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…”