Varner, Old and New: Re-Inventing the Imagination

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What is the meaning of legacy? There is a rare single moment in the lives of a very few where they break from a life’s work. Our linear perception of time restricts most of us to ‘look back’ at accomplishments. Legacy is the sum of that looking back. This strikes me as a limited view of life’s trajectory. After two hours of engrossing conversation with Bob Varner, it strikes me that Bob would agree.

Change as Intent

Varner is one of the great wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is significantly under the radar compared to Ridge and Mount Eden, but their Chardonnays are among the greatest in California. As of early this year, the Varner brothers have given up their leases to their Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards and so 2015 will be the last vintage.

This is not the end. Bob tasted me on the wines from their new Santa Barbara project. In particular, they are focusing on the neglected Los Alamos region. Bob explained to me that he finds Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to have no shortage of pretty fruit and aromatics but that they generally lack structure. His aim is to focus on and delineate the structure of wines from the region, making them more complete.


The Varners founded their eponymous winery in the 1980’s. They have been farming the land and vinifying the wine themselves since then. That solo dedication was an intense commitment. Though they have a large picking crew to meticulously sort the grapes, the winemaking is Bob alone. As anyone who has worked in a vineyard can attest, doing it all alone is a monumental if not near impossible task for most.

But that’s not Bob’s attitude. The place of the land has manifested itself physically in Bob’s demeanor. He wears his body with kindness, his eyes betray a shy exuberance for life and a belief in simplicity. Vines are own-rooted, farming is organic, vinification extremely simple with minimal sulfur the only addition after leaving the barrel. There is an offering with his wines – for you to listen, contemplate, pause. Just like the lighting in his wife’s studio where we met to taste, the wines have an illuminating transparency that clarifies for greater reflection rather than obviousness.

And you need to reflect to understand what it really means to change. To grow old with a project and move on not by resting on a legacy but by re-imagining your beliefs and your vision. The continuity between the Santa Cruz Mountains project and the Santa Barbara project is just this – clarity through reflection.

The capacity to reinvent seems to derive from the density of our relationship with the medium through which we express our intention. Have we given into a marionette pattern? Do we antagonize with the social relations with which we participate? Or, are we tracing stars into constellations – perhaps reimagining the space and line between powerful points of existing matter and energy. Do we play with potential or does it play with us?

In many ways it seems to me the question of ‘retirement’ and ‘legacy’ are poignant versions of daily struggles. Has my purpose glided into inertia? Have I lost intention to the powerful social relations that structure everything around me? Do I stop what I do and look for something else? That question of purpose and intent that creeps into our minds and we quickly brush away is the question we will never escape. But if you engage it early, embrace it, I suspect those big decisions later in life to move on and make changes, to recognize declining physical strength, to ‘slow down’, become decisions much more of the imagination than of capitulation.

The Contours of Change

Bob Varner is a master farmer. He knows his Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards with great intimacy. He knows how to softly coax and encourage the great power of Chardonnay from the site with its explosive mid-palate. He is also very scientific in his approach, being a geneticist by training and one of the earliest students of UC Davis. He combines scientific observation and rigour with a sense of and belief in imaginative aesthetics.


His wines last for days after opening and continue to improve with air. Bob generously gave me the remainder of the 2014 ‘Bee Block’ Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay we were tasting, which I continued to sip and share with friends over the next 3 days. And the wine stood its ground. It was a remarkable accomplishment. These are among my favourite Chardonnays in the world.

The new Santa Barbara project will benefit from Bob’s experience filtered through his ever-engaged reflective imagination. He will continue to listen to this new land, to understand its nuances and build the wine subtly year by year from that. The Chardonnays from Los Alamos are not explosive powerhouses like the Santa Cruz Mountains bottlings, but are prettier wines with softer up front fruit, but delicious saline acidity growing through the mid-palate into the succulent finish. They are polished wines that sneak in their deeper secrets. I think we will see these wines continue to develop and increase in subtlety as the Varners perfect their understanding of the site.

The Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs are in my view a little further along compared to the Chardonnays – or at least offering a little more complexity. I found the 2014 Los Alamos Vineyard bottling a delicious, easy to drink wine that yet used its lively, focused acidity to delineate a streamlined architecture I found extremely pleasurable. Also enjoyed over a few days, the wine held up to the oxygen.

What I like about the new project is how it combines a completely distinct voice with a consistent sense of subtlety. California fruit can be loud and obvious. It is nearly always exuberant compared to its old-world companions. It needs a tender hand to coax out its more ethereal qualities and Bob is uncommonly adept at achieving this second layer of experience. The fruit and the structure of the Santa Barbara wines are completely distinct and in many ways opposed to the Santa Cruz Mountains wines – but the layering of subtlety is present in both. The layering is denser and more articulated in the Santa Cruz wines for now, but I have no doubt the new project will delineate with time. It is a project to watch.

I also like how the Varners are not going with the obvious. Rather than focusing on the more famous Sta Rita Hills or Santa Maria Valley, they are getting their fruit from the Los Alamos region squeezed in between those two famous AVAs. Bob explained to me that he believes this lesser known region offers greater potential structure for the wines.

The Varner’s big shift to a Santa Barbara project proves there is no limit to reinvention and no timeline for the imagination. It’s a lesson that would bring many more of us closer to happiness if we stopped to listen and reflect on its simplicity.

The Wines

Varner Santa Cruz Mountains Spring Ridge Vineyard ‘Bee Block’ Chardonnay 2014: Excellent+. ~$45-$55 USD

Varner Santa Barbara County ‘el Camino Vineyard’ Chardonnay 2014: Very Good+ ~$25-30 USD

Varner Santa Barbara County ‘Los Alamos Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2014: Excellent ~$25-30 USD


  1. David J Cooper
    March 19, 2017

    Shea. A very well written article on one of my favorite California winemakers. It’s a shame that the Neely/Varner relationship is over.

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