Roark Wine Company: A one-man wine (minimalist) empire

In college I wanted to emulate the minimalism of Jack Kerouac in On The Road, sleeping on a rice mat and being able to carry everything I owned in a rucksack. His philosophy sounded so profound when he explained, “everything belongs to me because i am poor”. I romanticized the ideal of stripping away material trappings to focus on the present. Nothing to interfere with the here and now. Well, except for maybe some Benzedrine.

That’s sort of the way Ryan Roark approaches making wine. His minimalistic winemaking philosophy is to let the land and the fruit speak for themselves.  “I work hard to bring the grapes to the winery on the right day, at the best possible time. That way there is no need to mess with the grapes.” While he’s not a strict adherent to natural wine making, he uses neutral yeast and avoids acid or water additions to let the wine reflect the terroir. I bet he doesn’t even go for the occasional dose of Benzedrine.

Roark, a native Texan, studied environmental science at Texas A&M. From there he entered a study abroad program in France, learning about grape growing, the aesthetics of wine and did a viticulture internship where he learned the ropes in vineyard and cellar work at a small family winery. His experience working with a family that managed every aspect of the business from the farming, to winemaking to sales and marketing shaped his approach to the wine industry in a profound way.

After an internship at Etude in Napa and another in New Zealand, Roark moved to Santa Barbara where he wound up at a vineyard management company. Working the fields helped him uncover a forgotten jewel. He found Chenin Blanc grapes in vineyards planted in the 1960s, and decided to purchase the grapes to make about 60 cases of his own wine at a friend’s winery.

Roark Wines world headquarters

That small batch was the first step toward becoming a winemaker. Patterning his approach after the family wineries in France, Roark is farming an acre of his own. He picks the grapes, makes the wine, hand bottles the wine and sells it all by mail order all on his own. He is a one-man show and doesn’t even have a website or the assistance of marketing, PR or distributors to help him move his wine. He relies completely on word of mouth.

In 2010 he rented a 1,000 square foot building and equipment to make his wine. His adherence to simplicity even extends to his facilities. He goes so far as to use old school winemaking basket press and whole cluster fermentation. And he lives in the winery, sleeping enveloped in soft blankets of grape aromas to stain his dreams. Minimalism lets him cut out all the extra costs and keep his wines affordable.

Letting the grapes show what they have with minimal intervention means that Roark is really at the whim of Mother Nature. There was a lot of variability in the vineyard where he’s harvesting. In 2009 he had ripe grapes with plenty of sugar that produced Chenin Blanc with riper, rounder mouthfeel and slightly higher alcohol. He made 100 cases and it sold very quickly.

In 2010 the sugar was lower and the acidity shines through with citrus flavors. Roark says 2010 is typical of the style he wants to make. He is shooting for wine that is similar to Vouvray from the Loire Valley, punctuated with bright acidity and mineral characters to pair well with fresh vegetables, grilled seafood.

How does it taste? Bill Elsey, sommelier and specialist of wine and spirits for the Red Room Lounge and, and I opened the 2009 and 2010. Here is what we thought.

2009 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc

Look Light gold with great clarity. The ’09 is slightly deeper in color than the 2010 with a copper tinge.
Smell It has aromas of dried leaves, grass and mild lemon zest. The scents are skin driven not like fresh fruit and shows good characteristics of Chenin Blanc.
Taste This approachable wine has springy citrus, bright acidity and is slightly floral. The middle palate has a honey suckle, cotton candy fading to peach pit. The alcohol is zippy on the tongue giving way to a quick finish. It’s a dry style lacking the hefty residual sugar found in some Chenin Blancs in the U.S.
Price $15

2010 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc 

Look Shimmering light gold with crystal clarity.
Smell This guy is as herbaceous as a fat sack of weed or a basket of Cascade hops. After the kind bud scent, it has a stony mineral backbone and citrus. It’s less aromatic than the ’09.
Taste The 2010 has full frontal citrus that carries through the palette. The citrus dominates as a single note without a lot of variation. It has lively acidity with an under-current of minerality, which is just what Roark is gunning for.
Price $15

Bill’s read? “I wouldn’t have thought these were new world wines. They definitely have an old world aesthetic.”

My read? He hit the mark in 2009, making a wine that resembled one you would find from Loire. However, 2010 lacked the complexity that made 2009 enjoyable. It’s still a decent wine that would be satisfying on a hot summer day.

Roark also started making Malbec in 2010 with grapes grown in the hottest part of the Santa Barbara County, Happy Canyon. He may be the only person in the area making Malbec. Right before he picked, there was an unusually hot spell which ripened the grapes quickly. The resulting juice lacked the acidity he wanted, so Roark purchased under ripe Cabernet Franc grapes to blend in to boost the acidity as it’s done in the Loire Valley. He just released this wine in March 2012 and is confident he’ll sell out the limited production of 60 cases.

I got my hands on a pre-release bottle that was labeled with duct tape. Nice minimalist touch that I’m sure Kerouac would approve of.

2010 Malbec Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara 

Look Opaque midnight purple with fat grapey edges and lush viscosity.
Smell It has aromas of spicy blackberry and funky back woods fruit hanging on the vine late into the chill fall.
Taste The 2010 has powerful fruit showing grape, blueberry and plum flavors, with red licorice intertwined. The gripping tannins cling through a slightly smoky, persistent finish. This is an easy drinking – “gulp-able” even – Malbec that would pair well with Texas BBQ and stout meat.
Price $25

Elsey liked it just fine. He said, “This is varietally correct. It’s like what I get from Argentina with no oak influence, the alcohol is balanced with bright acidity. Fresh.”

Roark is also farming an acre vineyard to make Syrah and Grenache. He’s interested in making a blend that is very acidic and light in style. In the 2011 harvest he picked the grapes and fermented them separately, and blended them to bring out the desired characteristics.

2010 Grenache 60%/ Syrah 40% Santa Ynez Valley Santa Barbara County

Look The wine shows amethyst purple with ruby edges. It has some clarity, but is almost opaque.
Smell It’s a fragrant wine with red fruit, raspberry, white pepper spiciness and lavender scents that blossomed over time.
Taste Roark’s Rhone style blend has flavors of plum and tobacco with bright acidity good tannins. The oak doesn’t get in the way of the fruit. I poured a second glass of this one.
Price To be determined when it is available for sale.

Roark can’t fit everything he owns in a rucksack and he’s soon going to have more to stuff. He has development plans to plant another two or three acres over the next year or two. He plans to build his to 1,000 to 2,000 cases a year. That minimalist philosophy runs deep though. He’ll stay small and keep selling direct by mail order and to local restaurants and shops. He hopes to build group of devoted fans over time.

If you want to get your grubby mitts on some of this wine, you’ve got to figure out how the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service works and mail order it. Roark takes orders and checks at:  Roark Wine Company, PO Box 1833, Santa Ynez, CA  93460.


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