If you want to make an impression as a relative startup in the California winemaking business, start by making two great Viogniers.
That’s what Workman Ayer, whose production facilities are located in Santa Barbara, has done. The first one, called “Ipso Facto,” is a quintessential California Central Coast’s take on this classic Rhone white varietal wine. The second Viognier, called “Abroachment,” is value-driven yet highly distinctive, made from grapes grown in Lodi—an up-and-coming California wine region but perhaps still best known as a reference in a classic Credence Clearwater Revival song (“Oh Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again…”).
If the winery name, “Workman Ayer,” sounds more like a law firm in a long-running fictional NBC legal series, and the wine names “Ipso Facto” and “Abroachment” more like terms a lawyer would toss out in a courtroom in that same fictional NBC legal series… well, that’s by design. All we’re missing is the “ba-buhm” bass and jazzy synthesizer chords of that iconic theme music from Law & Order. Michel Ayer, proprietor and winemaker of Workman Ayer, is, indeed, a lawyer as well as an agriculturalist.
The Corkscrewer Report: How did the Workman Ayer winery come about?
Michel Ayer [Proprietor and Winemaker, Workman Ayer]: I got interested in wine because I studied abroad in Italy during college. Upon graduation I moved up to Napa and took what I thought was a seasonal job with Mondavi. Two weeks into my job, I met the woman who would be my wife. She had grown up on the Mondavi property because her dad had worked there for about 25 years… I then did the dot-com thing since we were in the Bay Area—I was part of the original WineShopper and Wine.com until they blew up. But, then, I decided to spring it on my wife that I wanted to go to law school, and convinced her to move to Iowa City, Iowa, for three-and-a-half years. I graduated from law school, and we moved to Phoenix, and I started practicing as an attorney but never lost that wine bug.
After a few years of practice, we decided, okay, we’re just going to start a real small project. We thought it would be Cal-Italian wines, but we couldn’t find any fruit we were happy with that we could get a regular supply of. I talked to one of my old colleagues from my old dot-com days, and her husband was hooked into everybody. And he said, ‘Do you like Rhone wines?’… and, so, we started off with our first 2010 vintage, and it was 75 cases of red and 47 cases of Viognier.
TCR: And you found a facility in Buellton, Santa Barbara, to make your wines?
MA: Yes, the wines are still made there. Just an industrial complex. Nothing fancy, but there’s good refrigeration, good insulation, and the rent is relatively cheap. We’ve slowly grown the wine project over the years to where we have about 100 cases/4 barrels a year of the red blend, always Syrah dominant.
TCR: Why make two Viogniers?
MA: I really like Viognier when it’s well made. It probably not the best business decision to do two Viogniers, but it sure has been a lot of fun. And getting the reaction people have given us has been really good.
TCR: How would you describe a great Viognier?
MA: To me, there has to be true floral notes. And then it shouldn’t be too heavy or viscous on the palate. You have to strike that delicate line of showing fruit but not being fat.
TCR: And what’s behind your wine names?
MA: It’s my law background. I tend to flip through Black’s Law Dictionary and look for cool names that mean something. At home, the law dictionary sits on my side table. With “De Facto,” the idea is, here it is—take it for what it’s worth. It may not be a traditional blend, it may be something else year-to-year, but you just have to accept it for what it is. “Abroachment” was the favorite term that I found. It’s used when you buy something wholesale and kitty it into a small retail market—it’s what we had to do with that wine because production was so low. Archaically, it also means to open a liquid for consumption, e.g. ‘the cask of wine was set abroach.’ We wanted to say with our new Lodi Viognier—all you have to do is open it. With “Ipso Facto” we wanted to convey a sense that these things are what they are. They’re not to be taken for something else. It mimics our way of being pretty simplistic. We don’t have a lot of technology. We’re simple. That’s the way I like to think of it.
Workman Ayer’s flagship wine is a Rhone-inspired varietal red blend, called “De Facto.” The blend may change vintage-to-vintage, but its primary component is Syrah from top sites in Santa Barbara County. For around 40 bucks, it’s a wonderful buy—polished, balanced, delicious and eminently food-friendly. Santa Barbara has enjoyed Pinot Noir prominence for over a decade thanks to a well-received indie film, but at some point the general consumer out there is going to realize the Syrah from this region is out-of-this-world fantastic.
TCR: Where would you say Santa Barbara is headed after enjoying over a decade of Pinot Noir prominence in the public eye? Where is it going now? Or is it really still the same?
MA: I think you’ll continue to see a push in the Rhone varietals, especially Grenache and Grenache-based blends. The one thing I find interesting about Santa Barbara, in general, is that it’s not as organized a place as, say, Paso Robles. Paso wineries have done a better job of aligning themselves. Their vineyard association is probably stronger than what we see in Santa Barbara, and maybe because we’re kind of more diverse. I would posit that as a possibility. The diversity of Santa Barbara has always amazed me. I think you’ll see an exploration of, you could call them up-and-coming varietals—especially what I see Pete Stolpman doing at the Stolpman Ranch, where they’re planting things like a lot of Mourvedre, and doing stuff like Counoise, Cinsault and other lesser known varieties that are going to play more of a role in the Central Valley. These fringe varieties are going to step more into the forefront. That’s just my opinion. What do I know?—I’m not even a grower.
The easiest way to tell if your nascent wine business is growing the way it should is if your bottles are showing up in more boutique wine stores and restaurants. This has certainly happened for Workman Ayer—four years ago in relative obscurity with their first vintage to a widening presence today and wide critical acclaim.
TCR: We’ve started seeing your wines in more wine stores since first becoming familiar with your wines over two years ago. What has changed?
MA: We moved brokers, a little over two years ago. Our broker now is based out of Yountville, Napa. But they cover the whole state of California for me. And this is the first broker I’ve been with that really had the capacity to cover statewide—they have enough sales people, understand the vision, and, frankly, have enough other stuff in their book to make it look interesting.
Our quantities are so small that we have to be in the more independent wine shops. I have no budget to take out full-page glossies in Spectator. I’m happy to get reviews from them when they’re positive [laughs]… I understand that points still matter. Especially to people who aren’t familiar with a small brand like ours.
Keep an eye on this winery. They’re risk-takers and refuse to tread the same beaten path AND come from a law background—it’s a vital combination when you’ve got a hunch on a winery becoming the next-big-thing. If you understand the diligence and clarity required to put together a legal case, then you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship that’s behind putting together a case of Workman Ayer.
Buellton, Santa Barbara, California, USA
Proprietor and Winemaker: Michel Ayer
100% Viognier from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties | $24 | 91 pts
A quintessential California Central Coast’s take on this classic Rhone white varietal wine. A hint of bitters and spice on the palate says “let Viognier be Viognier”—as does the honeysuckle floral quality on the nose. The wine’s body is weighty and its texture viscous in a high-class manner—all very smooth and without an edge, a comforting roundness. Excellent balance is achieved, while flavors of young apricot and sweet citrus are prominent. A very solid effort and a memorable wine alternative to Chardonnay. Very reasonably priced for this amount of character and sense of Central Coast terroir.
100% Viognier from Lodi, California | $20 | 90 pts
A Viognier that will catch your attention. From the outset—with its bright, sharp nose of white grapefruit, lemon-lime and a hint of green olives—it’s a white wine with substance and a distinctive flair, almost show-offy. Who needs Tony Robbins to motivate when the power of focus and persistence is right here in this Lodi Viognier? The richness of stone fruit flavors and attractive balance of citrus acidity drives forward cleanly along an elegant structure. Add to all that a floral quality, buttery texture and hint of sweetness, grassiness and minerality—and you’ve got something that’s entirely different yet crowd-pleasing. What a great price for such a distinctive bottle.
90% Syrah, 10% Grenache from Santa Barbara County | $40 | 92 pts
Fresh, vibrant, polished, focused, distinctive, flavorful, joyful and sophisticated—let us submit the De Facto as Exhibit 1a. in the case for why Syrah from Santa Barbara is special. Rich but not heavy at all, the wine is succulent dark and purple fruit with bright acidity and firm tannins. A solid spine never allows the wine to be flabby—strong structural support is needed for all that luscious and bright plum, black cherry and blueberry, and some red berry notes mingling in there too—no doubt a strong contribution from the Grenache in the mix. It all ends up being serious and deliciously fun at the same time, and so food-friendly. A versatile red wine that will easily elevate the experience of a nice meal.