Q&A with Ryan Alfaro of Farm Cottage Wines
Farm Cottage Wines is the effort, dream, and responsibility of Ryan Alfaro, a rising star in the world of California viticulture, which he’s been blessed/cursed to be a part of since birth. His provenance sounds sterling, but amongst the loamy, coastal foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in Watsonville and Corralitos, life is as refined as the weight-bearing heartwood redwood beams holding up the century old cottage where he lives and works.
The area he calls home is an agricultural powerhouse, a globally recognized exemplar of industrial ag efficiencies powered by conventional, post-war petroleum hedonism. Ryan grows organic, and lives sustainably while managing the land under his stewardship.
Ryan is a product of his environment, and the antipodes of a conventional, commercial producer. His lifelong study of winemaking began in childhood while working harvests, continued through the UC system where he earned his undergrad, sent him out to France where he learned hands-on as part of a UC Davis program, them onto graduate studies at the university of Auckland in New Zealand, and into the capable hands of Adam Tolmach at Ojai vineyards. He is steeped in the knowledge, but he’s not a curmudgeon. Ryan Alfaro exudes a positive, thoughtful, and daring energy. He makes you feel like he could take you on a dangerous adventure, but you will be safe in his hands.
He’s also a great sport and was willing to answer ten questions about life, work, and all the things in between:
Revel Wine: How is the harvest season treating you?
Ryan Alfaro: Harvest this year is going well. It was a late one. We didn’t get started until a month after we started last year. But, it’s going well, numbers are incredible, long, cool growing season. Even with that little heat spell we had the numbers are out of this world…a really beautiful acid, which is most important for me right now. We’ve accumulated sugar as time’s gone on, and it seems like the acid is some of the best that I’ve seen in years.
Some people are a little bit nervous about how low the ph’s are but because I use a lot of stem inclusion it’s actually going to be just wonderful for what I’m trying to do.
Yields are down, yields are a little low. Lower than anticipated, but a lot of clusters, very small clusters. I was supposed to get a little more fruit than I actually did get, but that’s just how the world works, ya know?
We expected a little more than we got, but that’s okay. If the quality’s there, I’m happy with it. I’m still able to get fruit from these vineyards, so that’s the best case scenario. There’s a couple new vineyards I’m be working with too, so yeah, I’m pretty excited about that. We’re about half-way.
RW: So you get a little break this week?
RA: Yeah, I just pressed off a couple tanks today. Gotta consolidate some barrels that are Chardonnay that’s fermenting in barrels. Then next week, Trout Gulch, which is the bulk of what I’ve produced is gonna be going, so I’ll be pickin’ Pinot all next week. Chardonnay is kinda trickling along…it’s still definitely far behind… we went there this morning and Chardonnay is not there yet. We’ll be probably picking that in November.
RW: How far are you traveling in this harvest season?
RA: I’m 100% Santa Cruz Mountains. I’m not working with any fruit outside of Santa Cruz Mountains, and that’s what I’m trying to focus the brand on. I’m not going to say that I’m sticking to that forever, but for now I want to use strictly Santa Cruz fruit.
With that being said, the bulk of the production is taken from Corralitos and Aptos. Except this year I did add Bates Ranch Cabernet, which is up in the Santa Cruz mountain about 50 minutes away on the eastern side. It’s inland a little bit. I picked up that fruit on Tuesday this week, so that’s an exciting new vineyard to work with under Farm Cottage.
RW: How long have you been involved with wine making?
RA: I grew up on a vineyard, I grew up hating everything involved about, wine. I was a victim of child labor working the vines, sorting fruit, and things like that.
Farm Cottage happened because I was working with my family's label and I had an opportunity to go abroad, and study abroad during my undergrad. That’s what kinda kick started it. I lived out in France for a summer, working with the UC Davis Enology program.
Then I finished up my undergrad and got serious about wine making, so I did a post graduate program out in New Zealand at the University of Auckland for a year. Did a full harvest there, a full year there with study and work.
Then I came back and worked with Adam Tolmach down in Southern California who is the Ojai Vineyard. That was one of my favorite experiences of my entire life. I had learned more in a 4 month period than I had in years. He’s an absolute Guru, and an open book…doesn’t keep any secrets.
That was 2018 harvest…came back home…finished here and have been working here since. I started Farm Cottage the following year (2019). This is going to be, (officially) full-time, my ninth harvest…but yeah…been working harvests since I was a little kid.
RW: What drives you?
RA: As of now, the production is focused on Santa Cruz Mountains, that’s really the backbone of it all. It’s what’s guiding what I want to do. Specifically, coastal mountain Santa Cruz Mountains. I know everything is kinda coastal-influence here, but specifically in Corralitos and Aptos there’s a lot of coastal influence, we’re only about 3 miles from the ocean.
And…I really like stem inclusion.
I’m not really specific on set varietals…yet. I do like working with Pinot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet…but I really like stem inclusion and texture.
Texture is what my wines are focused on. Whether that’s with stem inclusion or being super-light extractive methods…I think texture in wine is extremely important.
Being in Santa Cruz we’re always gonna have bright fruit, we’re always going to have beautiful acid ‘cuz we’re close to the ocean, but I think another component that is lacking in a lot of wines is texture.
RW: What music do you listen to on your way to work?
RA: I walk to work most of the time, so I don’t get to listen to music then…but, the
past several vintages I would only listen to one artist the entire vintage.
And that’s been all over genres.
Last year was an artist called Fred Again, and then a year before that was Pop Smoke, so it’s been all over the place.
This year, I’ve actually had a lot of non-music days.
I listen to a lot of Beach Fossils, which is probably my favorite band.
When things really get going, I’ve been listening to a lot of old Flume.
I listen to a lot of electronic music, I listen to a lot of indie surfer rock and then I listen to a little bit of rap. So yeah, kind of dependent on mood and how the day’s going on the crush pad.
RW: What’s your favorite article of clothing?
RA: I wear a lot of hats.
I’m a fair-skinned guy, on the crush pad I get sunburned a lot, so I’m really big on sun protection.
A lot of my hats actually come from my father. I have a bunch of old school Alfaro hats or bakery hats…he was a bread maker. Definitely hats. For fashion sense and utility…I despise being sunbrunt, it’s probably my least favorite thing.
RW: What’s your favorite time of day?
RA: Lunch. Lunch at harvest.
Usually provided by my father, wherever he makes it or buys it. Love lunch.
Even though I live where I work I don’t eat breakfast, I kinda just get up and go. So I’m usually starving by the time lunch hits.
RW: How would you describe where you work?
RA: Corralitos is amazing. It’s under the radar as far as Santa Cruz sub-regions, both to live in and from a vineyard standpoint.
We are a coastal town. We’re only 3 miles from the ocean here, but we’re tucked away in the hills. We are a 10 minute drive to the beach, but also surrounded by 100 foot redwood trees at about 600-700 feet of elevation.
We’re a little mountain community but have coastal influence. In terms of a farming standpoint, we have very similar soils across Corralitos, it’s all sandy loam, which is beautiful for acid retention, it’s also easier for weed control, since we’re all farmed organic.
It’s our own neck of the woods. If you go north in Santa Cruz you’re dealing with hotter temperatures and higher elevations, and I would say less acid retention…and that is a huge influence on the texture and mouth-feel component that I was talking about earlier.
As far as Corralitos people, they are Santa Cruz by nature but also mountain people, they do it themselves. There is definitely a “do it yourself” type of attitude around here.
RW: If you had to move, but had a lot of resources (money, infrastructure, etc), where would you go?
RA: Mendocino. Mendocino would be super cool.
It’s similar to what we have going on in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a very cold place, ripens later, Syrah varietals that I use barely ripen, which is neat from a wine-making standpoint…there’s a lot a acid and you’re not getting tons of phenolics from super sunny, hot, thick-skinned grapes…I would love to work with fruit from there…
There’s some really cool wine makers coming out of there. Jason Drew from Drew Wines who’s in Revel, is really cool up there.
Mendocino would be an interesting one, and to push the boundaries even more, I think Oregon. There’s a ton of potential there.
Ryan's Farm Cottage wines are the newest additions to the site, and you can shop them here.