Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, Nature Cultivated to its Fullest Potential in Santa Barbara
In the far eastern corner of Santa Barbara wine country, where centuries-old oak trees dot the golden slopes of the San Rafael Mountain range, Jim and Mary Dierberg have spent the past two decades quietly forging their own path to making timeless and truly estate grown Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Bordeaux varietal wines.As owners of the historically significant Hermannhof Winery and Vineyard in Missouri since 1974, Jim and Mary had developed an ardent passion for preservation and winemaking.
|Mary and Jim Dierberg|
For over a decade, they searched through regions – from Napa Valley to Bordeaux – for the perfect place to build a wine estate where they could explore making wines from the classic varietals. In 1996, they found what they had been searching for in Santa Barbara County, an area whose diverse and exquisite vineyard sites possessed a unique character they believed would be worth preserving and expressing through wine, for many generations to come.
Knowing that greatness in wine is always defined by site, often over the course of many years, the Dierbergs mapped out a 250-year plan for the winery. “We aren’t interested in just being successful,” says Jim Dierberg. “At Star Lane we want to build an estate that will endure for generations as a benchmark for Santa Barbara wine.”
Today, the Star Lane estate in Happy Canyon is home to 200 acres of Bordelaise varietal vines, farmed with meticulous care. Additionally, Jim and Mary own the 160-acre Dierberg Vineyard site in the Santa Maria Valley and 70-acre Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, where they grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes under the Dierberg Vineyards label.
With help from winemaker Tyler Thomas and director of vineyards Josh Rubin, every possible resource is allocated to the task of giving the fruit exactly what it needs to thrive. The team shares a mutual dedication to expressing a style of wine, which looks not to Napa Valley nor France for inspiration, but which instead allows the vineyards to define their own standard of excellence.
It’s still early-innings in the Dierbergs’ plan, but their accomplishments thus far are impressive by any measure. With three precision-farmed vineyards scattered across three Santa Barbara County appellations, an awe-inspiring 26,000 square-foot winery, a tasting room in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills, and access to top viticulture and winemaking talent, they are considered by many to be at the forefront of Santa Barbara County winemaking.
The Star Lane Estate
Jim and Mary Dierberg were initially drawn to the climate at Star Lane, which they believed would be conducive to Bordelaise varietals.
|Star Lane Vineyard|
The Star Lane Vineyard is located in Happy Canyon, a viticulture area only officially defined as an appellation since 2009. The vast 4,000-acre Star Lane property is in fact a unique region unto itself: largely wild and untouched, the natural beauty is not all too different from that which has attracted people for the past 11,000 years. The area stands out within Santa Barbara for having comparatively warmer weather, while also having 30 to 50-degree diurnal temperature variations at night. These conditions are ideal for allowing Bordelaise varietals to maintain their freshness while also ripening to fullness.
The property also stands out for its stunning diversity. Seated on an elevated ridge, the estate follows a meandering path of canyons, with elevations ranging from 750 to 1550 feet and slopes varying from 45 degrees to flat on the valley floor. The property has a wide variety of well-drained, shallow soils comprised of weathered sand, gravel and alluvial cobbles over a clay/loam subsoil. The multitude of conditions throughout the estate provides a broad range of components for blending layered and complex wines.
Working with some of the wine industry’s top talent to transform the land into an agricultural monument, the Dierbergs planted 200 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Every vineyard block is planted to a variety of grape clones and root stocks custom tailored to the climate, soils and exposure, making it a rare example of a vineyard of exquisite character, which has been cultivated to achieve its fullest potential.
In 1996, the Dierbergs also acquired their first cool-climate vineyard to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Dierberg Vineyard is a 160-acre property located on the western edge of the Santa Maria Valley appellation just 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Perched on a mesa above the south bank of the Santa Maria River, the property consists of sandy loam soils, heavily infiltrated by the marine sediments of yesteryear and kissed by the fog from the Pacific. The family planted 12 ‘heritage’ clones of Pinot Noir, which trace back to Burgundy. This diversity of material is rare in California, and allows the selection and discovery of the ideal clones to build the backbone of Dierberg Pinot Noir. Chardonnay selections were derived from marquis cuttings of historic Wente clones, and the closely related Clone 4.
This was followed in 2003 by another maritime-influenced site in the Sta. Rita Hills. Drum Canyon Vineyard is a cool-climate property, planted to 70 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Located along Highway 246 between Lompoc and Buellton, Drum Canyon Vineyard possesses steep hillsides that climb more than 400 feet from the base to the peak. The challenging terrain has persistent, steady winds which roll through the canyon, producing an environment that highlights expressive California Pinot Noir perfume, while retaining density and structure. Contrasting the Dierberg Vineyard’s earthy tones, the unique vine stress at Drum Canyon produces wines that reflect the intensity and signature acidity of Sta. Rita Hills.
“These wines were developed the right way for pursuing quality,” says Tyler Thomas. “The wines are a pursuit of vineyard-driven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, showing how those two varieties can express themselves across two different cool climate sites in Santa Barbara County. We are striving to do every thing we can to make each wine more and more special,” he adds.
A Winery for the Ages
When in 2001 the Dierbergs embarked on the seven-year process of designing and building the Star Lane winery, no corners were cut.
|Star Lane Winery|
“We designed our winery with a future winemaker in mind, so that he or she may have every possible tool to make wines of excellence,” says Mary Dierberg.
The Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards winery is located on a 1,500-foot high ridge above Star Lane Vineyard. The outside of the structure is modeled on a Bordelaise design built around a classically-conceived courtyard, framed by stone windows and arches. The inside of the winery features 26,000 square feet of beautiful caves below a three-story state-of-the-art gravity-flow winemaking facility. Perhaps even more impressive than the technology and aesthetic of the winery is the fact that every detail was implemented to make a winery of optimal function and precision. Starting with a four story-high crush pad, a gravity-flow system and extensive caves powered partially by the natural spring on the ranch, the facility is not just a garden-variety winery; it is a work of art, with a deep sense of purpose that melds beauty and function into one.
Tyler Thomas is a winemaker who blends equal parts science and philosophy. With a background in plant physiology, he has a natural curiosity for discovering the reasons why every vineyard is capable of making its own unique wine. Chief among Tyler’s winemaking philosophy is a belief that great wines are discovered, not made. “Winemaking is a lot like raising kids,” he says. “They need guidance, but ultimately the best thing you can do is help them to figure out who they want to become.”
At Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, the act of discovery is long-term process, which is refined every year. This requires constant vineyard and winemaking trials on Tyler’s part, looking at vineyard variables such as irrigation, exposure, and harvest timing. When applicable, he’ll ferment select batches of fruit separately in small lots with varying degrees of whole-cluster fermentation, cap management and oak, and will track the results in meticulous detail, out of a desire to consistently understand under which conditions the vineyards best express themselves.
Tyler is a firm believer in making vineyard-focused wines, with minimal signs of winemaking technique. He has a strong anti-house-style approach, choosing to pursue wines with a sense of freshness rather than targeting an ideal fruit, alcohol or acid profile. “I don’t mind rich flavors, but eventually ripe grapes all begin to taste like raisins and lose what makes them interesting,” he says. “I am most intrigued by a wine’s texture, and how it expresses the personality of the vineyard.”
In 2014, Charles “AJ” Fairbanks was brought on as president of Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards. A native of Santa Barbara and descendant of the De la Guerra family, AJ has a natural connection to the region. Throughout his career, he’s looked to the values of his uncle, Aubert de Villaine, owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for guidance, and hence carries with the significance of estate grown wine.
The latest addition to the team came in 2016, when the Dierbergs enlisted Josh Rubin as a full-time director of vineyards. In the coming years he will transition from already meticulous block-by-block farming, to a much more detailed vine-by-vine farming. “Every day we are making choices with the next 30 to 50 years in mind,” says Josh. “The greatest thing about the Star Lane and Dierberg vineyards is that we have so much diversity of soils, climates, grapes and exposures. We are using the best state-of-the-art technology possible to maximize this diversity.”
Dierberg Vineyard produces a Chardonnay ($32), Pinot Noir ($44) and Syrah ($65) from the Dierberg Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, as well as Chardonnay ($45) and Pinot Noir ($52) from Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. The winery also produces a Syrah ($40) from the Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon.
Star Lane Vineyard produces 100% estate grown Sauvignon Blanc ($22), Rosé of Malbec and Viognier ($22), Merlot ($40), Cabernet Franc ($55) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). The winery also produces Astral ($120), made from vines planted on Star Lane are 15 acres of own-rooted, non-grafted, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wines are distributed nationally in 40+ states, and are available for purchase directly from the tasting room and websites at www.dierbergvineyard.com and www.starlanevineyard.com.
The Dierberg and Star Lane tasting room in the Sta. Rita Hills is a must-visit destination for anyone touring Santa Barbara wine country. Located at the Sta. Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard, visitors are able to taste a flight of wines, showcasing the diversity of the three estate vineyards, and the diversity of the region.