Writer, Reporter, Marketing
Published in Wines and Vines, October 2005
Andres Ibarra: his roots are in the roots.
Ever the business chameleon, Iris Rideau, former insurance executive turned securities broker turned vintner, tapped back into the one area she has relied on all these years as a professional woman—her passion. She knew the Los Olivos winery she founded in 1997 was in need of change. Production levels were too low, she felt and her current winemaking staff didn’t have the experience needed to double production. In January of 2004, a year before actually making the change, Rideau became aware that things were stagnating and she needed to refocus on creating wines for her discriminating clients while working to expand the customer base of her eponymous winery.
With 15 acres under vines, all Rhône varietals, Rideau decided it was time to take a leap, while maintaining her boutique winery status. She needed a winemaker who could see the big picture, but do so in a unique way. She needed someone who was, as she calls it, “palate driven” and who, like her, could adjust quickly to change and to her customers’ wishes.
That’s where Andres Ibarra came in, taking the reigns as head winemaker at Iris Rideau’s winery, housed in an historic adobe in Los Olivos, California. Having migrated to the United States from Mexico as a pre-adolescent, at the age of 16 Ibarra began working for Fred Brander of the Brander Vineyard working his way up from pruning to barrel cleaning and finally, inside the winery. “Once I got in there, I got hooked,” Ibarra said. “I just felt I had found the job that I loved doing and wanted to grow in it and become better at it.” He began with Brander in 1980 and by 1985, he’d caught the eye of another up and coming Central Coast winemaker named Mike Brown.
Brown ran what was then called the Santa Ynez Winery and he hired Ibarra as an assistant and winery worker. “I was there for 12 and a half years and I learned so much, I felt like I was really growing and getting good at what I was doing,” Ibarra commented about his experience. Now known as Kalyra winery, Brown is the one who introduced Rideau and Ibarra, but not before he did a stint with venerable Central Coast icon, Fess Paker. “I got to work as an assistant winemaker with Brett Escalera there and he has such a great palate. Between he and Eli (Fess Parker’s son and head winemaker at F.P.) I learned so much more and got to start making wines on my own.” Ibarra was with Parker from 1998 until earlier this year when he accepted the call from Rideau to be head winemaker. “We interviewed each other for about a year,” Rideau said. The long slow process, like making the wine itself, fermented into a working relationship that established itself firmly.
”Iris and I had been sitting out under one of these wonderful old oak trees on the property talking, and when we finished, I went inside and met with Linde (Nowland, Rideau’s general manager). She asked if I had a résumé and so I reached down into the box I brought and put two bottles of wine on the table.”
It was, perhaps, a risky career move, but Ibarra got the job. “I figured what better résumé for a winemaker to have than the wine he makes,” he recalled.
Ibarra’s experience gave him the education he never got in a university classroom. “I don’t have anything against the university route,” Ibarra said. “But I’ve gotten a different kind of education, and I’ve learned this business from the ground up, literally.” He’s done everything, it seems, from cleaning barrels to making the wine that fills them.
But hiring Ibarra didn’t come without its share of difficulties. “He had some obstacles to overcome. There were some problems in the beginning, as there always are with new employees, but he didn’t just overcome them, he got past them and learned how to fix them,” Rideau said.
Citing insecurity as the number one issue, Ibarra felt he needed a little bit more security. “I had just come from a place where I was being told what a great job I was doing and where there were kudos all the time for my work and I was going to this place that had been through a few winemakers in a few years and I was worried, I think,” Ibarra said. In the end, it was the long interview process along with his own experience that led Ibarra to accept the position. “I was ready to make the move by then,” he said.
A real workaholic, Ibarra is out in the vineyards nearly every day especially right before harvest. The real talent Ibarra possesses, however, is that though Rideau is a smaller operation, he is charged with really making two kinds of wines. Iris Rideau’s palate is much more fruit driven and she prefers wines that are drinkable now with up-front fruit and even sweetness on them. To that end, the Rideau estate’s all Rhone varietals include viognier and rousanne, both wines for which Rideau has received much critical acclaim.
But Ibarra prefers to make a style of wine that is age friendly, bigger with more lingering and subtle tastes, more peppery and tannic characteristics. “I use a lot of malolactic fermentation to get that smoothness,” Ibarra said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to cover up the fruit that is there. It’s all about balance.” Ibarra related the experience of having previously made pinot noir from the Bien Nacido vineyard versus Rideau’s pinot noir from the Sanford vineyard. “The Sanford fruit was so delicate, you know, so light and the Bien Nacido fruit I had been used to made these big bold pinot’s. It took some getting used to.”
Still, Ibarra feels that his style doesn’t clash with Rideau’s and she feels the same way. “Iris has a much more fruit-driven palate and so our In-Circle club wines are made for her taste. But I like a bigger wine, something with a little more age and perhaps more bold. But I think it’s great. Everyone has a different taste and I always try to balance the wine and make both because of that.”
Rideau says she doesn’t know how he does it, but Ibarra makes wine for both of their palates, and it may well be the No. 1 reason she hired him.
“I’m the one that bothers her,” Ibarra said. “I call her all the time and tell her to come out and taste what I’m doing, and she does.” Rideau doesn’t look over his shoulder, however. She gives Ibarra as much room as he needs to make the wine he can make.
The hardest part for the winery was the jump in production, and ironically, that’s the part Ibarra finds easy. “I just came from a place (Fess Parker) that does 2,000 tons annually, so 150 isn’t a problem,” he said. It’s that jump that represents the paradigm shift for this boutique winery.
“I fired all my wholesalers after 9/11,” Rideau said. “I just didn’t want to do the traveling and the exhaustion anymore. I wanted to stay closer to home and focus on creating a destination here and building my direct sales clientele.” To that end, Rideau remains unique in that the winery is housed at the Alamo Pintado Adobe, a historic landmark in Los Olivos that is as much a destination as the winery itself.
Entering the facility is like walking into someone’s home—indeed, it was someone’s home for many years. The tasting room is like a family or great room, where fellow travelers taste wine, sample cheese and grab one of the ubiquitous Mardi Gras bead necklaces that have become Rideau’s trademark. The sense of place that Iris Rideau has developed is as much a part of the wine as Ibarra’s craftsmanship.
It’s that craftsmanship that keeps people coming back, though. You won’t find Rideau wines anywhere except at the winery, and Rideau wants to keep it that way. Still, her client list is growing, and meanwhile Ibarra keeps raking in awards for the wines he has crafted since his tenure began earlier this year. From a gold medal for the 2003 Estate Viognier from the Long Beach Grand Cru to a gold nedal for the 2003 Rousanne judged best white wine in the 2005 L.A. County Fair Wines of the World Competition and many others, Ibarra has already made a palpable presence in the Central Coast wine country even stronger.
“I spent a lot of Iris’s money,” Ibarra acknowledged. “I bought a lot of new equipment to upgrade us and bring us to the next level.” From an ozonater to a new tank press to hiring an enologist to help with wine analysis and testing, Ibarra seems to be positioning Rideau for the leap she wants to make.
Rideau’s permit doesn’t allow the winery to produce more than 15,000 cases, and Rideau doesn’t want it to. Her business plan seems firmly planted in winery-direct sales. There is some new construction coming, however, with an expanded winery facility to be built and a few dozen more barrels.
With Ibarra’s first harvest at Rideau this year, he remains as excited as he always was about wine. “It’s a great time of year, you know? It’s when we get to see the beginning of everything. It’s a lot of hard work, but I still enjoy it,” he said.
Many winery workers cannot aspire to the title of winemaker without an enology degree. “I understand that, I guess,” Ibarra said. “But I believe I have the education and the experience now.” Ibarra does hold that title at Rideau, and his reputation on the Central Coast is widely known. From his roots in the Brander vineyards to his post with Fess Parker, and now as an award-winning winemaker, Ibarra’s passion continues to grow. “I love every day of it, I really do. It’s a lot of fun and I’m happy where I am.”