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Andrew Murray to Expand; Leasing Former Curtis Winery & Vineyard

2014 January 14
Andrew Murray and wife Kristen

Andrew Murray and wife Kristen outside their tasting room in Los Olivos

Andrew Murray is a name those of us who love American Rhone-style wines have seen on bottles of small lot Syrah and popular, value-priced Rhone blends for years. Andrew started Andrew Murray Vineyards with his parents in 1990, so he’s been in the wine business for nearly 24 years now.

Andrew first made wine from his family’s estate vineyard in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez AVA off Foxen Canyon Road near the AVA’s northern boundary. When that property was sold in 2005, Andrew had to relocate both his winemaking and much of his grape sourcing, buying fruit from as far away as Paso Robles, Lodi and other parts of the Central Coast.

But thanks to a new long term lease on the former Curtis Winery and Vineyard, owned by the Firestone family, Andrew has just announced he is officially “coming home” with dedicated grapes and a major winemaking facility in Santa Ynez once again, this time on Foxen Canyon Road itself.

Curtis Vineyards

Curtis Vineyards

When I first met Andrew in April last year, I expected him to be an older gentleman, like myself. Instead, he’s a boyish looking 41-year-old. What’s his secret? Andrew started making wine when he was only in his teens.

Andrew was all of 16 when he was exposed to wine while touring France with his parents. That’s when a bottle of Phillipe Faury Condrieu turned him on to Viognier—then a virtually unknown variety in the U.S.—and to fine wine in general. Andrew and his parents, L.A.-based restaurateurs Jim and Francis Murray, were staying and eating at an inn called L’Espérance in the Burgundy village of Vézelay. In honor of that experience, Espérance is the name Andrew gave to the AMV GSM blend.

After the France trip, Andrew started college at Berkeley. He ultimately decided to transfer to U.C. Davis, though, to learn winemaking. His Berkeley academic adviser counseled him to work first in Australia, to get some practical winemaking experience before starting at Davis.

So at age 18, Andrew went to work for Robert Bowen at Capel Vale in Western Australia where he made his first wine. He ended up staying nearly a year. Andrew credits Bowen for educating him about the wines of different regions, helping him to develop his palate and further inflaming Andrew’s passion for wine before he arrived at Davis.

In the meantime, Andrew’s parents bought a 200-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. They were acquainted with winemakers there—Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen and Foxen’s Bill Wathen and Dick Doré—who suggested their land would be good for growing grapes, specifically Rhone varieties. So that’s what the Murrays proceeded to do.

Andrew was very keen to plant Viognier, so the Murrays obtained cuttings identified as Viognier from a local nursery. The grapes produced by most of that budwood, however, turned out to be Syrah. Apparently the cosmos was redirecting Andrew to the grape he was to excel at.

The first vintage of wine under the Andrew Murray Vineyards label was 1993. For the first few years, most of what they produced was Syrah. By 1996-1997, however, Andrew was experimenting with Rhone blends and other single Rhone variety bottlings, like Roussanne and Mourvèdre.

By the end of Andrew’s first winemaking decade, Robert Parker called AMV “one of the shining stars in the Santa Barbara firmament” while the San Francisco Chronicle named Andrew a “winemaker to watch.”

Andrew Murray Dec 2013

By 2005, the vineyard plantings on the Murray ranch had grown to 42 acres. Andrew also purchased grapes from other area vineyards, including Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley and Melville in Sta. Rita Hills. He even sourced from Paso Robles and other parts of the Central Coast for his lower priced bottlings. His parents, however, were looking to retire, which meant selling their property, including the estate vineyards and the winemaking facility they had built on Foxen Canyon Road, adjacent to Zaca Mesa.

The sale of the ranch and winery, to Santa Monica real estate developer John Zahoudanis, closed in January 2006. Zahoudanis thereafter launched Demetria Estates. Andrew kept the Andrew Murray brand name and Los Olivos tasting room, but had to locate another winemaking facility and new grape sources.

Andrew leased the former Firestone Walker brewery, located in the canyon lands far behind Firestone Vineyard, and revamped it into a state-of-the-art winery. Locals know the somewhat remote facility as “Area 51.” Andrew has continued to make a range of Rhone-oriented wines there—everything from single vineyard Syrahs that sell from $30 to $38—my favorite of which is the Watch Hill Vineyard—to blends meant for everyday consumption priced as low as $11 and $13 at some retail outlets.

Andrew also began to bottle the bulk of his wines under screw cap in 2006. He started this as an experiment in 2003—out of a desire to ensure that his wines made it to the consumer as fresh as possible by minimizing the possibility of cork taint. He had first bottled a portion of the AMV reserve Syrah under screw cap with the rest under cork, much like Plumpjack did starting with their 1997 Reserve Cabernet.

Andrew told me, however, that he has tired of constantly having to explain the merits of screw caps, using up precious minutes of sales call time in parts of the country that have less knowledgeable wine cultures. So he is switching to equally taint-free Diam corks for future releases of AMV wines that are meant to be more ageworthy.

Some of Andrew’s value priced wines are offered under Andrew’s “This is E11even” label—the name being a reference to the amplifier volume dials marked as going up to 11 instead of the standard 10 in the heavy metal mocumentary “This is Spinal Tap.” These are good quality, inexpensive wines, made for early drinking. He’s currently producing a white blend, red blend and Pinot Noir under this label.

Andrew’s biggest seller, accounting for 6,500 of his total annual 12 to 20 thousand case production, is the AMV Tous les Jours Syrah. It is widely available throughout the country at an average of $15, and is a delicious Syrah at the price. I rated the 2011 edition 91 points.

When I was back in Santa Barbara last month, Andrew told me he had been approached earlier that year by his long time friend and Area 51 landlord, Adam Firestone, who asked him, “How are you doing at Area 51? Have you outgrown it yet?”

Adam Firestone and Andrew Murray

Adam Firestone and Andrew Murray

Andrew reflected that AMV wines were, at that point, selling out more rapidly than he wanted—within three to six months after release—suggesting there was greater demand than they were currently supplying. He had considered charging more for the wines, but the idea of growing capacity and being able simply to sell more wine at fair prices had stronger appeal.

The Firestone family, which had sold off the Firestone Vineyard brand and 380 acres of estate vines to Foley Wine Estates in 2007, had retained their Curtis Winery on Foxen Canyon, along with 200 acres of vineyards. By 2013, however, the Firestones’ hugely successful beer operations were taking increasing amounts of the family’s time, leaving little bandwidth for focus on the remaining wine business.

Adam offered Andrew the chance to expand AMV by leasing both the Curtis Winery and its estate vineyards, which are planted about 50% to Rhone varieties. Ultimately an agreement was reached, effective this month, under which AMV is leasing the Curtis vineyards, leasing and remodeling the Curtis facility, and taking over the production of Curtis and Jarhead wines for the Firestone family.

Andrew plans to use about 50 acres of Rhone varieties from these vineyards for AMV wines. Other varieties from these vineyards will be used to make Jarhead and Curtis wines, with excess fruit being sold to other local wineries. Andrew will also continue to source Grenache and other varieties from Paso Robles and Santa Barbara growers.

The Curtis label will continue as limited production bottlings made by AMV in arrangement with the Firestone family. Meanwhile, Andrew explains that Area 51 will be turned into a cooperative type of winemaking facility he hopes will continue to be an incubator for new labels. Former Curtis winemaker Ernst Storm, whom I profiled here, will move to that facility to focus on his Storm Wines.

Andrew tells me his family will keep the popular Los Olivos tasting room open for the foreseeable future, but that, after winery renovations over the next several months, visitors who want a deeper experience will be able to tour the winery as well as attend special events there.

Andrew, one of the lucky few of us who found his life’s calling in the wine business even before he was old enough to buy wine legally, tells me he’s on a mission “to make better wines every year of my life.” With access once again to “estate vineyards,” where he will have more control over the viticulture and day-to-day management, as well as a larger facility for practicing his craft, I have no doubt he will continue to achieve that goal.

For my tasting notes and ratings on some of AMV’s current offerings, as well as on the Curtis Wines I tasted on an earlier trip last year, see below.

Andrew Murray
Andrew Murray wines

  • 2012 Andrew Murray RGB Camp 4 Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley
    Bright light yellow color; lifted, aromatic bright, lemon juice, citrus nose; tasty, focused, clean, medium bodied, lemon juice, juicy, mineral, bright citrus palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (50/50 co-fermented Grenache Blanc/Roussanne; 13.8% alcohol) 91 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray RGB Camp 4 Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley
    Light yellow color; tart apple, ripe pear nose; tasty, fresh, juicy, apple, apple sauce, ripe pear palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (no oak, inhibited malolactic) 89 points

  • 2012 Andrew Murray Espérance – Central Coast
    Very dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, roasted beets, tar, liquid pepper nose; ripe, juicy, tart black fruit, black pepper, tart black plum, tart berry, black currant palate; medium-plus finish (60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre) 92 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Espérance – Central Coast
    Very dark ruby color; earthy, reduction, tart roasted black fruit, charcoal, light pepper nose; fresh, reductive, roasted black fruit, pepper palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre; 15% alcohol) 88 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Syrah Watch Hill Vineyard – Santa Barbara County
    Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, pepper, tar, charcoal nose; tasty, poised, complex, pepper, roasted black fruit, mineral, tar palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (with 4% co-fermented Viognier) 93 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Syrah Tous les Jours – Central Coast
    Very dark ruby color; fresh, appealing, roasted black fruit, charcoal nose; tasty, roasted black fruit, charcoal, light pepper, tar palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (great value at $15-16) 91 points

  • 2010 Andrew Murray Syrah Terra Bella Vineyard Paso Robles
    Very dark purple red violet color; appealing, roasted plum, tart black fruit, pepper, charcoal nose; tart roasted black fruit, pepper, charcoal palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points

  • 2008 Andrew Murray Syrah Watch Hill Vineyard – Santa Barbara County
    Opaque black-tinged purple red violet color; appealing, liquid pepper, roasted plum, roasted meat nose; rich, velvety textured, tart berry, tart black fruit, tar, pepper, black berry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (14.9% alcohol) 93+ points

  • 2004 Andrew Murray Syrah Roasted Slope – Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark ruby color; maturing, barbecue sauce, roasted beets, tart black fruit, baked black fruit nose; medium bodied, tar, roasted black fruit, pepper palate; long finish (4-5% Viognier; 14.9% alcohol) 92+ points

  • 2001 Andrew Murray Syrah Estate Grown – Santa Ynez Valley
    Bricking dark red violet color; roasted beets, raspberry puree, tart black fruit nose; juicy, roasted beets, tart black fruit, black currant, tar palate; should go 8-10 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol) 91+ points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray This is E11even Unplugged – Santa Ynez Valley
    Light green-tinged yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, ripe lemon nose; clean, juicy, green pear, tart peach palate; medium finish (50% Chenin Blanc, 50% Sauvignon Blanc; old vine vineyard) 89 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Pinot Noir This is E11even – Santa Maria Valley
    Dark ruby color; oak, green peppercorn, roasted plum nose; fresh, tart cherry, green peppercorn palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points (13.5% alcohol; 3-5% whole cluster; 5 clones: 2A and Dijons) 88 points

  • 2010 Andrew Murray This is E11even Big Bottom – Santa Ynez Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; appealing, fresh, menthol, ripe currant nose; fresh, ripe red currant, black currant, cassis palate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) 89 points

Curtis
Curtis Wines 2

  • 2011 Curtis Viognier Santa Barbara County – Santa Barbara County
    Light green-tinged yellow color; clean, very tart peach nose; crisp, tasty, tart peach, ripe citrus, mineral palate; medium finish (14.3% alcohol; fermentation in stainless steel; 10-15% malolactic) 90 points

  • 2011 Curtis Heritage Blanc – Santa Barbara County
    Light straw yellow color; tart green fruit, green mango, tart green melon nose; crisp, tart green fruit, citrus palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (blend of 34% Grenache Blanc, 33% Roussanne, 33% Viognier; 14.3% alcohol) 89 points

  • 2012 Curtis Heritage Rosé – Santa Barbara County
    Light pink orange color; appealing, tart Rainier cherry, tart tangerine, pink grapefruit nose; tasty, clean, very tart Rainier cherry, very tart orange, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (38% Grenache, 32% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 3% Cinsault; 13.8% alcohol; excellent rosé at $22 SRP) 92+ points

  • 2010 Curtis Heritage Cuvée – Santa Barbara County
    Dark red violet color; aromatic, tart berry, dried berry, ripe black fruit, tar nose; complex, tasty, balanced, ripe berry, baked berry palate with a smoky quality; medium-plus finish (38% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 25% Cinsault, 11% Syrah; 14.5% alcohol; 16 months in oak, 15% new; great barbecue wine for $24 SRP) 91 points

  • 2010 Curtis Mourvedre Santa Barbara County – Santa Barbara County
    Very dark red violet color; aromatic, dried red fruit, funky, dried mushroom nose; tasty, tart berry, dried berry, mineral, light licorice palate with mid-palate fullness; good now but could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; 16 months in oak, partially on lees, 25% new; 369 & SS clones) 91+ points

  • 2010 Curtis Syrah – Santa Barbara County
    Very dark red violet color; appealing, tart blackberry, lifted, tart berry, tar nose; tasty, poised, medium bodied, tar, tart black fruit, mineral, light pepper palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; 20-25% new French oak for 16 months) 92 points

Curtis Wines

7 Responses leave one →
  1. James permalink
    January 15, 2014

    So, does this mean the end of the Curtis brand? Will Ernst and Chuck be gone?

  2. Bob permalink
    January 15, 2014

    Thanks for another well written and informative article. But what of Chuck Carlson?

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      January 15, 2014

      Thank you for the questions James and Bob. My understanding is that the Curtis brand will continue as described in my post, i.e., as limited production bottlings made by AMV in arrangement with the Firestone family. The post above also mentioned that Ernst will be focusing on his Storm Wines and relocating to Area 51.

      Chuck Carlson will move on to pursue growing his own brand of many years, Carlson Wines, in addition to supporting the sales efforts of the Firestone family winemaking endeavors–smaller more personal projects for the Firestone family members.

  3. James permalink
    January 15, 2014

    Thanks for the info RJ. I’m going to miss Curtis. But the times are a’ changing.

    • January 15, 2014

      James, we hope that you come by to see that Curtis is not going away, but rather scaling back. My wife and I plan on operating the facility at the same high level that their fans have grown to appreciate, with a few tweaks here and there. We are around daily if you ever have the chance to stop by…then I could share our vision for the future with you over a glass of Curtis Wine.

      Richard, thanks for breaking this story for AMV and the Firestone family…very well done.

      Cheers

      Andrew

  4. David permalink
    January 19, 2014

    RJ,

    Another great comprehensive post, keep them coming (more frequently) please.

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