When I first got into Santa Barbara wines about 15 years ago, a chance visit to Koehler Winery led me to sign up for its wine club, no doubt to get some deal on what I was buying that day. I can’t remember if that was first of what would eventually be many club memberships, but I do know that it was the first one I quit. Even as a fledgling connoisseur, I could tell the wines weren’t great; nor was there much of a backstory to share while drinking them. The brand just didn’t buzz.
That’s all starting to change for this Foxen Canyon Road estate thanks to the July 2014 hiring of winemaker Colin Murphy, who’s improving quality and reinvigorating the four-decade-old, 64-acre vineyard. “To be a player today, you have to be solid across the board,” Murphy told me as we drove through the vineyard a few months ago. “You can’t just be good at one pinot.”
Originally from Vacaville, which is near Travis Air Force Base, where his dad was stationed, and “a stone’s throw from the Silverado Trail” in Napa, Murphy, like many vintners-to-be, recalled wine always being on the dinner table as a kid. “It was jug wine for sure, but it was still wine,” laughed Murphy, who graduated in 1994 from UCSB with a film studies degree. But rather than play the Hollywood game like his classmates, he got a job at a tasting room on Stearns Wharf and was quickly in the cellar, working in the trenches for Santa Ynez Winery and J. Carey (both long gone) and then Foley, Lincourt, and Bedford Thompson. In 2010, he started helping living legends Kris Curran and Bruno D’Alfonso on their labels. “I’ve been fortunate, over 20 years now, to have great mentors,” said Murphy. “Getting to work with Bruno was just awesome. He told me, ‘You get to learn from all the mistakes I’ve made.’”
He had “no desire to leave Bruno and Kris,” but couldn’t help responding to a blind job posting out of curiosity. Peter Koehler really liked the honesty of his cover letter, in which Murphy explained that his “prime directive is to make the best wine possible. We can get wrapped up in dogma and principles, but the goal should be to make world-class wine,” he explained. Four hours later, he had a new job.
Murphy hit it off with Vineyard Manager Felipe Hernandez, who helped plant the property’s earliest grapes in 1972, when it was owned by Love Boat producer Doug Cramer. Koehler, originally from Germany and wealthy from selling automobile parts, took over the property and its beautiful contemporary Mediterranean mansion, complete with stark white pool statuary, in 1996.
Since being hired, Murphy has embraced Koehler’s old vines, including riesling, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet sauvignon. “This is the old California cab, not those bigger styles,” said Murphy, who, along with Hernandez, is trying to save these aging vines with inventive pruning techniques. For the blocks whose age is limiting yields, they are interplanting with new cuttings, all to save the character and magic of those older vines. “The vineyard is a treasure,” said Murphy. “We don’t want to start yanking stuff out.”
He’s still overseeing quite a slew of reds and whites — 12 different wines overall, from Rhône and Super Tuscan blends to sangiovese, syrah, cab, and pinot to chardonnay, sauv blanc, and riesling — and sees lots of potential growth for grenache blanc and their rosé, “which we cannot seem to make enough of.”
With his 21st harvest imminent, Murphy remains excited and anxious as usual. “I’m always more at ease once it starts,” he told me last week. “It’s just me and 110 tons. I suppose it doesn’t get more hands-on than that.”
5360 Foxen Canyon Rd., Los Olivos; koehlerwinery.com.