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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

The TTB Extends Comment Period on the Proposed Expansion of the Sta Rita Hills

Map of the Current SRH AVAmap of the current Sta Rita Hills AVA, the proposed expansion would be in the Northeast

Late last week the TTB announced it was extending the comment period for Notice No. 145, Proposed Expansion of the Sta. Rita Hills Viticultural Area until December 5, 2014. The extension allows more time for individuals to compose and submit responses to the possible expansion either for or against the proposal.

The TTB granting the extension is unsurprising since the comment period previously coincided exactly with harvest through the region, which would make interested parties ability to submit commentary more difficult.

The proposal for expansion comes as a result of a petition submitted by Patrick Shabram on behalf of John Sebastiano Vineyard, and Pence Ranch in March, 2013. If approved, the expansion would extend the current Sta Rita Hills AVA to the East by an additional 2,296 acres. The Sta Rita Hills Winegrower’s Alliance has come out as unanimously opposed to the proposed expansion.

In response to such proposals, the TTB opens a comment period in order to gather information and perspective from interested parties. Comments are needed in order to legitimate or refute information relevant to possible expansions. With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at (1) how the TTB process works in such matters, and (2) what counts as a useful or effective comment within the TTB process.

TTB Basics: Understanding the Purpose of the AVA

The TTB serves as a regulatory board for the United States Government, within the United States Treasury. As such, the TTB operates to regulate legal strictures around alcohol and tobacco. One of the matters that the TTB supervises is the establishment, or expansion of American Viticulture Areas (AVAs).

The purpose of the AVA, for the TTB, rests in informing consumers the origin of the wine. Towards this end, the U.S. AVA system takes into account factors that would impact viticulture, but not the wines themselves. This is unique compared to many European models for wine appellations. Many appellation systems outside the United States, Europe being a prime example, also regulate stylistic choices, and/or varieties grown.

U.S. AVAs, however, are defined based on the unique geographical conditions of a region that affect viticulture, and then classify that growing region in relation to an appropriate geographical name. In other words, an AVA is meant to articulate growing conditions unique to a specific place, and to name it in a way consistent to the place. That is, if there are multiple areas with the same name, the TTB will ask the people that submitted the proposal to generate a new title that can be distinctly identified from the other areas that have similar monikers, while still unique to the area being named.

As a goofy example, the Simpsons would have a hard time creating a grape growing region named “Springfield” since there are so many other areas with the same name. They’d have to create a name for the region that could not be mistaken for any of the other Springfields. For example, within TTB practices it would be unsurprising for them to use a name such as “Springfield of the Simpsons.” (What on earth would wines from there be like?)

Another current example relevant to the overarching region of Santa Barbara County can be found in the Happy Canyon proposal, a sub-AVA approved within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Because there are regions elsewhere also known as Happy Canyon, the TTB asked for the proposed title to be modified in a way that would clearly show it to be unique to Santa Barbara County. The approved sub-AVA name, then, became Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

TTB Process: The Purpose of the Comment Period

Importantly, the TTB serves as a regulatory board, not an investigative one. What that means, is that when the TTB receives a proposal for the establishment or the expansion of an AVA it does not investigate the accuracy of the data submitted. That is, it does not go out and do additional data gathering, nor does it do additional research of the region.

The TTB assumes the information submitted in a proposal is in essence accurate. What it will consider is whether or not the data submitted offers sufficient evidence to approve the proposed AVA, or expansion.

Because the TTB is not an investigatory board, when considering new proposals it opens a comment period to allow interested parties to submit additional data, and insight that might give valuable perspective on the proposal itself, and whether or not the evidence submitted is sufficient to approve the proposal.

In other words, the comment period is an important aspect of legitimating, or negating the worth of a proposed AVA, or its expansion.

What Counts as a Useful or Effective Comment?

The comment period is designed simply to allow supporting, or negating information and perspective in relation to a particular proposal. Comments submitted that speak to anything outside the specific proposal are effectively irrelevant to the process, and will not be considered in relation to the proposal. In other words, critiques of the TTB itself, or the AVA system, or other AVAs, etc, are irrelevant to the comment period of a specific proposal, and need to be submitted elsewhere.

Useful or effective comments, then, directly address the evidence within a particular proposal, and the question of whether or not such evidence sufficiently fulfills the requirements for establishing or expanding an AVA.

What are those TTB requirements?

The TTB American Viticulture Area (AVA) Manual states exactly what is required to submit a complete proposal for AVA expansion. The requirements for expansion closely resemble the requirements for a new AVA.

Here is the list of requirements as stated within the TTB AVA Manual itself (pg 5-6 w further explanation in sections VIII and XI).

  • For an expansion of the boundary, substantive evidence for how the name of the existing AVA also applies to the expansion area;
  • For a petition to modify a boundary to expand an existing AVA, substantive evidence that demonstrates how the area affected by the proposed change has distinguishing features affecting viticulture that are the same as those of the existing AVA;
  • For a petition to modify a boundary to reduce the size of an existing AVA, substantive evidence that demonstrates how the area affected by the proposed change does not have distinguishing features affecting viticulture that are the same as those of the existing AVA;
  • A detailed explanation of how the boundary of the existing AVA was incorrectly or incompletely defined, or is no longer accurate due to new evidence or changed circumstances, with reference to the name evidence and distinguishing features for both the existing AVA as well as the area affected by the proposed boundary change;
  • Appropriate USGS maps with the proposed change boundary clearly shown on them; and
  • A detailed narrative description of the entire proposed new boundary line using USGS map markings.

For a proposal to be considered complete by the TTB, each of these elements must be addressed within the proposal. That is, they are required. The current comment period for the proposed expansion of the Sta Rita Hills AVA is meant to allow interested parties the chance to address the question of whether or not the way those elements have been addressed is sufficient to approving the expansion. In other words, the application itself is complete. The question at hand is whether or not it sufficiently argues for its request to expand the AVA.

How to Write a Useful or Effective Comment

What counts as relevant information within a comment? Effective comments contain evidence that supports or negates (one or the other) any of the requirements. Evidence can include, but is not limited to: weather data, soil information, vegetation changes, geographical features. Evidence can be presented through expert opinion and analysis of data information, and also through anecdotal testimony. In either case though, the comment should directly address the elements relevant to the petition itself.

Both experts and non-experts are invited to comment to the TTB during a proposal comment period. In either case, what is important is that one testifies to things within his or her experience in relation to the requirements of the petition.

For those that are interested in submitting a comment to the TTB in relation to either legitimating, or negating the proposed expansion of the Sta Rita Hills, then, there are three key questions that should be addressed, each of which addresses at least one of the requirements listed above.

As shown in the TTB AVA Manual, any proposal must show that:

(1) The area proposed for expansion can be appropriately understood in name as part of the region that the original AVA name denotes.

In this case, it must be appropriate to call the additional 2,296 acres of the proposed expansion part of the area “the Sta Rita Hills.” To put that another way, it should be apparent that “Sta Rita Hills” is still the right name for the proposed expansion area.

(2) The area within the expansion is the same as the area within the current Sta Rita Hills.

That is, the distinguishing features affecting viticulture within the already established Sta Rita Hills AVA must be the same as those within the proposed expansion area.

In other words, any commentator that wishes to support the proposed expansion can submit information, or testimonial providing evidence for the similarity of the 2,296 acres being like the region already established as the current AVA.

Any commentator that wishes to negate the proposed expansion can submit information, or testimonial providing evidence that shows the differences of the 2,296 acres from the region within the established AVA. Again, similarities or differences can rest in weather, climate, temperature, soil, and vegetation, as well as overall geographical features.

(3) The area within the expansion area is uniquely distinct from its immediate surrounding areas.

This requirement demands a little more explanation.

The area proposed for expansion should be distinct not just only from distant regions, but from those areas immediately outside the proposed expansion boundaries. In other words, where the boundary is drawn should not be arbitrary, or even approximate but instead definitive of the unique geography of the growing area.

Comments submitted should either support or negate the differences of the area immediately within the proposed expansion area, to those immediately outside the proposed expansion area.

The Sta Rita Hills-AVA, however, is a sub-AVA. That makes this requirement a little more subtle. That is, the Sta Rita Hills are considered distinctive enough to merit being their own sub-AVA, while still generally congruent with the overall conditions of the Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.

Similarly, the other two sub-AVAs currently within Santa Ynez Valley — Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara — are both considered to be distinctive enough to merit their own sub-AVA statuses, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.

In the case of the Sta Rita Hills expansion, then, the proposal must show that it is distinct not just from the other sub-AVAs within the Santa Ynez Valley, such as Ballard Canyon, or Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara have already been proven to be appropriately distinctive enough from their immediate surrounding areas to merit their own sub-AVA statuses. Similarly, the Sta Rita Hills has already proven to be distinctive enough from the other areas of the Santa Ynez Valley, and thus carries sub-AVA status.

The result of this is that because Ballard Canyon, for example, is an already established sub-AVA, it has already been shown via that sub-AVA proposal and approval that Ballard Canyon is distinct not only from Sta Rita Hills, but also the areas immediately East of the Sta Rita Hills, such as Buellton Flats. That is, Ballard Canyon is already shown to be distinct from not only Sta Rita Hills, but also the proposed expansion area.

It would not be uniquely insightful, then, for the current expansion proposal to simply show that the proposed expansion area is distinct from Ballard Canyon. Instead, it must show that it is distinct from the rest of the area known as Buellton Flats, and from weather in places like the town of Buellton. Otherwise, the currently proposed expansion boundaries would seem to be arbitrary.

What the expansion proposal must show, then, is that the proposed expansion boundaries are not arbitrary, nor even approximate of a distinctive zone that is the Sta Rita Hills. Instead, the expansion proposal must show that it is uniquely different from the portions of the Santa Ynez Valley immediately outside the proposed new boundaries.

The comment period is an opportunity for interested parties to provide evidence approving or negating the strength of the submitted proposal for expansion around each of these three questions — appropriate name, similarity to the established Sta Rita Hills, and distinctiveness from immediate surrounding areas.

Studying the Issue and Submitting Commentary

If you are interested in submitting a comment in response to the Sta Rita Hills expansion proposal, you now have until December 5, 2014.

If you submitted a comment during the previous comment period opened when the proposal was first submitted in March, 2013, you must submit a new comment within the current comment period for it to count within the current comment period.

In commenting, provide evidence from your experience on any or all of the three pertinent questions of name, similarity, and difference. You can also consider reading the petition submitted requesting the expansion, in order to provide clarification of its strengths or weaknesses in relation to these question.

***

To read more on the TTB requirements, take a look at the TTB AVA Manual: http://www.ttb.gov/wine/p51204_ava_manual.pdf

For the original proposal of expansion submitted March 2013 by Patrick Shabram: http://www.ttb.gov/foia/petition-establish-expand-sta-rita-hills-american-viticultural.pdf

For the original 1998 Santa Rita Hills proposal (the name was changed to Sta Rita Hills in 2006 due to name similarity with a winery in Chile): http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=TTB-2014-0007-0006

To read the evidence as submitted in the proposed expansion: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-08-07/pdf/2014-18705.pdf

For the notice of expansion of the comment period until Dec 5, 2014: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-09-03/pdf/2014-20929.pdf

For more on the argument both for and against expansion of the AVA as understood by representatives of each side: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/08/06/an-in-depth-look-at-the-proposed-sta-rita-hills-ava-expansion/

***

To see current comments on the proposed expansion: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=TTB-2014-0007

For relevant notices of proposed rulemaking, including links on the original proposal for expansion, to current comments, and how to comment: http://www.ttb.gov/wine/wine-rulemaking.shtml

To submit your own comment: http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=TTB-2014-0007-0001

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

12

TTB Notice to Open Comments on the Proposed Expansion of the Sta Rita Hills AVA

It was announced today (August 6, 2014) that the TTB will open comments tomorrow in approving a petition to expand the Sta Rita Hills AVA. The comment period will open for exactly two months allowing interested parties to submit information and perspective on the matter until October 6, 2014. Information on how to submit comment, as well as the full press release from the TTB are copied below.

The proposed expansion of the Sta Rita Hills AVA has proved a hugely controversial topic. The Sta Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance has publicly declared its opposition to the proposed expansion. Alliance members include producers growing and/or sourcing fruit from throughout the appellation, as well as many of the individuals that worked on and submitted the original AVA proposal for the Sta Rita Hills.

The petition for expansion of the AVA was submitted March 2013 by Patrick Shabram on behalf of both John Sebastiano Vineyards, and Pence Ranch Vineyards. Shabram works as an academic geographer with a background in the study of viticultural areas. Notably, he helped define and submit the successful AVA proposals for Fort Ross-Seaview and Moon Mountain AVAs in Sonoma County.

In the discussion back and forth around the issue, Pence Ranch Vineyards has received the most direct criticism for the proposed expansion. However, John Sebastiano Vineyards would also be directly affected if the boundary change is approved as the vineyard currently is bifurcated by the Northeast appellation boundary. Visiting the site one can stand at the top of the hill and literally jump in and out of the Sta Rita Hills while still surrounded on all sides by Pinot Noir. The economic value of clusters from just inside the boundary far outpace those from those just outside of it (even with them growing mere feet apart) thanks to the high dollar value placed on Sta Rita Hills fruit.

Defining the Sta Rita Hills

Wes Hagen stands as the most vocal proponent of preserving the current definition of the American Viticulture Area (AVA), Sta Rita Hills. Hagen helped successfully define and submit the original proposal.

In considering the value of the appellation itself, Hagen names topography as the definitive element of Sta Rita Hills growing conditions. The Sta Rita Hills are defined by a unique East-West transverse mountain range that sits open-mouthed to the Pacific Ocean, effectively funneling maritime elements inland. It is this topography that generates unique temperature, wind, and fog throughout the growing region.

Hagen describes the shape of the Sta Rita Hills as essentially closely spaced hills that concentrate ocean influence. What is important in this account is the manner in which the landscape of the region intensifies the cooling–both in terms of temperature and air flow–and humidity of the growing region when compared to areas through the rest of the Santa Ynez Valley. As you drive over the crest of the hill on Highway 246 that delineates the Northeastern boundary of the AVA, the topography changes from the closely spaced hillside-to-valley proportion that holds in the ocean influence, to the much more open valley formation of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. For Hagen, this geographical change illustrates the features central to the growing style of the Sta Rita Hills versus the Santa Ynez Valley more broadly.

Studying the Expansion

Together John Sebastiano Vineyards and Pence Ranch Vineyards hired geographical consultant, Patrick Shabram to do a thorough going study of the Sta Rita Hills and the area just outside its Northeastern boundary, as well as portions of the Santa Ynez Valley more broadly. The purpose of the study was to determine whether or not it was reasonable to consider a possible expansion to the AVA.

Shabram drew on data from weather stations throughout the appellation in comparison to similar data from further east in the Valley, soil analysis from within the AVA and to the East of it, and on vegetation patterns (both vines and otherwise) from throughout the region as well in order to determine the best recommendation for articulating a coherent appellation boundary. An important difference from Shabram’s study versus the definition of the original AVA proposal rests simply in access to an increase in information today.

Since the original Sta Rita Hills appellation approval in 2001, there has been a significantly large increase in vineyard plantings through the region. One of the affects of such a change includes the increase in weather stations collecting climate data throughout the region. The volume of information available today about the area, then, proves to be significantly greater. According to Shabram, access to such data legitimates the currently proposed expansion of the AVA.

Climate Considerations

Sta Rita Hills Vineyard Map

Sta Rita Hills Vineyard Map found: http://www.staritahills.com/appellation/

Temperature changes and wind patterns prove central to both sides of the Sta Rita Hills debate. Hagen points out that the Northeastern boundary delineates a climate change for the Santa Ynez Valley. In Hagen’s view, overall temperatures increase past the crest of the hill on Highway 246, and wind patterns dissipate lessening the concentration of maritime influence through the rest of the Valley. It is not that fog or wind disappears beyond the crest of the hill–spend any significant time in the region and it quickly becomes clear that a daily pattern of both stretches all the way to the warmest reaches of Happy Canyon–according to Hagen it is that they become measurably less concentrated. For example, according to Hagen, the temperatures to the West of the Northeastern boundary of the appellation is measurably less than those East of the boundary.

According to Shabram, the relevant temperature features are more subtle than that. The Sta Rita Hills appellation is essentially bifurcated into two unique subzones. On the Southern side, the Santa Rosa-to-Sweeney-Rd portion of the Sta Rita Hills is separated from the Highway 246 corridor on the Northern side by a central hill formation. Shabram points out that those central hills generate two unique wind patterns with one funneling in from the ocean on the Santa Ynez River on the Santa Rosa-to-Sweeney Rd portion, and the other funneling in over the Highway 246 corridor.

Within the existing appellation, Rio Vista Vineyards sits at the central-Eastern boundary of the appellation along the Santa Ynez River. According to temperature data studied by Shabram, temperatures just prior to Rio Vista Vineyards, within the current appellation boundaries, are actually noticeably warmer than those within the proposed expansion area.

Looking at the wind patterns through the region explains the temperature comparison. According to Shabram, Hagen is right that ocean winds dissipate towards the Eastern side of Sta Rita Hills. The warm zone prior to Rio Vista Vineyards reflects this reduced wind pattern. However, according to Shabram, right around Rio Vista Vineyards, the Santa Ynez wind pattern combines with the Highway corridor wind pattern effectively increasing the overall wind effect, and decreasing overall temperatures. The result is that within the proposed expansion area temperatures are lower, and wind is higher than the zone to the southeast within the current appellation boundary.

To the extent that the question of a proposed expansion rests in temperature and wind patterns, then, the area within the proposed expansion area, outside the current Northeastern boundary, would seem to be consistent with the current appellation conditions. However, the appellation expansion is not dependent only on wind or temperature. As Hagen explains, the appellation is more centrally about overall topography. Topography directly impacts temperature and wind patterns but does not reduce to these elements.

Questions of Soil Consistency and the Now Proposed Eastern Boundary

Soil series types within the Sta Rita Hills are notoriously varied. Extensive discussion of the value of the mixed loams, Diatomaceous Earth, and shale on the Santa Rosa-to-Sweeney Rd side, versus the more consistently sandy loam of the Highway side has occurred. The well known soil differences through the Sta Rita Hills illustrate the peripheral nature of soil in defining what is key to the Sta Rita Hills appellation. Both Hagen and Shabram agree that soil is not central to the definition of the appellation.

The area within the proposed expansion of the boundary carries soil series types consistent with those directly West within the current appellation. In doing the regional study, Shabram did analysis of the series types throughout Sta Rita Hills, in the proposed expansion, and within the areas East within Santa Ynez Valley more broadly. What he found was that the six soil types within the proposed expansion area show as generally consistent with those to the West within the appellation. Moving East into lower elevations towards Buellton, however, the soil series types begin to change with proportions of some types greatly reducing compared to within the appellation, and the appearance of others that do not appear at all with the Hills.

Shabram emphasizes that soil types analysis does not play a central role in the new expansion proposal, but the analysis is included in the proposal. One reason for including the analysis is that the change in soil types assisted in delineating the Eastern boundary of the proposed expansion. Shabram suggested the expanded boundary in relation to higher elevation areas that include consistent soil series types.

The Value of a Name

Central to the question of expanding the Sta Rita Hills AVA stands the concern for integrity of the name Sta Rita Hills. Such issue is not trivial convention. Behind the project of the American Viticultural Area branding program is the articulation of a signature quality of grape growing uniquely generated by the overall conditions of the named region. What characteristics prove most central to that signature depends on the dictates of the region itself. The list of elements relevant for consideration, however, remains generally consistent and include historical precedent and practice, climatic conditions (including wind, fog, light, temperature, etc), topographical formation, and soil type.

According to the Sta Rita Hills original proposal, topography as it operates to concentrate the maritime influence on the growing conditions of the region centrally defines that region. In suggesting an expansion of the Eastern boundary along the Highway 246 corridor, the new proposal focuses in on the details within the topography bringing questions of temperature, wind, and fog, that is overall climate, to the fore.

Members of the Sta Rita Hills Winegrowing Alliance are adamant that the expansion should not occur. Their arguments against the expansion rest largely in the continued integrity of the appellation itself. The question of integrity here assumes the original articulation of the growing region is the more clear, appropriate definition of what makes Sta Rita Hills fruit unique.

Hagen points out that his fight against the proposed expansion is in no way a matter of whether or not an estate like Pence Ranch Vineyards is growing quality fruit. Instead, it is a matter of whether or not it is growing fruit consistent with that of the Sta Rita Hills. His view is that it is not. For Hagen, the topographical change does not reduce to whether or not wind and fog conditions show within the proposed expansion area. He expects that they do. Instead, it is a matter of their concentration in relation to the overall topographical layout of the Sta Rita Hills. For Hagen, the question of topography stands at the top of a defense for the maintenance of the original appellation. Historical precedent, and the concentration of plantings through the region also support his view.

Shabram, on the other hand, believes the proposed expansion offers a more coherent account of what is uniquely the Sta Rita Hills. In his view, by capturing the climate details, and, peripherally, recognizing the soil consistency, a more thorough going understanding of the signature growing conditions for the region has been made. Shabram points out the intuitive strength of the original proposal. In his view, at a time when thorough going climate data was not available, the original AVA writers did a brilliant job of defining the growing region. For Shabram, the new expansion simply fine tunes that.

***

The TTB’s press release announcing movement forward on the proposed expansion follows. The expansion has not currently been approved. However, the TTB has taken a step closer towards finalizing this process. The key point is that the comment period on the matter is now open and will remain open until October 6, 2014.

The comment period allows interested parties the opportunity to weigh in on offering historical information, interpretive data, personal opinion, and social consensus that the reviewing committee might not otherwise be aware of, and can have a great impact on how the process moves forward.

Information on how to comment follows at the bottom of the original press release.

Updates on this issue including comments from other relevant parties will appear here.

***

TTB PRESS RELEASE:

Proposed Expansion of the Sta. Rita Hills Viticultural Area

Washington, D.C. — The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau will publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register on Thursday, August 7, 2014, proposing to expand the existing 33,380-acre “Sta. Rita Hills” American viticultural area in Santa Barbara County, California, by approximately 2,296 acres. The existing Sta. Rita Hills viticultural area and the proposed expansion are located entirely within the established Santa Ynez Valley and Central Coast viticultural areas. TTB is making this proposal in response to a petition filed on behalf of several local wine industry members. TTB designates viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.

You may submit comments on this proposal and view copies of the proposed rule, selected supporting materials, and any comments TTB receives about this proposal at the “Regulations.gov” website (http://www.regulations.gov) within Docket No. TTB– 2014–0007. A link to that docket is posted on the TTB website at http://www.ttb.gov/wine/wine-rulemaking.shtml under Notice No. 145.

Alternatively, written comments may be submitted to one of these addresses:

•    U.S. Mail: Director, Regulations and Rulings Division, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, 1310 G Street NW., Box 12, Washington, DC 20005; or

•    Hand delivery/courier in lieu of mail: Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, 1310 G Street, NW., Suite 200–E, Washington, DC 20005.

Comments on this proposal must be received on or before October 6, 2014.

####

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

0

Santa Barbara Wine

As some of you know, I’ve worked on a series of maps looking at growing conditions of Santa Barbara Wine Country. (the first of these SBC map can be found here: http://bit.ly/1nLhy1m ) There has been a delay getting back scans of some of the other maps so I’m not able to post those yet.

In the meantime, cdsavoia sent me their video interview of Greg Brewer. (You might recall they released a video of Abe Schoener here in the Fall. Here’s that link: http://bit.ly/1kAlUFq )

Cdsavoia produce short documentaries on work done in design, fashion, wine, and art. Their series is brilliantly done, offering several minute glimpses of the thought behind peoples’ work. Be sure to check out their site if you haven’t. Here’s that link: http://www.cdsavoia.com/

They read my work with Greg Brewer posted here previously and asked if I’d like to share their interview with him as well. It’s embedded below.

Talking Wine with Greg Brewer

Greg Brewer is one of the more fascinating winemakers I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with. His views of wine are synthetic, seeing thematic links between wine and other arts. He also brings a wonderfully open view of how style interplays with quality valuing difference more than dogmatism while maintaining refinement. It’s a view that proves refreshing.

Sitting down to listen to Greg Brewer inevitably includes discussions of art, light and space, music, and if you’re really lucky saké and food in Japan.

Brewer’s work both with Chad Melville at Melville Winery, and Steve Clifton at Brewer-Clifton brings admirable focus to social sustainability. Both wineries keep vineyard and winery employees year round, a reality that is uncommon in California. Their commitment is to making wine in a manner that allows not only the wineries to succeed, but their employees to comfortably subsist.

The film of Brewer made by cdsavoia gives beautiful glimpse into the complexities of Brewer’s approach. Check out it out below.

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Cheers!

***

Thank you to Miguel De La Torre.

To read my previous writing on Brewer’s work in wine:

Diatom: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/02/07/escaping-convention-calibrating-to-stark-conditions-a-conversation-with-greg-brewer/

Melville: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/01/29/a-glimpse-of-sta-rita-hills-highway-corridor-melville-estate/

Brewer-Clifton: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/02/19/the-taste-of-sta-rita-hills-tasting-with-over-200-years-of-winemaking-experience/

10

Traveling Santa Barbara County Wine

As some of you know, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling and tasting Santa Barbara Wine Country. The area grabbed my fascination for multiple reasons. It’s a region doing a big range of interesting (and tasty) things in wine, that also has fantastic long-term potential for continued evolution of both style and quality. Still, the area has been comparatively under regarded.

Talking enough with people throughout Santa Barbara County wine, what becomes apparent is not only the passionate commitment that people in the area hold for the place. There is also a sense of historical necessity pushing the region forward.

Winegrowers there now can be seen as riding a sort of third-wave of influence through the area. Modern vines first started going into the region in the early 1970s in a try-and-see-what-grows crazy quilt of plantings. By the 1990s appellations were being defined and people had articulated general swaths of guidance like Cabernet and its kin needed to be further inland, whereas Burgundian varieties could sustain closer to the coast.

Today, wines of Santa Barbara County benefit from the work of those previous decades to now produce wines on the backbone of such established knowledge with the flesh of experimentation and fine-tuning pushing forward quality.

Part of my interest in Santa Barbara County rests too in its geographical complexity. Comprehending the wealth of environmental, geological, historical, and climactic influences factoring into winemaking in the region is no small feat. How these factors intertwine in Santa Barbara County wine differs significantly from other regions of California.

After returning from my most recent visit in March I began drawing a series of maps that compile information about the unique characteristics of the region. The originals are wall size pieces that I’ve had professionally scanned to present here (they’re too big for my little home scanner).

As a first installment in a series on the region, the following map of Santa Barbara County represents crucial climactic and geographical influences on the region’s growing conditions with a presentation of the County’s AVAs.

The Growing Conditions of Santa Barbara County

Click on the image to enlarge. You can then zoom in further with your browser. One small error on this map — I wrote “Alluvial Soils from the Mountains” along the Northern rim of Santa Maria Valley, and the Southern Rim of Sta Rita Hills. Properly speaking alluvial soils are left by water in riverbeds. Colluvial soils are dropped from erosion off mountainsides. The areas marked with this notation does have some of each but I should have been clearer in how it was noted.

The Role of Rain

Santa Barbara County (SBC) receives very little rain through not only the growing season, but the year in general. While it is possible to dry farm in the county, sites must be carefully selected to do so. In Sta Rita Hills, for example, some people have been able to dry farm along the Santa Ynez River. In Santa Maria Valley, some have been able to dry farm along moderate elevation areas of mixed loam.

The lack of rain occurs for multiple reasons. Storms from the North travel through Northern California into San Luis Obispo (SLO), then hitting the Sierra Madre and San Rafael Mountain Ranges at the boundary between SLO and SBC. The mountains effectively stop rains from the North in a rain shadow effect before they ever hit Santa Maria Valley or the rest of SBC.

Storms from the South will occasionally bring rain North from Mexico, but only on occasion. Such events can be problematic, however, as these usually represent hot rain and warmer temperatures that can cause trouble for agriculture.

The County stands unprotected from storms off the ocean as the Coastal mountains turn East through SBC leaving valleys open-mouthed to the Pacific. Ocean storms rush in quickly bringing intense weather conditions that often pass just as fast. The intensity of these storms comes partially from the weather effect hitting mountains on the Eastern side of SBC, as well as the North-South oriented range in SLO, then rushing skywards as a result. As the storms impact the mountains and rush upwards, water falls from the cloud fronts creating flash flooding through the region. Such occurrences happen only on occasion, however, as usually such storms will have resolved over water before arriving on land.

The Turn of the Coastal Range

Santa Barbara County represents the only place in North or South America where the Coastal range turns fully from a North-South orientation to an East-West one. (There are, of course, other American regions that have some maritime influence through gaps in the mountains.) While other major wine growing regions along the Western side of the two continents tend to be shielded from ocean influence by their Coastal range, SBC instead hosts direct maritime relation.

As the mountains turn East they create open-mouthed valleys through the county that effectively act as funnels bringing maritime influence from the Pacific inland in a consistent breathing pattern through the day. As inland temperatures rise, cool air from the ocean is pulled East over SBC. Westerly winds start just after lunch time on a daily basis, as a result, so that even on higher ambient temperature days vines are cooled by the breeze effect. As inland temperatures cool through evening, fog sets in all the way to the far Eastern side of the County.

With the ocean influence temperatures increase traveling East through the region. On average the thermometer can be tracked at a degree Fahrenheit increase per mile traveled East, though of course geographical variation creates more subtle differences in specific locales.

Fog Blankets and Wind

With the Eastern-oriented mountain ranges fog and wind both play significant influence through the region. With the predominately open-to-the-ocean valley formations throughout SBC, fog and wind reach all the way to the far Eastern areas of the county. As a result, even the warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation at the inland side of Santa Ynez Valley still receives that daily cooling influence, for example, though less directly than plantings on the Western end of Santa Ynez Valley.

Ballard Canyon, on the other hand, stands partially defined by its unique position within a North-South facing notch between Buellton and Los Olivos in the Hills that run East from Sta Rita Hills AVA through the Santa Ynez Valley. Thanks to nestling into the North-South notch, the fog and winds impact on the appellation is softened slightly, and some plantings at higher elevation in the Canyon receive less of the fog.

Fog generally increases disease pressure, raising worries of mold and mildew. Within nestled Western pockets of the area growers must especially track for disease. However, at the same, thanks to lack of rainfall, overall humidity levels remain lower thus keeping disease pressures lower than other regions with comparable levels of fog.

Fog also coincides with diurnal shift, appearing as a symbol of the cooler nights of the region that support up-acidity for super juicy wines.

Pacific Ocean Currents

Proximity to ocean as well as particular placement along the Pacific offer moderate temperatures throughout Santa Barbara County. The California Current carries a strong cooling influence along the coast to the North.

SBC is the Southern most part of the State to receive direct influence from the California Current as below the County the North American land mass cuts further East with the current moving back out into the Pacific. Instead, coming up from the South, the more moderate Davidson Current brings warmer water temperatures September through February. The two currents meet and mix along the beaches of SBC creating a mild climate, and nutrient rich waters.

Soil Variation

Soil types vary significantly through the County with a full range from beach-type sands or sandy loams, abundant clay or clay loams, to unconsolidated rocky soils the result of mountain erosion, as well as rocky shale or Diatomaceous Earth. Limestone and chalky bands also paint through sections of the county visibly appearing in swaths of Ballard Canyon, for example. Even within single AVAs very different soil types appear, sometimes side by side.

Within the Sta Rita Hills, for example, overt soil changes visibly appear along roadside with more sandy loam showing through the Highway 246 corridor, and completely different profiles appearing on the Sweeney-to-Santa Rosa Road side. There, soils change by elevation with clay loam along the riverbed, shale appearing through the mid-slopes, and Diatomaceous Earth at higher elevation. Sta Rita Hills may be the only wine growing region in the world that plants in Diatomaceous Earth as the rock is rare on the planet (if not the only such growing region it is one of the few).

The soil variation through SBC supports a huge range of planting choices and wine styles.

What This Means for Growing Grapes

The reality of grape growing in Santa Barbara County is admirably varied. The region as a whole carries impressive up-acidity through the wines, meaning even naturally richer profile grapes grown in the warmer inland temperatures offer the promise of real juiciness.

Taking a simple one-hour drive West to East through any portion of the County will result in significant viticultural change. At the far Western portions of SBC even cool climate grapes like Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay can struggle to ripen. Cool climate Rhone varieties do beautifully through the area, as do warmer style Rhone wines further inland. At the far Eastern sides of the County, Bordeaux varieties prosper, with most appearing through Santa Ynez Valley, though some also showing in the Sisquoc section of Santa Maria Valley.

The viticultural variation of Santa Barbara County offers growers and winemakers the opportunity to work with a range of wines in short distance, a situation unique in the state. While many winemakers in California currently produce wines of similar grape types grown from a range of terroirs, or wine styles grown in differing conditions, few are able to do so in such compact driving proximity.

***

To read more on Santa Barbara County conditions:

Eric Asimov’s look at Chardonnays of Santa Barbara County: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/dining/reviews/rehabilitating-the-image-of-chardonnay.html?_r=0

RH Drexel’s excellent first volume of Loam Baby, entirely on Santa Barbara County wine: http://www.loambaby.com/v1.html

Richard Jennings on Santa Barbara County: http://www.rjonwine.com/santa-barbara/exploring-terroir-and-balance/

Climate in the County, and Ocean Influence: http://www.countyofsb.org/pwd/pwwater.aspx?id=27904

Sashi Moorman on the importance of Soils of Sta Rita Hills: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/01/28/a-glimpse-of-sta-rita-hills-climbing-the-mountain-w-sashi-moorman/

Stay turned for more on Santa Barbara County with hand-drawn maps…

***

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Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

6

IPOB Panel on Ripeness: Considering the question of ripeness

The admirable Jamie Goode flew in from Britain to moderate a panel at In Pursuit of Balance this year. In participating he was able too to select the panel topic. With his wealth of knowledge and experience in wine, bringing him to the event proved a smart addition. He selected the topic of Ripeness for discussion, and immediately broadened perspective on the issue. While conversations around ripeness levels in the U.S., and especially California wine, have tended to quickly steer into discussion of alcohol levels, Goode immediately placed the question of ripeness within a broader context.

In explaining what led him to select the subject, Goode said, “I think ripeness is one of the most important factors in terroir.” The insight behind this statement came in him discussing his views of terroir. “There is no single interpretation of terroir. We can have several different intelligent interpretations of a site. The question is if this [particular wine] is an intelligent interpretation of the site.” He then went on to compare the idea of interpreting terroir to a conductor directing an orchestra’s performance of a composition.

I appreciate the insight offered by Goode here as it brings the appropriate complexity to an idea — terroir, or site expression in wine — that is often treated overly simplistically. To belabor the point behind Goode’s comments, the composer has written a piece, but with the music merely noted on paper, the conductor must interpret the best presentation of those notations. There are multiple possible ways to make such an interpretation. It is impossible to decide which is the best interpretation without having first assumed a collection of values that allow one to judge the success or failure of the performance.

Similarly in wine, when discussing ripeness levels, there is a range of potential picking decisions that could be made that fall after overtly green fruit and before the onset of dehydration. How one determines the point of optimal ripeness depends on what kind of wine a person wants to enjoy, that is, what kind of wine they value.

In the ways we talk about wine, it can be easy to insert judgments of optimal ripeness as if it simply is true that a certain style of wine is the best style. Goode’s point that there are multiple intelligent interpretations gets at the point that such judgments are not simply true, they are a matter of preference. It’s a matter of what we want to drink, not of what it’s right to drink. Still, his point retains the importance of parameters as well. That is, the implication behind Goode’s statement that the question is whether this is an intelligent interpretation of site retains the important point that a winemaker can easily go too far and lose site expression in their wine as a result. Some wines just needs grapes, they don’t care for where those grapes came from.

To give example to how a wine can go to far, Goode discussed the role of alcohol in relation to esters. “Certain levels of alcohol masks the aromatic expression of the wine. Alcohol masks the esters.” He then went on to compare such a phenomenon to drinking whiskey. Some whiskey lovers add a bit of water first because doing so changes the alcohol proportions slightly, and in lowering the overall alcohol level the whiskey shows a different aromatic effect. He also explained that studies have been done changing the alcohol levels on the same wine. The study showed that at different alcohol levels the same wine showed distinctly different flavor and aroma.

Ultimately, he stated that wine experience depends upon a synergy of elements — mouthfeel, flavor, alcohol, acidity — and no one factor is adequate to summing up our expectations with wine. In looking at ripeness, Goode selected a kind of galvanizing rod for other aspects to discuss in wine.

The Wines and Winemakers for Discussion

Tyler

Justin Willett of Tyler Winery presented two 2011 Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County with the goal of showcasing the distinctness between two appellations of the region, as well as to show what a cool vintage in California looks like. Both sites offered older vines from own rooted plantings.

His Sanford & Benedict Pinot, planted in 1971, offered the intense juiciness and core of strength signature of the Sta Rita Hills with light fruit spice and pepper integrated through raspberry bramble and fruit. The Bien Nacido Pinot, planted in 1973, showed restraint with still ample juiciness compared to the Sta Rita Hills, giving the focus on fruit known to the Santa Maria Valley. The wine offered raspberry and strawberry with hints of rhubarb and integrated fruit spice.

In discussing how he makes his picking decision, Willett explained that he is definitely looking at the juice, rather than just raw fruit. As he points out, in Santa Barbara County the focus is more often on letting the acidity soften, as it is naturally so high through that area, rather than looking more singularly at sugar levels.

Calera

Josh Jensen of Calera in Mt Harlan brought two 2013 barrel samples from the same vineyard picked at different times, as well as his intensely vibrant Versace jeans. (His pants were the ripest wine of the tasting.) As he explained, he likes to dip his toe in at harvest and pick some fruit earlier than he expects to pick in general just to see how its developed. With this in mind, he offered a barrel selection from his 2013 first pick, clarifying that he felt it showed flavors from jumping the gun too early.

The first sample, picked at 22.9 brix, had a nice acid to tannin balance and lots of length showing through flavors of strawberry and crushed green strawberry and strawberry leaf. The overt green notes Jensen felt showcased the idea of picking too early, though he also pointed out that in time such flavors do actually fade (though he implied this would happen over decades).

The second sample, picked at 24.2 brix, gave a strawberry perfume with herbal, red currant touches through the palate. When asked which the attendees preferred, the room overwhelmingly voted in favor of the second, with people also commenting the second wine seemed more complete.

In discussing his views on alcohol and age-ability in wine, Jensen emphasized that the question is still a work in progress. His belief is that higher alcohol levels likely do inhibit age-ability in wine. In considering how he determines picking times he admits they do look at the numbers but the decision is largely based in the flavors of the fruit.

LaRue

Katy Wilson of La Rue brought two different vintages of Pinot from the Rice-Spivak Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast in order to showcase vintage contrast, with the 2010 being a markedly cold year for the region, and 2012 comparatively more normal.

The 2012 Pinot offered peach perfume, with a raspberry-peach and peach skin palate moved through with red cherry and strawberry accents. There was a pleasant acid-tannin balance, and nice length. The 2010 carried a more red-pink focus with strawberry-cherry floral nose followed by a strawberry-cherry mouth with kirsch accents and a touch more pepper. The 2010 offered a stronger core of tension, a ton of juiciness and length.

In explaining her picking decisions, Wilson explained she is not picking based on ripeness and numbers as much as considering each vineyard in relation to the particular vintage and location. She states that she’s turned out to make different decisions each year but one that responds to the fruit showing in that year. For Wilson, the flavor development of the fruit turns out to be an important guide. She says she is looking to pick somewhere between strawberry and cherry in the flavor development of the grapes, but then she jokes that the most important part is getting on your grower’s picking calendar.

Copain

Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines offered two differing vintages of Pinot from the Kiser en Bas Vineyard in Anderson Valley. The 2010 gave raspberry and evergreen aromatics leading into a perfumed palate with dark edges and light fruit aspects of cherry and raspberry. Though none of the wines on the panel were overtly fruity, the Copain wines proved the most enigmatic of the selections also giving a bit more tannin, while still in good balance to acidity, than the other wines.

The 2007 Pinot showed a light cigarbox and cedar aromatic followed by good tension with dark edges and rubbed raspberry oil leaf with strawberry and raspberry backnotes on the palate moved through a long juicy finish.

Guthrie explained that when picking he likes to think of the grapes as fruit you’d be happy to eat. If you’re trying to pick too early you don’t want to eat the fruit — it’s too pert and firm — but at the moment of ripeness the grapes become something you want to bring home and eat. Past that point and the fruit has become shrunken.

***

To watch the full discussion: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/44749809

***

Thank you to Jamie Goode, Jordan Mackay, Josh Jensen, Wells Guthrie, Katy Wilson, and Justin Willett.

Thank you to Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

6

Continuing the Conversation with Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas, Jan 2014, standing in Dierberg Sta Rita Hills

Tyler Thomas, winemaker at Dierberg and Star Lane in Santa Barbara County, brings a strong foundation in plant physiology to all his decisions as winemaker. His background includes work in Botany with him doing what was essentially an extended Masters in the field, before then going to earn another Masters in Viticulture and Oenology. In moving into his work at Dierberg and Star Lane he has chosen to spend as much time as possible observing the vineyards themselves, and also to increase small lot vinifications from the sites. Both choices, for him, are a matter of getting to know the site more intimately.

Last week I posted a portion of a conversation I had with Tyler Thomas during my recent visit to Santa Barbara County. That section of conversation focused on the controversy around ripeness in relation to site expression, and the idea of how a winemaker can get to know a particular site. These are ideas I’ve been lucky enough to speak with Tyler about on multiple occasions. In the post last week, I chose to offer quotations from Tyler’s side of the conversation, rather than offer my interpretation of his ideas.

Gratefully, the comments on the post have continued the discussion even further, giving interesting consideration of the problems with pursuing a sense of terroir in the New World, as well as what it means to work with and get to know a site to then show in its wine. If you haven’t looked back at those comments, check them out on the original post here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/02/20/capturing-variability-as-capturing-opportunity-a-day-with-tyler-thomas-star-lane-dierberg/

Because of how the conversation has continued in the comments, and also my own experience in having these extended discussions with Tyler, I am choosing to post more from our conversation during my recent trip to Santa Barbara County. The following excerpts show more of Tyler’s views on the relevance of plant physiology, and how he thinks about getting to know a site.

Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas, Jan 2014, standing in Dierberg Sta Rita Hills

We’re driving to Dierberg Drum Canyon Vineyard in Sta Rita Hills. I’m asking Tyler about a conversation we’ve had before — how we can bring together scientific views of winemaking with the more transcendental views of winemaking. He responds, “When you have the opportunity to make good wine, having the opportunity doesn’t mean you will. It’s this idea we’ve talked about before that the person that can be most successful at winemaking is the one that can have a foot in both worlds, who can reach towards the ethereal, and yet also be tethered by a deep understanding of technique.”

I ask Tyler about how he is bringing his knowledge from previous winemaking experience forward into this newer position at Dierberg and Star Lane. “As a winemaker stepping into a new situation, I can lean on my understanding of how particular vineyards grow, and my understanding of the architecture of wine. In wine building, if you will, I can make decisions on what I think the mouthfeel should be like based on the standard varietal characteristics, and also my assumptions of what a site will be like. You can take over a place, and not have made any of the decisions about what varieties are there, and yet still make beautiful quality wine.

“In winemaking, it’s like wanting to have a vision for the wine, while also expressing the site. It’s like having a vision for your children doesn’t mean you box them in. You are trying to understand who they are, and help them be the best person they can be. In winemaking, you draw on your technical training, and that provides a baseline for being creative. Like being a painter, artists didn’t just do Cubism because they didn’t know what they were doing. They were pushing the boundaries of their training.

“I definitely leaned on my understanding of how a grape vine grows in moving here. You just go back to the basics. All of the training helps me make presumptions about what a wine is and how it tastes. It doesn’t mean you’re always right, but it give you a base line. Like, fermentation temperature, for example, it has a big impact on how a wine is going to taste. If I can get that right it simplifies the other variables.”

Dierberg Drum Canyon

looking over the top through Pinot vines at Dierberg Drum Canyon

We arrive at the Dierberg vineyard in the Drum Canyon portion of Sta Rita Hills. Drum Canyon branches off the Highway 246 stretch of the appellation, wrapping North in a notch pulled back from the highway. The vineyard climbs a slope side growing from the rolling flats at the bottom, all the way to the crest of the hill. Tyler and I drive to the top, stopping in a couple places along the way, and he describes to me his walking the vineyard to try and identify naturally differing sections within it in order to articulate appropriate vineyard blocks. He believes really knowing the vineyard will take years but he’s been able to recognize some elements already. The top of the slope (shown in the image above) is basically pure sand. The bottom flats are sandy loam. The mid-slope is mixed. The further up the slope, the more the vines are exposed to wind.

Tyler begins to describe how he approaches thinking through the Dierberg Drum Canyon property. “Knowing how to separate out the impact of the wind here versus that of the sand is difficult. It’s incredibly windy here to the point that if there is not a wind screen on every fifth row the shoots won’t grow more than a foot.

“I love plant physiology. Part of what I love about wine is that we’re tasting the result of a plant interacting with its environment. A plant can’t just run inside when it gets cold.

“We can think of wind as a form of touch. The shoots being so short are a result of wind impacting the plant’s physiology. So, if we can accept that, it isn’t a stretch to say it impacts the berry physiology too. How it might impact the fruit flavor is much harder but we do know that flavors are impacted by stress, so does the wind impact the flavor?

“Still, I don’t worry about the flavor so much as I tend to focus on how these factors impact vigor and how that connects to quality. In winemaking, my focus is not on flavor as much as on the architecture of the wine. When it comes to architecture and vine physiology, the journey the berry takes is more important than where the berry ends up.

“If you understand the science, basic plant physiology, you have a lot to work with. We’ve known this stuff — that we can manipulate vines for varying results — since the 1980s. In the vineyard you can simply change the ratio of leaf to grape, of source to sink. The leaf provides nutrients the leaf uses. I don’t care about tons per acre. What is the ton per vine that the plant can support? This is our whole idea of balance. Balanced pruning equals balanced vines. Balanced vineyards equal balanced wine. The more in tune with plant physiology you are, the more readily you can reinterpret your experiences with the vine.”

***

To read the previous post on Tyler: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/02/20/capturing-variability-as-capturing-opportunity-a-day-with-tyler-thomas-star-lane-dierberg/

To read guest posts from Tyler Thomas that consider his winemaking philosophy, and views of wine further:

A Winemaking Philosophy: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/29/a-winemaking-philosophy-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/28/the-humanness-of-winemaking-faith-hope-and-love-as-the-core-of-life-and-wine-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

***

Thank you to Tyler Thomas.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Tasting Sta Rita Hills with over 200-yrs of Winemaking Experience

On my recent visit to Sta Rita Hills, Greg Brewer and Chad Melville were kind enough to organize and host a round table with a few other winemakers of the appellation for me. As a result, I spent several hours tasting and talking with Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria, Bryan Babcock, as well as my hosts. Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi was also included, and unfortunately unable to attend at the last minute. She sent wines in her stead.

To say the occasion was a genuine honor for me would be an understatement. The figures sharing their wines represent the very founders of wine in Santa Barbara County both in terms of literal first plantings, as well in being the sculptors of its development and future since. It would be impossible for me to overstate the importance of this group’s presence in the region. To prepare to meet with them the thing it was most pressing for me to do was take a moment alone to calm the hell down. I was excited, and deeply grateful. Once there they were, of course, one of the warmest groups I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste with.

One of the special aspects of the tasting was that every person sharing their wine was also a grower-winemaker, making wines from Sta Rita Hills while growing their own vineyards, and having worked with many locations throughout the region. Such an approach offers unique insight into the qualities of a place.

Babcock Winery

Babcock WInesclick on image to enlarge

Bryan Babcock grows along the Highway 246 corridor of Sta Rita Hills, while also sourcing fruit from the appellation’s edge in the Southern Sweeney-to-Santa-Rosa-Road stretch. For the tasting he brought a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a band just inside the Southwestern AVA boundary where Radian Vineyard (within the Salsipuedes Vineyard) carves the slopes of the Western line. “I like tasting that expression of edginess as you venture to the Western edge [of the Sta Rita Hills],” Babcock explains. Radian Vineyard pushes as close to the Pacific Ocean, and its cooling influence, as the appellation allows. Fruit, then, grows at the boundaries of ripeness with Chardonnay not always developing enough to turn into wine. Wines from the region, as a result, carry the incredible tension and mineral focus of such an oceanic influence, while still offering the undulating flavors from so much solar radiation. Cooler climates that still show higher UV levels can ripen their grapes’ flavor while keeping the structure taut.

Babcock’s “The Limit” Chardonnay carries an intriguing interplay of elements with there being no question of flavor ripeness, and round lifted aromatics, on a wine showing a persistent palate presence without heaviness. There are also long mineral lines throughout that give the wine a sense of crunch and complexity. “The Limit” was also my favorite Chardonnay of the tasting.

As Babcock explains, he has a sort of prejudice for the Western Edge of Sta Rita when it comes to Pinot Noir, as he believes the extremity of the location gives its wines a marked sense of provenance — a windy, climactic extreme. Babcock’s “Appellation’s Edge” Pinot Noir shows off the red fruit and flower-black tea character that speaks of Sta Rita giving a juicy, jaw-pinching acidity to open followed by that pleasing drying black tea finish.

Longoria

Longoria Wineclick on image to enlarge

With his own vineyard planted along the Santa Ynez River on Sweeney Road, Rick Longoria has been making wine in the Sta Rita Hills since the 1970s, beginning his Longoria label in the early 1980s. He also sources fruit from other older vine locations in the appellation. In selecting wines for the tasting, Longoria brought an elevation Chardonnay from the famous Rita’s Crown location — a low vigor stretch at the top of the South-facing slope above Mt Caramel — as well as a Pinot Noir from his Fe Ciega Vineyard.

Rita’s Crown shows a different version of Babcock’s notion of appellation’s edge, not due to literal map boundaries, but instead growing conditions. The vineyard perches along the top ridgeline in what is otherwise the map-center of the AVA at an elevation between 650 and 900 ft, making it one of the highest plantings in the appellation. Longoria’s Chardonnay carries delicate sea fresh aromatics with cedar accents on nose and palate overlaying light toasted croissant, lemon blossom mid-palate, and a lemon marmalade finish. The wine shows that classic Sta Rita Hills character possible with a deft hand — strength of flavor with still a sense of delicacy.

Longoria’s Fe Ciega Pinot Noir came in as one of my favorites of the tasting showing an even more distinctive expression of wine with an intense strength housed in elegance. The wine still comes in taut as 2011 is right now young for the region, but is readying to open to nice flavor.

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

Alma Rosa Wineclick on image to enlarge

Richard Sanford has witnessed the full arc of Sta Rita Hills, planting the first vineyard in the area along with Michael Benedict, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. “From a regional perspective seeing a lot of younger winemakers dedicate themselves to the region is very cool. It’s an indication of a new wave of quality development,” he comments. In considering the strengths of Sta Rita Hills he emphasizes too that while the area is touted for its quality Pinot Noir, it was originally the quality of its Chardonnay that brought people to the area.

Sanford’s wine selections showcased a sense of refined delicacy with genuine presence that resembles his own calm character. His Alma Rosa El Jabali Vineyard grows near the Western edge of the appellation, planted by Sanford in the early 1980s. The Chardonnay gives a smooth mouthfeel moved through with delicately attenuated flavor into a long finish, coming after equally subtle aromatics.

Sanford’s Pinot Noir comes from his other Alma Rosa vineyard, La Encantada, which stands as one of the cooler sites in the region. The Pinot Noir hovers through layers of flavor offering light herbal aromatics moving into raspberry and blackberry bramble. The palate carries forward with a nice balance of juiciness-to-grip and a real sense of persistence and concentration.

Brewer-Clifton

Brewer Clifton Wineclick on image to enlarge

Together Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer began Brewer-Clifton in the mid-1990s, helping to preserve and improve the health of various vineyards around the appellation as a result. In the more recent trajectory of their venture, the duo have chosen to devote their efforts solely to vineyards they own or on which hold long-term lease. The difference affords them control over farming and clonal choices, as well as the opportunity for them to keep year-round employees. The economic sustainability of this approach is one of the impressive aspects of their business.

Brewer brought a Chardonnay from their own 3-D Vineyard, planted in 2007 by Brewer-Clifton to a mix of clones and California heritage selections. (In the Brewer-Clifton program as a whole, 2011 represents the last year of any purchased fruit, as with 2012 they were able to step entirely into relying only on their own vineyards.) The 3-D Chardonnay carries Brewer’s attention to letting a region’s assets speak through a sort of point-counterpoint interplay. With the ripe flavor readily given through California sun, Brewer keeps a structural tension on the wine to bring precision, and a nipped edge to the fruit. The wine comes in richly flavored, while simultaneously tight, opening finally to a softened feminine lushness.

The Machado Vineyard represents Brewer-Clifton’s devotion to stem inclusion. Planted by the pair in 2008, the clonal selection was chosen based on Brewer’s decades of experience experimenting with whole cluster on vineyards throughout the Sta Rita Hills. Thanks to his previous experience, they were able to plant Machado entirely to vines he has seen easily carry the benefits, without the overt challenges, of stems during fermentation. The Pinot shows of vibrant red and dark red character on a lean, mouth watering black tea palate with mixed floral, hints of citrus, and a touch of Italian herbs with lavender offered throughout.

Bonaccorsi Wine Company

Bonaccorsi Winesclick on image to enlarge

As we talked through the Bonaccorsi wines, the group celebrated founder Michael Bonaccorsi’s dedication to winemaking through the region. He was devoted to exploring the appellation, and learning quality winemaking alongside those that had established their knowledge of the area. After Mike’s death in 2004, his wife Jenne Lee has continued making the Bonaccorsi wines while exploring the wine potential of the region. Originally, the Bonaccorsi’s intent had been to make wine in the Russian River Valley, but after getting to know the wines of Santa Barbara County in the 1990s they recognized an intense quality potential to the lesser known region that compelled them to invest instead in the Sta Rita Hills.

Jenne Lee offered two vineyard select Pinot Noirs for the tasting. The Bentrock Vineyard rises from a rolling Northfacing bench on the Western side of the appellation, offering a cooler sun exposure to benefit the Pinot Noir. The wine carries intensely mineral focused strength and concentration that opens to red and black red fruit with roasted black tea notes throughout. The wine is powerful while accented by delicate juicy flavor and rose petal lift. Intriguing complexity.

The Fiddlesticks Vineyard, along Santa Rosa Road, shows off a more open presentation in comparison carrying red fruit and rose focus showing up in a mix of potpourri and fresh floral elements alongside raspberry leaf and black tea, with a mineral crunch through the finish.

***

Thank you most especially to Chad Melville, Greg Brewer, and Sao Anash for organizing the tasting.

Thank you very much to Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria, Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, and Bryan Babcock. It truly was my honor to have time with you and your wines.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

7

The Highway 246 Corridor, Sta Rita Hills

The Highway 246 corridor of Sta Rita Hills acts as a funnel pulling fog and cool air from the open mouth of the ocean into the length of the Santa Ynez Valley. It’s a unique spot for California. A place where the continent turns, creating uplifts of rock, and also the only East-West running valleys on the Western coast. The relevance of that occurs in differing diurnal and weather shift than the rest of the country, where fog must curl over the peaks of a mountain range to reach the inner valleys. Sta Rita Hills sits exposed.

The pivoted orientation coincides with geological variation as well, not just in the sideways valleys and mountain ranges, but in the rock and soil formations throughout. Sta Rita Hills itself stands unique for US AVAs, distinctly differing bands of soil side-by-side within a coherent climactic zone. While the Southern portion of the appellation brings together marine shale and diatomaceous earth, the Northern part, along the Highway corridor, couples ocean sands with clay, blending in tumbled rocks, and dashes of white calcium.

The Melville Vineyards and Winery

Chad Melville

Chad Melville recounting his family’s vineyard history

Melville Vineyards and Winery grows along the Highway corridor producing wine through an entirely Estate fruit program of 120 planted acres. The property unites three vineyards that together represent the variations of the corridor — vines reaching through gritty ocean sands in portions, then rising from more nutrient rich and water holding sections mixed with clay and pebble, finally too growing along the lift to, and top of a mesa.

The Melville project operates as a family enterprise. The family had been farming in Knight’s Valley near Calistoga when they found the opportunity to move to an about-to-be established Sta Rita Hills. The possibility afforded them the chance to create a fresh project, bringing with them the knowledge gained from previous experience, and access to a newer range of clonal material for California. In establishing what would become an Estate-only program, the family decided to plant a range of vines, bringing together California’s heritage selections with the new-for-then Dijon clones, establishing 16 clonal types across the property. The blend would afford greater range in the eventual winery.

From the Melville Vineyard and Wineries inception, Greg Brewer has served as winemaker for the project, working alongside the family to develop the Estate wines. Chad Melville, who along with his brother Brent planted large swaths of the vineyards by hand, and Greg Brewer met with me to tour through portions of the vineyard property, and then taste through the Estate Pinot Noir.

Stems and Oak: Talking with Greg Brewer and Chad Melville

Greg Brewer

Greg Brewer discussing his work with a cohesive vineyard and winery team

In working with Melville fruit, the team focuses on micro-fermentations designated by clone and block, allowing for greater awareness of site particularities, and a fine-tuned sense of blending potential. They also integrate stem inclusion throughout developing ferments with a range of percentages from no stems to all stems in order to secure a pleasing textural, structural balance in the final wine. As Brewer explains, stems give architectural security for a region that offers clear fruit. Melville tends to hover around a 1/3 stem percentage in their Estate Pinot, and over time has removed use of any new oak.

Asking Brewer about these choices in winemaking, he explains it in terms of priorities. “When we really commit to an Estate program, that brings the attention to how we make wine in the vineyard.” Brewer tells me. With all the fruit coming from its own vines, an Estate program has to rely on its own vineyard practices. There is no opportunity to supplement their fruit. Brewer continues, “To do that, it’s important to not commit to our own prejudices on how the wine is treated in the winery. Instead, the fruit should all be treated through an equal lens, to get an equal interpretation, to really show what the fruit is.”

Brewer explains that over time, they realized that use of new oak, even in small percentages, was covering over the fruit expression. So, they switched to only neutral oak. He is careful to point out, however, that their decision is not a dogmatic or political claim. “The question of oak is not a priority in our scheme,” he explains. “The Estate is a priority. The vineyard is a priority. Our decision about oak just comes from those.”

At the time Melville began, ideas of stem inclusion were less overtly discussed than they are today. With that in mind, I asked Brewer and Melville to discuss what led them to taking the approach, something that could have seemed a bold move in the mid-1990s. Brewer had worked with mentors already at the time that relied on stem inclusion in their Pinot Noir. In meeting with the family to develop the house winemaking approach he brought samples of wines ranging in stem use. It turned out that tasting blind they all preferred about one-third stem inclusion.

Melville nods then elaborates. “In this area we have more opportunity to get stems ripe because we have a longer growing season, more exposure to the elements, and well-draining soils. Our house philosophy really is ‘use what you have.'” He explains. In thinking through a wine, one can consider the idea of flavor, on the one hand, and its architecture on the other. Between flow expressions of tension, texture, and mouthfeel. Use of oak offers one possible way to create an architecture-flavoral link in a wine, generating oak-tannin structure but also oak flavor. If your goal, however, is to use what you have, apparent oak would show as something imported from the outside. Stems become a different way to generate a similar linkage but offering a different sense of structure, mouthfeel, texture, and flavor often more integrated into the fruit than oak.

Tasting with Greg Brewer and Chad Melville: Melville Estate Pinot

Melville Estate Pinot Tastingclick on image to enlarge

After touring portions of the vineyard, getting dirty digging in sand, then clay loam (god, I love dirt), we return to the winery and begin a tasting focused first on six components of the 2013 Melville Estate Pinot Noir, then on three vintages of the Estate Pinot — 2012, 2008, 2004.

The first flight separates wine by clonal material, and vineyard location. The stem percentage stays the same across at one-third. The soil and clone changes. The common factor turns out to be a sense of bright redness, the wines hum at a higher register, hitting the soft palate with lifted red fruit. As we move from more clay (in Logan’s block) to more sand (in Anna’s and Sandy’s), however, the wines also become more structural, more taut.

The second flight keeps the vineyard site — atop the mesa in a sandy-clay loam with rocks — and clonal material — clone 114 — constant, while the stem inclusion changes moving from de-stemmed, to one-third, to 100% percent. The wines each contain clear architecture, but where the destemmed fruit carries a lightly syrup belly, the wines with stems offer more movement, filling the mouth with flavor while simultaneously cleansing the palate. Unexpectedly, the destemmed fruit feels darkest in the mouth, with the wine becoming progressively brighter the greater the stem percentage. The final wine, with all stems included, integrates flavors, architecture, and tension so thoroughly my mouth feels simultaneously desirous and confused. I want to drink it. I have little ability to describe it.

Finally, we taste through three vintages of the Estate, each separated by four years of age — the 2012, 2008, and 2004. The exercise has worked. Unsurprisingly, the components can be recognized as echos through the Estate bottles, along with other elements not tasted through the samples. The contrast shows off the skill of wise blending, while also the necessity of developing a balanced Estate. Where the components offered focused moments of energy and interest, the Estate pours as expressive, dynamic, complete.

The 2012 comes in sea fresh, with clean and lifted aromatics of red cherry and pure fruit, followed by black tea, and a nip of dry (not sweet) caramel in the mouth. It rolls through with a calm, comfortable tone carrying notes of roasted rice tea, and pepper integrated through cherry and berry followed by orange peel and darker fruit accents.

The 2008 drinks almost trembling on the palate, a kind of expressive delicacy with persistence to the wine. The flavors are clean, aromatic, there are accents of fermented cherry through the fruit, and accents of mandarin peel with a long savory, and black tea line.

The wines age easily, the 2004 still so vibrant and young in its energy it could readily age for years. It is my favorite of the three showing the most obvious mineral edge, along with dried plum blossom, dried lemon peel, and a blend of colored fruits–plum, blue, purple, and red berry–centered around a red cherry core that hums savory throughout.

***

Thank you to Greg Brewer and Chad Melville.

Thank you to Sao Anash.

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