Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Buttonwood Winemaker Leaves Fast Lane, Pops Cork on Delicious New Career

Karen Steinwachs remembers it well. After a 20-year career in the high-tech field, she was sitting with fellow employees in a meeting room on the 23rd floor of a high-rise in Century City, Los Angeles. It was decided that their company, fueled by venture capital money, would shut down.

Karen, now the winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard near Santa Barbara, recalls pondering what she would do next. “I needed a time out,” she said before the recent Wine by the Glass Pavilion tasting at the Toledo Museum of Art. “I wanted a job where I could use my hands, not my mind, something where I wasn’t in charge and didn’t need to make decisions.”

Without consulting her husband Dave, she took a job harvesting grapes at Foley Estates. It was a seven-day-a-week, physically demanding job that paid seven bucks an hour. She never had dreams of a wine career, but once she started she loved it.

She then worked to develop her sense of smell and her palate. “It was the hardest thing,” she said, “learning to trust your taste and smell instead of a spreadsheet.”

For wine lovers, her career shift is serendipitous. Now the winemaker at Buttonwood Farms, she crafts fascinating wines that reflect what Mother Nature is doing in the vineyard.

Buttonwood is located in the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the few East-West oriented valleys in North America. This allows ocean breezes to blow in from the West and warmer air to enter from the East. The temperature can swing from the 90s during the day to the 50s at night, making it ideal for the thicker skinned Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot grapes.

Buttonwood has a harmonious, natural groove. It is a working farm and they employ sustainable farming practices. The artwork for the labels, a brushwork swirl, was created by  Seyburn Zorthian, daughter of the winery’s founder.

On the tasting menu for the Toledo Museum of Art event was: 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Zingy Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Devin Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, 2007 Hawk Red table wine and the 2007 Merlot.

Karen and Buttonwood favor the Sauv Blanc and in fact produced five different varieties one year. The Zingy recently took a gold medal at Gold Medal at the San Diego International Wine Competition. Only 435 cases of this baby were produced and it has a crisp and zesty flavor with plenty of citrus and acidity. This is more in tune with New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc than some of the milder Californian styles.

The ‘08 Sauvignon Blanc is the “signature” wine that shows the pure essence of the grape. This hasn’t as much edge as the Zingy, but is a rewarding glass with a tart finish. This is the wine on which Buttonwood “hangs its hat.” It is a true crowd pleaser.

The Devin is an almost equal blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. This is aged in oak barrels and has a creamy, lush texture and an enjoyable mouthfeel. This is an even smaller production wine, with only 287 produced. This is a great wine for those who love Chardonnay, but want to expand their wine list.

I was looking forward to the sampling of Hawk Red, which is named after the Red-tailed Hawks which keep the vineyard free of rodent pests. This blend caught my attention in Andersons and I picked up a bottle of 2006. I mentioned this to host Adam Mahler and he quickly warned me – the ‘07 was Karen's first vintage and the 2006 might have some “funk” to it.

The ‘07 Red Hawk had a delightful bouquet and is a warming red with flavor notes of pepper, graphite and violets. It is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc. At only $13.99, this is a bottle you can afford to pop open regularly.

Open returning home later that evening, we had a side by side tasting with the ‘06 and ‘07. Like I told Adam and Karen. I like my funk in my music, not my glass. Lesson learned: the vintage (and winemaker) can make all the difference. The ‘06 tasted far inferior to the more refined ‘07.

The tasting wrapped up with the ‘07 Merlot. This Merlot has darker plummy notes and certainly doesn’t qualify as a fruit bomb. It has balanced tannins and a nice kick. Like the other Buttonwood wines, this is produced with old vines.  It is deep and intense.

Buttonwood is available in several locations locally and also online. Take the next exit off the fast lane and enjoy some of their pleasure in the glass.

Technorati Tags: ,

No comments: