The Faces of Lompoc Wine
Credit: Josh WandThe Lompoc Wine Ghetto, an ad hoc collection of wineries housed in the decidedly un-romantic setting of the Sobhani Industrial Park (see "Pioneer Spirit," March 2009), has been a tremendous boon to the dozen winemakers who work there. For some of these Santa Barbara County vintners, it has provided an affordable place to start a small venture; for others, it has been a catalyst for growth and experimentation. And though there are other communal winemaking facilities in the county, the "ghetto" stands out because so many of the wines there are of such excellent quality.
"The ghetto is interesting because, prosaic as the surroundings are, there are a lot of high-quality producers," Sashi Moorman of Stolpman Vineyards, told me on a recent visit. "I think the reason is that, when you come here, you set up your own shop and buy your own equipment, which means you're taking a bigger risk. So, it's not just a job; it's your life."
Each of the winemakers in the ghetto has brought a singular perspective to the community, and in the past few years many of them have invited me into their wineries and shared their stories with me.
Rick Longoria (Longoria Wines)
Rick Longoria could be called the accidental founding father of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Back in the spring of 1998, he planted his first vineyard, Fe Ciega, on a slope in the Santa Rita Hills, when he began contemplating the difficulties of getting the grapes from the fairly remote location, on the narrow and winding Santa Rosa Road to the Santa Ynez Valley, where most wineries in the area were located. "It's not that far if you could go over the hills," he explained, "but you have to drive all the way south to Highway 1 and then come all the way back around east to the 101. It adds a lot of time."
Looking for alternatives, he contemplated setting up his operation in Lompoc, a small, rural city located just minutes from the hills. He had spent some of his teenage years there, while his father was posted at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, and he knew that it was one of the most affordable areas in the county for opening a business. After contacting the city's office of community development, he saw the warehouse in Sobhani Industrial Park. "The building had been different things. When I looked at it … it was being used as a seed company to dry huge piles of flower seed on huge burlap blankets. Prior to that it had been a carpet place and even a kids' indoor gym. In fact, there's still a mural of Disney cartoon characters on one wall," he told me.
The space, however, was both flexible and affordable, so he moved his operation there at the end of the year, inviting a few other winemakers to come see it for themselves. Within a couple of months, a handful of these vintners had signed leases for buildings in the park, and the wine ghetto was born.
Though the Lompoc space was his first wholly owned winery, Longoria had been making wines in Santa Barbara County since 1976, when he started working at the Firestone Vineyard, one of the area's first wineries. Like many county winemakers, Longoria came to the trade in a fairly roundabout way. He first became aware of California wines in the late 1960s and early '70s while studying sociology at UC Berkeley. "My friends and I would drive up to the Napa and Sonoma wineries on the weekends," he explained, " and the idea of living in the country and working on a winery really started to appeal to me. I thought that rather than seek—to use a word from that time—an 'establishment' job, I would seek work in the vineyard or the winery, though at that point I knew so little that I really didn't even know which was which. I just had this sense that it was more organic and more of a craft than the other jobs I would have found." This idealism led him to take a job at Buena Vista Winery in 1974 as a rookie cellar worker, and he threw himself into it, studying the process of winemaking and taking courses at nearby schools. Two years later, when he heard that wines were being made in Santa Barbara County, he found the pull of the south coast irresistible and took a position as the cellar foreman at Firestone.
The winemaking possibilities and the welcoming attitude of the Santa Barbara community enchanted him immediately, and he spent most of the next two decades working his way up in many of the area's wineries, including J. Carey Cellars, Rancho Sisquoc Winery, and Gainey Vineyard. "It was a wonderful atmosphere to work in," he told me. "It was group of pretty unpretentious people kind of learning from each other. We didn't really have that many people here who had been making wine in other places before; the original group of winemakers was kind of homegrown. Given the fact that we had no reputation, it took a certain kind of individual to want to start making wine here, the kind of the mavericks who didn't conform to what the wine industry expected of them." While working and learning at these vineyards, he started his own label, Longoria Wines, by buying grapes from other vintners and borrowing space wherever he was working. By the time he made the winery his full-time job and moved to Lompoc, he was making pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet franc. By now, he has added a wide range of other varietals that are also being grown in the Santa Rita Hills, including syrah, albariño, malbec, and tempranillo.
Longoria appreciates that the atmosphere of the wine ghetto carries on the traditions of camaraderie and support that have been the defining element of the area's winemaking community. The ghetto's real accomplishment, in his eyes, is the attention the area's wines have received. "The fact that wineries set up shop in Lompoc, in a dense area like this, drew attention to the Santa Rita Hills because it's a really unique situation," he says. "It really sets the area apart."