Solvang 2020 Winery of the Year
The History of Casa Cassara
Bennie and Mary Cassara had been looking for a family get away from the hustle and bustle of their lives in Southern California. Besides their home in Long Beach, they owned a small condo in Port Hueneme where they would go for the weekend. But Mom wanted something different, so they searched up and down the state from San Diego to Santa Barbara from the beach to the mountains. Finally, one Christmas Mom’s sister Dolores invited the whole family up to a guest ranch in the mountains above Santa Barbara. We spent the weekend at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Mom decided that her search was over and asked Dad to find a place in the Solvang-Buellton area.
When Dad first set foot on this mountain top retreat he knew this was the place for which he and Mom had been looking. Dad, a brick mason by trade, was busy running his masonry construction company in Orange County, California and Mom spent her time volunteering everywhere she could from the Church to the Veterans Hospital in Long Beach. Dad was looking for a place where he and his family could get away from the daily grind and Mom was looking for another adventure. That was April of 1981, and in the years following the family utilized the property located just three hours north of their home in Long Beach as a weekend retreat. A travel trailer was placed on the property which had a well and a 10,000-gallon water tank. The first permanent residents were 3 burros that Dad got from the Bureau of Land Management to eat the grass.
In 1984, construction started on the main house. It was a magnificent structure that was built surrounding a huge brick fireplace, which supports the roof of the great room. Dad and I met with the grading contractor and the framing contractor on Memorial Day weekend and work started that Tuesday. I would stay on the property during the week in the travel trailer and supervise the work, going home on the weekends. The plans called for a 5-bedroom, 4,000 square foot Mission style structure with a courtyard, structural masonry walls around the octagon shaped Great Room, and circular brick fireplace. Once the foundation was done and the framing was underway, Dad would bring crews of bricklayers and laborers up from Orange County on the weekends to build the Great Room walls and the 2 fireplaces. By the end of summer, the inside of house was drywalled, taped, and textured, the outside was brown coated, and the tile roof was complete. I had to go back to work after Labor Day, so Dad came up and supervised the finish work. The main house was completed in time for the family to spend Christmas there in 1984. Over the next few years, the retreat affectionately known as “The Ranch,” was used by family and friends for rest and relaxation from our busy lives.
It was in 1992 when the first vines were planted on the hilltop estate. Dad chose Pinot Noir grapes at the urging of his friend Brian Babcock of the Babcock Winery. Brian told Dad that his property with its hillside exposure would be the perfect growing environment for Pinot Noir grapes. This varietal is grown on hillsides in France. Brian knew the combination of warm days and cool foggy nights would be perfect. We knew that it would take several years and a great deal of work before the first grapes were ready for market. During this time, a 3-car garage, and a 30,000-gallon underground brick water tank were added to the property.
The first wine produced from the vineyard was made in 1995. We made the equivalent of about five gallons of wine. Bennie Cassara, Brian Babcock, and I stood in the lab at Babcock Winery and tasted the fruits of the harvest. Brian then knew a world class Pinot Noir could be produced from the grapes in this vineyard.
In 1996 there was enough of a harvest for Casa Cassara to sell the grapes and Brian Babcock purchased them to create a vineyard designate wine, named Babcock Winery Pinot Noir from Casa Cassara Vineyards. From the harvest of little more than one-half ton of grapes Brian produced 25 cases of wine. Casa Cassara Vineyard was on its way and in 1997 Brian Babcock again produced Babcock Pinot Noir from the Casa Cassara Vineyards.
In 1999 Bennie contracted with Andy Kahn of the Kahn Winery to produce Casa Cassara’s first vintage of an Estate Grown Pinot Noir. The 1999 vintage was a whopping 200 cases produced at the Kahn Winery in Buellton.
2000 - 2006
At Casa Cassara Winery and Vineyard we kept striving to bring to market a world class Pinot Noir. The Vineyard is in what would later become the Sta. Rita Hills Appellation. Standing at the highest point of the vineyard you can see many of the major grape producing areas of this appellation. Construction of the winery building began in 2000. We were extremely excited about the prospect of producing a truly estate grown, vinted, and bottled wine brandishing the Casa Cassara name. In the meantime, we continued our collaboration with Andy Kahn. For the 2000 vintage we produced two wines, a Pinot Noir from the grapes grown on our property, and a Chardonnay from sourced grapes.
The 2000 Pinot Noir with a production run of 400 cases was released in September 2002.This release subsequently won a Bronze Medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in March 2003. We were extremely excited about this wine and decided our focus will be to concentrate on producing the finest Pinot Noir in the Sta. Rita Hills Appellation. 2000 was also the first year we made a Chardonnay from sourced fruit. The 2001 vintage included our second vintage of Chardonnay, two vineyard designated Pinot Noirs and one Syrah. The first Pinot Noir was from our Estate Vineyard, and the second Pinot Noir was from a small vineyard on the other side of the river called Burning Creek, which later proved to be our biggest award winner. The Syrah was a phenomenal wine from the Great Oaks Vineyard. All three wines were released in conjunction with the Santa Barbara County Vintners Festival on April 12, 2003. As the brand grew over the next few year’s we made some changes. In 2002 besides the Chardonnay, the Burning Creek Pinot, and the Estate Pinot we also had a Cuvee of Pinot Noir. In 2003 we added a Sauvignon Blanc and made a Cuvee of Syrah for Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac fame. We continued to expand our line and in 2004 and we added Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and Riesling to our repertoire, however we never lost sight of our goal to make a world class Estate Pinot Noir.
2007 - 2010
It was during 2007 that Dad started to hand off the reins of Casa Cassara to me. I would drive him up from Long Beach every Wednesday, we would take care of business and then drive back. It was during those car rides, 3-hours in each direction that he told me about his vision for his estate and the winery. Casa Cassara Wines have been available from several different places over the years. We have tried several different marketing plans and had our wines in many different wine shops and restaurants. In the early days, The Kahn Winery Tasting Room, carried our Pinot Noir and then later The Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant, Don O’Neill’s Wine Country in Los Olivos and most recently The Olive House in Solvang. Finally, in 2007 we opened The Casa Cassara Tasting Room in Buellton. We found a new building on Highway 246 and Valley Station Road and we finally had a place to call our own. We had a lot of neighborhood moms who would come in, so we put a fenced in play area in the Tasting Room for their kids. Our first efforts at a kid friendly environment. We tried a lot of things to get people into the Tasting Room, we even hosted “speed dating” sessions once or twice. Since then, we have concentrated our efforts on selling our wines through our Tasting Room and our online store. In the early days Alicia Summers managed the Tasting Room, at the end before we moved to Solvang, my daughter Danielle Thacker was the Tasting Room Manager. During the time in between we had several other employees including Diane Whitehair, Tommy Hacker, Kelly Harvey, and Christina Romanowski.
2011 - 2015
After many years of running Casa Cassara Winery & Vineyard from Southern California, my wife Bridget and I decided it was time to move to the Santa Ynez Valley and start living the dream. I sold my interest in the masonry & precast businesses to my cousin and partner Mike Cassara and rented out our house in Garden Grove and moved up to “The Ranch”. About the same time after five years in Buellton we decided to re-locate our Tasting Room, so we had to decide if we were going to go to the Lompoc Ghetto and work 3-days a week or move to Solvang and be open 7-days a week. After much thought and serious searching by my middle daughter Danielle, we decided on Solvang and in February 2012 and we leased space at 1607 Mission Drive, and after several months of work we finally opened in July. The move to Solvang has been a good one for us. Within eight months of our opening Bridget decided that we needed to brighten up the colors in the Tasting Room and open the front directly to Mission Drive, so the bay windows were removed, and a set of double doors were put in their place, and the inside of the Tasting Room was given a fresh coat of brightly colored paint and we added some new artwork to cover the walls. The redesigned Tasting Room is more enticing, and our goal is to make you feel like you are sitting in our living room drinking wine with us. Most days you would find Bridget or I behind the bar. Next on our agenda was the task of finding a new winemaker and I have to say that we were incredibly lucky to find and hire Kyle Knapp as our winemaker. Kyle is a local boy who grew up in Lompoc and spent his time surfing the local beaches. You can see the story of his encounter with a shark at Surf Beach documented on the recurring series Shark Week. Kyle learned his trade by working at local wineries as well as wineries in Australia and New Zealand while he was chasing waves. He worked full time for Beckman Vineyards, produced his own wines under the Press Gang Cellars label and still found time to make Casa Cassara Wines. Besides our flagship Estate Grown Pinot Noir and regulars like Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc, we added Grenache, Tempranillo, and Roussanne to our repertoire. We have some fun labels that debuted in 2013, namely Tall Dark & Handsome (TDH), and WT. TDH sported a tuxedo on the label and WT had a trailer with a Harley parked out front. We asked the customers to decide what WT stood for, the most common answer was “White Trash”. We also released the first family tribute wine in the 2013 Sam’s Dago Red, a chianti style blend with a 1920’s era picture of my Grandfather Angelo Cassara on the label. In 2013 we moved Mom and Dad in with us at “The Ranch”. Mom had dementia and Dad needed help taking care of her. They were both I their 90’s so it was a lot of work for my saint of a wife Bridget. Mom passed away with Dad at her side in May 2014 and Dad went to join her in December 2015. I am grateful for the time we had with them. In July of 2014 we hired Terri Humphries to work the tasting room and in 2015 we added Stephanie Lesinski and Cassie Ries so Bridget and I could have some days off.
Things at the Winery and Tasting Room were progressing well, and Bridget and I decided to take some time off and go to Italy. I just wanted to go and walk the streets where my Grandfather walked and learn what I could about my family tree. (I am an avid user of Ancestry.com) so we booked a tour that spent 2-weeks traveling from Rome to Sicily by bus and then we spent an extra week in Sicily with a private guide visiting the area where my father’s family came from. After visiting the hall of records in Monreale, Palermo, Sicily I was surprised to find that we still have family there. We went to the door of the home where Grandpa was born, knocked on the door a short dark-haired woman in her 60’s answered. Our guide told her in Italian my name and that we came from the United States looking for information on my Grandfather Angelo Cassara and she replied that my Grandfather and her Grandmother were brother and sister. We were shocked to find a second cousin that we did not we had. My cousin and her husband showed us their home in town and where the farm was that Grandpa sold when the boys came to the United States. We came home with a lot of information for my Family Tree and a whole new appreciation for Italian wines. When we left them, they told us to come back anytime, we could stay with them, but we should learn to speak Italian. Mid-year 2016 we moved our winery operation from the winery at “The Ranch” down into Buellton. It was just easier to get things done in town instead of on top of the hill, but it did put an end to crush and bottling parties at “The Ranch”. There is one thing that is constant in our journey and that is change. Kyle Knapp got an exceptional offer to go to work for Stolpman Vineyards running their winery in Lompoc. He confided in me that he was not ready to leave Casa Cassara and had hoped that we would be together longer but one of the new requirements of the offer from Stolpman was that he not have any outside projects other than his own Press Gang Cellars. I told him that he would always be part of the family and to go take the job. However, before Kyle left us, he was instrumental in putting Casa Cassara Winery & Vineyards in the very capable hands of Mikael Sigouin who owns Kaena Wine. Prior to Mikael taking over, Casa Cassara struggled to get grapes. We had our Estate Pinot Noir and a couple of regular growers, but we were not always able to get the same varietals. Mikael took over prior to the 2016 harvest and has been making our wines since. As an interesting side note, Mikael worked for Andy Kahn back in 2000 when Kahn was making our wines from Casa Cassara grapes. With Mikael as our winemaker came a varietal that we had only made once before, Grenache. Mikael is known to most of the local winemakers as the “Grenache King”, and he told me that he would make my wine, but that I had to have at least 1 Grenache on the menu, and I agreed. One of the other things that Mikael brings to the table besides being an exceptional winemaker is his connection with the local growers, namely John Belfy of Buona Terra Farming. Casa Cassara had made a Sangiovese in 2013 so we were familiar with that grape and I immediately tasked Mikael with finding me Arneis, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese. This was the beginning of my quest for local Italian varietals and the beginning of a new focus for the winery. 2016 was also the year that created Bennie’s Blend, a Syrah Grenache blend with Dad’s picture on the label. In 2016 Terri Humphries left and we replaced her with Mariah Fields and Maddison Castevens. We were still looking for days off so we hired Kevin Skidmore a retired postal worker from Solvang in December.
2017 - 2019
2017 started with several new items in the Tasting Room. We added a Sparkling Rose, a Ruby Style dessert wine, a Tawney style dessert wine, and our long-awaited Brandy. The Sparkling Rose was a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend made for us in Madera. The Ruby and Tawney Dessert wines were made from Portuguese Varietals sourced from Madera and fortified with the Brandy that was distilled for us by our friends at Ascendant Sprits in Buellton. January 2017 Cassie’s husband Taylor was transferred to Saudi Arabia, so she moved to Arizona to be with her mother. It was about this time when Alexis, Bridget’s youngest daughter, took on 3 foster children and she needed her mother’s help. For the past 3-years The Tasting Room has been run by Bridget and I and usually 2 or 3 other employees. Now Bridget wanted to stay home with the babies more, so Stephanie Lesinski came back to work for us. In 2018 we added Dan and Sarah Holts to our team mostly to help with events. Stephanie left again in September 2018 and in December we added Dawn Eyman, and in January 2019 Mary Levesque joined our staff after working many years for Daniel Gehrs Winery in Los Olivos. The other big news for 2019 is that I found a grower in Madera who would sell me 1 ton of Nero d’Avola grapes. This is the most grown grape in Sicily and since our trip in 2016, I had been searching for a somewhat local grower who would sell me the fruit. After almost 3-years the foster babies went back to their parents and Alexis moved to Orcutt with her fiancé. Bridget and I had decided about mid-year to sell our rental house in Garden Grove and buy something in Solvang. We looked and in November we bought a house in Skytt Mesa and we moved enough of our things from “The Ranch” to stay in the new house for Christmas.
2020 started out with a bang and the Tasting Room was doing well and Bridget and I were slowly moving our things out of “The Ranch” and we were trying to decide if we were going to VRBO the main house or just exactly what we were going to do after we moved out. January was busier than it had ever been, we had the Wine Country Weekend in February and things were looking up all around. Then COVID-19 hit us like a ton of bricks on March 20 and we had to close the Tasting Room by order of the State. We could open as a retail establishment on May 8, but we could not have any wine tasting, just retail bottle sales. On June 12 after moving everything but a few tables out of the Tasting Room we were able to open for wine tasting indoors with social distancing. That lasted until June 30 when the State shut us down again. It was during this time that Phil Rietz joined our staff. Phil retired after 26-years in the Air Force and 22-years working for Boeing at Vandenberg AFB. He had joined our wine club in 2007 and has been an avid follower of Casa Cassara ever since. He would come into the Tasting Room and joke with me that he was retiring soon and would need a part time job and I was more than happy to oblige him. At this point our staff consisted of me and Bridget, Kevin “Mustache” Skidmore, Mary Levesque, and Phil Rietz. I want to take this opportunity to thank all our customers and wine club members for all your purchases during this pandemic. You guys are the reason that we are still able to keep the doors open. Thank you to all of those who purchased extra on the club runs and those who came in to purchase when we could only sell retail. On July 17, the powers to be threw us another curve and that was that we could open for wine tasting outdoors and we rented a tent, tables, and chairs and set up in the parking lot behind the Tasting Room. I do not have to tell you how much more difficult this has been on the staff as well as the customers and especially when the weather turned cold. On the weekends, I need 2 staff members with one to serve the customers and one to act as a host or hostess. For that reason and all that it takes to set up for outdoor service we added another employee Celina Roell, a local beautician and barber who owns her own shop, to work Sundays with Mary. On December 7, the state bombed us again and shut all wine tasting down and we went back to retail sales with curbside delivery. This has been quite a year, but we are determined to survive.
We had used the down time to clean up and shine up “The Ranch” and finish moving most of our things into our new home in town. On January 1 after much soul searching and anguish, we entered into a lease purchase agreement for “The Ranch”. That piece of Casa Cassara history has come to an end after 40-years. On January 21 after putting the tent back up behind the Tasting Room, we were once again able to open for wine tastings. We are cautiously optimistic about the next few months. The hope that the vaccine will put an end to COVID-19 is foremost in our minds. We cautiously await a time when we can get back into the Tasting Room and pour wine indoors again.
January 21, 2021