By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Kathy Joseph was pretty much alone when in 1998 she converted a garden into a vineyard in what is now known as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. All she wanted was 15 acres, but Santa Barbara County regulations required her to plant 100 if she was going to have a vineyard. She made wine from the Fiddlestix Vineyard, but sold most of her fruit – mostly pinot noir — to other producers.
The vineyard was memorialized on the labels of some of the great pinot noir producers – we fondly remember those made by Fess Parker. Fiddlestix even had a cameo appearance in the movie “Sideways.”
Joseph sold Fiddlestix Vineyard and is now focused exclusively on making wine under her Fiddlehead Cellars label, which she launched in 1989. The “head fiddle,” as she calls herself, is still a one-woman show that takes Joseph from the Willamette Valley to Sta. Rita Hills where she hones her pinot noirs from different soils and different climates. She spent 15 years in Oregon and now transports her purchased grapes from there to her winery in Lompoc, California.
“Balance drives my brand,” Joseph said in a recent virtual meeting with wine writers. “I’m looking for something unique, so I’m focused on varietals that weren’t well recognized domestically.”
That motivation took her from pinot noir to gruner veltliner, the primary white grape variety planted in Austria but making inroads elsewhere.
“I like to surprise people,” she said. “I added gruner veltliner because it was time to explore new horizons. It was a giant experiment that was highly successful.”
Most gruner veltliners are delicious on summer days but largely one-dimensional. Joseph wanted something more from it.
“On a whim I wanted to see if I could make gruner veltliner successful. I just liked drinking it and wanted to make it in a more serious style. I wanted weight and spice,” she said.
The 2016 Fiddlehead Gruner Veltliner ($30) we tasted had all of that: weight, velvet mouthfeel, fresh ginger, honey melon and stone-fruit flavors. Given its age, the acidity rounds off to reveal a smooth texture.
Joseph eschews making chardonnay – “not my cup of tea” – and instead is dedicated to pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. The pinot noirs are unusual in that they are aged for seven years or longer. Joseph thinks this is the age at which the pinot noirs come together.
“I don’t expect the customer to wait for them to come around,” she said.
We tasted two 2015 pinot noirs – the Seven Twenty Eight Mile Market ($46) from Sta. Rita Hills and the Oldsville Single Vineyard ($60) from Oregon — and an extraordinary Loppaloza Barrel Select ($88) from the 2014 vintage. The Oldsville sources grapes from Chelahem Mountains but Joseph has to use “Oregon” on the label because it is actually vinified in California. Their age gives these wines a Burgundian personality. Consumers looking for aged pinot noirs but not patient to wait can enjoy what Fiddlehead has to offer.
Joseph said she doesn’t know whether she will source future pinot noirs from her former vineyard, but for now she’s content in releasing the cache of aged pinot noirs from other vintages. She maintains a house on the Fiddlestix property.
J Vineyards was founded by Judy Jordan, the daughter of Tom Jordan who was the founder of Jordan Winery Vineyards in the 1980s. Originally a sparkling wine producer, J Vineyards also currently sells still red and white wines.
Now owned by E&J Gallo, J Vineyards continues to produce delicious still and sparkling wines from fruit grown in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma County.
We recently tasted some offerings from J Vineyards and especially enjoyed the following: The J Vineyard J Cuvee 20 Russian River Valley N/V ($38) is an ongoing commemoration of their 20th anniversary. This is a fantastic sparkling wine that competes on the same level as real French champagne. Citrus, pear and toasty elements blend to create a wonderful bubbly mélange.
The J Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2017 ($40) is another solid wine offering classic effusive cherry, berry and cola notes in a wonderful presentation.
Markham Napa Valley Merlot 2020 ($29). Markham has not wavered from its merlot program despite challenges from movies and consumer who have soured on the varietal.
We are thankful. While it makes many single-vineyard merlots, this Napa Valley version is a great value. Plum aromas integrate nicely with ripe black cherry and toffee flavors.
Markham The Altruist 2018 ($29). Kimberlee Nicholls leads a team of all-female winemakers who have come up with genius wines like this Bordeaux-like blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. You won’t find many blends of this quality for the money. Delicious, ripe black cherry flavors with broad aromatics and a velvet texture.
Firesteed Oregon Pinot Noir 2021 ($17). Simple but tasty, this Oregon pinot noir is a good deal amongst luxury-priced pinot noirs. Cherry aromas with red fruit flavors and a hint of cinnamon and vanilla.
The Paring Red 2018 ($25). This charming and approachable blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot has sweet red fruit and cassis flavors with a dash of vanilla and chocolate. A great value.