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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 8:23 am | Fair 39º


Laurie Jervis: Buttonwood Winemaker Karen Steinwachs Blends Two Passions with Hop On

Her hops-infused sauvignon blanc wine is one of the first of its kind to gain federal approval

Karen Steinwachs, longtime winemaker and general manager at Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard in Solvang, would be the first to tell you she’s a big fan of craft beer. Beer is even in her blood: Steinwachs is a direct descendant of the Pabst family brewing company via her great-great-grandfather.

So, after nearly two decades in Santa Barbara County’s wine industry, including stints at Foley, Fiddlehead and, since 2007, the family-owned Buttonwood, Steinwachs has combined two passions into one: Hop On, a sauvignon blanc wine infused with locally grown beer hops.

She notes that her decision to join Buttonwood was partly because of her desire to work on a combination farm/vineyard and create symbiotic relationships between the grapes and the farm’s other offerings, among them stone fruit trees — and more recently, a “hop yard.”

“It’s just under one acre in size but has four long rows planted to three different kinds of hops and is just outside the peach orchard,” Steinwachs said. “Brewers have been aging their ales in used wine barrels for some time now, among other crossover production techniques, and I figured maybe it was time to experiment with what could be considered the opposite process. I am myself both a beer person and a wine lover, and Hop On really takes signature elements of both and asks them to play well together.”

Like many craft beers, Hop On is produced in small batches in both kegs and bottles. Steinwachs and her crew just released the third batch, “the largest (of three) yet at about 100 cases.”

“(After the first batch), we were cautious about whether people would like it, and we want to keep the hoppy aromas fresh,” Steinwachs said.

The first batch, quietly released last fall, used Galaxy and Glacier hop pellets, while batch two included Crystal, Cascade, Chinook and Citra hops, all grown in Lompoc, and Pacific Valley Hops. Batch three is made up of Chinook, Cascade, Crystal and Columbus hops. The base wine blend of Hop On is sauvignon blanc (93 percent) and sémillon (7 percent) grapes; all are grown on the Buttonwood estate vineyard.

I asked Steinwachs if the federal approval process for Hop On differed from that for wines.

Hop On is a blend of estate-grown sauvignon blanc (93 percent) and sémillon (7 percent) with an infusion of dried beer hops.
Hop On is a blend of estate-grown sauvignon blanc (93 percent) and sémillon (7 percent) with an infusion of dried beer hops. (Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard photo)

“Well, it shouldn’t have been different, but because no one has done one (a hopped wine) before, we had to go through some hoops we don’t normally jump through,” she said. “First, we had to do a ‘formulary,’ which is basically a recipe of how the beverage is made. I tried to explain to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) that the hops don’t stay in the wine, and that it really is no different than a winemaker who would use oak chips and then remove them, but they were unconvinced.

“Then, once we had the formulary approval, we had to go through a label approval,” which is a normal step for acceptance of a wine, Steinwachs said. “But it was also different, because there were many restrictions on what we could call our product.”

After “a number” of label rejections, the TTB approved Hop On “as a white wine with natural flavors,” but it declined to allow any label reference to an appellation (the Los Olivos District, in
this case) or a vintage, she noted. However, the latter restriction has worked in Steinwachs’ favor: She can create batches of Hop On as needed instead of just once per year, which vintage rules dictate.

While the nose on Hop On is reminiscent of an IPA, the sauvignon blanc holds its natural acidity without the bitterness often associated with IPAs, Steinwachs noted. She and her winemaking team allow the fresh hops to dry slightly in Buttonwood winery’s “cold room,” infuse the wine with the hops for a few weeks, and then allow the Hop On to continue aging in neutral French oak barrels for a few more months.

This year is Buttonwood’s 50th anniversary as well as 35 years since the vineyard’s planting, and Steinwachs and the owners plan to celebrate with a remodeled tasting room and expanded outdoor bar area and, just possibly, a growler program for Hop On. For more information, click here or 805.688.3032, or visit Buttonwood on Facebook by clicking here.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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