In the late 1970s, when Norm Yost left his hometown of Mill Valley to start college at UC Davis, no one could have predicted that the beer-drinking football player would, nearly 30 years later, become the first in Santa Barbara wine country to produce a steady line of sparkling wines. “I like to think that we set the trend,” said Yost, explaining that, while at least one S.B. winery had done a sparkler in the past, his Goat Bubbles — produced in Lompoc under his Flying Goat Cellars label — is the first one to stick. And the public immediately responded, said Yost, explaining, “People were banging on the door for it.”
The road to the first release of Goat Bubbles — the 2008 vintage of which hit the market in 2009 — was certainly a circuitous one, from the first taste of his college roommate’s 1979 chardonnay to early days in the cellars of Napa and Sonoma to stints in Oregon and Australia to his landing in the Sta. Rita Hills at Foley Winery in 1998. It wasn’t until 2008 that Sean Larkins of Vino Divino on De la Vina Street wondered aloud to Yost what made his brand stand out on the shelf. “The light came on,” recalled Yost, immediately appreciating how the cool climates of the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley boasted perfect bubbly potential. “We have high acidity, low sugars, and great flavors.”
Those are the same exact characteristics that led Yost to found Flying Goat as a pinot house in back in 2000. The funky name is a reflection of how many winemakers name brands after their children. Yost doesn’t have any, so he chose the next closest thing. “I had pygmy goats that were my pets and lawnmowers,” said Yost, “and they used to jump off the house.” In 2004, he left Foley to pursue Flying Goat full-time, and the timing could not have been more fortuitous. “Sideways came out that year,” said Yost of the film that changed Santa Barbara wine country and American-made pinot forever. “You couldn’t make pinot fast enough.”
Today, the winery remains predominantly a study of both place — with single-vineyard expressions from historic vineyards like Sierra Madre and Nielson as well as from extreme sites such as Salisbury near Avila Beach — and clone, with current bottlings of 2A and Dijon from Rio Vista Vineyard. All pinots are picked early to show off the region’s vibrant acidity, which makes his wines more food-friendly and better for aging. “A lot of winemakers say we’re acid heads,” laughed Yost, who eventually enlisted the white-wine pinot gris to his lineup in 2005 and the more affordable county blend label YNOT? as well.
But the biggest buzz remains his Goat Bubbles sparklers, specifically the texturally focused blanc de blanc (made from chardonnay grapes) and blanc de noir (from pinot noir) as well as the more fruit-driven sparkling rosé (from pinot) and crémant (from pinot blanc). They can all be sampled at the new Bubbles Bar inside Flying Goat’s Lompoc Wine Ghetto tasting room, where you can better understand why grapes for sparkling wines are picked so early — they undergo two fermentations, so there is a lot of backward math — and why the process is so labor-intensive. “Everything is hand-riddled here, hand-dosaged, and hand-bottled,” said Yost.
Looking to next spring, Yost was instrumental in bringing the World of Pinot Noir (WOPN) to Bacara Resort & Spa for its 14th annual exploration of the beloved, temperamental grape in March 2014. “I don’t think we were getting stale, but we didn’t want it to get stale,” said Yost of the 13 years it was held at The Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach, where he admits that there was “some disappointment” at the move. Bringing the event to Goleta takes it closer to the many attendees who come from Los Angeles and puts it much closer to the Sta. Rita Hills, which were celebrated so much in Sideways, whose 10th anniversary is next year. “It will be like a campus,” said Yost, president of WOPN. “You’ll be at the University of Pinot Noir.”
And you’ll also see how many others are starting to produce bubbly wines, a trend that’s growing exponentially each year, to which Yost offers a bit of a challenge. “You can make any wine sparkle,” he explained, “but can you make a good one?”
Norm Yost and Flying Goat Cellars (tasting room: 1520 E. Chestnut Ct., Unit A, Lompoc;  736-9032; flyinggoatcellars.com) are featured at the upcoming BYOB dinner at Max’s Restaurant & Cucina in Santa Barbara on October 2. See maxsrestaurantsb.com for tickets.