“Stirm Wine Company’s location in Aromas is not technically in San Benito County,” owner Ryan Stirm says, “But I am the most local non-local winemaker out there. I could hit San Benito County with a rock from my vineyard.”
While he might be physically outside the county, he is fully devoted to the grapes grown in its historic vineyards and limestone soil.
“I used to farm about six acres in Santa Cruz, but I don’t need those properties anymore,” He said. “The wines I produce as a brand are 85-90% sourced from San Benito County at this point and about 70% of that comes from the Cienega Valley.”
Recently, Stirm has also begun growing his own grapes, a mix of Vermentino and albariño, two light-hearted grapes that are not well represented locally.
“I’ve never planted a vineyard, and now I have started one up,” he said. “I am looking forward to the first time we harvest and have wine from it. That idea of that, to me, is very exciting because the idea of watching things grow and being involved with it is fascinating.”
That fascination extends to the historical vines and vineyards he sources from as well as his care in winemaking really defines his production. Stirm said that there was a large gap between now and how California wines evolved in the 50s and 60s, creating a California flavor that has become known internationally.
“I’m trying to help redirect that narrative to move closer to what our history is,” he said. “I would say I’m pretty old school in my approach to everything. I still use redwood fermenters with a lot of my red wines, and I take a classic approach to how I operate the business.”
As a bow to local history and resources, Stirm just released four wines named after rocks and minerals found almost exclusively in San Benito County, including the Benitoite and Neptunite tasted below.
“I did a wine called ‘Calcite,’” he said, “I wanted to come up with some other good names that were similar but had strong references locally. I could have used place names, but where else are you going to find Benitoite or Joaquinite? I thought it tied into the history of the region quite nicely.”
As much as he talks about the past, Stirm is also connected to the newest trends, working with Companion Wine Company to produce a line of canned wines which have reduced sulfur to maintain the integrity of the packaging.
“I wanted something that I could take backpacking with me,” he said. “I think these have turned out great and I have even stashed some at around 8,000 feet. It was not my idea to make these, but it has really grown.”
Currently producing wines under four different labels, Stirm still enjoys the winemaking game.
“Every year brings new challenges,” he said. “It is not like every year I decide to experiment with a bunch of different things. I am adapting to what happens, and within that, I learn quite a bit every year.”
The Wines of Ryan Stirm and Companion Wine Co.
Companion Wine Lemon and Wild Sage Wine Spritz (5.5%) – With a floral aroma of crushed flowers with a sharp edge of citrus, this canned carbonated wine’s bold and aggressive taste was surprising to me. A strong foundation of crushed rose petals and bitter lemon peel still allows accents of fresh herbs and star anise. It is an unusual combination, with the lemon sometimes showing a Sour Bites characteristic. The eclectic swirl of contrary tones comes from its processing—like a Pétillant Naturel, it is made from spent grape skins mixed with lemons. It is definitely a wine that demands your attention as you drink it and oddly enough, if you like fruit beers, there is a hoppy tone to this wine that I think makes it very much worth trying.
Companion Wine Rosé (12.5%) – A very laid-back rosé, light and smooth, with a hint of acid that hits at the back of the throat and just a touch of sweetness that is charming rather than cloying. The floral aroma is marvelous, and this canned wine is presented with a little bit of butter, a dash of tarragon, and a peppery finish that is enough to give it just enough complexity to make it fun without making it overly deep. A great picnic wine.
Companion Wine Skin Contact Pinot Gris (12.5%) – The only one of the canned wines I tried not made by Stirm, winemaker Scott Schultz has created what is certainly the lightest pinot gris I have ever tasted. Veering close to the tone and feel of mineral water, it is amazingly light with an elusive flavor and a light pink color, with gentle minerality, subtle sweetness, and just enough acid to let you know it is there. There is a very short finish and a very modest mouthfeel that might appeal to people who are not really wine drinkers—it floats in your mouth and vanishes almost immediately. There is nothing challenging or assertive here, and sometimes that is exactly what you want. A perfect wine for sipping as you watch the sun go down over a mountain lake.
Companion Wine Chill Red Grenache (12.9%) – My favorite of the canned wines. It has the gorgeous grenache dark fruit aroma but the flavor takes it back a notch to make it a more casual sipping wine. The black cherries and casual tannins are there, but it rides high and clean on the palate with a subtle buttery tone. If you are going to grab one of the cans, to me, this is definitely the one. It has all the beauty of a grenache while remaining casual and very approachable.
2022 Stirm Riesling (12.2% – unreleased) – The first wines Stirm produced under his own label were rieslings, and he has become an absolute master of them. We tasted this one out of the barrel and its tones come from an infestation of “noble rot”—a fungus that weakens grape skins—that concentrates the flavor and gives the wine a mushroomy aroma. There is an undercurrent of mandarin orange that helps bring in the sweetness, making it a quasi-dessert wine. This will be worth watching out for when he bottles it.
2022 Stirm San Benito Neptunite Rosé (12.5%) – A blend of 82% chardonnay, 9% pinot noir, and 9% Riesling, this is clearly a far more elegant version of this wine than the canned one. It is one of the four wines that Stirm has named after minerals found in San Benito County, and while neptunite is a dark red crystal, this wine is a vibrant pink with a floral aroma. The chardonnay has its thumb on the scales in terms of taste, with the pinot providing just the slightest wash of a heavier flavor. Very much worth checking out, and with the hot weather coming, this would be particularly nice chilled for sipping in the shade.
2021 Stirm Benitoite Red Table Wine (12.9%) – Benitoite is a blend of classic San Benito County grapes, with 51% cabernet pfeffer, 31% zinfandel and 18% negrette. It has an oaky floral aroma that carries into the full fruitiness of flavor. All the dark cherries are there, but there is lightness as well, with a streak of elevating red raspberry. The tannins are light, and the finish has a nice peppery burn. This is a great stand-alone wine and is versatile enough to go well with anything you want to serve with it.
2021 Los Chuchaquis Bandido (13.5%) – A close cousin to the Benitoite, Bandido is 47% negrette, 28% petit verdot and 25% cabernet sauvignon. It is a darker, richer wine that really defines the history of early San Benito County and the more modern movement to reclaim vines that are unique to the area. The aroma draws you in with dried fruit and dark chocolate and the cabernet provides a solid base for the lighter and more elegant negrette to wash over, with bitter herbs and dried plums swirling in the mix. This has been my favorite Stirm wine since I was introduced to his work, and while the Benitoite offers a bit of a challenge to it, I still place this as the pick of his wines..
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BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.