San Benito County Vineyards and Wine - Part 2

San Benito County Vineyards and Wine – Part 2

I’ve posted a portion of a report on May wine visits with friends Wes and Stephanie to Siletto Family Vineyards plus Blade & Talon Wines and to Stirm Wine Company. My earlier post covered Siletto, and this one covers Blade & Talon Wines and Stirm Wine Company. The full version of this part of the report is on the website:
(San Benito Vineyards and Wine - April 2024)]San Benito County Vineyards and Wine, May 2024

I included a brief introduction to San Benito County in my earlier post – I won’t repeat it here, but check out my earlier post if you’re not familiar with this California wine region.

Blade & Talon Wine

When I arranged a visit to Siletto Family Vineyards with Nat Wong, I wanted to make sure we would be able to spend a little extra time with him to talk about and taste wines from his own label, Blade & Talon. So after finishing our tour of the three Siletto vineyard sites we followed Nat into the house where he lives, on a small hilltop overlooking Wheeler and Calleri vineyards. We all gathered at the kitchen counter, and Nat told us more about his background.

Nat grew up in Danville in the East Bay. He earned a degree in evolution and ecology from UC Davis, after which he got a position working with seabirds and shorebirds at the Monterey Aquarium’s highly-regarded research facility. Nat has always had a love of birds, especially raptors, and he became a Master Falconer – he still finds time to take his hawk out in the mornings. That explains the “talon” part of his winery name, but what about “blade”? One of Nat’s other loves is knives. He collects them and is fascinated by how different knives have been developed in various parts of the world over many centuries to perform very specific tasks.

Nat had his wine epiphany while traveling in France in the spring of 2018. Visiting the Loire Valley, he had his first glass of Cabernet Franc at a restaurant overlooking the local vineyards. He’d had very little experience with wine at all up until then, but that wine struck a chord with him in such an intense emotional way that he knew he needed to change direction in his life.

After returning to California, Nat began to look for a harvest intern position at a winery, and was able to find one at Folktale Winery & Vineyards in Carmel Valley, not too far from where he lived at the time in Monterey. Nat became a full-time cellar worker at Folktale following the 2018 harvest and crush, eventually working his way up to becoming their enologist in 2021. During 2019 the cellarmaster at Folktale encouraged Nat to make some wine on his own, and he searched for someone who would sell him a small quantity of fruit. Nat followed up on Bryan Harrington’s suggestion of contacting Ron Siletto, and Ron not only offered Nat some fruit from his vineyard but struck up a friendship with him, as he’d also done with Bryan.

While that initial meeting with Ron may not have been as dramatically life-changing for Nat as his glass of Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley, it turned out to be of major importance to him as he’s become a key member of the Siletto family vineyard operation since Ron passed away in 2020. Nat made his first Blade & Talon wine from Siletto Family Vineyards fruit, a Rosé of Barbera in 2020, and he moved on from Folktale to become the general manager and vineyard manager of Siletto Family Vineyards in early 2023.

Nat has grown the Blade & Talon label from his initial tiny release to a typical production of about 700-750 cases per year. Last year he moved his wine production from the Folktale winery to Atelier des Savants Fous – it’s a fairly new facility in Gilroy that’s becoming an incubator for winemakers growing their businesses.

Nat sources all his fruit from San Benito County, mostly from Siletto Family Vineyards. He said that he’s trying to make distinctive wines that reflect their place and vintage rather than trying to emulate Burgundy, Bordeaux, or some other European wine region. He practices low-intervention winemaking methods, with native fermentation, no additions, mainly neutral oak aging, and no fining or filtering. He uses a lighter touch on his winemaking, and although he’s inspired by the style of wines of the Loire Valley he’s not trying to reproduce Loire wines in California. Most of the Blade & Talon wines are aimed for quick turnaround, with whites, rosés, and chillable reds, not necessarily meant for extended aging. Nat wants to keep his production to about six different wines each year, and since he has some graphic art experience he does his own label design.

It was time to taste some of the Blade & Talon wines, and since it was about lunchtime Stephanie brought in a loaf of her homemade rosemary and garlic bread along with cheese from Marin French Cheese Company. Nat opened four of his current release wines for us to taste, starting with the 2022 Falanghina. This had six days of skin contact prior to pressing, and was then aged on the lees in neutral French oak. Nat likes to have some skin contact on his white wines for the texture it provides, and he feels that Falanghina works particularly well with this technique. The wine featured fresh stone fruit aromas with citrus undertones and a mildly leesy note, with great texture and a lively finish. Nat told us that his 2023 Falanghina will be blended with some Greco di Tufo – Nat used a little pine resin during fermentation of this wine, but he doesn’t expect it to turn out like a Greek retsina.

Next was a rosé wine, the 2022 “Rose Madder.” Nat made this using an interesting method – he submerged whole cluster Aglianico and Cabernet Pfeffer under the juice of direct-press Cabernet Sauvignon for 6-7 days before pressing the first two varieties, allowing for a partial carbonic fermentation. He noted that this means that the wine combines three fermentation methods – co-fermentation / carbonic fermentation / vin gris. With bright upfront black cherry and raspberry, this also had touches of flowers and earth, along with a bit more structure than many rosés. The 2023 vintage of this wine will be made from Montepulciano, Cabernet Pfeffer, and Sangiovese.

Moving on to red wines, Nat opened his 2022 Ruchè. He told us that Ruchè – originally from the Piemonte region of Italy and brought to California by Randall Grahm – is one of his favorite grape varieties. Displaying the variety’s intense floral and red fruited character, plus a touch of spice in the background, this had medium body with a bright finish. We finished up with the 2022 “Lucky Tiger” – a blend of 57% Cabernet Pfeffer and 43% Mourvèdre. This wine has a distinctive label, and was made during the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Nat, whose family has been in California since the 1850s, wanted to honor the many Chinese laborers who did much of the difficult work here over the years, including planting vineyards. The wine showed both red and black fruit aromas along with savory herbal and earthy notes in support, with a bigger and more structured mouthfeel and finish than the Ruchè. Nat told us that the 2023 vintage of this wine will be a “Lucky Rabbit” blend of Frappato and Montepulciano.

Other releases from the 2022 vintage include Négrette (a mix of destemmed and whole-cluster fermentations), “Vin Rouge” (44% Négrette, 34% Malbec, and 22% Cabernet Franc), and “Crackling” Orange Muscat Pét-nat – Nat described that one as a “breakfast wine,” sort of a pre-made mimosa! He mentioned that one of his upcoming wines will be a Loire-inspired red blend.

As we were finishing up, I asked Nat whether he would like to plant his own vineyard someday. He said he’d like to find a place for a small vineyard just for his own wines, and plant a few varieties including Pineau d’Aunis, Négrette, and Falanghina there. So we may have that to look forward to for future Blade & Talon wines!

Wes, Stephanie, and I had a really enjoyable tasting with Nat. Having spent a few hours with him during both our tasting as well as our earlier tour of the Siletto Family Vineyards, I thought that it was remarkable that he’s made such a quick and successful career pivot, already making terrific wines as well as doing a fine job of managing the Siletto vineyards. The Blade & Talon wines we tasted impressed me with their combination of lower alcohol levels with plenty of aromatics and flavor – not something that’s easy to do. I liked all of the wines we tried with Nat though my favorites were the 2022 Falanghina and 2022 Ruchè. Blade & Talon should be a label to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Stirm Wine Co.

Our final wine visit of the day was with Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine Co. at his winery in the small town of Aromas, near Watsonville. His winery building is set back from the road and a little tough to find, but when we looked down the driveway spotted the stacks of empty plastic wine tanks outside we knew we were at the right place. We parked next to the building and in a moment Ryan came out and welcomed us. Ryan moved into this facility in 2017, which had previously housed River Run Vintners.

Ryan grew up in Contra Costa County, and was on his high school’s wrestling team. He and some of his teammates went on to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, as it had a good wrestling team, and soon Ryan found himself drawn to the university’s noted Wine and Viticulture program, while also studying soil science and sustainable agriculture. During his time at Cal Poly, he had an internship at Saucelito Canyon Winery in Arroyo Grande Valley, which was his first real experience with winemaking.

After Ryan earned his degree in 2011, he worked for four years with Justin Willett of Tyler Winery in Santa Barbara County, where he became the assistant winemaker. While he was there, he had the opportunity to work in the Margaret River region of Australia as well as in Austria. It was also while Ryan was still at Tyler that he made his first Stirm wine in 2013, a Riesling from Santa Barbara County. After moving back north and working for a time at Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he went out on his own in 2016. Ryan also began farming vineyards for some clients but the logistics proved to be difficult to handle, so he cut back on that and now farms only his own small vineyard, located right next to his winery – more on that later.

Although Ryan works with a number of grape varieties, his Stirm label has become particularly known for two of them. Right from his first vintage, he’s worked with Riesling, a favorite of his, and he’s now recognized as one of California’s top Riesling producers. Ryan said that he likes how Riesling reflects different sites and how versatile it can be, though he mentioned that it’s not the easiest variety to sell. Stirm is also known for Cabernet Pfeffer, the rare variety – originally called Mourtaou, from the Bordeaux region – that may now only be grown in San Benito County. He makes Los Chuchaquis wines with Jehan Hakimian, and is one of the vintners for Companion Wine Co., where he makes Riesling and Rosé that’s packaged in cans.

Wes, Stephanie, and I talked a little with Ryan about his low-intervention winemaking methods. All of his wines undergo native fermentations – he told us that they haven’t needed inoculation but that he takes care to make sure the fermentations start and proceed smoothly. He stressed that his winemaking does not follow any set recipes and is not dogmatic. Destemmed vs. whole-cluster fermentations for red wines varies according to the variety and vintage – Ryan noted that he destemmed more of his 2023 fruit as it needed extra sorting due to more botrytis mold in that vintage. He also told us that SO2 additions are dependent on specific wines. He overvintages about 1/3 of his wines – that is, he doesn’t bottle it until after the following vintage. Doing this takes up more room in the winery and delays getting those wines into the market, but Ryan feels the additional aging makes these wines better.

Ryan got out some wineglasses and proceeded to sample us on some of his wines. As usual with tank and barrel samples, my notes on these are brief since they’re not yet finished wines. Ryan led off with three tank samples, beginning with 2023 Gimelli Vineyard Chardonnay. Made by direct press, this wine will spend 11 months in neutral oak before bottling – the wine displayed lemon, flowers, and a touch of earth on the nose with a bright finish. Next was the 2023 Wirz Vineyard Riesling – showing stone fruit aromas plus floral notes and vibrant acidity, this won’t be bottled for another 16 months. Our final tank sample was the 2022 Wirz Vineyard Riesling – this will go into bottle this summer. This was a great example of what an additional year of aging adds to the Wirz Riesling, as this one showed much more complexity – including added petrol and herbal aromas and more weight on the palate – than the very young 2023 sample.

We moved on to barrel samples – all from neutral oak – and started with a couple of white wines. First was the 2023 Skin-contact Wirz Vineyard Riesling, which was on the skins for 17 days – one of the few skin-contact wines that Ryan works with. This featured bright floral, melon, and lychee aromas with a pleasantly chalky mineral texture. He then gave us a taste of the 2023 Pajaromas Vineyard Vermentino / Albariño from his own small vineyard next to the winery – stone fruit and citrus notes with bright acidity.

Proceeding to red wines, Ryan had us taste the 2022 Wirz Vineyard Zinfandel from an older puncheon – the wine displayed ripe red berry fruit plus plenty of spice and moderate tannins. He told us that he finds Zinfandel the toughest variety to work with due to its tendency for uneven ripening and susceptibility to botrytis mold. Next up was the 2023 Wirz Vineyard Rosa del Perú (Mission). Ryan said that although it’s not one of his favorite varieties it can still make distinctive wine, and its long history in California is compelling. This one had earthy and spicy red fruit with a medium-light texture and more tannin that you might expect.

We finished our barrel tasting with wines made from a couple of San Benito County’s most historic varieties. The 2023 Siletto Vineyard Cabernet Pfeffer was made mostly from destemmed fruit. Bright and earthy, it showed a darker fruit profile, lots of spice, and good structure. We followed that with the 2023 Gimelli Vineyard Cabernet Pfeffer – this featured raspberry and earth aromas plus herbal undertones, with more tannic grip than the previous wine. Our last barrel sample was the 2023 Siletto Vineyard Négrette, with brushy and earthy red and black fruit and moderate tannins. Ryan said that this Négrette will be blended with Zinfandel and Cabernet Pfeffer. The wine from all of the other barrels we sampled will go into single-varietal bottlings.

We walked over from the barrels to taste three bottled wines that Ryan opened for us. First was the 2022 “Benitoite” – a blend of 45% Cabernet Pfeffer, 31% Zinfandel, and 23% Négrette, all from San Benito County. The blend includes the three historically important red grape varieties from the region, and the name of the wine comes from a rare mineral found in San Benito County that’s the state gem of California. The wine displayed bright raspberry fruit with earthy, lightly floral, and peppery notes in support, medium-full body, and a firm tannic finish – could use a bit more time in the cellar to develop further but it’s nice right now too. We also tried the 2020 Wirz Vineyard Cabernet Pfeffer, which Ryan told us was made with about 50% whole-cluster fermentation. This had a darker fruit profile than the “Benitoite” with a bigger pepper component along with earth and spice, and plenty of structure on the palate and finish. He opened one more wine for us, the Los Chuchaquis 2023 “Champelli” Sparkling Albariño, sourced from C5 Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley – stone fruit, flowers, and orangepeel on the nose with a lightly bubbly texture and bright, pleasant finish.

Ryan asked us if we’d like to take a look at his vineyard, and of course we couldn’t pass that up! The two-acre vineyard is named Pajaromas, for the Pajaro River just to the east and the small town of Aromas. About 75% of the vineyard is planted to Vermentino and the rest is Albariño and Furmint. The vines were planted in 2021, and they’re trained on vertical cordons. Ryan chose this system to help control the vigor of the vine growth. It will take a few more years for the vines to become established there, but Ryan is hoping he’ll be able to dry-farm them in the future. He was able to harvest a small amount of fruit in 2023, though he told us that birds got most of it. He expects this year he’ll have a better crop to harvest. Ryan said that he’d like to find a good location in the nearby area where he can plant a larger vineyard at some point.

In addition to Riesling, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Pfeffer, Ryan also works with Pinot Noir for the Stirm label. One of his Pinots is called “Joaquinite” for another rare San Benito gemstone. There’s another gemstone wine, “Neptunite” Rosé – it’s a blend of mostly white varieties with a splash of red – and also the “Calcite” blend of Chardonnay and Riesling, named for the unusual type of limestone soil that’s found in a number of San Benito vineyards. Ryan expects to bottle around 3,600 cases under the Stirm label from the 2023 vintage, while the Los Chuchaquis production will be about 1650 cases and Companion about 800. Ryan had some exciting news for those who would like to taste his wines – he’s working on a downtown Santa Cruz tasting room, which hopefully will be open within the next year.

Wes, Stephanie, and I had a great time visiting with Ryan at his winery and it was a bonus to check out his vineyard as well. It should be interesting to see how the vines there develop over the next few years and to find out how Ryan’s wines from his vineyard turn out. Ryan makes a very diverse and distinctive group of wines – I’ve enjoyed his Stirm wines for a number of years as well as the few Los Chuchaquis bottlings I’ve tried (I haven’t yet tasted the Companion wines). It was his Rieslings that first caught my attention, and they have remained a strength, while his work with San Benito heritage varieties and other varieties creates a lineup of wines that are unlike any other label I know of in California. I’ve found the Stirm wines to be very well-made and to show transparency with regard to their variety, vintage, and region. My favorites of the tank and barrel samples we tasted included the 2022 Wirz Vineyard Riesling, 2023 Skin-contact Wirz Vineyard Riesling, 2023 Pajaromas Vineyard Vermentino / Albariño, and 2023 Siletto Vineyard Cabernet Pfeffer. I really liked all three bottled wines, and if I had to pick one as my favorite I’d go with the 2022 “Benitoite.” I highly recommend trying Ryan’s wines.

I only experienced a small portion of San Benito County and its wines on this short visit, and I’ll certainly return to visit other vineyards – particularly the older sites in Cienega Valley – as well as other vintners working with San Benito fruit. With vintners such as Nat Wong of Blade & Talon, Ryan Stirm of Stirm, Los Chuchaquis, and Companion, and others using San Benito fruit in many of their wines, it’s becoming easy to associate the region with some of California’s most exciting new wines.


I really enjoy Ryan’s wines, I think they are so well made and really unique, some of my favorite from the central coast. I’ll have to try Nat’s wine soon, they sound fun.