Busy Being Born: Angela Osborne and A Tribute to Grace

March 31, 2014

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A good wine captures its vineyard.  A great wine captures its vineyard AND the personality of its winemaker.   When I think of the wines that have inspired me- Didier Dagueneau’s various expressions of Pouilly-Fumé, Soldera’s Brunello, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bob Travers at Mayacamas- I think of them not only as the essence of the place they grow, but as an encapsulation of their creators.  To that list I would add Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace.  She puts her heart and soul into every bottle, and one can sense her presence in the glass, a feminine, ethereal, joyful rendering of site and self.  I spoke with her this week about her new spring release and the character that makes these wines so distinctive.

Cynicism is impossible around Angela Osborne.  She radiates such positive energy that even when she discusses the more esoteric aspects of her winemaking philosophy or her views on farming, there is such genuine belief and lack of artifice that one can’t help but be compelled.  Take the hummingbirds that grace the corks of her current vintage.  “The Chumash believe the hummingbird represents the grandmother energy, and both of my grandmothers became angels last year, so now they watch over all the bottles of Grace,” says Osborne.  “There were 13,776 hummingbirds that came into the world this vintage, which was really powerful for me.”  It is these little details- imbuing something as mundane as a cork with so much love- that make her wines stand out.

This detail-oriented approach extends to the winemaking.  Her varied experiments in the cellar are some of the most thought-out and intriguing I have seen.  Techniques that may have worked in past vintages will be altered or abandoned completely if the current vintage or a burst of inspiration calls for it.  Her new release is a great example of this, in particular her Grenache rosé.  Angela’s 2013 is a wildly different take than her 2012.  The ’12 came from Coghlan Vineyard on the western fringe of Happy Canyon, was aged in large neutral oak puncheons, and went through full malolactic fermentation, making for a rosé with heft and richness.  The ’13? “The 2013 spent 24 hours on the skins, and then fermented cold in stainless, aged entirely in stainless, no ML.  It’s also from the Highlands this year.  Bottled on my birthday, March 3rd.”  Despite the critical acclaim she received for her previous rosé, she felt the need to do a total 180 and explore a new winemaking approach.  “I really liked the ’12, it was really soft and approachable, but I wanted to experiment this year with something a little higher acid, especially working with the Highlands.  It feels like it’s got lighter feet, a bit more playful, which suits me at the moment.”

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The Highlands that she speaks of is the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  It is a site so perfectly suited to Osborne’s style, and her chosen medium of Grenache, that it’s difficult to imagine her without the Highlands and vice versa.  Located on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County, in Ventucopa, this lunar-looking site is one of the most unique in California.  “It doesn’t really feel of this world.  It’s very moon like.  Kind of silences you a bit,” says Osborne.  At 3200 feet elevation, and subject to an extreme continental climate, it is separated into two sections: the valley floor and the Mesa.  Angela’s single vineyard Grenache has typically been a mix of both, but with 2012, she has shifted to utilizing entirely Mesa fruit, with the valley floor being used for rosé and her Santa Barbara County blend.  While the valley floor is very sandy, the soils of the mesa are loamier, and, more importantly, laced with igneous rocks- basalt, quartz, gneiss, and granite- making for soil conditions that are singular within Santa Barbara County.

“The ’12 has an entirely different tannic structure.  This is the first year I’ve bottled the Mesa by itself, and there’s much more strength there.  It’s 50% whole cluster, whereas my valley floor blocks are all destemmed,” says Osborne.  Her Grenache from the Highlands has always been noted for its delicate nature and elegant texture, though she doesn’t worry about losing this with the addition of whole cluster; rather, she is seeking more structure, with the hope of giving the wines the ability to age like the great Chateauneufs, particularly Chateau Rayas, which she admires.  “I’ve yet to come to a point where the whole cluster becomes too much.  I hope it will give longevity, in a different way energetically than acid, but hopefully with the same ability to age.  I don’t want it to be overt, but I love the spice of Grenache, and I feel a lot of that comes from whole cluster.”  She also chooses to make the stylistic separation in the cellar between her varying lots of whole cluster or destemmed fruit in typically creative fashion.  “I always separate the fermentations into whole cluster, layered, destemmed, and whole cluster and destemmed,” says Osborne.  “I label my barrels as sun and moon, because I feel the moon energy is represented by the whole cluster, and the sun is the fruit.  So each barrel lists percentages of sun and moon.”

The future for A Tribute to Grace is wide open.  The Osborne clan is hoping to eventually split their time between Santa Barbara County and Angela’s home country, New Zealand, working two harvests a year, having a small patch of land to call their own, and raising a family.  It’s a goal that, like the wines of A Tribute to Grace, is beautiful and true.

Chalk Art: The Mineral-Rich Wines of Larner Vineyard

March 24, 2014

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If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist.  Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back.  From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner Vineyard are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle.  I took a trip to Larner with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.

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Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines.  The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate.  In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil.  Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk.  I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone.  “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.”  In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself.  They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.

A view of the chalk that so defines Larner
A view of the chalk that defines Larner

Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah.  The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo.  “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner.  “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.”  This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone.  “To me, the thread has always been that minerality.  I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner.  “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”

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Michael Larner showing off chunks of chert

The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers.  “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit.  We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner.  “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.”  While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications.  We actually end up with what they don’t want.”  The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!

The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley.  “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection.  Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered.  In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”

Looking down into Syrah, with Grenache on the right
Looking down into Syrah, with Grenache in the upper right

The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure.  In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit.  It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels.  “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero.  “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.”  As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics.  “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines.  “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”

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In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA.  “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer.  “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.”  Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate.  “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots.  He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”

Michael Larner explaining the geology of Ballard Canyon
Michael Larner explaining the geology of Ballard Canyon

Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few).  The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent.  “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’  Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs.  “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family.  He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.”  Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.”  This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special.  And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.

Habitual Practices but No Fixed Rules: The Intuitive Wines of Labyrinth and Haka

March 17, 2014

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Starting a winery in the New World, especially California, can be a daunting financial prospect. Unless one is already wealthy from another career, making even 100 cases of wines can be an economic challenge.  And if you’re a young cellar rat on a tight budget, it takes real perseverance, scrounging every available penny to pursue your dream.  Rick Hill is a winemaker who did just that.  A New Zealand native, Hill took a circuitous route to achieve his goals.  “In the early ‘80s in New Zealand, there really wasn’t an opportunity to find a career path in wine.  It was all small mom and pop operations that couldn’t afford employees, and I figured I needed a way to make money to create a path for my interests in winemaking,” says Hill.  “So, I actually ended up in the milk and fruit juice industries, which I had a background in, and traveled the world doing that and building up capital.”

Through his travels Hill came upon an internship opportunity with Simi Winery in Napa in 1997.  Hearing of his love for Pinot, the crew there suggested he head down to Santa Barbara County instead, where he landed a gig at the renowned Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) as a cellar rat.  “My job would be anything from picking up pizzas at 4 in the morning to doing 4 punchdowns a day at a winemaker’s whim, and by ingratiating myself to them they gave me a lot of trust.  Many young winemakers feel the need to jump around every year, work a vintage in Tuscany, then Argentina, etc., but when the harvest ended, I felt I’d really found my own little niche here and wanted to stay.”  Though still splitting his time between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, he committed to returning each year to CCWS to work harvest.

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Rick’s fourth vintage in the area (2000) saw a fortuitous event that would forever alter his winemaking path.  One of CCWS’s main clients, Lane Tanner, injured her knee and needed a full time assistant.  “She said, ‘look, I don’t have a lot of money to offer you, but if you work exclusively for me, I will give you two tons of any grapes that I have sources from,’ and I thought, ‘perfect.’”  Those two tons, which would come from the venerable Bien Nacido Vineyard, were the birth of the Labyrinth label.  This was also the beginning of a relationship that would blossom from a close friendship into a romance.  In 2004, after dating for a few years, Rick and Lane decided to marry, turning Hill into a full time Central Coast resident.  “My plan was a 2 year transition; hers was immediately, so I moved within 6 months to the U.S. full time.”

Hill’s approach in the cellar and resultant wines speak to a love of Burgundy.  Elegant, with an emphasis on spice and structure over fruit, they are the essence of great California Pinot Noir.  “Essentially, for anyone growing up in New Zealand, we didn’t have much in the way of local wine or other New World wine available, so European wines were the benchmark, and for me in particular it was about Burgundy,” says Hill.  “Those early years of drinking Old World wines that shunned high alcohol and lots of new oak really laid the foundation for my winemaking philosophy.”  Hill utilizes a variable approach in his assessment of when to pick, relying on numbers, flavors, and instinct honed over years.  “You’re looking for that point in time when there’s no herbaceous flavor in Pinot, particularly if you’re doing whole-cluster.”  He finds the ideal flavor profile in the fruit when picking to be along the line of cranberry or pomegranate with a hint of black cherry.  “I want to avoid those darker flavors, the blackberry and prune.  That’s just Shiraz in drag.”

Hill’s sister label, Haka (a Maori war cry, honoring his Maori heritage and connoting power or boldness), was born out of the economic turmoil caused by the recession.  As with his winemaking approach, he is very forthcoming about the economic realities and challenges of being a small producer.  “When the economy tanked, from 2007 to 2011, people stopped buying most of those high end Pinots.  I didn’t want to destroy the Labyrinth brand by discounting, because people have long memories when it comes to pricing, so I founded Haka as a way to bring value-driven wines, as well as a different varietal focus, into the marketplace.”

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Necessity is the mother of invention, and through his Haka label he has found a new niche through his exploration of Tempranillo.  “I’ve been passionate about Tempranillo since the New Zealand days when the early imports first came into the country.  You can pick it early and get those nice sinewy tannins and dried cherry, you can pick it late and get more of the black licorice and coffee grounds; for Haka, it’s really my benchmark wine.”  He has explored, and is still exploring, numerous interpretations of the grape, picking at different ripeness levels, utilizing both French and American oak, and working with sites in warm-climate Paso Robles and cooler sites in Los Alamos.  His ‘12s and ‘13s out of barrel are some of the most exciting expressions of the grape I’ve yet tried from our state, matching the power and minerality of Toro with a uniquely Californian presence of fruit.

After a brief hiatus, the Labyrinth label bounced back in a big way with the 2012 and 2013 harvests.  Working with new vineyard sources in Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, there’s renewed vigor in Hill’s Pinot program.  While the Haka label has allowed him to work with more powerful grape varieties and a slightly riper style of winemaking, his Labyrinth Pinots are still classically balanced, site-driven, and filled with notes of earth and spice.  He also chooses to work with only one cooper, Alain Fouquet, for his Pinots, a decision he believes helps communicate the differences between sites more clearly.  “If I start utilizing different coopers, it’s like ‘where is that change coming from? Is it the site, is it the picking, is it the oak?’ I really want those vineyard differences to be apparent, and for my style to stay consistent, which is why I stick with one cooper.”  Lovers of California Pinot with a Burgundian sensibility should keep an eye out for the release of his 2012s later in the year.

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There is an intuitive nature to Hill’s winemaking that can be tasted and felt throughout his entire program.  It is an approach he describes as “habitual practices but no fixed rules.”  While there is a desire for consistency of quality and a certain sense of style, the vagaries of vintage are adapted to and allowed to speak, making for wines that beautifully marry time and place with a sense of self.  In these wines one tastes the ebullience of a young cellar rat from New Zealand, whose desire to express himself through wine has only grown with time.

Of Sand and Fog: The Pinot Noirs of Santa Maria’s Western Edge

March 10, 2014

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My memories of the weather growing up as a kid in Santa Maria aren’t exactly the stuff of idyllic Norman Rockwell paintings.  The howling wind blowing clouds of dust from the nearby strawberry fields into my grandparents’ yard where I was playing, families freezing at Little League games, and relentless fog even in the middle of summer.  Ironically, given the career path I’ve chosen, this weather also makes for one of the planet’s most ideal locations for Pinot Noir.  In the past year I’ve fallen in love all over again with the wind-battered, fog-shrouded west end of the valley in particular, and the thrilling Pinots emanating from this tiny corner of the world.  This week I spoke with several of the farmers and winemakers who are crafting incredible Pinot Noir here.

Santa Maria Valley AVA
Santa Maria Valley AVA
2011 AVA Expansion
2011 AVA Expansion
The western subsection/Solomon Hills region
The western subsection/Solomon Hills region

While this area doesn’t have a specific name yet, some have begun referring to it as the Solomon Hills (also the name of one the most prominent vineyards here).  Beginning in the southwest portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA along the transverse Solomon Hills range, directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean, this is an area defined by its extreme maritime conditions: harsh winds, constant fog, and lots and lots of sand.  The nearby Guadalupe Dunes Complex is the second largest dune series in California, and walking the vineyards, one gets a sense of just how coastally influenced the soils here are.  Over millennia, wind deposited all of this sand among the vineyards of what is now the west end of Santa Maria Valley.  “This is pure sand, essentially no rocks or pebbles, and growing grapes in this soil is very difficult,” says Trey Fletcher, winemaker for Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido.  “It doesn’t hold water at all, so irrigation has to be managed very carefully.  These vineyards could probably never be dry farmed.”  The two dominant soil series in the far west along the Solomon Hills are Marina and Garey sands.  As one heads north or east, the Pleasanton, Positas and Sorrento series begin to enter the picture, with more loamy, pebbly textures, marking the transition out of this small subsection of the Valley.

Garey sand after a recent rain
Garey sand after a recent rain

The Westside is separated from the eastern part of the valley by a gradual change in soil, climate, and exposure, beginning with the shift into riverbed soils that occurs at Cat Canyon Creek and the Santa Maria and Sisquoc Rivers.  As the valley floor rises into what is referred to as the Santa Maria Bench, the soils undergo a more dramatic shift, showing the origins of volcanic uplift, with shale, limestone and more clay entering the picture.  Much of the bench also moves to a southern exposure, warmer and slightly sheltered from the direct wind.  When tasting Pinot Noir from riverbed sites such as Riverbench or benchland sites such as the famed Bien Nacido next to Pinot Noirs from the Western edge, the stylistic differences are readily apparent.  “Solomon Hills looks to the sky.  Bien Nacido looks to the earth,” says Fletcher.  To elaborate on this idea, the wines from the valley’s west end, particularly those within the Solomon Hills such as Presqu’ile, Solomon Hills, and Rancho Real/Murmur, are shaped by refrigerated sunshine, pummeling wind, and wind-deposited soils, leading to sun-kissed Pinot Noirs driven by fruit and spice.  Vineyards on the bench on the other hand have much rounder textures and more overt notes of organic earth thanks to the loam and stones that define this part of the Valley.

“There is a very apparent spiciness in the wines here when made in a delicate style,” says Ernst Storm.  “In the case of Presqu’ile, it is exciting to work with a young vineyard that is already showing so much terroir.”  Many producers, such as Storm, choose to highlight this character by utilizing whole-cluster fermentation.  “I find that the Solomon Hills area is more conducive to whole-cluster,” says Luceant’s Kevin Law.  “You get all of this beautiful savory spice, along the lines of Italian herbs.”  Others feel that the fruit already provides so much spice that stem inclusion isn’t needed.  “My tastings prior to 2013 of other producers and our own verticals seemed to show a more brooding character to the fruit and spice profile. As a result I was more reticent with our use of whole cluster, not believing there was much to gain in terms of spice and structure from the stems,” says Dierberg’s Tyler Thomas.  “For the most part we found this to be true of 2013 though I would say 2012 and 2013 highlight fruit over spice more than I observed in vintages past.”  Personally, I love the use of whole cluster here, particularly from the Presqu’ile vineyard.  The intense spice these producers speak of, which for me leans somewhere between Christmas spices and dried Italian herbs, is distinctive, not only within the Santa Maria Valley, but within California as a whole.

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Another facet that producers speak to about the area is its ability to capture perfectly ripe fruit at low brix and, therefore, low alcohols.  “With the soil being so sandy, early-ripening Dijon clones do incredibly well, and there is beautiful phenolic character at perfect pH and brix of only 22 or 22.5,” says Law.  “With those vineyards by the river, I find it can be harder to get that perfect triangulation of pH, brix, and phenolics.”  These lower alcohols could also be due to the fact that most of the producers working with fruit in this area are a new generation of winemakers seeking a return to balance.  Names like Storm, Luceant, Presqu’ile, and La Fenetre are associated with this movement, and it is not uncommon to see alcohols in the 12% range from these sites.

It will be interesting to see where this region goes in the coming years.  While it is currently defined by a small handful of sites, there is still a lot of available land that hasn’t been utilized.  Most of the vineyards are also quite young, and I expect their character to become more pronounced and refined with time.  For now, it is one of the most consistent and unique Pinot Noir regions on the Central Coast, and for lovers of the balance and spice-driven profile that makes Pinot Noir so wonderful, this should be at the top of the list for new areas to explore.

Enjoy this brief video journey through the West end shot this past week, heading north and east, through the Solomon Hills, Ca del Grevino (Addamo), Presqu’ile, Dierberg, and Garey Vineyards.

Under the Influence: Remembering An Inspired Night of Wine, Food, and Friends

March 3, 2014

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Great wine starts with a great story.  A vineyard tells us a story through its soil and its climate; the farmer frames this story with agricultural tradition and the stewardship of the land; and the winemaker captures both of these stories, along with their own imprint of self and style.  This past Thursday we held a special event at the Café called Under the Influence that sought to give four local winemakers the opportunity to tell their stories and the stories of the wines that have inspired them.  It was a night that exceeded my greatest expectations.

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Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Roasted Beets, Watercress and Citrus Vinaigrette

South African native Ernst Storm began the evening by pouring his 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc alongside Ashbourne’s 2008 “Sandstone,” a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon grown in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.  The latter wine was crafted by Storm’s brother Hannes, whose wines under the Ashbourne and Hamilton Russell labels are some of the most acclaimed in South Africa.  While one could see a certain similarity between the two, the overall contrast was striking.  Storm’s youthful Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the extremely sandy soils and cool climate of Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile site, was bright and fresh, with its pyrazine notes of grass and jalapeño accented by guava, gooseberry, and a really unique hint of oak.  As it turns out, that noticeable oak accent comes from the use of acacia barrels, which also provide a distinctive textural presence to the wine.  The Ashbourne, on the other hand, 4 years older, was already developing some tertiary nuances, with notes of lanolin, beeswax, and bruised apple starting to appear.  Nevertheless, the varietal character was unmistakable, possessing a similar herbaceous character as the Storm, joined to wet-stone minerality (sandstone soils here) and a more voluptuous texture.  The most fascinating thing for me about tasting these side by side was to see the shared family passion from these two brothers, and the level of commitment they both bring to their different projects.  While the winemaking details may be different, they are united in their desire to express site as clearly as possible.

Our next course saw the team from Liquid Farm sharing their 2012 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay next to Francois Carillon’s 2011 Puligny-Montrachet.  Liquid Farm’s goal from the outset has been to create a domestic interpretation of the wines they had fallen in love with from Burgundy, so their choice came as no surprise.  The differences between the two wines were, as with the first course, quite vast.  The Francois Carillon, despite a splash decant, was still a bit reduced, showing a fairly high amount of SO2 on the nose.  I have found this character in quite a few 2011 white Burgundies, which may be in response to all of the premox issues that have plagued the region over the past decade.  Overall, though, Carillon’s Puligny was incredibly precise and soil-driven, with an intense mineral presence.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the “Golden Slope” bottling still came across with admirable restraint and balance against one of Burgundy’s benchmark producers.  The fruit and textural power of the wine were unmistakably California, traits I believe should be celebrated, and the minerality of the Sta. Rita Hills in all of its saline glory was an intriguing contrast to the limestone origins of the Carillon.  Paired with Barramundi and Manila clams, both wines were delights to ponder and savor.

Crisp Duck Rillettes with Beluga Lentils, Black Kale and Cranberry Mostarda for the Pinot Noir course
Crisp Duck Rillettes with Beluga Lentils, Black Kale and Cranberry Mostarda for the Pinot Noir course

Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe chose to honor our local pioneers for the third course.  The Pinot Noir from his estate has become a modern benchmark in American wine, with examples from his own label as well as those purchasing his fruit achieving great recognition.  He poured a 2006 Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir next to the 2010 Clos Pepe Estate, and spoke of Rick Longoria’s influence on his own path as a farmer and winemaker.  He also honored two other local innovators, Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat.  It is sometimes easy to overlook the originators in favor of the hot new thing, but these three men are still crafting some of the most site-driven, balanced wines in Santa Barbara County, so it was beautiful to see Wes, who himself is a bridge between the first generation and our current new crop of young winemakers, honor this trio.  The wines shown wonderfully, with the power and richness of the heat-spike-affected 2010 Clos Pepe contrasting nicely to the more developed, earthy Fe Ciega bottling.

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Smoked Square Cut New York Steak with Mushroom & Spinach Strudel and Truffle Port Sauce.

While all of the wines on the night were complex and worked beautifully at table, the final course was perhaps the highlight for me:  The 2010 Luminesce Syrah from Thompson Vineyard next to Domaine du Coulet’s 2010 Cornas ‘Brise Cailloux.’  Thompson Vineyard is one of the great sites of Santa Barbara County.  Tucked back into Los Alamos Valley’s Alisos Canyon, the Syrahs from here are legendary, with a structure and precision rarely found outside of the Northern Rhone.  Luminesce’s rendition leans toward the Old World in its balance and approach: just 13.4% alcohol, it was fermented with around 30% whole clusters and aged in puncheons.  The wine showed amazingly well, with white pepper, gravel, smoked meat, and blueberry on the nose, along with a poised, beautifully structured palate.  The overall balance in this wine could easily stand head to head with the greats from Hermitage or Cornas, and on this night it did just that. Coulet’s Cornas is a personal favorite, and for me captures the essence of this tiny appellation.  The 2010 did not disappoint, with aromatics of iron, kalamata olive, blood, and bacon leaping out of the glass.  There was also a touch of Brettanomyces, which sparked an interesting discussion among the winemakers.  Luminesce’s Kevin Law somewhat jokingly said that he liked a little “imported Brett,” i.e. bretty wines from the Old World, while others found the Coulet close to their threshold for tolerance.  Personally, I thought it added to the wine, particularly texturally, and was a great example of how a flaw can actually enhance a wine’s beauty.  With smoked New York steak and mushroom & spinach strudel, it was an incredible end to the night.

The evening was deeply moving both emotionally and intellectually.  Giving these winemakers an opportunity to discuss their inspirations allowed us to see their joy and passion as tasters, and hear the stories behind their influences.  It can be easy as professionals in the wine business to get bogged down in the minutiae of winemaking or French Appellation law.  This evening was such a treat because it allowed all of us a return to the pure elation as imbibers that made us fall in love with wine in the first place.

 

Special thanks to Matthew Negrete for the wonderful photos

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