Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Fiddlehead Cellars has Hollywood recognition

The role was small, but the performance was so bright and fluid it opened the cellar door for countless cameos on other Hollywood sound stages over the past decade.

“It’s the props people. They’ve carried on the legacy. Whenever they’re on a set that calls for wine, they say, ‘We love Fiddlehead,’ ” says Kathy Joseph, her voice rising to its higher pitches as she recalls giddily the premiere of her wine in movies and on television shows.

Come next month, that will have been a decade ago, when the movie “Sideways” was released and went on to become the most popular and influential wine-themed film ever produced.

Joseph has lost track of just how many films and television series since then have included affectionate if fleeting glimpses of her Fiddlehead Cellars wines, but the list includes “The Kids Are All Right,” “The Sopranos” and “Entourage.”

“When I get a call (from a studio) for wine, I’m so excited to say ‘yes.’ It’s been a heart-warming connection. It’s provided a visibility (for Fiddlehead) that’s been a lot of fun,” Joseph says. “It’s always a struggle for a small winery to have a big voice.”

Her office at the world headquarters of Fiddlehead Cellars is in a back corner of an unglamorous industrial park just north of Interstate 80 in south-central Davis. This is where she and her small staff perform the daily challenges of marketing wine – designing labels, coordinating wine-club shipments, completing paperwork to comply with regulations governing the wine trade.

Davis is where she and her husband, Sacramento attorney Tom Doyle, want to live, and Davis is where they’ve stayed since Joseph released her first 150 cases of pinot noir made with grapes from the harvest of 1989.

That choice has made Joseph one of the West Coast’s more itinerant winemakers, for she prefers to work with grapes from the northern stretches of Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the southern reaches of California, in particular Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. (Until 2006, winemakers spelled out the name; the abbreviation distinguishes the American viticultural area from Chilean wine producer Vina Santa Rita.)

Joseph began with no vineyard and no winery, but with a goal to make wines of heft, length, complexity and longevity, with mouth-filling textures and an unbridled transparency to show off the areas where the grapes were grown.

“I want to make textural, place-driven wines with purpose and character,” she said. “I want layered wines that touch all your taste buds instead of one spot in your mouth. I knew the kind of wine I wanted to make, so I had to figure out how to get there.”

That took her to regions (Willamette Valley and Santa Barbara) and varietals (sauvignon blanc and pinot noir) that a quarter of a century ago weren’t nearly as recognized for drama as they are today. “I wanted to be part of up-and-coming districts, and I also needed to take advantage of good prices.”

Thus began her hectic and offbeat autumnal odyssey, dashing between two states to coordinate the picking of grapes and the making of wine. At first, she bought grapes grown by others and made wine in leased corners of wineries owned by others.

That’s changed. She still buys grapes in Oregon, but in 1996 she bought a vineyard site in the Santa Rita Hills, planted vines and began to make wine from that parcel with the harvest of 2000.

This harvest, something else will change. Up to now, she’s made just sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. She’s about to pick, however, her first grüner veltliner from a 2.8-acre block she planted at her Fiddlestix Vineyard a few years ago. The rest of the vineyard is planted to pinot noir, 96 acres of it.

Why grüner veltliner, an obscure green grape not cultivated much beyond Austria? “I love to drink it, and it has an unrealized potential,” Joseph says. “After 25 years (of winemaking) it’s a way to keep things exciting for me. It will be a real challenge, but I’m always up for that.”

In 2003, she built her own winery in another unspectacular industrial park, this one in Lompoc. Fiddlehead Cellars was the third winery to settle in the complex, which now houses 20 other brands and has come to be called the “Lompoc Wine Ghetto.” In the meantime, her annual production has grown to between 5,000 and 6,000 cases, depending on the generosity of the vintage.

Early on, she insisted on making her Willamette Valley wine in Oregon, fearing that the fruit wouldn’t travel well if it were hauled to California for processing. Since building her own winery, however, she’s come up with a means to move her Oregon grapes the 900 miles from the Willamette Valley to Lompoc without damaging the fruit. It involves harvesting grapes in the very early morning, packing them in small bins to avoid compression, and transporting them in refrigerated trucks to keep them fresh. Much to her delight, grapes have survived the trek unbroken. “We’ve gotten no juicing at all,” she marvels.

While she’s still focused primarily on sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, she’s expanded her repertoire to up to 15 interpretations each vintage, an extension inspired by her desire to satisfy a wide range of palates, moods and foods.

She makes four styles of sauvignon blanc, including a late-harvest version called “Sweetie.” Her signature rendition of the varietal is from the Happy Canyon sub-appellation of Santa Ynez Valley, which in its creaminess, complexity and persistence measures up to the Loire Valley-style that inspired her.

Two other regions inspired other versions, Bordeaux for her floral and rich “Hunnysuckle” and New Zealand for her assertive and zesty “Goosebury.” (The unusual spellings were required by federal officials who oversee the wine trade, fretful that consumers might think the wines were made with honeysuckle and gooseberries if the traditional spellings were used.)

Her even wider range of pinot noirs includes a dry, lean, strawberry-accented rosé called “Pink Fiddle,” her luxurious and savory signature pinot noir called “Seven Twenty Eight” for the mile marker along Santa Rosa Road in front of Fiddlestix Vineyard, her earthy and toasty “Oldsville Reserve” for the name of the road along the Willamette Valley vineyard where she gets the grapes, and her newest pinot noir, “Burtie Baby,” an exceptionally perfumey and sweetly fruity take on the varietal that got its name from a nickname for her father.

Fiddlehead Cellars very much is a family affair. Joseph’s sister, Canadian artist Jody Joseph, executes the art on the labels. And when Joseph comes across an exceptional barrel of pinot noir she sets it aside for a tribute release called “Doyle,” after her husband. (The latest “Doyle,” from the 2010 vintage, sells for $176, while the price of her other wines start at $22 for the rosé, range between $25 and $35 for the sauvignon blancs, and stretch from $42 to $88 for the pinot noirs.)

Joseph grew up in Chicago and earned degrees in biochemistry and microbiology in 1979 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She pondered a career in medicine, but the wine business also intrigued her. She headed to California, initially working in hospitality at Simi Winery in Sonoma County before enrolling in graduate classes in enology and viticulture at UC Davis.

After graduation, she worked for a Napa Valley winery before she rounded up investors to start Fiddlehead Cellars in 1989, working out of a small office in downtown Davis.

She got her first break right away, when Sacramento wine merchant David Berkley, then the wine consultant to the White House, recommended that the president’s wine steward stock a few cases in the White House cellar, which he did.

Her second break came a decade ago, when she was invited to “movie night” at the Santa Barbara home of film director and screenwriter Alexander Payne, then preparing to shoot “Sideways.” Joseph, expecting a gathering of local wine folk instead of members of the cast and crew, brought along a case of her wines. She recalls that Payne got especially excited about her sauvignon blanc, exclaiming, “I love this wine. I’m going to write it into the script.”

He did, with both the wine and the name “Fiddlehead” featured in a touching scene involving the characters Miles, a failed and depressed novelist played by Paul Giamatti, and Maya, a wine-savvy waitress portrayed by Virginia Madsen.

Rex Pickett, upon whose novel the movie is based, has written a sequel, “Vertical,” and while movie rights have been sold, production has yet to get under way.

In the meantime, however, Fiddlehead Cellars isn’t lacking for exposure, not as long as the people responsible for props in assorted movies and television shows remember the good times and the good wines they had while filming “Sideways” in Santa Barbara County.