“Cupid’s Choice” at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe

February 2, 2016

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café have selected the perfect wine to accent all of the romantic moments you have planned for your day. The Cupid’s Choice features three local wines from distinct wineries that pride themselves on the love and care that goes into each vintage. Each winery is unique, yet shares a common thread – that of close family and friends, coming together to pour their heart and soul into creating wine that reflects their own joy in life and pride in the land and grapes they love. Let “Cupid’s Choice” lead you on a day of mutual discovery! Start with a lovely burst of brunch-time bubbles courtesy of a sparkling “Brut Rose.” Then, after a day of adventures, you can look forward to a “Slice of Heaven” served with a great meal. As the evening deepens, bring your Valentine closer for a “Sweet Ending” with a premier dessert wine. “Cupid’s Choice” has romance written all over it! The collection sells for only $93 (regularly $108) and if you come in to purchase in-store, it includes a beautiful Italian Wine box, a suitably charming gift for your favorite Valentine.

Riverbench 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery was established in 1973. Located on the southeastern side of the Santa Maria Valley, the alluvial soils proved a match made in heaven for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes planted on the property. The winery is committed to sustainable winegrowing practices, and their wines brilliantly reflect their inspiration – Champagne in France, the country of romance and celebration. Their tasting room, located on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, is in a restored 1920s craftsmen style house. The garden includes a bocce ball court and a horseshoe pit, and is a lovely property to visit for a wine country picnic. Riverbench presents a small portfolio of wines from their outstanding vineyard, which results in wine of “uncommon character and dimension.”

Riverbench’s 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose is lightly perfumed with aromas of lilac and a hint of rosewater. This palest blush pink wine boasts noticeably fine bubbles, and in the mouth, flavors of meringue, marzipan, and raspberries are made all the more intriguing by a sensual hint of sauvage.

Babcock 2012 Pinot Noir, “Slice of Heaven”

Babcock Winery & Vineyards was established in 1978. Mona and Walter Babcock purchased the 110-acre property, off hwy 246, in the western side of the Santa Ynez Valley. Originally planting 20 acres to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, in 1983 they created their first experimental vintage. Encouraged by the results, the couple decided to move forward with plans for a small winery. In the meantime, their son decided to investigate the “wine thing” with his parents, which prompted a change in his education plans. He spent a couple of years of enology course work, but after crushing some Gewurztraminer in 1984, he forgot about school and ended up being awarded gold medals at the L.A. and Orange County Fairs for his 1984 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc. From there, a love affair with wine has been blossoming over the last 40 years. Says Brian “…I do like the idea of pulling corks on wines that are like a dream come true.”

Babcock’s 2012 Pinto Noir, “Slice of Heaven” is dry and bright in acidity, and would be excellent with beef, pork, and dishes of wild game. The tannins are fairly thick for a Pinot Noir. The winemaker notes, “If you want to get a handle on what the excitement is all about in the Sta. Rita Hills, just taste this wine that was grown in the absolute epicenter of the place.”

Foxen 2013 Sweet Ending Dessert Wine

The Foxen Vineyard and Winery lies deep in the Santa Barbara wine country. By following the quaint, twisting, rural Foxen Canyon Road, visitors will discover the historic Rancho Tinaquaic, on what remains of the original Mexican land grant ranch that covered most of the current Foxen Canyon. Once there, stop first to see “The Shack.” Renamed foxen 7200, the small, rustic building is where it all began when friends Dick Dore and Bill Wathen founded the Winery in 1985. Then, travel a little bit farther up the road to the new solar-powered winery and the FOXEN tasting room. Although far from the sea, the name of the winery is in memory of Dick’s great-great grandfather, Benjamin Foxen, who was an English sea captain in the early 1800s before coming to Santa Barbara and purchasing the land. His love of the sea is reflected in the distinctive anchor which became his cattle brand, and then later the trademark of the Foxen Vineyard & Winery.

Foxen’s 2013 “Sweet Ending” Dessert Wine brings to mind a walk through a blossom-filled meadow in the prime of spring. It’s taste, like an unforgettable kiss.

Let “Cupid’s Choice” 3-pack collection from the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café provide the romantic notes of a very special Valentine’s Day!

They Reminisce Over You: Contemplating Bien Nacido and What Gives a Vineyard Soul

September 16, 2014

RockSteadPoster

On Thursday September 18th, we’ll be hosting a dinner here at the Café featuring Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Trey Fletcher of Bien Nacido Estate to celebrate 40 years of Bien Nacido Vineyard. It’s very rare to get this legendary brain trust in one place to share their stories, so it should be a pretty magical evening. Leading up to the dinner, I’ve been reflecting about what makes Bien Nacido so distinctive, and, in a larger sense, the things that make a vineyard special beyond the usual talk of soil and climate.

Beginning in 2008, I had the privilege of working at Bien Nacido for 2 ½ years as a cellar rat for Tantara, whose winery was located on the property. From our location in the central flats of the property, I could see our neighbors Ambullneo down the road (Dieter Cronje and Matt Murphy, who would go on to create the formidable Presqu’ile property, were part of the cellar team there at the time), and ABC and Qupe’s massive cellar across the river. Driving into work each morning, checking out the various blocks was a visual roll call of the who’s-who in Santa Barbara County winemaking: that slope is Foxen’s Block 8; that little wedge of Syrah belongs to Paul Lato; there’s Manfred from Sine Qua Non checking on his fruit. And of course, there were the legendary parcels made famous by the likes of Au Bon Climat, Qupe, and Lane Tanner, each its own piece of history with a story to tell. Great vineyards have a certain energy to them, a soul if you will, and Bien Nacido is one of the most soulful sites I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in.

Where does this presence of place come from? I don’t think it’s something that can be separated from the human element. All of the factors that have come together in Bien Nacido- the passion of the Miller family, who founded the property and own it still; the fervent passion of Jim Clendenen, who spread the gospel of Bien Nacido throughout the world; the brilliant modern stewardship of vineyard manager Chris Hammell- have given form and voice to the natural elements of this piece of land in a way that is singular and special. A site whose natural factors suggest something merely good cannot be willed into greatness; by the same token, a site with the seeds of greatness can’t realize its potential without the vision of human beings like those mentioned above. In this way, wine may be the ultimate expression of the union between Mother Nature and Man.

If I were to use one word to describe the character of Bien Nacido Vineyard, it would be verve. Whether it is a late-picked, luscious Syrah, a spice-driven, lithe Pinot Noir, or a mineral, lean Melon, there is a brightness and vivaciousness that gives lift and precision to wines from this site. The cool climate of the Santa Maria Bench, coupled with calcium-rich shale soils, is a large part of the reason for this, though again, the personalities behind the wines are a huge factor. When one observes the passion and attention to detail given by Justin Willett of Tyler and Lieu Dit, or the acuity of Trey Fletcher for Bien Nacido’s estate program, it’s no surprise that this lively, precise quality can be tasted across the varietal spectrum.

There is a story in the soil, a voice waiting to be broadcast that will shout to the world the character of a great site. Bien Nacido is such a site, with translators who have managed to magnify and capture its unique personality. I look forward to hearing from Jim Clendenen, Trey Fletcher, and Bob Lindquist as they delve deeper into the story of Bien Nacido; no matter how much you think you know about a familiar place, there is also a new layer to be uncovered.


To purchase tickets to our event Rock Steady: 40 Years of Bien Nacido Vineyard,

Los Alamos Valley: An In-Depth Look At Santa Barbara County’s Unsung Treasure

July 21, 2014

Los Alamos Valley sign

In the past decade, Santa Barbara County has exploded with AVAs, and rightfully so.  As we’ve tasted the wines and analyzed the nuances of soil and climate throughout our region, we have begun to carve out special sub-regions of note that have a distinctive voice.  In addition to our early AVAs of Santa Maria Valley (est. 1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (est. 1983), we have Sta. Rita Hills (est. 2001), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (est. 2009), Ballard Canyon (est. 2013) and the pending Los Olivos District (likely to be established by 2015).  Yet one of the County’s most historic regions remains without a designation of any kind: the Los Alamos Valley.  This past week I spoke with numerous winemakers and farmers who have worked over the years with Los Alamos Valley fruit to hear their thoughts on the site character of Los Alamos, its various subzones, and the idea of an AVA. santa maria valley AVA wine mapsanta ynez valley AVA wine region When researching a region, I always start with soil; my love lies in the dirt.  Los Alamos, like most great regions, has a wealth of exciting soils.  Shale, clay, sand, gravel, sandstone, and a bit of limestone can be found in various pockets.  This variability within the region has led some to suggest that rather than a single AVA, the area should be broken down into several smaller AVAs.  “I do think it would have to be broken down for it to be true to definition, and that in itself might make it less feasible or practical to do so,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. There is also a notable difference in temperature between the valley’s west end near Vandenberg Air Force Base, which can be quite chilly, and the eastern end near Alisos Canyon, where things heat up.  Broadly speaking, Los Alamos Valley is 10 degrees cooler on average than Santa Ynez Valley, and 10 degrees warmer than Santa Maria, though again, there are more subtle nuances from east to west.  As a result of these variations in soil and climate, it is difficult to pinpoint a single variety for the region to hang its hat on.  Much like Santa Maria to its north or Santa Ynez to its south, Los Alamos has a multitude of varietal voices that express this place.

Thompson's rolling slopes vineyard
Thompson’s rolling slopes

Starting in the east, near the northern boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we find perhaps the area’s most acclaimed sub-region: Alisos Canyon.  Running east of Highway 101 along Alisos Canyon Road, this area is paradise for Rhone varieties, though Cabernet Franc and Gamay also have potential.  The canyon is home to the famed Thompson Vineyard, which has produced legendary Syrahs for 20 years.  Newer sites, such as Martian Ranch, Watch Hill, and The Third Twin, show equal promise.  Despite being a very small region, Alisos Canyon is defined by several different soils, all of which have either sandstone or shale in their parent material.  In the southeast, at Martian and Alisos, there is Chamise shaly and sandy loam.  This acidic shale seems to imbue the wines, Syrah in particular, with brightness and lift even at higher sugars/alcohols.  Across the road, at Thompson, is Tierra Sandy Loam, an alluvial soil providing more textural breadth in the wines.  The Third Twin (formerly Los Tres Burros), Sine Qua Non’s site above Thompson, shifts into San Andreas-Tierra Complex, a much sandier, sandstone-derived soil.  As we shift toward the mouth of the canyon, particularly at Watch Hill, we see very sandy Arnold series soils, making this prime real estate for Grenache in particular.

photo 2

The climate is also ideal for Rhone grapes, a Goldilocks-like balance between not-too-hot and not-too-cold.  “For Rhones, Alisos Canyon is still a cool area and fairly uniform in temperature from its mouth east of the 101 most of the way to Foxen Canyon,” says Craig Jaffurs of Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  “As cool as it is, it is somewhat sheltered and warm enough that everything can get ripe yet have the long hang time that lets the flavors develop.  Things can get ripe without being crazy sweet.”  Kunin elaborates on this idea, stating “Alisos is in the Eastern corner of the hypothetical Los Alamos AVA, and so benefits from the warmer airflow of the Santa Ynez Valley. This tempers the predominantly cool coastal breezes that dominate the flats farther West and make them better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In general, I think that it is this hybrid airflow pattern that defines Los Alamos.”  Many have suggested that Alisos Canyon should have its own AVA.  Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care farms many of the sites here (impeccably, I might add), and believes in the potential of not only the Valley as a whole, but Alisos in particular.  “I believe that Los Alamos Valley is special and deserves its own appellation,” says Finkle. “However, Alisos Canyon Road is unique and dominated by Rhone varieties.  As you move west of the town of Los Alamos, the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling.  For this reason there should probably be at least two sub-appellations.”

lewellen wine

Moving just north of Alisos Canyon, before the town of Los Alamos, we head into the Los Alamos flats along Highway 101.  Lucas & Lewellen owns most of the land here, and has long advocated for the potential of Los Alamos.  Their vineyards contain a wealth of interesting grape varieties, 20 in all, ranging from Nebbiolo and Freisa to Dolcetto and Malvasia Bianca, functioning as a great window into what unexpected grapes may potentially shine in Los Alamos.  Soil here is alluvial, mostly Botella series (also prominently found in the southern Sta. Rita Hills).  As we continue up Highway 101, past the town of Los Alamos, we start to get into bigger plantings, often owned by larger companies such as Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home.  This could go some ways toward explaining the lack of an AVA for Los Alamos Valley: these larger labels often blend the wines into Central Coast or even North Coast designated wines, rarely vineyard-designating or even putting Santa Barbara County on the label.  “With so many large producers/growers in the area, there hasn’t been the grassroots inertia to garner the acclaim, promote the region or gather data for an AVA application,” explains Kunin.

The steep slopes of Verna's Vineyard
The steep slopes of Verna’s Vineyard

Cat Canyon is the next area of note, located in the northern Los Alamos Valley, just east of Highway 101.  While there are still some bigger corporate plantings, there are also two of the valley’s most noted sites: Verna’s and White Hawk.  Verna’s Vineyard, owned by the Melville family, has served as the source for their more affordable Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs.  These are some of the top values in California today, particularly the Pinot Noir, driven by a purity of place and a strong core of hard spice.  Jaffurs also produces a superb Syrah from Verna’s; to taste it next to their Thompson bottling is a great illustration of the large difference in site character between Alisos Canyon and Cat Canyon.  Across the street from Verna’s is White Hawk, a lauded source for Syrah.  Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl has utilized this site for many years, and it is one of only two non-estate vineyards he continues to work with, while his protégé Maggie Harrison incorporates it into her flagship Syrah for her Lillian label.  Ojai’s White Hawk Syrah shows wonderful restraint, with great structure, purity and spice.  Viognier is promising from both sites as well, and Ojai recently produced a beautiful Sangiovese from White Hawk.

white hawk vineyard

Both Verna’s and White Hawk are essentially gigantic sand dunes, dominated by Arnold and Corralitos sands, and quite a bit colder than the southern and eastern portions of Los Alamos Valley (on a map, it lines up roughly with the eastern Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Bench).  One can taste it in the Syrah, which has more pronounced notes of peppercorn and leaner texture, as compared to the meatier, broader wines of Alisos Canyon.  “Verna’s is a cooler site- you can see the fog in Santa Maria from the top of the hill-side block,” says Jaffurs.  “The north (south facing) side of Cat Canyon is a different site from Verna’s which almost faces north – hence its relative coolness.”

Western Los Alamos Valley
Western Los Alamos Valley sunset, viewed from the eastern crest of Kick On Ranch

The final region of note is the valley’s far western edge along Highway 135, not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  As a resident of this part of Los Alamos, I can attest that it is very cold, very foggy, and very windy.  Again, there are some bigger/more corporate plantings to be found here, though the quality remains high, particularly in cool climate whites from the large White Hills property, one of the coldest, westernmost vineyards in Santa Barbara County.  The two star sites, however, are Kick On Ranch and Los Alamos Vineyard.

sand in kick on flats
Sand in the flats of Kick On
kickonrocks
Rocks in Kick On’s upper blocks

Kick On Ranch has garnered the most acclaim for, of all things, Riesling.  This should not come as a surprise given the early success of Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills with Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  Economics forced those areas to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but these varieties remain and thrive in Los Alamos.  Graham Tatomer was one of the first to latch on to this site for his Riesling-focused label, with his single-vineyard bottling a top example of the austere minerality to be found at Kick On.  He has also recently planted Gruner Veltliner, a variety that should show great results here.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach has also been making beautiful Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, from the vineyard.  J. Brix are crafting gorgeous examples of Kick On across the varietal spectrum, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir in several different iterations (their Petillant Naturel Riesling is one of the top methode ancestrale sparklers I’ve tasted from California).  Soil in this part of the valley is quite sandy, consisting of Arnold, Corralitos, Betteravia, and Tierra series.  In Kick-On’s upper blocks, however, one finds fossils and large pieces of sandstone and shale.  “The ancient-beach soil is mesmerizing,” says Emily Towe of J. Brix.  “We can’t walk Kick On without stopping over and over to pick up shells, stones, fossils. It’s a whisper of history from when it was the bottom of the sea, long before it became the Valley of the Cottonwoods. The vines get to live in both worlds, in a way.”  The minerality in the whites here is amazing, with intensity rarely found outside of Europe’s chilliest climes.  Pinot Noir showcases an intriguing herbal side, with tomato leaf and root vegetable notes, along with dark fruit and spice highlights that are distinct from Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria. los alamos vineyard sign The other site of note is the legendary Los Alamos Vineyard.  Ojai’s Adam Tolmach and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen operated from a barn on the property here in their earliest days.  Gavin Chanin, who is now producing stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyard, also has fond memories of his early time here.  “During my first harvest in Santa Barbara I lived next door to Los Alamos vineyard in a bunk house, and we used to drink beer and watch them night harvest with huge flood lights,” recalls Chanin.  “It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me.”  Los Alamos Vineyard, like its neighbors in this part of the Valley, is quite sandy, with steep slopes and incredible exposures.  Chardonnay exhibits an intense, almost searing minerality, with fruit playing a background role.  These are not wines defined by aromatic intensity; rather, they are almost entirely about texture and mineral presence, in a fashion not found elsewhere in California.  The Pinots exhibit a similar herbaceousness as that found in Kick On.  “Los Alamos Vineyard is very unique,” says Chanin.  “The wines are rich but held together with great acidity, freshness and minerality. It is my most coastal vineyard but also our warmest because Los Alamos is somewhat cut off from the ocean.”  To taste the wines from Chanin, or Au Bon Climat through their “Historic Vineyard Series” bottlings, is a revelation: they are unlike any other Pinot Noir or Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County.  These are site-driven, beautifully balanced wines that speak loudly of their origins.

So, what is the future for Los Alamos Valley?  The winemakers I spoke with were divided: some believe an AVA would be beneficial, some believe it should be broken into several small AVAs, some believe only Alisos Canyon should have an AVA, and some believe there shouldn’t be any AVAs at all.  Given the diversity of the region, this is no surprise.  “I hate the idea of type casting Los Alamos because it has the potential to do so much at a very high level,” says Chanin.  “Very often with AVAs people only want to plant/produce what the AVA is best known for.”  Craig Jaffurs shares his skepticism at an overarching AVA, though believes Alisos Canyon may be worth designating.  “The larger Los Alamos Valley has not shown enough distinction to warrant becoming an AVA.  Alisos Canyon would be a worthy AVA in the same sense Ballard Canyon is.”  Bryan Babcock, a Sta. Rita Hills veteran who has worked with such sites as El Camino and Loma Verde in Los Alamos Valley’s northern sector, is quick to caution against Pinot Noir becoming Los Alamos’ flagship variety, and also points to the challenges of fractured AVAs.  “I would not hang my hat on Pinot, at least not yet. If you try to be a Pinot appellation, you will be crawling out from under the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley for the next 100 years… Also be careful about fracturing your AVA and destroying any potential clout that you would have had otherwise. If you don’t put together a critical mass of interest and players, you will witness the still birth of your AVA.”

There are currently, to my knowledge, no plans in the works to establish an AVA within Los Alamos Valley, though there is constant talk about it among the area’s vintners.  Perhaps we’ll never see an official designation for this area, which is a shame, as there are so many beautiful, unique wines coming from here.  As Seth Kunin states, “the concentration of flavor combined with unique structure [in Los Alamos] allows for significant ageing. Certainly some of the best examples of older (5-10 year-old) Syrahs that I have tasted from Santa Barbara County come from Los Alamos.”  I couldn’t agree more.  With the influx of new producers working with the fruit here, and exciting new plantings such as Mike Roth’s Mullet site, there is renewed energy in Los Alamos, carrying on the work of early pioneers like Ojai, Au Bon Climat, and Bedford.  Sites such as Thompson, Los Alamos Vineyard, White Hawk, and Verna’s are already legendary, and I have no doubt that we’ll be discussing Kick On Ranch, Martian, and Watch Hill with the same reverence in the years to come.  I hope that, as we continue to further refine our knowledge of site in Santa Barbara County, we continue to argue the merits of place as passionately as those I spoke with have done here.  It is this open dialogue and elegant exchange of ideas that will continue to elevate our area. A selection of Los Alamos bottlings to seek out:

Alisos Canyon
– Luminesce Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard Syrah
– Ojai Thompson Vineyard Syrah, Grenache
– Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah
– Martian Ranch Grenache, Syrah, Gamay, Viognier
– Tercero Watch Hill Grenache
– Bedford Syrah
Andrew Murray Watch Hill Syrah

Cat Canyon
– Jaffurs Verna’s Vineyard Syrah
– Melville- Anything from Verna’s Vineyard
– Lillian Syrah
– Ojai White Hawk Syrah, Sangiovese
– Tercero White Hawk Viognier, Syrah

Western Los Alamos
– Tatomer Kick On Ranch Riesling
– J. Brix Kick On Ranch Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris
– Municipal Winemakers Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Stirm Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Forlorn Hope Kick On Ranch Riesling
– Ojai Kick On Ranch Pinot Noir, Riesling
– Chanin Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
– Clendenen Family Syrah-Viognier La Cuna
– Bedford Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc

Free of Distortions: A Tasting of the Oft-Maligned 2011 California Pinot Noir Vintage

April 14, 2014

Discussing vintages is a tricky thing.  It’s all too easy to let the generalizations of a handful of critics define something which, by its nature, requires nuance.  California’s 2011 vintage is a perfect example.  A challenging year in terms of weather- frost, rain, and atypically cool weather that never really warmed up- it has been panned by many of the mainstream wine media, citing what they perceive as wines lacking in concentration, shrill and weedy in their structure and flavor profile.  Having tasted hundreds of ‘11s from the state, particularly from the Central Coast, over the past couple of years, I must emphatically disagree; on the contrary, I have found the wines to possess a freshness and structure rarely achievable in California, with plenty of fruit and concentration to boot.  I wanted to assess this further with others in a blind format, so I set about organizing a tasting of 2011 California Pinot Noir wines from throughout the state.  The event took place this past Saturday, with many winemakers and sommeliers in attendance to join in the analysis (and reveling).

Tasting wines with winemakers blind, especially when they know their own wines are in the mix, makes for a fascinating study in human behavior.  The flow of ideas seems to coincide with the flowing of wine; the fear of offending others or speaking freely about a wine’s attributes and flaws doesn’t seem to subside until liquid courage has opened the mind and the mouth.  Knowing this, we prefaced the Pinot tasting with several whites from 2011 to loosen the room.  Again, the freshness of the vintage spoke loud and clear, from Viognier to Chardonnay, with minerality and acidity unified with fruit.

wine party

On to the Pinot tasting, seventeen wines were tasted in total, single blind, with wines brought by the various guests.  To give context to the personal biases of myself, as well as those in attendance, palates in general leaned toward wines with an Old World sense of balance: lower alcohol, higher acid, and a desire for spice, earth, and floral character over fruit.  As a vintage, 2011, given its quasi-European weather, definitely encouraged and allowed for these characteristics in the wine.  That being said, I was surprised at the amount of ripeness present.  While many critics have maligned the vintage for its lack of heft, there was certainly not a lack of richness, even in the earlier-picked examples.  Perhaps these wines have gained body with age, as upon release there was a tightly coiled character to 2011.

pinot noir tasting

One of the most significant factors with 2011 is that it was one of the first vintages where a major shift in terms of ripeness was present.  While this was certainly helped along by the vintage, it was mostly a stylistic choice.  Across the board alcohols were lower in a year where, despite the relative cool, it was still possible to achieve 15 or 16% alcohol in Pinot Noir.  It brought up a question that hasn’t been heard in regards to Californian wine in quite a long time: when is a wine not ripe enough?  Without a doubt there was wine present here that may have been picked too early.  In the same way an ultra-ripe wine can have a one-note character, some of these had a simplicity to them that made for a rather dull drinking experience.  There were also a few examples where producers utilized high percentages of whole-cluster (stem inclusion), a practice I’m typically quite fond of, that came off as green and overtly vegetal.  In general, the wines that really stood out were those that accented the best characteristics of the vintage and captured not only their vineyards, but their own sense of style and artistic interpretation of the year.

There were 3 consensus favorites among the group, all of which are great examples of site-driven Pinot Noir.  Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast bottling under his Kutch label was gorgeous, and many thought reminiscent of old-school Santa Maria Valley Pinot.  With 25% whole cluster, 30% new oak and just 12.8% alcohol, all of its elements were perfectly in balance, its notes of rhubarb, underbrush, and sea shell making for a compelling, mineral wine.  Ryan Deovlet’s eponymous label rendered one of the best examples of Bien Nacido I’ve tasted.  Sourced from both old vines and newer plantings within this iconic site, it was classic Bien Nacido in its aromas and flavors of blood orange and black pepper, with a textural depth rarely found outside of Burgundy.  Last but not least, everyone loved Luceant’s 2011 Laetitia Vineyard Reserve bottling.  Seeing the most whole cluster and the most new oak of the 3 (50% of both), this was overflowing with spice, though again, all the elements were in balance.  This showed the power and pedigree of the Laetitia site, with forest floor, clove, and blackberry.

One of the marks of a great wine region is its willingness to periodically assess itself in an honest way.  I take a lot of pride in the fact that tastings like these are constantly happening in our area, often with winemakers pitting their wines against examples from the old world or from other local producers.  There is a desire to elevate not only their wines, but the region as a whole, a trait that I hope we continue to encourage.  What tastings like these continually assert to me is that these are wines that can play comfortably on the world stage, and that are only getting better.

 

The full lineup of wines tasted in no particular order, all 2011:
– Luceant, Laetitia Vineyard Reserve, Arroyo Grande Valley
– Kosta Browne, Russian River Valley
– Kita, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Presqu’ile, Estate, Santa Maria Valley
– Tantara, Lindsey’s Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Tantara, Corral, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Labyrinth, Sta. Rita Hills
– Siduri, Sta. Rita Hills
Paul Lato, Wenzlau Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Kutch, Sonoma Coast
– Deovlet, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Tyler, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Hirsch, San Andreas Fault, Estate, Sonoma Coast
– Longoria, Fe Ciega Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
J. Brix, Kick On Ranch, Santa Barbara County
– Qupe, Saywer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley

 

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

March 17, 2014

IMG_0505

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.

circlelogopages

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.”

hakabrandlogo

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.

IMG_0502

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

ideal pinot noir growing

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.

IMG_0460

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.

Oh! Sweet Nuthin’: The Quest for Vinous Immortality

January 13, 2014

lane tanner pinot noir

“Thought of you as my mountaintop
Thought of you as my peak
Thought of you as everything
I’ve had but couldn’t keep”
– The Velvet Underground, “Pale Blue Eyes”

The recent passing of Lou Reed hit me hard.  As a teenager growing up in sleepy Santa Maria, the world created by The Velvet Underground transported me to a place far removed from the sprawling broccoli and strawberry fields of the valley.  Characters from Andy Warhol’s Factory and New York’s seedy late ‘60s underground were vividly captured by Reed, evoking a time and place that, 45 years later, still feels timeless.

This loss of a hero got me to thinking about wine (all roads seem to lead me there nowadays).  As an adult, I have often found this same transformative experience through great wine bottles.  Unlike The Velvet Underground & Nico, however, which will sound exactly the same 100 years from now, wine, no matter how great the vintage or producer, is finite by its very nature, prone to inevitable decay. The memory of a great bottle is persistent and haunting because we know we will never have quite that same experience again.

So for those whose art is wine, how does one find the same sense of immortality allowed through the mediums of film, painting, or music?  In the Old World, it is the site, the terroir, which is prized above all else.  Each successive generation is passed the torch of great land, from Romanee-Conti to Clos de la Coulee de Serrant.  Yet it is the human element that must channel Mother Nature and define the voice of a given place in a lifetime; as the vineyard passes from one generation to the next, so too an inevitable stylistic shift happens.

In the New World, on the other hand, we often place the human element above all else.  Technical innovations and stylistic touches often trump the expression of site, for better or worse.  The greatest practitioners of this style focus less on sense of place and more on sense of self, driving so intently toward a personal vision that they capture something utterly unique.

The greatest wines and winemakers of the world, however, be they from France or Germany, Oregon or California, manage to marry these two philosophies; they showcase a special place while putting their own personal, inimitable stamp on it.  One such winemaker that I had the chance to share a table (and more than a few bottles) with numerous times this past harvest is Lane Tanner.

Lane retired her namesake label with the 2009 harvest; she still consults here and there, but she is, essentially, done with full time winemaking.  Unlike the typical scenario in Europe, there is no scion to carry on her namesake; all we have left is the string of superb vintages she crafted from 1984-2009.  These wines, whether from consumption or from decay, will eventually disappear, leaving only the memories they created and the imprint of their influence.

Rather than dwell on this unfortunate fact of wine, however, I’ve begun to embrace the unique beauty in its life and death cycle.  The fact that I am alive to enjoy these wines in their prime (her ’90 Sierra Madre was a transcendent experience), to learn the farming and winemaking lessons that Lane has been gracious enough to pass on, to have a hero from my hometown; these are things to celebrate.

Perhaps it’s fitting that, here in the Wild West, our vinous heroes ride off into the sunset.  And maybe one of wine’s greatest qualities is its fleeting nature: it forces us to be present in the moment, to embrace those sharing a table with us, and to stop and appreciate something beautiful.  So as you pop a bottle of Lane Tanner’s ’94 Sierra Madre Plateau, and cue up “Sunday Morning” on the stereo, take a moment to appreciate the unique, and ephemeral, beauty of the experience; ‘cause when it’s gone, it’s gone.

We have a VERY limited quantity of library 4 packs from Lane.  Limit 1 per person.  Featuring:
– 1992 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir
– 1994 Sierra Madre Plateau Pinot Noir
– 1995 Sierra Madre Plateau Pinot Noir
– 1996 Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir

Click here to purchase wine

The French Connection

November 25, 2013

“This is a wonderful Pinot Noir, it’s very Burgundian”… “I think you’ll really enjoy this Syrah, it’s a dead ringer for something from the Northern Rhone”… “Their Chardonnay is beautiful, it drinks just like a great Chablis”.  We’ve all heard these comments (and I’m certainly guilty of uttering them) in regards to Californian wines.  It’s almost as if the greatest compliment we can pay a balanced wine from the New World is that it tastes like something from the Old World.  After almost 30 years of high-alcohol, ultra-ripe wines, it’s understandable that those of us championing this return to wines of balance and place would want to connect the dots to Europe’s more classically structured, subdued wines.  But if we expect to stand head to head with, rather than on the shoulders of, these old world giants, we have to start proudly owning our unique sense of place.

Santa Barbara County, despite its youth, has already carved out numerous small micro-regions with their own distinct site character.  Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Bench, Los Alamos Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon, and the Los Olivos District all have distinctive soils, macroclimates, and topography found only in this special part of the world, and the producers advocating for these areas, now more than ever, are capturing their idiosyncratic essence.

Take Justin Willett.  The winemaker behind Tyler, Lieu Dit, and Vallin (does he ever sleep?!?) is crafting wines at refreshingly low alcohols, with a vivid savor of place.  While his inspiration comes from Burgundy (Tyler), the Loire (Lieu Dit), and the Northern Rhone (Vallin), the wines could clearly have come from nowhere else but California.  The beet root and black pepper of his Bien Nacido Pinot Noir from Santa Maria; the guava, papaya, and musk notes of the Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon; the lush blueberry and cracked pepper of Vallin’s Santa Ynez Syrah; these are wines that stand on their own as benchmark examples of what our area is capable of.

Or sample the Grenache of Angela Osborne.  It comes from Santa Barbara Highlands, a vineyard so remote and wild that it feels like stepping onto the moon; 3200 ft. elevation, soils so sandy that they look like a dune, scrub dotting the landscape, snow in the winter.  This is a place with real character, from a winemaker who has tapped so deeply into her own wavelength that she’s essentially a genre of one.  Tasting this wine, one senses the feral high desert in its origins, the California sunshine, the passion of a woman walking the vinous tightrope with no harness; the essence of what this new movement is all about.

And let us not forget our pioneers, the wild ones who started on this path of balance and never strayed from it even when fashion swung away from them.  Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat; Lane Tanner; Adam Tolmach at Ojai; Stephan Bedford; Fred Brander; they have helped shepherd and inspire this new generation, and are still making beautiful wines, further defining what makes our region so special.

It is a thrilling time to be a wine lover in Santa Barbara County.  We have one of the most unique growing regions on the planet, with incredible soils, a huge range of climates, and topography to make any European envious.  And now, in a big way, we have a wine culture that is starting to take proud ownership of this utterly singular sense of place.  Perhaps one day, years from now, we will hear jealous murmurs in Burgundy: “Have you tried this?  It tastes just like a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills…”

Menu