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A perfect day, with challenges

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Richard Sanford and I spent the morning tasting and talking about the Santa Rita Hills and his fabled career. Lest you know him only for his Alma Rosa Pinot Noirs, particularly from his La Encantada Vineyard, his twin white Pinots — Gris and Blanc — with their natural crispness — are worthy of your attention. The latter is rich, the former sleek as a Brancusi swirl of steel. More on Richard at another time.

From there my friend Sao Anash whisked me up to Bien Nacido where four fabulous chefs — Matt and Jeff Nichols, Frank Ostini and Rick Manson — prepared a Santa Maria-style barbecue to put all previous barbecues I’ve even seen to utter shame. Bien Nacido’s Miller family were my hosts, and my gladness was diminished only by the absence of Nicholas, the “face” of Bien Nacido Vineyard and someone whose joy in life is infectious. After lunch it was back down to Los Olivos for a visit and tasting with a winery I’ve followed for a long time, owned by one of the premier wine families of the Santa Ynez Valley, Gainey. It is about this tasting I want to concentrate in today’s blog.

I’ve given quite high scores for many years to Gainey’s wines, and the barrel samples they offered me certainly didn’t disappoint and in fact raised the bar higher. We went through various samples of block-sourced 2009 Chardonnays that did and did not go through the malolactic fermentation. If you’ve never had that exercise, do so. Here’s a non-ML that’s so crisp and savory in fruit it makes your mouth water. Then there’s the ML version and, as I said, almost apologetically, “I know we’re not supposed to say the word ‘buttered popcorn’ but…”. They smiled. A touch of that movie theater treat is great; too much would be a disaster. But Gainey has seldom if ever been guilty of “too much” of anything, or “too little” either.

It was the 2009 Pinot Noir clonal tasting that excited me and, to be blunt, challenged me. Usually I grill winemakers. This time it was the other way around, courtesy of one of Gainey’s longtime winemakers, and a person I decided I liked way back when I first met him, Kirby Anderson. The four clones we went through were Pommard, Swan, 667 and 114. (Well, I guess technically the first two would be called “selections,” not clones.) Kirby made me explain my impressions of each. My spiel went something like this:
“From left to right [i.e., Pommard to 114], we went from fruitier and lighter to denser, more full-bodied and weightier.”

Kirby: “Right. What fruits did you find in the 114?”

Steve: “No fruit, in fact. I wrote: ‘tannic, beetroot, dry, sassafras.’”

Kirby: “Very good. The 114 is earthy.”

Steve: “That’s what I meant by ‘beetroot.’”

Kirby: “What else?”

Steve: “The Pommard was all cranberry-cherry. Also very spicy. The Swan reminds me of Russian River: cherries, cola, raspberry. The 667 is deeper black cherries, with greater structure.”

Kirby: “And overall?”

Steve: “None of them is complete in itself.”

Kirby: “Mix the Pommard with the 114.”

I did so, and said, “A more complete wine. Fuller, richer. But still, something missing.”

Kirby: “Add a splash of Swan.”

I did, and said, “The most complete wine yet. Very nice. But still, something missing.”

Kirby: “What’s missing?”

I thought. The middle was a little hollow, and the wine, good as it was, trailed off to a quick finish. I said so, and Kirby said, “Good. So what is it missing? How would you fix that?”

I thought. What’s he driving at? Does he mean it needs a splash of Swan? Or some other clone? My mind went blank. In such circumstances, with others around the table watching the wine critic suddenly being critiqued, there was dead silence. Of course, all you can do is be honest — transparent, in our current vernacular — and admit bafflement.

“I don’t know, Kirby,” I said. “You’re the winemaker. You tell me.”

“Oak!” Kirby beamed, triumphantly. He’s got great twinkly eyes and a dazzling smile but now his eyes were twinklier, his smile more dazzling than ever.

I had thought he was asking me how to fatten and length the barrel sample through the addition of other samples, but of course he was entirely right. The wine needs the 8 or 10 months of partially new oak barrel aging that will complete it. I just hadn’t been thinking “outside the envelope” or, as it were, beyond the table. I asked Kirby to tell me 4 things that oak barrel aging does to Pinot Noir to make it better. Kirby gave me five:

– texture
– richness
– structure
– weight
– length

I’ll say one more thing about the Gainey tasting. They know that, with rare exceptions, I have never liked Santa Barbara Cabernet Sauvignon from anyone (although I’ve been praising Gainey’s Merlot since the 1990s; Merlot doesn’t need as warm a temperature to ripen as Cabernet). But this time they had a bunch of barrel samples of Cab and they also had assembled their entire Cab team around the table: John Engelskirger (the longtime Napa vet who consults for them), viticulturalist Jeff Newton, and their Cabernet winemaker, young Jeff Lebard. And, of course, Dan Gainey was there. Hmm, I thought, this could be ugly. If I have to complain about the Santa Barbara veggies, it will be embarrassing to everybody.

Well, I didn’t. The clone 337 and clone 15 Cabernets were very fruity and rich, not a trace of veg. Then they gave me a barrel sample of a blend of ‘09 Cab and Petite Verdot. I swirled, sniffed, tasted, repeated, repeated a third time, and looked up. All eyes were upon me.

“This is, quite simply, the best Santa Barbara Bordeaux-style red wine I’ve ever had,” I said. They told me it will be even better when they’re finished with it, after probably adding Merlot (a no-brainer) and maybe some Cabernet Franc, then aging it for 16-18 months in 50% new oak.

Lots of things can happen between cup and lip, so we’ll see. But the 2009 Gainey, which will probably have a proprietary name, is a wine I hope I’m going to be able to review someday.

But then it was on to dinner, another barbecue, this time up at Fess Parker with two of my favorite Santa Barbara people, Eli and Ashley Parker, who had another trio of chefs — Joanne and Eddie Plemmons and Kevin Hyland — pile on an incredible, amazing, unbelievable table of grilled chicken, tri-tip, you name it. I’ll be writing all about Santa Maria-style barbecue in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.

  1. Great read, Steve.

  2. Steve, you live the good life!

  3. Richard Sanford is a great winemaker and a very generous man. He drove to LA to do a talk and pouring for a group of home winemakers a few years ago. How often does a legend do that? We still talk about that meeting. As a member of their wine club, we know how wonderful the Gris, Blanc and the rosé offerings are.

    I’m looking forward to the write-up.

  4. See what you’re missing, Charlie Olken. Why not devote a page of your pub to barbecues.

  5. Richard is strikingly handsome, but I do believe you can tell a book by its cover and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face that radiates integrity and sheer goodness as Mr. Sanford’s

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