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Road ruminations

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Just back from my semi-annual trip to Santa Barbara County, where I tasted through a boatload of new Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs, various Santa Maria Valley wines, and Santa Barbara County Syrahs, in 3 different flights stretched across 3 days.

For a writer, hitting the road is a mixed blessing. It’s a pleasure to get away from the craziness of the city to the quiet, rural pleasures of wine country. Wine regions are always gorgeous, with their hills and dales, rivers and rolling vineyards, and in the case of Santa Barbara County, the pleasure is double because the tourist infrastructure of the North Coast is largely missing. Or hasn’t yet metastisized. During this trip, some of the locals, particularly the Santa Marians, solicited my advice as to how they could draw more attention to their valley, which is a fantastic source of wine, but is largely unknown to the public. You may be hearing more about this. There’s talk of establishing a symposium to celebrate Chardonnay, which is a great idea: It’s the country’s top white wine, but has no big public venue, unlike various “celebrations” of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.

But hitting the road isn’t pure pleasure. It’s hard work. I suppose another wine writer could eat and loaf his way through, spending a few hours at a winery, then relaxing in the hotel jacuzzi for the rest of the day before hitting the bar at happy hour. Not me. My Calvinist work ethic makes me feel guilty for wasting a minute, so I was tasting from early in the morning until nighttime. Tasting can be hard work, particularly in a 48-degree cellar freezing your butt off and wishing you’d remembered the gloves. I actually “hit the wall” after about 200 wines. At my final stop, they’d opened another 40 bottles for me to taste with the winemaker, but I suddenly realized I had nothing left. The tasting machine was out of gas. The palate needed some down time. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. It happens, and you don’t want to fake it, because your brain is in no shape to properly evaluate the wines. I explained my dilemma; the winemaker thoroughly understood. Winemakers taste a lot, too. There’s a lot of empathy between winemakers and writers.

My trip was put together by my friend, the P.R. person, Sao Anash, of Muse Management. She used to run the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association before going out on her own. She does a terrific job for visiting writers and doesn’t ask for a thing, except friendship and for us to do a good job. At one of our dinners, I toasted Sao. I told our group that P.R. people frequently don’t get the respect they deserve. The writers and winemakers receive all the fame and glory; the P.R. folks are lube that keep the gears of the machine running smoothly. Here’s to the P.R. pros.

Got back to Oakland just as the city was mourning the deaths of the 4 cops murdered by a paroled thug. Put me in a philosophic frame of mind. How can America be home both to the Santa Ynez Valley with its restaurants and thoroughbreds and contented cows and peaceful villages with cottages and gardens, as well as to a city wracked with pain and poverty and people determined to wreck themselves and others and a government helpless in the face of such anarchy? I don’t know. Tonight, while I’m drinking some Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, maybe an answer will come.

  1. “…another wine writer could eat and loaf his way through, spending a few hours at a winery, then relaxing in the hotel jacuzzi for the rest of the day before hitting the bar at happy hour.”

    Name names, dude!

  2. Jack, you’re on your own on this one, dude!

  3. Cheers to PR pros!

  4. “the Santa Marians, solicited my advice as to how they could draw more attention to their valley”

    They need to be more aggressively proactive about promoting and protecting their region’s brand and its equity.

    You and (especially) I need to be more proactive about telling the public about the region’s wines, why they are good and why they are good in their own right rather than being judged against the Napa/Sonoma stencil.

    Sideways is being remade in Japanese and it is set in Napa this time, with plenty of product placements. Talk about getting your lunch swiped from under your nose….

  5. Steve, Authur, I agree completely. This is a magic area. I did an “up the coast” wine road tour series of stories in 2002 for the late, great winetoday.com (NYT). It was fab.
    I sent friends from Ky and from Bordeaux there (they were thinking only Napa). And they loved it.
    But you have to be ready to drive, to tuck in here, and there. No, it is not Napa, by any means. And isn’t that a relief. (Go in the winter, look for butterflies and other interesting things like actors in the deli).
    And, start the tour in LA, you can begin a mere hour from LAX. Amble up the coast. Isn’t that sweet?
    As to Oakland, my heart is with those who want it to survive.

  6. 200 wines is a very honorable number. How do you keep from degrading your ability to discern between the flavors after each taste? Is it just a matter of endurance or are there any tricks to it between sips?

  7. Dylan, no tricks. Focus, concentration, quiet, comfortable space. Relax, take your time. Your body will tell you when it’s time to quit,
    as mine did. Oh, and you have to spit, of course!!!

  8. Steve, thank you for mentioning the Chardonnay Symposium. We are, in fact, working on such a thing right now. The Santa Maria Valley Wine Country association is working hard to band together in the effort to promote our fantastic wines. Like any nonprofit, this effort will take time. We are very excited about our progess and have been impressed with the quickly increasing support of locals and visitors alike.

    Arthur, I think you will be impressed with our upcoming re-branding campaign. We have a lot of marketing and event projects in the works! Our free vineyard walk series has already started an excellent following of intelligent wine drinkers who are yearning to learn!

    We are very proud that our region can promote world-class wines while maintaining a humble profile. With our current and future plans, we hope that the region will increase in recognition without sacrificing the agricultural charm.

    Feel free to contact me next time you’re in town. (Same goes to any wine lovers visiting Santa Maria).

    -Kady Fleckenstein, Executive Director of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country

    PS. Cheers to Sao!

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