.) to learn more about what inspires them to roll up their sleeves each day.
Do you have a favorite varietal to work with?
Tough question. We make what we love and what grows best in our area: sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and syrah. Each has its own way of seducing us: the crisp complexity of the sauv blanc, the velvety expressiveness of pinot, the heady aromas and layers of fruit in syrah.
Hole in the wall or fine dining room, where do you prefer to eat out?
Given the number of burritos we eat on the fly at the winery, it is awfully nice to be treated to well-composed, fine dining experience.
Do you have a personal theme song or motto?
We collect great quotes. One of our favorites was spoken by the clerk at the vintner supply store who thought that we were too late to pick. “Syrah? …NOW!?” he said with a raised eyebrow. It made, and still makes, us laugh because flavor is the most important thing. Grapes are ready when they’re ready, regardless of timing or anyone’s schedule. And, those grapes actually became really good wine.
Favorite food and wine pairing?
Homemade fig and blue cheese flatbread with our sauvignon blanc is heaven. We also made an amazing Boeuf Bourguignon once with a barrel sample of syrah and paired it with our ‘06 pinot noir.
Is there a piece of clothing that you can’t live without?
Brandon’s Independent Truck Company skateboard flannel (circa 1994) is still going strong and Steve’s quiver of baseball caps.
What music do you listen to in the cellar?
We like play music that brings harmony to the wine we’re working with: anything from Jack Johnson to Metallica. Last harvest we played the Beatles, lots of Led Zeppelin, Vampire Weekend, and Kings of Leon.
Speaking of harvest, what is the toughest part of that time of year?
Finding time to sleep. And cleaning. Oh yeah, and staying dry. We’re literally soaked for three months straight.
Any winery pets?
Oh yes. Nikka (Steve’s mix ) and Eno (Brandon’s cattle dog).
What under$15 wines do you enjoy?
Chinons and Savennieres from the Loire and tasting room deals from friends.
Sweat session or relaxation — how do you guys unwind?
Long, leisurely meals with friends and family.
Favorite movie? >
The Graduate. Classic.
What is the most valuable/coolest bottle in your private cellar?
Aside from our own top-secret bottlings, there’s a few Yquems and First Growth Bordeaux. Brandon has some Sine Qua Non’s that will be mighty tasty someday.
Are you early risers or night owls?
John and Brandon are early risers. Steve’s the night owl…so we can keep watch 24-7.
What is your most important piece of equipment?
Our taste buds, of course, and a stainless steel sump that we pretty much use for everything.
What is the best thing you’ve ever tasted?
It’s a tie: 89 Krug or old Yquem.
What is the best part of your job?
Making great connections with new people. We love to see the looks we get when we taste through the wines and then ask, “Do you want to try something from the barrels?” An hour later, these complete strangers are ambassadors for our wine and our story.
What is your biggest winemaking challenge?
Patience. Wines need to evolve, and they certainly refuse to follow any schedule.
For more information visit dragonettecellars.com or stop by their tasting room (2445 Alamo Pintado Rd.), open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.