A few years ago, while I was attending the Sta. Rita Hills Wine & Fire event, I was bouncing around tables with my crew when someone said, “There is a gentleman walking around that is looking to start a vineyard and winery”. We just so happened to end up at one of the tasting tables and spoke briefly. “Nice guy”, I said to myself.
Fast forward to Wine & Fire last year. Barbara Satterfield, Executive Director of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, tabbed myself and Wes Hagen (now winemaker at J. Wilkes and of Clos Pepe fame) to moderate the panels. This was my dream gig. Everything I’d done for Santa Barbara wine culminated with this event. As my emotions danced between excitement, happiness, and nervousness, I helped put the final touches on the venue setup. Running the questions Wes and I came up with through my head, I couldn’t tell you if the morning fog was draping the vineyards or the inside of my skull. As I fidgeted with the alignment of an event booklet, I heard my name being called. It sounded like a voice echoing through a tunnel. I turned around, gulped hard, so as to not evert my stomach like a shark, and smiled. “Phil, how you doing?” “Hey, Ofer!”, I replied…
Ofer Shepher, as I stated above, is a nice guy. Speaks softly, listens, and puts you at ease. Which is probably why I was so happy to see him before the panels. Ofer has an amazing background. He’s been coming to Santa Ynez for years. He fell in love with the area. He began his graduate program at Davis in 2005. When he visited the Gnesa Ranch in 2005, he knew had to establish his new venture in the Sta. Rita Hills. Moved on to the Gnesa property, and started on his new project, Spear Vineyards and Winery.
Ofer is a very busy guy. He has transformed the Spear estate into a beautiful vineyard and modern winery, while also working in the role of Senior Vice President of the family business. Ever heard of Life Alert? His family started the company in 1985. The service saves a life every ten minutes.
When we had a little industry get together, I had to have Ofer come along. At that event he brought over his pinot from La Encantada.
I’m VERY excited to try the estate stuff when out in California this year. There are currently 32 acres planted on Spear. Pinot noir, chardonnay, grenache, syrah, gruner veltliner, and viognier. Some really intriguing varietals in the Sta. Rita Hills setting. All farming is organic and is done in-house with consultation from Ben Merz and Shannon Gledhill of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates (CVCA). And when Ofer says, “in-house”, he means, all his own full time crew.
And if this project didn’t already seem intriguing enough…I haven’t mentioned the winemaker. The one and only Greg Brewer. If you haven’t heard of Greg, his legacy in the Sta. Rita Hills is impeccable. One of the founders of Brewer-Clifton, former winemaker at Melville, currently the Winery Director at Hilliard Bruce, and owner of the Diatom label (which will make its triumphant return soon).
Ofer was nice enough to answer some questions for me via e-mail. Greg was also gracious with his time and did the same. Please see the interviews below.
According to the website, you got into Santa Barbara wine while in college. When did you first get into wine?
My interest in wine started early on in college while spending summers in the San Francisco Bay area and Marin county. The proximity to traditional wine country exposed me to a plethora of amazing wines. Later on I lived in Santa Barbara and spent many weekends camping in the mountains north of town. We would regularly go visit wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley on our way home. This exposed me to Santa Barbara wine country very early on.
Do you remember the wine that got you into wine?
Actually a very memorable event for me. While I enjoyed fine wine for at least a decade prior, it was a ’97 Brunello Riserva(!!!) that changed it all. Blew me away during a dinner at Valentino’s in Santa Monica. Was all over after that experience.
What was it about Santa Barbara wine that intrigued you?
The ability for the area, Sta. Rita Hills specifically, to convey a sense of place in the wine. I also found North Santa Barbara County to be an amazing area to live and work in.
When looking at sites to buy, was it always the Sta. Rita Hills, or did you look anywhere else?
Was only the Santa Rita Hills. I moved into the HWY 246 adjacent Gnesa Ranch and Vineyard at the end of 2005. Never left. Purchased the adjoining property at the end of 2012. Immediately began prepping and planting the new Spear vineyard the following year.
What was it about the Sta. Rita Hills that you fell in love with?
I was amazed by the quality of Burgundian fruit that was coming from the AVA (American Viticultural Area). I was also moved by the devotion and dedication to the area I was seeing from everyone involved in the AVA’s formation.
As a child, you got interested in agriculture while on your trips to Israel. What specifically peaked your interest? And what do you plan to apply to your vineyard(s) from your past experience?
Those early trips instilled a sense of agricultural appreciation within me. I studied agricultural mechanics in college and have found those skills incredibly important in farming, especially organically. Our organic farming methods depend heavily on a complete understanding of farming techniques and equipment.
Where did the name Spear come from?
My last name in its original German means a spear. In German it would be pronounced “Shp-er” and actually spelled “Speer”. Hence the name, label moniker and symbols.
When you were planning the layout of your vineyard, who did you consult?
I had a vision of varietal types and fractions there in. Jeff Newton and Ben Merz of CVCA were instrumental in helping me hone the varietals selections as well as all the block/clone/rootstock/orientation planning. Julian Malone (then also at CVCA, now at Sea Smoke) and I worked on the vineyard block layouts, boundaries and irrigation details. We kept all the existing arroyos and oaks as is. All the vineyard blocks went in without filling in spots or removing trees. Thus you’ll notice all of our blocks are natural in shape and with almost no straight end post rows. They bow and turn with the natural contours of the land.
You are planting some very interesting varietals for the Sta. Rita Hills (Grenache/Syrah/Vio, etc). Is gruner a varietal you particularly have an interest in? How did you come to planting this?
The gruner was planted for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, those blocks are in the coldest spots on the ranch. I firmly believe those spots will produce very well balanced fruit. After tasting some gruner from neighbour Kathy Joseph at Fiddlestix Vineyard (Fiddlehead Cellars), I knew for sure. Secondly it is an ode to the family heritage that comes from a traditional gruner growing region in Europe.
Prior to purchasing the land, what was the property used for? Barn used to store shells…what for?
This property was the home of the old Domingos family dairy operation from the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. In the ‘70’s it was sold to an abalone fishing family from Santa Barbara. From the ‘70’s on, it was used to store abalone shells. The new winery is the same exact style, shape, size and footprint as the original dairy.
You are maintaining the original footprint and roof line of the barn. Was this a priority for you?
This was a huge deal for me. That old barn and silo are landmarks in my heart and mind. My goal was that if someone doesn’t drive by for a couple of years during the rebuild, they’d just think someone fixed up the old dairy barn.
What wines are you currently making with the label? Who made it?
We are currently making chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. The winemaker is the venerable Greg Brewer.
When will you be able to make estate wines?
For 2015 we have our Gnesa Estate Chardonnay. For 2016, we will have Spear Estate Chardonnay, Spear Estate Pinot Noir and Spear Estate Syrah as well. For 2017 we may add a Spear Estate Grenache.
Who designed your labels?
David Schuemann of CF Napa headed the label design along with Greg Brewer and me.
What vision do you have for the label…style?
The label is an etching of the barn/winery set behind the old grain silo and vineyards. It’s the exact view you see when pulling onto the property. Same basic view as it’s been for the last 100 years.
What case production do you think you will start with? Amount you want to make?
2015 production was around 100 cases. 2016 production is around 900 cases. 2017 production will probably be around 1100 cases. Our vision is to be able to make a press-load off each block we farm.
Was Greg Brewer consulted at all during construction (winery layout, etc.)?
Greg played a big part in the design of the winery production gravity flow, equipment choices, space layout details, cold room designs and production space decisions. Greg is also influential in many viticultural decisions and practices.
What are you most excited about right now, and the future?
First and foremost is watching the vineyard mature. Being able to start tasting the different blocks from an evolutionary standpoint.
We are also super excited to be able to produce our first vintage entirely in our own facility.
Ofer hand sorting grapes. Picture is courtesy of Jeremy Ball at Bottle Branding
You are still Senior Vice President of Life Alert. Will you be still doing this full time when vineyard/winery comes online? Will you be living in the Sta. Rita Hills full time?
For the foreseeable future I will continue to dedicate all of my time to these two projects. Keeps me very busy seven days a week. Luckily there are 24 hours in the day…
And now, Greg’s turn.
How did you hear about this project?
I really saw it in the early development stages before I knew too much about it. I had spent a little time with Ofer previously, and asked Ben Merz for his contact information which was the initial catalyst for the relationship development with him.
What is your impression of Ofer?
Ofer is very qualitatively minded, swift thinking, hard charging and has a lot of things on his plate. Besides his drive, multi-faceted experience level and business acumen, however, is something which strikes me even more. He is incredibly sensitive, mindful of others and emotional. His steadfast commitment to the appellation is also an inspiration. Very kind and protective of those around him which frequently is not congruous with an individual who has accomplished what he has.
Ofer and Greg. Picture is courtesy of Tenley Fohl Photography.
Did you have any input on the vineyard, layout, varietals?
No. That was all Ofer and the CVCA team with whom he worked at the beginning of the development. Ofer solicits my opinion now which is really kind and we will likely be implementing small things here and there as the years go by but the big picture of the vineyard is awesome. It is all his vision which I love. He has thought about this for a very long time and everything is very deliberate and thoughtful.
What is it about this project that intrigues you?
Everything, really. It is very nourishing and intriguing to see a new project take shape in its entirety. I feel that I can offer something constructive from farming through production, promotion and sales with and for Ofer. Economic sustainability is important to me, as is working with a cohesive team that supports one another. As I love executing every aspect of the business and am service minded I think that I can contribute in a positive way to its success.
What do you think the fruit will be like?
Pure and sincere. Attentive and thoughtful farming with a home crew. It will be Spear.
Can you see co-ferments with viognier and syrah? What about gruner?
While I tried some co-ferments in 2000 and 2001, I really haven’t since. I personally like the purity of each variety on its own. With that, if Ofer had interest in that direction I would be super supportive and happy to do it or anything else he wanted us to explore. I imagine the gruner will be swift, cold and clean as is the case with Melville Inox and Diatom – certainly cold fermenting in the cold room in predominately stainless and potentially some neutral oak.
Do you hope to maintain your philosophy at the site?
I want to do everything I can to accomplish the aesthetic, approach and goals of Ofer. My desire is to quietly serve and steward in the best way I know how so that Spear becomes everything that Ofer dreams it will be. Included in that is everything from vineyard management to messaging on the web-site to how we receive and host clients and visitors.
Of greatest importance to me is to nurture a team where everyone feels supported, trusted and appreciated. It is only when that climate is established that eventual wines, sales and hospitality will be confident and composed.
Ofer and Greg getting ready to pick. Picture is courtesy of Jeremy Ball at Bottle Branding
Will you have your regular vineyard team at this site?
There is currently an “in house” vineyard team which has been assembled by Ofer which is great. We of course have access to other tremendous resources, vineyard team wise, and will implement those however and whenever we deem appropriate to complement the committed individuals who are there.
Winery layout – gravity – etc?
Gravity is ideal. The elimination of steps and employing gentle and quiet transit of juice and wine is always desirable. That can all be easily accomplished with small vessels and a two story facility.
Will there be a cold room at this winery?
There are three.
Greg has a very special place in my heart. He was the very first person my wife and I met on our maiden trip to Santa Barbara. He is meticulous. Driven. I am so excited to see where this project goes. If you want to follow the journey, follow on links below: