A handful of Santa Barbara County’s (and beyond) green conscious winemakers….some are organic, some are bio, guess which one was natural.
All wines are available at Los Olivos Cafe and Wine Merchant
As cliche as it might sound, the Key to Wine Country event really did unlock some new tasting room doors…I think that sounds better than, I got keyed at Key to Wine Country, not sure if that even makes sense. Regardless the “keys” thing is put on by the Santa Barbara Vintners Association. You pay $100 for your ticket and there is a bevy (and a few bevvies for that matter) of different tasting rooms to visit, throughout Santa Barbara County. Admittedly, this is one of the more creative winery experiences I’ve come across. Definitely, more interesting than those big room and table affairs.
You’ll need a map of the county as all sorts of winery folk get involved. Some have food or chocolate with wine parings, others do vineyard walks, the best by far are the intimate winemaker chats (you have to RSVP as spaces are limited) where they taste you through their decision making steps, from grape to bottle….I fancied the El Paseo experience. A tour of all six tasting rooms in the maze-like corridors of El Paseo, in downtown SB.
El Paseo is located just above De La Guerra and between State and Anacapa. Doug Margerum’s tasting room has been here the longest, about four years or so, next to his Wine Cask restaurant. Doug talked one of SB’s most famous winemaker’s, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat fame, to open next door. You can find ABC wines to purchase, dating back decades. There’s also Grassini out of Happy Canyon AVA. And two other spots Happy Canyon Vineyard and Jamie Slone, whom I imagine also opened tasting rooms under Doug’s suggestion….and why not, he makes both of their wine (totally different styles too!).
This whole winery wonderland is really the brainchild of Doug Margerum, and I must applaud him as it has really propelled, actually started, the whole State Street wine scene. It truly is a handful of the best Santa Barbara has to offer. As for the wines I tried here are my three favorites:
Top accolades go to Au Bon Climat. Their tasting list is true to the winery’s Burgundy roots, but there’s all sorts of stuff to try. The bog standard Santa Barbara County Chardonnay for instance, which is used by MWs in London to teach classic Chardonnay. There’s everything from Aligote to Riesling to purchase, but my fav wine of the day in fact was a Chardonnay from ABC.
2009 Au Bon Climat “Compelling” Nuits-Blanches au Bouge, Santa Maria County – A tight lemony and raw apricot little number, when you talk about tension in wine make sure you try this. Has years to go, but if you’re into crisp and fresh it’s ready now – $35 (There’s also a ’98 Nibiollo that was insanely good and a steal at $35)
Margerum actually has two tasting rooms. His regular one with an entrance on Anacapa, then MWC 32 a few steps into El Paseo, where they pour older vintages and reserve wines. It was at his Anacapa room that I found my fav though.
2011 Margerum Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County - Margerum is all about Rhone varietals and this Syrah does not disaapoint in the slightest. I reckon it has quite a few more years (about 10), but you can have it now, no problem. It is a very, very approachable wine. With a hint of peppercorn spice and fresh juicy blueberries – $40
Margerum’s straight Grenache was also very good.
Four years back, Grassini’s Bordeaux inspired wines were the first I tried out of the Happy Canyon AVA, I really liked them. There was a turn of events and Justin Willit of Tyler fame (and also partner to Mandy Grassini) made the previous vintage and his wines were being poured. I’ve been looking forward to trying Willit’s Bordeaux style, his own label is very much about Pinot and Chardonnay and above all that restraint…it was interesting to see him venture to the dark side of the noble grapes. The Sauv Blanc was particularly fresh, the grapes were picked at the very dawn of harvest, beginning of August and probably very low in potential alcohol. The two Bordeaux blends were also quite fresh it was however a single varietal wine that I really enjoyed.
2011 Grassini Petit Verdot, Happy Canyon AVA - not a grape you see very often, if at all, by itself. Petit Verdot is usually used to add back bone or rather mid-bone to the mid-palate of Cab and Merlot. Grassini PV is what I like to call a crunchy wine. It tastes as if your biting in to handful of juicy ripe blackberries, super concentrated fruit. There’s some musky like leather and grippy tannin. Like it’s palate the price too is a hefty $95, steep but a very good wine.
A great thing to note at Grassini’s tasting room, they pour all their high-end wines with a coravin, my first time seeing it in use….totally impressed!
Look out for the Keys to SBC next year. Thanks to Morgen and Taylor over at the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association for sending the tickets. Find out about future SBCVA events on their website — www.sbcountywines.com
Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County is one of the most recent grape growing regions to attain the American Viticulture Area classification, or AVA. This little sub-region sits on one of the most picturesque drives in California. Ballard Canyon Road starts at State Route 154 (aka San Marcos Pass) and bends and winds its way to a little south of Buellton (home of the famous Pea Soup Andersen’s) on State Route 246. The road is only 7 miles long and full of native oak trees, rolling hills of vines, and even a few bison to complete the scenery straight off a vintage Americana postcard.
Wine drinkers are soon to hear more of Ballard Canyon as it is becoming one of the red Rhône hot spots of this great state, especially Syrah. Before receiving its official nod, Ballard Canyon was already getting a buzz of approval from sommeliers and winemakers alike. Vineyards and producers within the AVA’s boundaries include Stolpman, Beckman, Rusack, and Jonata, are all being touted for their red Rhônes. However, after a recent tasting, it was the Roussanne that was really a surprise.
Roussanne is not the most recognized white wine from Southern France, which is of course Viognier – the two are most commonly blended with a third grape Marsanne. It is rare to see a 100% Roussanne wine – last year there was 1277 tons of Roussanne picked while the total for Viognier was 28,000. There are distinct differences between the two: Roussanne has flavors of peach and apricot compote while Viognier tends to lean on the more tropical side of the fruit spectrum, also with characteristic pear notes. Both are on the fuller side in mouthfeel.
The first Roussanne I tried was from boutique producer De Su Propia Cosecha, a winery that firmly puts all its concentration in the vineyard. The name is Spanish for “Of One’s Own Harvest” and proprietor/winemaker Chris King personally tends the vineyards from which he buys fruit. This is a very uncommon procedure as most just buy the grapes, while King is probably in the vineyard more than the winery. King sourced these grapes from Stolpman vineyard, and this is a wine that stands out. There was a fresh apricot nose with hints of honeydew, also some flavors of almond and water chestnuts; nectar in its full definition.
I tried Stolpman Vineyard’s own Roussane a few nights later. Stolpman was the first to plant Rhone varieties in Ballard, and really began the trend across the canyon. Their Roussanne is named “L’Avion”, French for airplane, as the vines grow on a former airplane strip on the property which started out as cattle ranch. This wine too is quite special, with a lovely nose of peaches and cream, some hints of honeysuckle and with clean cut minerality on the finish.
To put these two wines in perspective I took a quick jaunt out to my local bottle shops in search of a French Roussanne. Although I came up empty handed in 100% Roussanne wine, I did find a 50/50 Rousanne Viognier made by Mas des Bressade in the Costières de Nîmes, one of the more southern bits of the Rhône . Although this is made up half of Viognier it is still full of Roussanne flavor, lots of peaches, apricot compote, fresh minty tea leaves and tropical melon.
The Ballard Canyon wines were very fragrant and what made them stand out was the pureness on the palate. Both had such ripe stone fruit flavors and an underlining acidity mixed with minerality that adds a fresh note. Food-wise and because of the medium weight of Roussanne these wines will go perfect with most poultry, fish or seafood and citrus sauces. Fish or shrimp tacos with mango salsa or grilled salmon with a lemon cilantro sauce, the weight of the wine will counter light lemon or lime sauces. In fact, I would go as far as saying it will stand up to medium spicy Thai dishes as well. I am just imaging a chicken yellow curry matching perfect to the peach and apricot flavors of Roussanne.
So, remember the name ‘Ballard Canyon’ particularly if you come across one of these delectable Roussannes, a perfect match for your spring and early summer.
De Su Propia Cosecha is available here, at their online store, for $28
Stolpman Vineyard’s L’Avignon is available here, at their online store, for $38
Mas Bressade is available at various merchants here, for around $17
I popped in to the TAPAS tasting at the Presidio this past weekend: 30-odd wineries all making wines from Spanish varieties. I was on a bit of a mission, looking out for all the Albariños as I think this is a grape that California can and will soon embrace, my finds will be posted a bit later.
In the meantime however, are three wines off the beaten bodega.
2011 Pierce Ranch Vineyards, Arintom San Antonio Vallley AVA, Monerey County
Arinto is one of the oldest varieties out of Portugal. This one in particular was super crisp, with lots of stone fruit and lemon flavors. A very fresh wine.
Josh Pierce planted a half acre (which came out to three barrels) of Arinto, despite never having even tried any wine produced from the grape first – he had read about it and liked the idea of its high acidity and expected to blend it into his other whites…..lo and behold, his solo Arinto turned out pretty good.
It’s hard to keep up with all the wine Ken Volk makes. He admits to having his cash crops – Pinot, Chardonnay and some Bordeaux – so he can tinker with his “Underappreciated Rarities
One such underappreciated grape was his Malvasia Bianca (which on this Spanish day should have been called Malvagia…) This is like a lighter style Gewurz, so much lychee on the nose but the palate is a bit more rambutan – if you’ve ever tried one of those spiky little guys! – tropical with a hint of black pepper. Would be great with chow mein or a Thai yellow curry.
On a side note Ken had a high school summer job at the Wham-O factory…yes, Wham-O creator of such modern marvels as the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee and of course The Slip ‘N Slide (those links are all the original commercials if you’re feeling nostalgic). It just so happens though, that this summer gig inspired him to invent a tank a lees stirring device much like the Water Wiggle, where instead of water it gets, ahem, wiggled around by CO2. Love it!
Trousseau, or ‘Bastardo’ as our Iberian cousins call it – apparently with no insult implied – is the cult grape of the moment. This one is a beast. Some soft cherry fruit, a bit of espresso, and some black olive, this wine is rich and full….with spicy peppercorn finish as well. This is what one means when we talk about a steak wine, pure carnivore.
Dorothy Schuyler owns and makes the wines here, she had the foresight to move to Paso from LA before the influx. As the winery’s name foretells, they are all about Spanish varieties.
Democratic Assembly Member Wesley Chesbro ( his wiki), of California’s 2nd district (which is basically from the Oregon border all the way to the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge), is about to get a huge boost in student support. That is, if his proposed assembly bill No. 1989 passes. The bill proposes that students between the ages 18 and 21 can taste wine and beer in class!!!
Now, before you underagers head in to English 101 and crack open a PBR, or whatever it is the youths of today are drinking (King Cobra, perhaps?)….there are some strict stipulations. First, you have to be enrolled in a “qualified academic institution,” secondly, you must be a qualified student and lastly, and this is the stickler, you can only “taste.” The official name of the assembly bill is: Underage Drinkers: students in winemaking and brewery science programs.
Below are the actual definitions extracted from the bill:
A qualified student may taste an alcoholic beverage, and both the student and the qualified academic institution in which the student is enrolled shall not be subject to criminal prosecution under subdivision (a) of Section 25658 and subdivision (a) of Section 25662, if all of the following criteria are met:
I wonder if they’ll have a “proper spitting method” in the curriculum as well.
However, and class room humor aside, this could actually be a huge boost to the winemaking education system in California. About a year ago I tried all of Cal Poly’s wine, there was a student from the program there (not pouring) and he explained how he hadn’t tried any of the wines as he was under age.
“WHAT?!?” I cried, “You haven’t tasted your own wine?”
He sheepishly shook his head.
Obviously, I found that a tad absurd…a student who is learning to make wine (or beer for that matter) can’t actually taste the product they’re making, and even worse have any point of reference of what styles they might or might not prefer.
Hypothetically, a winemaking student could get through a large portion of their studies, finally get to taste at 21, and hate the stuff! What then lawmakers?! This bill could possible prevent hundreds of students wasting precious loan money and years in college to only find out they like vodka better.
The bill will be heard by the committee in the State’s capital on March 23rd. I believe it’ll be heard one more time after that before there’s a vote.
I hope the wine industry gets behind this one as it can have a real positive impact on our state’s future winemakers.
I’ll be posting updates as I find them.
Of course I had to download The Best Caesar – what an appealing name for an app! I am always trying to perfect my dressing… extra pinch of salt here, another anchovy there …
Caesar Salad is named after Caesar Cardini (not that emperor guy), a 1900s Italian immigrant whose hotel is still on the Avenida Revolución in Tijuana. The app, however, was created by Tyson Caly and is an ode to his father, who taught him how to make the dressing. Over the years, Mr. Caly has perfected his recipe and made the app to display those efforts. The photos are really what makes this one-trick-pony really work … I dare anyone not to jump into the kitchen and start whisking away once viewing the individual ingredients so enticingly captured within. In fact, the photos are so good you’ll be excused if you start thinking you’re actually making the salad rather than swiping through the steps.
Dinner tonight? Well, first you’ll have to download the app….then get tossing.
Free on iTunes
I went to the Vintners Market event a while back on a rare, sunny, SF November day.
A few wineries stood out from the crowd:
Deux Punx – a partnership of two, ahem, punks Dan Schaaf (le punx above) and Aaron Olson. First off, I love the labels. As for the wine:
2012 Pinot Blanc (label with dapperly dressed gentlemen, with a reel-camera as his head) – super concentrated and rich, almond and marmalade. This was my fav wine of the bunch, grapes sourced from Russian River. $22
2012 Viognier (cat label) – crazy tangerine flavors, a crisp note of acidity, unlike any Viognier I’ve tried, in a good way. From Scribner Bend Vineyard in Clarksburg. $18(!)
2011 Pinot Noir (the tree label) – Cherry pip, quite crisp too with some elegance. Grapes are sourced high off the 101 in Humboldt County from a vineyard called Elk Prarie. $36
2011 Grenache (owl label) – Savoury black olive and ripe blackberry. From Tejada Vineyard in Northern Lake County. $22
Thralls Family Cellars
2008 Alder Springs Vyd Syrah, Mendocino County – $34
There’s great depth to this wine. Rich blackberry, and a whole bowl of blueberries; crunch spicy fruit with a hit of minerality too. Ed, the man himself, makes this on the side of his marketing job at Flowers. He wants to concentrate on Pinot…too bad because his Syrah is pretty f’in awesome.
Wesley Ashley Wines
This is a pretty small project with only a few hundred cases a year and the grapes are sourced from that huge vineyard in what is best known as Santa Barbara highlands, a massive vineyard up near the Los Padres.
2011 Intelligent Designs – Santa Barbara County Cuvée
Rich blackberry and cherry, some licorice but quite herby and juicy.
This quite dapper fellow is Michael Larner, patriarch of the vineyard (and hopefully own estate winery) of the same name. Michael was one of the main drivers of the newly appointed Ballard Canyon AVA….he is also on the front of the line battle against the SB County planning commission to get his winery approved….it’s been a few years.
Regardless, the Rhône varietals grown on his property have fast become one of the more sought after in the county.
2009 Larner, Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley – soft berry jam fruit, quite an easy drinker but full, $38
As massive consumer tastings go, I quite liked this one. Apparently, the wineries are separated in tiers, with the first part of the hall being the less expensive ticket, and two supposedly more exclusive tiers after that…. oddly and slightly surprisingly a gorilla-like bouncer stopped me from entering the top-tier, maybe it was my unshaven, disheveled look, or just the fact that I had a press pass….I will never know.
The next one is on April 12th and 13th – it’s worth a go.
At home I’m on this huge French kick at the mo, so it’s not too often that I delve into the New Worlds of the wine rack. Early in the week was a Chilean Clos de Fous (a huge blend of 40% Malbec, 25% Carmenere, 14% Syrah, 10% Pais, 6% Carignan). Clos is French term used for walled in vineyards….and fous is crazy…..so there you have Clos des Fous. The grapes are sourced from around the town of Cauquenes in the region of Maule. For a $30 blend, this wine is pretty killer…lots of tart red berry fruit, sour cherries and dried cranberry. The accompanying tech sheet says the vines have an average age of 80 years, and we like them old vines! I had it opened for two days and admittedly it stood up better and had a lot more going on the second day. All in all though a great find. Oh and it went great with local fav delivery pizza, Escape from New York Pizza.
The other pizza, which was made by the in-house chef, went with the organically grown, and naturally made Ambyth Estate , “El Rancho de Juan Fiesta” Syrah, probably my favorite Paso Robles winery. I think Ambyth is making all their wines from estate grapes now, so not sure if they’re still going with this Syrah….and too bad for all of you as this was such true varietal characteristic of the grape. Spicy with hints of blueberries, multi-layered dense fruit flavors. This is one of the better natural wineries around and a great representative of the (supposedly) controversial style. Welsh winemaker Phil Hart goes all the way when it comes to the unwritten rules of natural winemaking, and this place will be soon be a California benchmark of the style.
Towards the end of the week we opened up an Albariño from a super tiny production made by Santa Barbara winery De Su Propia Cosecha. Sadly this is another wine that is not only out of stock, but the vineyard where the grapes were sourced, in San Luis Obispo, has been sold and the allocation has changed hands. Regardless, this wine proves the natural talent from winemaker Chris King. Such a precise, lean, pure wine. Lemon sherbert with hints of macadamia on the nose while it tastes of apricot and lime, and a healthy dose of chalk-like minerality. You can find DSP in Lompoc’s wine ghetto….seek them out! 1501 E. Chestnut Ct, Lompoc, CA 93436
One last little thing: if you want expand your palate, you have to taste nearly everything you come across. One easy way to do this is to buy whatever new fruit or veg you come across in the supermarket. While in Cal-mart the other day I saw these mini Forelle Pears and mini Lady Apples. The pears had a particularly delicate and pure pear flavor, while the apples tasted of a blend of apple sauce and pear. Then there was the Tohato Caramel Corn I found at Daiso, the dollar store in Japan Town, they tasted like caramelised Cap’n Crunch….awesome!
Just another goofy thing I do…..out.
Stopped by Buellton the other day to check out Dragonette Cellars’ new(ish) digs. They’ve moved their wine making facilities into what was once Sanford’s first winery….so kinda historic! I tasted through some barrels with winemaker Brandon Sparks-Gillis. I first came across Dragonette for research on the Happy Canyon AVA in Edible, and quite liked the sauvignon blanc they’re making from the hottest sub-region of Santa Barbara.
This time however, it was the soon to be released grenache that interested me most… unexpectedly from Santa Rita Hills, a region known mostly for Burgundian varietals, Pinot and Chard.
The 2012 John Sebastiano Vineyard Grenache (in Santa Rita Hills) as well as the Thompson Vineyard (which is in fact in Los Alamos Hills) are usually blended by Dragonette, but this time they are seriously thinking about bottling them individually, which personally I think is the way to go. Dragonette has a tasting room in Los Olivos – 2445 Alamo Pintado Ave, Los Olivos, CA 93441 805-693-0077
By the way, I hadn’t realized the guys at Dragonette had been consulting and making Liquid Farm’s wines for the past few vintages. So, should probably get some deserved praise for all those high scores and mentions…..I think they’ve taken a considerable step back now that Liquid Farm has its own rented place next door.
The whole reason why I went to Dragonette was because another winemaker Mike Roth had invited me down. Mike has recently left his post at Martian Vineyards and is going solo under his own label Lo-Fi, he’s renting a corner of Dragonette’s winery. If you’ve tasted any of Mike’s wines or spent even a minute chatting with him you’ll know he draws a lot of his inspiration from Beaujolais and the natural side of winemaking…and that will be his focus with Lo-Fi.
He will soon be releasing a Cab Franc and with what could be called one of the most awesome label’s I’ve come across. It’ll retail at $25.
Just a note – Buellton is fast becoming an urban wine destination in it’s own right, although places like Lucas & Lewellen have always been there, other wineries like Dragonette, Margerum and Roark are posting stakes.