Palisadian-Owned Vineyard Earns Raves

Watch Hill vineyard
Photos by Patrick Frank

By Patrick Frank | Contributing Writer

Winemakers who work with grapes from Watch Hill Ranch in Santa Barbara County praise the vineyard in glowing terms.

“It’s the perfect setting for Syrah,” Ken Brown said.

Andrew Murray, who also makes wine from there, told the Palisadian-Post that he likes “so many things” about that vineyard.

Flight of Watch Hill Syrah

Zac Wasserman of Frequency Wines called Watch Hill Syrah “the most powerful and concentrated wine that we bottle.”

This vineyard is still somewhat under recognized, partly because it’s small. But, since 2015, it has been owned by Palisadians Debi and Steve Lebowitz, and they are successfully raising its profile.

The first vines were planted in 2002, north of Highway 101 near the town of Los Alamos. Its neighbors include the venerable Syrah producers Zaca Mesa and Fess Parker.

Watch Hill, however, is closer to the sea breezes than either of them, with more vines planted on hillsides. These factors yield fresher wines with better balance. Vineyard manager Mike Testa called Watch Hill “an excellent microclimate.”

Syrah is an adaptable grape that yields different expressions depending on where it’s grown. In warm zones, the wines can be “flashy and fruity,” Testa told the Palisadian-Post. In cooler regions, “white pepper and spice notes” emerge, he said.

Watch Hill straddles a middle ground, bringing traits from both. A recent tasting featured Watch Hill Syrah from three producers, an excellent flight that showed subtle differences in approach. These wines can be sampled and bought in tasting rooms and through winery websites.

Murray of Los Olivos has been making Syrah from Watch Hill grapes the longest, since 2005. He often blends in a small dose of about 5% Viognier, as they do in the Rhône region of France, to lend a floral component.

Murray called Watch Hill his favorite wine to release every year because it’s very popular with the members of his mailing list. At the tasting, the 2017 showed the most potential of the three for future aging. It brought both reticence and power, with ripe cherry wrapped around brisk tannins with good spice notes.

The most immediately approachable Watch Hill Syrah came from Frequency Wines, which is located in downtown Santa Barbara. His 2017 version was lively with plums, berries and apple skin, with a welcome note of oak.

Striking a happy medium was Brown of Buellton, who sent his 2014 Watch Hill Syrah to the tasting. The extra bottle age enabled this wine to bring earth notes and rich spices in a well-balanced structure that finished with velvety tannins. Like the other two winemakers, Brown ages the Syrah for about 12 months in French oak.

Grapes take up only about one-third of the total 122 acres of Watch Hill Ranch. The Lebowitzes allotted the sloping land to vines, which is generally a good idea because better drainage gives darker, more concentrated fruit. A horse ranch takes up the majority of the property, where Debi also raises exotic animals such as miniature ponies and llamas from Peru.

Since they bought the ranch in 2015, Debi has doubled the grape acreage, showing confidence in her management team. Even so, at present there is a waiting list of winemakers hoping to procure Watch Hill fruit. As those new vines mature, we can expect more excellent Syrah in the future.