Santa Barbara Wine Country Summed Up

October 6, 2017

Say the words “California wine” and more often than not, bruiser Napa Cabernets or buttery Sonoma Chardonnays comeSanta Barbara Wine Country to mind. There’s a certain irony to the fact that most consumers consider wine country of Santa Barbara County as a relative newcomer when in fact the area has had acreage under vine for over one hundred years. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Santa Barbara County really took off, thanks in part to the UC Davis’s assessment of it having the optimal climate for growing grapes.

What makes the climate of Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast so unique? Three factors come into play: The Humboldt Current, the Coriolis Effect, and the Transverse Range.

The Humboldt Current, despite its name, has nothing to do with cheese or green pharmaceuticals. It’s actually a deep ocean current that comes up from Peru, bringing cool waters with it. That combines with the Coriolis Effect, which is a phenomenon that occurs when northern winds push surface-warm ocean water off the top of the Pacific and moves it further west. The Coriolis Effect truly is phenomenal because it’s not possible without the Earth’s rotation! When that warmer water shifts away, those deep, cool waters shift towards the top, ensuring a continuous cooling effect mid-California Coast. That cool air is then funneled inland due to the Transverse Range: that’s where the North-South running mountains turn East-West due to an early plate tectonic shift. That geological and meteorological combination add up to the unique microclimates we find around Santa Barbara County – which add up to a great variety of wine!

The two biggest AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, in Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. Both are river valleys created by that plate tectonic shift, which means they oddly run west-to-east, funneling cool maritime air in with them. Both AVAs benefit from large diurnal swings because the cool Pacific influence brings in chilly fog overnight, lowering the nightly temperatures, before burning off midday at higher, hotter afternoon temperatures. That large temperature swing optimizes sugar levels in grapes while maintaining acidity. You’ll notice wines from both AVAs may be higher in alcohol but never taste out of balance: there will always be a refreshing prickle of acidity on the finish. Let’s take a moment to thank diurnal swings for that!

Within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the best known AVA is Sta. Rita Hills. (And yes, it is legally ‘Sta. Rita Hills’ and not ‘Santa Rita Hills.’ It seems the famous Santa Rita winery in Chile was a bit peeved when the Santa Rita Hills AVA was initially granted and sued to prevent consumer confusion.) Sta. Rita Hills is most famous for its Pinot Noir. The AVA benefits from that ocean air as well as very specific ‘chet’ soil that create the unmistakably bright and floral Sta. Rita Pinot flavor. It’s no mistake that some of the best-known California Pinot vineyards, including Sea Smoke, are located here.

larner vineyard
Larner Vineyard of Ballard Canyon

Moving away from the ocean, we find the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon AVAs. As their names imply, they are both lower altitude AVAs and, since they’re surrounded by mountains, heat and sunlight reflect off to create much warmer microclimates than those found in Sta. Rita Hills. Bordeaux and Rhone varietals do well here. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon loves Happy Canyon and Syrah rules Ballard Canyon.

And, fun fact!: Happy Canyon earned its moniker by having the only working still during Prohibition, leading many a local to visit and to leave quite happy! We’re pleased to see this happy-making legacy continued with fantastic wine.

sunset vineyard
Bernat Vineyard of Los Olivos District

And finally, the newest AVA in the region is perhaps the closest to our heart: the Los Olivos District. Located in the area surrounding the Los Olivos Café, the Bernat vineyard is proud to be part of the Los Olivos District. Comparatively flat and warm, Syrah absolutely thrives here – which you can taste in the many different Bernat Syrah bottlings.

With the continued interest in Santa Barbara County, we feel that its potential is just now being brought to fruition. The various microclimates and unique topography allow for infinite possibilities, from rich, round reds to bright, acidic whites. Santa Barbara Country truly has a wine for every wine lover!

We love sharing Santa Barbara Wine Country! Shop our Wine Merchant here and we’ll ship our wine country to you! Consider choosing from our custom wine club selection that offers only the best of California Central Coast wines.

Garrett Gamache of Ground Truth Wines

July 3, 2017

A Pure Approach to Making Wine

 

If you look up the definition of “ground truth,” you’ll find many different definitions. Among soldiers, the “ground truth” refers to the strategic reality of a military situation. For a meteorologists, it refers to atmospheric information collected on location. Among poets, it refers to the fundamental truth. Before being a winemaker Garrett Gamache would collect ground-truth data out in the field when working as a geologist. But as a winemaker his label “Ground Truth” refers to what the French call terroir: the expression of grapes in specific soils and microclimates.

Garrett came to his own ground truth in a roundabout way. Like many young Central Coast winemakers, he didn’t come from a family of farmers. Instead, he discovered his calling after majoring in geology and growing frustrated with the office jobs he found after graduation. He worked for Ryan Carr of Carr Winery during his undergraduate degree at UCSB, and it was this call to be back in nature that led him to learn how to farm, essentially. He quickly realized that his favorite wines were the result of minimal winemaker intervention and instead tasted of their specific terroir.

Garrett’s minimalistic approGarrett Gamache harvesting grapes for Ground Truth Winesach is immediately apparent in his wines. He strongly believes that wine should be an expression of the terroir above all else, and to achieve this, he keeps his production super small. Grapes for his wines are sourced from the best vineyards around Santa Barbara County, like Whitehawk Vineyard for his Viognier, Coquelicot Vineyard for his Rosé, and Kimsey Vineyard for his Syrah. The cooler temperatures in Whitehawk allow the aromatic nature of Viognier to fully develop while maintaining structured acidity. Similarly, the sandy soils of Kimsey are perfect for Syrah because it helps the earthy, spicy nature to show forth instead of big, jammy fruit. Finally, whole cluster pressing allows his Rosé juice to run free, with minimal skin contact, which naturally allows the earthy notes of Syrah to more subtly assert themselves.

Garrett also uses only indigenous yeast for fermentation, which means that yeast is not used to impart flavors that are not natural to the grapes, to the juice, or to the aging process. The resulting wines express pure, varietally-correct characteristics that speak of the beauty of soil and of climate and not of technology.

His smaller approach is aligned with his humble demeanor: when asked where he sees himself in ten years, Garrett replies that he’d like to keep making fantastic, small production wines. In fact, his current releases are his biggest yet at a combined 300 cases! While he probably wouldn’t mind being known as the great winemaker that he is, Garrett isn’t looking to become the next Robert Mondavi; in fact, he’d prefer that his label is recognizable, not him. In a time when so many are seeking to be the next rock star winemaker, Garrett’s approach is refreshing because his focus is purely on the wine and not on self-promotion. See for yourself and discover more in our interview that we had at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café:

We enjoyed hosting Garrett at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café on July 28th as he poured for part of our Final Friday Featured Winemaker series.

 

Discover our Selection of Ground Truth Wines at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant Here

 

Making Old Bones: Jurassic Park’s Chenin Blanc Renaissance

February 2, 2014

photo (54)

It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd.  “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property.  As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”.  Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.

In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly.  What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils.  The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines.  As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years.  It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.

I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park.  “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer.  Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.

Jurassic Park's eastern block
Jurassic Park’s eastern block
Jurassic Park's western block
Jurassic Park’s western block

Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center).  The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil.  The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam.  “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.”  Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.

For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side.  I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.”  This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character.  There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis.  Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.

Facing east
Facing east

Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country.  As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring.  “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension.  I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.”  Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”

Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with.  Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres.  Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin.  To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging.  Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development.  His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.

Chenin Blanc
Facing west

Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres.  His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics.  While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.

“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.”  This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label.  Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid.  DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’.  His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property.  The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard.  And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property.  Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes.  “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages.  I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.”  Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.

32-year-old Chenin Blanc grape vines
32-year-old Chenin Blanc

Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline.  Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases.  However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make.  Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.

Purchase select Jurassic Park Chenin Blancs:
Roark 2014
 Ground Effect 2014 ‘Gravity Check’

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