Two of the Santa Ynez Valley’s most historic and impactful wine properties — Fiddlestix Vineyard, an early hotbed for pinot noir in the Sta. Rita Hills, and Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard, a pioneer in organic farming just north of Solvang — changed hands last month, and the new owners for both are excited about furthering their respective legacies for the long haul.
Founded by sustainability visionary and land conservationist Betty Williams in 1968, Buttonwood was sold by her heirs to Gleason Family Vineyards, owners of the Refugio Ranch and Roblar brands. And Fiddlestix’s founder Kathy Joseph — the owner of Fiddlehead Cellars who planted her property in 1998 when very few other vines existed on Santa Rosa Road — sold the 100-acre vineyard to a group led by Tyler Winery owner Justin Willett and viticulturist Erik Mallea. The pair owns a vineyard management company together, and Mallea also works for Sanford Winery across the road, home to the legendary Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Prices for each deal were not disclosed.
Meanwhile, the more recently developed Hilliard Bruce Vineyard — which had been on the market for nearly three years, initially listed at nearly $15 million — also sold recently for $10,550,000. The new owner is Michael Mente, who is CEO of the e-commerce fashion company Revolve, which went public in 2019 and is valued at more than $2 billion today.
Shared Values at Buttonwood
The Gleasons, who founded Refugio Ranch in 2004 and purchased Roblar Farm & Winery in 2017, learned that Buttonwood was for sale through their assistant winemaker, Kat Gaffney, a friend of Buttonwood’s assistant winemaker, Brett Reeves.
“We’re always focused on growth and development, whether that’s internally or in our pursuit of better wine, better vineyards, and better hospitality,” said Matthew Bieszard, the general manager of Gleason Family Wines and the son-in-law of proprietor Kevin Gleason. “That mesa vineyard is right in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley with 360-degree views. It’s very enchanting. When you learn about the history with Betty Williams, it becomes even more compelling.”
Williams developed Buttonwood as an organic farm in 1968, cofounded what became Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, and planted vines in 1983 in partnership with her son-in-law Bret Davenport and with some guidance by Michael Benedict of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard fame. (Buttonwood also served as a nursery for that seminal vineyard.) The own-rooted vines are mostly Bordeaux varieties, but there are also blocks of grenache blanc, chenin blanc, grenache, and syrah.
“Buttonwood Farm is personal and important to many in the community, and we hoped to find a family to carry on the legacy,” said Davenport, who served as Buttonwood’s managing partner until the sale, working alongside his wife, Barry Zorthian, and her sister, the artist Seyburn Zorthian, the daughters of Williams. He was pleased to find that the Gleasons shared many of their same values.
“Many conversations over a glass of wine have convinced us that there could be no better solution,” said Davenport. “Their vision matches what we’ve always strived to do here with our farm-to-table focus. We feel the next phase is in good hands.”
Bieszard said that longtime Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs will remain, and they will continue to use the estate winery. “We intend to keep Buttonwood Buttonwood, and we’ll slowly creep our Gleason family touch on things,” he said. “There’s only so much wine we can currently make out of the Roblar facility, so I’m confident that the Buttonwood winery will remain an active site for us.”
Beyond the vines, the Gleasons plan to integrate Buttonwood’s other crops — including the famous peaches as well as vegetables, pears, pomegranates, olives, hops, heirloom tomatoes, and more — into their growing hospitality offerings at Roblar Farm. On a strategic front, Buttonwood holds one of the county’s first winery permits, meaning that there are many potential uses for the property, such as food service and events, that aren’t hampered by the strict regulations that emerged more recently.
“It’s a natural addition to everything that we’re doing,” said Bieszard. “Revitalizing this property and pushing it in a direction that’s in line with our core values is going to be the goal in 2022.”
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Fiddlestix Vineyard’s Pinot Power
In 1996, when Kathy Joseph purchased the land for Fiddlestix Vineyard, only a few vines existed along Santa Rosa Road in what would become the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. She was seeking a stable source for high-quality pinot noir to fuel her brand, Fiddlehead Cellars.
“I found this unbelievable property that, in a sense, minimized my risk, because it was across from a famous vineyard that had been making great pinot noir,” she said, referring to Sanford & Benedict, which proved in the 1970s that pinot noir could thrive in this stretch between Buellton and Lompoc. She only needed 15 acres of pinot herself, but she had to plant 100 acres and sell grapes to make the purchase pencil out. Joseph partnered with Beringer Vineyards to take half of the fruit, and that split-ownership continued when Treasury Wine Estates bought Beringer.
“The journey has been making it work,” said Joseph, who’s sold her pinot noir and, later, grüner veltliner grapes to nearly two dozen brands over the years. Among other challenges she never envisioned, Joseph publicly battled with neighboring cannabis farmers in recent years, though they eventually reached a “mutually beneficial agreement.” Today, said Joseph, “I want to spend less time farming for other people and more time making decisions for Fiddlehead.”
She’d been quietly seeking a buyer for some time, but she didn’t want to sell to a large corporation. “I’ve been looking for someone who had local experience and mutual respect and commitment to the region and the community,” she said. “It was a good opportunity for me to transition.”
Viticulturist Erik Mallea and winemaker Justin Willett became interested earlier this year. Together, under Willett-Mallea Farming, they farm a number of properties around the Sta. Rita Hills, including Willett’s Mae Vineyard, Rancho La Vina, and a few sites for French winemakers.
Willett actually launched his Tyler Winery with Fiddlestix grapes back in 2005 and 2006. “It’s pretty cool to own it now 15 years later,” said Willett, who once again sourced grapes from Fiddlestix this year. “The wines are smoking. There’s no re-creating vine age in the cellar.”
He sees the property’s quarter-century-old vines as a smart addition to the five-year-old vines he has at the Mae Vineyard — which is on the Highway 246 side of the appellation — and the 50-year-old vines he uses from Sanford & Benedict. “It’s a really cool cross section of the history of the region,” said Willett, whose other partners in the deal are longtime advisor/accountant Todd Gray and wine collector/friend William Borgers. “It’s really special to have a foothold in both corridors of the Sta. Rita Hills.”
They plan to adopt more organic farming practices and will continue selling grapes. “The goal is to support the producers who have been part of the vineyard for a while and hopefully bring in some other high-quality producers as well,” said Willett. “I feel like we are inheriting something that we feel we can add value to, with Erik’s prowess on the wine-growing side and me in the cellar. We’re really excited about the future ahead.”
Joseph sounds relieved and energized about the future. “This was my decision, and it worked well for me, so people should know that,” said Joseph, who will continue to make pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and grüner veltliner from Santa Barbara and Oregon in her Lompoc winery. “Now the size of the farming is going to be more synchronous with the size of the winery. That makes my life just a little bit easier and more efficient. I can do more of the things that I really set out to do, which is about Fiddlehead Cellars.”