Workman/Ayer Winery and the Central Coast’s Rhone Renaissance
Michael Ayer, Managing Member at workman/ayer winery in Santa Barbara, California, came to wine early. Right out of college, when many of us are subsisting on a diet of takeout pizza, free snacks from the break room, and cheap canned beer, Michael got a job in Napa Valley, where he fell in love with the craft and complexity of transforming perfect fruit into fine wine.
But the route that took him from that first gig in Napa to his current role at one of southern California’s most exciting up-and-coming wineries was a circuitous one. After Napa, he went to law school, where he wrote a business plan for a winery during his third year as part of a project. After practicing as an attorney for a few years, he realized he missed wine, and pulled out that old business plan for a second glance.
While still working as a lawyer, he and his business partner launched workman/ayer winery, a label focused on Rhône grape varieties sourced from vineyards around Santa Barbara. Today, law’s in the rearview mirror. Instead, he focuses entirely on workman/ayer (plus raising his twin nine-year-old daughters).
Ready for the Rhône
When Michael was first starting workman/ayer, his decision to source grapes rather than grow them gave him a lot of options when it came to choosing a style to focus on. “During college, I spent quite a bit of time studying in Italy,” says Michael, “so I originally thought Cal-Ital varietals,” like Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Barbera would be workman/ayer’s grapes of choice. “But when we really started to think about it, I wasn’t sure the market was ready for them, or that we could find enough quality fruit.”
Instead, Michael turned to France’s Rhône Valley for inspiration. California’s most famous grapes are inarguably Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir trailing behind. But those are far from the only grapes grown in the Golden State. Varieties indigenous to the Rhône Valley of eastern France like Syrah, Grenache, Viogner, and Roussane have also found footing in California over the past few decades, particularly in regions outside the most prestigious zone of Napa Valley. (That’s not because Napa Valley can’t grow other varieties, but because real estate is so expensive there that growers need the reliably profitable Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to make the mortgage payments.)
The area around Santa Barbara, including Paso Robles and the Santa Maria Valley, has embraced the Rhône varieties. Here, red grapes like Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvèdre produce lush, powerful wines, while Grenache Blanc, Viogner, and Roussane are responsible for full-bodied, aromatic, sometimes nutty white wines with the potential to age for a very long time.
In the Rhône, two or more varieties are often combined to create more balanced wines. By choosing to source fruit instead of planting a vineyard himself, Michael was able to take advantage of a wide range of fruit styles, climates, and sources, giving himself plenty of opportunity to blend in complexity. “We had some contacts that allowed us to acquire some great fruit right out of the door with our first vintage in 2010,” says Michael. “I love that Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have so many different micro climate, each producing unique qualities in their fruit.”
All About Balance
Over the past eight vintages, workman/ayer has established a reputation for balanced, food-friendly wines that keep the focus squarely on the fruit. “We try to craft wines with a certain level of restraint,” says Michael, “keeping alcohol, tannin, oak, etcetera, all in balance. I know that it’s a tired cliché, but we truly try to craft wines that are a representation of the vineyards we source from and that are excellent accompaniments to food.” The wines are all named, fittingly, after legal concepts, including the wines we chose to share with Taster’s Club members, De Facto and Ipso Facto.
In the legal sphere, the phrase “de facto” is used to characterize “an officer, a government, a past action, or a state of affairs which exists actually and must be accepted for all practical purposes, but which is illegal or illegitimate.” At workman/ayer, De Facto is a blend of 80% Ballard Canyon and Santa Rita Hills Syrah and 20% Santa Rita Hills Grenache. We loved the intense aromatics, rich spices, and tightly wound flavors of plum and berry in the 2015 vintage of this delicious wine. “The 2015 De Facto pairs super with lamb,” says Michael. “I am especially fond of matching it up with lamb shanks braised in North African spices.”
White wine club members received a bottle of workman/ayer’s Ipso Facto white wine, named after a Latin phrase that means “by the act itself, or by the mere fact.” Made from 100% viogner harvested from three different vineyards in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, the 2016 vintage of this exceptional wine experienced dry conditions warmer than average temperatures, leading to early ripening. The grapes were harvested early, and picked at night to get just the right acidity. Full malolactic fermentation in neutral French oak barrels resulted in a rich, rounded wine with a full-bodied feel. “It’s great on its own, slightly chilled, but not too cold,” explains Michael.
Rhone varieties may not be eclipsing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in California anytime soon, but from our perspective, the growing diversity of California wine is cause for celebration. After all, the more varieties vintners grow, the more variety we’ll all get to taste.