Winemaker Debuts at SLO's San-Juliette

TV producers build estate winery on California's Central Coast

by Jane Firstenfeld
villa san-juliette
The owners of Villa San-Juliette will introduce their new winemaker, Matt Ortman, on Monday at the winery.
San Miguel, Calif.—Second-generation winemaker Matt Ortman didn’t so much interview for his new job at Paso Robles’ Villa San-Juliette as he did audition. After showcasing his winemaking licks in a blind tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon wines, he met with the owners in Los Angeles less than two weeks ago.

He and his wines wowed the judges. He won his return “ticket to Paso” and hit the ground running at the lavish new winery the next day. “It was an unconventional process,” Ortman admitted.

Lifelong friends Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe, producers of “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and other reality series, bought the vineyard in 2005 and continue to be hands-on owners of the site in the Paso Robles AVA of San Luis Obispo County. The new Villa includes two owners’ wings above the tasting room, which they frequently visit.

While San-Juliette has produced wines off-site since 2008, Warwick and Lythgoe opened the new winery to the public in October 2012. Of 330 wineries in SLO County, Villa San-Juliette ranks in the top 10% for production, according to WinesVinesDATA. (Only 20 of the region’s wineries make more than 30,000 cases per year.) San-Juliette produces 32,000 cases; the wines are distributed in 42 states and four countries.

The large production means it’s a big job for Ortman, son of Central Coast wine pioneer Chuck Ortman (see winemaker interview here), who launched Meridian Wines in Napa, sold it to Beringer in 1988 and moved with it to Paso Robles. Later, the Ortmans worked together at Ortman Family Wines, which folded in 2011.

A head for the reds
Chuck Ortman is known as a Chardonnay expert, but his son Matt Ortman said he’s always “leaned toward the reds.” San-Juliette produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Malbec, Grenache and Zinfandel as well as a popular-priced tier called Fat Monk. He also produces white wines Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Albariño.

The estate comprises 128 acres of bearing vineyards, most planted in 2006. “I counted 11 varieties the other day,” Ortman told Wines & Vines. Except for a small plot near the winery, where he hopes to put “head-pruned Tannat” to be tended by the staff and owners, there’s not much more plantable land.

Ortman said he would tap Edna Valley connections to source “my new favorite,” Albariño. (The quirky Iberian white variety is gaining popularity in the region.) “SLO County probably has more of it than anywhere” outside its native Spain, Ortman suggested.

Outfitting to order
County zoning issues delayed opening of the new Villa, and the winery itself is still not yet completely outfitted, leaving Ortman in the enviable position of equipping it to his own specifications.

“We just had about a dozen tanks delivered, and I’m about to take delivery on a destemmer/hopper. I just started last Tuesday; some stuff was ordered before,” Ortman said. “I’m going to Unified (Wine & Grape Symposium) next week to go shopping.”

Designed for hospitality, there are no especially green aspects to the operation so far. “That’s probably on my wish list,” Ortman said. He’s partial to the Central Coast Vineyard Team’s SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certification program, which he said may actually take sustainability “a step further” than organic growing, particularly in its insistence on wastewater management, cover crops and maintenance of natural habitats.

The new Villa is, appropriately, a showcase for the wines, equipped with a professional kitchen for visiting chefs. Its website promotes the property as a destination for weddings, parties and corporate events of up to 80 people. Concerts are another obvious possibility. American Idol “Kelly Clarkson has been here,” Ortman said.

Even with their show-biz glitter, Warwick and Lythgoe “are not what you’d expect,” Ortman said. They are serious about the wine, enjoy being hands-on at the winery and are known to mingle with visitors in the tasting room.

Is there anything Ortman would prefer they not touch? “I probably won’t let them drive the forklift,” he conceded.

Ortman will make his official debut at the Villa San-Juliette on Monday, when he’ll be introduced to media at 4 p.m. and the public at 4:30 p.m. Phone (805) 467-0014, ext.100, to attend.

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