WineInk: On Fiddleheads and Fun |

WineInk: On Fiddleheads and Fun

Legendary winemaker Kathy Joseph’s epic wine journey

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine Ink
Winemaker Kathy Joseph in the Fiddlestix vineyard in Santa Barbara.
Courtesy photo

Fiddlestix. It’s just fun to say.

But the wines that have been released by esteemed producers over the last two decades from the Pinot Noir grapes grown on the Fiddlestix vineyard in Santa Barbara — planted by legendary winemaker Kathy Joseph —are more than just fun, they are a delicious snapshot of a special place and time.

Over the last two decades I have had the pleasure of enjoying outstanding wines made by Bonacorsi, The Pali Wine Company, Etude, Hitching Post and of course Joseph’s own Fiddlehead Cellars whose provenance is the vineyard with the fun name. If Fiddlestix was on the label you knew the wines were worth trying.

This past December Joseph parted ways with Fiddlestix as she sold the historic 100-plus acre Fiddlestix vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara that she founded back 1996 to a group of local growers. Back then the region had yet to be designated as an AVA and the special valley was just beginning to be whispered about by the wine cognoscenti. Today, thanks in no small part to Joseph’s labors, who followed pioneers like Richard Sanford and Bryan Babcock (both of whom started eponymous wineries) the Sta. Rita Hills are now regarded as one of the best places on the planet for producing the finicky Pinot Noir grape.

But fear not, despite her separation from Fiddlestix, Joseph is as active as ever in making wine with her Fiddlehead Cellars label and actually has six still-to-be released vintages from her famed Fiddlestix. In addition, she is also making Pinot Noir from her project in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where she sources grapes that she transports to her winery in Lompoc, California for production.

Joseph is as fun as the fabled fiddlehead ferns for which she named her company and that so gracefully adorn her labels. I had met her in Lompoc a few years back where I gushed like a fan boy about her wines. I remember she was extremely gracious and made me feel like I was her most important customer, even though I had bought just one bottle. So, when an opportunity arose this past week to participate in a journalists’ Zoom Tasting of four of her most recent releases, I put it in ink on my calendar. We would be tasting two Pinot Noirs and Gruner Veltliner from Fiddlestix, circa 2014 and 2015, and a 2015 Oregon Pinot Noir from the Alloro Vineyard in the Laurelwood District AVA dubbed “Oldsville,”

The fabled fiddlehead ferns for which Kathy Joseph named her company and that so gracefully adorn her labels.
Courtesy photo

“I like to have a bit of shade over my grapes, so I am always bobbing my head to see the clusters,” she giggled as she bobbed her curly hair with a huge smile on the Zoom screen. It may have made her seem a bit ditzy as a soundbite, but she was so genuine that it made her even more endearing. “I take pride in my commitment. I’m there for all of the grapes, every bucket, when we harvest. It’s important to be in the trenches, to live and know the wines.”

It has been quite the journey in the trenches for the Chicago-raised Joseph. She thought she might make a career in medicine following her studies in Madison at the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a degree in bacteriology. But a beckoning bug told her the wine world might be her best fit and led to a position at Sonoma’s Simi Winery in 1980. There, she worked for — and learned from — Zelma Long, a role model for many female winemakers of that generation.

Following a path that included time spent in the vineyards as well as earning a Master’s degree from UC Davis in Enology, she began to develop the style and personality that is still reflected in her wines. “I remember Zelma talking about acid and sugar. That wine is all about balance,” she said as we prepared for the tasting.

In 1988, Joseph made the move to Santa Barbara and launched Fiddlehead Cellars, giving herself the title of “Head Fiddle.” Her first Fiddlehead wine was a 1989 Pinot Noir made from Santa Maria’s Sierra Madre Vineyard and it made its way to the White House cellar. “They even paid for it.” she noted. Fiddlehead would have another brush with broader fame when a 2003 Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc was selected by film director Alexander Payne for a starring role in the seminal Santa Barbara wine film “Sideways.” The four protagonists discuss the wine deeply over dinner in one of the film’s most charming scenes.

But it was in 1996 that Joseph would plant her roots firmly in the region. A 133-acre flower farm came up for sale, 7.28 miles from Highway 1 on Santa Rosa Road. It wasn’t much, just an old barn and a patch of dirt, but it was not far from the Sanford & Benedict property and Joseph felt it was a promising spot to plant Pinot Noir. It was bigger than what Fiddlehead needed, but she planted 96 acres to Pinot Noir and found willing buyers for 85% of the fruit she grew and made Fiddlehead wines from the rest. “I wore all the hats,” she said referring to her roles as grape herder, winemaker and proprietor.

She was, in fact, the head fiddle.

“The Sta. Rita Hills are bathed in coolness,” she explained to our community of Zoom journalists spread from Napa to Naples, and New York City to the Rockies, as we poured the first wine of the tasting, a 2015 Fiddlehead Cellars Seven Twenty Eight (yes, named for its precise distance from Highway 1).

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is unique in that it is a transverse valley running east to west, a quirk of geography on the west coast of a country where the vast majority of coastal valleys run north to south. The result is that the fog comes in through the narrow opening from the Pacific and cools the grapes each evening before burning off in the morning, and the ocean breeze takes over in the afternoon and keeps the temperatures moderate even on the sunniest of summer days. Combine this quirk of geography with soils marked by well-drained Gazos and Botella clay loam, loaded with chert and Monterey shale, and you have the perfect place to plant Pinot Noir.

The Fiddlestix vineyard in Santa Barbara.
Courtesy Photo

The 728 — er, Seven Two Eight — was a clear, clean elegant and balanced Pinot Noir. A super sipper. It is the big dog in the Fiddlehead collection and at $50 a bottle is a bargain for a wine of this pedigree. I mentioned in the opening a sense of time and place, this release was harvested nearly seven years ago and yet the earthiness, aromas of spice and the freshness to the bottle makes it seem like it came straight from the vine. Like, yesterday.

The next wine up was one that Joseph calls “the star” of her Fiddlestix offerings, the 2014 Fiddlehead Cellars “Lollapalooza.” Yes, I know there is a festival of the same name, but Joseph got there first. The word comes from an Old English expression meaning “one that is extraordinarily impressive.” This special barrel selection nails it.

There are around 200 barrels of this stuff produced each vintage and the grapes are hand-harvested at night and individually selected. The result is a wine of honesty and opulence. A wine that tells a tale of the place it was born. Everything I said about the 728 is here — the earth, the spice, the fresh fruits, but it is even more elegant in this field selected wine. A Haiku on the label reads “Valley Fog Kisses-Fiddlestix Vineyard Blossoms-Lollapalooza.”

Play some of that on your fiddle.


2015 Fiddlehead Cellars “Oldsville” Pinot Noir

Everybody deserves a little fling and for Kathy Joseph her fling has been an annual event since 1991. Same grape, different wine. Joseph sources this Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains and hand-harvests the grapes (yes, she is there) into shallow 14-ton bins so as not to crush the fruit. She transfers the grapes to her winery in Lompoc and makes the wine there, an unusual process for certain.

The wine, to my palate, was very different from the California-born beauties but equally attractive. Darker berries on the first taste gave way to a savory sense of rosemary and even sage. There was a deep pine note and an earthiness that felt more mountain than coastal. Tasting the wines side by side made me think to myself: Same grape, different wine.

What a wonderful world.