When Fred and Linda Rice and their three children moved in 1989 from Santa Barbara to a peaceful 55-acre Santa Ynez ranch to grow wine grapes, little did they know that they would end up happily presiding over one of the largest organic vineyard estates in Santa Barbara County.
Today, Sunstone Vineyards and Winery devotes its entire 77-acre estate to organic grape growing. The Rices’ sun-dappled acreage, which is planted to Rhone and Bordeaux varietals, meets all California Certified Organic Farmer (CCOF) standards.
The Rice’s are proud of their youngest daughter Brittany for becoming the winemaker anf making it truly a family run business. Brittany Rice studied enology through US Davis and mentored under winemaker Daniel Gehrs for ten years before taking over. Before coming to Sunstone, Gehrs created a Syrah for Zaca Mesa Winery that was heralded by Wine Spectator as one of the top ten wines in the world.
Fred and Linda, along with son Bion, and daughters Ashley and Brittany, originally chose the terraced site overlooking the Santa Ynez River for its ideal south-sloping exposure, its sandy, rocky soil, and a microclimate that features early morning fog, warm, breezy afternoons, and cool evenings. It proved to be a fortuitous choice, as they soon discovered that it was a perfect spot for the growing of top-notch organic fruit and enjoying a country lifestyle.
“Our goal was to create a place where wine and food could be enjoyed in a picturesque atmosphere,” says Linda Rice. “Camaraderie and a sense of sharing is so much a part of this lifestyle. All of our interests-from environmental preservation and organic growing to the celebration of food, family, and friends-have come together here at Sunstone.”
The site of the winery was originally a horse barn, which was seriously damaged when an oak tree fell on it after heavy rains and winds. Thanks to that storm, Sunstone now has one of the most attractive wineries and tasting rooms in the Santa Ynez Valley. The current 5,000 square foot structure was completed in April 1994, and is reminiscent of some of the small wineries in the Provencal French countryside. A kitchen complete with a wood-burning oven is a part of the tasting room ambiance, and a 240’ stone barrel-aging cave is built into the hillside at the rear of the winery tasting room.
Their commitment to protecting the environment has earned Sunstone the Completing the Cycle Award from Engel & Gray, Inc. The winery takes its composted organic waste material such as grape seed, grape skins, stems, and pulp to Engel & Gray, Inc., where it is used as a raw material to produce quality compost.
Fred notes, “We are constantly experimenting with different methods to achieve a natural balance in the vineyards. Contrary to the notion that growing organically requires less intervention, we actually spend more time combating weeds, insects, molds, and mildews compared to growers who use chemicals.”
“Our wines will not have any residual pesticides. This is a benefit not only to our consumers’ health, but also to the people working here.” Part of the philosophy at Sunstone is that organic vineyards and toxin-free soils more accurately reflect the Santa Ynez Valley terroir.”
Meticulous canopy and crop management help produce wines with firm structure and strongly developed varietal flavor. All Sunstone wines are handcrafted in small lots. The grapes are handharvested, hand-sorted, and gently crushed before being placed in small containers for fermentation, where they are continually punched down for the best extraction. The wines are then aged in French or American oak for twelve to twenty-four months.
Sunstone’s Chardonnay has been awarded the Gold Medal at the Orange County Fair, and its Merlot, Estate Bottled, garnered a Gold Medal at the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition and a Silver Medal at the Long Beach Grand Cru. Sunstone is also renowned for its Rhone varietals, including Viognier, which has received a Gold Medal at the San Francisco Wine Competition, and Syrah. Another favorite is the highly acclaimed Eros, named for the God of Love-a Meritage blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon-which has earned Best of Class at the Los Angeles County Fair, and “90 Points” at the Wine Enthusiast’s Beverage Testing Institute.
Bion Rice recommends experiencing Sunstone wines directly at the winery. “Tasting our wines is tasting the terroir of this special place,” he says. ”As you drive in, you are surrounded by the soils and the vines that create our wines. You can feel the temperate winds that sweep between the rows, creating the perfect climate for Bordeaux and Rhone varietal grapes. Our goal is to capture the true essence of this vineyard in your glass.”
Aromas of French lavender and rosemary greet visitors as they approach the winery’s inviting courtyard and tasting room. The architecture recalls wineries in the Provencal countryside, and the relaxed ambiance in the tasting room includes a kitchen complete with woodburning oven. Over 5,000 square feet of stone barrel-aging caves are built into the hillside. Winemaker dinners and other special events are held in the tasting room, caves, and courtyard year-round.