This winter Graham Tatomer took over as winemaker at Martian Ranch in Alisos Canyon, Santa Barbara County. Tatomer has celebrated a life in the wine industry for two decades. His experience has him making and studying wine not only in California, but also Austria, original home to the grapes Tatomer is known for via his own self-named label.
I am a fan of Tatomer’s own wines, and also recognize different stylistic goals from his Austrian white varietals, and the recent wines of Martian Ranch. With that in mind, I am excited to talk to Tatomer, and hear how he sees himself fitting with the project, and where he believes it could develop in working with owner, Nan Helgeland.
Taking over as winemaker at an already established winery offers a unique challenge. A central question becomes how to balance regard for the heritage of a place while carrying style forward. Tatomer and I were able to sit down this week, and discuss these early stages of the process. Such change also demands a winemaker recognize the owners’ views of success, and style for a winery. The conversation with Tatomer reveals how he’s thinking about both in this first month or so with the project.
Following are portions of the discussion with Tatomer.
Graham Tatomer Starting at Martian Ranch
“There are a lot of fun things happening in Santa Barbara county. In winemaking in general in this country it is such an exciting time. There is this sense of let’s plant this grape and see how it does here. One of the things so exciting about Martian Ranch is that Nan really went against the grain planting things she thought could work here, like Albarino. She decided Albarino was a first choice. She drank it in Spain, and thought that region she visited looked and felt like this property.”
I ask Tatomer what makes him the right winemaker for the Martian property, which now makes wine entirely from bio-dynamically farmed, Estate owned fruit from the Alisos Canyon property. He puts four Martian Ranch wines on the table for us to taste made by previous winemaker, Mike Roth. They’re a way of talking through Tatomer’s understanding of the Martian project.
“Nan likes fresh wines that are accessible with some interest there. Moving into working with new varieties as I am doing here, I look for a starting point. I picked these four wines for us to taste because they’ve engaged me so much, they are my starting point. These four wines will also remain largely similar. They represent goals of Martian Ranch.”
We start with the 2012 Albarino, Nan’s Spanish planting. The wine carries peppery-floral notes with a pleasing juiciness and mouthfeel. The wine is a little textural, with a nice weight on the palate. It’s a white wine Flagship for Martian Ranch, and a wine Tatomer knew he’d work with right away. It represents a way in which he and Helgeland are well suited.
Tatomer comments further, “Nan likes winemakers that truly spend time in the vineyard. I do that through my own label, Tatomer. I’m also a fan of bio-dynamic wines, and Martian Ranch is bio-dynamically farmed. That common interest was an important part of why I’m here. We also share sensibilities in where we find balance in wine — that is, open to high acid, more moderate alcohol wines that cause a sense of pleasure.”
We open the 2012 Grenache Blanc. The grape was under-sung in California until a recent resurgence in interest. Martian Ranch offers one of the finely done examples from the state. Tatomer tells me the more he tastes it the more he’s compelled, and is looking forward to working with the fruit.
The 2012 carries the peppery floral nose common to the variety, turning into a dried flower with a touch of wax element through the mid-palate, that also shows faint diesel when pulled through with air, but moving into a long, clean viscous finish.
Though the Martian Ranch project began with a passion for Spanish varieties, the property is well-suited to growing Rhone wines. The Grenache Blanc in particular has inspired Tatomer and Helgeland to turn their attention to developing interest in Rhone whites over the next years.
We open the Martian Ranch 2012 Grenache red, Ground Control. It was picked early then fermented in carbonic maceration for that sense of freshness, and floral lift given by the technique. As is common to the region, however, the structure on the wine is still strong. It’s lifted, while powerful.
Tatomer is excited about the reds. “I had considered doing a bandol type side project at one point. I like those wines. We have Grenache here. I love Mourvedre. She has all these varieties I drink at home, and that was really appealing, to be able to work with these grapes I enjoy. In the American market we’re pretty focused on single varietal named wines. Rhone wines are a great example of how blending can be incredible.”
We turn, then, to the 2011 Tempranillo. It’s all dark purple in the mouth, with easy movement, and a light nut-chew element. The wine shows clean and easy on the palate with the grape’s own natural concentration. It bookends the Spanish interest started with the Albarino.
I ask Tatomer to describe for me the contrast between his own wines, and what he sees at Martian Ranch. How the one will influence the other. He responds, “the focus on Tatomer is to make wines that are quite clean, while engaging, and made to age. With Martian Ranch, Nan wants the wines to be fresh, able to drink quite young.”
The wines from Martian are also priced to be accessible. Tatomer nods in agreement at this, then continues. “The style in terms of freshness will stay largely the same. I also will get to know the site, and how these varieties grow here, and work with that.”
Talking with Tatomer it’s clear he wants to celebrate his new position while being honest about how briefly he’s been at Martian so far. He arrived in early December. “As winemaker here I want to make wines that are meant to be drunk young, while drawing on the bio-dynamic vineyard with a focus on really integrated, and stable wines. When you have reliable fruit, and healthy farming, you don’t have to worry about fixing the wines after.”
Tatomer emphasizes why he respects the farming at Martian Ranch. “Farming gives confidence as a winemaker. When you get the fruit in, and you don’t have to worry about anything — not lacking anything you have to add to the wine, or spoilage that has to be fixed… This is such a premium region. There are not a lot of additions going into wines here in general but it’s also a young region. We get to discover still what does well. The focus for Martian Ranch going forward is all estate, and bio-dynamic fruit.”
Congratulations to Graham Tatomer and Nan Helgeland on the new wine partnership. I look forward to seeing how the Martian Ranch wines continue to develop.
For more on Martian Ranch wines: http://www.martianvineyard.com/
For more on Tatomer wines: http://www.tatomerwines.com
Thank you to Graham Tatomer.
Thank you to Sao Anash and Dan Fredman.
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