At Refugio Ranch, Taking Time for Time
Refugio Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is my kind of destination vineyard with its rustic beauty and excellent wines supported by thoughtful land management constantly listening to nature. On a special August trip to meet three members of the Gleason family who have stewarded Refugio Ranch over the past decade, I came to appreciate both what was absent and present in this pastoral property tucked up in Refugio [rey-FOO-he-o] Canyon in the southern Santa Ynez Valley on the northern slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Verdant patches of vineyards stretch out into organic shapes to reflect the steep hillsides and soils-driven planting of these lands. Refugio Ranch features the viticulturalist as visual artist with blocks of green vines coloring the hillside. A huge oak still lives on the Ranch’s most scenic promontory and commands the space where many property developers would automatically want to build a house. The Gleasons have made sensitive choices with the Ranch that ensure nature’s stamp on the landscape remains primary.
“This is who we are and where we are”
After acquiring this old cattle ranch in 2004, the Gleasons soon discovered how the peaceful nature of the ranch got into the bloodstream and, eventually, into their wines. Paterfamilias Kevin Gleason loves telling stories about their connection to the land. “We started the process of getting to know the ranch by living in the old manager’s house” he smiles as he tells of how his family came to this property with their own ideas that were reshaped through their potent respect for the ecosystem of Refugio Ranch. He describes how theur initial plans for building a home on that prominent hill gradually morphed into the patient desire for a home more organically situated within the landscape. Soil-driven planning and an awareness of these vineyards’ unique terroir has produced 26 acres of well-planted biodynamic vineyards.
The Gleason family graciously hosted us for lunch during our visit and, as often happens over fresh food well prepared and paired with good wine, the conversation got interesting. We discussed living deliberately, whether making a Slow Food meal or taking time for people and experiences that make us most happy. “You’ve got to take time for time,” reminds paterfamilias: “It’s all about time.” My lunch companions Kevin, his wife Niki and their son Max readily agreed that, much as the finished wine reflects their tastes, the landscape reflects back onto them. “This is who we are and where we are,” says Kevin, an evangelist for working in sensitive, biodynamic harmony with nature, especially in the production of creative, terroir-driven wines.
With critical guidance and expertise from “grape whisperer” Ruben Solorzano and Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, the Gleasons, winemaker Ryan Deovlet, and the vineyard team who manage the vines all bring a sincere respect for the land to this winemaking venture. This is a special property with classic California history: in the 1800s this landscape served as a gateway to the black market port of Refugio, just over the hill from where the vineyards lie today. Cattle ranchers also worked this property over the years. On this steep, undulating property bordered by Refugio Creek and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south, one look around makes clear how the Refugio Ranch team dedicates themselves to the healthy stressing of the vines for the production of complex wines as much as the the long term survival of the oaks for the preservation of the soul.
As they came to know the ranch from the towering trees to the humble soils, the Refugio Ranch team discovered which varietals worked best in this particular spot. On these 440 hilly acres, they’ve planted 15 different blocks with six varietals starting in 2004 and continuing with the 2011 planting of Grenache. Even as they work this land for Syrah and Petit Sirah grapes as well as Roussane, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Grenache, the land works on them. LA-based artist Max designed their wine labels to convey the history of this place as much as the planting of the Gleason family in this place. For example, their 100% Sauvignon Blanc Tiradora label features one sister Mara in silhouette taking a bead on an empty bottle with a .22 from the front porch, her dress blowing in the wind. He captured this tough yet delicate image during a family party out at the Ranch as well as another image of Niki with her daughters Mara and Callie walking back to the barn from the elevated vines in the Estrella block. This image of a perfect moment from a perfect day provides the silhouette for their Ineseño label, the Ladies from Ines. Spending time with the Gleasons reveals a healthy symbiosis among family, wine, art and the earth of Refugio Ranch.
Max’s 10-foot canvas of Los Compañeros looked out over the room where we enjoyed lunch in their breezy, comfortable barn. This enormous painting captures four men from the Refugio Ranch vineyard crew in a moment of rest after helping plant the 2011 garden. A very cool painting, Los Compañeros recognizes the instrumental role of the vineyard crew in making these engaging wines and the human qualities they bring to the process: patience, intensity and tenderness through the hard work of their hands.
Hasta Luego, Refugio Ranch
In this day and age, we rarely meet people who pay close attention to their own terroir as human beings committed to living in harmony with nature. The stewards of Refugio Ranch, however, have completely tuned into the frequency of this property as they promote good land stewardship, good relationships, and very good wine.
During my visit to Refugio Ranch, I didn’t have a chance to meet winemaker Ryan Deovlet but, based on my experience of these wines, I think I’m going to like him. These intellectually stimulating wines relay the tale of discrete vintages and varietals with each glass tasting like an interesting conversation.
We tasted Refugio Ranch wines most recently at the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association Celebration of Harvest and relished the chance to enjoy these interesting wines again. We’re looking forward to their new tasting room in Los Olivos, due to open this year, as well as another visit to the peace of Refugio Ranch.