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Kathy Joseph

Paul Wellman

Kathy Joseph


Harvesting Grapes and Glee at Fiddlehead Cellars

No Sleep but Big Smiles for Pioneering Vintner Kathy Joseph


It’s nearing lunchtime in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto, but the half-dozen people hustling around the bins, forklifts, and barrels inside the warehouse winery have already been awake for nearly 11 hours. They rose a little past the witching hour to begin another nighttime of picking grapes beneath floodlights in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills, and now, as the sweet stench of fermentation emanates from the recently plucked loads of pinot noir, they’re ensuring that juice will once again result in one of California’s most consistently stellar wines.

This is full-tilt harvest at Fiddlehead Cellars, which Kathy Joseph founded a quarter-century ago to focus on pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, then very much “underdog varietals” in the West Coast wine game. Despite the lack of sleep and this being the 32nd vintage of her career — which started with a degree at UC Davis followed by a few years in Napa, Sonoma, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where she still buys some pinot — Joseph is beaming with childlike joy, a wide smile permanently posted across her face. “Every vintage is new for me,” she explains, hoses spraying and a mechanical punch-down tool humming behind her. “It’s just so exciting.”

A sparkplug of a vintner whose early wines were actually purchased by the White House, Joseph was one of the first to champion the potential of pinot noir in the Sta. Rita Hills and sauvignon blanc in Happy Canyon, long before either Santa Barbara County region was its own appellation. “I wanted to be part of making that happen,” explained Joseph, who appreciated how the east-west orientation of the Santa Ynez Valley allows for cooler climate grapes like pinot to thrive near Lompoc while heat-loving grapes like sauv blanc excel to the east near Figueroa Mountain.

In 1996, Joseph upped the ante by buying an old flower farm at the 7.28-mile marker on Santa Rosa Road — before, she said, vineyards there were a “happening thing” — planted 100 acres of pinot noir, and christened the property Fiddlestix Vineyard. Today, Joseph uses about 15 percent of the fruit and sells the rest to 14 other wineries, which tend to bottle Fiddlestix as one of their top-end offerings. “Fiddlestix is always perfect, even in weird vintages,” said Joseph of her pride and joy. “There is not a bad block.”

As a vineyard owner, it makes sense that Joseph is hands-on when it comes to the vines. (As she said, “There isn’t a pick day when I’m not sorting fruit.”) But she also has a reputation for being more meticulous than most other winemakers even in the Happy Canyon and Willamette Valley vineyards that she sources from, toting color-coded maps of each property and often telling her crews to stop picking midway through a block if she notices something out of whack. “That means I pick what’s right,” said Joseph, “and I can make great wine out of that.”

Though there is occasional variation, each vintage usually results in three different sauvignon blancs: the Happy Canyon blend, to show regional balance; the stainless steel–aged Goosebury, to show off freshness; and the French oak-aged Hunnysuckle, to reveal a bit more opulence. There is a variety of pinots, both from Fiddlestix (728, Doyle, and Lollapalooza) and from the Willamette Valley (Alloro and Oldsville Reserve), as well as the sparkling 728 Bubbles and the fast-selling Pink Fiddle, a rosé of pinot noir.

Each of the wines find a perfect partner during a lunch of fennel-roasted pork, tomato-bread salad, saucy green beans, and berry-filled shortcakes prepared — as is usual during harvest season at Fiddlehead — by Lompoc-based chef Sissy Gil, who joins the weary but joyous crew around the table in the parking lot. These communal times are what keep Joseph excited about her work year in and year out and what she invests her money in, alongside top-of-the-line equipment. “I don’t need some fancy château,” explained Joseph, whose biggest structure on the Fiddlestix property is an old wooden barn.

As for the long nights during harvest? “I’m a really good catnapper,” said Joseph, with yet another grin.

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Fiddlehead Cellars (1597 E. Chestnut Ave., Lompoc; [805] 742-0204; fiddleheadcellars.com) will be pouring as part of The Winehound’s tasting at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) this Saturday, September 21, noon-3 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 845-5247.

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