From the outside, visitors might be hard-pressed to imagine some of Santa Barbara County’s best wines are kept in Carr Vineyards’ Santa Ynez tasting room for aging. Inside, it’s a different story. The tasting room and warehouse on Numancia Street is rustic and artsy — a place where wine is celebrated, rather than merely sampled.
“You would never expect the interior to be such a dramatic change from the outside,” said Ryan Carr, owner and winemaker of Carr Vineyards & Winery. “Our tasting rooms are good, fun places for people to visit. We are inviting them to stay, as opposed to, ‘Come in. Taste the wine, buy the wine, and get out.’”
Spacious and inviting, the Santa Ynez tasting room features a long, upright shuffle board next to a large seating area. The walls are adorned with modern art. The U-shaped wine-tasting bar is built for hospitality, with plenty of stools for lots of guests. In the rear, cases of wine are stacked for aging. Between the seating area and the wine bar, there is lots of room for guests to mingle.
“I like the Santa Ynez warehouse because it exposes us to people who truly want to experience wine making,” said Carr, 41, distinguishing it from the primary facility in Santa Barbara, where Carr wine is produced. “Most of our wines are sold through our tasting rooms and wine clubs.”
In addition to attracting young clientele, many of today’s upstart wineries are leveraging website traffic to drive sales, with most “wine clubs” accessible online.
After speaking with Carr, it’s apparent the vineyard has survived the better part of two decades because he and his wife, Jessica, understand the business of wine making in Santa Barbara County. He knows the region’s zoning limitations and its attraction to wine lovers.
Founded in 2000, Carr Vineyards stands apart from many competitors because it grows its own grapes without owning the land. This distinguishes Carr from wineries that “source” their grapes from independent growers.
“As a grower, you can play with so many different varietals, and so many different microclimates, and so many different soil types,” Carr explained.
The decision to grow grapes on leased properties fits with Carr’s primary objectives: make good wine and stay in business. Carr, who worked at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria after attending college in Arizona — and then as an assistant winemaker for Kahn Winey— said he learned about the business side of wine making watching others.
“As easy as it is to get people to invest in your winery, it’s not necessarily the best idea — for both the investors and winery,” Carr said.
He credits Jessica, the company’s general manager, with marketing, selling and distributing Carr wines.
“My wife has been instrumental in getting our wines in the right restaurants and in front of the right [distributors].
“The amount of time it takes to recoup your money in this business is exponential,” he continued, emphasizing it takes many years to turn a profit without compromising standards.
“Investors can put pressure on winemakers to cut corners that impede quality in hopes to achieve a quicker return,” Carr said. “Quick returns are not a part of this business.”
Carr was given an opportunity to work for a local winery shortly after moving to Santa Ynez. He quickly discovered his forte was working in the vineyards, among the soil. At Kahn Winery, he became aware of how well-suited the Central Coast is to growing wine grapes.
“What I learned from Kahn is how amazing Syrah and Rhone varietals are in Santa Barbara County,” he recalled. “It lends itself to so many different varietals because there are so many micro-climates here.”
He cited Lompoc and Santa Maria as superb Burgundy growing areas, while Santa Ynez grows excellent Rhone varietals.
Digging the dirt
Because of his experience working in the fields and getting his hands dirty, Carr decided he wanted to be a grower, in addition to making his own wines.
“I really enjoy growing the grapes myself and having direct contact with the vines in the soil,” he said.
Rather than partnering with wealthy investors to purchase land, he made the decision to approach existing property owners about leasing and growing grapes as Carr Vineyard Management Co. In 2000, Carr Winery was started with the goal of working with property owners throughout the region to offer different varietals, including the winery’s award-winning cabernet franc, pinot noir and pinot gris.
“We’ve planted about 500 acres of grapes over the years,” said Carr, who launched the winery in his mid-20s. “Currently, we’re growing just under 100 acres. Basically, the property sizes range from three to 20 acres.”
The majority of the winery’s current vineyards are in Santa Ynez Valley, including Santa Rita Hills, Los Olivos and the east end of Happy Canyon. He refers to them as AVAs: American Viticultural Areas that are certified based on climate and soil studies. Managing all those leased properties is time consuming, but the alternative — seeking deep-pocket investors and buying premium wine-growing land — doesn’t thrill Carr.
The winemaker was anxious to discuss Carr’s new tasting room on Alisal Road in Solvang, where the company’s Crosshatch brand is served.
“It’s a completely separate winery,” Carr said, noting Crosshatch production is currently at 1,000 cases. “The big difference is our approach. We use co-fermentation. We will harvest two or three different varietals on the same day and then crush them — together — the same day, blending the juices prior to fermentation.”
Carr places great importance on not uncorking a bottle of wine before it’s ready.
“We make our wines with the intent of laying them down and aging them for long periods of time,” he said, citing the winery’s 2003 and 2004 pinot noirs as “delightful right now, with incredible softness and great acidity.”
Turning to face the rows of neatly stacked wine cases in the back of the Santa Ynez tasting room, Carr continued, “That’s where this [place] comes into play. This is our bottle-aging warehouse.”
The businessman in Carr emerges while discussing proper aging.
“To sit on a wine for a long period of time is sitting on a lot of money,” he said, reiterating that most investors don’t like to wait for their return on investment. “It’s important in this industry to be patient and not put out something that is rushed.”
For Nicole Liddi, tasting room manager at Carr’s Santa Ynez facility, it’s that commitment to quality she admires about the winemaker.
“There are many, many fine wineries in the Valley,” Liddi said, “but what I respect about Ryan is that he’s out in the vineyards. He’s out in the dirt. As a result of what he does, everything is hand-touched by him, and our wines are very consistent."
Liddi, who earned her bachelor's degree in enology and viticulture from Hancock College, said Carr is environmentally concerned about issues — such as soil erosion and waste water drainage.
“When I open a bottle of Carr wine I know my expectation will be met because I know he is at the helm,” she said. “I’ve been with him through the big growth period in this area and he’s well-regarded.”
Carr attributes much of the winery’s success to the dedication of his employees and his wife’s marketing and distribution efforts.
“Between our two tasting rooms, the people we have working for us are key to building a good-size wine club and following,” Carr said, reiterating he entered the wine business for the long haul. “You have to have a 15- to 20-year vision if you’re going to get into wine making.
“Every penny I’ve ever made I’ve put back in the business,” he continued, returning to the importance of overseeing the vineyards. “The quality of the product matters considerably. That’s why I insist on growing my own grapes. The best wines come from the best grapes.”