Concluding our series on Santa Barbara County Wines with Part III:
Santa Ynez and Buellton Wines
Carr Winery makes its wines in Santa Barbara and has a tasting room at that urban location and also one at its barrel warehouse in the town of Santa Ynez. Despite a somewhat chilly reception at the Santa Ynez tasting room, the idyllic Carr 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is certainly worth a trip on its own with none of the grassy tartness frequently associated with the grape. This is one of the best expressions of the grape along with Dragonette and a few mentioned below. I found the bottling to be a captivating force, full bodied and creamy with a texture of peach fuzz and notes of honeysuckle and sweet citrus. Sweeter and lighter, the 2013 Pinot Grigio is pleasant with orange peel and applesauce.
Then came a fun contrast in 2012 Pinot Noirs. The warm climate Bien Nacido hits with spice on the nose then a smooth body boasting a macadamia nut and ripe figs profile. The cold climate Turner Vineyard is a darker, bigger example, strong but not harsh of mushroom, dried herbs. After starting with a slow note, it amps up quickly then subsides to a pleasant close. From the Camp Four Vineyard, Carr’s 2011 Cabernet Franc is a tango of a wine, reminding me of chipotle salsa on the nose, bacon and dried peppers on the palate that is thinner and less jammy than many of its counterparts. A new California perspective on the variety? We’ll see. Every Carr bottling is a single variety except for the red and white “CrossHatch” blends.
Cold Heaven Cellars
Across the Santa Ynez Valley in Buellton right by 101 is Cold Heaven Cellars’ tasting room and winemaking facility. While regional peers Liquid Farm and A Tribute to Grace hone in on specific grapes, Morgan Clendenen (former wife of Jim Clendenen, the legendary founder of Au Bon Climat)’s Cold Heaven is focused on a climate theme. Yes, that would be cold climate vineyards.
That means Viognier from the famed Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, better known for Chardonnay. Chardonnay be damned, the Viognier from 2011 was sterling, full of ginger and clove crowning pineapple and hibiscus in as riveting and full-bodied Viognier I’ve found anywhere on the West Coast. Nearly as strong was the 2012 Le Bon Climat Viognier that veered lighter and refreshing with flint and tropical fruit and a more pale hue compared to Sanford and Benedict’s handsome gold appearance.
Cold Heaven also presents an extensive exercise in Pinot Noir with a quartet of the variety. Best was the secretive 2010 Nevertell that happened to be the darkest, heaviest and most provocative with excellent calm tannins, sage and smoke on the nose then an exceptional, long finish with medjool dates and bing cherry. This is it’s own breed of Pinot Noir—not Burgundy, not Oregon. It is a prime time, gallant wine, so don’t tell about the 15.5 % AbV. Fortunately, there is none of the heat associated with the figure. I couldn’t believe it when tasting. It was easily the highest AbV I encountered at any winery, especially since many of the Pinot Noirs surprised me by clocking in below the typical 14% AbV.
A good comparison to the Nevertell is the 2010 Queenscup Pinot Noir, as more flexible and lighter with a near blush Rosé hue, starting savory before ending with strawberry notes. The 2010 Makepeace Pinot Noir couldn’t hold up to these others but still showed pleasing elements of oak, smoke and stone fruit in a focused, chewy body. Last to mention is the 2011 Mutchmore Pinot Noir, the newest and cheapest with a ripe healthy body and exceedingly light body that is easy drinking until encountering winter spice and candied violet. None of these are like another—fascinating contrasts all around. The 2010 Second Sin Syrah also convinced with a good texture that finishes smooth with more of an herbal edge than the expected barbeque profile.
Cold Heaven Cellars is a fun place, with production in back (one Saturday night during my visit an industry party happened to be held there). It just might be the most underrated winery in the region, that very few people mention, mainly because Viognier often gets the (ahem) cold shoulder. Luckily the chilly theme doesn’t extend to the tasting room or over-refrigerated wines.
Loring Wine Company
Similar to Carr, another chilly reception didn’t open things on the right note at Loring, one of the area’s most frequent award winners for Pinot Noir. I found it to be the most underwhelming performer both in the glass and overall tasting experience visiting across the County.
One of this author’s pet peeves is indifferent staff who just want you to sign up for wine clubs and pour wine with the intent of getting you in and out rapidly as if they are whiskey shots — especially when it’s not closing time yet. Still, Loring can make some beautiful wines, all of which are made in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.
The year-old tasting room is near Hitching Post II in Buellton and the grapes come from all over the state. Loring’s Sonoma Coast Parmalee Vineyard Chardonnay and the 2011 Russell Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles were pleasant, if unexciting. The Pinot Noirs ranged from a fruit-heavy Central Coast Pinot Noir with way more depth than the typical blend to Rosella’s Vineyard from Santa Lucia Highland that provides equal depth with a fun sweetness to the finish. The stand-out was the 2012 Reefer Ranch from Green Valley of Russian River that is a classic Burgundy style, much more on the chewy, savory end of the spectrum than fruit and earth. It has a wonderful touch to it that seems almost delicate.
Lompoc and the Lompoc Wine Ghetto
Towards the coast in a city best known for flowers, the Lompoc Wine Ghetto is an industrial warehouse area full of tasting rooms and winemaking operations. Vine growing? Not so much in the asphalt here.
Jalama is one tasting room in the Ghetto to get you in the dancing wine mood with grapes all across the board poured under a disco ball. Yes, it’s a groovy wine tasting party. Mark Cargasacchi hails from one of the region’s most esteemed industry families and for Jalama uses some truly legendary vineyards.
The wines show character like the tasting room, especially the estate grown ‘Carg’ Pinot Noir from the Cargasacchi Vineyard atop Santa Rita Hills. A Santa Ynez Valley Grenache proved aromatic and full, while the eyebrow-raising 2009 El Capitan blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon is striking with focused wood, tart raspberry and slick tannins. Also pay attention the 2009 Syrah from La Presa Vineyard and the beautiful, floral Clementa Sauvignon Blanc- Riesling blend.
Elsewhere in the Wine Ghetto, Flying Goat’s Pinot Gris wasn’t tense enough for me during a tasting at the conference but always is on visitors’ itineraries with the aforementioned Longoria. Other key Ghetto wineries include Tyler (more on them below), Joseph Blair and Fiddlehead Cellars.
Then just a few blocks away from the Wine Ghetto is Brewer Clifton. The winery was a trailblazer when Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer joined together on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir over a decade ago. Clifton was a surfer and rock singer. Brewer was a French professor. And the rest is wine history.
They are still on top of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir game. And now volume is nearly 10,000 cases strong and the label is 70% owned by a group of investors led by master sommelier Ken Fredrickson and partner in Tenzing Wine & Spirits.
The regular 2011 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay is a precise, calm expression with a little tang and the 2011 Mt. Carmel Vineyard Chardonnay is a much more rounded, herb-accented fruit offering. My favorite of the Chardonnay without question is the 2012 3D Chardonnay with green apple, eucalyptus, and a thoroughly flexible body, almost like a Grüner Veltliner.
Yet it was the Pinot Noirs that left the lingering impact on me. The 2012 Santa Rita Hills is bright and focused, while the 2011 Sweeney Canyon has a beautiful personality of strawberry, redwoods dotted with mist and sage brush—a shade covered California forest bottled up.
Still in Lompoc but well east of the main part of town, Brewer makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah for Melville Vineyards & Winery, right next door to the well known Babcock Winery & Vineyards.
Steve Clifton’s Palmina
Back in the Wine Ghetto, Steve Clifton channels his family past and love of Italian varieties with his personal label, Palmina. Most grapes are obscure in California and slowly being discovered by winemakers and drinkers.
A sampling was led by an exemplary 2012 Arneis meticulously balancing a mineral-forward palate with a secondary flood of white fruit. The 2013 “Botasea” Rosato di Palmina is all you hope for in a creamy, raspberry-edged summer meal opener. It’s an intriguing Dolcetto-dominated blend at 50% then 25% each of Nebbiolo and Barbera.
Palmina’s Arneis from the Santa Ynez Valley’s Honea Vineyard is alluring with a salty edge, slick minerality and a bright burst of apple. I can’t think of a better pairing than the recommended pesto. What a natural pairing Arneis and basil are. Traminer, Tocai Friulano and Malvasia Bianca are three other varieties to keep an eye on from Palmina.
On the red side, Barbera and Dolcetto evoke their Old World peers with excellent spice and the Barbera showing good streaks of sweetness and berry jam while the 2012 Dolcetto remains faithful to being a casual wine that is refreshing with good depth and an earthy personality. It would be a perfect Margherita pizza companion.
Just north of Lompoc and to the west of Los Alamos (the aforementioned little town with Bell Street Farms), Graham Tatomer turned “California Riesling” into a respectable phrase a few years ago with his Vandenberg bottling from multiple sites and the particularly gorgeous Kick-On Ranch Vineyard Riesling with a little skin contact and aged in neutral wood. They achieve a slick body and dry-sugar balance that seems effortless and yet is so rare to find.
Both his Paragon and Meeresboden Grûner Veltliners show excellent saline influence with minerality and tart fruit like kiwi and blueberry—Grüners that would be right at home in the Wachau Valley. Then again, Tatomer and his namesake label is California’s German and Austrian grape and style whisperer, having worked (and continuing to do projects) with Austria’s celebrated Weingut Knoll. What Angela Osborne is doing for Grenache, Tatomer is accomplishing with these German and Austrian varietals.
Gavin Chanin’s namesake label returns back to the two iconic grapes of the region. His Chardonnay shows a particularly gentle hand and an array of vineyards show differing fruit and stone in Pinot Noir. The Los Alamos Vineyard is a highlight example with long tannins and a significant spice presence on the ripe fruit palate. It’s definitely a Pinot Noir that can really age. Alcohol levels are also nicely in check, always below 14%.
Chanin doesn’t have a tasting room but really try to seek out a bottle for the wonderful wines and their paintings on the label by Chanin. He graduated from UCLA with an Art major. Those painting skills are clear with the designs and the artistic wine-making performance in the bottles starting nose to finish. His touch with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also highlighted with his wine-making work for Lutum Wines.
Sauvignon Blanc and Lieu Dit
Sauvignon Blanc is more than relevant thanks to the cool winds many of the local vineyards receive. Brander is the best known around the County and proved to be a big winner at the conference.
Not to be out done, four year old, 2000 cases strong Lieu Dit from good friends Eric Railsback (Railsback previously served as a sommelier at the Burgundy-centric RN74 in San Francisco, under the direction of Raj Parr from the previously mentioned Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte, Lompoc Wine Co.) and Justin Willett (see his two other jobs below) is one of California’s boutique darlings with that mineral-forward Sauvignon Blanc style that seemed all but lost and now is found again.
Lieu Dit’s bottling is pure Sancerre with the stone and melon notes attributed with the region somehow captured. There is almost zero tartness. Fellow Loire Valley varieties are superb Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. They also happen to make the rare Melon and do dabble with Burgundy via a pristine, earthy-edged Pinot Noir.
Beckmen is another winery to know for Sauvignon Blanc. After a few sips at the beautiful tasting room on a pond, the Sauvignon Blanc struck me as the closest thing I’ve tasted to Maui’s pineapple wines (I mean that in a good way, trust me).
Lieu Dit’s Justin Willett also channels Burgundy at the ten year old Tyler Winery with 2500 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from all over the county. Willett is also behind the Northern Rhône varietals-themed Vallin, joined for the exciting new project by Dustin Wilson of New York’s esteemed Eleven Madison Park and Brian McClintic of Santa Barbara’s Les Marchands Wine Bar. Perhaps a Bordeaux concept followed by a Jura one are in the cards for Willett? We’ll see.
Au Bon Climat
Au Bon Climat was one of the originals to put Santa Barbara County on the map when Jim Clendenen started working with vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley in the 1970’s. Now tasters don’t have to leave Santa Barbara itself and can head to the bar in what seems like a luxury library in a Newport, Rhode Island “cottage.” Sips were mixed in quality.
The 1999 Acronicus didn’t age gracefully with little strength or character to its Bordeaux blend; a third each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. A 2008 Petit Verdot on the contrary was tense with a cacao nib edge. Drink it now. A 2005 Nebbiolo would be a crowd pleaser with some alcohol heat and grease at first then fading into a peppery finish that cries for pizza as a partner. For a crisp, ripe fruit apéritif with a chalky backbone, the 2012 Pinot Grigio-Pinot Blanc would be right on the mark. Thrilling? Hardly, but just what you want at sunset in Santa Barbara.
But Au Bon Climat speaks most eloquently of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, ranging at all ends of the price spectrum. The regular entry Chardonnay is a faithful classic with plenty of cream and honeydew but not so oaky the palate gets heavy. More excitement stirs the proceedings with the 2011 Los Alamos Chardonnay that starts raw with tart berry and melted butter before closing sharply with rosemary and apple.
The best Chardonnay expression was the 2012 Pip named for an Australian shepherd, with a little oak and touches of banana and honey, hinting strongly of the elegant, no fuss Liquid Farm-school. The Pip was bottled with the “Clendenen Family Vineyards” label, the small lot wines from Clendenen that spend more time in barrel.
Jim Clendenin really has the steady hand with Pinot Noir, proven by the fact that of all the County’s wineries, Au Bon Climat’s Pinot Noir is the most abundant on wine lists around California and major markets nationwide. The Pinot Noirs are led by one you won’t find easily, the Isabelle Super Cuvée from 2011, specifically barrel selected showing gorgeous harmony between sweet strawberry and new oak.
As a calm, standard bearer, the 2012 Sanford & Benedict presented a smooth, free-flowing fruit-forward example kissed with jasmine and Douglas fir. Reaching back in time, the 2010 Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir commenced with a nose of rhubarb and spruce, immediately striking as the dark, foresty Oregon-style before finishing with a light body and gentle energy that would greatly benefit from a slight chill.
While the Sanford & Benedict spoke very much of the lean and savory typical California style, the Los Alamos made me think of the neighbor to the north curiously. The 2008 Le Bon Climat Vineyard, in the middle of the Pinot Noir strength spectrum, mostly pleased with blackberry and allspice towards a tart somewhat unfinished close.
Au Bon Climat is the most prominent tasting room in the heart of Downtown Santa Barbara. Yet the real action recently has been taking place on the waterfront—both for wine and overall eclectic culture. The Funk Zone opened three years ago bringing together everything from offices and pilates studios to restaurants, artist studios, and yes, wineries.
The Funk Zone
Pali Wine Co. started in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto and now has a tasting room in the complex. Municipal Winemakers pours excellent dry Riesling (“Bright White”) and Grenache-Cinsault-Counoise ‘Pale Pink.’ Kunin, Oreana, Riverbench, and Santa Barbara Winery also pour their wines in the Funk Zone.
Not that any excuse is needed to visit Santa Barbara’s beaches for an afternoon catching waves or admiring the stunning sunsets but the Funk Zone’s wine riches add just another reason to head towards the water. Don’t forget lunch at Penny and dinner at Lark as mentioned in Part I of this series. Really, isn’t a glass of Pali’s Huber Vineyard Chardonnay and the orange-violet hues of the sun heading into the Pacific about as la dolce vita as it gets? Oh, California.
Rounding Out the Tour
Other winners at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference that brought many of us wine writers to our feet included opening dinner joy at restaurant Hitching Post II with their own label, the rugged yet refined 2001 Hartly Ostini Hitching Post Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, grown north in the Santa Maria Valley that is just a natural with steak (especially the cuts served by Hitching Post).
A grand conference dinner at Buttonwood Farms in Ballard showed not only do they make terrific fruit jams but the wines generally are terrific too. The 2013 Syrah is a strong effort and the 2009 Trevin is a forceful, beautifully balanced Bordeaux blend (the Merlot bottling on its own wouldn’t convince the “Sideways” characters of the grape’s merits).
At a tasting of dozens of wines, Lincourt grabbed my attention. Their 2011 Pinot Noir and 2010 Chardonnay are gentle but hardly soft, the latter with the right touch of new oak. These were classic expressions perfected.
I was also enamored with the 2011 L’Avion, a 100% Roussanne from Stolpman, one of the over two decade old warriors in the county and another Lompoc Wine Ghetto label. On the red side, I tasted excellent Syrah and Sangiovese too from Stolpman, echoing the equally strong Italian varietals work from Lompoc neighbor, Palmina. We could go on about the great work, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and far more.
The Old Guard and New
Over several trips I haven’t even managed to sample some of the biggest names like Ken Brown and Sanford (note that Richard Sanford is no longer affiliated with Sanford. The winemaker is Steve Fennel and the Terlato family is the owner. They also own labels like Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hills).
One sip at a conference event of Alma Rosa’s Chardonnay, from the legend himself Richard Sanford who 40 years ago arrived in the Santa Ynez Valley and now makes Alma Rosa’s wines, proved that the old guard still can make truly special wine. It was lush with a lemon yogurt consistency, bright flowers, and a close of acidity (the Alma Rosa website cites “differences in business philosophy” as to why Sanford left Sanford and started Alma Rosa in 2005).
The only longtime veterans that we tasted and found quality wavering were Byron and Cambria, showing strength in vineyard designated wines but their bottom tier offerings were flawed in tastings.
Then inspired by the old guard there is the new guard in Sideways territory, with winemakers like Angela Osborne and Graham Tatomer who don’t feel the need to beat the “Merlot is Overrated” drum or follow the informal requirement of specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Blaufränkisch, Syrah and Grüner Veltliner are the grapes employed by the three year old Solminer—a winery created by husband and wife and business pair David and Anna deLaski. David previously was a self-described taste-maker, except for electronic music in LA, not wine. Anna is an Austri native who worked as a consultant for companies on forestry rules and sustainability practices in Calgary before moving to LA and meeting David.
And so you have Solminer with their beautiful 2013 Grüner Veltliner from Santa Ynez Valley, a 2014 Dry Riesling from Kick-On Ranch, and the elegant 2013 Rubellite at 95% Syrah with a dash of Grenache. Plus the 2013 Linus Rosé named for the couple’s son, sprouts with rose petals and strawberry meringue, what I might consider the unofficial wine of the constant California sunshine.
Sure, Santa Barbara County may be synonymous with an Oscar-nominated film that shows the good life and good wines of the region. But there’s no need to watch the film to discover that. Sip some of its wines and there is no question that Santa Barbara County is now a premier wine region of not just California but the entire wine growing world.