Ever since I started my quest to bring Stolpman wines to the world, I fly out of Santa Barbara Airport almost weekly. I make sure to sit in right-side window seats as we bank out over the ocean and wind south towards Los Angeles en route to LAX, Denver or Phoenix. I forget the long, cramped day in front of me as I gaze out at one of the most extraordinary views in the US. As we gain elevation the plane flies parallel to the giant, rugged, seemingly un-touched island of Santa Cruz. This Narnia consists of two large mountain ranges with a beautiful, hidden central valley.
My obsession with the Channel Islands stems from a childhood of being carted up and down the 101 freeway. My dad and I frequently headed up the coast to look for white rocks near the ocean for our future vineyard land. The islands always appeared to be a magical fairyland to me as a kid, jutting out of the fog across the ocean. On the occasional clear day, I could make out more outer-lying islands beyond Santa Cruz, igniting my imagination further.
Somehow my minor obsession came up while working the East Bay and San Francisco markets with one of our Vinifera reps named Justy. Justy laughed and matter-of-factly told me “My full name is Justinian Brock and I’m named after my great grand father Justinian Caire, who owned the island at the turn of the last century. He built expansive vineyards in the ‘Central Valley’ of the island as well as a famous Riesling vineyard out on the Northwestern tip.”
By coincidence, Justy told me that the Island Conservancy was holding their annual Mass and Lunch out on the vineyard only a few weeks later, and invited me along for a personal tour of the ancient gravity-flow winery. The fermented juice sailed back to Santa Barbara on Cutters still in Barrel, and the prolific vineyards supplied all of the local restaurants with wine.
The day of our Island adventure quickly came, and as we departed the Ventura Harbor on an Island Packers Catamaran, a pod of Sea Lions waved us fairwell. Apparently they keep their flippers above the water to warm up in the sun.
An hour later, I started to get excited as the island sea cliffs loomed to our Starboard side,with tiny Anacapa Island further South. We docked at the pier that I had spotted from my commuter jets, and as we climbed into a 40 year old Toyota Land Cruiser, I started to understand why I could never see any road from the pier. The single track road we bounced up was simply a river bed. The rocky creek wound through a steep gorge from Prisoner’s Harbor up to the ranch compound hidden within the Central Valley.
We were blessed with pretty amazing clear weather, with high patchy clouds throwing shadows on the barren, yet still green spring-time terrain. I immediately met up with Justy and his Fiance Niki – Justy had proposed on the island the night before! – and they escorted me over to the old winery for a quick look-around.
Seeing a winery built over one hundred years ago brought home to me what an ancient art we still practice today. Without electricity or forklifts, it was only natural for Justinian Caire to build a gravity flow winery, with the crush pad and fermentors housed in a building up the hill and the press and barrel rooms in a larger building below. In particular, I snapped photos of the old plows and a tiny barrel press.
The crowd moved over to the tiny chapel where there were still some ancient vines growing along the fence. From the chapel and winery, I could see where the Central Valley vineyards had been planted, as even after 30 years, the burly trees had still not grown over the cultivated blocks. Another friend Matt told me he had accompanied Jeff Rusack out into the Island’s bush to show him the wild Zinfadel vines actually growing up trees, now totally wild. Jeff took cuttings and propogated them to plant his Catalina Island Vineyard – 80 miles down the chain of Channel Islands.
I took in the beautiful day just outside the Chapel as the Priest held mass from an antique family bible found in the main ranch house. The clouds drifted overhead and I occasionally snapped a photo as the shadows danced over the mountains. As soon as mass ended we headed to the pool area for lunch with delicious Sanford wine. Richard Sanford told me he has been going to the island for decades and his wineries hold a strong, albeit more recent tradition there.
Part of the wonder of the day was the feeling of being thousands of miles away from the modern world. Even the jeeps and pickups were from an older generation, and the beautiful buildings certainly qualify for heritage landmarks. I heard a number of my fellow visitors comment something like “This feels like California hundreds of years ago before any development”.
Santa Cruz Island remains an obsession, not only because there’s proof of Santa Barbara County’s deep wine roots out there, but because the raw natural beauty is unmatched.