“What makes Moldova Moldova?” Adrian Bolshoi asks rhetorically as we stand in a brick-lined breezeway between Brick Barn Wine Estate’s tasting room and production facility. “Wine, for sure.”
Bolshoi was born in the former Soviet republic in 1987, when the small, landlocked state — sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine — used to compete with Georgia to quench the wine thirst of the entire USSR. Four years later, the Soviet Union crumbled.
“I don’t remember much,” said Bolshoi of that time. But his wine memories are vivid, as he usually worked two harvests each year: one for his mom’s parents, who lived in the north, and another for his dad’s more centrally located parents. “I’ve been helping with homemade winemaking for as long as I can remember,” he explained.
Today, Bolshoi is in charge of winemaking at Brick Barn, which sits just west of Buellton, rising from the flatlands up into hills that extend all the way north to the Pea Soup Andersen’s sign you see on 101. It’s owned by Kathleen and Norman Williams, who purchased the 1,100-acre ranch back in 1968 from the Buell family and developed it into a renowned Arabian horse farm.
In 2012, the Williamses decided to give wine grapes a try, hiring John Belfy of Buona Terra Farming to plant about 35 acres. There’s a mix of the red grapes pinot noir, cabernet franc, syrah, and grenache grown on the benchland overlooking Buellton, and, on the flatter area alongside Highway 246, white grapes of chardonnay, albariño, grenache blanc, viognier, and vermentino. That’s one of. Santa Barbara County’s few plantings of vermentino, which is most popular in Sardinia. The vines are overseen by vineyard manager Six Puentes, in consultation with Bolshoi, and contribute to about 8,500 or so cases of estate wine each year.
Though the fall of the Soviet Union still fires up mixed feelings in Moldova, where graft and bribery reign, the country’s independence certainly opened international doors for folks such as Bolshoi, who speaks five languages. When he completed his winemaking degree at the University of Moldova in 2011, Bolshoi was hired from across the globe as an intern at the large Terravant winemaking facility in Buellton. (His hilarious and heartwarming story about arriving at LAX without a clue of where to go next is worth a listen.)
Bolshoi worked three harvests there and then headed north to work for American Winesecrets in Sonoma County, getting a crash course in all the technical tricks and cutting-edge equipment available to winemakers today. That’s also where he met his wife, Lydia, in the water polo pool — he still referees for various leagues and ages — and then followed her back down to the Santa Ynez Valley, where she was raised.
While bartending at The Landsby in Solvang — Bolshoi was a renowned “flair bartender” during his college days in Moldova — he found an assistant winemaking job at Montemar with Steve Arrowood, who encouraged Bolshoi to start his own label before dying from cancer last year. On May 1, 2019, Bolshoi was hired at Brick Barn, and became the top winemaker just two months later, putting his own label on hold for the time being.
Aside from the unique appeal of the vermentino, which always manages to hold acidity even in hotter climates, Bolshoi and the Brick Barn team, including GM Elizabeth Dadosky, are pursuing interesting projects, such as a nearly crystal-clear white grenache noir, four styles of chardonnay (sparkling, stainless, concrete, oak), and Fatalistic, their bold $140 cabernet franc that spends three years in Russian oak before bottling. Almost all of it sells directly to fans through the tasting room.
With a career working for numerous wineries across the Central Coast since 2005, Dadosky said that the energized spirit of Brick Barn feels much like Curtis Vineyard did when she worked there in the mid-2000s. The estate is now a hangout for locals, she explained, and they’re just now kicking off a series of public events to run through the summer, including live music, stand-up comedy, and movie screenings.
A jolly bear of a man who speaks to his mom back in Moldova every day, Bolshoi seems right at home in this role, perhaps because he’s allowed to take deer, pigs, and quail from the large ranch. “I get to make wine,” he said with a broad smile as we drove around the hillside, “but I also get to hunt.”
795 W. Hwy. 246, Buellton; (805) 686-1208; brickbarnwineestate.com.