Like many winemakers, Ernst Storm has a love-hate relationship with wine scores. "I never liked scores," he said, nor the "games" that critics sometimes play with winemakers. So Storm declined to submit the wines from his Storm Wines label for review, and instead kept his focus on crafting wines that paired well with friends and flavorful foods.
Then his friend and fellow winemaker, Gavin Chanin of Chanin Wine Company, was named by Forbes.com as one of the magazine's "30 under 30" hottest new winemakers.
And so, Storm explained, he reconsidered his stance and submitted all three of his wines — a Santa Maria Valley pinot noir, and two from the Santa Ynez Valley — sauvignon blanc and syrah — for reviewers to sample and rate.
Earlier this year, the results came in: Wine & Spirits awarded 90 points each to his 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2008 Syrah. Then, in February, Wine Enthusiast released its own set of favorable scores: a 91 for Storm's 2008 Le Bon Climat Pinot Noir, and a 92 plus "Editor's Choice" for his 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Syrah, he said.
Is Storm now a believer? Yes — and no, for still, he notes, reviews are based upon "the power of perception."
That said, Storm, 32, a native of South Africa, is grateful for the honors. He's got years of winemaking and consulting to his name, and understands that good scores help boost brand recognition.
By our interview on Feb. 29, Storm had sold all but about 80 cases of his 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, and will release the 2011 vintage, also 300 cases, come summer. That sauvignon blanc was sourced from four vineyards: La Presa, McGinley, Kingsley and Curtis, he said.
"These four sites perfectly capture the four corners of the Valley, from cool to warm to hot."
When he pulled a tank sample for a visitor, the wine radiated a rush of grapefruit on the nose and palate and the "grassy style" varietal characteristics that Storm prefers in sauvignon blancs. He describes his as a summertime wine, one to enjoy before or during dinner, since its crispness makes it a fine pairing for the Mediterranean food so popular in our region.
In 2012, Storm will produce his first single-vineyard sauvignon blanc from the Santa Maria Valley's Presqu'ile Wines' vineyard.
His 2009 Pinot Noir is a blend from the Presqu'ile and Le Bon Climat vineyards, and Storm calls it "the best pinot I've made" to date. For his 2010 vintage, he sourced pinot from John Sebastiano, a Sta. Rita Hills vineyard that the likes of Paul Lato, Matthias Pippig (Sanguis) and Adam Siduri (Siduri) have utilized for their labels.
Storm plans to keep production of Storm Wines' case production at its current 500 cases in order "to keep it personal," for while he's utilizing a broker for his San Diego sales, the remainder of his distribution and marketing efforts are "all me."
Storm and his fiancée, attorney Brooke Sorensen, are planning a summertime wedding, he said.
After growing up in Hermanus, a small, fishing village in Walker Bay, Storm studied winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College, also in the Western Cape, graduating in 2001. His brother, Hannes Storm, is the winemaker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards, a prestigious producer of estate chardonnay and pinot noir. Hamilton Russell is located just inland from Hermanus in the cool Hemel-en-Aarde Valley appellation.
Ernst Storm began his career working at Amani, located in one of the coolest parts of the Stellenbosch region, under the tutelage of Rod Easthope, now of Craggy Range Winery, New Zealand.
From Amani, Ernst joined Hannes in consulting for a "few small producers" in South Africa, where he continued to envision making a wine that would be the best of his homeland, which is based on some French, Old World techniques, and the New World.
In the years that followed, he followed his passion to the United States, and ended up in the much-warmer Amador County of California, where in worked for Renwood, in Plymouth, before relocating to Santa Barbara County and beginning at Firestone Wines in 2005.
In 2007, the Firestone family sold its wine brand, 300 vineyard acres, more than 200,000 cases of wine in barrels and the Zaca Station Road production facility and tasting room to Foley Family Wines, but retained Curtis Winery, the Curtis estate vineyard and another Firestone family property, Rock Hollow Vineyard on Ballard Canyon Road, as well as Firestone Walker Brewer Company and the Firestone Taproom restaurant in Buellton.
General manager slash winemaker Chuck Carlson, part of the winemaking team at Firestone since 1993, remained with the Firestone family after the sale, and he brought Storm aboard at Curtis Winery as assistant winemaker.
Last summer, Storm said, he took over the winemaking reins from Carlson, which freed up the latter to expand his role as general manager and sales director for Curtis and the other two labels. After working together for several years, the two men are a solid team.
"Putting Curtis on the map is our common goal here," Storm emphasized.
As lead winemaker, he is responsible for production of all three Firestone family labels: Curtis, Jarhead Wines and Rock Hollow Wines.
Curtis' estate vineyard is 107 acres of mostly Rhône grape varietals — syrah, viognier, cinsault and mourvedre — as well as some riesling, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc and petite verdot.
Among Curtis' wines are several single-varietal Rhônes and the Heritage series, which includes three Rhône cuvees — red, rose and white.
The Curtis label is regularly honored by judges in state and local competitions, as well as by reviewers. Among its recent ratings are those from James Suckling: 92 points for the 2010 Heritage Blanc, 91 for the 2009 Heritage Cuvee and 90 points for the 2010 Viognier, Storm noted.
The Jarhead Wines label includes a chardonnay, red blend and a reserve blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, Storm said. Proceeds from the sale of Jarhead Wines go to the Marine Corps Scholarship Fund for the children of fallen soldiers; Adam Firestone, oldest son of Brooks and Kate Firestone, was a captain in the Marines.
The Rock Hollow wines are a chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and a sauvignon blanc.
Together, annual production of the Jarhead Wines, Rock Hollow and Curtis Wines' has reached nearly 15,000 cases, Storm said. Showing a visitor to the winery's lab a thick binder containing reports about every wine produced under all three labels, Storm is quick to add that increased quantity does not come at the expense of quality.
"If you treat each wine like it's the only wine you make, the quality will always come through."
Information: www.stormwines.com, and www.curtiswinery.com