Paradise Springs Winery’s Bicoastal Blossoming
Kirk Wiles Grows His Family’s Brand from Virginia to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone
When the great-aunt of Kirk Wiles died about two decades ago, she left the family an old farm in Fairfax County, Virginia, on the Bull Run river, granted to their ancestors in 1716 by Lord Fairfax himself.
“We almost ended up losing the property to inheritance taxes,” said Wiles. But his grandmother bailed the family out, which triggered conversations between Wiles and his mom about the future of the farm. “She loved Virginia wine and wanted to turn it into a winery,” said Wiles, who was 23 years old at the time in 2005 and vowed to figure it out. “That’s when the journey started.”
Seventeen years later, the family’s Paradise Springs Winery is one of the biggest and most respected in that state, Wiles is the chair of the Virginia Wine Board, and the brand also makes wine from Santa Barbara County, which they serve in a Funk Zone tasting room. Billed as the first bicoastal winery in America, Paradise Springs is the bridge between two wine regions that are steeped in history, awash in quality, and yet still fighting for broader recognition.
“Virginia wine is a lot like the Santa Barbara region in that there is still an underdog story,” said Wiles. “You have a lot of talented winemakers making some really great stuff, but there is still some experimentation happening on what you plant and what wines you make, and a lot of market share to gain and recognition to happen.”
Not that things started smoothly. Before Paradise Springs could even plant vineyards, Wiles grappled in court for two years with Fairfax County over zoning issues, even though state law about “farm wineries” superseded local control. “It’s not a great way to start a business,” said Wiles, but he was confident. “I knew we would win, and we did.”
Their plight got above-the-fold coverage on the front page of the Washington Post. “Our story resonated because it was Big Government pushing the little guy around. We had this old family farm, and we wanted to share it,” said Wiles, and the attention helped. “We opened with good fanfare and a lot of support.”
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It certainly didn’t hurt being the closest winery to metropolitan D.C. when they finally opened in 2010. “We didn’t have to do a lot of gimmicky weddings and events that others had to do to draw people far out in the country,” said Wiles. But three years later, they were selling more wine than they could make from their Virginia vineyards. He explained, “We had our hands on every bit of quality fruit we could get.”
During a 2014 vacation with friends to Los Angeles, they ventured up to Santa Barbara to taste some wine, meeting with Greg Brewer at Melville and then Brewer-Clifton. Wiles realized that he could produce Santa Barbara wines as well, particularly since Virginia struggles to grow good pinot noir. “I firmly believe that, outside of Burgundy, the Sta. Rita Hills is the greatest place in the entire world to make pinot noir,” said Willes, who headed home from the trip with direct contact info for two winemakers.
“One was Doug Margerum, and I don’t even remember who the second one was,” laughed Wiles, who talked to Margerum on the phone for hours. “I could tell we were cut from the same cloth and had the same winemaking philosophy. We hit it off as friends. I ended up signing a contract with Doug to make pinot and sauv blanc that year, without really having ever met him in person or tasted his wines, which is kinda cool.”
The next quest was to open a tasting room. Wiles knew that the Funk Zone was the right place, as the steady foot traffic was just like the D.C. proximity that powered the flagship operation. After more than two years of scouting for the right place, Wiles found the space on East Yanonali just off State Street that was once shared by Kalyra and Giessinger.
“It’s cool to see what’s happened in the Funk Zone,” said Wiles of the area’s shift from funkiness to a more refined style. “I like to think we are part of bringing some quality wine down there with a clean, modern, high-end buildout. It was new and fresh for what was there at the time.”
The sailing’s been rather smooth since. Under Margerum’s watch, Paradise Springs now produces more than a dozen Santa Barbara County wines each vintage, primarily Bordelaise varieties from Happy Canyon, Burgundians from the Sta. Rita Hills (including multiple Sanford & Benedict bottlings), and a bit of Rhône.
That’s on top of the two dozen wines that Wiles makes from his Virginia vineyards, now tallying more than 80 acres, with another 100 acres planned for a recently acquired Charlottesville property. The popular grapes there are petit manseng, viognier, chardonnay, petit verdot, cabernet franc, and tannat, which Wiles calls “a rising star.” But blending is key in Virginia, especially for reds. “You get a lot of vintage variation, so to be able to blend your strengths for locations and vintages allows flexibility to create the best wine we can,” said Wiles.
Visitors to the Santa Barbara tasting room get to try a selection of Virginia wines, and vice versa. “I try to send stuff that’s a little different and weird, things that people aren’t exposed to, like norton and tannat and vidal blanc and petit manseng,” said Wiles, who also loves wowing his Virginia fans with Sta. Rita Hills pinot.
He’s most surprised by how many connections exist between wine lovers in Virginia and Santa Barbara, as guests frequently remark how they’ve visited the other tasting room, 2,700 miles away. “That means we’re doing something right in Virginia, but we’re doing something right here too,” said Wiles. “Making that bridge is what I always wanted to do, to grow a brand from the grassroots and connect with the community. It’s really a cool thing to see that blossom and have roots grow in both locations.”
210 State St.; (805) 690-3650; paradisespringsofsantabarbara.com
Paradise Springs will be the first winery to be featured in a new dinner series hosted by Costa Kitchen & Bar at the Mar Monte Hotel on Thursday, April 21, at 6 p.m. The $125 tickets include five wines (four from S.B. plus a bourbon barrel-aged Virginia port) and five courses, including crab salad, bone marrow and beef tartare, lamb porterhouse, and panna cotta. See costasb.com or click here for tickets.
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