Many of us say we’d like to give up our regular job to follow a dream, but few of us ever reach the point when we forsake the progress we’ve made in one career to start all over in another. Every once in a while, though, you meet someone who has done just that- like our winemaker Karen Steinwachs.
In her previous life, Karen earned a degree in Business Management and spent 20 years in the high-tech world. In 2001 when she’d had enough of gazing into a computer screen in a high-rise tower for eighteen hours a day, she decided she needed a physical job. A job in the fresh air. A job with a stress level several notches closer to earth. Karen wondered if she could possibly break in to the world of winemaking.
During the years she spent based in Southern California, Karen had become a fan of wine in general, and of Santa Barbara County wines in particular. She and her husband Dave Robinson snuck regular trips up here and over time became acquainted with a handful of winemakers. After being turned down by a few, she asked Norm Yost, then winemaker at Foley Estates, for a harvest job. Norm wasn’t at all encouraging saying it would be hard work, not nearly as romantic as people think, he could only pay her $7 an hour and she would be laid off when the harvest was done. She took the job, and although Norm was right about the work being hard, by the time harvest was over, Karen would never look back at her life of high-tech, high heels and power suits. Her original six week job at Foley stretched to three years before she was off to Fiddlehead Cellars and an assistant winemaking position working with Kathy Joseph.
While at Fiddlehead, Karen honed and expanded on the skills she learned at Foley, taking on the day to day responsibilities of looking after the wine so that after three harvests at Fiddlehead, she knew she was ready to run her own show. Karen first became acquainted with Buttonwood when she worked down the road at Foley (Lincourt) and she admired that Buttonwood is a working farm with a variety of aspects that diverge as well as mesh with the wine side of the business. She imagined Buttonwood a place where dreams have been, and still wait to be achieved. And now here she is, crafting Buttonwood’s old-vine fruit into wines of character and distinction. As she produces each wine with care, Karen continues to build on her dream of working with a team that produces an expression of the land as well as her dream of crafting wine that will provide pleasure at the table and in the glass. Come and visit and taste the stuff that dreams are made of.
Our estate vineyard is planted on the hilltop mesa overlooking the tasting room, orchard and lower vegetable gardens. The vineyard is a set of rolling and undulating hills, each planted to a grape varietal best suited to that particular location. The vines are all planted on their own roots, set into the classic 8’x10′ spacing.
Vineyard Manager Armando Zepeda has been farming the vineyard since it was first planted, and seems to know each vine personally. Armando is joined in the vineyard by soil consultant Stan Kadota and viticulturist Francisco Ramirez.
Harvest generally begins in September of each year, followed by the planting of a cover crop of barley, sweet pea and fava beans for the winter months. January brings the pruning crew, with each vine cane-pruned, with bud-break generally arriving in March, fruit set in May and veraison in July/August.
The vineyard map shows the changes over the years. The original vineyard plan was relatively simple, with largish blocks containing a single grape varietal: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This reflects our original focus on Bordeaux-style wines.
Over the years, our understanding of what grows well in our part of Santa Ynez Valley and our tastes in wine have evolved and we have grafted some of the original vines to other varietals. The biggest change is the addition of the Rhône varietals Syrah, Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc and Viognier. Malbec was added to our palette of red Bordeaux reds and the Musque clone of Sauvignon Blanc added to give greater complexity and aromatics, and a bit of Chenin Blanc planted in 2017.
We love trees here at Buttonwood. (Buttonwood is another name for the Sycamore tree). The stately Valley Oaks, the perennially beautiful Live Oaks, our little Palmetto volunteers in the vineyard and the Louisiana Cypress that grace our vineyard pond. But the orchard trees – well, we simply adore them!
The entrance to Buttonwood Farm is graced by almond trees, which herald the arrival of spring with their beautiful blossoms. If we get to the nuts before the crows do, we hand harvest and dry the almonds before having them shelled for consumption. The perfect snack, roasted, salted, herbed or just eaten!
Most famous are the peach trees. As Orchard Manager Fred Munch notes: “With fruit orchards totaling 250 trees, Buttonwood has become known as the Georgia of southern California! Late June brings the Springcrests. There are a whole bunch of crests: Springcrest, Flavorcrest, Suncrest – all different months. The Flavorcrest follows the Springcrest and usually starts the first week in July, and then the third week in July come the Babcock (a white peach) and the Elberta. The fourth week in July brings the Gene Elberta, which lasts until the first week in August. Then in the first week in August we see the Fay Elberta, after which comes the O’Henry, which lasts until the end of August or sometimes up until Labor Day.”
The peaches are sold at the farm stand here, as well as local Farmer’s Markets. Peach-based goods such as Spicy Peach Chutney, Ginger Peach Preserves and Green Chili Peach Salsa are also produced, for those unfortunate times when you can’t get a fresh one. Life’s a Peach at Buttonwood!
Pears and Asian pears are also grown, and the pear orchard is now expanding with, as Fred calls them, “new baby trees”. Pearhaps there are some pear products in our future?
Across the field is a tree-lined lane, known by us as Olive Lane. Indeed, one side of that road is 25-year olive trees, which ripen their dark bounty in late December and are then pressed into aromatic and farm-flavorful Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The north side of Olive Lane boasts our Pomegranate trees, whose cheerful, ornament-looking fruit ripens around the same time as the olives. December will bring whole Pomegranates to the tasting room and we press the balance for juice (the last pressing at the winery each year!) which finds its way into Pomegranate Jelly, Pomegranate Syrup and Pomegranate Glaze.
Garden and Crops
One of the most anticipated events of the year here at Buttonwood Farm is our All Farm Dinner wherein everything on the table is grown here on the farm. Some of the most remarkable dishes are from the vegetables grown by Lupe Flores and his family. Lupe is our winery Cellarmaster, and his vegetables are supplemented by melons grown by his father-in-law, Armando Zepeda (our Vineyard Manager). The most delicious Heirloom tomatoes you’ve ever had, tomatillos, peppers of all kinds, onions, squash, lettuces – and surprises each year (eggplant last year!). The vegetables are also sold to and prized by many of our local chefs.
As delicious as a just-picked, ripe-off-the-vine tomato is, seasoning is important too. Abel Navarro, who also makes our tasting room gardens so naturally beautiful, and Seyburn plan and oversee the Herb Garden, which includes thyme, marjoram, cumin, sorrel, chives, sage, peppermint and spearmint, winter savory, basil, oregano, fennel, dill, tarragon, lemon grass, four different varieties of garlic and shallots and lavender. Now that is a spice cabinet! Fresh herbs are available in the growing season and many are dried and available for purchase and use throughout the year. Seyburn also makes some lovely spice blends (try the Mediterranean!), and includes these in many of her recipes.
Abel also cares for our cut-flower garden, as flowers always grace our tasting room (another Betty legacy that we love), and we are one of the only farms to be able to grow peonies here in the Valley.
On the label and in the tasting room
Microtones, 2017, acrylic and oil on canvas, 24 by 18 inches
Buttonwood Farm is also the home to co-owner Seyburn Zorthian’s studio, whose art not only graces our wine labels but also can often be enjoyed on the walls of our tasting room. Make sure to visit Seyburn’s full range of work during “Open Studio” week in November of each year.
“I am perpetually fascinated with ideas that come from the Unconscious. They seem to bubble up and become visible in the form of color, line, and shape inter-relationship. It is part of the journey of understanding the Self and this amazing LIFE we are living. The most current abstractions on paper are compositions that reflect this ethereal meaning. As in poetry, interpretation may be very personal. The titles I give the works generally relate to my immediate quirky understanding of the pieces when they are completed, however, there is no reason why the paintings should carry conscious meaning to everyone. Most important is that each piece has visual integrity. My paintings are partly informed by three decades of disciplined brushwork using traditional Asian calligraphy brushes and ink to express emotional and physical response to nature in its various forms.”
Seyburn also curates the art displays in the Tasting Room. The artwork gracing the walls and enhancing the tasting experience may be displays from other artists in the area, pieces from the family’s own collection (including Seyburn and Barry’s artist father) or a selection of Seyburn’s work.
If you fall in love with one of the paintings, ask to see if you might purchase it for yourself!
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Home page photo credit: D & J Obbagy Photography