A vineyard nestled in a cooler pocket of the southern Santa Ynez Valley is producing some of the region's newest wines crafted in the spirit of cowboys and ranch lore. Refugio Ranch Vineyard, owned by the Gleason family, is a 415-acre property, with approximately 25 acres planted to sauvignon blanc, malvasia bianca, roussanne, sémillon, viognier, grenache and syrah, said proprietor Kevin Gleason.
Gleason's adult son, Max, an artist based in New York City, designed the art that adorns Refugio Ranch's label, and supervises the brand's aesthetics; winemaker Ryan Deovlet of San Luis Obispo's Deovlet Wines produces the label; and Reuben Salazar of Coastal Vineyard Care manages the sections of vineyards that line the estate's hillsides and valleys.
The bucolic property itself, a former cattle ranch, is the heart and soul of the Refugio Ranch label. Max Gleason's artwork is both "rustic and contemporary," said his father, Kevin.
As the senior Gleason explained, the family listens closely to the "history of the ranch, to the vineyard, the land — and we try not to screw it up too much. We have the same approach to winemaking."
With crop cultivation, "sometimes it's a matter of sitting back and listening to the property," Deovlet noted.
Kevin Gleason concurs: "This team (Gleasons and Deovlet) is comfortable with the unknown. Rather than 'driving' the process — driving and looking for an intended outcome — we are content to sit back and watch nature."
Deovlet told a visitor he feels "like an adopted member" of the Gleason family; indeed, he, father and son Gleason finish one another's sentences, and appear comfortable as a unit.
During a May 16 industry open house at Refugio Ranch's newly opened tasting room in Los Olivos, Deovlet joined Max, Kevin and his wife, Niki, and the tasting room staff in pouring wines from behind the spacious bar.
Refugio Ranch Vineyard premiered with the 2008 Barbareno (a blend of petite sirah and syrah), and the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Deovlet said.
The barbareno's components are 63 syrah and 37 petite sirah, with about 4 to 6 percent viognier and 2 to 3 percent malvasia bianca, he explained.
The 2009 sauvingnon blanc was aged in oak, and the 2010 in stainless steel, Deovlet said. Tasted side by side, each vintage commands attention, with the 2009 showing roundness and elegant balance, and the 2010 more mineral driven and crisp on the palate.
The 2011 vintage is "a blend of the two previous styles," and contains a percentage of sémillion, a Bordeaux varietal that's a mainstay in white blends as well as being the key grape in Sauternes. The 2011 will be bottled later this summer, Deovlet said.
The label's second white varietal blends two key Rhone whites, roussanne and viognier. The 2009 vintage was a 55-45 split of roussane and viognier, and the 2010 a 60-40 mix. The 2009 utilized no oak, and 2010 just 15 percent new French oak barrels, Deovlet said.
"The roussanne soaks up the oak of the barrel when the wine is on the lees for an extended period. The final product shows salinity, and is rich, round and supple."
Deovlet describes his palate as "Old World," one that favors "pristine aromatics" and the characteristics of "wet stone." He favors concrete for fermentation, and calls the utilization of such containers his goal for Refugio Ranch.
The Gleasons and Deovlet emphasize that the property's soil structure "drives the viticulture" practiced at Refugio Ranch. "The soils are heavier with clay, and we need cover crops to take up the water to create a competition with the vines," a process that creates more intense fruit as the vines "fight" for water, Deovlet noted.
He reiterated that the property is a cool one, with about "5 degrees difference in temperature a factor that pushes us into "the red zone" as far as ripening (in a timely fashion), meaning most of the site's vines ripen later than the average for the region.
The vineyard portions of the entire estate are tucked up against the hillsides on dark, rich clay soil that resembles fudge dusted with cocoa powder. The top soil layer is shallow with rock just about three feet below the surface, Max Gleason noted during a tour of the property.
Theirs is the sole vineyard on the south side of the Santa Ynez River, a fact that brings "distinctiveness to the soils and the wines," Kevin Gleason said.
In their search for flavor intensity, viticulturists such as Salazar target a lean per-acre crop, and Deovlet and the Gleasons are no exception: "We're seeking lower yields (to the point of) making several passes through the vineyard when picking. We pick, wait, and then pick again," Deovlet said.
Having a preference for the eclectic, creative side of viticulture means that Regufio Ranch team is "comfortable with the unknown," Kevin Gleason emphasized.
Mara and Callie, the youngest children of Kevin Gleason and his wife, Niki, provided Max with further inspiration for the Refugio Ranch wine label.
The eldest of the daughters, Mara, is the silhouetted "Tiradora," or sharpshooter, on the wine of the same name, the sauvignon blanc. Together, silhouettes of Niki, Mara and Callie walking are the label on "Ineseno," the 60-40 blend of roussane and viognier.
The goal for case production of the 2011 vintage is between 2,500 and 3,000, Kevin Gleason said.
His family, said Kevin Gleason, searched for a site such as this "for years" before settling down. After viewing and rejecting many other potential vineyard sites, eventually, "the property found us."
Details: Refugio Ranch Vineyard's new tasting room is located at 2990 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, in part of the building that faces Highway 154. The current releases are the 2010 Tiradora, the 2010 Ineseno and the 2009 Barbareno, a 65-35 percent blend of syrah and petite sirah. Initial hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Sunday. Information: www.refugioranch.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, (805) 686-0840.