California

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Throwback Thursday

In honor of Ribolla Fest 2016, which just happened last night, I’m re-posting the start of a series I did on Ribolla Gialla in California starting back in 2012. The end of the post offers links to the entire series. Ribolla Fest originally began as Friuli-fest by the late George Vare, though the focus from its inception was on Ribolla. George fell in love with the variety at the start of the millennium and saw bringing (read: sneaking) it into the United States and fine-tuning its growing conditions here in California not only as a passion project but also a spiritual one. He believed it was some of the most important work he’d done in wine.

Meeting George in 2012 and receiving his encouragement in my writing, my interest and views of wine, and sharing with him a passion for Friuli and Ribolla, as well as acquaintance with the vintners that took up his torch in working with the Vare Vineyard, was a primary source of inspiration for me. It helped build my personal investment in my work in wine and served as part of the groundwork for venturing forth as a wine writer. He and several others in that first year I credit for my doing what I do now. 

Due to family and travel demands I missed this year’s Ribolla Fest but here’s a look back at some of the early work I did on the event, beginning with meeting George Vare. By this first meeting I’d already traveled Friuli, fallen in love with Ribolla, and met with numerous vintners there in Italy working with the variety. Seeing its translation in California gave me a way to imagine that even with a love for Italian wine myself perhaps I could find a home in wine here in the United States. 

At the bottom of the post links to the rest of the series are included. Subsequent installments in the series include George’s story as he told it to me, in-depth look at the growing demands for the variety, and other sites that it has since been planted. Having just left my academic career but treating wine with the seriousness I had as a graduate student I named the series, tongue in cheek, Attending Ribolla Gialla University.

I also wrote about George in the context of another series found here on the rise of skin-contact whites in California

Attending Ribolla Gialla University: Part 1: Meeting George Vare

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the July 20, 2012 edition of The New York Times, Diner’s Journal What We’re Reading.”

The following was originally published here on July 19, 2012.

Meeting George Vare

“Go make Ribolla Gialla popular.” –George Vare

the berries turn a full rich yellow at ripeness.

the first vintage with consistent berries.

the plant carries a virus that causes the leaves to yellow under stress.

barrel with a window

Ribolla Gialla left on skins for 1-year, then barrel aged for 3

a gift to take home, hand labeled and capped by George Vare

Ribolla Gialla with 48 hour skin contact

sparkling Ribolla Gialla that has not been disgorged

we’ll drink it at the Ribolla Gialla party

an earlier vintage

Friuli style white: Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai Friulano, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla

This is why I came back to Napa Valley so quickly.

Because in doing so I could talk to more people about George Vare. I’ve made my visit about so much more than just this one lucky meeting, so much more I love to do. But I came back now so I could meet more people that had worked with Vare, never presuming to ask if I could meet him too. Then, it turned out a meeting was arranged, and I got to hear his story, walk through his 2.5 acre Ribolla Gialla vineyard (the only one producing fruit in California, there are other plantings–more on that to follow), and taste his wines too. Here are photos from the visit. Write up to follow, along with photos from a grand Ribolla Gialla tasting here in Napa Valley.

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Thank you to George Vare.

Thank you to Dan Petroski.

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-2-a-life-in-wine-george-vare-friuli-and-slovenia/

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 3: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/07/19/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-3-friuli-fest-2012-ribolla-gialla-tasting-and-discussion/

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 4: Harvest of the George Vare Vineyard with Steve Matthiasson: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/14/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-4-harvest-of-the-george-vare-vineyard-with-steve-matthiasson/

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 5: Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, The Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/09/29/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-5-russian-river-valley-ribolla-gialla/

Attending Ribollat Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting, Arlequin Wine Merchant: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/04/23/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-6-the-vare-vineyard-tasting-arlequin-wine-merchant/

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 7: The Matthiasson Vineyard, Napa: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/05/01/attending-ribolla-gialla-university-part-7-the-matthiasson-vineyard-napa/

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Coombsville 

Looking southwest from Farella Vineyard in Coombsville

Coombsville just south east of the town of Napa (see this map) became an official appellation in 2011 and since then has received steadily increasing attention. Even so, this subzone of Napa Valley is still one of the sleepier, less developed parts of the valley. Being well off the main arteries of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail means that Coombsville continues to be somewhere primarily for those in-the-know. Its relatively low-key status is consistent with its winemaking history.

Contemporary vineyards in the subzone reach back to the mid 1960s and the planting of the Haynes Vineyard. While the winery Ancien now farms the property and makes wine there as well, the site has also been a fruit source for wineries such as Failla and Enfield Wine Co who seek its cooler-climate Syrah and older-vine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Ancien has been able to preserve some of the Burgundian varieties planted at the site’s inception. The rise at the centre of Haynes offers a central perspective on the region. Just up the hill stands the warmer Caldwell Vineyard, planted just over 10 years later when Farella Park Vineyard was planted just north east of Haynes. Around the corner, Tulocay winery was also founded in the mid 1970s.

Nearby, well-known Meteor Vineyard was established in the late 1990s. Such sites helped establish the insider view of Coombsville as a source for good-quality grapes. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that vineyard-designated wines from Coombsville sites began appearing occasionally. Producers as well known as Paul Hobbs, Phelps Insignia, Vineyard 29, Quintessa, Pahlmeyer, Far Niente and Dunn, to name just a few, have all relied on fruit from the subzone to bring a unique blending component to their wines. This is thanks to a combination of soils and unique microclimate.

To keep reading, heading on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes for 24 vintages of the Mondavi Cabernet Reserve rather evenly spread from 1966 to 2013. This article appear behind a paywall. 

Here’s the direct link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/coombsville-napas-southeastern-extremity

Subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

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Spending the Day at Frog’s Leap with John Williams

John Williams was kind enough to meet photographer Stephen Smith and myself to spend the day sharing and showing us the Frog’s Leap story.

The three of us met first thing in the morning to walk the vineyard and winery in the heart of the Rutherford Bench, then drove north through Napa Valley to see Frog’s Leaps other estate vineyards. Frog’s Leap is known for its Bordeaux varietal wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc – and Chardonnay and also makes a succulent, fresh Zinfandel inspired by California’s old field blend style. At the vineyard near his home, Frog’s Leap recently planted an experimental block testing to see what new varieties respond well to the specific conditions of Rutherford. In a different block of the same site they also farms a collection of mixed-black old vines that go into the Frog’s Leap Heritage blend.

Frog’s Leap doesn’t just grow vineyards though. John has brought his focus to sustainability in farming practices such as dry farming while also focusing on sustainability of overall estate management. To preserve the economic health of the Frog’s Leap team, the winery established year round food gardens that are used on-site for winery meals and by winery employees. The gardens are also maintained by the winery and vineyard staff so that in the months when vines need less tending the garden keeps them busy and employed.

John’s inspiration for California’s old style can also be found in his restoration of the historic winery building from the 1880s that serves as part of the structure for his own contemporary winery, as well as his love for old trucks and cars.

We drove up the valley together in his 1969 Chevy. It was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had to cruise Napa Valley backroads in John’s iconic pick-up truck. That truck is an important part of Napa Valley history, full of Frog’s Leap stories. Incredibly, the three of us had so much fun that the day culminated finally in this…


Over the course of the day, while I interviewed John, Stephen documented our time together in photographs. He’s been generous enough to let me share his photos from the day here. I love the way they tell the story on their own.

Visiting Frog’s Leap in Photographs by Stephen Smith

Frog's Leap Winery

Frog's Leap Winery

Flowers at Frog's Leap

Starting the Garden at Frog's Leap

The Orchard

The Vineyard

The Vineyard

Bottling Frog's Leap

The Historic Winery

The Historic Winery

The Historic Winery

Inside the Winery

Entering the Winery

John Williams

Discussing Winemaking

Inside the Winery

Driving in the 1969 Chevy Pick-up Truck

The Old Vines

Inside the Old Winery

Dinner with John

Thank you to John for the great day and to Stephen for the fantastic photos.

Check out more of Smith’s photography at his own site: http://www.iamstephensmith.com/ and follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/iamstephensmith/. I really enjoy following his photographic travelogs online.

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

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I’ll be writing more here on my trip to Okanagan and Semilkameen Valleys, as well as judging the finals for the National Wine Awards of Canada. It really was a fantastic week. There are some really good wines coming out of BC. The professionalism of the National Wine Awards really impressed me too – it’s a smartly run wine competition.

In the meantime though I wanted to share this video from Jr.

Wei Chi Semillon

Erin Pooley started making Wei Chi Semillon in 2012. The next year a bunch of us were able to taste the early bottlings at our Semageddon celebration (it broke the internet: here, here, here, and here) and I was immediately impressed. The 2012 is a delicious wine but the 2014 vintage (yet to be released) is my favorite – nervy, fresh and nutty both, with the vivacity to age.

To share some of what I love about Wei Chi wine, and Erin’s philosophy behind it, I asked Jr, aka Rachel, and Erin if they’d get together and make a video.

Erin invited us to her home for dinner and the two of them discussed Erin’s appreciation of the meal, her love of Semillon and her winemaking approach for Wei Chi wines.

Dinner with Erin Pooley

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

Paso Robles: Wine versus Water

Paso Robles Eastside Vineyard

While El Niño this year brought ample rains to northern California, overall rainfall was less than originally predicted (see Alder’s recent report) and southern California saw far fewer winter storms. Of wine regions in the state, hardest hit by lack of rain has been Paso Robles. Paso’s challenges with weather are not insignificant. It has become one of the best-known wine regions of the Central Coast, as well as a leader in California’s Rhône movement. Most famously, the Perrin family of Château du Beaucastel has affirmed the value of Paso Robles by investing with the Haas family in the Tablas Creek project. The work Tablas Creek has done to import Rhône varieties and clones to their site in Paso’s Adelaida district has been of benefit to Rhône producers throughout the United States.

During California’s winter rainy season this year, northern storms failed to reach as far south as Paso Robles, and the few warmer storms from the south did not reach over the mountains separating Paso’s county of San Luis Obispo from its southern neighbor Santa Barbara County (see the brown hilltops in this picture of an East Paso vineyard). The Central Coast region received so little rain this winter, reservoirs are only 30% full. The reservoirs are primarily for the townships of San Luis Obispo such as Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero. Land within the county but outside town centres has to depend for water on residential and commercial wells in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

Lack of rainfall these last several years has failed to replenish the Basin’s water level. Water issues in the area, however, are only partially due to the recent California drought. There has been a sizeable increase in overall water use from a significant rise in county residences as well as from the expansion of irrigated agriculture. This surge in demand for water has led to wells throughout the county being severely depleted. In the most affected areas, wells are down as much as 80 to 100 ft (24-30 m) from their original levels. As a result, small home-ranch owners (generally single-dwelling one-acre properties) face the possibility of losing homes they can no longer keep hydrated. Many have resorted to trucking in water. Even so, water use in the region continues to be unregulated although it is one of the very few in the state where well use is unmonitored and uncontrolled.

To keep reading, heading on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes for 24 vintages of the Mondavi Cabernet Reserve rather evenly spread from 1966 to 2013. This article appear behind a paywall. 

Here’s the direct link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/paso-robles-wine-v-water

Subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

Mondavi Retrospective

The Robert Mondavi 1966 Cabernet Unfiltered

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi Winery on the Oakville bench of Napa Valley. To celebrate, the winery put together a two-day event for 25 journalists from throughout North America, offering us the opportunity to taste 24 vintages of Mondavi’s flagship Cabernet Reserve, as well as spending time with many of the key winemakers and viticulturists of the winery’s history.

It is difficult to think of any other Napa Valley Cabernet of which such a historic vertical would be possible. Wineries with a longer history such as Beaulieu and Inglenook have nothing like the continuity evident at Mondavi. There have been subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle changes of direction in winemaking here but in essence the team and intentions have remained the same, and the ownership has changed only once when in 2004 the Robert Mondavi Winery was sold to the giant Constellation. Its founder died four years later at the age of 94 (see Jancis’s appreciation of Robert Mondavi).

When Mondavi started his eponymous winery in 1966 the goal was to show that California could make wines to compete with the very best in the world. A mere 10 years later two of Mondavi’s original winemakers – Warren Winiarski, who helped start the wine programme at Mondavi, and Mike Grgich, who soon took over – would go on to win the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris in red and white categories respectively that did so much to establish the region’s reputation for world-class wines.

To keep reading, heading on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes for 24 vintages of the Mondavi Cabernet Reserve rather evenly spread from 1966 to 2013. This article appear behind a paywall. 

Here’s the direct link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/mondavi-retrospective-a-napa-history-lesson

Subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

 

Michael Mara Chardonnay

The Michael Mara Vineyard Tasting

from left: Jill and Steve Klein Matthiasson, Richard and Susan Idell, Birk O’Halloran, Abe Schoener, Chris Brockaway in the Michael Mara Vineyard, Sonoma, April 2016

Last week Richard and Susan Idell hosted a producer tasting at their vineyard along with Steve Matthiasson, who farms the site. The Idell’s Michael Mara Vineyard hosts six acres of Chardonnay, clone 4 grafted to de-vigorating rootstock in an already de-vigorating site. The rocky soils, with their high drainage, not only keep vines from over-producing but minimize growth to such a degree as to create intense concentration in the fruit. Wines from the site consistently offer a glimpse of that stony character.

Planting the Michael Mara in 2006, Matthiasson helped design the vineyard, and continues to farm it, adjusting rootstock and techniques over time as characteristics reveal themselves through the vines. Within a vintage or two of first fruit, Matthiasson believed it to be a special site offering the kind of density through the palate and mineral expression, in his view, usually characteristic of older vine sites.

The concentrating power of the site can be glimpsed through surrounding foliage.

Michael Mara stands in the midst of a mini-plateau elevated by four feet when compared to surrounding properties. Throughout the earthen-swell trees reach almost half-size compared to those growing on lower grounds. Matthiasson believes the minimizing effect on plants comes from the low water retention of the soils, coupled with their mix of closely-packed rocks and volcanic earth.

Vines too grow smaller through Michael Mara, with not only less size increase year-to-year, but also less canopy compared to other vineyards. The combination of reduced growth and lessened natural shade again lead to concentration of the fruit. At the same time the juice-to-skin ratio is changed. Smaller clusters and smaller berries mean more skin to less pulp in the fruit. With the heightened phenolics from the skins, even wines put straight to press from the site carry a stimulating sapidity that washes the mouth with mineral freshness.

Flavors of the Vines

Growing up in Alaska, friends and I would sometimes spend an entire day just running through the mountains. A parent would drop us off an hour or so down the road on the Seward Peninsula at the entrance to a high elevation valley, then we would take the next several hours to simply run North through the belly of the Chugach mountains. Eventually we’d arrive near the edge of Anchorage, where another parent would pick us up. Along the way, if we grew thirsty, we learned to throw a rock in our mouths. The pebble would stimulate our palate making it water as we ran through the still snow-soaked summer range. The experience always tasted just a touch earthy, not quite salty but almost, with the flavor of fog lifting from the wet upland valley. In portions the resin scent of pine or evergreen blended in with the fog.

The stoniness of Michael Mara wines across producers and vintages reminds me of those runs through the mountains with a rock in my mouth – a mouthwatering wash of stones through the midpalate with a bit of earth and a flavor that’s almost salty but not – coupled with a bit of fog, a profound density of fruit, the flavor of which varies by picking time and cellar technique, and hints of forest resin.

The Idell family’s Michael Mara serves as source fruit for a range of producers making wine across a diversity of styles. Still that fruit density and stony wash remain consistent.

Following are tasting notes on the wines tasted at the event last week presented in the order tasted.

* Broc Cellars 2011 Michael Mara Chardonnay 12% $42

With delicate aromatics and a stimulating texture, the broc 2014 showcases a midpalate burst of fresh, clean fruit washed through with a mineral stimulating rush of acidity, and a savory finish. Refreshing, a hint funky, delicious.

* Matthiasson 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 12.9% $55

Offering a fresh fruit lift of pear and clementine touched by hints of honey and amber, the Matthiasson 2013 spins simultaneously with fresh and rich accents. Pleasing acidity carries almost lacy flavors married to a sense of lushness. Nice length and complexity. Delicious.

YoungInglewood 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.7% $60

Floral spiced aromatics followed by a palate of spiced wax, pear, and citrus rind with hints of savory forest-resin, the mid palate weight of the Younginglewood 2013 carries through a long finish. I would prefer a little less oak spice and a little less ripeness here but the wine offers a coherent expression of its style.

Idell Family Vineyard 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.2% $35

Tight aromatics and a subtle flavor profile with accents of oak spice throughout, the Idell Family Vineyards 2013 is not overly expressive currently but carries the promise of more. Showing light notes of pear and orange rind with a savory finish and persistent acidity, this wine would be worth checking-in on again in a year or two.

* Scholium Project 2014 Michael Faraday Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.49% $80

Savory aromatics and palate with a distinctive, animalistic energy brought into focus, the Michael Faraday from 2014 carries lacy flavors with a savory strength. With an almost implacable core, this wine will age through the apocalypse. It might be the only wine left standing after the Resurrection. (Does that make it heathen wine? If it is, I don’t want to be right.)

Scholium Project 2015 barrel sample Michael Faraday Michael Mara Chardonnay

Still in the fresh-wine phase, the 2015 Michael Faraday shows flavors still in evolution but carries nice energy and persistence worth investigating again later in bottle.

Iconic 2014 Heroine Michael Mara Chardonnay 12.8% $TBD

Subtle and savory aromatics with a fleshier mid palate and a softer finish (that is not to call it either soft or unfocused) than the other vineyard examples, the 2014 Heroine appears to have a little more influence of malolactic fermentation than some of the other wines poured. Carrying a subtle palate of flavor with still good density and a punch of zestiness spun through the finish. Hints of verve, pith, and savor.

Kesner 2013 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.72% $55

My favorite of the three Kesner vintages poured, the 2013 feels the most cohesive with potential to age. Showing notes of wax-nut burnished by spice the flavors here are rich though nuanced with density and length carrying into a long savory finish. Allow plenty of air upon opening.

Kesner 2012 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 14.3% $55

With subtle aromatics and palate, the 2012 is currently showing less complexity than the 2013 or 2011, as well as a softer finish.

Kesner 2011 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 14.2% $55

While the 2011 feels more disjointed than the other vintages – simultaneously offering fresh fruit notes with a bit of ripe heat through the close – it also carries a burst of fresh flavor at the front of the palate that is pleasing, before falling into a softer finish.

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

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Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub

Jeremy Weintraub in the midst of the vineyards of Adelaida estate

Jeremy Weintraub in the midst of the Adelaida Cellars vineyards, July 2015

Last year I fell in love with the wines of Jeremy Weintraub. Though I’d enjoyed his wines from Seavey before, I’d done so unwittingly, drinking them simply for pleasure without knowledge of the winemaker. Then last summer I had the good fortune of touring Adelaida Cellars in the historic Adelaida District on the western side of Paso Robles, enjoying vintages early in its history, then forward again to the first of Weintraub’s. After the visit I continued tasting newer releases of Adelaida wines, and discovered too his own Site Wines label.

Last month Weintraub hosted me again for a unique opportunity to discuss his work across labels, tasting current releases of Site, Adelaida, and an older vintage of Seavey (2009) side by side. What proves central to Weintraub’s approach to winemaking is a quest for intimacy with the vineyard rooted in an eye towards refinement.

Weintraub began consulting with Adelaida’s Cabernet program in 2012 and became winemaker in 2013, moving from his winemaking position at Seavey in Napa Valley that he’d started in 2008. As he began at Adelaida he also started his own small production Site Wines label, focused on vineyards of Santa Barbara County. Weintraub’s experience is extensive. Prior to his work at Seavey he had already worked in both Paso and Santa Barbara County, interned in Tuscany, Central Otago, Martinborough, and Long Island, and earned an MS in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis.

Seavey 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

It is Weintraub’s previous position as winemaker that makes the sense of refinement central to his approach most obviously visible. Prior to Adelaida, Weintraub led the winemaking team at Seavey, one of the most under appreciated estates of Napa Valley. It’s one of those vineyards that reminds us of the very specific value of site, showcasing a quality that surpasses that of its neighbors.

The Seavey’s dry-farmed, hillside vineyards, in the heart of Napa’s Conn Valley, are well-placed to absorb ample sun, delivering dark flavor characteristics and abundant tannin. Yet it sits close enough to the cooling and mineral influences of Conn Creek and Lake Hennessey to also intimate notes of rose, violet, iron and spice, a complexity infused with dusty elegance. Picked to celebrate the wash of acidity possible with the site, vinified for judicious tannin management, and clothed by just a sheer chiffon of oak spice, Weintraub’s 2009 Seavey Cabernet reminds us what Napa Valley does at its best is seamlessness. It’s one of those rare wines that brings a pinching sting to remember, the thought that I might not drink it again.

But, while Weintraub’s time at Seavey clearly showcases the refinement of his approach, it is perhaps in his current work at Adelaida that his talent for it becomes most apparent. When a winemaker is lucky enough to work with a site like Seavey it can be easy to mistake the important synchronicity of winemaker to vineyard as either based all in site quality or all in winemaking. Through his work at Adelaida, a more complicated and varied site than his prior home in Napa, the skill of his craft becomes more apparent.

Established in 1981, Adelaida began farming and planting its own vines in the early 1990s, having sourced fruit prior to then. The site now includes a unique range of varieties from the high elevation Cabernet of their Viking Vineyard, to the steep, rolling knoll of Michael’s dry-farmed, head-trained Zinfandel; the limestone established Rhone varieties that sweep the property, and the swailed chute of historic Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Chardonnay in the 1960s-planted HMR Vineyard. All together Adelaida’s estate vineyards include 145 planted acres, one-third of which is dry-farmed while the rest is being weened over to dry farming, a shift made in response to the recent California drought and in conjunction with hiring Weintraub.

Adelaida HMR Pinot

Adelaida HMR Pinot from 2013, 2009, 2002, 1995; HMR was planted in 1964 in a distinctly cooler microclimate on the western side of the Adelaida estate

Tasting through vintage verticals of Adelaida wines, most particularly the famous HMR pinot, Weintraub’s shift in quality becomes apparent. Established in the mid-1960s, then purchased by Adelaida in 1991, the earliest vintages of Adelaida’s HMR Pinots have aged beautifully, picked for freshness and woven through with accents of American oak. By the early 2000s, the winemaking has shifted entirely to French oak but also to greater extraction and apparently less age-ability. Then in 2013, like an optometrist flipping the lens in an eye exam, the wine moves into clear focus and the vineyard character reads distinctly, a wine fine-boned and persistent with creamy cherry blossom, and spicy crunch, nice tension and length.

The HMR also offers another revelation.

Adelaida 2014 Gamay

Part of the uniqueness of the HMR Pinot rested in its inter-planting of 51-year old Gamay vines, by far the oldest Gamay in California and an unheard of gold mine hidden in the hills of western Paso Robles. Prior to Weintraub’s arrival, the Gamay had been vinified into the HMR Pinot. By 2014, Weintraub convinced the Adelaida team it was time to uncover their treasure and take the Gamay seriously as its own wine. Borrowing a guiding insight from Cru Beaujolais, they foot stomped their Gamay with 50% whole cluster inclusion. The result is an energetic, pleasantly structured, earthy wine with hints of spice, a wash of minerality, and just enough fruit, with the lifted aromatics of a pretty Brouilly.

Current Release Site Wines

Site Wines 2013 Roussanne, 2012 Grenache, 2012 Syrah, 2012 Red blend

Weintraub’s work in his own project, his small production Site wines, makes clear his ability to read a vineyard. The quality of winemaking for his own label thus confirms the promise of his on going work with the Adelaida estate. In sourcing fruit from a range of sites in a region in a committed fashion, a winemaker is given the best opportunity to get to know the distinct overall characteristics of that region, but also to express most clearly his or her own winemaking aims.  Here, Weintraub has chosen to focus on Santa Barbara County. The result is a collection of five distinct Rhone wines, two varietal whites and two varietal reds and a red blend.

My favorite of the Site wines proves to be one of the prettiest Roussannes in California in both the 2012, and especially the 2013 vintage, sourced from the Stolpman Vineyard of Ballard Canyon. He also produces a Viognier that, in both 2012 and 2013 by avoiding the exuberant aromatics commonly found in California Viognier, masquerades as delicate until its persistent, while still subtle, expression across the palate becomes apparent.  And finally also two concentrated while still mouthwatering Rhone reds, a Grenache from Larner Vineyard of Ballard Canyon, and a Syrah from Bien Nacido of Santa Maria Valley, plus a Rhone red blend from Larner, each with the promise to age.

The Site wines are delicious and freshly energetic but it is also in speaking with Weintraub about each of these vineyards that his perspective shines. The intimacy Weintraub shows with the sites is impressive and detailed, the insights of a winegrower with as much a love for biology as beauty. The same balance shows in his on going familiarity with Adelaida’s vast vineyard holdings.

Adelaida Current Release Wines

Adelaida Cellars new look: 2014 Picpoul, 2014 Gamay, 2013 Viking Bordeaux blend, 2013 Viking Estate Signature Series Cabernet

Weintraub’s winemaking at Adelaida produces a broad range of delicious and drinkable wines, but it is also an enormous estate with a vast range of plantings. In practical terms, such a large site also takes time for any winemaker to know, whatever their depth of talent. It can also mean some of the vineyards’ wines seem to have greater synchronicity from vine to wine through winemaker than others.

While each of the wines of Adelaida today is far more than drinkable, I find that synchronicity most elegantly through Weintraub’s 2014 Adelaida Gamay and Picpoul. While the 2013 Picpoul was a lovely wine, the balance of mouthwatering acidity to pretty fleshiness in the 2014 is inspiring. As paradoxical as it can seem when considering Paso Robles heat, it is the Adelaida whites, especially the Rhone varieties, and lighter reds I find most thrilling. In these I eagerly await seeing how they develop with on going vintages.

Turning to the more robust wines, the recent release of the Viking Estate Signature Series Cabernet, the 2013, is not yet showing what it has to offer – currently feeling sweet and simple on the palate as it finds its way through its first years of baby fat while also promising to become more lithe and agile with age. The Viking Bordeaux blend from 2013, on the other hand, delivers an earthy grace that by the third day open is singing, an early indication of where it will get with age.

Speaking with Weintraub about his ongoing intimacy with the estate, I am excited to continue following the development of the Adelaida Rhone wine and Cabernet program. While the Adelaida Estate will never deliver a wine like Seavey that is also its gift. Paso Robles carries vastly different character than Napa Valley. In the respectful hands of a winemaker like Weintraub its a character he’ll continue to hone with refinement.

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

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Paso Robles

Walking Ambythe Estate with Phillip Hart

walking Ambythe Estate w Phillip Hart, July 2015

While the history of Paso Robles wine sits with Zinfandel and its associated hearty red varieties, such as Petite Sirah, its contemporary fame begins with Cabernet Sauvignon established in large plantings from the 1960s through the 1980s, and turns more recently to the varieties of the Rhône. Across varieties, the region is known for producing ample wines – wines with a profound concentration of flavour almost regardless of cellar technique.

The region’s single-vineyard wines that so clearly offer site expression even at higher alcohol seem a blunt reminder that terroir can make its presence felt even over 14% alcohol. As Turley’s Paso Robles’ winemaker Karl Wicka points out, to achieve an approachable balance of acidity to alcohol to flavour to tannin from any of their single-vineyard Zinfandel sites without having to intervene in the cellar demands additional hang time. Vines of the Central Coast – not only in Paso Robles but also in the other subzones of this part of the state as well – tend to hold on to their acidity. Winemakers are left, then, waiting for acidity to drop to a palatable level even while sugars climb. Wines from the deftest winemakers can offer harmony of expression.

To keep reading, heading on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes for 67 Rhone wines, and then 46 other varieties. Both of these articles appear behind a paywall. 

Subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

The links are below. 

Paso Robles Rhone varieties: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/paso-robles-rhne-varieties

Paso Robles Other varieties: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/paso-robles-other-grape-varieties

To read more on Paso Robles, check-out this the [free-access] photo (accompanied by in depth captions) collection from an 8-day research intensive visit I made this summer. Between the photo collection + the write-up at JancisRobinson.com there’s a wealth of info on the region. 

Here’s the link for the photo collection: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2016/02/01/8-days-in-paso-robles/ 

Cheers!

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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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