Kathy Joseph is on the cusp of a new adventure in the wine world.
After 25 years as the owner of Fiddlehead Cellars in Lompoc, California, and as the wine grower at Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, Joseph decided it was time to embark on a new adventure and sold the property.
But, she’s not making an exit from the wine business.
She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Sta. Rita Hills, and has kept detailed records every year – from what the weather conditions were like to which clones might have blended well with others. She ventured into the business when there were few female winemakers, and has always been a trail-blazing trendsetter who stayed ahead of the curve. In 1996, Fiddlestix became the fourth vineyard planted in the Sta. Rita Hills, when Joseph bought a farm that was planted with annual flowers.
It was directly across the street from the Sanford and Benedict vineyard, so with temperatures, soils, sun exposure and air flow patterns so similar, she didn’t consider it much of a gamble.
She made pinot noir from the Sta. Rita Hills and Oregon and later rode the cresting wave as the varietal grew in popularity.
She truly lived among the vines, as her driveway is at mile marker 7.28 amidst the sprawl of vines. It allowed her to take a walk through the vineyard every day, but now she’s ready to author the next chapter in her storied winemaker and grape grower career. We sat down on a breezy Sunday afternoon in her tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, and tasted through her extensive wine library and dug into what’s next.
“This gives me freedom after the pandemic,” Joseph said when asked about the sale. “Everything is different, and it always will be. I want to take advantage of that and do something equally exciting. I might add in another varietal. I added grüner veltliner. [The Fiddlehead Grüner Veltliner 2015 ($30) had white pear flower flavors mixed with white pepper.] I was a lone ranger at the beginning with pinot and sauvignon blanc. I had to convince people before they all jumped on the bandwagon.
“I love the challenge, and it’s exciting to me,” she said. “I believe I can do it and there’s something out there for me to offer. That’s how I set up the whole company. I’m not closing up shop. I intentionally sold the property. I was devoted and passionate and made it great for me and all my buyers. I can continue to do that, just in another way.”
Because Fiddlehead wines are held in bottle at the winery for years prior to release – like the brilliant 2015 Sta. Rita Hills “Seven Twenty Eight” Pinot Noir ($46) – Joseph has plenty of inventory to release before she launches into the next phase of her winery. With several years in the bottle, Fiddlehead wines are ready to drink upon release. There was juicy red fruit, cherry cola, bacon fat, a little earthy note, mushroom, a velvety mouthfeel and an extensive finish. While other wineries pump out new vintages after two or three years, Joseph waits.
“I can’t enter my wines in competitions because they go against young wines,” Joseph said. “A more elegant might not show so well against a young punk wine. In tasting, you really learn. It’s a bit of a challenge for me at wine shops; customers might worry about why an old wine is still on the shelves. But the mission of the brand and my mission is always to appreciate the glory of a wine meant to age well.”
That showed across the board with the Fiddlehead wines.
There was the 2011 “Seven Twenty Eight” Pinot Noir ($44) with its cherry, eucalyptus and leather flavors. Its older sibling, the 2008 “Seven Twenty Eight” Pinot Noir ($44), might have been bigger in flavor profile than the 2011, with rosemary, cherry cola, sarsaparilla and a lingering finish. It was earthy without being earthy.
From the Chehalem Mountains in Oregon’s Willamette Valley AVA, the Fiddlehead “Oldsville” Pinot Noir 2015 ($60) was driven by its acid and earthy flavors. There were wet leaves, blueberry and Earl Grey tea. The “Oldsville” 2013 ($56) was a “late and lean vintage” that Joseph said has “become a beauty of a wine” that developed a mushroom and blue fruit melange.
“I felt Oregon’s evolution track was similar to Santa Barbara County,” Joseph said. “There were early pioneers in the late 1970s, and then people like me came on board in the late 1980s and ’90s. There are different flavors, and it’s very exciting.”
For her finest lots, Joseph turns to a bottling called Burtie Baby. It was the nickname her mother gave her father, and is the finest seven barrels Fiddlestix has to offer.
The Fiddlehead “Burtie Baby” 2013 ($88) stood out for its wild fennel, mint and spice notes. The tannins and flavors were very streamlined, and the red fruit flavors were seamlessly integrated. A bit more tannic, the Burtie Baby 2012 ($88) had red fruits, baking spice flavors and a hint of chocolate mint.
Each wine was unique. Joseph embraced the vintage Mother Nature provided, and then showcased it in the bottle. She’s been about change throughout her career; she helped make the Sta. Rita Hills a wine-growing region, held her wines longer than counterparts, and entered winemaking when there were only a few female colleagues.
“Some people are afraid of change,” Joseph said. “But me, I thrive on it. I’m setting up partnerships with other vineyards. I’ve got nothing to reveal right now though; just sit tight.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.