When one of the leading makers of syrah on the Central Coast sold the majority interest in his business to Charles Banks and his Terroir Selections investment group in 2013, it turned some heads in the wine world.
Bob Lindquist, the first vintner to make syrah in Santa Barbara County and a national standard-bearer for the varietal, had been the principal owner of Qupé wines for 31 years. He stayed on as winemaker and a partner, a match that has suited both parties well.
Lindquist continues to do what he loves best — craft the syrahs and other Rhones that are a focus of the winery in the Santa Maria Valley while securing the future of the business when the time comes, as he told me, “when I’m gone or I hang up my rubber boots.”
Banks, who said he regards syrah as one of the most interesting, expressive and site-driven wine grapes, acquired a syrah program that he admires. Terroir Selections has wines from seven countries, including Santa Barbara County’s Sandhi, specializing in pinot noir and chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills. Qupé will make its debut next month in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.
“I think [Qupé is] one of California’s most authentic brands,” Banks said in a phone interview. “It has stayed true to itself for a very long time, and I think that’s hard to do in California. I think that a lot of brands reinvent themselves and change gears and follow the trends and become flavor of the month, and Bob’s never done that.”
Lindquist, 62, was honored in March with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhone Rangers for significant contributions to the American Rhone wine movement. He made his first 900 cases of syrah for Qupé, whose name comes from the Chumash word for the poppy flower, while employed at Zaca Mesa in 1982. He was schooled in winemaking there by his boss, assistant winemaker Jim Clendenen, who went on to become world-renowned for his Au Bon Climat wines. Lindquist and Clendenen share the space and expenses at the winery they lease at Bien Nacido Vineyard for their separate brands.
Lindquist has no plans to retire soon, but in 2013, continuity was very much on his mind. His oldest son, Ethan, is also a winemaker, but wasn’t in a position to take over a business of Qupé’s scope, Lindquist said over lunch at the winery. There was a lot about Banks that made the decision to sell easier. “He loves the wine business, he’s a total wine geek, so that part of it’s really important,” Lindquist said. He also knew that Banks loves syrah, Qupé’s largest production wine.
Banks said Terroir Selections has the financial means to be strategic and patient about expanding Qupé. “I firmly believe in Bob Lindquist’s vision and his winemaking skills and what he’s created with the brand Qupé,” Banks said. The investment and Terroir’s marketing team have solidified the business, he said.
Banks told me he has ended what he thought was excessive pricing support given to some longtime customers, losing some in a process of pruning before growth. “We’re gaining them back now because they see where the brand is headed,” he said.
Production is at about 40,000 cases a year, which is what the winery can comfortably handle, Lindquist said. He juggled logistics to make close to 50,000 cases in both 2012 and 2013 after two big harvests. He said production will gradually expand to between 50,000 and 60,000 cases by moving some winemaking off-site.
When I asked Banks and Lindquist about syrah’s image, both said it has suffered from some lower priced, overly sweet versions and others that Banks called fruit and oak bombs high in alcohol. The syrahs from Qupé are balanced and have distinct peppery and spicy notes.
“I think syrahs from this cool part of the Central Coast are most similar to the wines of the northern Rhone,” Lindquist said. “The difference is that we have a lot more California sunshine here, so you get a stronger fruit component in the California syrah and still that nice acidity and savory character and some of that smoky, meaty, gamy character.”
Along with syrah and other Rhones including grenache, mourvedre and roussanne, Qupé makes popular chardonnays, a Burgundian varietal that is by far its No. 2 in sales.
Starting in mid-June, Qupé wines will be poured at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in the city’s Funk Zone in addition to the tasting room in Los Olivos. The Collective features several Santa Barbara County wines under one roof, among them Fess Parker, Babcock and Sandhi.
“One of the most important parts of the wine business now is direct-to-consumer sales, and it gives us one more way to sell wine,” Lindquest said.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]