19th Oct 2022
19th Oct 2022
Joey Tensley is on a mission to deliver unique, high-quality expression wines at affordable prices. It is a path not everyone might choose.
“I’m just looking for unique vineyards,” said Joey Tensley during my visit to his tasting room in Los Olivos in August this year. “What I care about is being unique. So, what I look at when I choose fruit is if this is just another dime a dozen vineyard or something different.”
California-born and bred, Joey grew up in Bakersfield and moved to Los Olivos, just north of Santa Barbara, when he was 18. After spending a few years learning the craft at other wineries in California Central Coast, he started his own label in 1998, producing just 100 cases. His annual production is now around 5000 cases, but his goal hasn’t changed. It’s a road not many winemakers choose: to make unique, high-quality wines at affordable prices.
“I got into the wine business in the early 1990s,” said Joey. “That’s when Rhône varieties were what everyone was talking about. But in those days, they were impossible to sell. Since then, I’ve been making wine for years in Chile, Argentina, and France. And I’ve always been enamored with value—making great wines that anyone can afford.”
Today, Tensley is a name that most American-based Rhône Ranger followers know and love. The theme is Rhône varieties from Santa Barbara County for his Tensley namesake label. He now owns two of his vineyard sources, Colson Canyon Vineyard and Tensley Vineyard, at his home.
“A hundred acres of Colson Canyon is not usable—it really is a canyon. We have just sixteen acres planted there,” said Joey.
Not far from Sine Qua Non’s Molly Aida Vineyard, Colson Canyon was originally planted in 1997. Joey has been making wine from it since 2000; in 2016, he bought it.
“Water comes out of the side of the hill, so we capture this, and gravity feed it back down the vineyard. I haven’t gotten over two tons per acre since I took over. The good thing is we can pick this as ripe as we want, and we still get 3.3 or 3.4 pH.”
Tensley Vineyard—Joey’s home vineyard—is only two acres. “There’s almost no water here,” said Joey as we walked through the vines on a scorching August day. “As you can see, the clusters are tiny. Last year we got 1.4 tons per acre out of this, and that’s with 2000 vines per acre.”
“I think one of the greatest crimes in winemaking is sulfur,” commented Joey. “I’m not into natural winemaking. But I don’t like how sulfur strips the wines and makes them dry in tannic. So, I don’t like to add sulfur until bottling, which I have to do because I don’t want to lose the wine. Our pHs are low anyway, around 3.4, which means we don’t need as much sulfur. But if sulfur is the devil in the winery, water is the devil in the vineyard. We use very little water in our vineyards.”
Apart from the Tensley labels, Joey showed me three newer labels he has been working on: Optik, P2KV, and Fundamental. Tensley makes the Optik Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs for the Miller family, who own the Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido vineyards. These wines are high-level expressions of fruit hand-selected by Joey from these two top Santa Barbara County vineyards.
“During Covid,” said Joey, “I was like, OK, I’m going to stop traveling and focus on what made me love doing this. So, I started the P2KV brand, focusing on pre-2000 vines. This label is all about documenting these old vineyards.”
Each of the old vineyards Joey selects to bottle for this project has a fascinating story, which is evocatively told in the glass.
“And this is Fundamental,” remarked Joey about the last set of wines. “These wines are all built around overdelivering for under $20. Great wines you can drink every day.”
It was surprising to end our tasting with wines for under twenty bucks. Usually, winemakers show me their lowest-priced wines first and work their way up to the pièce de la résistance. But, after tasting the wines, I could see the point. Apart from quality, there is a soul to the Fundamental wines that most other winemakers sell when trying to achieve such value. But delivering unique, high-quality expressions at affordable prices is the less-traveled road Joey Tensley continues to walk.
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photos by Svante Örnberg
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