What once was Santa Barbara County’s most elegant barn, built of red bricks and a Spanish tile roof to house Arabian horses, is now an ultramodern tasting room and events center just outside Buellton’s western residential district.
Buellton resident Norman Williams hired an Italian stonemason to build the barn in the early 1970s after purchasing the 1,100-acre ranch property off Highway 246. The barn, with two long wings and a tall middle section, was the centerpiece of a horse-breeding operation for about 30 years, and it then sat idle for a while until the Williams family began planting a vineyard in 2012. The landmark barn with 36 stalls was crafted by stonemason Carmello Valente with split-face red brick of a rough-hewn texture and smooth brick floors (said to be hoof and leg friendly) laid out in a herringbone pattern.
The former upscale stable is now the elegantly modern home of Brick Barn Wine Estate. Its tasting room and events center opened to the public in April, and wines from the first full vintage are being poured. The family has preserved the equine heritage of the building while providing the
latest in human comforts. A winery was constructed at the rear where it offers easy access for tours.
The estate’s location off Highway 246 and its ample property size that separates the venue from neighbors helped tremendously in securing permits for large events, amplified music and 50,000-case production in the notoriously strict regulatory environment of Santa Barbara County, Brick Barn General Manager Tom O’Higgins said.
The tasting room’s convenient location and connection to an equestrian past are attracting visitors, as on a Saturday early in November when a band was playing at an outdoor patio, once an exercise yard for horses, that now has fire pits, upholstered chairs and low, tile-topped tables.
Brick Barn can host weddings with up to 150 people at another former exercise yard off the opposite wing. There’s a suite for the bride and party with its own bathrooms, makeup area and chaise lounge, and a small kitchen nearby for caterers and staff.
The tasting room at the tall center of the building is flanked by two long brick-walled wings, where original boards mark locations of former stall doors. A hayloft once occupied the entire length of the old stable. The upper-level roof was temporarily removed and the loft floor taken out to construct vaulted ceilings throughout.
“We had to put in some pretty serious structure to meet the requirements that are expected now in Santa Barbara County, let alone California,” O’Higgins said while showing the transformation that has taken place.
Exposed heavy steel beams frame the airy tasting room. The four-sided, wraparound bar with a Caesar Stone top has custom-designed graphic tiles along the front that pick up coloration of the bricks and metal work. Circular chandeliers with bright crystal LED lights hang prominently over the bar. The open look carries through in both wings, where long tables are in place for private tastings and events.
“The goal, though, was always to as much as possible return it to its original look with the brick,” O’Higgins said.
In the space between the transformed barn and what had been a show arena for the Arabian horses, a winery was built with tanks, fermenters, a barrel room and the facility’s own bottling line, something rare among estate wineries. Production is at 10,000 cases, O’Higgins said. He expects within a few years to go as high as 20,000 cases with plenty of capacity beyond that, but growth will be managed cautiously, he said.
The 1,100-acre ranch was part of an 1845 Mexican land grant of 26,000 acres that came to be owned by the Buell (as in Buellton) family in 1866-72. Norman Williams, who lives nearby with his wife Kathy, has been in the land and mixed-use real estate business for nearly 40 years in Los Angeles and Arizona, as well as ranching and later viticulture, O’Higgins said.
Thirty-five acres of grapes are growing on the ranch. Brick Barn Wine Estate has a remarkably wide assortment of nine grape varieties on the property, which is less than a mile and a quarter from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, renowned for its pinot noir and chardonnay wines. The largest plantings are chardonnay and pinot noir, followed by viognier, grenache, grenache blanc, cabernet franc, syrah, vermentino and albarino.
The white varieties are planted at the lowest elevation of the property along three sides of the tasting room and winery, and the reds are on hillsides farther east at higher elevation, where it gets 6 to 10 degrees warmer in the summer, O’Higgins said.
The reds grow in rocky loam and limestone soils. The whites are in much more of a loamy and sandy soil, O’Higgins said, “so those whites are on steroids, as I say.” Since the first harvest, he said, the vines have yielded significant tonnage and also significant fruit and award-winning wines.
Brick Barn Wine Estate’s 2016 vermentino was judged the top white wine out of 3,000 entered in this year’s San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition and the 2016 albarino won a double gold, receiving a gold rating by all members of the judging panel. The 2015 cabernet franc won a gold medal. “So that’s not too bad for a brand new winery to have that kind of thing,” O’Higgins said.
Brick Barn winemaker Rob DaFoe, who was hired just before the 2017 harvest, has an interesting backstory. He’s a former professional snowboarder who competed in international events, performed jumps photographed for magazines and had signature lines of snowboards and clothing.
The Santa Barbara native suffered a broken back, knee injuries and a broken leg that was the final career-ender. He stayed connected to the sport by shooting photos for magazines.
During his time overseas, especially in France, his interest in wine grew, and after returning to California, he set about learning how to become a winemaker.
He shot a documentary film, “From Ground to Glass,” that premiered at the 2006 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It shows with some humor how he learned to make his first wine, two barrels of syrah, with the help of Chuck Carlson, then winemaker at Firestone Vineyard.
The film also features interviews with prominent California winemakers. He spent hours watching and interviewing, among others, Warren Winiarski , founder of Stag’s Leap in Napa Valley, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Richard Sanford, founder of Sanford and Alma Rosa wineries. “Watching them make decisions, still to this day, so much of those lessons stick with me,” DaFoe said. “So it was just profound, a different type of education.”
DaFoe continued to learn by working at wineries and had two labels of his own before joining Brick Barn Estate. Brick Barn’s first two vintages were made by consultants who are friends of O’Higgins. Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard made the two 2015 wines: a pinot noir and the gold-winning cabernet Franc. Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran of D’Alfonso-Curran Wines made the full 2016 lineup that includes the Sweepstakes Award-winning vermentino.
The estate is committed to low-manipulation winemaking.
“I think the lazier you can be the better your wines will be,” DaFoe said. He’s getting more involved in the vineyard to help chart the course of what’s going into the winery, he said.
“So the real thing with an estate is the wine should be made in the vineyard.” he said. “Our job in the cellar should be easy comparatively.” A lot involves just letting the wine do its own thing, being there to catch it in certain places and not allow things to happen, he explained.
But lots of decisions are made in the cellar that are far reaching and unknown to a certain degree and that can be pretty interesting, he said. “It’s never just one thing in wine. It’s compounding factors. So that’s also what makes it exciting. It’s alive,” he said.
DaFoe is effusive about the estate’s location, with its varied soil types, temperatures and micro-climates throughout. “We talk about planting in the future and there’s always little tiny spots that are just slightly different and should produce this or that. So matching varieties to those sites is going to be exciting,” he said.
Brick Barn’s location between the Santa Rita Hills and Buellton proper has been described as a largely uncharted viticulture site and DaFoe believes it’s a truly unique part of the Santa Ynez Valley.
“I think that this place eventually will make some of the best wine Santa Barbara County’s ever seen,” he said.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]