Continuing our series on Santa Barbara County Wines, from Part I: The Overview.
It’s a sign of maturity for a wine region to really carve out its personality based on a diverse spectrum of vineyards in differing climates and winemakers focused on terroir, rather than being style-driven. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are no question the regional varietal heavyweights, almost always in a winery’s repertoire. But even if Burgundy is the inspiration point for most wineries, there is no one size fits all “Santa Barbara-style” for those grapes or other varietals. Frankly, Santa Barbara County resembles California minus Napa in a nutshell: everyone except Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel is welcome.
A Tribute to Grace
Grenache definitely is not what comes to mind at first when thinking about the California coast. Instead, the drier, windswept Sierra Foothills and Paso Robles are the locales that provide the grape with a more warm embrace. Grenache grapes still prefer those areas. However, the focal point for Grenache has moved towards Santa Barbara County thanks in large part to the New Zealand native Angela Osborne’s unwavering support for Grenache since her arrival to California in 2006.
Osborne’s 100% Grenache label A Tribute to Grace is an unwavering exploration of the variety. Consider it a quest to uncover Grenache’s hidden riddles. The wines are startling and gorgeous. And Osborne looks all over the state to uncover the mystery that is Grenache in the New World.
An idyllic setting that screams haute wine country lifestyle greets you at Andrew Murray Winery after the winding drive on Foxen Canyon from Los Olivos. Every one of the dozen tight twists on the road reminds visitors of how beautiful the rolling straw-colored California countryside can be. Sans tasting room, Osborne’s wine-making operation is part of what formerly was the historic Curtis Winery, located in the rear of the Andrew Murray Winery complex. Osborne’s domain looks like a barrel room because, well, it is.
The cheese pairings will have to be elsewhere. What’s in those barrels is what matters. And you’ll find wines that are changing the perception of Grenache’s potential. There is something mystical, something truly magnificent amidst the room’s aura—both from the wines and Osborne’s honoring of her grandmother Grace, and the attribute of grace, she found in her grandmother.
Vino247 Co-Founder and Editorial Director Justin Berlin joined Osborne and I last summer for a tasting during a break from the 2014 Wine Bloggers’ Conference being held in Buellton. Let’s just say no conference session was remotely as enlightening as learning about this label.
2012 was Osborne’s first full-time vintage with A Tribute to Grace after working for other California wineries and retail at a wine shop, where her eyes were opened to Grenache’s neglected potential. The 2012 bottling proved to be an exercise in the myriad shades of a grape and California climates, riveting in its diversity, where each vineyard really leaped out on its own and has had enough time to find its character.
In barrel, the 2013’s are less tightly wound, yet already bursting with ripe fruit and detailed personalities that reflect their home terroir. Really, you can get a tour of the state’s differing climates just by these wines. For both vintages the Santa Barbara Highlands proved most riveting with strong red currant and curry spice on the nose giving way to a mix of meat charcuterie and strawberries dipped in cream on the palate for a harmonious sweet to savory contrast.
The Santa Barbara County examples were on the opposite end of the intensity spectrum as a light, deft red fruit-powered expression. 2012’s bottling sports a beautiful velvet mouth-feel and hints of mint, raspberry and wild strawberry. It’s a three vineyard blend modeled after the Château Fonsalette’s Grenache, sister of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s legendary Chateau Rayas.
The three vineyards vary in climates from warm Happy Canyon to the Highland’s higher elevation to the almost Pacific Northwest-like moisture and cool air at Foxen Canyon. Talk about a daring blend that is deftly pulled off.
After red fruit bursting forwards from the first two wines, I enjoyed the acidity lingering in the 2012 Santa Cruz with notes of lemon and chamomile tea. The same jolt perked me up with the heartier, rugged Shake Ridge Ranch from Sutter Creek in the Sierra Foothills Gold Country. It immediately transported me to the spruce forests, sun drenched days, and chilly nights of the area.
Not to be outdone was the Rosé of Grenache from the Santa Barbara Highlands, a bright, layered example of a dark salmon-colored Rosé with strong strawberry and mahogany personality. Surely I would love to see Osborne’s gift tackle themes beyond Grenache and Rosé of Grenache but when you’ve got something special going, there is no need to look beyond diversifying vineyards.
A Tribute to Grace is a rarity in this modern era of expanded portfolios looking to hit all the grape and style categories. When Grenache supplants Pinot Noir as the “it” grape of the state (Cabernet Sauvignon will always be the moneymaker of Napa but doesn’t have the “hip” factor going on), we’ll know where the momentum commenced. Right in this tiny space in the back of the old Curtis winery.
Liquid Farm and Dragonette Cellars
While A Tribute to Grace elevates one of California’s most planted but lesser known grapes, Liquid Farm champions Chardonnay. California and Chardonnay—you should be yawning already, right? Wake up. This isn’t your traditional buttery California Chardonnay that takes the wax off your teeth. This is back to the Old World Chardonnay that breathes fresh air and pure fruit that is tangy, even tropical.
Poor Chardonnay became the buttered-up, overly oaky bore that led it to being the most polarizing grape anywhere. Now its chains are breaking free. Jeff and Nikki Nelson first made Chardonnay with Dragonette Cellars’ Brandon Sparks-Gillis after meeting at Los Angeles’ wine shop center of the universe, Wally’s, and used a shared working winery in Lompoc to make the wines.
They have moved to a local shared wine-making venue, the Buellton Bodegas Co-op with former Dragonette assistant winemaker James Sparks assuming lead winemaker responsibility. Liquid Farm boasts three Chardonnays from the Santa Rita Hills, plus a new bottling “Bien Bien” from Bien Nacido Vineyard and “La Hermana,” from the Santa Maria Valley well to the north. There is also a lovely, right on point Rosé of Mourvèdre that is indeed Chardonnay-free.
The Golden Slope Chardonnay is delicate, offering touches of papaya and honey with distinct maritime essence, while White Hill veers towards the mineral-tart profile with dried fig and green tea accents. Liquid Farm’s slugger is the FOUR, one of the state’s premier Chardonnays today. It is a more savory expression with dry herbs, lemongrass and a muscular body. We should also point out that Liquid Farm’s beet root flower design and Gavin Chanin’s work (more on him later) are co-leaders in the unofficial best label design contest.
Over at Dragonette Cellars, Chardonnay gets the pass in favor of truly top flight Rosé (ah, so this is why Liquid Farm’s Rosé debuted so strongly!) and some of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc. The 2011 Vogelzang Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon is particularly alluring, being slick, full-bodied and an exceptional mix of mineral and passion fruit tropical notes. For Santa Barbara County’s beloved grape, both the Santa Rita Hills vineyard blend and Duvarita Vineyard Pinot Noirs hold their own amidst possibly the best roster of Sauvignon Blanc on the Central Coast.
Straight out of the movies (literally Sideways but fitting for a John Wayne western, too), Los Olivos is the adorable one street, four block main downtown that viewers see plenty of in Sideways and is full of quaint, often packed tasting rooms. Thankfully most of them recognize visitors don’t want to face the constant “Join the wine club! Join the wine club!” corporate slog too often found elsewhere, so hospitality is mostly pleasant—what a treat.
Dragonette’s tasting room is a must-visit just off the main drag and there are more than enough important wineries to fill a day without stepping off Grand Avenue. Tercero’s wines reflect owner Larry Schaffer bubbly personality with sharp, nuanced Rhône-style wines like a smooth Grenache Blanc with a fun acidic kick, a textbook flinty Roussanne and the Grenache-centric blend, Verbiage, where a 2010 bottling has certainly found its sweet spot.
Saarloos + Sons gets visitors for its free cupcakes but the wines are nothing like Cupcake, the winery. Sauvignon Blanc is a winner and the winery dabbles in a wide range of varieties. Most sought after is the AM/FM with Matthew Kaner, proprietor of Los Angeles best wine bar, Covell.
On Grand Avenue, one of the most common stops is Rick Longoria’s tasting room. Visitors can sample his excellent Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and distinct work with Italian and Spanish varietals here or at the winery in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.
The landmark name on Grand Avenue is certainly Qupé, Bob Lindquist’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir focused winery that extends well beyond just those two grapes. For this author, his fondness towards the label all started with a Qupé Chardonnay several years ago.
While dining at New York’s acclaimed restaurant Jean-Georges, I opted for a Finger Lakes Riesling in honor of being in New York. Everyone else ordered glasses of Qupé’s Chardonnay for the opening courses. The Chardonnay was gorgeous and the Riesling just fell flat against the robust cuisine. It wasn’t fair. I felt completely left out of the party.
A recent tasting in Los Olivos started with a refreshing Grenache based Rosé from the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in the Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo (half way between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles). A handful of reds faltered a little more at the tasting than I would like to see. A 2011 Syrah also hailed from the Edna Valley and struck me as too calm and thin, only picking up a little bit of zest and pepper. The same issue plagued the 2010 Syrah, just being too plain and one dimensional—a shocker for a Bien Nacido Vineyard wine. The 2010 Ethan Sangiovese proved a bit raw and too young, perhaps needing some cellar time to develop helpful tannins and body to bring out the fruit’s potential.
Luckily, several other red wines clicked, led by the 2008 X Block rocking the room with a tremendous spark and multiple layers towards a graceful finish dotted with spicy red pepper. The 2009 Hillside Bien Nacido Syrah was a classic, as lush and pillowy a texture you will find with a racy character full of mango and cardamom.
Another wine to note for drinking now and a decade from now was the 2011 Grenache that is forceful yet fresh, an energetic wine that envelops with cracked pepper and green tea. For whites, Qupé’s slightly aged 2010 Chardonnay is in its prime boasting a classic medium oak profile that has enough white fruit flesh to give it levity. Roussanne gets equal billing full of bright acidity and wet stone, with not a single fruit note around.
Qupé is part of former venture capitalist Charles Banks’ Terroir Selections global portfolio, with acclaimed labels such as Sonoma’s Wind Gap, Napa’s Mayacamas and Leviathan, and New Zealand’s Trinity Hill. The power trio of Banks, winemaker Sashi Moorman and venerable sommelier Raj Parr’s (of the Michael Mina Group) also is behind a triumphant Chardonnay label like Qupé, Sandhi.
Sandhi and its peers in the portfolio have a home at The Watering Hole (not actually on Grand but close enough). Strangely, wines aren’t available for tasting— only by the glass from machines. That needs to change. Sandhi’s Chardonnays brim with superb balance and specks of minerality. Even the venerable San Francisco restaurant Zuni Café has recognized the strength of this Chardonnay and made the 2009 Santa Barbara County blend their house Chardonnay. Indeed that wine is the perfect companion to the legendary Caesar salad.
Sandhi’s Santa Barbara County Chardonnay very much follows Liquid Farm’s lead with balanced fruit and light oak that isn’t in the least sharp or buttery. If exploring California Chardonnay, Sandhi’s Rita’s Crown is particularly regal with gorgeous structure and a thrilling fruit-forward personality as breezy as the California coastline the vineyard overlooks from 500 feet high. Sandhi has grown and grown since this author named the Rita’s Crown as the wine of year for the debut 2010 vintage when he wrote a personal blog, Trev’s Bistro.
Sandhi currently has a Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay and bottlings from Sanford & Benedict (there it is again!), Mt. Carmel which looks right at its neighbor Sanford & Benedict, and Bentrock, a new vineyard in the southern part of Santa Rita Hills. Why not collect them all? The Sandhi Pinot Noirs are generally excellent as well but it’s hard to get past the Chardonnays. Paar and Moorman’s Pinot Noir work is better shown with their other two Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir-exclusive labels, Domaine de la Côte and the more value minded Lompoc Wine Company.