Nikki and Jeff Nelson, owners of Liquid Farm, the small production wine project focused on Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay and Happy Canyon AVA Rosé, are plowing through this year’s early harvest in a boutique winery space within the newly-established, local coop facility, the Buellton Wine Center, with the help of friend and winemaker, James Sparks.
Located just half of a mile north of Firestone Walker Brewing Company and Taproom Restaurant, Liquid Farm joins seven other Santa Barbara County wine producers in the Coop, including Bonaccorsi Wine Company, Larner Winery, Casa Dumetz Wines and Municipal Winemakers. Michael Larner, the visionary behind the new Coop, has transformed two adjacent industrial buildings into private, individually walled-off wine production spaces outfitted with communal harvest equipment and resources, as well as cooperative common areas.
“We’re very excited to be a part of this dynamic and talented group of producers,” says Nikki Nelson, one half of Liquid Farm’s proprietor team.
Nikki adds, “Since we moved in on September 1st and our first pick was September 4th, the wine has been our sole focus. As this fast and furious – and early! – harvest starts to calm down, we’re looking forward to putting some finishing touches on the new space…putting our personalities into it and making it a place we call home.”
Liquid Farm was previously sharing winery production space and needs with Dragonette Cellars, who had been heading up Liquid Farm’s winemaking operations. Dragonette Cellars is continuing to consult on the Liquid Farm wines during the 2013 harvest season, in addition to the Nelson’s and James Sparks’ efforts.
Jeff Nelson first met Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette, two of Dragonette Cellars’ owners/winemakers, years ago at Wally’s, a prominent Los Angeles wine store. Jeff already had the notion of the Liquid Farm project in mind, but it was Brandon’s continued encouragement that kick-started Liquid Farm’s first four barrels in 2009. Nikki and Jeff developed the concept of the project, stylized the wine and began label design, meanwhile working with Dragonette Cellars on production execution in the cellar.
Liquid Farm got its start with those four 2009 barrels of chardonnay, and introduced a dry rosé in 2011, sourced from the Happy Canyon AVA. Liquid Farm’s 2012 chardonnay production reached 2,400 cases and the label’s expansion plans – part of the driving force behind the new winery space – are targeted at an eventual production in the range of 5,000 cases.
Both of the Nelson’s backgrounds are firmly rooted in wine: Nikki hails from the Southern California wine region of Temecula, where she helped open the area’s first fine wine shop. She obtained her B.A. in Wine and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, with a focus on Wine Business, and post-college, Nikki went to work for one of California’s fine wine distributors, The Henry Wine Group, where she met Jeff. Nikki remained with The Henry Wine Group until June 2011, when she transitioned her focus to Liquid Farm, full-time.
Jeff also jumped into the wine business post-college, and now has more than two decades of experience working for some of France’s top Champagne and Burgundy houses, managing sales and marketing throughout Southern California. Jeff continues to happily work with a family-owned French importer, while also attending to Liquid Farm as his spare time allows.
Liquid Farm’s wine philosophy incorporates old world-inspiration meshed with their support of local viticulture. Liquid Farm’s wines are earth- and mineral driven, with little or no use of new oak, shining a spotlight on the representation of the soil in which the vines producing their wines, have grown. Liquid Farm’s grapes are pulled from a carefully-curated selection of vineyards, and their sustainably-produced wines face minimal contact in the winery, yielding modest alcohol levels and preserved natural acidity.
“Liquid Farm is all about ‘Liquid from Farming’. All about place,” says Jeff Nelson, the other half of Liquid Farm’s proprietor team.
Jeff continues, “We’re honored to be doing what we’re passionate about, and thrilled that we’re able to share these wines with others. Knowing that what started as a pipedream has become a reality, that our wines are on tables in great restaurants and homes across the country, is a pretty amazing feeling. And the feedback that we get on the project and the wines is what keeps us going strong.”
James Sparks, a Solvang, California resident and previously assistant winemaker for Dragonette Cellars, also entered the Liquid Farm equation at its inception in 2009, when he landed in the Santa Ynez Valley taking up winemaking work alongside his brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis. Over the course of the following four or so years, and with three talented, full-time winemakers helming Dragonette Cellars, James had reached capacity in the role of assistant winemaker. Meanwhile, the Nelson’s long-term plan to progressively become more hands-on in the cellar and more rooted on the Central Coast, provided an organic next step to have a place for Liquid Farm to call home.
Moving in a parallel direction as Liquid Farm’s evolution to its next phase, James was ready to take the leap from his assistant winemaking role into more of a lead position. Nikki, Jeff and James began harvest of the 2013 vintage the earliest in the year, to date, on September 4th – a symbolic and fitting date with Liquid Farm’s propensity towards the number “FOUR”, which also bestows its numerical name on their fourth bottling, their ‘FOUR’ Chardonnay, a tribute to Liquid Farm’s four-barrel start in 2009.
Liquid Farm’s care and attention to detail extends beyond their winemaking mantras and practices, to the fashion in which they introduce their limited production wines to the public. Due to the high demand, small supply and lack of a tasting room – by design – Liquid Farm created a thriving and involved wine club community. The couple has hosted numerous “pop-up” tastings in their Los Angeles apartment and in members’ homes, as well as at their friends’ property in Buellton, Lavender Oak Ranch, down the road from the new Liquid Farm winery.
Liquid Farm has worked on building what Nikki refers to as the “Anti-Wine-Club Wine Club”, which affords them a personal connection to their club members, and allows them to have differing methods than most traditional wine clubs.
Nikki explains, “We prefer not to recur bill, we openly offer membership year-round between Spring and Fall releases, wine can also be ordered year-round by members and each order is always available to review ahead of anything actually shipping. We warmly welcome customizations and anyone can move up or down in Tier at any time.”
Nikki goes on to add that this system allows Liquid Farm the certainty that they are holding the appropriate amount of wine to meet current and new members’ demands but, within that, Liquid Farm can still be flexible and Nikki and Jeff are always directly accessible.
Nikki concludes, “It takes a lot more time but it feels more like a family, which was our hope. In almost every state, we now have all of these awesome fellow wine fans and friends that otherwise, we would never have met.”
One of Liquid Farm’s most recent press nods appeared in the October issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine, in which their Chardonnay was placed in the nation’s ‘Top 20’ of 2013, out of more than 500 wines the publication blind-tasted throughout the year.
Liquid Farm’s 2011 ‘White Hill’ Chardonnay also recently took second place in a blind tasting conducted by The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, and was chosen as “Wine of the Week” by S. Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times. Virbila also placed Liquid Farm in her listing of seven of the top up-and-coming California wine producers, and Liquid Farm’s 2011 Rosé (Vogelzang Vineyard), was bestowed an “editor’s choice” title and a 90-point score by Wine Enthusiast. Past press clips and ratings of Liquid Farm’s wines can also be found in numerous local (e.g., the Santa Barbara Independent) and national outlets (such as reviews and ratings by Huffington Post wine writer, Richard Jennings), and all over the wine world blogosphere.
Outside of the Liquid Farm wine club, their wines can be found in some of Southern and Northern California’s best restaurants, and across the nation in a handful of New York’s finest dining establishments. Liquid Farm has also infiltrated wine menus at top restaurants in Georgia, Texas and Nantucket, giving the label a truly coast-to-coast presence.
Liquid Farm’s new winery space is located at 65 Los Padres Way, Unit FOUR, Buellton, CA 93427. Visits and private tastings are by appointment only, and typically require a one- to two-week lead time. Reservations can be made by emailing Nikki@LiquidFarm.com.
More information is available on Liquid Farm’s web site, including where to find their wines and how to join the Liquid Farm Wine Club: www.LiquidFarm.com. Liquid Farm is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.