Niman

Lompoc Wine Ghetto

Simplicity Means Authenticity in the
Lompoc Wine Ghetto

by Laura Sanchez
Photography by Fran Collin

Ghetto

Front row, left to right: Sashi Moorman, Melissa Sorongon, Rick Longoria, Kathy Joseph. Back row,  left to right: Steve Clifton, Ryan Zotovich, Antonio Moretti. Ghetto painting by Austin Gendron.

There are no grand entrances or picturesque picnic areas. No sweeping vineyard vistas or vine-themed boutiques. But a look inside the metal roll-up doors and angular concrete architecture of Lompoc’s Sobhani Business Park reveals an unexpected treasure: Some of Santa Barbara County’s most talented winemakers are crafting wines in a raw industrial space.

Set amid a maze of aluminum-sided warehouses and asphalt, the Lompoc Wine Ghetto is a no-frills workaday environment. In fact the 85,000-square-foot industrial zone between Seventh and 12th streets off of Chestnut Court and Industrial Way more closely resembles a self-storage structure than a world-class winemaking facility. And it is precisely this bare-bones aesthetic, coupled with the economic benefits of low overhead costs, that first attracted wine producers to this gritty part of Lompoc. For, with minimal start-up capital, enterprising winemakers found they could rent a space, purchase fruit and make high-quality, hand-crafted wines very simply.

In 1998, a handful of scrappy winemakers led by Rick Longoria began converting the utilitarian bays into wine production facilities. The area’s cool climate and proximity to vineyard sources in the Sta. Rita Hills made it ideal for winemakers keen to reduce cooling costs and fruit transport distances. Growth was limited over the years by a zoning restriction that allowed only wineries with production facilities there to open tasting rooms. A July 2010 change to these zoning laws, allowing all tasting rooms to operate under a conditional use permit, has recently opened the door for a rapidly increasing number of wineries.

Today this prosaic corner of Lompoc is home to 13 tasting rooms—Ampelos Cellars, Evening Land Vineyards, Fiddlehead Cellars, Flying Goat Cellars, Jalama Wines, La Vie Vineyards, Longoria Wines, Loring Wine Company, Palmina, Piedrasassi New Vineland, Samsara, Taste of Sta. Rita Hills and Zotovich Cellars—each of which offers an array of wines in a unique and surprisingly stylish environment.

The location of this industry cluster, it seems, directly reflects the wineries’ priorities. In the Wine Ghetto wine quality comes before aesthetics. “You can make just as good a wine in an industrial park as you can in a fancy chateau—and maybe even better,” winemaker Ryan Zotovich explains. “The innards are no different: four walls, floor drains, pipes and insulation. But here our focus is on the wine, not the shell.”

For consumers, discovering the wineries of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto is a little like finding a bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy inside a Budweiser box. Because of the unpretentious setting, visitors are often surprised by the sophistication and consistent high quality of the wines as well as by the remarkable elegance of many of the tasting rooms. “We’re sort of underground,” says Clinton Froehlich of Jalama Wines. “We see that as an opportunity to exceed people’s expectations. Visitors often feel like they’re in on a secret.”

The precision and cool-climate elegance of many wines produced in the Ghetto—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Syrah—will please both neophytes and connoisseurs alike. However it is the value of wines purchased there that will astound them. With lower overhead costs, winemakers tend to pass along the economic benefits of their utilitarian production zones to consumers—not in the form of inexpensive wines, mind you—but as a very high quality-to-cost ratio.

One has to wonder if the ascetic, asphalt-and-metal appearance of the place lends a purity of expression to the wine produced there. Chad Melville feels that setting plays a significant role in wines he crafts. “The Ghetto is raw,” Melville explains amid the geometric edges and stainless steel tools of his space. “That resonates for me.” He shares that he first recognized the significance of creative setting upon listening to a Ray Lamontagne album recorded in an abandoned Vermont barn. “You can hear the stillness and the soulfulness in his music,” he says. “You can tell he’s not on a soundstage in L.A. Place is meaningful.”

The rawness of the Wine Ghetto also means a more authentic experience for tasters. “Two months out of the year I’m punching down and pressing within 50 feet of the tasting room,” says Jalama Wines owner and winemaker Mark Cargassachi. “There are no walls. That means that visitors experience the smells of fermenting fruit, the sounds of the forklift and, of course the occasional fruit fly.” While this behind-the-scenes glimpse of wine production may quash some romantic notions, it links tasters with something real.

With the facility stripped down to the essentials and in many cases as sole proprietors, winemakers in the Ghetto have an intimate, hands-on connection with the wines they produce. “Winemakers here are making very small amounts—a puddle—of very personal wines by hand,” explains Melissa Sorongon co-owner of Piedrasassi New Vineland and wife of winemaker Sashi Moorman. “In that sense, the Wine Ghetto brings you closer to the story—to the winemaker’s relationships with the grower, with the fruit and the wine in each barrel.” That often means being able to taste with the winemaker him- or herself, hear the story of the wine’s journey from earth to bottle and connect on a deeper level with it.

In essence, the Wine Ghetto’s asphalt-and-aluminum appearance serves as a gentle reminder that it’s what’s on the inside that matters—that the soul of wine needs no flash or embellishment. It thrives on authenticity and intention, passion and resolve. It gives back just as much as you’re willing to put in. And for winemakers in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, that means everything.

 


Laura Sanchez is a Santa Barbara–based wine writer whose work appears in an array of print and online publications.


Road Trip to Lompoc

For hours and more information about all the tasting rooms at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, visit lompocghetto.com.

The best place for coffee is South Side Coffee Company at 105 S. H St. Opens at 6am on weekdays and 7am on weekends.

Break for lunch at Sissy’s Uptown Café at 112 S. I St., sissysuptowncafe.com. Or if you’re craving a burrito, go to Floriano’s Mexican Food at 319 E. Ocean Ave.

After the tasting rooms are closed, you can head over to D’Vine Wine Bar at 107 W. Ocean Ave. Wine flights and by the glass along with small plates and tapas. Open Tuesday–Thursday 3pm–9ish, Friday and Saturday 3pm–11ish.

For dinner try the fish tacos at Mariscos El Palmar at 722 E. Ocean Ave. or indulge in an Italian American dinner at the comfortable family-run La Botte Italian Restaurant at 812 N. H St., labotteitalianrestaurant.com.

To find out about events and other happenings in Lompoc, check out the page called Cool Lompoc on Facebook or the Chamber of Commerce website at Lompoc.com.

Farmers Markets and CSAs

The Lompoc Farmers Market is on Fridays 2–6pm at Ocean and I Street.

Nearby, the new Vandenberg Village Farmers Market is on Sundays 10am–2pm on Burton Mesa Boulevard, adjacent to Constellation Road.

The Santa Rita Flower Farm offers a CSA program with a pickup location in the Old Town section of Lompoc under a 50-year-old walnut tree. Customers arrive on bike or foot as well as by the occasional car to pick up their weekly shares of the organic farm offerings. For more info email Jeff Hendrickson at SantaRitaFlowerFarm@yahoo.com.

The Santa Rosa Hills CSA has a pickup location at Palmina Winery in the Wine Ghetto. Their CSA box includes local produce and extras from a variety of neighboring farms, such as Finley Farms, Tutti Frutti Farms, Jimenez Farms and many more. They also offer extras such as almonds, olive oil, walnut oil, jams, eggs, pies and honey. Additional pickup points are at Buttonwood Farm Winery, Cold Heaven Winery and the Gatehouse at Hollister Ranch. For more information call 805 816-8188 or visit srhcsa.com.

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Categories Summer 2011