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California Wine: Dragonette Cellars Makes Wine That Rocks

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It's a sure sign his wines will be good when a winemaker says, "It's hard to distill that down into a quick answer," when you pose a question. Such is the case for Brandon Sparks-Gillis, who along with brothers John and Steve Dragonette, makes the wine at Dragonette Cellars, which has just moved into a new facility in Buellton. One of their tag phrases is "considered minimalism," and the emphasis is definitely on the considered. "We're more or less hands-off, quote-unquote, in the cellar, but that's a misnomer, like you're letting the wines go," Sparks-Gillis asserts. "We're not manipulating the wines much, but there's a great level of care. What's necessary is to preserve the quality of the fruit."

Those grapes come from around the Santa Ynez Valley: Sauvignon Blanc from Vogelzang and Grassini Vineyards in Happy Canyon; Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills; Syrah from seven different locations, including Paso Robles. "We make the wines we most personally love," Sparks-Gillis says, recalling the days he met John Dragonette when they both worked at Wally's Wine & Spirits in Westwood and refined their palates. "The Santa Ynez Valley was one of the few places where you could grow all three grapes we most liked," he points out. Dragonette works on acre-by-acre leases with vineyards, "and so we're able to have a lot of input on our rows for a number of years. It allows us to have multiple locations for different varietals. For the long term vision we'd like to have an estate property, but we still see ourselves taking advantage of different sites."

Sparks-Gillis, who majored in geology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., has a particular interest in sites and what soils can mean to wines. At a recent wine dinner at Max's in Santa Barbara he even brought along a chunk of serpentinite to pass around. "It's a really fascinating rock, the state rock of California," he says. "It's indicative of an ancient continental boundary, and was once deep ocean crust, born eight miles below sea level. The San Rafael Mountains behind Happy Canyon have shed down lots of serpentinite, rich in iron and magnesium, so that adds to the mineral profile and makes it tougher for the vines to grow, plus helps insure really good drainage." Stressed vines make fewer, more intensely flavored grapes, and voila, you've got some delicious juice at the end, thanks to millions of years of tectonic grinding.

Dragonette loves taking advantage of terroir, even the difference between the Grassini and Vogelzang Vineyards, which Sparks-Gillis points are "less than half a mile apart, but if you barrel taste Sauvignon Blanc from each, you can see the Grassini has more green flavors, like papaya and kiwi, while Vogelzang has riper flavors like pineapple and mango. Actually, Grassini has mango, but before it's not ripe enough to get soft." If you take that finely tuned grape and blend it as well as Dragonette, or bottle it in single vineyard expressions when the vintage is good enough to allow it, you get a New World Sauvignon Blanc that's a marvel -- somehow both full and restrained at once. And if you give him the chance, Sparks-Gillis could explain exactly why it tastes so good.

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