When you combine the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe for a winemaker and pairing dinner, you get an exceptional culinary evening that is not only “UnTraditional” in it’s bold wine and food pairings, but an experience that leaves you surprisingly convinced that, as Wes claims, beer and wine truly are the foundations of all modern civilization.
The “UnTraditional” Winemaker and pairing dinner on June 7th started off with Wes introducing himself and promising to give, over the course of the evening, an explanation of each dish before it was served and, at some point, the history of why wine is the most important fermented beverage in the world…in 5-min. As an example, Wes emphasized the importance of gathering friends and family together around tables, such as those that evening, to share a good bottle of wine and linger to talk and connect in a way that is not possible through electronic gadgets. That face to face connection, enhanced by a glass or two or three of wine, often brings out the true natures of companions, and is a space where novel ideas can flow and alliances can be formed.
With the first course, Wes explained that he collaborated with Chef Chris Joslyn on a menu that would go beyond the usual, traditional pairings, and reach for courses that were a little outside the box; a little untraditional, but equally as complementary and delicious. Chef Joslyn’s team set the bar with the first plate, which featured a beautifully crafted Ahi, cucumber, and avocado mixture neatly tucked into a crispy sesame cornet. Light and slightly sweet, the amuse bouche paired beautifully with the Clos Pepe Estate 2013, “Axis Mundi Rose of Mourvedre.”
As the evening progressed that culinary bar got higher and higher. The appetizer was followed by a small plate which featured a Fanny Bay oyster beside a Short Rib croquette, paired with a steel barreled Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay, “Homage to Chablis.” The third course brought the same pressed grapes back to the table, but this time having been fermented in an oak barrel so that guests could easily taste the difference between the two processes. Paired with grilled Longline Sword Fish, leeks, sweet corn, fingerling potato, and a lemon buerre fondue, the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Chardonnay “Barrel Fermented” was the perfect compliment.
Moving on to the red wines, the fourth course introduced Clos Pepe Estate 2011 Pinot Noir to the table. Paired with a roasted chicken roulade, Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, braised chard, and chicken jus – the course melted in your mouth. A Cassoulet of pork sausage, pork confit, slab bacon, and duck confit was the feature of the fifth course. Neatly baked into small ramekins, this was the grand crescendo of the evening, and was excellently paired with the Clos Pepe Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.
Before the final course of assorted cheeses paired with an Olin 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wes delivered on his promise to explain why wine was the most important booze in the world and was the reason we have advanced in our civilization. Perhaps it might have been a little more than 5-min, but no guest complained. They would have sat there for an hour more listening to Wes deliver his information in such an accessible, humorous style, and with such an infectious enthusiasm for life.
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.” Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills. Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock. However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him. These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else. This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.
The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific. As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall. In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California. “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen. “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.” Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions. The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.
The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam. Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay. The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils. This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power. Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in thesouthernhalf, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.” Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel. I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”
One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar. From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle. Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label. “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer. “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally. Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.” Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s. Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.
For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock. His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area. “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson. “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.” They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent. The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes. The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.
In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed. This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region. Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place. In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.
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