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Andrew Murray to Expand; Leasing Former Curtis Winery & Vineyard

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Andrew Murray and wife Kristen outside their tasting room in Los Olivos

Andrew Murray is a name those of us who love American Rhone-style wines have seen on bottles of small lot Syrah and popular, value-priced Rhone blends for years. Andrew started Andrew Murray Vineyards in 1990, so he's been in the wine business for nearly 24 years now.

Andrew first made wine from his family's estate vineyard in Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez AVA off Foxen Canyon Road. When that property was sold in 2005, Andrew had to relocate both his winemaking and much of his grape sourcing, buying fruit from as far away as Paso Robles, Lodi and other parts of the Central Coast.

But thanks to a new long term lease on the former Curtis Winery and Vineyard, owned by the Firestone family, Andrew has just announced he is officially "coming home" with dedicated grapes and a major winemaking facility in Santa Ynez once again, this time on Foxen Canyon Road itself.

Curtis Vineyards

When I first met Andrew in April last year, I expected him to be an older gentleman, like myself. Instead, he's a boyish looking 41-year-old. What's his secret? Andrew started making wine when he was only in his teens.

Andrew was all of 16 when he was exposed to wine while touring France with his parents. That's when a bottle of Phillipe Faury Condrieu turned him on to Viognier--then a virtually unknown variety in the U.S.--and to fine wine in general.

After the France trip, Andrew started college at Berkeley. He ultimately decided to transfer to U.C. Davis, though, to learn winemaking. His Berkeley academic adviser counseled him to work first in Australia, to get some practical winemaking experience before starting at Davis.

So at age 18, Andrew went to work for Robert Bowen at Capel Vale in Western Australia where he made his first wine. He ended up staying nearly a year.

In the meantime, Andrew's parents bought a 200-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley. They were acquainted with winemakers there who suggested their land would be good for growing grapes, specifically Rhone varieties. So that's what the Murrays proceeded to do.

Andrew was very keen to plant Viognier, so the Murrays obtained cuttings identified as Viognier from a local nursery. The grapes produced by most of that budwood, however, turned out to be Syrah. Apparently the cosmos was redirecting Andrew to the grape he was to excel at.

The first vintage of wine under the Andrew Murray Vineyards label was 1993. By the end of Andrew's first winemaking decade, Robert Parker called AMV "one of the shining stars in the Santa Barbara firmament" while the San Francisco Chronicle named Andrew a "winemaker to watch."

By 2005, the vineyard plantings on the Murray ranch had grown to 42 acres. His parents, however, were looking to retire, which meant selling their property, including the estate vineyards and the winemaking facility they had built on Foxen Canyon Road, adjacent to Zaca Mesa.

Following the sale, Andrew kept the Andrew Murray brand name and Los Olivos tasting room, but had to locate another winemaking facility and new grape sources.

Andrew leased the former Firestone Walker brewery, located in the canyon lands far behind Firestone Vineyard, and revamped it into a state-of-the-art winery. Locals know the somewhat remote facility as "Area 51." Andrew has continued to make a range of Rhone-oriented wines there--everything from single vineyard Syrahs that sell from $30 to $38--my favorite of which is the Watch Hill Vineyard--to blends meant for everyday consumption priced as low as $11 and $13 at some retail outlets.

Andrew's biggest seller, accounting for 6,500 of his total annual 12 to 20 thousand case production, is the AMV Tous les Jours Syrah. It is widely available throughout the country at an average of $15, and is a delicious Syrah at the price. I rated the 2011 edition 91 points.

When I was back in Santa Barbara last month, Andrew told me he had been approached earlier that year by his long time friend and Area 51 landlord, Adam Firestone, who asked him, "How are you doing at Area 51? Have you outgrown it yet?"

Adam Firestone and Andrew Murray

Andrew reflected that AMV wines were, at that point, selling out more rapidly than he wanted--within three to six months after release--suggesting there was greater demand than they were currently supplying. He had considered charging more for the wines, but the idea of growing capacity and being able simply to sell more wine at fair prices had stronger appeal.

The Firestone family, which had sold off the Firestone Vineyard brand and itsestate vines to Foley Wine Estates in 2007, had retained their Curtis Winery on Foxen Canyon, along with 200 acres of vineyards. By 2013, however, the Firestones' hugely successful beer operations were taking increasing amounts of the family's time, leaving little bandwidth for focus on the remaining wine business.

Adam offered Andrew the chance to expand AMV by leasing both the Curtis Winery and its estate vineyards, which are planted about 50% to Rhone varieties. Ultimately an agreement was reached, effective this month, under which AMV is leasing the Curtis vineyards, which will become a major estate vineyard source for AMV; leasing and remodeling the Curtis facility; and taking over the production of Curtis and Jarhead wines for the Firestone family.

Andrew, one of the lucky few of us who found his life's calling in the wine business even before he was old enough to buy wine legally, tells me he's on a mission "to make better wines every year of my life." With access once again to "estate vineyards," where he will have more control over the viticulture and day-to-day management, as well as a larger facility for practicing his craft, I have no doubt he will continue to achieve that goal.

For my tasting notes and ratings on some of AMV's current offerings, as well as on the Curtis Wines I tasted on an earlier trip last year, see the complete version of this report on my blog here.

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