Twins Jim and Bob Varner studied at U.C. Davis in the ‘70s. Jim studied oenology while Bob studied biology. After graduation, Jim Varner’s passion to produce cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir led him, through a serious of chance introductions, to Portola Valley, ten miles from the Pacific Ocean in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. Falling in love with the land and viticulture potential, Bob took an academic leave from his Ph.D. program for genetics at the University of California Berkeley to help plant what is now Spring Ridge Vineyards. In 1980, the brothers planted two acres of Chardonnay known as the Home Block on its own rootstock. Thus began the legacy of the Varner brothers.
Spring Ridge is a hilly mix of clay loam and porous sandstone. Located 10 miles from the ocean, Spring Ridge is made up of several separate blocks of vines, each with its own microclimate and soil difference. Vines are own-rooted. The vineyard has been dry farmed and hand-hoed since 1988. Insecticides have never been used, nor fertilizers.
Harvest & Winemaking
Bob Varner is a true vigneron, dividing his days between the winery and the vineyard.
“In my mind, there is no difference between the vineyard and the cellar. I’m simply just going from the outdoors to the indoors. They are both here, on this one piece of land. I walk from the vineyard, into the cellar, and in my mind, they share the same space. It’s like in France, where you have these small producers who live the same way. ‘It’s wintertime. I’m going to go out and prune, then, I’ll come in the cellar and I’ll think about wine’...There’s that same continuity of creativity there. It follows you around. It’s beautiful. And I think it’s the most direct way to express site. You’re not translating your fruit through a grower or a winemaker other than yourself. My goal is to express site, so this is the most direct, uncomplicated way I know how to do this.” - Bob Varner (Excerpt from Vinous Interview on 10/2015)
Though they have a large picking crew to meticulously sort the grapes during harvest (a crew of about 20 people handle just 2 acres of grapes per day), Bob alone does the winemaking. He works in the rows during each harvest, insuring that sorting is done at the vine rather than at the winery. Any imperfect clusters are dropped off the vines the day before harvest, and the small yellow boxes used by harvesters get an extra sorting to remove bad fruit. Once the grapes have been crushed, settled and pressed, the rule until the wine's ready to leave its barrels months later is simple: "No one touches a barrel but Bob," Jim says.
The wine is treated as naturally as possible, using indigenous yeast from the vineyard. The grapes go into two-ton fermenters for a cool soak, with a small percentage of whole clusters. The wine spends two months in a stainless steel tank before going into oak. Malolactic fermentation occurs naturally. The barrels are usually medium-toast Allier and Tronçais, about one-third of which are new each year. The winery is set up on a gravity basis. The barrels are hand-racked by gravity, using a handcrafted tool from Burgundy that gently tips the barrels. With this method, the lees are not disturbed. Vinification is extremely simple with minimal sulfur, which is the only addition after leaving the barrel.
In Santa Barbara the Legacy Continues
Sadly, the Varner brothers have given up their leases to their Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards. 2014 is their last vintage. This is not the end! The brothers have started a Santa Barbara project under the Varner name. In particular, they are focusing on the Los Alamos region. It is the raw material that lures them: Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have pretty fruit and aromatics and elegant structures. They see the high potential of the lesser-known Los Alamos, just like they saw the potential of Santa Cruz Mountains in the 80s. Bob and Jim have moved regions, but their dedication to quality remains.
Vinous: The Presence of Bob Varner
PinotFile: Varner Wines
SFGate.com: Bob and Jim Varner: Mission Is To Grow Perfect Chardonnay Fruit, Then Leave It Be
RJonWine.com: Visit to Varner: Superb Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnays
Antonio Galloni, Vinous Media, 7/2016
"I have to admit, my most recent tasting with Bob and Jim Varner was bittersweet. The Varners have ended their collaboration with the Neely family, so the 2013s are the last wines the Varners made in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That is a real loss to the region and the wine world more broadly, as the Varners made stunning Chardonnays and Pinots from these sites. The Varners have moved to Santa Barbara County, where they are making a new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the El Camino and Los Alamos vineyards respectively. Both wines deliver superb quality for the money. The Santa Cruz Mountains wines remain reference points for what is possible in these mountain terroirs; namely rich, phenolic Chardonnays and intense Pinots."
Antonio Galloni, Vinous Media, 7/2013
"Brothers Bob and Jim Varner are two of the most unassuming, humble winemakers in California. They don't need to say much. The wines take care of that themselves. These are some of the most beautiful, striking Chardonnays and Pinots readers will come across. Best of all, prices remain exceedingly fair by California standards considering the quality of what goes into the bottle."