Santa Ynez Valley

Wine Club News by Bruce Boring

Name: Sunstone Winery
Location: Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County
Owner: The Rice Family
Established: 1989
Winemaker: Fred Rice and Daniel Gehrs
Cases Produced: 20,000

Harmony, Anyone?

Do you remember the "harmonic convergence" that was supposed to show up years ago in California? It was a moment when the forces of nature were going to be in perfect alignment.

That moment is still happening at Sunstone.

You can sense it in the vibrancy of Sunstone's 103 organically farmed acres, one of Santa Barbara County's largest estate organic vineyards. You can feel it the moment you see Sunstone's winery, hewn of the soft amber stones surrounding it. And you can taste it in Sunstone's richly flavorful Viognier, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah.

Organic Varietal Expression

At the root of Sunstone's wonderful wines and ambiance is its commitment to organic viticulture born of love and respect for the land. "Our family used to live in the Coachella Valley, surrounded by farms that sprayed pesticide on their crops," recalls Bion. "You could taste it in the air. We realized farming didn't have to be that way." Sunstone's vines have not experienced herbicides, pesticides or fungicides since their planting in 1990. Insects and worms, gopher snakes and gophers, owls, hawks and bats are part of the natural balance here, where the Rices work with Mother Nature to maintain that harmony through sustainable organic farming. All of Sunstone's acreage has been designated organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (C.C.O.F.). No pesticide residue interrupts the expression of varietal character of Sunstone wines. And every employee and family member can be sure of a healthy, life-supportive work environment.

Family Matters

But Sunstone's harmonic convergence isn't confined to just the vineyards, sun and stone, moon and stars. Harmony here is a family affair. Founders Fred and Linda Rice and their three children Bion, 33, Ashley, 26, and Brittany, 25, have together created an oasis where their love of the earth can nurture great wine, fine food and a life with as much substance as style. Sunstone reflects their family values beautifully in every way.

It all began in the 1970s when Fred, a builder, met Linda, a real estate specialist. She began selling his houses, they became a team both professionally and personally, marriage and family followed and in 1989 the Rices moved from Santa Barbara to a 55-acre Santa Ynez ranch to grow grapes.

In order to design the winery, Linda and Fred traveled to France, falling in love with Provence. They found that every two or three hundred miles, the color scheme of the towns changed depending on the local stones. Back home, they made sure Sunstone's hues were in harmony with Santa Ynez's own rocky terrain.

They included a country kitchen with wood stove in the tasting room, connected the caves to the winery with an indoor piazza (replete with balconies) and camouflaged the usual tanks and hoses of wine production with a rustic arched wall seen at a distance from the tasting room.

The Perfect Consultant

While winemaker Fred manages the lab and production operations, Bion serves as general manager and Brittany is assistant winemaker, Ashley works with hospitality and club events and Linda handles P.R. and marketing. Added to this family blend is winemaking consultant Daniel Gehrs, who sits down with Bion and Fred once a month to taste Sunstone¹s wines. "We take notes like crazy," Bion laughs. "Dan is our insurance policy. He has 35 years of experience here in Santa Barbara county and made the county¹s highest scoring wine. He's one of the most down-to-earth winemakers around, and he appreciates our love for the vineyards and our determination to farm organically. He understands we don't want to be the next cult winemakers. He is the perfect fit for Sunstone."

Rhone Country

Adding to all these layers of harmony is Sunstone's terroir, a heady mix of earth, light, climate and terrain. Situated near the Santa Ynez River, the vineyards enjoy huge day to night temperature fluctuations much like those of the Rhone Valley in France. "In the Rhone Valley, cold German winds blow down the Rhine to the Rhone river, then during the day, the vineyards get the Mediterranean heat," explains Bion. Though Sunstone mostly makes Bordeaux wines, it also produces Rhone varietals like Viognier, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. The Viognier was accidentally planted among the winery's Syrah, and on a lark, Bion made some in 1992. "We fell in love and made 200 cases. By they year 2000 we were making 18,000 and now we're at 23,000." Even mistakes end up harmoniously at Sunstone! The balance of Nature tended with care in the vineyard - the warmth of the sun on stone - the smiles of a family - and the wine to celebrate it all. Enjoy that and more at Sunstone Vineyards & Winery, 125 Refugio Road, Santa Ynez, CA 93460.

This wine country story was brought to you by The California Wine Club. For more information please visit or call 1-800-777-4443. Read on to find out which two wines The California Wine Club has chosen for this month's selection. This month's selection is available for $32.95 plus shipping.

Sunstone 2000 Sunterra

  • Flavors of black cherries and raspberries, blackberry, tobacco, currant, cedar and spice meld together with soft, pleasing tannins.
  • Sunterra is a blend of 51% Merlot, 33% Cab Franc and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon. "This mix of varietals is like a Pomerol style Bordeaux blend," notes Bion.
  • Sunterra is vinified and aged during the production of Eros, Sunstone's $40 red blend. Only a few barrels are selected for Eros, and Sunterra is made of the best of the rest.
  • After hand harvest, grapes are crushed and juice inoculated for fermentation. Each lot is then aged separately for 16 months in new French oak (1/3) and the balance in seasoned French and American oak.
  • "Sunterra can be very appealing for people who are new to reds - and those who are not!" says Bion.
  • Great with pastas, grilled chicken, jambalaya or peppered catfish, or a great easy-to-drink wine all by itself.
  • Enjoy now or hold up to two years.

Sunstone 2002 Viognier

  • "Our Viognier won Gold Medals from the San Francisco Wine Competition in '99, 2000 and 2001. Reviews aren¹t yet in on this one."
  • Aromas of lush ripe pineapple, mandarin orange and coconut lead to more pineapple flavors, joined by baked apple and apricot.
  • Daniel's Vineyard, Voglezang Vineyard and Paradise Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley supplied the fruit for this Viognier.
  • After whole-cluster pressing, juice was fermented and first aged in stainless steel. Then 26% of the blend went to neutral French oak.
  • Enjoy now or hold several years. "I'm a big proponent of aging white wines. It's a big myth you have to drink them young. If you like that almost sherry, aged character, a buttery sensation, then you¹ll like this Viognier aged. We've poured our '94, '95, '96 about a year ago, and they were great."
  • The perfect balance of moderate sweetness and mild acid make this wine a wonderful companion to Pacific Rim foods, Indian curries and citrus based sauces.
  • Enjoy now, or hold three years.