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Berger: Santa Barbara wine history through pioneer Bill Mosby

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One of California’s most important wine-growing regions is large Santa Barbara County, an hour north of Los Angeles County, though it is less well known than it should be.

I was reminded of how young this vast region is last week when I revisited one of the pioneers of this region, winemaker Bill Mosby, a man who continues to add to the area’s barely 45-year historical record.

I’m always amazed with Bill’s memory of the recent past and how Santa Barbara became home to some of the world’s most fascinating wines.

Mosby, a lapsed dentist, moved here with his wife, Jeri, in the late 1970s, acquired 200 acres of scrub land just west of Highway 101 and joined with a number of other adventuresome wine lovers in what some locals thought was a foolhardy idea.

Making wine.

“A lot of us were considered to be crazy,” said the 85-year-old Mosby last week. “There weren’t very many of us, and no one really knew what to plant back in those days.”

A few wine industry investors had already arrived in the early 1970s, including oil company executive Marshall Ream, who founded Zaca Mesa Winery, as well as tire heir Brooks Firestone and actor Fess Parker, each of whom founded eponymous wineries.

“Zaca Mesa was really the starting place for so many wine makers,” said Mosby, naming Jim Clendenin (Au Bon Climat), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Ken Brown (Byron), Tony Austin (Firestone), and at least seven others who started out by working in Zaca Mesa’s cellar.

Mosby admitted that he didn’t know what to plant in his first days there, but the success of Gene Hallock in remote Ballard Canyon with Riesling prompted him to put that variety in his soil.

It did sell, but it soon became clear that what the wine people wanted most was chardonnay. Pretty soon almost every grower had planted that variety.

Two years later, Mosby noted the infertile nature of some of his hillside ranch parcels, and thought his lean soils might be better for Italian grape varieties. So he and Jeri took a trip to Italy. And before long Bill was smitten with not only the wines, but also the different grapes that it took to make them.

Knowing of the U.S. government’s red tape on importing grapevine material prompted him to pick up grape twigs in Italian vineyards and bring them back home in the lining of his sport coat.

“I could never get away with that now,” he said with a laugh.

Today his Italian “imports” represent the majority of his plantings. And he knows every single vine down to the individual clone.

Over the years, as pinot noir and chardonnay put Santa Barbara County on wine collectors’ maps, Mosby pursued his quest to make top-rate Italian red wines such as Sangiovese, Montepulcino, Sagrantino, Teroldego, and recent additions dolcetto and nebbiolo.

Today, mainly for white wine lovers, he also makes traminer, pinot grigio, cortese and moscato, as well as an exceptional unaged brandy made from a rare wild plum that he discovered growing along the Oregon border.

Mosby’s ranch, not far from popular tourist Danish town of Solvang, is a wine lover’s treat because of Mosby’s engaging personality, the stories he tells, and sips of his food-friendly red wines.

Despite some health problems recently, Mosby still does much of his own tractor work and drives an ATV all over the ranch to tend his vines.

His nebbiolo is in a remote and hilly part of the vineyard and as we drove to the top up a steep knoll, he noted that this year’s crop looks particularly sparse, which he said would make an exceptionally good wine.

Mosby’s vineyard (39 total acres) rarely produces more than 5,000 cases of wine a year, and he said production would remain small.

“All I have to do at this point is make enough wine to pay all my employees (eight long-time loyalists) as well as pay the bills to keep the lights on.”

Wine of the Week: 2014 Wakefield Chardonnay, Clare Valley-Margaret River ($20): This stylish Australian wine, screw-capped to retain freshness, has a slight tropical note to add interest to its citrus and mineral linearity, and is made in a southern hemisphere style that emphasizes a wild aromatic reminiscent of white Burgundy.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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