8 Days-plus in Santa Barbara County

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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