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Interview with Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars

November 2nd, 2017

By Brent Bracamontes

By the time I started teaching wine classes and doing sommelier work on the floor of The Twisted Vine in 2011, Dragonette Cellars was already a reasonably established enterprise. As I was beginning my own wine training and education, all I knew about Dragonette was that someone affiliated with the brand had once worked at The Vine, and that our customers loved the wines. Now, in 2017, Dragonette Cellars is as reputable a brand as it ever has been, and appears to be adored by many of the same customers who adored it back in the day, as well as by some noteworthy names in the world of wine media. (Dragonette’s website features a statement of flattering praise by Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media.) In preparation for a tasting event on November 8th, 2017, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Brandon Sparks-Gillis, Dragonette’s co-founder.

Roots of the Operation
After spending some time in the retail sector at Wally’s Wine, a very reputable wine shop in Los Angeles, Brandon’s attention turned toward the production side of the business. When describing the move to start up an operation alongside John and Steve Dragonette, Brandon spoke fondly of the bond they seemed to have from the beginning. “It all clicked immediately,” he said. This “click” refers both to their palate preferences as well as a bond that would pave the way for an upcoming project. A barrel of wine produced in John’s garage in 2003 represents the beginning of the Dragonette wine operation, which would eventually supplant itself in Santa Barbara County. In reflecting on this shift, Brandon noted, “It was great. It was a nice change to experience the variety of growing, wine-making, and the business side; every day became different rather than the same. All three of us love the tactile, physical aspect of the process, so we really enjoy being in the vineyards, along with the day-to-day process of tending to the wine in the cellar.”

The Charm of Santa Barbara County
During our conversation, I was charmed by how warmly Brandon Spoke of Santa Barbara county. When he speaks of Santa Barbara as a location for fine wine production, he speaks about it with a type of genuine reverence. As he explained, Santa Barbara as a viticultural area presents rich diversity of climate and soil type. Within this range lies a cooler climate atmosphere that promotes production of wines Brandon loves to drink, where fresh fruit flavors are complemented by balanced acidity. These wines may not necessarily compare stylistically to the archetypal styles of Napa and Sonoma, but offer an appeal that is more reflective of more classic, refined styles. In discussing the beginnings of their operation, Brandon specifically highlighted Syrah as the first wine they produced, which reflected a cool climate style much more than some of the more plump and ripe styles that are characteristic of warmer growing regions.

Grapes and Vineyards
During our conversation, we spent considerable time discussing Brandon’s experience working with many different grapes and vineyard sites. If you were to peruse Dragonette’s website for a breakdown of their wines, you are sure to be impressed by how many distinct wines they produce from different plots of land. When asked about the perks of sourcing fruit from many different sites, Brandon responded, “the pleasure is that we get to explore the diverse terrains of the Santa Ynez Valley and find sites that are perfectly suited to each of the varieties we work with.” This idea was reinforced at other points in our discussion, when Brandon commented on the range of grape varieties they work with for their impressive selection of different wines. As he explained, “Experiencing the different AVA’s each season gives us a greater understanding of Santa Barbara. It is also a huge advantage in that we are diversified; in the event of severe weather, we are less exposed.” This is an important consideration, but one that seems under-emphasized in casual conversation about wine-making and blending practices, in particular. While Dragonette certainly practices blending as a means for producing wines that are balanced and that meet their specifications as vintners, working with different grape varieties provides some necessary insurance. For example, Brandon pointed out that Pinot Noir yields in some vineyards were down 60% during this most recent vintage, which could have been catastrophic if they worked solely with that variety. I would be remiss if I did not mention Brandon’s comments about Dragonette’s philosophies on working with specific vineyards. In addition to sourcing fruit from different vineyards sites, he especially noted their interests in tailoring specific farming practices to particular vineyards. Especially when working with contracted growers, Brandon and crew seek to understand the most ideal farming practices for that unique site, in order to promote an authentic “sense of place” in each of the wines they eventually produce.

Moving Forward
When I asked Brandon to comment on the evolution of the Dragonette brand, he noted how happy the team is with the progress they have made so far. He stated succinctly, “Our goals have remained constant: find the best vineyards, farm to the highest standards, and work toward creating the best possible wine.” He elaborated, “We have implemented organic and bio-dynamic farming techniques in the vineyards, and we have become better at tasting and blending over the years as well.” As I reflect on Brandon’s comments, I find that his vision for the future of the Dragonette brand is consistent with his own preferences as a consumer. He likes balanced wines that taste like reflections of specific places, which seems to run counter to a prevailing trend among larger operations, in which expression of site and vintage are sacrificed for a more commercially-viable approach to striving for stylistic consistency across different vintages and vineyard sites. This is not to say that Dragonette is not a commercial operation, but, rather, to comment on the ways their brand is attempting to maintain commitment to the viticulture and vinification practices that got them to where they are now.