South African transplant to California's Central Coast, Ernst Storm handcrafts small amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in a style that combines old world sensibilities with new world technique. We were really impressed when we tasted recent releases from his own label, Storm, in our Los Angeles store and believe this talented young winemaker's star is only just beginning to rise. So, when filmmaker (and K&L customer) Daniel Addelson approached us about hosting the official online premiere of his film 'Storm' based on Ernst's life and passion as a winemaker, we were honored to oblige. You can watch the film here and read on to go behind the scenes in our winemaker interview with Ernst, below.
Behind the Wine: Meet Winemaker Ernst Storm
K&L: Please tell us a little about your background. Where are you from and how did you end up in the wine business in Santa Barbara County?
ES: I grew up in South Africa and spent the last of my teenage years in a town called Hermanus which is in the Western Cape. Known as the appellation of Walker Bay, this region has a cool maritime climate where Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay ripen perfectly.
After graduation, I spent a year working in Britain and Europe trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. In the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to find a way to be creative and work with nature. My brother, Hannes, was studying wine at the time and it just felt right to pursue winemaking. I completed my studies at the Elsenburg Agricultural School outside the town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. After completing the third year, I worked as winemaker at a winery called Amani in South Africa under the guidance of Rod Easthope, a New Zealand winemaker. I also consulted on a few small projects with my brother, who is the winemaker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay Appellation.
I wanted to experience a Northern Hemisphere harvest and took a job in the Sierra Foothills. I spent two years working in this warmer climate—learning a lot about how to deal with higher pH wines and how to keep these wines stable. Having come from a cool climate region, I longed to make more balanced wines from Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. I went searching again. After visiting Santa Barabara County and having lunch with Jim Clendenen, I fell in love with the area. The Mediterranean climate shared many similarities with that of the Western Cape. I worked at Firestone for three years, which proved to be a great learning experience. At Firestone I worked with bigger lots and did plenty of experimentation with Sauvignon Blanc and other varietals. After several years, I became involved in the winemaking at Curtis Winery, where the focus is Rhone Varietals. I have been with them since 2008.
Where do you make wine and how many different wines do you make?
At Curtis Winery I work with fruit grown on the Estate at the North-Western end of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. The focus is Estate driven Rhone varietal wines that include Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. We also do a Red, White and Rose blend of these varietals that are very accessible and food friendly. Soon we will be adding Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from our Estate.
Under my label Storm, I produced only Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc with the focus on wines that have personality of both vintage and site. For the 2012 vintage I will have two Pinots and two Sauvignon Blancs in bottle.
What wines, experiences, or individuals helped influence this philosophy?
I think South African winemakers were more influenced by European winemaking at the time. Growing up in the Walker Bay area and drinking a lot more balanced delicate wines made me realise that those were the type of wines I wanted to make. Working in different regions and being exposed to different climates and ideas helped me formulate a philosophy. Finding vineyards where you can pick fruit for each varietal at a point where flavours, tannin ripeness and acids are all in balance at a decent potential alcohol was and is still important.
I will lie if I say great Burgundian wines have not had a big influence on my stylistic approach. Wines that tell a story and are able to evolve has always been the focal point. Working in Santa Barbara County it is possible to not only do this with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Sauvignon Blanc and Rhone Varietals if it grown in the right spot and picked at the right time.
Describe the vineyards you work with to make the wines under your own label, Storm Wines. How involved are you in the viticultural side of the production process?
For my Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc the vineyards were chosen to represent four different corners of the Valley, each with a distinct climate and soil. Each vineyard brings a different element to the blend, which at the end broadens the spectrum of the wine and is a good representation of Santa Ynez Valley.
My Santa Maria Pinot Noir comes from Presqu’ile Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. This is a newer planting with naturally low yielding vines planted on well drained soils. This makes farming easy and little intervention is needed. I get a lot more involved closer to harvest to dial in yields and watering. This vineyard is showing early on that it has great potential to make very site specific wines that speak volumes of the climate and soils. Tasting the 2012 out of barrels I know it is Presqu’ile and Santa Maria. It is red fruit driven with lots of spice and texture.
My Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir at John Sebastiano Vineyard is planted in two blocks. Dialing in the yield is a little more challenging here and we work hard to get it just right. The fruit from this vineyard is darker and more powerful, so making the right picking decision is crucial.
Eighty percent of my fruit is farmed by the same farming company, which make it easy. They have a good understanding of what the needs are and the style of wines I make. We dial yields, leaf removal and watering in keeping the final wine in mind. All the vineyards are farmed sustainably and I have a lot of trust in my growers. I work with the same rows and blocks every year which keep things consistent.
How dramatic is vintage variation in Santa Barbara? How was 2012 compared to 2011, 2010?
Being a little further South it feels like we miss some of the rain that can sometimes hit during harvest in areas like Sonoma and Napa. So we are lucky in that regard. Compared to other regions outside of California we do have it pretty good. But things have changed in recent years. We have seen frost, heat spikes and cool weather at the end of harvest which have made things a little more challenging though. So, whether this is climate change or just a cycle, it has definitely forced people to scramble and go outside of their comfort zone.
In my opinion 2012 was perfect for the folks that are into making more restrained balanced wines. We had moderately warm days, little rain and never did the night temperature go very high. The resulting fruit had great balance and ripe flavours at lower sugars. It was a perfect year for balance and finesse. Compared to 2011 where yields were reduced due to frost and heat spikes that lasted for five days it was a dream. In 2010 we also saw some heat spikes early on that effected the early ripening varietals like Pinot.
What do the terms “old world” and “new world” mean to you in terms of winemaking practices and style? Where do think your wines fit into the spectrum?
When trying to make Pinot Noir in a style that is pure and more delicate it is important to embrace as many old World techniques as possible. Letting the fruit speak without adding water, filtration, fining or manipulation is key to portraying vintage and site. I try to keep things simple without cosmetics when it comes to making red wines.
With white wine a combination of Old and New World techniques works really well in order to make the wines I want to make. When combining the right yeast choice, fermentation temperature and lees interaction you can achieve both freshness and texture. I think it is important to constantly be searching for a balance between the two.
How do you think your palate has evolved over the years? How do you think that has influenced your winemaking?
I used to be obsessed with finding flavours and certain nuances in wine. Dissecting it, braking it down to all its parts. Looking for faults. As I grew, I learnt to look more for texture and harmony. This has helped me to make decisions in the vineyard and the winery with the final wine in mind.
What are your thoughts on food and wine pairing? Do you have any favourite or recommended pairings with your wines?
Pairing should always start with your personal preferences as to wine and food. Once you start playing around in the kitchen trying to match the texture and the richness of your wine with dishes you love, it becomes a fun experience.
My Sauvignon Blanc pairs really well with a summer afternoon in the sun overlooking the ocean eating butter lettuce, shallots, and avocado salad with a light lemon vinaigrette dressing. Food or no food…
I like pairing the 2009 Pinot Noir to duck because of the gaminess. I think there is something similar in both the wine and the duck that come together seamlessly.
With some of the richer Rhone wines there is nothing like making a big red oak fire and grilling up a tri-tip and keeping it simple with rustic flavours. The surrounding environment, the fire, the people has just as much to do with how everything is going to come together.
What do you project for upcoming vintages in comparison to the past? Any changes or new developments on the horizon?
Well, it seems like mother nature has changed things up on us in the last decade. So whether this is Global Warming or just a cycle we are going through, only the future will tell. I try to take each vintage as it comes, making the best of the weather, yields etc.
It seems like the average consumer is getting more educated, which means they are starting to explore and develop their own personal preferences more. They are starting to really get into the story behind the wine, not only what they taste and smell. As winery owners it will be important to tie this all in and to make wines that really represent the story.
In each region there are a growing number of growers and winemakers that are returning to the simple, trying to make more personality driven wines from carefully chosen sites. Here in Santa Barbara County things have changed a lot in the last five years with new and exciting projects coming up giving certain varietals and sites exposure. I think this will continue to happen with varietals like Chenin Blanc and other lesser known varietals getting into the limelight. Old planting that were neglected are getting love and the potential is being exploited.
Is there a style of wine that you think appeals to critics that might not represent your favorite style? How do you handle this?
It is no secret that most critics like riper, more extracted, softer wines with less acid. If you put yourself out there you have to be able to take criticism, it is just part of the game. I try to remind myself that it is one person's opinion. The important thing is to stay true to yourself and not to follow trends when making wine. Searching for likeminded critics, wine buyers and customers on the street is very important to keep focus.
What do you drink when you are not drinking your own wine?
I enjoy drinking wines made by my friends, where I know the story and methodology behind them. Burgundy is also high on the list with South African wines from the cooler regions. I definitely go through phases where I buy a case or two of something and drink just that for weeks, then switch to something else.
Do you collect wine? If so, what’s in your cellar?
I buy I fair amount of wine, but most of it doesn't sit around too long. There are a few bottles of Burgundy and some local Pinots stashed away though.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the local Santa Barbara and greater California wine industry today?
With more and more brands popping up locally there is more competition out there. That and the fact that consumers and wine buyers have the option of buying really good imported wines at great prices only make it harder to sell wine and make your margins. Staying on top of your marketing and aligning your brand with the right brokers and distributors is getting more and more important in the industry today.