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Santa Barbara County Wine Country

At the top of Tierra Alta with Sonja Magdevski, John Belfy and Greg Brewer

As previously mentioned, some readers asked me to compile some of my Instagram photos from intensive regional visits here for easier access. This last week I made a three-day return to Santa Barbara County to do follow-up visits with a few producers I have had on going conversations. This summer I also traveled the region for eight days focusing most specifically on the Ballard Canyon sub-zone. With the dynamic intersection of varied soils, climate variation, changing terrain, etc, it is an interesting area for me to spend time tasting and wrapping my head around. I learn a wealth of insight every time I manage to walk a vineyard in Santa Barbara County (SBC).

Following is the Instagram photo collection from my eight days in SBC this summer, followed by photos from the recent three days. The timing also happens to coincide with a collection of tasting notes from Santa Barbara County that were just published on JancisRobinson.com. Between the two — the tasting notes and the photos here — there is a ton of information about SBC.

Thank you to those that have been following along there on Instagram and asked me to make the images available here!

If you’re interested in keeping up with my persistent wine travels and tastings, you can find me on Instagram as @hawk_wakawaka. Cheers!

First Stop Santa Barbara Wine Country: Casa Dumetz & Babi’s Beer Emporium


Deovlet Wines


Duvarita Vineyard: West of Santa Ynez Valley & Sta Rita Hills (that is closer to the ocean)

Rain storm in Santa Barbara County.

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Heading into Ballard Canyon: Tierra Alta Vineyard


Stolpman Vineyard

Peter + Jessica Stolpman standing in some of their Syrah growing at Stolpman Vineyards in the Ballard Canyon AVA of Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara. The earliest vineyards came to Ballard Canyon in the mid-1970s establishing a melange of varieties unsure of what would work. The Stolpman were the first of the second wave to plant in the small + distinctive region beginning at the start of the 1990s. Their plantings helped establish Syrah as the superstar of Ballard Canyon thanks to the work of early winemakers Ojai + Sine Qua Non, who in turned also secured the reputation of Stolpman Vineyard. In 2001, the family decided to also launch their own Stolpman Vineyards label. Today Peter + Jessica lead the management of the project working w Ruben Solorzano as lead viticulturist, Maria Solorzano as Vineyard Foreman + Sashi Moorman as Head Winemaker.

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Ruben Solorzano’s farming is highly regarded as much for its success in growing distinctive quality fruit as it is for his highly intuitive understanding of the vines. Here, on a narrow hillside planting of Syrah on Stolpman Vineyard, Ruben explains the benefits of their planting the vines w meter-by-meter spacing w the vines head trained, every other at an opposite angle leaning towards its neighbor so every two vines meet at the top to form a point. The unusual planting produces dappled sunlight while also creating a more insulated canopy since the vines effectively protect + shade each other. Only leaves face outward w the bulk of the vine inside the two-vine pyramid. As a result, the vine as a whole gets less direct sun exposure but with still ample photosynthesis. The result is less water stress thanks to less heat stress + more flavor development at lower sugars. Brilliant.

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Beckmen Estate Purisima Mountain

Steve Beckmen established his Beckmen Vineyards label in the early-mid 1990s initially making wine from a 1980s planted site in the recently proposed Los Olivos AVA while also sourcing fruit to get to know other vineyards through Santa Ynez Valley. After getting turned on to fruit in Ballard Canyon + really loving its distinctiveness (especially in the Syrah), he began looking for land to plant in the region. He began planting his Purisima Mountain Vineyard in Ballard Canyon in 1996, establishing it mainly to Syrah but also Grenache, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc + Sauvignon Blanc. Today, Steve leads the farming of the site himself with Demeter certified biodynamic practices. Sitting on the Northside of Ballard Canyon, Beckmen Vineyard (like Stolpman) grows almost entirely from Linne Clay mixed through w limestone gravel + sitting on limestone. Here we look South across Ballard Canyon from the very top of Beckmen Vineyard at 1200 ft elevation.

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Farming Grenache can be an incredible challenge. It likes to throw tight, very big clusters + lots of fruit but it also has rather sensitive skin compared to other Rhone varieties. Its tight clusters make it easy to get rot. It’s big clusters and lots of fruit make it harder to ripen but if a vine has too little fruit it likes to develop high sugars (which means high alcohol). Its sensitive skins make it prone to sunburn or color bleaching. As a result, vine balance + farming Grenache can be incredibly tricky. Even so, some of the most beautiful wines in the world are from Grenache. Here, Steve Beckmen has found Grenache on his Ballard Canyon Beckmen Vineyard thrives head trained w a low fruit zone. The bushy canopy shades the fruit + the challenge of growing in low vigor limestone w a daily cooling wind keeps cluster sizes generally low. Lower fruit zones in the right conditions also mean less stress on the vine + less water need.

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Jonata Estate Vineyard

Jonata winemaker Matt Dees takes me on a walk through Jonata Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. Planted at the start of the new Millennium, Jonata Vineyards proves unique for Ballard Canyon. It is the only Estate in the appellation focused on Bordeaux varieties, while also growing Syrah. The sandy soils of Jonata behave very differently than the Linne Clay north of Jonata. Sand includes significant drainage. In the case of Ballard Canyon, the sand also allows ripening of Bordeaux varieties where the clay would not. One of the advantages of clay also restricts its potential varieties. Because clay absorbs + holds moisture readily, it also absorbs Ballard Canyon’s cold night time fogs from the ocean. As a result, vineyards in clay take longer to warm in the day + also lock in more humidity. The ample drainage of Jonata’s sand allows the vines to receive the ambient temperature change at night without elongating the cold + humidity in the morning after the fog has cleared. With the slightly warmer + drier conditions, Cabernet Franc + Cabernet Sauvignon ripen on the site. The sand gives them ample while melting tannin while the cool nights give them mouth washing acidity. What is fascinating to me tasting Jonata wines is how utterly Jonata while still distinctly Ballard Canyon they are. That is, the site, Jonata Vineyard, has a unique recognizable signature in the wines while still carrying the character of the AVA. Jonata was planted by John Belfy + today is farmed by Ruben Solorzano.

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Saarloos & Son Watermill Ranch

Touring the Watermill Ranch, Saarloos + Sons’s terraced, dramatic hillside Ballard Canyon site, on ATV-quad (my favorite) w Keith Saarloos. The Saarloos family purchased the property originally to be Apple farmers as the site was previously planted w apple trees but after discovering the challenges of the apple industry they switched over to wine grapes in 1999. Farming the site themselves, the Saarloos have chosen to cultivate Syrah + Grenache. The vineyard grows between 750 + 1150 ft with a cold air drainage along the bottom that pulls cooling wind coming over the hills at the Northern boundary of Ballard Canyon through Saarloos + into the Southern half of the small AVA. Being in the Northern portion, their site rests in Adobe type clay, which carries tons of water holding capacity + cools the fruit further into the day. Windmill Ranch includes the most dramatic rolling hills of the appellation, which Keith describes as “like farming on a roller coaster.”

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Rusack Vineyards

Steve Gerbac has been part of the winemaking team for Rusack in Ballard Canyon since 2003 + leading it since 2012. Rusack Vineyards grows at the upper boundary of the Southern half of Ballard Canyon just below where the appellation becomes more predominantly sand. The vineyards grow between 600 + 700 ft in elevation well within the cooling fog + potential for spring frost or winter freeze. As a result the site has proven not quite warm enough for Sangiovese or Cabernet Franc but very good for Ballard Canyon’s signature grape, Syrah. The site does also still grow Merlot, Petit Verdot + Petite Sirah, as well as a fresh balanced Zinfandel. The Rusack site was previously home to the first vineyard in this area of the Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon Winery established in 1974. That first vineyard in the area was planted to a melange of varieties both warm + cool climate. When Rusack was established the vineyards were replanted. However, thanks to the historic winery location, today Rusack offers the only winery + tasting room in Ballard Canyon.

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Steve Gerbac, head winemaker of Rusack, has been keeping a steady hand at Rusack while also doing small scale experiments to shift the style towards greater freshness + clarity w still plenty of flavor. I asked him to talk about how he has approached exploring the change while finding balance w making a change over time. He offered some examples in the winemaking process. Here is some of what he had to say. “We’ve been shifting the wine style [at Rusack] in the last couple years to doing less to the wines. We’re bottling our first unfiltered Chardonnays now. You have to really change everything from how you grow the grapes to when you pick them to not filter the wine. You kind of have to rethink everything from the beginning or you run into trouble. You just do what you can + clarify the wines as you can [before bottling]. We’ve started fermenting Syrah [differently]. I don’t really like fermenting one clone at a time anymore. I pick [a few together] + co-ferment. I think it adds complexity. We’ve been playing w stems in Zinfandel + Petite Sirah. It’s a lot of little things that aren’t that much on their own that add up to a lot. I’d always been against stems coming from a [particular view of a] Pinot background. Now just a little bit here + there. I still don’t want to be able to pick it out in the finished wine but I don’t want to pick it out any more than I do any other thing either. It is just to add a little range + aromatic lift.” – Steve Gerbac

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While Rusack’s primary Estate rises from the soils of Ballard Canyon, they also farm, own + bottle wine from the one + only vineyard on Catalina Island of the coast of Los Angeles County. The site grows utterly distinctive Chardonnay, Pinot Noir + especially unique Zinfandel grown against the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Recently Rusack has been able to harvest fruit from cuttings of Zinfandel taken from Catalina Island now grown in Ballard Canyon. Tasting the two Zinfandels side by side is remarkable for how utterly distinct they prove to be. One concentrated, dense, + charismatic w the power of a life on the Pacific Ocean. The other dusty, mouthwatering + zesty like the terrain of Ballard Canyon. The Catalina Chardonnay is deceptively delicate, an almost lacey body of flavor somehow still powerful + mouthwatering w tons of length. The Pinot all savory + wild w windy freshness + saline crunchy length.

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Larner Vineyard

Standing at around 700 ft at the highest point of the Larner Vineyard property w Michael Larner we survey the Southern stretch of Ballard Canyon. The Southern portion (which include both Larner + Kimsey Vineyards) are within direct exposure to the cooling afternoon wind that blows off the Pacific across the extended east-west running Santa Ynez Valley. North of Larner, Ballard Canyon runs North-South still receiving an afternoon wind but at a different angle along the canyon floor, which is a bit protected by the Canyon’s more exposed hilltops. Michael’s professional training as an academic geologist served in researching the conditions of Ballard Canyon to prepare a petition for AVA status, which was approved in 2013. As Michael explains, the relatively small AVA shares in calcareous bedrock, which appears as fractures of chalk in the southern portions (more available to vine roots) + becomes more compressed into limestone in the northern portions. On the surface, sand occurs to varying degrees throughout the AVA, with it appearing as virtual beach sand in some sections or mixed w clay in others. Calcareous rock or gravel increases, mixed into the clay, in the northern sections. The result of the calcium rich bedrock + surface soils of Ballard Canyon throughout the wines of the region is a dusty floral lift followed by elongated mouth stimulating palate tension + sapidity across a range of wine styles.

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Larner Vineyard Producer Tasting

Getting to taste a mix of primarily red Rhone wines from across vintages (as well as some crisp aromatic whites) of Ballard Canyon over the last few days + previously, it is fascinating + delicious how clearly Ballard Canyon distinguishes its wines. While many of its varieties successfully grow elsewhere in Santa Barbara County + of course beyond, the Ballard Canyon signature appears across winemaker + wine type whether white or red. That said, each site too seems to prove distinctive from its neighbors while still recognizably Ballard. On red wines, the sandy soils + cooling winds of Larner seem to offer a concentrated, often opaque, core of earthy fruit flavor rubbed through w resinous forest notes in a structure of supple to melting while persistent tannin + a wash of balancing acidity.

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One of the Realities of Summer-time Vineyard Travel

I decided to go for a fresh tartan look.

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The Vine Whisperer of Ballard Canyon: Ruben Solorzano

Dohmeyer Vineyard

Standing in the North of Ballard Canyon next to Dohmeyer Vineyard looking South across the Vineyards of the region w Ruben Solorzano. From the spot it is possible to look the full length of the Santa Ynez Valley from Happy Canyon to the East to Santa Rita Hills in the West + here Ballard Canyon in the middle. It is hard to over estimate the role Ruben Solorzano has had in shaping the quality of wines from Ballard Canyon. He has farmed all but a couple of sites in the appellation. More than any other viticulturist I have been lucky enough to travel with, Ruben’s work is consistently lauded + admired by the producers he farms with as well as other viticulturists of the region. He began farming in Santa Barbara County in 1989, starting at Stolpman in Ballard Canyon in 1994. Since he has helped establish Larner, Kimsey + Boa Vista while also farming Jonata, Rusack, Dohmeyer + others. While his work is centered in Ballard Canyon it also extends to sites throughout the county.

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Kimsey Vineyard

Overlooking Kimsey Vineyard in the Southern most stretch of Ballard Canyon w Ruben Solorzano. Kimsey grows a little bit cooler than vineyards to the north in Ballard Canyon. The site sits between 400 + 500 ft in elevation, lower than other vineyards of the region. In the southern most reach of the canyon it is perhaps the only current planting not partially protected by a hill to the west. As a result, the daily ocean wind blowing east through Santa Ynez Valley moves through the vines of Kimsey w regular direct influence. Thanks to the lower elevation, ambient temperatures are lower + thanks to the wind, vines are cooled even further. Planted in 2006, the vineyard architecture has benefited from the accumulation of viticultural knowledge gained through all of the previously established sites throughout the Canyon. Planted primarily to Rhone varieties, particularly Syrah, Kimsey includes a selection massale field blend of each of the clones of Syrah planted throughout Ballard Canyon.

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Boa Vista Vineyard with Ruben Solorzano & Jeff Newton

 

The Fog of Ballard Canyon

 

Sonja Magdevski checks her rows at Tierra Alta

 

Casa Dumetz Wines

 

Goodland Wine

 

Potek Wine

Potek Winery Grenache + Syrah from Tierra Alta Vineyard == Delicious. Enough said.

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Kimsey Wine

 

Site Wine Co

 

Combe

 

Santa Ynez Valley with Jeff Newton

The Santa Ynez Valley proves to be one of the most nuanced + diverse regions of any I have visited. I’ve returned to it again + again over the last several years + always find more to learn + appreciate. This trip I have focused primarily on the Ballard Canyon AVA, an incredibly tiny appellation half between Sta Rita Hills on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley + Happy Canyon on the eastern. What Santa Ynez Valley as a whole shares is tons of fruit clarity w mouthwashing acidity. Whatever style a producer takes to their winemaking, that acidity is there to water + water + water your palate. It allows a huge range of styles to work. Coastal Vineyard Care, started in 1984 by Jeff Newton (shown here), farms sites throughout the Santa Ynez. Earlier this week Jeff Newton + I were able to spend a day driving sites the length of the Valley from the town of Lompoc (west outside the AVA) all the way to Happy Canyon. What a fantastic experience + perspective. Here, Jeff + I walked the rolling hills of Lindley Vineyard on the western boundary of Santa Ynez Valley + Sta Rita Hills. The site (like much of the area) sits in a bird fly over zone + so is kept netted. We walked the rows + checked fruit bent over as shown here. With its proximity to the ocean + wind, the site produces tiny berries + clusters giving lots of natural fruit concentration well framed by its structure. It’s a site at the edge of ripening – it’s the edge where many of the best wines are made.

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Samsara Wine

Chad Melville started making wine under his Samsara label in 2002, initially focusing on Rhones from what is now Ballard Canyon + now making Syrah + Pinot from Sta Rita Hills + Grenache from Ballard Canyon. In his 20s, Chad spent a year on the road in Africa + India making his way essentially through the kindness of strangers, staying in the homes of people he met along the way. The experience deepened his appreciation for community + connection through those sorts of direct experiences. Through Samsara, Chad produces small lot wines each foot stomped + slowly basket pressed for a sense of vibrancy, energy + incredible purity. The wines are special. The name Samsara comes partially from his experience traveling + the renewal process that happens again + again in the cycle of vines.

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Richard Longoria

Rick Longoria has worked w over 50 vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County from the length of both Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley + between. He has been the first to work w fruit from a huge list of iconic sites including Stolpman in Ballard Canyon, Buttonwood in Santa Ynez Valley, Sweeney + then later his own Fe Ciega in Sta Rita Hills + so many more. His intuition on the marriage of variety to site has helped encourage new plantings through the region + he has helped start + develop now well known labels throughout the region. It is hard to over emphasize the role he has played in Santa Barbara County wine serving as one of the region’s first winemakers + making wine still today through his own Longoria label. Beginning his work in wine in 1974, Longoria began his work in Santa Barbara County wine in 1979 serving as winemaker at both J Carey Cellars + Rancho Sisquoc simultaneously. Later he would help bring acclaim to Gainey, consult at Rusack + finally turn his attention full time to Longoria Wine in 1997 after starting it in 1982. Longoria wines begin w tenacious purity in their youth + age into some of the most beautiful wines I have had anywhere. Here Rick shows me his Fe Ciega Vineyard off Santa Rosa Rd in Sta Rita Hills. Today only Qupe + Ojai also make Fe Ciega Pinot Noir. For both it is among the best of their vineyard designate Pinots.

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Longoria 2000 Pinot Noir made w the first fruit of Fe Ciega Pinot (originally named Blind Faith Vineyard). Beautiful.

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Palmina

Having spent time in Northern Italy Steve Clifton felt he recognized conditions in the Santa Ynez Valley hospitable to a range of Italian grape varieties. By 1995 he was able to find growers willing to plant Italian varieties in Santa Ynez for him to launch his entirely Italian variety focused label Palmina. In doing so, Palmina became the first Italian-variety-only label in California post-Prohibition. Eventually he would also instigate the first post-Prohibition Italian-only vineyard in the state. This summer Palmina celebrates 20 years having not only succeeded as a winery for 2 decades but also effectively paving the way for newer labels also focused entirely on Italian varieties to succeed. While the earliest vitis vinifera plantings in California included high proportions of Italian vines, after Prohibition vineyards shifted to a French focus. The Cal-Ital movement of the 1990s consisted entirely of producers that only dabbled in varieties like Sangiovese while primarily making wines like crowd pleasing Cabernets. In only few parts of the world do the two grape types grow happily side-by-side. Cal-Ital wines from the 1990s faced at least 2 significant issues: (1) the Sangiovese was planted in the wrong place + (2) producers didn’t know how to work w the grape on its own terms. Critics skewered Cal-Ital wines as a result + consumers turned away from Italian wines made in California. By the year 2000 it became almost impossible to sell wines of California made w Italian descent fruit. Steve persisted developing new ways to connect w buyers + somms around the country hosting blind Nebbiolo tastings w top Italian producers included. Palmina stood up. In the meantime he also happened to befriend highly respected Barolo + Barbaresco producers from Piedmont that mentored him while also lauding his work. Over time, Palmina successfully built strong relationships w wine lovers, winemakers + members of the wine industry effectively eroding the barrier to US grown Italian varieties. (He’s also just fucking cool. Congratulations, Steve + Chrystal on 20 years. So psyched for you.)

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The Return to Santa Barbara County in February

Byron Wines

In 2001 winemaker Jonathan Nagy began making wine at Byron Winery in the Eastern side of Santa Maria Valley. At the start, Byron made single vineyard wines from sites throughout the Santa Maria. In a few years the Byron program would shift to an appellation focus. In 2013 Byron relaunched their single vineyard program beginning w iconic sites of the SMV. Here Nagy describes the unique growing conditions + best blocks of the historic Nielsen Vineyard. Planted in 1964, Nielsen is a founding site of Santa Barbara County wine, the first commercial vineyard in the region. It sits on bench land above the Santa Maria River + here in Nagy’s favorite block is fed colluvial soils, decomposing rocks + elder-series soils from the foothills that border the vineyards Northern side. The persistent cold Pacific breeze through the Valley intensifies flavors, thickens skins + encourages smaller, concentrated clusters. The nightly fog helps keep a guaranteed wash of mouthwatering acidity in the wines. Santa Maria Valley offers a hallmark savory spice character in not only its Pinot but also its Chardonnay. In returning to a single vineyard focus Nagy is getting to showcase the unique character of the Valley’s iconic sites, here at the Nielsen, down the road in Julia’s Vineyard + at the also-historic Bien Nacido.

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In 2014 Jonathan Nagy was able to take Byron Winery’s return to single vineyard wines into the Sta Rita Hills. Raised in Santa Maria Valley, Nagy got his start in wine in the North Coast (after first working in tasting rooms in Santa Maria) + didn’t expect to return to his home region. Eventually though he found himself called back to making wine from Santa Maria. His winemaking career since has primarily focused on finding the elegance possible from the savor-spice of his home valley. However, when he started at Byron 15 years ago, the facility was also working w Sta Rita Hills fruit for another project. Making those wines Nagy saw the intensity offered in Santa Maria’s sister appellation. In guiding the single vineyard program to Sta Rita Hills as well, Nagy + his assistant winemaker Ryan Pace (shown here) are able to work w iconic sites throughout Santa Barbara. The rolling terrain of Sta Rita brings power, tenacity + a black tea flavor to the Pinots of the region. Inundated w a nightly fog + daily cold Pacific wind, the wines of Sta Rita include mouth clenching acidity. Thanks to the varied aspects + protected pockets vs exposed slopes, the vineyard expressions Nagy is exploring w Sta Rita Hills carry a regional expression across a distinctive range. Here the Byron duo stand near the top of John Sebastiano Vineyard, at the Eastern boundary of the appellation, the site is a warmer spot in a cool region. Byron now also bottles single vineyard designates from the iconic challenge of the steep sloped Rita’s Crown + the moonscape variations of La Encantada along the AVA’s Southern boundary.

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Bien Nacido Vineyard

Geese + ducks also help w controlling the cover crop at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley. (Seriously.)

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True Believer, Hammell Wine Alliance

Tasting through a vintage vertical, 2011 through 2014, of Chris + Dayna Hammell’s Hammell Wine Alliance Grenache-based wine True Believer, along w the 2015 True Believer rosé + 2014 Syrah. Chris has been managing the Bien Nacido + Solomon Hills Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley for 2-plus decades working w the top winemakers in Santa Barbara County + beyond to deliver farming excellence for a huge range of winemakers’ goals. Over the years he continually returned to a spot at Bien Nacido that he believed would be perfect for Grenache. When he + Dayna decided to launch their own label they planted the site to a head-trained Grenache-based Rhone field blend that they now coferment to make their wine True Believer. (Insider secret pro-tip: the 2013 is something special. It carries a harmonious complexity of savory herbs, earth + spice w profound density on a body of supple tannin + mouthwatering length. The rosé is the savory freshness you enjoyed in your dreams.)

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Casa Dumetz Grenache 

 

Sashi Moorman

Walking the steep slope of Domaine de la Côte w Sashi Moorman in the far western portion of the Sta Rita Hills on the Southern side of the appellation. Santa Barbara County continues to call me back again + again seeking to understand the complexities of the region for just that reason, the complexities. More than any other region I have studied Santa Barbara County offers massive variation of soil, of climate, of slope, of elevation, of aspect. As w wine in all of the United States, the region is young but in its intersection of profound variation across so many factors it includes the possibility for true distinctiveness. As Moorman explains, it is such distinctive he believes shows in the Sta Rita Hills. His + Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Côte project one such example, a high density planting in the extreme portions of a cool climate w soils that seem to give the happy mid-zone of reducing vigor while offering enough life to avoid hydric stress.

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Baby Sheep

 

Solminer Wines

 

Tatomer 

 

Lo-Fi Wines

 

Site Wine Co

 

Habit Wines

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The Santa Barbara County Collection

From JancisRobinson.com… This is the first of a series of articles about the exciting wines of Santa Barbara County. 

Santa Barbara County (SBC) wine country lies within geographical features unique to North and South America. A coastal mountain range runs north-south along the entire west coast of the Americas. However, in one location, halfway down the length of California, the range makes a brief turn east. The vines of SBC, then, sit within the only transverse mountain ranges of the two continents. One frames the wide, open Santa Maria Valley and the other hugs the north and south borders of Santa Ynez Valley, within which also sit the Sta Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellations. Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys, as a result, face the Pacific Ocean open-mouthed, unprotected by a mountain barrier. Both therefore receive a wash of maritime influence through nightly fog and a regularly timed afternoon wind. The combination also keeps SBC wine country relatively cool. In most of the county, then, cooler climate varieties do better, though the further east (or inland) one goes, the warmer it gets. As a result, some warmer-climate varieties dot the region as well. [See Elaine’s beautifully drawn map below.]

Santa Barbara Wine Country

Over on JancisRobinson.com, this piece continues in a series of three articles that survey the wines of Santa Barbara County via (1) Chardonnay, (2) Pinot Noir, and (3) the Rhones of Ballard Canyon. You can check out each of the articles in full there at JancisRobinson.com. The links to each of the three articles are below. 

Santa Barbara County: kicking off with Chardonnay: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/santa-barbara-county-kicking-off-with-chardonnay

Santa Barbara County: Pinot Noir: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/santa-barbara-county-pinot-noir

Santa Barbara County: Ballard Canyon’s Rhone varieties http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/santa-barbara-county-ballard-canyons-rhne-varieties-wip-tc

Later this week I’ll also be sharing the Instagram collection from the in-depth trip I did to Ballard Canyon this summer as we saw here last week from Paso Robles. 

Cheers!

1

Paso Robles

In July I spent 8 days doing intensive wine research and tasting in Paso Robles. Along the way I shared updates from my visits with producers via Instagram.

Some readers asked if I would please compile the collection and share it here on my blog in order to make the information more readily accessible. With that in mind, following are the Instagram photos from my 8 days in Paso Robles, minus a few short videos shared there. The captions as posted to Instagram are typed here directly below the associated image to make them easier to read.

I update my wine travels and local tastings regularly to Instagram, as shown below. If you’re interested in keeping up with it there, you can follow me on Instagram where I post as @hawk_wakawaka.

Cheers!

Let's do this…

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Eberle

"I made my first Barbera in 1978. I planted it myself. I got the cuttings from UC Davis. I really don't know what clone it was but it is what is mostly planted around here. It was planted, indexed and heat treated at Davis so it is clean. That was at the Estrella [River] property [the vineyard + winery Gary Eberle started in the late 1970s before then planting Eberle in the 1980s.]. […] Mr Mondavi, certainly in this business, was my biggest mentor. He taught me how to sell wine. I couldn't tell you why but we just hit it off. I learned so much from that man. You can make the best damn wine but you better be able to sell it if you want to have an impact in this industry." – Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery is considered the Godfather of Paso Robles wine having been one of the early founders of fine wine in the region and an instigator of the original 1983 AVA. Though his flagship wine is Cabernet Sauvignon he has won multiple awards for his Barbera. This summer he was recognized with a Wine Lifetime Achievement Award by the California State Fair, an honor he shares with his mentor, Robert Mondavi, the award's first recipient.

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Ambythe

Pomar Junction

Father + son team Dana + Matt Merrill farm vineyards all over Paso + make wine under the Pomar Junction label from their vineyard of the same name. "My dad is part of the Central Coast Vineyards team. We were one of the first 12 wineries in the SIP sustainability pilot program built by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. It's recognized by the TTB + means you've been checked by a third-party auditor." Matt explains. I ask Dana about his work on Paso water concerns in relation to the drought. Dana has spearheaded efforts to create a collaborative board of agricultural + residential members to work on long term solutions for water conservation. He responds. "We don't have really big water problems right now. We do have a general trend of wells dropping. We don't know if the drought is going to continue. We have enough constructive notice + time to do something."

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Clayhouse

The First Wine Labeled with the Paso Robles AVA

Kenneth Volk

Discussing the different growing regions of the Central Coast cannot be done more thoroughly than w Ken Volk. I ask him when he moved to the region + how he got started in wine. He answers. "I moved to San Luis Obispo in 1977 to attend Cal Poly. I made wine from Rancho Sisquoc grapes in 1977 as a home winemaker. Then I had the opportunity to do an internship w Edna Valley Vineyards in 1978 + 1979. After, I started Wild Horse. I purchased the property, planted vineyards, then bonded the winery + had first crush in 1983. We were mostly working w red grapes from Santa Maria Valley + Paso Robles. At Wild Horse we did a lot of blending warm + cool climate grapes. That worked well for us. People liked it." – Ken Volk served as the first president of the Paso Robles Grape Growers Association, which started in 1981. He was also one of the signatories on the original Paso Robles AVA that was recognized by the TTB in 1983. In his winemaking career he has made wine from around 74 varieties from throughout the Central Coast. As he explained, he recognizes the idea of noble varieties but it is in people being willing to work with grapes + travel w them that we found those. Today the Kenneth Volk winery is located in Santa Maria Valley where Pinot + Chardonnay are his flagship wines but he also works w Italian + French varieties from throughout the central coast.

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The Falcone Family

Luna Matta Vineyard

"We're certified organic because we really believe in it. We believe the property should be better when we leave it than when we got it. All the hilltops here [on Luna Matta Vineyard] are a little different. There are so many soil changes. That's part of what's exciting about [farming in] Paso. You can kind of do anything." – Stephanie Terrizzi manages Luna Matta Vineyard in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles, which has 36 planted vineyard acres, 40 acres of walnuts, 2 acres of olives, 1 acre of sage + a pear tree. John Ahner + Jody McKeller planted the site in 2001 to Rhone + Italian varieties (+ just a smidgen of Tempranillo) with a focus on biodiversity. Their bees this summer are busy making honey from indigenous plants such as Toyon.

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Giornata 

"In Italy, there is enough heat the focus is really not on extraction. In France there are techniques for more extraction [because of the differing climate + varieties] but in Italy I have never seen anyone cold soak. The climate [in parts of Italy] is more like California. [It has the heat and sun. Our goal is] to express the site, the variety + the vintage. The best way to do that is to pick when the fruit is in balance + really on the early side. I look a lot at acidity numbers in fruit. This isn't just a low alcohol/high alcohol debate. We really want the grapes to hit that perfect edge of ripeness, the window, and it's a really small window. Stephie [Terrizzi] has done a lot of studies on physical ripeness. When to pick is the biggest decision that we make cause we use all natural yeast + no enzymes." – Brian Terrizzi owner-winemaker of Giornata w his wife Stephanie focuses entirely on Italian varieties grown in Paso Robles. Their first commercial vintage was 2006.

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Clos Selene

Aaron & Aequorea

Adelaida Cellars

"They seen what was coming. They got hooked up w John[Munch to start the Adelaida label]. I was just out here clearing land + doing what I needed to do. John came to me + said, what's the worst piece of ground you got? And I thought of that piece [that is now Adelaida's Lower Viking Vineyard] cause I hated that piece down there. [laughing] It was all poison oak. We didn't rip it. We didn't even have a tractor. And then we were worried about how many rocks we'd pull up. You know, it [vineyards in the Adelaida District of Paso] was all new. This one guy took great care to plant a vine right on top of a big rock. [laughing] He placed soil carefully up all around it. That vine is still there. That was 1991." – Mike Whitener has served as the Adelaida Ranch Manager for 40 years. His father was Ranch Manager before him. Mike was born, raised + has lived his life in the Adelaida District. As he explains, he's left several times but always wanted to come back.

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Alta Colina

"I got this concept that I was going to grow wine + make wine back in 1970. It was a long hill ahead but fortunately when I retired I had this little bundle I could use to get started to do it. But in that time period I had these phases where what I was drinking changed. In the 1970s I was a Cab guy. Then I got into Grenache + for about ten years I was a Zin guy + then I moved to the Central Coast + discovered Rhones. At the time I started planting this vineyard that's just what I was drinking. It also seemed like the Rhones were the best fit soil + climate wise + some of the best wines I drank from Paso were Rhones." – Bob Tillman shares how he fell in love w growing + making Rhone wines in the Adelaida District of Paso. Here we sit near 1700 ft beneath an oak tree at the top of the Grenache + Syrah block tasting older vintages of his Alta Collina red wines.

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Lone Madrone

Tasting an 8 vintage vertical, 2000 to 2007, of Lone Madrone Cabernet from York Mountain just west of the Paso Robles AVA.

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The Oldest Coastal Live Oak on the West Coast

Halter Ranch

Resource Conservation

Tablas Creek

James Berry Vineyard

Saxum

The Feet of Vineyard Travel

For @clarecarver: feet darker than my face from summer vineyards + filthy from the decomposed rock of west Paso Robles.

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Fossilized Whale Bones

Zenaida Cellars

Pelletiere 

Ranchero Cellars

The Templeton Gap

A quick drive towards the Pacific through the Templeton Gap. Such a refreshing stop in the ocean wind.

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A Little Goat

Monte is busy telling me all about life in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles.

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York Mountain Winery

Just west of the Paso Robles AVA sits the York Mountain AVA, both recognized in spring 1983. The high elevation York Mountain appellation today includes only one winery, Epoch Estates, + a handful of vineyards. However, the York Brothers, who the AVA is named for, established a winery near the top of York Mountain in 1898. The wood beams they harvested from the old Cayucos Pier. The bricks they made by hand on the mountain. Their York Mountain Winery stood + operated until the 2003 San Simeon earthquake that shook Paso Robles. Today, Epoch Estates own the original York Mountain Winery property + is in the process of restoring the original winery building using the old wood beams + bricks + stone fireplace through restoration + reuse efforts as shown here. The building once finished will be used as the Epoch tasting room w museum + educational components on the history of the region included throughout.

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Epoch Estates

Tasting through the current portfolio of Epoch wines as well as a vertical of Epoch Ingenuity red Rhone blend 2009 to 2013.

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Paderewski Vineyard

So many Hawks soaring the foothills on the westside of Paso. One of my favorite things to watch them circle + soar.

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Pesenti Vineyard

Ueberroth Vineyard

Amadeo Martinelli Vineyard

The Turley's newest property in Paso Robles, the Amadeo Martinelli Vineyard (no direct relation to the cider or the Sonoma gang), hosts dry farmed, head trained Zinfandel planted in the early 1920s in what is now known as the Templeton Gap District of Paso Robles. The vines are inter planted w a mix of cherry, pistachio + even a pear tree. The site includes a historic winery + the unique features of what was once clearly a self-sustaining farm: chicken coops, a root cellar + more. Though the site receives daily cooling breezes from the ocean it sits above the frost zone common to Paso Robles. 2014 is the first vintage from the site for Turley. From barrel it offers the great promise of a Turley Zin with a creamy fresh mid palate, dusty persistent tannin + enlivening acidity. Showing notes of fresh + dried cherry w chocolate + pepper accents on a snappy spine it's a delicious addition.

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Ancient Peaks Vineyard

Villa Creek Maha Vineyard

Soren Christensen

Anonimo

Hearst Ranch Winery

Ledge Vineyard

Bella Luna

Getting ready to taste through the red wines of Bella Luna.

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A Full Week

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

1

The Masters of Wine Residential Seminar: Australia

Australian Wine

The Annual Masters of Wine Residential Seminar has been taking place this week in San Francisco. The residential seminar serves as the yearly in-person training and educational intensive for the first and second year MW students, as well as the opportunity to spend time with a whole bunch of MWs. People travel from all over the world to attend.

This weekend Mark Davidson led an in-depth seminar on Australian wine for the group. He serves as the Education Director for Wine Australia, the general marketing board for wine from across the Australian continent, as well as part of the MW program. Mark and the MW program were kind enough to invite me to attend the seminar and following walk-around tasting.

The initial seminar included ten wines selected to represent first the classics of Australian wine followed by still evolving newer styles. A walk-around tasting of at least fifty other excellent examples was then available.

Australian Wine: History, Evolution, Revolution

While I was familiar with most of the producers presented in the ten-wine seminar, having current vintages and the ten together was an exciting opportunity. The tasting showed how special wines from Australia can be carrying remarkable life in the glass.

Following are notes on the ten wines.

FLIGHT 1: History

Brokenwood Oakey Creek Semillon 2009, Hunter Valley, New South Wales 11% $32

A classic of Australian wine, Hunter Valley Semillon has no counterpart in the world. Even Semillon from elsewhere in Australia carries a distinctly different expression than the wines of Hunter Valley. It also offers a conundrum of expectation: though the region includes high temperatures, the wines consistently offer intense freshness, and tenacious acidity. 

Fresh, invigorating aromatics followed by a juicy and focused palate of mouthwatering acidity. Notes of Meyer lemon, honeysuckle and just a kiss of creme brûlée carry through an ultra long textural finish. Bone dry and delicious.

* Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2010, Eden Valley, South Australia 12.5% $32.99

Australian Riesling is decidedly dry in style. It is the rare exception that includes enough residual sugar to bump into the off-dry category. Unlike the classics of Germany, producers of the Australian wine are emphatically against the idea that their wines include petrol notes and have done extensive viticultural and cellar research to try and insure against the characteristic. 

Fresh, succulent, and focused aromatics. A palate of mouthwatering acidity tumbled through with chalk, quartz, stones and subtle, textural flavor. Notes of honeysuckle, chalky-white peach and a hint of lime. Pretty, delicious, and will age a very long time.

One of the stand-out wines of the tasting for me – I love the freshness and texture of The Contours. 

* Cirillo 1850 Grenache 2010, Barossa Valley, South Australia 13.8% $84.99

Growing what have been documented as the oldest Grenache vines in the world, the red grape is one of the under-regarded classics of Australian wine. From the best producers, Australia’s old vine sites yield concentration, earthy spice, and loads of mouthwatering acidity. South Australia offers a sense of completeness from this grape without blending. 

Perfumed and elegant with melting tannin, mouthwatering acidity, and a silky mouthfeel. Vibrant and energizing. Notes of bramble, savory mixed fruit, and earthy underbrush, this wine continued to evolve giving ever more delicious flavors in the glass. Delicious with a long, mouth-quencing finish.

One of the stand-out wines of the tasting for me – I kept wanting to go back to drink this wine. 

Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coonawarra, South Australia 14% $54.99

Known for its terra rossa soils, Coonawarra brings that red earth patina to the flavors of its reds alongside a tendency for supple tannins. The region is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Its maritime climate offers just enough warmth to soften its tannins and the seaside freshness to keep a wash of acidity on the palate. 

Perfumed and spiced aromatics with a zesty palate carrying an even density of fruit and just a whiff of what Mark describes as “eucalyptus honey” (a pleasant lift in the wine). Savory mixed fruit braid with firmness of tannin with a pleasing backbone of acidity.

Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley, South Australia 14.5% $190

Barossa Valley has been documented with the oldest Shiraz vines on the planet, as well as some of the oldest soils. Shiraz is a classic of the region, historically vinified with a distinctive spice of American oak, in recent decades producers have shifted to the sweetness of French. 

Sweet-spiced with light toast accents throughout, offering a long mouthwatering line and lightly drying tannin. Notes of vibrant mixed fruit and a perfume lift showcasing the smoothness of 35% new French oak.

FLIGHT 2: Evolution & Revolution

** BK Swaby Chardonnay 2013, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5% $55

The Swaby Chardonnay was the stand-out wine of the tasting for me.

Impressive, nuanced, and delicious. BK strikes an impressive balance of freshness tempered by noble sulfide, of gunflint cut through giving fruit. It is somehow almost precious while also sinewed. This wine opens nicely with air carrying lots of life in the glass and a kiss of spice so well integrated you could almost miss it. Best of all, it is just truly nice to drink.

Moorooduc Estate McIntyre Pinot Noir 2012 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 14% $60

Aromatic and fine-boned, delicate and zesty. Fresh, floral aromatics of rose petal and rose cream carry into the palate with notes of savory, zesty underbrush. Energizing and fresh with supple tannin and mouthfeel. Lots of length.

Jaume Like Raindrops Grenache 2014, McLaren Vale, South Australia 14.2% $50

Unexpected and fresh. Snappy red fruit cloak a beast of savory spice. Wildly aromatic, juicy, fresh, and quaffable. Charming and unconventional. Delicious.

Luke Lambert Syrah 2012, Yarra Valley, Victoria 13.5% $55

Fresh fruit and perfumed accents – juicy blackberries just cut from the bush and served alongside peppery bacon. Long mouthwatering finish and supple tannin.

Grosset Gaia 2013, Clare Valley, South Australia 13.9% $79

Aromatics of fresh-peeled white birch bark and crushed leaves tumble into a velvety mouthfeel and a long, lean palate. Elegant while edgy and energizing. Fresh with a lightly drying finish and just a hint of caramel.

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1

The Olive Sea of Salento

We’re standing on a second floor patio near the town of Guagnano looking out over a sea of olive trees. Guagnano, in the north of the Salento peninsula of Italy’s Puglia region, grows olive trees in waves. Every few miles there is a sea break of grape vines.

Later that evening we’ve sat for dinner at the brand new Bros. restaurant in the old-town center of Lecce. After the aperitivo we’re offered durum-wheat bread with emulsified olive oil. Puglia is also known for its bread. The two offer a perfect marriage – the almost-rustic nuttiness of the durum wheat spread with the oil’s fine balance of bitter, sweet and peppery; bread and oil each an integral aspect of the peninsula’s food-culture, heritage, and economy.

Puglia produces around 40% of Italy’s olive oil. The region includes over 60 million olive trees. It serves too as one of the country’s economic leaders in olive oil export (as well as for its almost-rustic brand of wheat). In Salento, the southern half of Puglia, small home farms of olive trees are a family’s livelihood.

100 year old olive trees

100-year old olive trees in Salento

Known as Puglia’s gold, the olive oil industry includes a heritage dating back millennia. A half-million trees in the region are over 100-years old, and live trees still producing fruit have been carbon-dated to over 1000 years. Near the town of Ostuni the oldest tree of Puglia stands with a girth of 15 meters, an irreplaceable vessel of cultural history.

In Salento, these elder trees are regarded with a kind of reverential magic. The size and shape of their trunks prove so dramatic it is believed if you stare into the curves of their bark you’ll eventually see signs of your future, like an arborist’s version of reading tea leaves.

We finish dinner. The next day we wake and drive south to the tip of Salento.

Driving the Salento peninsula olive groves wash by in wave after wave of green. Suddenly the Ionian Sea appears rich blue on the right. We are in the southern half of Salento. The olive groves begin to thin.

The Rise of a Crisis

Though the tip of Salento has long served as one of the concentrations of family grower-producers of olive oil for the region, today the farmers are struggling. In 2013 a strange illness first appeared in the trees. Since, they have continued to die.

As a result, the landscape of southern Salento has changed. Areas once floating in green are now barren, scarred by the sharp cut remains of trees that couldn’t be saved by aggressive pruning.

In a neighborhood of small family farms we pull over the car. The trees along both sides of the road are dead. In such areas families have lost tens of thousands of dollars in annual income. Slowly the farmers are excavating the dried up trees to use for wood, or simply burning them. In a region dominated by agriculture, farmers struggle to find new sources of income. The loss of industry affects the overall economy, also impacting the livelihood of those not growing olive trees.

Olive trees affected by leaf scorch

olive trees in Salento struck with leaf scorch

When the crisis appeared in 2013 farmers began to notice that the outer leaves of their trees were suddenly turning brown. Branches would turn so quickly the leaves and fruit would fail to fall as plants do for autumn. Instead, the leaf scorch, as it is called, marks the tree permanently. Initially farmers attempted to prune scorched branches to save the tree but illness would spread.

A New Illness

What was discovered was a bacterium never before found in Europe. Scorched trees consistently test positive for Xylella fastidiosa, also the cause of Pierce’s disease in grapevines. The bacterium in the olive trees of Salento is identical to a strain of Xylella with its origins in Costa Rica. As a result, it is believed ornamental coffee trees imported to Europe without proper quarantine invited the illness. Once infected, Xylella forms a sticky mucus inside the tree’s lymph system blocking the flow of liquid through the tree. Scorched trees essentially die of a kind of fast dehydration that starts in the branches, then takes over the entire tree in an illness called Olive Quick Decline Syndrome.

Though Salento olive trees showed the first known outbreak of Xylella in Europe, since the Salento outbreak the bacterium has also been found in almond trees and ornamental plants in Salento, in mulberry on Corsica, and ornamentals in mainland France. The strain in France differs from that in Salento and neither matches the one we know infects grapevines.

The neighborhood where we pull over is in the area of Salento where symptoms of the olive crisis first appeared. If you know where to look, it is still possible to purchase olive oil made from groves in this part of Salento, though production is reduced.

It is difficult to estimate the disease’s impact on overall olive oil production in the region due to the variable nature of olive harvests. Salento has lost potential volume from affected trees, but even so, the 2015-16 harvest overall is better than the disasterous 2014-15 vintage. Due to a combination of factors, including weather and more normal pests, yields in last year’s harvest were extremely low. Still, it was estimated that the Xylella outbreak would cost the region more than $225 million in 2015 alone. In areas, like this neighborhood, hardest hit by the outbreak many family farmers have permanently lost their crop.

Slightly north, we stop to visit a grove of 100-year old trees. Walking the grove it is clear how the trees gained a reputation as soothsayers. The trunks stand twisted, and braided in decades of growth. The trees also show signs of leaf scorch.

The caverns left by olive trees removed

a grove of caverns where infected olive trees were pulled,
in the distance the 100-year old trees have leaf scorch

Beside the old trees a grove of caverns appears, massive holes left in the ground from 100-year old trees affected by Xylella and pulled out in an attempt to save their neighbors.

The Science Crisis

In another grove trees are hung with white flags and political posters. Graffiti reads “Xylella Mafia,” an allusion to local mistrust of the science behind the illness, and of the government’s handling of the situation. Many believe the olive decline to be the result of a conspiracy launched to benefit the olive oil industries of other countries. As olive oil supply has reduced, the global price of olive oil has increased but especially in region’s unaffected by the Xylella crisis. Some even believe scientists caused the illness by design.

Last month local officials blocked the eradication of affected trees while also placing the scientists working to fight Xylella under investigation. They are accused of spreading the disease.

The EU continues to demand trees be pulled, fearful the illness could spread across Europe. Xylella in the form of Pierce’s disease has been studied for over 100 years. Even so, today the only known solution is to remove affected plants.

Locals dependent on olives for livelihood as well as millennia of cultural history and identity have resisted the EU’s demands. Puglia’s olive oil industry is among the oldest arborist traditions on the planet. Environmental activists and some farmers have fought to preserve the 100-year old groves, afraid that the trees will be pulled and then a cure found, the loss of a region’s cultural legacy. The anti-science activism has angered still others who believe the illness could have been stopped if affected trees had been pulled as originally planned.

a pesticide zone in Salento

an experimental pesticide-use olive grove in Salento

In the meantime, some farmers at the Xylella boundary are experimenting with heavy pesticides in an attempt to kill the bugs that serve as a primary vector for the spread of Xylella. Food scientists fear such chemicals work against one of the ultimate goals of saving the trees by contaminating the resulting oil with pesticides. The bacterium itself does not affect the fruit. At the same time organic farmers are exploring other measures.

Scientists are working to develop new technologies. Researchers working on Pierce’s disease in the United States have been experimenting with the use of phages, anti-bacterial viruses they introduce to diseased vines to fight infection. Some suggest the approach could be developed for trees as well. So far attempts have been unsuccessful.

We return to Lecce to rest before departing the next day. In the morning we are handed a gift. One of Salento’s top arborists has brought each of us a bottle of olive oil. It is oil, he explains, made from the remaining trees at the tip of Salento.

***

To read more about the olive oil crisis in Salento, check out this article in the New York Times from spring of 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/world/europe/fear-of-ruin-as-disease-takes-hold-of-italys-olive-trees.html?_r=0.

Cathy Huyghe gives a photographic view of the region’s olive trees along with information about the current situation at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/cathyhuyghe/2016/01/14/olive-trees-in-crisis-disease-impacts-southern-italy-photo-essay/#5edf949b279351064a342793

Or you can keep up with international news regarding the situation via the Xylella news feed at olive oil times: http://www.oliveoiltimes.com/tag/xylella-fastidiosa?page=9

You can keep an eye on the crisis via Cantele winery’s US blog here: http://canteleusa.com/?s=xylella&submit=Search The updates available here often look at perspectives from those local to Salento.

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Why I Love Smith-Madrone

Charles Smith

I have a horrible big crush on Charlie Smith (shown above). He and his brother, Stu (shown below), express pretty much all of the desirable aspects of masculinity a girl born-and-raised in Alaska now living in California (and in love with wine) could possibly want.

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, March 2013

The affection I feel for them parallels the qualities I enjoy in their Smith-Madrone wines – decidedly California flavor bred through a farmer’s tenacity, beautiful fruit wed to wry minerality with herbal deftness. Layer in the poetry Charles hangs in the winery (shown below), and I’m done for.

The romance of Smith-Madrone

Smith-Madrone Vineyards – farmed by Stu while Charles mans the winery – sit near the top of the Spring Mountain District between 1400 and 1900 ft in elevation, in a mix of volcanic soils and sedimentary rock. The site’s knit through by a forest of deciduous and evergreen with a single, historic alley of olive trees. In 1970, when Stu launched what would become the brothers’ project, Spring Mountain held few vineyards.

A small outcrop community from the Swiss-Italian Colony had previously settled the hillsides, dotting the landscape with vines. Others would follow. The Beringer family expanded its holdings to the Eastern slopes of Spring Mountain in the 1880s. The Gold Rush brought new investors to the region. But with the onset of first phylloxera and then Prohibition, the vines of Spring Mountain vastly diminished. Stony Hill and School House Vineyards were among the first to plant again in the region in the 1950s. Then at the start of the 1970s, Smith-Madrone served as part of the lead pack of young winemakers along with Keenan, Yverdon, Spring Mountain Vineyard and Ritchie Creek, planting the Spring Mountain District hillsides before the value of Napa Valley was widely known.

Today, Smith-Madrone celebrates 44 years, one of the treasures of Napa Valley. Their wines are entirely estate made, the fruit grown in blocks spotted about the site’s steep slopes and hillsides in 34 acres of vines. The property is dry-farmed. They have recently released their 2013 Chardonnay, and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Notes below.

Smith-Madrone 2013 Chardonnay

Smith Madrone 2013 Chardonnay

Simultaneously racy and succulent, friendly and focused, the Smith-Madrone 2013 Chardonnay offers fresh aromatics with notes of lemon curd and crisp melon set on a toasted oat cracker. Delicious and pretty with a long finish.

Smith-Madrone 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Beautiful aromatics of cedar and herbs carry into a palate of iron and spice with mixed dark fruit. The Smith-Madrone 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon carries a surprising composure – ample flavor on a moderate body with a supple-while-snappy backbone of tannin. Mouthwatering acidity balances through a long finish. This is a young, taut wine today that would benefit from a few years in cellar.

Alternatively, it opens significantly on the second and third day with the fruit that sits behind the herbal elements on the first day stepping decidedly to the fore. For those familiar with Smith-Madrone’s green and lean 2011 Cabernet, the 2012 is a completely different animal. The brothers tout the by-vintage character of their winemaking and the Cabernet serves as a perfect illustration of that truth.

***

Happy New Year!

To read more about Smith-Madrone, you can see one of my previous write-ups from a lunch I shared with them in 2013 that was recommended by Eric Asimov for NYTimes.com: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/06/19/a-life-in-wine-stu-and-charles-smith-smith-madrone/

For more recent looks at the Smith brothers’ work, Eric Asimov asks them how Smith-Madrone has handled the drought here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/26/dining/wine-california-drought.html?emc=eta1 and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle considers Cabernet from beyond the hillsides of Napa Valley here http://www.sfchronicle.com/travel/article/Venture-beyond-the-valley-floor-in-Napa-6584745.php. Both articles have paywall restrictions.

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

World of Fine Wine 50th Edition

What is without question one of the finest wine magazines in the world, The World of Fine Wine, has just released it’s 50th issue. To celebrate, they created a special anniversary edition with an art piece commissioned specifically for the 50th cover, and devised a themed focus for the feature writing — the art of wine communication.

The feature writing, then, digs into various forms of wine communication with articles by some of the wine world’s thought leaders including philosopher Barry Smith, celebrated importer Terry Thiese, poet Judy O’Kane, and award winning journalist Mike Steinberger. I couldn’t be more thrilled than to have The World of Fine Wine editor, Neil Beckett, ask me to be one of the feature contributors as well.

For the 50th edition, I’ve written a feature considering visual communication of wine looking at examples in various media from across the world of wine including wineries in the United States, tasters in Europe, and my own work as well. The article includes illustrations from photography, painting, graphic design, and my drawings. 

Here’s a sneak peek. 

50th Edition cover World of Fine Wine

Wine Without Words: Visual Communication
Elaine Chukan Brown

For those of us deep in our love of wine, it is easy to forget how cryptic our language for it can be. Discussions of mouthfeel, structure, tannin and acidity can sound like code or a foreign language to the uninitiated. Even quite common aroma and flavor descriptions of wines can sound alien to novices, who find it hard to imagine that a grape-based beverage really can smell like blueberries, olives, and moss, or that such a combination could be appealing. Tasting notes that offer lengthy lists of such descriptions have been repeatedly criticized for their opacity. The challenge of wine communication, then, rests in finding ways to make wine more accessible, not less.

The challenge of wine

What makes it so hard to communicate about wine? Wine itself is a non-verbal experience. It comes to us in aromas, flavors, and texture on the palate. Such sensory experiences sometimes resemble others we’ve had with various fruits and other foods. But we can find it difficult to translate the non-verbal experience of our senses into words. To put that another way, wine’s natural home is in the senses. The words are given after.

To write about a sensory experience is to translate impressions from aroma, taste, and touch into the abstract realm of language. For those of us who are strongly rooted in verbal lives, the translation comes readily. We simply think through words. For those of us who are far less verbal, the distance between that initial sensory experience and its description seems an impassable gulf, one that fails to capture how it feels to love wine. Visual communication of wine offers a unique alternative.

The power of visual communication

Visual representations have only recently begun to appear in the world of wine. Over the past year, owner-winemakers Chris and Sarah Pittenger of Gros Ventre Cellars on California’s North Coast, for example, began to share photographic representations of their Pinot Noir that they call taste plates. Gros Ventre taste plates present a foraged collection of literal descriptors–raspberries, mushrooms, and dried herbs, for example–meant to capture the aroma and flavor profile of a particular Pinot Noir via a photograph. The effect is a photographic expression of a tasting note for their wine. The advantage of the Pittenger’s taste plates rest in their …

To continue reading this article you’ll need to pick up a print or electronic copy of Issue 50, December 2015, of World of Fine Wine.

The cost of subscription is not inexpensive, but the quality of writing you get, the independent reporting and tasting, is comparable to none. It’s a must have subscription for any passionate wine lover, regularly showcasing writing from the finest wine writers in the world including Andrew Jeffords, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Jasper Morris and others. The magazine also strives to seek out and find fresh new voices. Additionally, the magazine reviews fine wine from around the world via a multi-taster panel. The advantage of this rests in its multiple perspectives. The tasting panels print reviews from each of the (usually three or four) tasters so that you can get a more in-depth view of each wine from three differing, respected palates.

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For Love of Pinot Meunier

Last year I celebrated 12 Days of Christmas by enjoying a different 100% Pinot Meunier every day for 12 days. It was wonderful. Pinot Meunier is the grape that made me irretrievably fall in love with wine. Burgundy and Tuscan Sangiovese were the two wines that had made me start paying attention to wine, but it was Pinot Meunier that ruined me for life.

It’s no small thing that Pinot Meunier won my heart. Though it is widely planted through Champagne, it is actually quite uncommon to find a 100% Pinot Meunier bottling anywhere sparkling or still. So for me to happen upon a still red Pinot Meunier by Eyrie Vineyards rather accidentally early in my wine education is surprising.

Though claims have long been made that the variety doesn’t age, the truth is Pinot Meunier can age wonderfully. I’ve been lucky enough to taste examples of still red Pinot Meunier from as far back as the 1970s that not only held up but developed a sultry earthiness in that delicate frame I couldn’t get enough of.

There has also often been talk of the variety lacking finesse for sparkling wines but, again, with the right vintners that couldn’t be further from the truth. My very favorite examples have been extra brut or no dosage. The fleshiness of the grape seems to do well without added sugar. That said, there are some delicious examples of brut sparkling Pinot Meunier as well. Egly Ouriet brut “Les Vigney des Vrigny” was the first sparkling example I ever tasted years ago and it’s definitely recommended.

Visions from Instagram

Over on Instagram I share photos with explanatory captions when I’m on wine trips or working on detailed projects, like the 12 Days of Pinot Meunier. With the wine trips especially the collection of photos from a particular wine region tend to go fairly in depth and all together share the story of a region.

I’ve been asked by several of my readers if I’d be willing to gather some of these photo sets from Instagram and share them here so that the information is more readily accessible. Over the next several months in the New Year, then, I’ll be posting some of those regional collections here alongside more in-depth features on producers from those regions.

Several people also asked if I’d please share my holiday with Pinot Meunier from Instagram here. With that in mind, here is the collection captured from Instagram in screen shots. Thank you for asking, and enjoy!

Happy Holidays!

12 Days of Pinot Meunier

Day 1: The Eyrie Vineyards 1996 Pinot Meunier

1996 Eyrie Pinot Meunier

A very special bottle I’ve been saving. Eyrie Vineyards 1996 Pinot Meunier. Simultaneously gentle + energizing. Earthy red fruit with wonderful acidity + a long silvery finish. Gains more + more life the longer it’s open. Happiest of holidays!

Day 2: Jerome Prevost La Closerie Les Beguines (2009)

Les Closerie

Prevost La Closeries Les Beguines. YES YES YES. Some wines remind you what a complete privilege it is to receive. So excited, grateful + INTO IT. … Beautiful, chiseled stone fruit aromatics with a giving while finessed palate. The extra-brut brilliantly nips the edges of an otherwise generous palate washing wine. Ecstatic acidity, again, beautifully housed in earthy fruit and a fleshy finessed texture, with a devastatingly long finish. 

Day 3: Lelarge Pugeot Les Meuniers de Clemence (2010)

Meuniers de Clemence

The first all Pinot Meunier bottling from the Lelarge family. Lelarge-Pugeot Les Muniers de Clemence, 2010. Almond leaf + pear on the nose carrying forward alongside hints of lime + cherry on the palate with a bit of ruddiness + lots of mouthwatering acidity moving into an ultra long finish. Shows the ruddiness of clay with the amplitude of chalk. Thanks for your help, Mr Michael Storyteller Alberty. 

Day 4: Breech et Fils Vallée de la Marne (2009)

Bereche et Fils

Bereche et Fils Valle de la Marne, 2009 vintage. Beautifully delicate almond nose with hints of pear carries forward into super mouthwatering, screaming fresh acidity with a giving mid palate + decades of length. Warms into further breadth with still loads of precision. Thank you, Ambonnay Bar, for helping me locate this wine. 

Day 5: Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres (2009)

Chartogne Taillet

Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres, 2009 – ungrafted old vines, small older barrels, 60 months on lees. Aromatics of dried pear, leaf + red cherry pit carry forward into the palate alongside toasted almond and rolling acidity with a finish till tomorrow. Nice textural presence + a classic PM fleshiness. Warms into greater breadth + almond. (Don’t tell but I’m about to drink it with instant ramen. Whoo! It’s the holidays!) Thank you to Jesse Salazar + Gabriel Clary for helping me track this down.

Day 6: Best’s Great Western 2012 Old Vine Pinot Meunier

Best's Great Western

Best’s Great Western 2012 Old Vine. Some of the oldest Pinot Meunier vines on the planet. Established in 1867 + still producing. Concentrated rhubarb + red berry earthiness with bright, balanced acidity + saline mouth watering length. Wants lots of air. Great open into day 2. (Didn’t last past day 2.)

Day 7: Christophe Mignon 2008 Brut Nature 

Mignon

Christophe Mignon 2008 Brut Nature. Biodynamic 5th generation grower-producer specializing in Pinot Meunier. Subtle aromatics of bitter almond with delicate, bitter almond + almond paste palate, loads of structure + length. 

Day 8: Teutonic 2013 Borgo Pass Vineyard

Teutonic

Teutonic 2013 Borgo Pass Vineyard (named for the gateway to Castle Dracula, Romania). Southern point of Willamette Valley, as far West as you can get in Willamette Valley + as cool, to the edge of ripening. 30-year old vines. Smells of cherry blossom + lilac cream. Pin tight focus, almost as light as rosé, singing acidity, palate of ferric red fruit, wolf’s hair + Veronica Lake in a silk dress. Makes me wanna wiggle till I stand up to dance. Thx to Mr Alberty for helping me secure a bottle.

Day 9: Vineland 2011 Pinot Meunier

Vineland

Vineland 2011 from Niagra Escarpment, Ontario, Canada. Grown in the Great Lakes cooling effect with good drainage. All about spice, red fruit + gulpability this wine comes a little chunky + weighty for the subtlety the grape can offer. Still, a fun find out of Canada + a value. 

Day 10: Darting 2012 Pinot Meunier Trocken; Heitlinger 2009 Blanc de Noir Brut 

German Sparkling and Still

German bifocal-sparkling + still. Heitlinger Sekt Blanc de Noir 2009. Almond + cherry blossom + hints of melon aromatics followed by ultra tight palate + giving length. Darting 2012 dry from Pfalz. Fresh picked cherries on a hot day + served with toast with juicier all warm red cherry palate. Savory mineral accents + finish.

Day 11: René Geoffroy 2008 Cumières Rouge Coteaux Champenois. 

Coteaux Champenoise

Rowr! Hello, lover. René Geoffroy 2008 Cumières Rouge Coteaux Champenois. Delicate aromatics of chalky cherry blossom + musk. A tiger on the palate – all enthralling striped complexity, muscled minerality, mouthwatering acidity + endless length. Flashes of red fruit framed in lean chalky sweat minerality.

Day 12: Lahore Freres Blanc de Noirs 2009 + Rosé de Saignée w Eyrie 2012 Pinot Meunier
Laherte Freres

Laherte Freres Blanc de Noirs 2009, Rosé de Saignée + Eyrie Vineyards 2012 red. Brilliantly paired with first sushi, then charcuterie + cheeses, then pork loin, potatoes + brown basmati rice. Yum (+ thank you). 

To follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hawk_wakawaka/

I also received numerous requests to get Hawk Wakawaka t-shirts back in stock over at my shop. So, Pho t-shirts and Pinot Noir t-shirts are now both available in a range of sizes, as are my biodynamics posters and Corison 25-yr Vertical art prints. Here’s the link: https://www.etsy.com/shop/HawkWakawaka

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Illustrating Sonoma Cabernet

The editors of Wine & Spirits asked me this Fall to take on a rather unusual project. They wanted me to get to know the shape of Sonoma Cabernet. As Joshua Greene, W&S Editor, presented it to me, as a group they could readily articulate the shape of Napa Valley Cabernet. That is, there’s a recognizable character to the famed Valley’s Bordeaux reds but that of those same grapes grown one county West is less well-known. 

Sonoma County stands as the largest of the North Coast counties. With its reach all the way from the Pacific, across several river valleys and into the Mayacamas that separates it from Napa Valley, Sonoma’s growing conditions vary widely. A few pockets in the region capture the ideal warmth-light-and-drainage combination needed for Cabernet. Greene asked if I would focus in on four of these sites, dig into what makes them unique, and articulate how those conditions show in the wine. Through illustration. My task was to draw the sites and wines, not how they taste, but their shape on the palate. 

To be honest, this was one of the hardest projects I’ve done so far in wine. It was an incredible amount of fun at the exact same time that I felt like I was having to change fundamental aspects of my thinking to make it work. Illustrating the shape of a wine and its relation to its site isn’t anywhere near as straightforward as illustrating tasting notes as I usually do here. The resulting illustrations bare imagistic relation to the sites from which they arise but really are meant to show what you’ll find in the bottle. Have you ever had a wine that tastes like a mountain? I drew two. (They taste like very different mountains.)

Having put so much into the project it was a wonderful bonus to then have the editors select my work for the December cover. The illustrations themselves appear flat inside the magazine coupled with text about the project and each of the sites. The editors also printed the illustrations and placed them, as if labels, on bottles for what turned out to be the cover. Here’s a preview… 

Wine & Spirits Dec 2015

The Shape of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
text and illustrations by Elaine Chukan Brown

The Pacific coast, the Russian River and the Mayacamas Mountains shape Sonoma County. Vines fill the region, reaching up the ridge lines and blanketing the valleys.

The Coastal Range protects much of Sonoma County from the direct effects of the Pacific Ocean. But thanks to the Petaluma Gap and canyon folds within those coastal mountains, cool maritime air reaches vines throughout the county. It’s a Pacific chill that might only tickle Sonoma’s eastern side, but when I drink finely grown Sonoma County cabernet, I can taste that maritime breeze.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Sonoma vineyards. I’ve begun to form associations between the conditions of the site and the experience of the wine, to associate angular tannins with mountain vineyards, and fuller, rounder wines with warmer temperatures or more generous soils. The place a wine is grown begins to take shape on the palate. It’s an experience that differs from that communicated in a typical tasting note.

Tasting notes describe a wine’s …

To continue reading pick up a print or electronic copy of the December issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine, available now. The issue includes an in-depth look at five regions from Australia via the recent Sommelier Scavenger Hunt; the year’s best Champagne, Barolo & Barbaresco, US Cabernets, Porto, and others; a dining guide to Montreal (my favorite); a look at pairing food with sweet wines, and more. Here’s a peek inside the December issue: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/S=0/subscriptions/entry/december-2015

For more information on how to subscribe: https://members.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/Subscribe/Select

The OUP Blog & The Oxford Companion to Wine

The Oxford Companion to Wine

The Oxford University Press (OUP) officially released the 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine in mid-September. In celebration of the new edition, the OUP asked some of the contributors to write an article that relates to important new entries in the 4th edition. The articles touch on ideas found in the Companion while exploring them in a way distinct from actual Companion entries, and are shared weekly on the OUP blog.

In the 4th edition, I wrote a new entry on the impact social media has had in the world of wine (as well as two others – a new one on “Sustainability,” and a complete update on “Information Technology”). As a result, the OUP editors asked if I would write an article on Social Media for their site. It posted today. Here’s a look…

Wine & Social Media

Social Media

Can Instagram really sell wine? The answer is, yes, though perhaps indirectly.

In recent years the advent of social media, considered to be the second stage of the Internet’s evolution – the Web 2.0, has not only created an explosion of user-generated content but also the decline of expert run media. It’s a change that has led to the near demise of print media, the decline of the publishing industry more broadly, and a revolution in what it means to sell wine.

Social media has dramatically changed how information is shared. Wine experts and consumers alike now more often share information about wine via social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and wine blogsNielsen studies show that Internet users spend more time on social media sites than any other type of Internet site. This has changed the way news is shared, and even what consumers see as relevant information. As a result, consumers today are swayed far more by the influence of their online peers rather than expert authority. It’s led (among other things) to fewer permanent wine critic positions.

Prior to social media, readers and consumers turned to industrial media sources, and established wine critics for expert opinion. There was no access to the mass of information freely available today online. Expert opinion, then, was communicated via…

To read the rest of this article, head on over to the OUP site, where it appears free. Here’s the link: http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/wine-social-media/#sthash.L3OZN1AR.dpuf