Slice of Heaven
Rita's Crown Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
Block 14, Dijon Clone 777 + California Clone 828
Back in the 1960’s my dad loved hanging out with his small group of deep sea fishing buddies. Their genus was not one of catch and release, rather it was more of the catch big, eat big approach. One of the guys in the group was the west coast representative for a major line of fishing tackle. Another was a boat distributor. His specialty? You guessed it, sport fishing boats. So, all the guys had the best gear, the best boats, and a fanaticism that made their passion look and feel at times as though it were commercial. Indeed, my dad’s fishing habit was so serious that it ultimately fostered the opening of Walt’s Wharf, my parents’ seafood restaurant. Back then, the place would actually feature some the bounty caught by this devoted group. I can still remember as a young boy dragging Swordfish carcasses through the restaurant on pieces of cardboard on a busy Friday night. “I’ll have that!” the customers would shout out.
The guy who sold the boats back then was Mr. Paul Albrecht. After 80 years of life, Paul passed away in November of 2013. For this saga, the thing that you need to know about him was that he was a born salesman; snow to Eskimos, not a problem. This story really begins with Paul having a cup of coffee one morning in his show room some time in the early ‘90’s. In the Long Beach Press Telegram that morning was a little human interest piece about a cloister of nuns that for years had been tag-teaming their prayers in a convent that took up a block of downtown ocean view real-estate. If I remember the story right, one of the sisters had come upon some inheritance money and the group had decided to put it together with the proceeds from the sale of their convent, and move to the country. They wanted peace. They wanted quiet. They wanted their slice of heaven. Intrigued by the article, Paul kept reading down until he choked on his coffee. Back then, there was one preeminent Pinot Noir vineyard in the state south of Carneros. It was the Santa Ynez Valley’s Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, and the little arrow on the map was telling Paul that the nuns were about to move in, right next door.
Along with the fishing itch, both my dad and Paul had developed some winemaking habits over the years as well. Of course, my dad’s stab at winemaking is essentially the beginning of the story of what is now Babcock Winery. Paul’s dabbling in wine led him to a small property between Solvang and Los Olivos that he named Eleven Oaks Ranch. Some of you may remember that name being the moniker for a reserve Sauvignon Blanc that I used to make which featured grapes from Paul’s tiny vineyard. Along with the sales gene that ran through Paul’s blood, he was a bit of the restless type as well. After becoming bored with Sauvignon Blanc, he paid for a little junket that sent me and an associate to Italy on a fact finding mission. Shortly thereafter, he took out his one acre of Sauvignon Blanc and replaced it with Sangiovese, and my bottling of Eleven Oaks went Super Tuscan. So Paul knew a bit about the Santa Barbara County wine scene as he sat there pondering that article in the Press Telegram. I suppose most people would have thought “that’s interesting” and they would have gone about their day. But for Paul it was time to call ringleader Sister Jean Marie to tell here that she was going to be in the wine business.
Paul’s recollection of his first meeting with Sister Jean was interesting.
“I kid you not,” he said.
“She spoke to me through a hole in the wall. I did not see the woman at all during the entire discussion.”
While this might seem like a tough situation for most salesman, you have remember, the pitch man here is Paul Albrecht. I believe it was at their third meeting that Sister Jean finally came out from behind the veil. Paul proposed the idea of a small vineyard, the land for which he and his partner-to-be Ron Piazza would lease from the sisters.
“She really liked my two pronged approach,” Paul told me. “She was definitely down for the idea of some income, but what she really loved was when I asked her, Wasn’t Jesus a winemaker?”
Being in the order of Carmelites, the nuns named their new 250 acre property Mt. Carmel. Facing south with a view of the Santa Ynez River and the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, it was spectacular. Paul and Ron put together a lease to farm 25 acres of wine grapes, and it was game on. The cloister began to love their new friends from Long Beach, and Paul started his new role as their social chairman. I remember him telling me at one point, “I think I may have created a monster.” After the first 10 acres of the Mt. Carmel vineyard were planted he arranged for a luncheon here at the winery. I’ll never forget it. There were 15 nuns in habits buzzing around the winery.
“Ooohhh, what’s that? Can I touch this?”
Country living was working quite well for the ladies. They went on and on about their new digs and their new found freedom. We sat down and had a fantastic meal complete with enough blessings to last me a life time.
Paul had decorated the table with grape leaves, and for the centerpiece he had barrowed my mom’s porcelain Madonna that lived in the small family room at the winery. The sisters were thrilled with it, and toward the end of the meal one of them asked Paul about it.
“Oh, that, ahhhh, that is a gift for you sisters from Bryan’s mom, Mona.”
They went absolutely crazy.
I sat there thinking, “Really, it is?”
I looked over at Paul and he just kind of shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “come on man, it is now.”
My mom wasn’t too upset when she found out about it. I’ll never forget Paul saying to her, “Mona, it’s in God’s hands.”
The Sta. Rita Hills Viticultural Appellation had not yet been drawn up and the Pinot Noir explosion was still a decade away. The first thing Paul and Ron planted was ten acres of Chardonnay, the spectacular wines from which I produced for about six years. Meanwhile, the nuns began construction on their dream convent. It was a structure that would ultimately lead them to their downfall. Instead of building something modest, they took a whack at an edifice that looked more like the Hilton. They got halfway through it and ran out of funds. While they had a little income from their lease with Paul, it was not nearly enough to fuel Shangri-La. It was also discovered that the contractor did not build to code and the whole thing would eventually have to be torn down. Because they had put up their property as collateral, the owner of Mt. Carmel ultimately became the Bank. The cloister disbanded, and Sister Jean Marie scrambled to retain one of the property’s parcels, on top of which she was able to plant a mobile home. Over time, the Chardonnay craze started to chill and it became impossible for me to pay Paul and Ron what they needed to cover their farming costs. They had planted a little Pinot Noir, which for me made better financial sense, but in the end, another winery came in and made them a long term offer for the grapes that they couldn’t refuse. As I parted, there was a totally weird vibe. While Paul and Ron continued to farm, the property remained in bankruptcy for the better part of two years, and the uninhabitable remains of the convent began to physically decay. The nuns had gone from being as close to heaven as they could get, only to end up with shattered dreams.
A few years later, the property was finally auctioned off by a bankruptcy trustee in Santa Barbara. Paul and Ron seemed like the most likely buyers; however they were very comfortable with their right to farm 25 acres being assigned to the deed of the property. Knowing they could farm the vineyard regardless of who the landlord was, they stood on the sideline and watched a guy named Joe Reese buy the place for about a million bucks. While they did retain their right to farm, Reese proceeded to make their lives miserable until he sold the place a few years later. By that time the Sta. Rita Hills had exploded. Pinot Noir became the new deity, and Reese spun off the property to a quasi governmental California Pension Fund Corporation, CALPERS, for a cool 5 million bucks.
Why did CALPERS buy the place? It must have something to do with the false allure of the wine business, aka, dirt farming. What ever the reason, some time ago, CALPERS got the notion the wine business would be a good place to invest pension money. They hired an outfit called Premiere Pacific Vineyards to purchase and develop vineyard land up and down the west coast. After developing projects in Washington, Oregon and California, their most recent acquisitions have been in the Sta. Rita Hills. Mt. Carmel was one of them.
I used to have these conversations with Paul about where to plant the next ten acres. While he and Ron Piazza did commence with a nice planting of Chardonnay on one of the property’s easy-access plateaus, I was always taken by the hillside that was directly above the site where the convent was to be built. But after realizing that ten acres of Chardonnay really would be ten times more of a headache than one acre of Sangiovese at Eleven Oaks, Paul got conservative. “It’s too steep up there” he would say, “Too much risk.” Well, too steep for Albrecht turned out to be a walk in the park for Premiere Pacific Vineyards. In short order, PPV came in and carved into the hills of Mt. Carmel some of the most stunning vineyards I have ever seen. Ultimately, Paul and Ron retained the name Mt. Carmel for the 25 acres that they continued to farm. Around it now are 60 acres of what is being presented by CALPERS as Rita’s Crown. On the hillside that I used to encourage Paul to plant on lies five new acres of Pinot Noir, known to the winemaking community as blocks 14a, 14b and 14c. To me, it is known as Slice Of Heaven.
While the story here is partially a source for the name of this wine, the other source, the one that is most central, is the vineyard itself. Currently, I am splitting the grapes from this site with my notable colleague, winemaker Ken Brown. Both he and I were drawn to this section of vineyard from the get-go. One of the things we liked was its exposure. While it is essentially a south facing hillside, it pulls back to the east just slightly, thus protecting it from the undue stress that can be brought upon the vines on the windiest days of the year, which, in this particular area of the Sta. Rita Hills, can be often.
The other thing that struck us was the soil. At various points throughout the vineyard, especially in block 14a, there is this brownish pink stony material that feels like pumice. It takes up a lot of space, but it has no mass. The stuff is like, weightless. Is that a good thing? Well, I’ll just say it’s interesting and I have never seen anything like it in a vineyard before. Is it a heavenly thing? Is its physicality God’s suggestion that there really is a heaven? I don’t know, but it does look like God took out his knife and perfectly sliced a little mountain in half, leaving me with a hillside that is covered with this stuff.
I’m not sure if Jean Marie is still there on the property, but if she is, a future mission of mine will be to take her a few bottles of the incredibly distinctive wine that this hillside produces, and tell her, “Sister, I have a feeling that Jesus would have loved to work with this fruit.”
On Wednesday December 10th, 2014, I took a case of Slice Of Heaven Pinot Noir to Sister Jean Marie.
Still there with Sister Jean, crafting devotion into an art form, was Sister Patricia, who was one of the sisters that was there some 20 years ago at the momentous lunch at the winery. I did not mention the line about how Jesus would have loved working with the Pinot in the Sta. Rita Hills, but I did tell Sister Jean that her decision to allow for the planting of wine grapes at Mt. Carmel greatly contributed to the sculpting of Sta. Rita Hills winemaking history, and for that, she deserved a great big thank you.
On the way back to my car, I caught myself about to leave without asking her one last important question. I knocked back on her front door and opened it a little bit saying, “Excuse me Sister.”
And so it is that I have one last person here to end this story with.
Mom, Paul Albrecht was right. It is in God’s hands. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that your Madonna made it to the big time.