Many things motivate the ambitious wine lover, but the curious joy of discovery often ranks highest among the forces that drive us to drink widely. Few things compare to the electric thrill of opening a completely unknown bottle or taking up an inscrutable glass only to be rewarded not just with something tasty, but something fantastic.
This feeling remains one of the main reasons I continue to dutifully work through all the unsolicited wine that comes to my door. Because for all the mediocre and totally uninspiring wines I get, there are gems. This is the story of one of those gems — the tale behind some curious looking bottles with wildly beautiful labels each sporting the tiny silhouette of a man bending over a shovel.
Many winery owners claim with varying degrees of credibility that their odyssey into wine began by accident, but when David and Anna Delaski say they became winegrowers by accident, they mean it quite literally. They met through friends, and quickly became biking buddies, and then a little more. David’s first move into more serious territory was the suggestion that they ride a century together.
“We set a date to do it, and we were doing a warmup ride through wine country and she completely wiped out,” remembers Delaski. “We definitely couldn’t do the bike race. She didn’t have any broken bones but she wasn’t in any shape to do it.”
Their hopes dashed, the two found themselves on a hill looking out above the Sanford & Benedict vineyard. “We fell in love that weekend,” says Delaski, and with more than each other, it seems. “We never forgot that moment above the vineyards,” he says. “We just kept returning to it.”
Two years later, the couple married and returned to Anna’s home country of Austria, where Delaski fell deeply in love with Grüner Veltliner and the Austrian wine culture. The two finished their honeymoon with a bike ride around wine country, and at one point they were drinking a glass of Grüner together at a cafe in Paso Robles, when Anna suggested that the two of them might think about making some wine.
“We were on the last day of our honeymoon, and decided to figure out how we could make a barrel of California Grüner Veltliner together,” recalls Delaski. But the two really had no idea what they were doing. “We basically ended up just asking a bunch of people who their favorite winemaker was, and a lot of them said Steve Clifton, so we just went and looked him up.”
Let that be a lesson to never underestimate the power of naiveté. By the end of their conversation with Steve, which involved their story, deep tangents into the independent and electronic music scene (Delaski wrote and performed, Clifton used to be a promoter and nightclub owner), and a glass or two of wine, Steve Clifton had signed on to make their wine.
The couple was stunned. “We even asked him ‘Steve, why do you need us?’ and he said ‘You’ve got a story,'” remembers Delaski.
They magically had a winemaker, but then there was the little problem of the grapes.
“We literally couldn’t find any way to buy any Grüner Veltliner,” laughs Delaski. Undaunted, the couple also began looking around the region for a house to buy, figuring that it made sense to live closer to wine country than in Los Angeles, where they both were at the time.
“We went around with this realtor, and we eventually got shown this house on four acres in Los Olivos that came with three acres of Syrah in horrible shape,” says Delaski. “We called up Steve and said, ‘hey, what if we did Syrah instead?'”
Clifton came out to take a look at the vineyard and agreed it was in pretty bad shape. “But he said he could make it work,” says Delaski.
Then, just as harvest was beginning, Delaski got a call from someone who had heard he was in the market for Grüner Veltliner, and offered to sell him a single ton.
“We had our barrel of Grüner, but we also had eight tons of Syrah,” says Delaski. “We were in much deeper than we had anticipated.”
Little did he know. He would find out a little while later that Anna was pregnant with their son, Linus.
They may have been in deeper, but the two were undaunted. With Clifton’s help, the couple made their inaugural wines, under the label they decided to call Solminer, a reference to mining the power of the sun. Anna is trained as a forest biologist and one of the first things they did when they bought the house was to throw solar panels up on the roof.
Next they went about getting some cuttings of Grüner Veltliner in order to grafting over some of their Syrah. While they were at it, they also found some Blaufränkisch cuttings and thought, “well, what the hell?”
Sitting with Delaski, it’s hard not to share in his near-childish delight at what clearly is an adventure of grand proportions with the love of his life and their young son in tow. His eyes sparkle under bushy eyebrows and above rosy cheeks that miraculously seem to have some baby fat in them despite the graying goatee they frame.
Delaski grew up in Virginia, the son of an Armenian mother and American father, whose career as an accountant took a turn for the prosperous when he decided to write a piece of software in the 80s that became the basis for a very successful company that the family sold in 2005. The improvement in their fortunes allowed Delaski’s father to dabble in new hobbies, one of which was wine collecting. Delaski grew up with wine in the house and enough experience to know the good stuff from the bad stuff. He enjoyed drinking it with his father, but it wasn’t inspiring to him in the same way that it was to his father.
As his father was falling in love with wine, Delaski was falling in love with film. After film school, he worked in Hollywood and did music on the side, but after a while, the music took over his life. He joined a band (Electric Skychurch), got signed to a record label, began making soundtracks for movies, created his own record label (Ball of Waxx Music), and built up a publishing catalog of music that eventually began to generate royalties.
An early player in the electronic music scene, Delaski finds lots of parallels between music and wine. “Sommeliers are the DJs of today” he jokes, but then turns serious. “I’ve never put commerciality in front of what I wanted to do in music,” he says, “and the same goes for wine. My tastes lean towards the underground or the obscure in music, and it’s the same thing for wine.”
When the Delaskis approached Clifton, they made it clear that they wanted to make wine as simply and as naturally as possible. They hardly had the words for what they wanted to do, but as far as they were concerned, they wanted to avoid adding anything to their wine if at all possible. Clifton was more than happy to take a non-interventionalist approach, which has ended up meaning minimal sulfur usage, all native fermentations, and no fining.
“Coming from the world of music, and the creativity that goes with that, we didn’t feel like we have to control the wine” says Delaski. “Mistakes are just an expression. From year to year you’re going to get these different things happening.”
“It’s important to me not to be too dogmatic,” continues Delaski. “If someone wants to sell my wines as ‘natural’ wines, I could certainly back up that claim, but you won’t hear me pushing that. We started with our Rubellite wine and people said ‘Oh you’re doing the low alcohol thing,’ but we were just doing what we liked. We didn’t set out to be part of a movement, or to make our wines resemble anything we saw out there on the market. We just like old world style wines. There aren’t red wines over 14% alcohol in Austria.”
Delaski decided to take a bunch of enology classes at U.C. Davis last year. “I learned an inordinate amount last year, and then had to come back and basically unlearn all of it. There’s a set way to do things at Davis and step one is almost always ‘add sulfur.’ That’s the last thing we want to do. It comes down to your focus.”
Delaski seems nothing if not focused. He reminds me of some of my friends (and perhaps a little bit of myself) that I see become obsessed with something they love and devote all their energy to it in a passionate frenzy. But unlike some of my friends, who move on from one shiny object to another, Delaski and his wife seem smitten to the core. They have the spring in their step that many have on the beginning of a long and exciting journey.
“We’re just starting out with this lifetime pursuit,” confirms Delaski. “We’ve got time to become master winemakers, to become biodynamic freaks, whatever we want to be,” he says before going on to tell me his plans for improving his composts next year. But at this point I’m not really listening to him, I’m paying more attention to the wine in my glass, which is wordlessly confirming the honesty of Delaski’s enthusiasm.
Plenty of people strike out for a second career in the wine business after some success in another field, but the wines they end up producing look like trophies on a shelf: glossy, brash, and attention-seeking. Delaski’s wines couldn’t be farther from these products of vanity. They are humble and no-nonsense, and even slightly rustic at times, but have a purity to them that is admirable. I highly recommend them.
2013 Solminer “Delanda Vineyard” Gruner Veltliner, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, California
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of apple and linalool. In the mouth, a creamy texture delivers flavors of bright apple, lemongrass, and white flowers with a nice appley pear flavor in the finish. Good acidity and length. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25.
2012 Solminer Dry Riesling, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and candle wax scented with citrus zest. In the mouth, beautifully zingy pomelo zest and orange peel flavors have a wonderfully bright stony quality. Definitely delicious. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost $25. click to buy.
2013 Solminer Riesling, Santa Barbara, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple, peaches, and citrus zest. In the mouth, bright peachy flavors have a citrus zest edge, and the wonderful pure crystalline stoniness that seems to be a hallmark of these wines. A blend of two vineyards, some fermented in steel, some in neutral oak. You’d never guess this was 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2013 Solminer “Linus” Rosé, Santa Barbara, California
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and berries layered over wet stones. In the mouth lean bright berry and cherry flavors mix with a hint of citrus brightness. Clean bright finish and wonderfully easy to drink. Excellent. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2013 Solminer “Rubellite” Syrah, Santa Barbara, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of berries, a hint of leather, and black pepper. In the mouth, spicy black pepper, cherry, and berry notes have a lean brightness and a faint woodiness to them. Excellent acidity. Contains 5% Grenache and 1% Riesling. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2012 Solminer “Full Moon” Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, California
Medium garnet, this wine smells of brilliant forest berries and cherries, tinged with bright floral fruit. In the mouth the wine has a wonderfully elegant lightness to it, with bright mixed berry fruit and a sour cherry tartness that lingers in the finish. Juicy acidity and lean, faint tannins. Excellent. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $34. click to buy.