On my recent trip to Los Olivos, I was very fortunate to visit the tasting room of Tercero Wines and chat with the winemaker, Larry Schaffer. One of the things that I love about visiting smaller wineries is that regular people, like me, occasionally have the opportunity to meet the winemakers. When you get that kind of access it opens a really amazing window, often illuminating how and why they made the wines the way that they did.
Immediately upon meeting Larry, it was evident that he is really passionate about his craft. He is a big advocate for the wines in the Santa Barbara region, especially Rhone varietals. His enthusiasm was infectious and it was wonderful to taste his wines while he shared his story and philosophies around wine making.
Larry has one of those great American dream stories that will inspire those who feel trapped in their paper pushing corporate jobs. After working in the music and publishing industries, he threw in the towel and went to UC Davis to learn how to make wine. He and his family left Orange County and moved up to the Santa Barbara region to pursue a new career that is clearly much more than a job.
Q: What attracted you to wine making?
A: My infatuation around starting with a grape and ending up with this (points to glass of wine) and why two wines are never the same. What is it about that? It is more like a childlike inquisitiveness than anything else. I am not a wine collector. I am not a wine connoisseur. I am just infatuated with the process.
Q: What is it about Rhone Varietals that led you to select those grapes vs. the other options available?
A: A couple of things. My master’s thesis was done on tannin development in Syrah so I specifically looked at that variety. That was about a decade ago when the variety was not supposed to be the next great thing and probably never will be but that is another issue. I don’t think that there is a better place than Santa Barbara Country for Rhone varieties in terms of the diversity of the climate that we have here.
The other reason is that I am an underdog supporter and Rhones are definitely more of an underdog variety.
Q: What influences your decisions regarding the use of oak in your wines? New oak, used oak, American oak, French oak?
A: My decisions on that are somewhat based on an old world mentality. I don’t use new oak for any of my wines. The newest barrels that I use are two years old. Rhone varieties, if you look at the Chateauneuf, especially Grenache and Mourvedre, don’t need oak. Oak masks what is beautiful about those varieties. I am an aromatics guy and I don’t want to mask the aromatics of these wines.
Q: Are you more interested in creating approachable wines that people can enjoy young or do you have long term cellaring recommendations for some of your wines?
A: I will tell a quick story. My Dad is a big Turley fan and loves the Petite Sirahs that Turley makes. Well, those Petite Sirahs are meant to age 10-15 years before you try them. My Dad has gifted me some because he does not think that he will be alive when those wines are ready. I do not want to make wines in that style. I make my wines to be structured but approachable.
Q: In 10 years where do you see Tercero? Is there anything you hope to do in that time?
A: Make it a for profit winery rather than a non-profit! Continue to stay on my soapbox and talk about the things we have discussed. I want to humanize the wine making process as much as possible.
Q: If you could transport yourself to any time or any place to make wine for one year, and afterwards come back to the present so that you did not miss out on anything, where would you want to go to make wine?
A: That is a strange question. Based on the types of wines that I would make, I would say the Rhone. I have never been to the Rhone. I don’t base my wines on those made anywhere else in the world. They are from here. I am not a believer that you can make Burgundy in California, for instance. You can make wines here that maybe echo those wines but they speak of California. So I would love to go either to the Rhone or to Spain.
While I spoke with Larry, I tried several of his wines including his 2010 Viognier, 2010 Grenache Blanc and several reds. I loved them, especially the red wines. They were dry, full bodied and spicy with dark fruit aromas. They are wines that you can sit and inhale for a while, before even taking a sip. As Larry mentioned, he is an aromatics guy and consequently makes wines that lure you in with their enticing nose.
In two of his wines, he used some whole clusters of grapes. This gave the wines additional structure and body, enhancing their richness. The 07 Watch Hill Grenache and the 07 Thompson Vineyard Syrah both exhibited this voluptuousness, yet were well balanced to create a silky and smooth feel. I imagine that both of these wines would pair nicely with a meal like braised short ribs and herbed polenta.
The last two reds that I tried were lighter in body and could easily be enjoyed on their own or with a meal. The 07 Camp 4 Grenache was made from de-stemmed grapes and had a lighter body relative to the other Grenache. This was a really elegant wine. The 07 Christie Cuvee Blend, named after Larry’s wife, is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, resulting in a very smooth and easy to drink wine.
After I left Tercero and drove up the Foxen Canyon trail through the more rural parts of the region, it became abundantly clear why Larry (and others) would be so attracted to this area and its potential. I hope that Larry continues to make wine and be an advocate for Rhone varietals because his wines are truly wonderful.