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Artiste Winemaker

Artiste Winemaker, Bion RiceMy parents, Fred and Linda Rice, relocated our family from Santa Barbara in 1989 to a small country ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, where we planted 25 acres of grapevines together, intending to grow certified organic grapes for local wineries. But, as we sipped the fruits of our labor three years later at Thanksgiving dinner we realized we had found a new passion for winemaking.

After I graduated from college in June 1994, my family opened a Provençal winery named Sunstone, respecting the sun-dappled shale and stones exposed around our home, winery and vines. Sunstone surpassed a production level of 18,000 cases per year in 2001 and has since grown to prominence as one of the premier boutique wineries in the region. Sunstone also continues to maintain the lead in organic viticulture, as one of only a few C.C.O.F. certified organic vineyards in the region.

It was during the harvests of 1997 to 2002 that I discovered my passion for winemaking at Sunstone. No university of oenology could have given me the wealth of information and experience I gained while working with my family and consultant winemaker Daniel Gehrs at Sunstone, all to whom I am forever grateful. My family taught me the importance of sustainable business practices and gave me my strong work ethic, and Daniel Gehrs taught me the importance of using your olfactory senses more instinctively (less clinically), and how to blend wines to achieve balance, grace and power.

This led to my obsession for blending wine. The more I tasted wines from the wine regions of France, Italy, and Spain the more I began to appreciate the art of blending, or assemblage. Seeing my desire to break from the global marketing of “terroir” theory winemaking, my family encouraged me to start my own winery that would be completely devoted to the art of blending wines.

The Impressionist movement, and the characters and movements that followed, always fascinated me. There has always been a sub-conscious desire in me to drop out and become an artist of many mediums and genres. On October 13th, 2002, I was able to do just that. With the financial and creative assistance of my three partners John Poulos, Matt Hahn and Tom O’Higgins, we opened Artiste, a concept that allows me to take a different approach to winemaking in America, and to be deeply involved in the lives of artists as well.

Perhaps the luckiest winemaker on earth, I now get to personally select and ferment grapes from some of the best winegrowers in California, and seek out nearly finished, vineyard-designated wines from my winemaker friends’ barrel cellars in Santa Barbara, Napa and Sonoma. In the Napa Valley I look for the Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. In Russian River Valley I cannot escape the lure of mico-climate Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, sometimes planted near Zinfandel, Grenache and Sangiovese. In Santa Barbara, I source Syrah, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Viognier, while in near-by Paso Robles the warmer grapes Tempranillo and Zinfandel. Recently, I have sourced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as far north as the Willamette Valley in Oregon for our sparkling wine facility in Healdsburg.

Drawing on old-world blending traditions while adding an unmistakable swath of new-world terroir, I assemble neo-classical blends called "Impressionist Cuvees", named not only in reverence to the master painters, but also to the regional impression I try to paint with each unique blend, such as Tuscany, Bordeaux, Rioja, or Burgundy. Like an Impressionist painter who uses individual, visible brushstrokes to create a final masterpiece, I use each lot of wine as a brushstroke in the final blend. My ultimate goal is to produce infinitely beautiful cuvees that are much more than merely the sum of their parts, ones that exhibit the best aromas, flavors, and sensations of each individual wine that went into the blend.

From the day we opened our Artiste Winery & Tasting Studio in Santa Ynez Valley, Artiste Collective members and guests have commented about how creatively engaging our 1880’s working Impressionist art studio is. From the canvases and art journals where people can paint or draw, to the paint-splattered floors and bright yellow walls adorned by numerous paintings by local artists, Artiste continues to enthrall visitors from all over the world.

Without a doubt, the passionate process of creating two completely avant-garde, limited production cuvees each quarter, and bottling them with art labels by local artists is ever challenging and incredibly rewarding. But, the most gratifying moments are when I see visitors in the tasting studio engaging in conversations and sharing their impressions of Artiste’s wines and artworks with others.

By Bion Rice, Director of Winemaking

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