Rachel Martin, Oceano Wines

To us, tasting is a game. But to producers, tasting is everything.

When Rachel Martin set out to make a California Central Coast Chardonnay with her fiancé, Kurt Deutsch, it wasn’t as if the world truly needed another. Or so it seemed.

The key to differentiating their wine in an already saturated market? Tasting.

“We tasted through 35 wines, all chardonnay, all from that region, so we could come up with an idea of what we were trying to create,” says Rachel Martin of forging a winemaking program for the first Oceano Chardonnay in 2016. The process was informed by her day job, overseeing grape and wine production, distribution and marketing at Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Va. “And define our vocabulary so we could talk about it in precise terminology.”

Martin returned after the harvest: the grapes are all grown at Spanish Springs Vineyard, in the San Luis Obispo County AVA, the closest to the Pacific in the entire State of California – hence Oceano. Again, she and consulting winemaker Marbue Marke (who heads the winemaking team at Caldwell Vineyards, where Martin obtained Boxwood’s root stock, but that’s a different story), tasted – this time through 36 barrels. All chardonnay clones, each with different protocols, changing up elements such as yeast strains, batonage (time on and stirring of the lees, which impact mouthfeel and complexity of flavor) and barrel aging for degree of toast.

“We are looking for citrus flavors, for tropical flavors, but on the leaner side. We age on the lees and do lees stirring for body, but we harvest a little earlier than most people do in the region because we are looking for fresher flavor,” says Martin. That’s a moving target: last Labor Day, she and Marke were in the vineyard checking the grapes growing for the 2017 vintage. When she popped the fruit into her mouth, she was surprised at how ripe they tasted. “We were like, we have to pick tomorrow.”

While those grapes were harvested and barreled, the 2016 vintage debuted. Oceano (that’s O-SAY-ANO) produced 350 cases, which Martin got herself licensed to distribute. Here too, success relies on tastings: she travels from restaurant to shop, sitting with sommeliers, proprietors or chefs who try the Chardonnay, then training the staff who sell the wine, again providing them with key vocabulary to describe the wine to their customer.

Thus far, Oceano has been well received in the NY, DC/VA/MD and Texas markets, making the Washington Post’s list of five wines perfect for Valentine’s Day. (In addition to dubbing the wine ‘outstanding,’ the writer, Dave McIntyre, referred to Kurt as Rachel’s fiancé, making the article also an engagement announcement.)

Recently, co-vintners Martin and Deutsch found themselves in Napa in front of a row of wine-filled sample vials. (If you thought I was going with altar, that’s not until May.) They tasted as Marke blends the wine; like a sorcerer creating a magic potion, trying a little of this, a little of that, until the right taste hits. When it does, bam, bottle it (maybe 600 cases of this vintage), and on to next year – the fruit’s already budding on the vines.

Turns out, the world did need another Central Coast Chardonnay.