How many women – people for that matter – decide to go into commercial farming at age 40-something? Sandra Newman loved playing in the dirt as a tot, planted her first vegetable garden at age 7 and, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, assured her parents that a vineyard was in her future. Sandy earned her master’s in plant science at the University of Delaware, but that didn’t immediately segue to a career in farming.
When her parents moved from New Jersey to Orange County, Sandy followed and took a “real job” as an electronic data gathering agent for the SEC, a job she tolerated for 20 years, but not at the expense of her dream. She never lost sight of that could-be vineyard; it became her mantra. But it was years before her bank account gave her the green light to start shopping for farmland.
In 2002, Sandy settled on 100 acres in Lompoc’s Cebada Canyon. There were no roads. No wells. Just dying apple trees and lots of sand. Always up to a worthy challenge, Sandy figured that she could bring the land to life with grapes and other crops.
Easier dreamed than done. Growing grapes and making wine are certainly romantic notions, but, as a business, not so simple. Sandy hired a consultant who, after hearing Sandy’s plans, asked if she could run the wine business in the red for approximately 10 years until there was a chance of it being profitable.
Beginning today, Wednesday, June 17 and through at least July 4, the outdoor market will be located on the temporarily-closed-to-traffic sections of Solvang's Copenhagen Drive, between Alisal Road and Second Street.
The consultant then suggested that Sandy grow blueberries, three different varietals of highbush berries that ripen throughout the year, thus meeting market demand even during the off-season and promising an income that could support her farm. Forbidden Fruit Orchards was born from those evergreen berries.
“He was right,” sighed Sandy. “If not for the Sapphire, Emerald and Jewel breeds, all of which are high-yielding varietals that produce large, sweet blueberries, I wouldn’t have been able to get from there to here. It wasn’t easy, but I finally got to play in the dirt again. Had I started with wine grapes, I’d probably be gone by now.”
The Route One Farmers Market, which is held weekly in Vandenberg Village, is now participating in California Market Match, a program that aims to boost low-income shoppers’ buying power.
As we walked through the raggedy blueberry fields, Sandy continued. “This is what organic looks like. We follow strict GAP standards – Good Agricultural Practices that deliver high-quality fruit. Other than my dedicated crew, no one touches my fruit or even enters my berry fields without authorization. It’s a lot of work. Pruning. Hoeing, Tilling. Mowing. People wonder why organic produce costs so much.”
Selling to upscale markets and farmers’ markets from Southern California to the Bay Area, Sandy parlayed profits earned from the berries into a thriving vineyard: seven-plus acres, in fact, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes.
Sandy is bottling her small batch wines under the Cebada Wine brand, which include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rosé, and sparkling Blanc et Noir along with a perfectly sweet blueberry wine.
The dream was realized, but this is hardly the end of this story.
New columnist Jamie Edlin visits Santa Ynez property The Starter Farm and shares the benefits of the farm to table movement from a local perspective.
Peppered throughout Forbidden Fruit Orchards are now Leccino and Pendolino olive trees, Hass avocados, Pakistani mulberries, Santa Rosa plums, Hardy kiwis, Meyer lemons, Bearss limes, tangerines, argan trees, Camellia Sinensis tea plants, Gala and Fuji apples, and other fruits and produce. All of Sandy’s crops are organically farmed and most are sold commercially at farmers’ markets and specialty shops, as well as in her Santa Barbara tasting room and on her website.
Climbing the hill to the stretch of vineyards, the view of vines framed by olive trees, originally planted to shield the grapes from the wind, is breathtaking. Sandy is also bottling her extra virgin olive oil.
And then there are her jams, preserves, jelly, marmalade, apple sauce and green tea, all lovingly concocted from fruits grown on site.
“I’m all about passion,” gushed Sandy. “I love farming – all of it. Growing certain crops, such as the Hardy Kiwi, the project from hell, I can’t always make them do what I want, but I love the challenge. I know how to farm. I’m one of very few female growers in the Valley. My wine is made in the vineyard. My berries are made on the bushes. I do little with any of my crops other than giving them the best opportunity to grow.”
The current pandemic hasn’t really made much of a change in Sandy’s lifestyle. A farm needs constant attention. Still, she looks forward to re-opening her property for tours, weddings and other events. But then, in her next breath, she imagines slowing down to some degree. Maybe even traveling.
Knowing Sandy, I can't envision her distancing herself from the farm for any length of time.
We headed toward Sandy’s home, past lavender and roses, past the garage where she now makes her wines, past the chicken coops, past her rescue horse, and into her kitchen. Sandy opened a bottle of her 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir and dished out some olives cured by a friend.
But the day wasn’t quite over. Not before loading my car with several boxes of freshly picked blueberries. If Sandy’s love is growing berries, mine is consuming them. One box was emptied on the drive home.
Despite having more than 30 combined years of hospitality experience between the two of them, the Cherneys could not have prepared themselves for the unprecedented times they are now facing.
“It was to be a relaxed project growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay along with a variety of vegetables and fruits, including a grove of olive trees.”
Jamie Edlin heads Hollywood & Wine, a marketing communications agency geared to the wine and hospitality industries. She serves on the Advisory Board of Woodbury University’s School of Media, Culture & Design and is the recipient of the 2019 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award in Media & Communications. Jamie can be reached at Jamie@HollywoodandWine.net
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