Vintage Hidden Hills
WRITTEN BY: SUSAN CAMPBELL CROSS
American wine educator Kevin Zraly hit the nail on the head when he asked and answered the question that’s plagued all would-be winemakers for centuries, “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune.” It’s funny, but true. So what exactly is it that drives people to get in to winemaking when financial risk is such a necessary part of the recipe for success? One would have to have a never-ending supply of the other key ingredient, passion. We spoke with some of Hidden Hills’ most talent vintners, Susan and Bill Hayes, Deb and Marc Spellman, and Ofer Shepher, and discovered, they have that passion by the barrel full.
To see Susan and Bill Hayes’ Wish Vineyard you would hardly believe it used to be a pasture of barley and oats. The Hayes’ moved to Hidden Hills 25 years ago and spent the next decade raising their family. After the children were grown, Bill and Susan were certain that they weren’t going to have horses and so they decided to rededicate that portion of their property. “We had the choice of planting additional landscaping, which we already had in abundance, or doing something fun and different like planting a vineyard,” explains Susan. On their many trips abroad the Hayes’ visited small family vineyards that grew quality grapes. The idea of planting a vineyard that would produce wine for their friends and family seemed a truly appealing and romantic venture. But they soon realized grape growing and wine producing involves a lot of science. “Prior to planting we sent samples of our soil and water to U.C. Davis to be tested for adequacy. These tests revealed our soil is particularly conducive to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. The vineyard is located on an east facing back hillside where it has the benefits of both the hot west San Fernando Valley sun during the day and the cool breezes of Malibu Canyon at night. With such ideal conditions, the Hayes’ efforts resulted in higher quality and more abundant crops than they had dreamed, and subsequently more wine than they could ever give away. And so, they became wine sellers producing approximately 200 cases of wine annually, about 2,500 bottles.
While they consider themselves to be very blessed with how well the grapes took to the soil and environment at their Hidden Hills vineyard, the Hayes’ are quick to reveal that they had much to learn. Susan explains, “The learning curve is a mean teacher in that there are no do-overs or re-takes in the vineyard. It is something of a baptism by fire in that you suddenly become an agrarian—a farmer of sorts. Pests, bugs, weather, nutrients, and a variety of farming methods are learned at a rapid rate.” To help with that steep learning curve, the Hayes’ relied on a great team of experts to guide them through the process the first few years. Susan has since attended several wine studies centers including the CIA Wine Center in Napa and others in Nevada and Europe and has received advanced certifications as a sommelier. As part of a group of growers in the area, the Hayes’ were very supportive of the development of the new Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area, a designation of the growing region that is recognized by the wine world and helps reestablish the long and rich history of wine grape growing in the area which dates back two centuries. Hidden Hills lies within this region.
The Hayes’ collaborate with Central Coast and Malibu wine maker Kirby Anderson. As the vintners, Bill and Susan act as they eyes and ears in the vineyard each day, and provide key input on the profile of the desired wine to Anderson. The last five years have been especially challenging due to the drought, which has given them an education in good soil practices and water management. The rewards have been tremendous. This year Bill and Susan’s 2012 Merlot won gold in both the Chicago based Tastings International Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition. The Hayes’ are partial to their 2007 and 2008 Meritage bottling, a blend of Bordeaux varietals, and they are looking forward to their upcoming 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, which after a recent tasting, Susan says promises to be spectacular. The wine is available for purchase at wishvineyards.com.
As if having a cellar full of wine at all times isn’t benefit enough, Susan says that through the various wine events and the sales process they have met many wonderful people across the country and in their own backyard. “We often see and meet our neighbors while spending time in the vineyard as it is surrounded by horse trails on three sides,” Susan explains. Unsure of whether they will ever go “big time” into commercial farming, one thing is certain; the Hayes’ will always have ties to the wine community.
That community includes fellow Hidden Hills neighbors and wine enthusiasts, Deb and Marc Spellman. Deb is a fitness expert and instructor and Marc is a founding principal of Lee & Associates, a commercial real estate company. Spellman Family Vineyards was established in 2005 with the planting of 500 hand-selected Kendall Jackson vines in the five classic Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec). After purchasing their Hidden Hills home in 2003 the Spellmans deliberated for two years before deciding what to do with their hillside. “First we created steps out of railroad ties ending with a concrete platform about three quarters of the way up the hillside and used the area for sitting and enjoying the view. It quickly became a fire hazard due to the seasonal growth requiring it to be cleared twice a year,” Deb explains. They then realized that the sun exposure on the steep terraced slope of their Hidden Hills property was perfect for growing grapes for wine. As for the name, they chose to go with their family name, their street name, and since their home had a log cabin style design, and the predominate varietal was going to be Cabernet, they ultimately went with “Spellman Family Vineyards, Bridle Trail Wines, Cab In”.
Like the Hayes’, the Spellmans credit the alluvial soils and extreme fluctuation in temperature in Hidden Hills for creating the ideal circumstances for wine grapes to thrive. High heat during the day stresses the grapes and cool breeze in the evening relaxes them. This, the Spellmans explain, is what creates the complexity and intense flavors in their wines.
Patience and working with knowledgeable people has also been key to their success. Due to their very limited production the Spellmans give the utmost care and attention to each step of the process from bud break to harvest and ultimately to the winemaking technique and bottling. “The process is never ending and always evolving. We are fortunate enough to have the outstanding and passionate people of Perez Vineyards who help us with vineyard maintenance, and our wine making team at Camarillo Custom Crush, headed up by Shaun Frohn,” Deb says. The grapes are hand picked and sorted in the vineyard and again at the winery to ensure the highest quality clusters are chosen before the crush. The varietals remain separated until the final blend is determined after fermentation and maceration are complete. It’s then that they are blended and the aging process begins. Cab In wine is aged in French oak barrels for about 18 months and the finished varietal ratio varies with every vintage.
The Spellmans have never entered their wines into competitions due to the small quantity they produce. Their friends and neighbors who are lucky recipients of their wine, as well as the various charities they donate to, all expound on its quality and flavor. Because only 70 to 100 cases are generated annually distribution is limited to a few local restaurants and shops like Riviera Restaurant in Calabasas, a Spellman family favorite, as well as at the Camarillo Custom Crush (off Lewis Road and US 101). For Deb and Marc, sharing their wine with the community in this way is the best thing about growing grapes in Hidden Hills. That and of course, enjoying the beauty of the vineyard every day.
While Hidden Hills certainly affords wine grape growers an ideal climate and excellent soil, resident Ofer Shepher went another direction with Spear Vineyards and Winery. North. His 1,100 acre ranch is located in Santa Barbara County in the Santa Rita Hills, in the west end of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Santa Rita Hills AVA is the coldest appellation in California, enjoying cool evenings that result from fog from the Pacific (Ofer’s vineyards are located about five miles from the ocean). In particular, the climate is ideal for growing both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As these are two of Ofer’s favorite varietals, he jumped at the opportunity to purchase his first property in the Santa Rita Hills in 2005 and added the neighboring ranch to those acres in 2013. The original property had five acres of Chardonnay already planted and also came with five cows.
Ofer has since taken the production of wine grapes and the cow/calf operation to a whole other level. The expanded ranch now includes 40 acres of vineyards and is home to 70 registered Black Angus cattle. “We breed them each year and they are grass raised. We sell the steer and keep the cows to continue to expand the breeding operation,” Ofer explains. He spends as much time at the ranch as possible and in addition to the responsibilities of overseeing his own vineyard Ofer serves on the board of the Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance.
Ofer has been the Senior Vice President of Life Alert Emergency Response, headquartered in Encino, for 25 years. Ofer’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Israel when he was 4 years old. With childhood summers spent on a kibbutz in Israel and an education from the University of Arizona in agricultural mechanics, Ofer was destined for ranch life. He also studied mechanical engineering at Cal State University, Northridge and received his winemaking certificate from UC Davis. He splits his time between Los Angeles (he moved from Malibu to Hidden Hills so that he could have his beloved horses on property) and his ranch in the Santa Rita Hills. Ofer is hands on in all aspects of the winemaking process, from determining what type of grape to grow where, to how many acres of each varietal to plant. He also conducts careful visual checks for pests and rodents, as well as to ensure there is uniformity in the vines.
Presently the predominant two varietals are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Ofer also grows Grenache and Syrah among others. “We sell to very high quality producers like Liquid Farm, Dragonette, Tribute to Grace, and Brewer-Clifton, who is presently #8 in the world by Wine Spectator,” Ofer says. He also keeps grapes for his own estate wine, which he named Spear, the literal English translation of his family’s German last name, Shepher. Ofer proudly points out that Spear is a California Certified Organic Farm, a distinction that comes with compliance to strict standards that include the prohibition of the use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, bioengineering (GMOs), and ionizing radiation. The organic certification reflects a strong dedication and commitment to producing grapes that are both healthy for the planet and the consumer.
Spear wine is presently available by allocation only, meaning a select group of fortunate people are on a list to receive notification of how much wine is available for purchase each year. With the expansion of the winemaking facilities at Spear, currently under construction, and the opening of a tasting room, there are plans to open up the club for new members. Interested parties may email the winery at firstname.lastname@example.org.