When New Orleans native Iris Rideau founded her eponymous estate winery on Alamo Pintado Road in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley in 1997, it quickly became one of the must-stops on Santa Barbara County’s emergent wine-tasting trail. Over time, Rideau Vineyard developed a reputation for letting those bon temps roll, so much that the fun-loving style started overtaking the substance of the wines.
Then came Martin and Isabelle Gauthier from Montreal, who connected with Rideau over their shared New World French roots and purchased the property from the retiring founder in 2016. “For us, it was the perfect fit,” said Martin, who runs an electricity commodity trading firm by day. “We found our little bit of paradise, and we think this is the wine region with the most potential.”
The Gauthiers — who now live in Montecito and have three young kids, including a boy who was named Thomas three days before the Thomas Fire broke out — are also fans of viognier, which consumes a large five-acre chunk of Rideau’s nearly 13-acre estate vineyard. Inspired by the wines of Condrieu made by such superstars at Yves Cuilleron and Guigal, the Gauthiers are intensifying the study of that white Rhône grape with fourth-generation winemaker Adrienne St. John, whose family started Sonoma County’s Pedroncelli Winery in 1927.
“I grew up tasting grapes in the vineyard and playing on forklifts,” said St. John, who studied chemistry at Cal Poly with dreams of being a forensic scientist for the FBI. But once she realized that meant working inside sterile labs all day, St. John briefly considered a culinary career and then started working as an enologist at Vinquiry. “I determined wine was a good combination of chemistry and food,” said St. John, who started at Rideau in 2014.
She quickly put her childhood memories and viticultural pedigree to work. “I love grapes in their purest form,” she explained. “I’m trying to retain what it has as a grape but maximize its potential. My goal is not to lose the purity of the grape.”
That shows in the variety of viognier lots that St. John oversees, from those aged in acacia barrels to muscular reserve blends that please even the most strident red-wine drinker. She’s also excited about their wide range of syrahs, starting with the estate bottling but including versions from Zotovich, Larner, Stolpman, Murmur, and Thompson — all quite distinct, from floral to peppery to bacon-fat-laden in flavor. “It just showcases the differences between clone and terroir,” said St. John of that series. “We’ve started really focusing on the Rhônes because that’s where my passion lies.”
That’s not to take away from the many other wines produced at Rideau. They have more than 20 different bottlings each vintage, including single-vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays from points west and the sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon that are part of their Adobe Series, a nod to the El Alamo Pintado Adobe that Englishmen built on the property in 1884.
Today, the adobe is both a historic landmark and a tasting room, which was another selling point for the Gauthiers. “We like the history so much that we put them on the label,” said Gauthier. The series features such whimsical names as “The Englishmen” for the sangio and “The French Countess” for their sauvignon blanc, referring to the woman who purchased the property in 1890 and held intellectual salons on-site.
This focus on quality — which extends to the vineyard as well, now sustainably managed and featuring innovative trellising on new blocks — hasn’t stopped the fun at Rideau Vineyard. There are still bands on many weekends, plenty of lawn games, food purveyors frequently on-site (like Nimita’s Cuisine, whose Indian food does magic with the wines), educational options for club members, and plenty of special events, such as the second annual Viognier Festival on September 1.
And even Iris Rideau still holds court on the grassy grounds. She sports a wider smile now, freed from the burden of owning an estate winery but overjoyed that it still retains her name and joie de vivre.
411 Rideau Vineyard’s second annual Viognier Festival is Saturday, September 1, noon-5 p.m. Tickets ($90 for public; $75 for club members) include eight viognier tastings, a glass, full-course Indian meal by Nimita’s Cuisine, all-you-can-eat oysters, and live music. Call 686-2810 or see rideauvineyard.com.