One of the things I admire in winemakers is their ability to step away from the crowd and do things their own way.
Of course, the thing I most admire in a winemaker is the ability to make great wine especially if he or she can do it and keep the price of the wine down.
Kathy Joseph has succeeded on all counts. She is the founder and winemaker of Fiddlehead Cellars in Santa Barbara County, CA, and a pioneer in the industry. She describes herself as winemaker and farmer, artist and scientist, number cruncher and marketer.
“Thinking outside the box is kind of my middle name,” she said during a recent virtual tasting. She has been working with Sauvignon Blanc for more than 40 years. By diligent work in the vineyard she is able to pull flavors from the grape that other vintners have missed.
I got a chance to see how innovative and successful Kathy Joseph can be when an old friend asked me to join a virtual tasting of her wine. Sam Dependahl is a partner in Vieux Communi-cations. I have known him almost as long as I have been writing about wine, which is about 15 years. He has never steered me wrong, so when he suggested I might like Kathy’s Fiddlehead Cellars, I jumped at the chance to taste the wines.
We tasted three Sauvignon Blancs, each made in a different style. Each was superb. The vintages were 2012, 2016 and 2019, which seemed pretty old for Sauvignon Blanc, but all tasted fresh and bright. During the hour-long tasting we had a chance to hear about Kathy’s winding road to wine legend.
The first wine we tasted was the 2016 Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc ($30). It is made with a nod to the Old World French style, smooth, well-rounded with rich, layered flavors. The grapes are grown in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and fermented in equal proportions of stainless steel, neutral barrels and new Damy French oak. The wine spends extra time in the bottles before release to make the wine seamless.
There was a nice balance to this wine, not too fruity or acidic, but with a bit of minerality and a long finish. It was smooth, but with good backbone.
“I’m always thinking about food pairing,” said Kathy. “This one is good with pasta with mushrooms or fish off the grill such as halibut or tuna. This wine makes friends with people who don’t like Sauvignon Blanc and people who like red wine. People taste it and say I’m surprised how much I like it.”
One of those people is my wife Teri, who generally doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc. She loved all three of these wines.
As you move from West to East in the region it gets warmer. Fog rolls in from the ocean and keeps things cool in the eastern part of the region. The Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc comes from the farthest east of these three wines.
The second wine was the 2019 Goosebury Sauvignon Blanc ($42), also from Happy Canyon. It was created to represent a New World style, aged in stainless steel to highlight the purity of Sauvignon Blanc with no oak influence, no skin contact, no extended maceration and no malolactic fermentation.
It had notes of tropical fruit, such as pineapple, honeydew and kiwi. It is made with the intention of early consumption, but it can age well. Kathy said with aging the wine resembles an unoaked Riesling.
Her choice of food pairing was salmon with salsa, grilled halibut or sushi.
I noticed Kathy was drinking out of wide-mouthed glasses that looked like Pinot Noir glasses and I asked her about that.
“I pour it into a big glass to get the aromas, especially with food,” she said. “I get more explosion of aromas and more satisfaction in a larger glass. I am blessed or cursed with this incredible sense of smell.
“Temperature of the wine is important. If it’s too cold you miss the texture of the wine.”
She makes a great point. Too often wine drinkers, and even some restaurants, serve their whites in narrow glasses that make it difficult to get any aroma. Glasses can make a big difference when tasting wine, so when you can, opt for glasses than can engage all your senses.
The third wine was the 2012 Hunnysuckle Barrel Select Sauvignon Blanc ($42), also from Happy Canyon.
I would hate to pick a favorite from these three wines, but if I had to it would be this one. It was spectacular. It was surprisingly fresh for a 10-year-old white wine, full of citrus and white nectarines, with bright mineral notes. It was a complex, layered wine with tones of vanilla and créme brulee, crushed herbs and a hint of mint.
The next day Teri and I had the Hunnysuckle with my homemade chicken noodle soup and the wine was even better than when I had it during the virtual tasting. It had opened up a little more, and it was enhancing the savory flavors of the soup.
It was clearly a Sauvignon Blanc, but to me it had some taste characteristics of a Chardonnay, smooth and balanced with a rich mouthfeel.
“It’s a wine I discovered by tasting every single barrel,” said Kathy. She makes 100-200 barrels of wine each year.
When she presses the grapes, “the juice that comes out is so pure,” she said. There is no destemming, no skin contact. Just pure juice.”
Kathy works hard to not make big adjustments to the juice. “I was part of a movement to manage Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard like Pinot Noir,” she said. “We pick for ripeness, not waiting for a great explosion of fruit. Our wines are vineyard driven.
“I designed and created a company that went in a new direction. I wanted to design a brand that was very focused on an undiscovered region. I wanted something that created non-invasive wine making.”
She recognized the unique grape-growing opportunities of Santa Barbara County geography, in particular. She also makes Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon, under the Fiddlehead Cellars Oldsville Reserve label.
After earning a Master’s Degree from UC Davis she worked for some of Napa Valley’s and Sonoma County’s most renowned producers, including Zelma Long from Simi Winery, Walter Shug and Craig Williams from Joseph Phelps, Bob Long and Sandy Belcher from Long Vineyards and Bob Pecota from Robert Pecota Winery.
After years of searching for a site to call her own and make her mark in the Sta. Rita Hills, she founded and planted Fiddlestix in 1996, a vineyard that would later become a benchmark property for top growers in the region. For 25 years prior to its sale in 2021, Kathy developed and farmed Fiddlestix to the highest standards. Here she elevated her reputation as a leading farmer, winemaker and pioneer in the region selling highly sought-after grapes to top producers eager to put Fiddlestix Vineyard on their label.
You might have heard of Fiddlehead before because it turns up in the movie “Sideways.” Kathy explained the director of the film had a pizza dinner and asked people to bring wine to go with pizza. Kathy brought one of her whites, he loved it and wrote it into the script.
The unusual spelling of the names of two of the wines came about because regulatory bodies thought the common spelling of Gooseberry and Honeysuckle might confuse us wine drinkers. They ruled we might think the wines contained Gooseberries or Honeysuckle. So Kathy adjusted the spelling, and yes, Hunnysuckle is the way Winnie the Pooh might spell it.
Kathy has been farming 100 acres for 25 years, managing the vineyards and selling to other winemakers because local ordinances forced her to buy 100 acres. She only needed 15 acres for Fiddlehead Cellars but her practical sensibilities guided her to farm the remaining vines for other wineries. She took care of things for all her customers, and after 25 years “that becomes taxing,” she said.
So she sold the vineyards to local people who share her vision.
“I look forward to the opportunity to transition from full-time farmer to solely focusing on working with growers to make small-lot wines for Fiddlehead Cellars,” she says. “Throughout my career, the vineyards I’ve chosen have all been picked because of the amazing fruit they provide and the incredible stories behind them. I’m really looking forward to spending time discovering more unique places with personality. I don’t want to be restricted.”
So now she can source grapes from wherever she likes and can concentrate on the blend. “Blending is an important part of my model,” she said.
To get the blends right she tastes from the barrels daily, paying attention to aromas and flavors.
Kathy took a long time to come up with just the right name for her brand. She found inspiration in the most apropos of places: the soil. Her “aha moment” came while gardening in her fern bed and recalling the simple, melodic and memorable botanical term that describes the coiled frond of an emerging fern leaf and delectable delicacy: a fiddlehead.
Much like the distinctive tight spiral tendrils which emerge from a grapevine in the spring, Fiddlehead aptly references Kathy’s own nature as a winemaker: creative, spontaneous and driven by a deep sense of place and story and her wines that emerge annually with like minded performance.
Fiddlehead Cellars produces approximately 4,000 cases, specializing in three varieties: Sauvignon Blanc grown in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Grüner Veltliner grown in the Sta. Rita Hills, and Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills and the Chehalem Mountains of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. All wines made from the Fiddlestix Vineyard are from Kathy’s top 10 picks of the season from blocks that she planted and farmed. For all other vineyard bottlings, Kathy works closely with her growing partners at every step to ensure finesse from the field.