PUTTING IN THE EFFORT AT CENTER OF EFFORT
The story of this winery is a decade-long wholesale renovation where the fruits of the labor are starting to show.
by Andrew Chalk
Center of Effort is an esoteric name for a winery even by the standards of an industry full of esoteric names. The term comes from sailing jargon where the ‘center of effort’ is the point on a sail at which the wind would exert an effect identical to that produced by its distribution over the whole sail. All of which is more than you need to know to appreciate the wines of this boutique establishment in California’s Central Coast.
At its heart, Center of Effort produces what grows best in Edna Valley, California’s coolest AVA. That means good conditions for chardonnay, pinot noir, chenin blanc and, at a stretch, grenache and syrah. The property started as The Lawrence Family Winery in 1978, became Corbett Canyon Winery in the early 1980s, and was purchased and given its current name by current owners, Bill and Cheryl Swanson, in 2008.
The original property totaled 100 acres, of which 67 originally were planted. They have been replanting in stages since 2011, and are currently at 50 acres with 10 more in development. In 2015 they purchased 40 acres of an adjacent property and developed it to 9 acres of Rhône varieties, and 2 additional acres of chardonnay. A third property 2 miles away on the valley floor was developed in the same year with one and a half acres of chenin blanc.
The winery produces three brands of wine: Center of Effort is the premium label. Effort is a slightly lower-priced wine with a restaurant by-the-glass focus. Both of these are exclusively estate fruit and total output amounts to a miniscule 3,500 cases/year. A third label, Fossil Point, is at a lower price point and blends grower with estate fruit. It’s output is 10,000-12000 cases/year.
Winemaking since 2010 has been the responsibility of Nathan Carlson, a recovering student of marine biology. He moved to Santa Barbara for graduate school but quickly, as he puts it, “begged Richard Sanford for a job”. Sanford was a partner in Sanford and Benedict, a noted Santa Rita Hills winery. Then there was a gig at innovative SLO Coast winery Claiborne and Churchill. One job was at Sapphire Brands, a group based in Tennessee that created a chocolate Starbucks coffee liqueur, then had a tequila distillery, an Italian wine import portfolio, and began acquiring wineries in around 2006-7. They purchased and renovated EOS / Arciero in Paso Robles, Carneros Creek Winery in Napa, another brand out of Lake County, and they created several additional new brands. The financial crisis knocked the wind out of their sails, and, after he left, the winery real estate was sold to an investor who leased it back. Bill Foley acquired the inventory and brands. He notes that “It was a pretty painful lesson about sustainable growth. I was fortunate to get all of my vendors and farmers paid back before I left the company”. From 2005 to mid 2008 he was assistant winemaker at Tolosa. In 2009 he was approached about the Center of Effort position but decided to stay where he was. The following year Center of Effort approached him again, and Bill Swanson personally got involved. This time, Carlson took the job and immediately began a wholesale renovation of the winery and vineyards. The biggest task was improving the water infrastructure to the vineyards. There was a lot of frost damage due to lack of water so he installed micro sprinklers for precisely controlled moisture delivery. Some vineyards of tiring vines were removed and replanted due to age or being on the wrong rootstock. The opportunity was taken to correct row orientations. In ongoing operations, canopy management was overhauled.
Nowadays, Center of Effort typically produces a pinot noir and a chardonnay in each vintage. a limited release line with a pinot noir named ‘Prova’, a chenin blanc named ‘Oro Bianco’, and a chardonnay named ‘Giallo Solare’. In the Effort line are chardonnay, pinot noir, grenache rosé, and pinot noir rosé.
THE BARREL SAMPLES
Like other wineries on the SLO Coast, Center of Effort is finding that terroir and market factors make pinot noir the flagship grape (with chardonnay second). It was therefore this grape that we focused on in a barrel tasting. Nathan and his team of Associate Winemaker Kevin Bargetto and Cellarmaster Travis Enholm took me through six samples of wine from different plots of their estate vineyards. I was impressed with the overall quality (there was not a bad one in the bunch) and with the diversity in the samples. They varied in technique from 100% new French oak to more conventional levels in the high 20s percentage range. There were several samples that were fruit-led, but in each case the fruit character was different. Black cherry in one case, stewed fruit in another, and dried fruit and grapey notes in another. One wine, the skunkworks special of Cellar Technician José Martinez, had lighter tones, a Burgundy-style forest floor and barnyard nose, and earthy tertiary flavors. It was out on ‘left field’ relative to the other samples, and other SLO Coast pinot noir wines, but I mean that in a very positive way. It would be nice to see it bottled as a wine in its own right. Likely it, like the other samples, will be part of the final Center of Effort or Effort wine.
Center of Effort is a winery on the move. From serious shortcomings a decade ago they have implemented a long-term investment program that has increased quality and made the winery one to watch. Distribution is still being expanded so to obtain these wines, if they are not in your local area, order direct from the winery.
DISCLOSURE: Barrel samples provided by the winery.