Written by Mike Stepanovich
The first time I went looking for Sagebrush Annie’s, I missed it. This classic mom-and-pop winery/restaurant is in Ventucopa—population 92—literally a wide spot on Highway 33, eight miles south of its junction with Highway 166. Instead I pulled into a place called—I’m not kidding—The Place.
My wife, Carol, and I each enjoyed a slice of homemade blackberry pie ala mode, and asked where the winery was. The owner said, “It’s 300 yards back down the road.” I said the only thing I saw 300 yards back down the road appeared to be an abandoned building. Nope, he said, that’s it. “If a flatbed truck is there, they’re there.”
So back we went, and pulled into the dirt parking area. And sure enough, a flatbed truck was out back, and in the front window of a false-front, weather-beaten structure that defines rustic was an “open” sign. Not sure what to expect, we ventured in. We were greeted by the elegant baroque strains of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, while from behind the bar an R.C. Gorman painting commanded our attention. A cow’s skull mounted on the wall also peered out at us; old cattle brands and a collection of boots cemented the Old West feel of the place.
Then Larry and Karina Hogan walked in, she in a comfortable, well-worn pair of Levi’s, and Larry with a cowboy hat and massive belt buckle. And it turned out he was a cowboy; he graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 1958 with a degree in animal science, and then “spent too much time in feedlots and cattle pens.” She’s a classically trained violist and pianist.
He asked if we’d like to taste his wine, and served it in Riedel stemware. This place was so full of contradictions, I could scarcely believe it. Then came the coup de grace: the wine was splendid.
So was the dinner we had on a Friday night a couple weeks later, accompanied by some of that wine. Larry grills steaks over an open red-oak fire out back—no fancy seasoning, just a great cut of meat and smoky oak flavors. Karina does the rest: soup and salad, your choice of baked or cowboy potatoes or rice pilaf, and a stunning chocolate ganache that is to die for. It’s an hour from our house to Sagebrush Annie’s, but it’s worth the effort to get there. A word to the wise: Saturdays are solidly booked into the foreseeable future, so if you can, go on Friday or Sunday.
But go anytime for the wine, because Larry’s wine is putting the Cuyama Valley on the map. For those of you with doubts consider this: Larry’s wines are arguably winning a higher percentage of gold medals per wine at major international wine competitions than any other wine in California.
“Competitions have put us on the map,” Larry said. “We’ve done very well.”
He makes two labels:
Stone Pine Estate is produced exclusively from grapes he grows on their estate vineyard.
Sagebrush Annie’s is made from grapes he purchases from neighboring vineyards.
The 2003 Stone Pine Cabernet Sauvignon, a silky, beautifully-balanced wine alive with fruit and subtle nuances, won a double gold medal at the West Coast Wine Competition, and a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. The 2006 Stone Pine Cab won a gold medal and was named best of class at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition. “We beat out some expensive Napa wines at that one,” Larry chuckled.
Sagebrush Annie’s wins golds as frequently as Stone Pine, including at Los Angeles, San Francisco International, Monterey, Florida International, and San Francisco Chronicle Wine competitions. In fact, every wine Larry has ever made has won a gold medal, an astonishing track record. And it’s right in our own backyard.
Like so many discoveries in the wine business, serendipity played a role in the Hogans’ vineyard, and the Cuyama Valley emerging as a great source of wine.
“My approach is if it’s good fruit, don’t tamper with it,” Larry said. He makes only 700 cases a year, picking his grapes and hauling it to Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria where he makes and bottles his wines.
He speaks like someone who’s made his living off the land all his life, which, of course, he has. Cattle taught him a lot, but so did living 38 years on the eastern edge of the Cuyama Valley, an area where four counties converge: Kern, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. His estate vineyard, about a mile from the tasting room/restaurant, is in Ventura County; the tasting room is in Santa Barbara County; the neighbors from whom he buys grapes have their vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and he does most of his shopping in Bakersfield, in Kern County. “To get to Bakersfield,” he said, “I go through four counties.”
Larry has always had a love for wine, and when he came to Ventucopa in 1971, no one had vineyards planted in the Cuyama Valley. In fact, it had no history of wine grapes being grown there whatsoever.
But Larry started noticing things, things essential to growing good wine grapes. First he had a sense that where apples grow well, grapes grow well. He noticed a lot of apples in the area.
He noticed that his property had alluvial soils, typically rocky and nutrient-poor. These are usually well drained and force the grapes’ roots deep searching for water. Napa Valley is on alluvial soils.
He noticed that Cuyama Valley’s altitude—nearly 3,000 feet—meant shorter, cooler growing seasons. The vines have bud-break later, the summers are warm, and fall cools off sooner.
Then he noticed the key factor for wine production: 40-degree temperature swings
between summer highs and lows. This is critical for acid production in the grapes, because acid is a critical component in wine.
He started asking various viticulturists about planting vineyards on his place—how would the grapes do—but the answer was always the same: no one had a clue. No one had ever done it before. He planted a few vines, but that only whetted his appetite more. Finally, one consultant told him, “You’ll never know until you plant a commercial-size vineyard.”
So, in 1982, he became the first person to plant a vineyard in Cuyama Valley. He began with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet sauvignon. The chardonnay and sauvignon blanc were disappointments: early bloomers, they were often susceptible to frost. But the cabernet, which has later bud-break, wasn’t affected, and the moderate summer and fall temperatures ripened the grapes evenly.
Tony Austin, the founding winemaker at Firestone and now with Sonoma Coast Vineyards, came to see the vineyards some years back.
“He told me, ‘Larry, there’s never been a cabernet in Santa Barbara County that can touch this.’ ” Hogan said.
The chardonnay and sauvignon blanc were quickly replaced with more cabernet, and some merlot and zinfandel. His vineyard now comprises 70 acres.
Rhone varietals are also finding a home in Cuyama Valley. “This is a great area for Bordeaux and Rhone varietals,” Larry said. “They’re balanced and harmonious, and that’s what we aim for in our wines.”
And the experience of visiting Sagebrush Annie’s, trying the wines, enjoying dinner, sharing their experience is one that will keep you coming back.
For more on the Hogans, go to sagebrushannies.com, or call (661) 766-2319.
Article appeared in our 26-4 Issue - October 2009