Over Zoom, Kathy Joseph, owner of and winemaker for Fiddlehead Cellars, comes across as modest—self-effacing, even. My theory is she’s letting her wines speak for themselves, in clear tones of expertise and pleasure. No one could know the Sta. Rita Hills better than her, and her wines—elegant and age-worthy Pinot Noirs, and astonishing, exotic Grüner Veltliners among them—rival any in the Santa Barbara area. She makes Oregon Pinot Noir as well.
Joseph founded Fiddlehead in 1989 with the purchase of a 100-acre flower farm located at the midpoint of the Sta. Rita Hills’ southern corridor. In 2004 her Sauvignon Blanc got name-checked in Sideways. She planted 2.8 acres to Grüner in 2012.
I was privileged recently to attend a lengthy virtual tasting with Joseph. We moved through Fiddlehead Cellars’ 2015 ‘Seven Twenty Eight’ Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills ($46), 2015 ‘Oldsville’ Pinot Noir, Oregon ($60), 2014 ‘Lollapalooza’ Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills ($88), and the 2016 Grüner Veltliner, Sta. Rita Hills ($30).
Joseph spoke of her commitment to making wines that are delicious now but can age—something she achieves in part through the costly practice of holding bottles back until they are really ready.
Below, some highlights of the conversation with this very hands-on winemaker.
What have you been up to lately?
Yesterday, I was building about eight pallets in my warehouse in anticipation of a wine club shipment coming up. So not only am I making the wines and deciding what to release and writing the notes, but I’m also driving the forklift and, you know, trucking that in between warehouses. And then later today, of course, I’ll be supervising the actual packing where we completely customize everyone’s wine club shipment. I’m all about efficiencies.
On Sunday, it was a joy to make time for a special tasting visitor. I had the chance to pull out some of my older reserve wines—06, 07, 08 Lollapalooza, some of my barrel select wines. Especially with the older whites that I pull out, it’s always a surprise and a joy to see how well they perform over time. I mean, like zero oxidation in the whites, even a 2001 Sauvignon Blanc.
That was the type of wine that got mentioned in Sideways. You sort of started with that grape.
When I started Fiddlehead, it was very purposeful. By design, I wanted to make better wines than what I thought was available. My first vintage was 1989, so there wasn’t a lot of great Pinot Noir, and there wasn’t a lot of wonderful Sauvignon Blanc, made in a very simple style. They weren’t likely partners. And fast forward, neither was the Grüner Veltliner that I ultimately planted at Fiddlestix vineyard.
So we’re moving on to the 2015 728 Pinot Noir.
You hit my driveway at Fiddlestix vineyard exactly 7.28 miles from Highway 1, hence the name of this wine, paying tribute to the place that creates the character of this wine that is really unique in the valley. We have a lot of faith in our soils, a lot of rocky drainage and Monterey shale. Fiddlestix is 100 acres of Pinot Noir, about six different clones on three rootstocks. My vision was to keep my brand small, only about 4,000 cases, and sell the rest of the fruit to other interested winemakers. I would always pick from across the vineyard; I reserved 15 acres for myself. And I honed in what I thought was the best blocks. You can taste not not only the dust in the minerality, but the intensity of the wine. We have a character that is described as kind of a black cherry cola, which is a very complex flavor component. And for me, at the moment I pulled the cork on this wine, I got the whiff of that.
Some cranberry notes. And definitely dark and deep and rich.
It is a very densely structured wine. I really had to learn how to make great Fiddlestix wine because the density was so big. And this extraction happened every time, every vintage. Color and tannins just spit out into the wine. You had to learn how long to wait in barrel, and how long to wait in bottle, to make this a seamless silky wine. My intention was to showcase what 728 was all about. We use very traditional techniques, small vats, a combination of punching down and pumping over.
I feel like this would be an extraordinary food wine.
I really wanted my Pinot Noir to have range. It marries with food. It can be something off the grill and be smokier and leaner, it can have sauces, it can be fruit based, it can be a more savory base with thyme and mushrooms.
So now we’re gonna move on to the 2015 ‘Oldsville’ Pinot Noir, from Oregon.
I wanted to work with Oregon fruit since before all the AVAs came to these regions. It was just the big Willamette Valley. I worked with a lot of different vineyards, out of the Eola Hills, and ultimately landed on a property in what is now called the Laurelwood district. I had a lot of tasting experience, and the way I hooked up with my vineyards was by seeing wines made by multiple other people. I really wanted to connect with the weather and the soils and not an AVA. I experimented with transporting Oregon fruit across state lines to my winery in Lompoc with the stipulation that I was on site to determine not only when to harvest, but also to do the same field sorting that I did at Fiddlestix vineyard. And so I would then load the fruit into a refrigerated truck. And I would fly home and then unload it.
And that was pretty successful, because it was refrigerated the whole time. The wine from Oregon was made identically in terms of the same equipment, the same punchdown tools—and tasting every day.
This one, too, is very dense. It has a little more blueberry.
Dense and full and persistent. I’m often asked which is more Burgundian, and I’ll tell you it changes every vintage and it changes with age on the bottles. And I’m not sure it matters. They are both amazing sources that fall within what the requirements should be for special Pinot Noir. By the way, the name Oldsville was my attempt at giving my Oregon bottling a place name; those first 15 years that I made the wine in Oregon was outside of McMinnville at a winery located off of Oldsville Road.
The wine has real finesse.
The soils have a lot of clay in them and a certain rocky component. They do have a volcanic underlay. You know, that’s sort of the Oregon infrastructure. I would say it’s a combination of place and winemaking.
Let’s head back to California, with the 2014 Lollapalooza Pinot Noir. How can you call it that, by the way?
Lollapalooza is of course a rock concert from Chicago, but in fact the word means the best of its kind. I own the trademark for wine and spirits for Lollapalooza. Perry Farrell is not happy with me because of that.
It’s opulent, right off the bat.
When I first popped the cork, I could almost feel the tannins—more than I expected to, but that’s part of what creates volume in the wine.
This is really a very hands-on wine.
I do extensive, blind barrel tasting throughout the year. The objective is to find the barrels that really showcase the success story of a vintage from beginning to end. This wine has a little bit of leanness to me, but I love the persistence of the fruit.
Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned from making wines in different parts of the world.
I think too many winemakers are missing out by not actually physically making wine in more than one region, because it’s where I cross pollinate myself. Even with suppliers of equipment, for instance, I get to be hands-on testing differences. It’s really been invaluable in terms of smells of the grapes. I learned a lot about transporting those grapes from Oregon. If you can’t process fruit right away, how are you going to manage that? I think it has made me a better winemaker. I still learn today through every conversation. And remember, the weather’s changing. The vineyards are performing differently. I don’t think you can always think about how it’s always been.
Speaking of innovation, let’s move on to the 2016 Grüner Veltliner. Not something you really think of when you think of Sta. Rita Hills.
Grüner was something I learned to love as I shared wines with my team over harvest lunches for many years. We’re not tasting Sauvignon Blanc today but it has a huge range of character as it grows around the world—I mean, it’s incredible. I try to make one that’s very pretty and elegant, not excessive in any way—and I had tasted Grüner like that. I said, That’s my target. In my first vintage, I really didn’t know how to make it, and I talked to as many people as I could. I started some in stainless steel, some in neutral French oak, and some in new French oak. And it was very apparent to me that the new French oak did not do it justice—it kind of completely overwhelmed the wine. But to my surprise, the all-stainless wasn’t nearly as exciting as what I was tasting out of neutral oak. I wanted to embrace that exotic character, the fresh ginger and honey flavors, and I also wanted to make sure they were toned down. And ultimately, this wine has about 20% fermented in stainless and 80% in neutral French oak.
I think this also wants to be enjoyed with food.
It holds up to very, very garlicky foods and curries and things like that, even as a delicate wine. So again, persistence is very important. It has that range—you can pair it with, say, a goat cheese. It surprises people I serve it at the end but I find people pay more attention to the white that they didn’t race through to get to the reds. I do love getting people excited about the special flavors of this one. It’s got versatility.