There are a lot of synergies between Scar of the Sea and Lady of the Sunshine: owner/ winemakers Mikey and Gina Giugni share a cellar in San Luis Obispo; and as they explained when we spoke recently they share a philosophy on farming and winemaking: “We make real wines, or natural wines if you want to call them that, wines with minimal intervention that are trying to show where they’re from”. But they came to wine via very different places, and work with different terroirs. If winemaking is the sum of myriad small decisions, they make decisions differently, resulting in two exciting but distinct projects.
Mikey: “Winemaking is 100-1000 small decisions; each decision has an impact on how the wine turns out”.
Gina grew up around vineyards and wine, her parents established Narrow Gate Vineyards in north California, but she found wine on her own: “As a kid you naturally reject what your parents want for you”. Gina worked in a Sonoma tasting room while she studied, and fell in love with wine. She decided to move to Cal Poly and changed her program to Wine and Viticulture. After graduating she travelled, working in Beaujolais, at Burnt Cottage in Central Otago, with Josh Bergstrom in Oregon, and in Napa. She became increasingly interested in biodynamics. While in Napa she saw grapes being meticulously farmed, but picked late when they were super ripe, over-extracted during the winemaking, and manipulated to bring back balance. At this point she decided she should put her theories into practice and make her own wine!
“I thought why don’t we pick the grapes earlier, and use the natural acidity and indigenous yeast”?
Gina started Lady of the Sunshine in 2017, with a few barrels and has been slowly growing to her current production of 1200 cases. The first wine she made under her own rules was Coquelicot Sauvignon Blanc, from a site near Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley, planted in 90’s on alluvial river soils. “Picking is the most important decision”. Gina is looking at flavour development and picks on the natural acidity of the grapes (not sugar).
We don’t struggle developing flavours or ripeness here, the sunshine here is everlasting. Acid is the limiting factor, it can drop out at the drop of a dime, especially with recent heatwaves.
She calls Coquelicot her breakfast Margarita wine, it’s mouth-watering mix of zesty citrus, tropical fruit with a salty lick and comes in at 12% alcohol, ideal for breakfast!
Finding a home vineyard
Gina moved to the Central coast where she met the owners of Chene vineyard in Edna Valley. The 6.5 acre site is four miles from the ocean. The porous soil looks like limestone, but it’s chalkier, and it breaks apart in layers. Gina took over farming at Chene in 2018, immediately putting her ideas into practice by starting to convert to biodynamics, gaining certification in the summer of 2020.
Gina explained that not many people farm organically in California. She’s redefining what a ‘normal’ vineyard looks like, with the cover crops it looks more like a landscape than a perfectly manicured garden. It’s more work for sure building the compost, but it’s also fun: “We make wine and we also make soil, we collect all our waste and have a giant pile of compost. We put a lot of energy and effort in to, but it’s rewarding, collecting waste, incorporating animals into the farm. Farming this way is really dynamic, a constant challenge, a way of working with nature”.
Both Gina and Mikey are big proponents of certification, they feel it helps to educate consumers and encourages them to ask questions. Mikey: “As the terms organic, biodynamic and sustainable become more popular in the market it’s easy for producers to say what they want, certification is the only thing that upholds authenticity”.
Being just four miles from the Pacific coast the cool microclimate is great for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but the super high humidity from the fogs creates mildew pressure. Gina uses an organic spray made from cinnamon oil which she applies every ten days, more than would be needed for a systemic chemical but it doesn’t kill the good bugs.
“When you strip away artificial fertilisers and sprays, the vineyard becomes more responsive to small changes in climate, you start to notice things, you can really tune into the vineyard”.
Gina makes two wines from Chene. The beautifully concentrated Chene Vineyard Chardonnay from a one acre block of the California heritage Wente clone. Brought from France in the 60s, Wente has small clusters the size of your fist, with mix of berry sizes. It’s good for biodynamic farming, the loose clusters allow air flow and sunshine to enter the bunches, meaning less chance of botrytis.
Gina foot treads her whites and leaves them to soak overnight: “This give a little kiss of texture and tannin, and adds tension”. The whites are gently pressed into neutral French oak, and ferment outside in a warm environment. She gets bit of reduction from the natural yeast ferment, adding a flinty tone to the wines. Whites are aged on lees until a week before bottling.
There are five and a half acres of high-density (2,000 vines per acre) Pinot Noir planted in Chene, Gina uses about a third of this and sells the rest including some to fellow Indigoer Drake Whitcraft. Gina likes to use the Pinot from the steepest slope of the site which has shallow topsoil. This gives small clusters and concentrated berries. The stems lignify and she now uses 100% wholebunch for her Chene Vineyard Pinot Noir. She describes the tannins in her Pinot as: “More angular, darker than classic Burgundy”. Which she attributes to the hard, shallow topsoil.
Mikey also studied at Cal Poly, engineering not winemaking, but he didn’t like working in a cubicle so he got a job in a tasting room, before working on a vineyard and learning on the job. He was interested in sparkling wine and went to Tasmania, and it was here he discovered low-intervention winemaking. When he returned to the US in 2012 he started Scar of the Sea.
While Gina mainly focusses on the terroir within one site Mikey works with vineyards scattered across the region from San Luis Obispo coast down to the Santa Maria Valley, farmed by friends and colleagues he’s made connections with over the years. He’s drawn to older vineyards which are relatively scarce in California. He works closely with three families: The Millers (Bien Nacido and Solomon Hill); the Murphys (Presquile); and Rancho Oniveras farmed by his friend James Oniveros. All are practicing organic as a minimum, given the extra work and costs involved you need a relationship to persuade farmers to work organically. Mikey estimates it costs 800-2000 USD per acre to farm organically, depending on the site, with the biggest cost being weed control.
Grapes for his Old Vine Chardonnay come from an old section of the iconic Bien Nacido vineyard, Blocks I and O planted in the 70s on own roots.
He splits his Pinots into the classic Burgundian pyramid: ‘Regional’ wine Vino de los Ranchos, a homage to the old ranches like Bien Nacido and Ontiveros which still exist in the Santa Maria Valley. Los Ranchos is a spice driven Burgundian style, light on its feet with refreshing acidity. Seven Leagues is his Appellation wine, from his three favourite vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley – Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills and Presqu’ile. Solomon Hills and Presqu’ile are cooler, more foggy sites with sandy soils. Pinot from there is perfumed and floral, with a lighter texture and structure. In contrast Bien Nacido, with California limestone soils, has more structure and body. He describes Bien Nacido Vineyard Block Q as his Grand Cru, from old old-rooted vines planted 1973. The wine has broader shoulders and more tannin, it’s a classic with restraint and natural acidity, not overblown but with the California sun and vibes.
In his book The New California Wine Jon Bonne noted: The arrival of a mature American wine culture, where producers are confident enough not to mimic the Old World or obscure the nuances of terroir with clever cellar work, but rather seek greatness in a uniquely American context. That is the wonderful reality of the New California.
This is perfectly illustrated in Mikey and Gina’s vibrant, energetic wines, I’ll leave the last word with Mikey.
“We like wines that show the terroir, the flavours of the land. We add a small amount of sulphur to keep the microbe level down, so we’re not showing off bad yeast or microbes, but the purity of the place”.