A Visit to Dragonette Cellars

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Sharon and I took our show on the road again, this time visiting Dragonette Cellars and Peake Ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills. This special corner of the Santa Ynez Valley is known for being one of the coldest wine-growing regions in California. And I knew this before I visited. I’d brought a sweater. But still: it’s much different to actually be shivering out in the vineyard than reading about it in a book. The Sta. Rita Hills sit in an east-to-west corridor that funnels cool air from the Pacific over the lucky grapes that get to bask in the breezes, building beautiful acidity and structure while ripening in the California sun. There is something magical about this region, and I got a visceral sense of that when John Dragonette and Patton Penhallegon drove us up to the top of the John Sebastiano Vineyard. It had rained the day before and the sky was a crisp, clean blue, streaked with large sinewy clouds. The plots of vines were quilted into patches on rolling hills, and we were surrounded by mountains. My Vans squished in the mud; my hair blew in the wind. Patton poured us tasting samples of their wine, John talked to us about the vines, and I felt that this is the exact reason to love wine—to connect with people and to feel places in your bones.

There’s the romance of wine and the reality of wine. Dragonette is housed in a warehouse on a dead end street with an auto repair shop as its neighbor. Industrial steel, concrete, and cars, just minutes from the freeway. But they make magic there. When I think of Dragonette wines, I first think of texture: they are elegant and lithe, with a sort of raw silk quality to them, but a firm, dry finish. These are wines that you want to keep going back to, and that you want to drink with dinner. They are not overwrought. They achieve a peaceful equilibrium. The aromatics are deep and complex, but I keep going back for the texture.

The wines were even more enchanting at the top of the Sebastiano Vineyard with the view of the Valley, and so was the company. John was a wine geek before he was a winemaker, and he told us the story of Dragonette, which started when he and Brandon Sparks-Gillis met while working at Wally’s. They had access to amazing wines and a great discount, so they began opening bottles together and honing their palates. They experimented with making wine in John’s Hermosa Beach garage, then went out to work at wineries and learn on the job. Soon, they brought John’s brother Steve on board. Eventually, Patton, an Italian-wine lover and former wine director at Mozza OC, joined up too. Now, after so many years drinking wine together, they know and trust each other’s palates, and they tend to reach an easy agreement when blending wines. Partly, the accord comes from having a stable of really great vineyards. “You start to get to know what these vineyards taste like,” John says. This is Dragonette’s sixteenth vintage, and they’re at the top of their game. John resisted any questions about big future projects, saying he just wants to keep on keeping on, enjoying this beautiful thing they’ve built. (I want to keep enjoying it, too!) Thanks very much for the hospitality, John and Patton. Hope to see you again soon.

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Stay tuned for Sharon’s report on Peake Ranch.

- Kate Soto