Established companies of any sort rarely get the chance to completely reinvent and reinvigorate themselves, and that’s even more the case when it comes to family-owned enterprises, where legacy and longevity are ever-present considerations. Add “winery” to that description — in which styles, grapes, vineyards, and customers are ideally developed into a reliable and comfortable formula — and the opportunity for rebirth is quite remote.
But when it can happen, and happen in honest, open-minded ways, the energy is exciting and infectious. I’ve experienced that numerous times recently when hanging out with the Gleason family and their team: specifically, winemakers Max Marshak and Kat Gaffney, who’ve taken the reins of both Refugio Ranch (founded by the Gleasons a decade ago) and Roblar Winery (purchased by them almost four years ago), and the recently hired Peter Cham, the chef now in charge of food service at Roblar, sourcing primarily from the adjacent Roblar Farm.
“For everybody, it’s becoming a process of discovery,” Marshak told me one brisk morning last December, as we tasted through dozens of wines, jumping through differently fermented barrels of sauvignon blancs from both vineyards, fascinating syrahs and petite sirahs from Refugio, well-structured Bordeaux varieties from Roblar, and much more. “We’re not in control of the narrative, but we’re writing the story,” he said toward the end of that visit, sipping from a zippy pet-nat of sangiovese. “It’s happening live.”
Kevin Gleason was an Atlanta-based outdoor advertising executive when he bought the 415-acre cattle ranch that became Refugio Ranch in 2004, inspired by the path of his boss Stephen Adams, who founded Camping World and owned vines in France and California. Gleason’s 27 acres of grapes, spread from the valley flats to the steep, oak-choked hills, are still the only ones on the southern edge of the Santa Ynez River and are a particular fascination for hands-on viticulturist Ruben “The Grape Whisperer” Solorzano. They rely on north-facing mountain slopes to enhance the coolness that comes from the fog and afternoon shade yet tap into the summer heat that warms up the eastern Santa Ynez Valley’s floor.
For many years, those wines were very appreciated in the hands of Ryan Deovlet, but he works up in San Luis Obispo on his own brand and a few others. Today, Marshak and Gaffney are in the vines usually three days a week, often with Solorzano. “You can’t quantify what’s happening,” said Marshak, “but it’s happening.”
Roblar was a different story. Founded, in fact, by Gleason’s mentor Adams, the brand suffered from all sorts of wounds, mostly self-inflicted: primarily, their unpermitted parties triggered the highly controversial winery ordinance reconsideration years ago, and the vineyard’s grapes were trucked up north to be made into mostly tepid wines. When Adams wanted out, the Gleasons pounced, recognizing the potential of a tasting room right on Highway 154, but immediately realizing the challenge of adding a new property to the portfolio.
The germination took a few years, but over early August bites of smoked-salmon-topped deviled eggs, charred broccolini, and a watermelon salad that Gleason rightly called “the taste of summer,” the Roblar property appeared to be doing swell. That’s directly due to the planting of the adjacent Roblar Farm, about 1.5 acres of everything you can grow there, and the hiring of Peter Cham, the Turnpike Road–raised, San Francisco- and Boston-trained chef who ran Finch & Fork at the Canary Hotel for many years.
Cham’s culinary education in San Francisco consisted of school from 5 a.m to 3 p.m., and then dishwashing until 1:30 a.m., with 45-minute trips on the bus each way. “I’d sleep for like two hours and do it all over again,” he said of the grind. “But I wanted to be a chef, and that’s what you did.”
He fell for California-style cooking in that city’s restaurant Radius, which sourced only from 100 miles away, but went to Boston with his now-wife, who went to nursing school there. He reverted to a line chef salary to work for celebrated chef Matthew Gaudet at West Bridge.
“I felt like I grew too quickly into my chef role in San Francisco, and I wanted to learn more,” said Cham, who was running top S.F. kitchens just four years into his career. “[West Bridge] was a really cool kitchen. We were really involved in what went on the menu and the creative process.”
Wanting to start a family, he suggested moving back home in 2015, and found a job at The Hungry Cat, a downtown Santa Barbara seafood darling, then was hired at Finch & Fork the next year. He was running the show when COVID hit, but work got weird. He got out, private cheffing for a bit but dealing with anxiety over the nonwork time, having hustled his whole life. A colleague mentioned Roblar, and the tour of the farm convinced him.
“I’ve been a chef for years, and I’ve never been able to be that close to my produce,” said Cham, who’d grabbed basil, eggplant, and tomatoes that morning for our lunch. “Just having that in our backyard keeps us inspired and keeps us true farm-to-table.”
Max Marshak grew up in the San Juan Islands and was working tables in New York City when he realized winemaking could be a job. Through connections, he spent a harvest at Fess Parker in 2012 and then moved to Jonata, arguably the most prestigious winery in the region, working there for seven years alongside Matt Dees. Both Max and Matt qualify as some of the nicest, most honest, purely pleasant people I know, and they also make stunningly thoughtful wines.
With the equally lovable Kat Gaffney, who worked for a short spell on the opening of Spear Vineyards, Marshak is gently taking the reins from Deovlet on the Refugio Ranch wines (mostly Rhône-focused), but aggressively leading the charge on Roblar, shifting the chaotic focus to Bordeaux. He’s embracing what he calls the “true Los Olivos District,” and taking cues from the cabernet sauvignon of the Brander Vineyard across the highway. “We learned a lot from them,” smiled Marshak over lunch, “whether they know it or not.”
When I hung out with Kevin’s son Max Gleason on a frigid February in 2019, not long after they’d bought Roblar, he was unsure of what they’d do with the brand and property. But now he’s confident of the direction, in part due to one-off bottlings they are putting under the Gleason Family Vineyard labels. “This maybe won’t happen in 2021,” said Gleason of a limited sauvignon blanc we sipped at lunch. “It’s just an outlet to do something special.”
After chomping down multiple pizzas, we headed out toward the farm, which is on the site of an old Arabian horse ranch, full of nourishing shit in the soil. It’s only an acre and a half, but it already produces too much for Cham to use, even when pickling and canning and tomato-saucing for their to-go store.
“This creates a contained ecosystem,” said Gleason of the spread, which includes a barn that’s rentable for weddings, a fabulous guest house, and a pergola that will be perfect for wine pairing dinners. Added Marshak, who lives a squash’s toss away, “It’s pretty amazing to be sort of a closed loop.”
3010 Roblar Ave., Santa Ynez; (805) 686-2603; gleasonfamilyvineyards.com