As the 23rd winery founded in Santa Barbara County back in 1994 — and only the eighth one from back then still under the same ownership — Sunstone Winery is a very well known brand in these parts, its merlot having been poured by the glass in restaurants all over town, its Refugio Road tasting room a regular on the wine-tour trail. But for awhile, Sunstone may have been a little too well known, according to Bion Rice, the son of founders Fred and Linda Rice who started working with the family company right out of college and is now director of winemaking.
“We became a household name, and we oversaturated the market, to the point that high-end restaurants decided not to pour us,” he explained. “Then Sideways came out, and it was a double-whammy.” That Hollywood hit hated merlot, hurting Sunstone’s sales and popularity, yet the Rice family stayed the course. “You can’t just replant because someone says your grape isn’t cool anymore,” said Bion Rice, who said that they would have opted for merlot even if they had the chance to do it all over again. “Look, this is Pomerol,” he said, referring to the Bordeaux region where merlot thrives. “If we tried to do chardonnay or pinot on our vineyard, it wouldn’t work. We just have to wait it out with the merlot.”
A couple years ago, Rice — who’d moved to Sonoma for awhile to focus on his own brand, Artiste, which he founded in 2002 — returned to the family winery after the death of his mom and elevated quality over quantity, scaling back production from a high of 18,000 cases per year to the current 8,000. While he also pulled out from restaurants almost entirely as part of the transition, Rice is now ready to make Sunstone’s mark in a different way over these next 10 days, as the official wine of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Sunstone’s Lumiere Brothers series features both a blanc (viognier from Verna’s Vineyard plus some malvasia bianca from Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards) and a rouge (about 80 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet franc, from the Sunstone estate). Rice bottled up 90 cases of each earlier this month, and you’ll be able to find it being poured at special events throughout the festival.
The wines are tasting great, especially the rouge, for like wineries everywhere else in the wake of Sideways, Sunstone has only had to increase its attention for producing truly excellent merlot-based wines. “That’s the reality,” said Rice. “You just can’t make a bad merlot anymore.”