Editor’s Note: With the change in ownership of Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard earlier this year, longtime winemaker Karen Steinwachs needed a new facility in which to craft her own wine labels. Enter her colleague and friend Kathy Joseph, owner of Fiddlehead Cellars in Lompoc. For this vintage, the duo — with decades of experience — are sharing cellar space, techniques and many laughs. We follow these pioneering winemakers through the end of 2022.
Eighteen years have passed since Karen Steinwachs and Kathy Joseph made wine under the same roof.
In 2004, when Steinwachs was relatively new to the industry, she worked as Joseph’s assistant winemaker “and head cellar rat,” she recalled.
When she took a break from her high-tech job in 2001, Steinwachs started at the bottom rung of the wine industry — doing the vital heavy lifting and seemingly endless cleaning required to make wine. After seven vintages, which included her stint at Fiddlehead, she was hired as winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard in 2007, eventually adding general manager to her title.
Along the way, Steinwachs and her late husband, Dave, started making wine under their own label, Seagrape Cellars, and together founded Vintegrated Solutions, a Lompoc company providing e-commerce, logistics, web design and warehouse space for the wine industry.
Today, Seagrape Wine Co. includes two labels. Seagrape Cellars is named for the seagrape tree (coccoloba uvifera) and reminds its owners — Steinwachs and her fiancé, “Crabby” Steve Escobar — of their mutual winemaking roots and Karen’s time living in the Caribbean. Le Pecheur (“The Fisherman”) represents Escobar’s day job as a commercial fisherman.
Steinwachs and Escobar are nearing completion of a home remodel in Los Olivos and in recent years planted two small hillside vineyards behind the house. The grapes growing in the “estate” vineyards join their lineup of chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir sourced from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills.
I joined Joseph and Steinwachs at Fiddlehead Cellars midmorning on Sept. 6.
Joseph drove the forklift that hoisted the bins, and Steinwachs stood atop the press, ready to shovel into the machine the two tons of sauvignon blanc grapes picked earlier that morning from La Presa Vineyard in Solvang — the first grapes of the 2022 vintage.
After the press run, Joseph popped open a bottle of Fiddlehead Cellars’ sparkling wine for a traditional “harvest kickoff” toast.
While the excessive heat over Labor Day weekend and beyond did hasten some grape picks, the larger effect was an intensified, shorter harvest season. Think fast and furious: Picks that normally take place over two-plus months were condensed into a five-week span.
After that initial sauvignon blanc September crush, Steinwachs and Escobar went on to pick pinot gris from the Sta. Rita Hills, and from one of their two vineyards in the Los Olivos District, their estate syrah for Le Pecheur Rose.
Growing in their Joaquin’s Vineyard are syrah, chenin blanc, melon de Bourgogne and alicante bouschet grapes, Steinwachs said. Their second site, Jack’s Vineyard, grows sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc vines, but they are just two years old. In 2023, those vines are will reach their third leaf, making them harvest viable.
In the fog early Sept. 27, Steinwachs harvested from her longtime pinot noir source, Hibbits Vineyard on the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills.
The grapes survived more than 2 inches of rain from a storm on that stalled over the Lompoc Valley on Sept. 10-11. The next day, she harvested chardonnay grapes from another vineyard, also in the Sta. Rita Hills.