For winemaker Ryan Stirm, everything happens for a Riesling
By Paul Wetterau
Much like surfer Robert “Wingnut” Weaver in 1994’s classic surf film Endless Summer II, 29-year-old Ryan Stirm gets his stoke from following the season. Whether it’s harvesting Riesling in Santa Barbara or jumping on a plane to pick Chardonnay in Western Australia, the easy-going vintner thrives off of the sense of adventure that harvests bring him—and it doesn’t hurt that he often finds himself in wine regions that also have good waves.
Stirm helms Stirm Wine Company, an Aromas-based custom-crush operation that helps those looking to make their own wine. With his earnings, Stirm in turns makes his own product.
Whether it’s a client who is looking to start a one-barrel project or another who already has a serious brand, he offers thorough consultation: Do you want to use new barrels or old? Were you thinking of de-stemming or going whole-cluster? Do you want to harvest early to preserve acid and freshness, or were you thinking of making a fruit-forward and full-bodied style?
He’s open-minded with clients and encourages creativity—with a few limitations (he won’t let them make Pruno, aka “prison wine,” for one).
Many winemakers tend to imbibe their own juice, but Stirm eschews the idea of acquiring a “house palate.” Instead, he can be found sipping Brézé—a high-acid Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley—at Soif Wine Bar, in downtown Santa Cruz, with fellow nonconformists. Stirm’s winemaking style is as hip and untraditional as his tastes—he has, after all, chosen to sell his Riesling in cans.
Although he holds a degree in viticulture from Cal Poly San Louis Obispo, Stirm gives more of the credit for his wine career to his mentor, Justin Willet, owner/winemaker at world-renowned Tyler Winery in Santa Barbara, whom he met rock-climbing. “Justin didn’t come from an academic background and had more of an old-school approach,” Stirm says. “He inspired me to try some great wines, when I really didn’t know any better.” Stirm went on to work for Willet as an apprentice for four years before becoming his assistant winemaker.
On the day of our interview, something seems amiss about Stirm’s typically laid-back and soft-spoken nature. I could hear it in his voice: He had the harvest on his mind. He’s intent on finishing the conversation so that he can begin netting his vines. “The starling birds will peck at your perfect fruit and ruin the vintage if you’re not careful … and I don’t have the money to hire falconers to send their hawks off to scare away bad birds,” he says.
Stirm doesn’t have enough funding (yet) to own his own vineyards, so he farms for clients in exchange for some of their fruit. “I farm about 32 acres of vineyards and only four of those acres actually go into my brand,” he explains. A lot of the vines he’s working with have been neglected, which, he adds, is actually a great opportunity for him: “Creativity is my biggest asset,” he notes.
A health-conscious person, Stirm brings natural and sustainable values to his winemaking. His mission is to pioneer the new age of Riesling, not cause health ailments. As such, he doesn’t fall in line with winemakers who add toxic ingredients to their wines to stabilize their products. “Copper sulphate is used to help aid unhealthy fermentations, but it’s super-toxic,” Stirm says. “Velcorin is another monstrosity. It’s used in Coca-Cola to stabilize the product, but is so harmful to the body that a licensed doser needs to be present on the bottling line when it’s administered.” Instead, he leaves it alone, and tries not to add anything at all save for grapes. He relies on the yeast that comes in on the fruit’s skins, rather than adding store-bought stuff that he says promotes homogeneity.
At the end of the day, he says his focus is on growing quality fruit. “I spend 90 percent in the vineyard, and 10 percent in the cellar,” he says.
Learn more at stirmwine.com