SANTA YNEZ VALLEY — The 2018 harvest marks the 30th anniversary of Fiddlehead Cellars, a winery in Santa Ynez Valley owned by winemaker and head fiddle, Kathy Joseph. Thirty years is a significant marker in the California wine industry, especially for Santa Barbara County, where post-Prohibition commercial plantings date only to 1960.
It is also noteworthy that 30 years ago, “There were very few women who owned wineries, very few women winemakers,” Joseph said. In addition, “There were very few people making high-end quality Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc and very few people interested in the viticultural frontiers of Santa Barbara County and the north Willamette Valley.”
But when you meet Kathy Joseph, you understand.
Joseph is as energetic, passionate and driven. Since Day 1, she has been hands-on with all facets of the business, from in the vineyard to the winemaking to the marketing and selling. She holds the titles proprietor, winemaker, grape herder and head fiddle. Fiddlehead Cellars is her baby and it has been an exciting 30-year journey.
“I felt like I took a gamble when I purchased this dirt in 1996, but Fiddlestix Vineyard definitely has grown up to be a magical piece of Pinot Noir paradise,” Joseph said.
Joseph studied enology and viticulture at UC Davis where she was mentored by five winemakers on the North Coast. After graduation, she took a risk and started a winery in 1989, naming it Fiddlehead Cellars, after nurturing some Fiddlehead ferns in her garden. She found a connection between the curling fern and her curly hair. Ultimately, the name describes the mission of the brand and her goal to make age-worthy wines of texture, elegance and expression of place.
Joseph started making wine, focusing on Pinot Noir, in both Santa Barbara County and Oregon. In 1996, she purchased 100 acres in the Sta. Rita Hills, located on the north side of Santa Rosa Road across the highway from Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. The promise of the potential of the region was worth the risk.
“My job is to decide when to pick and to manage quality,” Joseph said. Her style is not about huge extracted wines but about letting the wine express the place it is from and the vintage. Over the past 30 years, Joseph has grown with the Santa Ynez Valley and in honor of her anniversary, she opened old vintages in order to do a tasting exploration through the history of Fiddlehead Cellars.
Joseph began making wine in the Santa Maria Valley at the Sierra Madre Vineyard. Her first vintage was 1989, and she opened the 1989 Fiddlehead Pinot Noir Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley for us to taste. With 30 years age, the 1989 is an amber color with aromas of earth and tea leaves and there was still a little acidity left. Joseph continued to work with the Sierra Madre Vineyard until 1994, and we also tasted the 1993, which was lighter bodied with aromas of tea and brown spices and a touch of acidity on the back palate.
Joseph began making wine in the Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1991, with her first vintage released in 1992. We tasted the 1993 Fiddlehead Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, which still has prevalent acidity and a deeper, darker, denser nose than the Santa Maria Valley pinots. We also tasted the 1996 Pinot Noir which has notes of perfume, tea, brown spices and still has smooth tannins.
Having purchased the Fiddlestix Vineyard in 1996, her first vintage from that vineyard was in 2000. The best of the harvest went into 2000 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza Pinot Noir. The vines were still young in 2000, and the wine, 18 years later, has notes of brown spices and tannins that are soft but grippy on the top of tongue.
The 2005 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza is juicy with cherry notes and great aging potential. The 2006 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza has great acidity that made my tongue tingle, and the 2007 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza is super mouthwatering. The Fiddlestix Lollapalooza 2008 is still young and the 2009 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza has a sweetness to it as well as soft tannins. The 2010 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza has bright fresh fruit notes and tannins and the 2012 Fiddlestix Lollapalooza is bigger with a longer finish and grippier tannins due to the warm vintage.
In addition to Pinot Noir, Joseph enjoys the complexity of Sauvignon Blanc, and sources fruit from vineyards more inland. In tasting the 1993, 1995 and 1998 sauvignon blancs, what was extraordinary was the age-ability. The 1993, for example, was still so fresh with remaining acidity. That is impressive for a sauvignon blanc with 25 years of age on it.
Today, Joseph produces three styles of Sauvignon Blanc. The Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blancs are fresh and enjoyable. The Gooseberry Sauvignon Blanc is vinified in stainless steel and shows the most aromatics.’ The ‘Honeysuckle’ Santa Barbara County Sauvignon is a Bordeaux-style Sauvignon Blanc that sees 100 percent new French oak and is released after six years.
As Joseph looks toward her next decade as the “head fiddle” at Fiddlehead Cellars, she continues to push boundaries. She started producing rose in 2004 and bubbles in 2008 and in 2014, she set her sights on gruner veltliner.