Earlier this year, Viva Glam Magazine had an opportunity to speak to award winning winemakers, Larry and Karina Hogan. Larry and Karina are the owners of Sagebrush Annie’s, located in Ventucopa, CA. Far away from the crowded city, we took a day trip to visit the Sagebrush Annie’s wine tasting room and vineyards in the beautiful Eastern Santa Barbara County.
- Larry, you have lived a full life and are now a youthful 80 years old. Can you tell us about your background and how you came to create Sagebrush Annie’s wine?
Actually I’m not 80, I’m just 40 for the second time.
I spent half of my life in another business that involved a lot of travel to the mid-west. I decided to change businesses when the airport inspections became what I consider to be overly intrusive.
I opted for the wine business due to my life long love for the juice of the fermented grapes. My oldest memory is drinking wine. My mother was Czech and we drank wine on birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. As a child, I was allowed a small glass with the adults. The wine may have been watered down, this I don’t know. I do know that my mind was imprinted with the fact that drinking wine and good times were related. As a result I’ve had countless good times.
- You are a big believer in “lifetime learning”. And I know you and your wife, Karina, have thousands of books in your possession. How do you think this attitude on life has helped you in producing the finest quality boutique wines?
The greatest thing I learned at the University was the use of the reference library. One can do almost anything with a good set of reference and instruction books. In the mid-60’s, I started to be a home winemaker by reading and experimenting. Like most things in my life, I learned not what to do but what not to do: trial, error and persistence.
I bought a ranch in the Cuyama Valley of Eastern Santa Barbara County. We are at 3000 feet above sea level and consequently have large swings from daytime highs to night time lows. I then did a study on the warmer areas of the Napa Valley and found our areas temperatures to be quite similar. In 1982, I took a gamble and planted 40 acres of wine grapes. A few years later, a prominent Santa Ynez winemaker told me that there never had been a Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Barbara County as good as ours. Elation time!!!
As a young child, I was told that in my life I would never meet a person who didn’t know something that I didn’t know. That has been, without a doubt, the truth. Listening, reading, observing, thinking and planning are essential in my opinion. Also, I realize the style wines that I have opted for are not for everyone, but I stick with it. Drink what you like and don’t let anyone tell what you should like. The wine drinking experience along with the individuals palate determines the likes and dislikes of each of us.
- Your wine is a higher end wine that has won several awards in recent years. Can you tell us about the awards you have won and what makes your wine so exceptional?
We stated entering wine competitions in 2005. Since then all of our wines have been gold medal winners. To date, we have won eighty gold medals, one for each of my years. Our biggest win was our 2004 Sagebrush Annie’s Cabernet Sauvignon winning the best cab at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. In that competition there were 469 cabs from 21 different countries. I still think about that competition and get a thrill. We have what I consider to be great wine because we have great fruit. The fruit, Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, do extremely well in our climate and soils. In my humble opinion when it comes to making fine wine the fruit represents 75% to 85% of the equation. This is not intended to take anything away from the importance of the winemaker. To use a copied phrase,” The wine is made in the vineyard”.
- Coming to Sagebrush Annie’s is like being transported onto the pages of Lonesome Dove. Tell us about your property, its facilities and what makes Sagebrush Annie’s such a special place to visit?
Sagebrush Annie’s itself is cowboy gothic. Many places like Sagebrush Annie’s can be found in the Texas Hill Country. Unpretentious, homey and in a great setting, Sagebrush Annie’s relaxes visitors. While being remote, we are a two hour drive to performing art centers in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles. One can drive to those locations without encountering a signal light until the last few miles to your destination.
We pour our wines at many wine-pouring events in both Central and Southern California. Most of these events are for charitable organizations. Some of these events have as many as 5000 people in attendance. Wine tasters who enjoy our wines can order directly from us by phone or at our e-mail address, [email protected] We require reservations for Saturday and Sunday tastings as well as for tastings by appointment. The reservations are because we are often gone to other wine tasting events.
People who want to learn more about us may visit our website, sagebrushannies.com, or join us on Facebook Sagebrush Annie’s. In addition to selling retail, we also sell wholesale to wine stores and restaurants.
- Ventucopa has a population of 93. It is beautiful farmland, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere. Is there anything in particular about the Eastern Santa Barbara County that creates an exceptional environment for growing grapes? Is it the region, climate and soil that contribute to the quality of your harvest?
The area we are in has a long growing season and enough heat to ripen Bourdeux and Rhone varietals. The soils are alluvial, sandy and gravelly for the most part. Personally, I feel we compare quite well with both the Napa and Paso Robles areas.
- What grape varietals do you offer?
When it comes to wine quality I seldom blend wine varietals. I do, however, blend cab clones as there is a difference in the clone flavors when ripe. Since the 2008 vintage, I have been using the same combination of clones that were in the 2004 which was the big winner at the San Francisco International. We also are not big on oak in our wine so we exercise control on that feature. Our approach is that grapes are fruit and we want our wines to reflect fruit flavors rather than oak. Once again, we all have different tastes that we prefer and we do not wish to denigrate or disparage those that opt for big oak flavors in their wine.
We are primarily cab producers but also make a Zinfandel and a Merlot. Our 2009 cab was the winner of 10 gold medals or better and is highly regarded by those who have tasted the wine. I call it liquid velvet while Karina calls it comfort wine. The 2010 and 2011 cab vintages, which we haven’t released, have both won 7 gold medals or better. We are also quite excited about our recently bottled 2012 cab.
- Karina, you are a world-class chef and have previously cooked at Sagebrush Annie’s. What is your educational background in food and what is one or your favorite meals you have prepared for guests?
My grandfather taught me how to read when I was four with a book that was all about food and things found in the kitchen. When I was little, to make Sunday breakfast special we made pancakes or waffles. Even at that young age, I just did not like pancakes or waffles made out of Bisquick, so I asked my mother if there was another way to make them and she handed me The Joy of Cooking by Rombauer so that I could look it up for myself. I was 5 or 6. Since I was too short to reach the book, the flour and the sugar on an upper shelf, I pulled open three lower drawers and climbed them like steps. I was a little too successful at making breakfast, cookies and desserts and eventually my mother caught on and realized I could make dinner! Haha!
My education is in Fine Arts, music, French, fashion design, jewelry design and gemology and my background in food is that I love to eat well. I have 500 cookbooks which I can look at and which I sometimes read through like a novel. I have gradually eaten my way from Moscow to Crete and I constantly try new recipes. I truly believe that if you can read, you can become a good or even great cook. Cooking school is an unnecessary expense. I actually never refer to myself as a chef. It is really all about having a good palate and knowing how to season things properly. Finding the proper balance of flavors and the art of figuring out what is missing…I have done menus from all over the world from Chinese to Greek, with lots of French and Italian, and some Moroccan, Mexican, Cajun and Scandinavian thrown in for good measure. I love researching and putting together diverse and authentic menus for multi-course dinner parties. I like preparing dishes that are so old fashioned no one has ever heard of them or things you would be unlikely to find on a restaurant menu. It would be hard to name a most memorable menu as they are all so different.
My philosophy is that cooking for someone is a demonstration of love, whether it is for your family or those you are feeding in your restaurant.