Jim and Mary Dierberg brought more than 20 years experience as winery owners to the Santa Barbara County venture they began in 1996. In 1974, they had purchased the historic Hermannhof Winery in Missouri, located just west of their home town, St. Louis. Established in 1852 as a brewery and winery, Hermannhof pre-dates even the oldest of California’s still-existing wineries [Sonoma’s Buena Vista,1857].
The Dierberg’s goal in heading to Santa Barbara was to establish a vineyard and winery in a region where they could make top-quality wines from European (vitis vinifera) grapes. They had spent several years searching for opportunities, including in Napa Valley and Bordeaux. When they happened upon a 4,000-acre property in Happy Canyon, it seemed ideal. They bought it in 1996.
In that same year, they also purchased 160+ acres in the Santa Maria Valley AVA to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In 2003, they added a smaller vineyard, Drum Canyon, in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
The Dierbergs now have three Santa Barbara County wine brands, Dierberg Vineyards, Star Lane and Three Saints. The former makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Star Lane focuses on red and white Bordeaux-varieties. Three Saints offers Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon at lower price points.
Work on their own winery began in 2001. After seven years of planning and construction, a three-level, gravity-fed facility with 26,000 square feet of caves looks out over Happy Canyon from atop a ridge at 1,500 feet. The winery is not open for consumer visits.
Tyler Thomas joined Dierberg/Star Lane as director of winemaking in mid-2013. He has an M.S. in Botany from Colorado State University and one in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis. His work prior to Dierberg included stints at Fiddlehead Cellars in Santa Barbara County, HdV (Hyde de Villaine) in Napa Valley and Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma County.
The Dierberg Estate Vineyards
Star Lane Vineyard, Happy Canyon AVA
This vineyard flows up hills and through small canyons in the large estate, rising from 750 feet to 1,550. The span of the vineyard results in numerous, diverse blocks. At the lower elevations, plantings are on flat ground with relatively little wind. Going up the hill from there, vines sit on slopes of up to 45 degrees and, at the highest elevations, winds can be extremely strong and eventually shreds the wind-blocking material which hangs around the perimeter. Depending on altitude, facing and the vagaries of particular days, diurnal shift during the growing season can be 30 to 50 degrees.
The vineyard’s soils are also varied—sandy, graveled and rocky atop clay-loam. Most are shallow and well-drained. Plantings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyard blocks aren’t necessarily dedicated to particular varieties. Grape, clone and root stock vary to suit each particular location.
Dierberg Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA
The Dierberg Vineyard is on a gently sloping mesa at 550 feet near the center of the AVA, directly south of the Garey Vineyard. Just 13 miles from the ocean, the vineyard is cooled by ocean breezes and substantial fog. Soil is predominantly sandy loam soil over marine sediment.
It was planted with 160-acres of grapes in 1997. About 2/3 of the vines are Pinot Noir, a melange of twelve “heritage” clones. The remaining vines are Chardonnay (Wente clones and Clone 4), and a bit of Syrah.
Drum Canyon Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills AVA
The Dierberg’s Drum Canyon Vineyard is located in the northeastern portion of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. It’s steeply sloping, rising from 300’ to 700’ as it follows Drum Canyon Road northward from the intersection with Hwy. 246. Strong ocean breezes, super-cooled by the frigid water, sweep through the east-west valley. But the vineyard’s altitude, and some southern facings, bathes it in plenty of sun.
The 70 acres of vines are solely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The personality of resulting wines is characteristic of Sta. Rita Hills wines in general, with brighter fruit and fewer savory notes than those from Santa Maria Valley.
The tasting room for both the Dierberg and Star Lane brands is located at this vineyard. It also offers great views of the region.
Dierberg Vineyards Syrah
When Tyler Thomas joined Dierberg, he brought a wealth of experience with Syrah. His work at Donelan Family Wines included numerous vineyard-designates from top sites—cool and warm—throughout Sonoma County. That’s perfect for Dierberg, which has Syrah in both uber-cool, Santa Maria Valley and the appreciably warmer Happy Canyon.
When it comes to Syrah, Tyler Thomas says he’d “rather have the textural effect of oak than the aromatic.” To achieve this, he uses very little new oak and often a large percentage of 400-liter barrels. He will, however, add aromatic complexity to some wines with moderate proportions of whole-cluster fermentation.
2013 Dierberg Syrah Star Lane Vineyard, Happy Canyon 92 14.2% 750ml $40
This is a savory, mouth-filling wine made from 100% Syrah, about 20% of which was fermented whole-cluster. It spent 20 months in French oak, mostly over-sized. Just 10% of the oak was new.
The nose is bursting with savory aromas of leather, animal and dark spice plus chewy black fruit (plum and cherry). This personality shows on the full-bodied palate too, joined by an appetizing note of coffee. Plenty of softish, fine-grained tannins provide structure and persist through the long, flavorful finish. Drink now through 2025. 240 cases produced.
2013 Dierberg Syrah Dierberg Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 92+ 14.2% 750ml $65
This wine combines Syrah with whole-cluster Viognier to present rich black cherry accented by a melange of foresty spices. 20 months in neutral French oak softened the wine without adding wood-derived flavors. Though providing less immediate impact on nose and palate than the Star Lane, this Santa Maria Valley wine is equally full-bodied and more juicy in the mouth. Tannins are fine-grained and a little grippy at the moment. Cellaring or decanting will be rewarded. Best 2019 through 2027. Just 100 cases produced.
Other reviews of Dierberg/Star Lane wines
Copyright Fred Swan 2017. Photos courtesy of George Rose. Bottle shot courtesy of Dierberg. All rights reserved.