Montemar Winery Santa Barbara County. Former Spy Plane Salesman takes on viticulture.
He will be the first to tell you he’s not running a business. He has a tasting “room” more than ten times the size of the average which includes 8,000 square feet of sunshine with space for a live band, a restaurant popup, and a community garden; yet, “it’s not a business.” He is Steve Arrowood, owner of Montemar Wines in Lompoc, California. His sales are simply the means to entertaining a passion for producing excellent wine.
Steve is a retired international spy plane salesman. He is also a husband, father, and world traveler. He and his wife have been making wine together since 1991, though back then it was a small garage hobby while Steve’s first career was taking off. Evidently, he was very good at selling spy planes, as Steve soon found himself brokering huge deals for his employer, defense contractor Raytheon. “I was already in love with traveling and wine before I hit my stride [at Raytheon]. It turns out that selling and closing billion-dollar deals is all about relationships. Wine is all about relationships. It worked out well actually,” Steve said. They began making wine to sell in 2009.
To say Steve did his homework in starting his new venture would be an understatement. His research involved reading hundreds of books, taking weekend classes, and meeting with dozens of winemakers. Over the past couple decades Steve found some of the best fruit in the country and learned how to vinify it in a simple and responsible way.
Santa Barbara County (SBC) happens to have a climate it that makes it primed for great grapes. Take, for example, the more well-known winemaking regions of Napa and Sonoma County. Napa is a mono-climate and is really good for making Bordeaux. “You’re not going to find cool weather grapes around the main Napa Valley,” Steve said. Sonoma, on the other hand, is so large it has the ability to grow every grape in “a world class way.” SBC is much like Sonoma. Its proximity to the ocean allows for a cool breeze and a variety of temperate microclimates particularly suited for cool-weather grapes. The area also reaches deep inland to hotter and more arid zones providing the ability to produce some of the best warm weather grapes as well.
Steve grows his Montemar label in the coveted Santa Rita Hills. It has over 30 thousand acres and hosts 59 vineyards. It is most well-known for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. With over 50 vineyards producing the same varietals in the same area, why are some wines better than others? According to Steve, it’s about quality, and quality comes from respecting the fruit.
The Montemar team—and Steve, specifically—is really hands on. They sort grapes in the field, on the vine. They touch every single cluster of the 20 thousand tons produced. Anything that is not to standard is removed. Once they have hand-picked the grapes, they sort them again in the winery. They spend an hour on each ton, pulling out everything they don’t like. At this stage, the grapes are de-stemmed, but not crushed. “90% of wine is crushed. High end wine most often isn’t,” Steve said. He then lets the grapes ferment slowly as whole berries. During maceration the grapes start by cold soaking for five days and then are foot trodden to press down the solids that float to the surface during fermentation. After that the grapes are hand punched three times a day for about three weeks. The grapes are then pressed and barreled. The intricacy of each part of the process, and details like timing of each step make every wine unique. Winemaking is a bit like painting. There is one medium with the ability to produce endless outcomes.
One technique that sets Steve apart from many winemakers is that he does not rack his wine. Racking is a method of filtering wine by moving it from barrel to barrel using gravity. Many winemakers adopt the racking method to remove lees, or the sediment that forms at the bottom of the barrels during the aging process. Steve’s most influential mentors encouraged him to leave the lees. “You just smell it, listen to it, taste it, and if it’s clean you leave it on because it gives you a better mouth feel,” said Steve. He says that he stopped racking his wines about 20 years ago, and now he only does it in rare exceptions.
Steve could operate Montemar anywhere he wants. He specifically chose a nook in Lompoc called “The Wine Ghetto.” Wineries in The Ghetto share unassuming exteriors and approach winemaking just as Steve does. In other words, this community is not focused on the commercialization of their wine and making a big profit, but rather the excellence of the wine itself. “We’re fulfilling a passion. Most people here are owner/operators. We put more care into it. At some point it’s really hard to make really great wine if you’re hindered by large company risk,” Steve said. The larger the company, the more focus there is on risk mitigation. You can expect machine-picked, unsorted grapes and less hands-on labor in the winery.
There are over 200 wineries in Santa Barbara County alone. Over 150 of them happen to be mere miles closer to the tourist-trodden beach towns like Santa Barbara. Other than proximity, the challenge in The Ghetto is zoning. The 20+ wineries surrounding Montemar are working hard to compete with Lost Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Santa Barbara. “We’re getting [The Ghetto] rezoned to allow for a restaurant. That’ll change the traffic overnight” Steve said. California isn’t exactly known for its speedy municipal processes, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
In the meantime, it is well worth your while to take arguably the most beautiful drive along the Southern California Coast from Santa Barbara to meet Steve and his team. With the ocean on your left and mountains on your right, an untouched coastline brings you to a bend in the road where the 101 turns inland through the Gaviota Tunnel. Take the next exit to wind through rolling pastures before landing in Lompoc. We’ll let Steve take it from there. Cheers!