Joey Tensley hails from dusty Bakersfield, smiles through kinda crooked teeth, hangs with England’s roughest soccer hooligans, and swears like a pirate.
But the forty-something makes some of the sweetest syrah on the Central Coast, and, as a consultant for wineries throughout South America, is Santa Barbara’s best version of a “flying winemaker,” those globe-trotting vintners whose touch turns associated brands into liquid gold. His facility inside Roblar Winery — just a short walk from his home near the Dunn School, which his 12-year-old son, Oliver, attends — is also home to other respected projects, from the Lea label of his New Orleans–raised wife, Jennifer, and his assistant winemaker Zac Wasserman’s Frequency brand (see sidebar) to Carina Cellars, Ferguson Crest (owned by Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame), and Rome-born, Las Vegas sommelier-turned-vintner friend Paolo Barbieri’s eponymous line.
“I used to tell my girlfriend in high school that I’d be a winemaker one day,” said Tensley, who learned about wine on a soccer trip to Bordeaux at age 12 and came to Santa Barbara City College upon graduation. “And as soon as I turned 21, I got into the business.” He started on the bottling line at Fess Parker Winery in 1992, followed that with his first harvest in ’93, and then learned winemaking through jobs at Babcock and Beckmen, where he was offered space to start his own project in 1998.
At some point, Tensley tasted a 1989 Zaca Mesa syrah. “That shit’s frigging awesome,” he thought, suddenly finding direction for his own Tensley brand, which he moved to its own Buellton warehouse in 2001. “Back then, syrah was pretty new,” explained Tensley, who basically lived in that winery warehouse for those first formative years. “When I got into the wine business, there were seven wineries making syrah around here. Now it’s hard to find seven that don’t.”
His first vintage was three barrels of Alisos Creek syrah and one barrel of Thompson Vineyard, that now coveted property’s first grapes. “Craig Jaffurs and I are the only two to have seen every Thompson Vineyard harvest,” said Tensley, who’s grown that first 100 cases to about 8,000 annual cases under the Tensley and Lea labels today. He’s expanded into pinot noir and chardonnay under Lea, but syrah remains the focus of Tensley. He makes eight different syrahs each year, including five single-vineyard bottlings, as well as some grenache blanc, roussanne, and grenache noir. “Everything is handmade here,” said Tensley, “all day every day.”
But he’s also still on the road quite a bit, whether it’s to take his soccer-star son to be the ball boy for the hooligans of Millwall F.C., their favorite team in England, or to tend to his various projects in South America, where he usually travels three times a year. Currently, Tensley consults with the Santa Ema brand in Chile and the Iscay label of the Trapiche Winery in Argentina — not to mention past Old World collaborations in both Burgundy (Deux Terres) and the Rhône (Détente) — as well as the stateside partnership with Alex Guarachi called tenshən and his work for Ferguson Crest and Carina Cellars.
“I do these projects mainly for fun and education,” said Tensley. “I’m a wine enthusiast. I love learning about it. This is an easy way to do it.”
OUR LUNCH MENU
A Master Sommelier from Rome who worked for 33 years in the restaurant business, Paolo Barbieri knows Joey Tensley from his decades of service in Las Vegas, where Barbieri was the first to create a Santa Barbara County–specific wine list. “That’s why I know all these guys,” said Barbieri, who now makes mostly syrah-based wines in Tensley’s facility. He’s also a mighty fine cook and made the following menu for a recent lunchtime visit, assuring that this was a fairly normal day. See barbieriwines.com.
Wild boar ragu with rigatoni, oregano, and tomato paste
Roasted fennel with parmesan
Oak-smoked chicken thighs
Grilled jalapeño peppers
Santa Ema Chardonnay 2014
Tensley Colson Canyon Syrah 2001, 2006, and 2013
Barbieri Kylix Syrah 2008 and Rodney’s Vineyard 2009
Frequency GSM 2013
Tenshən Santa Barbara County Red 2013
Trapiche Iscay Syrah-Viognier (Mendoza, Argentina) 2011
Lea Turner Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013