6 Questions with Bion Rice

Where does the name Sunstone come from?

We were originally River Ridge, but that name was taken. So, my mom and I started working with different combinations of sun and earth. We put sun and stone together and really liked it. And also felt it more accurately described our soil climate. If you walk around our property, there are what we call sunstones now—shale baked in the sun and they’re this beautiful creamy color. We say the property is composed of these sunstones. We also found out that Italian families give sunstones to newlyweds to bring peace and prosperity. And in Viking lore, sunstones are used for navigation on cloudy days so they can find their way home. To simplify, though, sun and stone are also two of the natural elements that produce grapes and wine.

How did your parents decide to start Sunstone?

My parents were highly ambitious people—I like to say blindly ambitious. When they got into the wine industry, they had no idea what they were doing. They moved to the Santa Ynez Valley from the big city of Santa Barbara in ‘89. We literally had no idea how to make wine. We were just going to sell the grapes to local wineries. They’d never intended to get into the wine business, per se. But we had great friends guiding us along, and a friend helped us make our first vintage. The best school is being in the trenches, and harvest after harvest we kept perfecting our style. Eventually, we grew from a 200 case winery to about 20,000 in ten years. So it was an incredible time for us to be in the wine business.

How was your mother integral to the Sunstone brand?

My mother was really the visionary behind the brand. She loved growing everything organic, and she showed me how to do that since I was a kid. So, we planted the vineyard and it had to be organic from the ground up. She was the visionary behind the fact that Sunstone is now the longest-running organic vineyard in the county of Santa Barbara. For us, it was a family value, being stewards of the land. That was what her vision was.

How has Sunstone remained part of the family as it has transitioned?

When my mom passed in 2010, my wife and I decided to step in and take over the day-to-day. So, Anna and I and our boys oversee all the operations. She oversees marketing and I oversee all the winemaking. I hired an incredible consultant winemaker, he’s my wine doctor. I’ve been making wine for over 20 years now, so I feel very confident in my skills and abilities. But when you have a guy who graduated top of his class in enology and viticulture, I tip my cap to him when it comes to perfecting what we do. His name’s Matt Smith, and I’m honored to have him on my team.

Where do you see the winery going from here?

Miles is more of the left-brained of the two boys, Mason is our creative—I’d say he’s going to be a chef or perhaps a winemaker. He’s more extroverted and likes to work the front of the house, whereas Miles is more of the introverted scientist. He does all of our lab analysis during harvest. He’ll go and pull all the lots and do all the pH and TA—reliably, actually! So, I can see them in the future working very well together because they don’t have common interests. But they love being a part of the process.

What is a wine that epitomizes Sunstone?

From the heritage standpoint, Merlot has always been our flagship. But, Eros is probably the most noted and unique to us. There’s a lot of Merlot, but nobody makes Eros. It’s a blend of Bordeaux and Cab Franc and just a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a blend that represents us and our house style and represents us. We sell out every year. The other one is the estate viognier that was accidentally planted. It was a field blend out in the Merlot and Syrah vineyard. We pick it every year as a team and there’s this harvest ceremony we do. It’s really, really limited and my mother’s favorite wine, so we called it Linda’s Viognier and there’s kind of a cult following behind it.