By James Badham
“The art of winemaking” often refers to the many subtle, non-scientific hunches, gut decisions and instinctive choices that lead to a great wine. For Bion Rice, the phrase has a more literal meaning. He doesn’t taste a wine and call it art; he looks at art and thinks, “Which wine?” In fact, to make his Artiste Winery blends, Rice, who minored in art in college and learned his craft at his parents’ Sunstone Winery, doesn’t even start with grapes. He starts with paintings.
“It’s art-inspired wine,” he says.
To ensure that he has inspiration, a year or two before making a new blend, Rice commissions an artist from a stable of ten with whom he works in rotation—some use oils and others watercolors; one even dips her brush into wine. The artist creates about ten original artworks that share a theme. Rice then chooses a few favorites to use as label art for next releases. He starts thinking about the wine only after he has chosen the art for the label. Once he does, he gets to work.
“More often than not, it’s the subject or scene in a painting that inspires me to compose a blend. If it’s a regional theme of, say, Spain or sailing, I’ll think about what kind of wine you would be drinking there,” he explains. “Sometimes colors in a painting will contribute to the inspiration for a blend. If the painting is pastel and creamy, I’ll go for a medium-bodied soft red wine or a buttery white wine. Red or yellow hues may inspire a more racy, spicy, powerful wine. There is no set formula to it. I like to let stream of consciousness direct the process. When I see something, I follow my first instinct.”
Choosing his favorite blend “is like choosing among my children,” but he does fondly recall a wine called “Impromptu.” The theme was jazz, and the label was a painting of saxophone great Charlie Parker by Santa Barbara impressionist painter James Paul Brown.
Rice asked several other people to join him as a “band of blenders.” They put the names of varietal wines he had in the cellar into a hat—zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Syrah and a couple of others—and chose. “We worked off each other as a jazz band does to develop a song,” Rice recalls. “The wine developed in an impromptu way. It was all about the process.”
Walk into the Artiste Winery tasting room in Los Olivos and you’ll, ahem, get the picture. Shelves on the walls hold row after row of wines adorned with unusually beautiful labels, artwork from the “current” label artist hangs on the walls and an easel with paper and paints invites visitors to whip up their own masterpiece.
“We wanted it to be more of a working art studio than a gallery, a place that’s lively and fun, where people can come and mark the place up a bit,” he says.
It works, but probably no one has more fun than Rice himself.
Artiste is located at 2948 Grand Ave., Studio E, Los Olivos, 805/686-2626, artiste.com. The tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.