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Tasting Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

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Yesterday, the sixth and final day of my road trip south, primarily consisted of a blind tasting of 60 Chardonnays. The tasting was held in a small meeting cottage at the Santa Ynez Inn, and was kindly set up by my friend Sao Anash, who assists many writers when they visit Santa Barbara County.

I had never done a standalone tasting of Santa Barbara Chards. (There were two from San Luis Obispo.) I was interested to see if I could discern differences between the county’s various appellations. Most of the Chardonnays were from either Santa Rita Hills or Santa Maria Valley, with some marked simply “Santa Barbara County.” These latter were either from Santa Maria or Santa Rita (so far as I could tell) but preferred to keep the better-known countywide appellation on the label, or they were from an interesting region around Los Alamos, which is more or less inbetween Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, but does not yet have its own AVA but should. There are fewer and fewer Chardonnays from the Santa Ynez Valley these days, which is as it should be, as it’s too warm there, although SYV is great Sauvignon Blanc county.

I’m sure there are people who would conclusively state that there are vast differences between Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley Chards, but I’m not one of them. Clonal and barrel differences are at least as important in imparting character as a few miles of separation. Both regions have more reasons to be similar than not. In fact, I think of them as basically the same, separated only by the accident of the 101 Freeway. They’re both west-east running valleys (unlike any others in California), thus allowing chilly Pacific air (and believe me, the ocean is cold out there) to funnel in, given the westerly or northwesterly breezes that characterize the California coast most of the time. That makes them cool-climate regions. You don’t want to grow Cabernet in Santa Maria or Santa Rita Hills. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the grapes of choice, although Syrah does just fine, and the occasional other white grape (Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc) can excel. Not much Sauvignon Blanc works here: too green. Gewurztraminer would probably succeed; Riesling, too, but nobody would buy them, so it’s not worth it for vintners to grow.

Soil-wise, I can’t tell. They’re a jumble down here, now clay, now chalky, sometimes sandy, sometimes stony. As near as I can figure, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re well-drained. Of course, you need superb viticulture, which all the Chardonnays in my tasting had. One vineyard in particular, Bien Nacido, stood out. But then, it had more entries than any other source.

Santa Barbara County is one of California’s great Chardonnay areas and a case can be made that it is the greatest. Certainly there’s a consistency of style. The wines always are acidic; that goes without saying. Acidity is one of the touchstones of a great wine, especially a white one, and super-especially when the fruit is as ripe as it tends to get in Santa Barbara. The reason the fruit gets so ripe is because the growing season is incredibly long. Budbreak begins earlier than in the North Coast, and harvest can extend as long and leisurely as the grower wants. It doesn’t rain much down here, and such rains as do fall usually wait until November. That means the grapes can hang, hang, hang until they rid themselves of all green flavors and develop marvelously fruity ones. To my palate the fruits tend toward pineapples, Meyer lemons and limes, but that’s over-simplifying. The pineapples often have a grilled quality, as if they’d been on a skewer barbecued over hot red oak. The Meyer lemons have an intense, pie-filling quality, while the limes likewise have a pastry taste, like the Key lime pies I used to bring home with me when my parents lived in Florida. Of course, part of that pie and pastry quality is oak, toasty and smoky and slightly sweet. These Santa Barbara Chardonnays can handle new oak as easily as Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, for the same reason: they’re rich, voluminous wines, broad and impressive in body. Flamboyant in themselves (just try Cambria’s 2007 “Unwooded” from Santa Maria Valley if you want to see what unoaked Chard can do), they adapt to oak the way a Hollywood actress on the red carpet shows off haute couture. Beauty clad in beauty equals dazzle.

Santa Barbara whites also have a minerality. We can argue all day what that means and where it comes from. Locals insist its from the white chalky limestone that’s exposed on outcroppings. Maybe. The acidity certainly helps inspire a tangy, cold metal-like taste. Whatever the source, this minerality is bracing. So that becomes another factor in Santa Barbara Chardonnay. They have a nervy, electric quality without which the fruit would be merely ripe. Edna Valley Chardonnay has this electric quality. But it seldom has the depth and interest of Santa Barbara Chardonnay.

The overall quality of the wines I tasted was extraordinary. Sao came in two or three times during the nearly five hours (!!) I took, just to see how I was doing, and I swear, every time she did I told her in marveled and ecstatic terms how thrilling this tasting was. Wine after wine, so pure and intense, so visionary and translucent, it was hard to pick winners from losers. And in truth, there were no losers. But the wine critic must rank order. That is his job.

How do you determine preferences between wines of such quality? There’s only one way: balance. Balance is the exquisite tension between ripeness of fruit (so easy to achieve) and all the other moving parts: Acidity. Oak. Tannins. Length. Finish. Lees influence. Minerality. Richness. Dryness. Malolactic fermetation. Creaminess. Utlimately, balance is impossible to define. It’s like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Well, I know balance when I encounter it in wine. Here are some of the great Santa Barbara Chardonnays I tasted yesterday. All should be current in the market. My full reviews and scores will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Alma Rosa 2008 (Santa Barbara County)
Byron 2007 Wente Clone (Santa Maria Valley)
Fontes & Phillips 2008 (Santa Barbara County)
Cambria 2007 Clone 95 (Santa Maria Valley)
Fess Parker 20008 Ashley’s (Santa Rita Hills)
Longoria 2008 Cuvee Diana (Santa Rita Hills)
Melville 2008 Estate (Santa Rita Hills)
Ojai 2007 Clos Pepe Vineyard (Santa Rita Hills)
Rusack 2008 Reserve (Santa Maria Valley)
Vino 2007 Solomon Hills Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley)
Testarossa 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley)
Au Bon Climat 2007 Los Alamos Vineyard (Santa Barbara County)

These are awesome Chardonnays that prove there is a “Chardonnay zone” of climate that snakes its way through the county’s western canyons and up onto the foothills. They show, also, that both 2007 and 2008 were very great years for Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County.

  1. A most informative and insightful take on SB Chards. We’re getting a preview of the magazine article. With so many outstanding wines coming out of this region, in this time of austerity, it would be good to know the best QPR wines. ‘Bang for the Buck’ has grown in importance when making wine buying decisions. Many of the producers you mention also have a SB County wine in addition to sub appellation wines that are more expensive. In light of your comment about lack of difference that you could discern between Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria, did any of these, beyond Alma Rosa which has had vineyard designate wines in the past, impress you?

  2. Great posting. I spent last Thursday in Santa Rita Hills looking at vineyards and trying Chard and Pinot before World of Pinot. Great acidity and some with amazing balance.

    I would add to your list:
    Brewer Clifton 07 Sea Smoke
    Sanford 07 La Rinconada
    and for a fun unoaked Huber 07 Santa Rita Hills

  3. Thank you, Steve. When we say it, it’s marketing. When you say it, it’s gospel.

    Or at least an epistle.

    Yet, accurate either way.

    –Jim

  4. Steve:

    I tasted a couple of South Coast Chard samples from La Fenetre at the WOPN tasting: the Bien Nacido was very nice but preferred the Sierra Madre vineyard. Both had plenty of acidity and fruit. I think we’ll look for some fruit from this area for the our new Merrillie program.

    BTW, Livermore Valley, too, is east/west oriented…mid-Napa Valley heat mitigated by cold air vacuumed in every afternoon from the Bay.

  5. Tom, like I’ve said in the past, all my reviews will be published in Wine Enthusiast, so I’d prefer you see my specific reccos there. Thanks.

  6. Fair enough. But yet you list reccos here. Just wanted a slight expansion not reviews….

  7. Steve,

    Nice writeup! Sao is employed by Bien Nacido and a consultant. What else did you taste when you were down here?

    In the future I would highly recommend avoiding these “consultants”. Go with someone who doesn’t do things only for their own benefit.

    Dave

  8. Excellent post; highlighting the factual connection between wine taste/structure and the essential elements of terroir. I would only add that the Santa Rita Hills climate is more of a transition from Region I (Lompoc-2420 (ºF) Winkler Scale) to Region III (Buellton-3096), while the Santa Maria Valley is a fairly homogeneous Region I (Santa Maria-2243; Sisquoc-2284).

  9. Dave, Sao lets all local wineries know that I (and the other writers she assists, who are some of the more famous ones) are coming to taste. All wineries are free to participate, and Sao and her staff treat them all equally.

  10. Steve,
    Absolutely not! She primarily promotes the wineries she’s paid by. This should be disclosed to everyone before the events are organized.

    The Parker tastings she coordinated were complete disasters. We submitted wines to the tasting and some were never tasted. Too many wines and not enough time. This was never communicated to the wineries until the reviews came out.

  11. sao anash says:

    Dave,
    As you know, because I have invited you to participate in tastings, and you are not a client, my tastings are open to clients and non-clients.

  12. Steve,
    Nice story. I’m glad to see you appreciate the wines from our region. I would have to agree with Dave on this comment. If I did not read your blog I would not have known you were in Santa Barbara. Next time let the Vintners Association know you are in town. A few other winemakers I talked to were also “left out of the loop” so to say.

  13. Michael, Dave, others: Sao is one of the most honest people I know. She has told me that the tastings she sets up are for everyone and I believe her. It’s probably a good idea for me to let the SBCVA know when I’m in town, and I will do so in the future. However, I completely trust Sao and I reject the implication that she does not reach out to everyone. If Parker chose not to taste certain wines because there was “not enough time,” that’s his fault, not Sao’s. I took 5 hours to taste through 60 wines. I would have taken even longer, if that were necessary. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to taste wine. You can’t possibly blame anyone except the taster if he’s in such a hurry, he can’t take the time to competently review all submissions.

  14. Steve
    No implications made. Your a smart man, this business is all in who you know. Here is how I see it. The PR/marketing of wine is like hiring a sales person to sell your wines. You hire a person with existing relationships. Wine buyers are the gate keepers to the consumer. The buyer is more likely to listen to a person who he or she already knows. PR/Marketing people are the same. Writers have relationships or are friendly with PR/Marketing people because of previous experiences. If you don’t have these previous relationships you wait in line. You send your wines to the cattle calls and hope a writer likes them or even better remembers them from a previous tasting. If they remember them you are lucky because of course these tastings are all done blind.
    As Dave said the Parker tasting, according to an employee of the hotel, lasted all of 45 minutes and the usual suspects were the bottles that were opened. I didn’t get reviewed and I didn’t get my wine back. There were over 200 wines submitted from what I understand. So 45 minutes would be about the time I would take.

  15. Michael, the story you told is troubling. It bothers me a great deal, morally, ethically and professionally. As I have stated many, many times over the years, I taste EVERYTHING I am sent, under the exact same conditions. When I go on a road trip and somebody else sets up a tasting for me, I advise that I prefer not to taste more than 60 wines in a single day. That number is comfortable for me. If 120 wineries send in wines, I’m going to take 2 days to do it. It’s unconscionable that 200 wines would be submitted to a Parker tasting and that he would not review all of them equally.

  16. sao anash says:

    To clarify, Mr. Parker spent approximately 8 hours tasting. He gave each wine the time it merited. It is ridiculous to state the Mr. Parker would only take 45 minutes, when, in point of fact, he travels here specifically for several in-depth tastings. Not only is it ridiculous and completely false, it’s just rumor mongering and very disrespectful.

  17. All of this back and forth illustrates why one guru can’t cover the waterfront or s/he shouldn’t have to. Even tasting panels of major competitions that have 5,000 wines submitted are overwhelmed and can’t make sound judgments.

    I was thumbing through Traveler magazine in the doctor’s office yesterday. They make a big deal, as they should, in promoting their Readers Choice selections. They get back ballots from over 25,000 readers, using the five star system and various agreed to criteria. I wrote down: “They form, in effect, a global force of incognito inspectors with the power to rate every service crucial to travelers. To put that 25,008 in perspective, compare it to the 80 inspectors Michelin fields to produce the Red Guide to France.”

    Perhaps the Wine Enthusiast or, ~gasp~, the Wine Advocate, will be forced to go to their readers to augment the lone beleaguered critic who ultimately just can’t keep up. A moral dilemna.

  18. Thank you, Sao, for setting the record straight.

  19. Kent Benson says:

    Peter, if you are still there, I’d love to talk to you about your source of climate information. Is there some way I can contact you?

  20. Kent, you can do it through my website.

  21. Steve,

    This form of setting the record straight would never hold up in a court of law. As wonderful as this mysterious Ms. Sao is, does she not have a vested interest in representing how Mr. Parker tasted or didn’t taste? Of course “according to an employee” is standard hearsay. I say let’s find someone who is disinterested in what really happened. The plot thickens.

  22. There is no thick plot here for goodness sake, Tom.

    Parker is an independent agent. He can taste any way he wants to taste, and wineries can support that procedure or tell him to change by their refusal to participate.

    I personally dislike the way Parker and Heimoff taste. Big tastings that last for hours and hours are not, in my humble and personal opinion, the best way to get accurate, reproducible results. Even if the body has the stamina for five to eight hours of tasting, the palate does not.

    But, if the wineries support Parker or Steve H. in their endeavors, then that is OK with me. I don’t do it, and that is also OK with me. But, what is not OK with me is this throwing of insinuations that something underhanded has happened here. Steve was absolutely transparent in the way this all came about. Parker ought to be also..

    If Sao Anash, I do not know this person from Adam, has invited all to participate as equals, then there is no problem on the invitation side.

  23. Charlie, recent experiences have proven to me that these large blind tastings work very well. Once you get “in the zone,” the body and mind quickly adapt to the circumstances. Speaking for myself, I become energized. My entire being gets absorbed into the essence of whatever the wine type is. I enter a Zen-like state where nothing exists except the wines before me, the spit buckets, etc. and my consciousness, which is constantly evaluating. Moreover, in these big tastings, the most minute differences between the wines become apparent. A very great wine tends to emerge, in the same way that a most valuable player is identified after a Super Bowl or World Series. The reason these tastings take so long is because it’s possible to go back and re-evaluate wines, compare #47 with #2, and see which is better. To tell you the truth, I’d like to taste like that all the time, except that it’s physically impossible. So while I understand that you’re not a “big tasting” kind of guy, you should understand that some of us are. Point of order: I am NOT talking about gigantic wine competitions where big groups of tasters award medals. I’m talking about tasting alone, in a nice environment, with 50 or 60 well-chosen wines, when I’m rested, physically upbeat, and not in any hurry. You’re invited to join me next time.

  24. Beautifully written, Steve. I love your descriptions and metaphors. We’re so excited about showing off our local (and some northern CA) Chardonnays in the Santa Maria Valley on July 31st for the first-ever Chardonnay Symposium (our website will be public soon-www.thechardonnaysymposium.com). Thanks for getting folks more excited about Chardonnay; a varietal that sometimes gets a bad rap. I truly believe there is a Chardonnay out there for (almost) everyone.

  25. I can verify for the 8 hour tasting that Parker did at the SYI as I was working there that day (the tasting in 2008) and he was tasting there all day. I know they have the same setup every year.

    Also, Steve–please do feel free to contact myself (Santa Maria Valley Wine Country) and Jim (SBCVA) next time you’re in town. We can certainly help Sao spread the word (although I know she does a great job at it). Same goes for any wine writers.

  26. Charlie,

    You say there is no thick plot, but then proceed to add to the plot by inserting your observations. Parker may be an independent agent, but that, it seems to me, to be completely irrelevant. All critics, even those who work for publications, can assess their products, plays, chocolate sauces, auto repair shops, any way they want, as long as their marketplace accepts the believability of their judgments. If they carry a great deal of clout, their methodology is even more irrelevant, though this is changing as the collective user becomes muchy more of a player. What counts is their power to sway the marketplace for those products.

    Because Mr. Parker is still so powerful, wineries, can’t really opt out. Talk about cutting off your nose. It would be like refusing to let Clive Barnes review your play when he held sway 40 years ago at the NY Times. Wineries need the imprimatur, particularly in these times. If wine critics who count can’t keep up or play favorites this takes a toll.

    Some accusations (not insinuations) were made by local vintners. Steve defends his friend, Ms. Sao. So is that the end of the discussion? Apparently you don’t think so since you state that RB should be transparent which implies that he hasn’t been.

    But the major issue here are the conflicting takes on how limited production wines are or are not sampled when critics come to the region. In the case of RB, Dave Corey declares that “We submitted wines to the tasting and some were never tasted. Too many wines and not enough time.” In the case of SH, Michael states that “If I did not read your blog I would not have known you were in Santa Barbara…. A few other winemakers I talked to were also ‘left out of the loop’ so to say.” This is more than an “implication” Ms. Sao did not do her job. Sixty “well chosen” wines were tasted, but that number, Steve explains, has to do with his limits not the number of this varietal produced in the appellation. Sure all wines can’t be evaluated, but that doesn’t dissipate the frustration of those winemakers who were not included.

    I call this ~who’s in/who’s out~ process–with a reference to a waiter–a plot, certainly not in the sense of some sort of conspiracy against some wineries, but in the sense of a drama. It makes for compelling story telling.

  27. Tom, you seem determined to find wrongdoing, for some reason I cannot fathom. No critic who visits a region is ever going to be able to taste every wine from that region. It’s a physical impossibility. I suggest you turn your suspicions in more productive directions, instead of trying to find conspiracies everywhere. I do have “my limits” and I made them clear. If not all winemakers were able to participate in my Santa Barbara tasting, they know FULL WELL they are free to send me their wines at my home. Everybody knows my policy: I taste EVERYTHING that is sent to me. I do not and cannot taste everything on the road. Ergo: If I don’t taste a wine on the road, then send it to me!!! End of story.

  28. Steve,

    You’re squeaky clean, I know. I just enjoy the dynamics of the industry. I was only picking up on the exchanges above. I was hoping those complaining might have followed up but they didn’t. Also there is one key player missing at the table. As long as you keep this blog open to comments that aren’t outright defamatory, I’ll be injecting my quirky, cranky opinions. Thanks.

  29. Steve, I have said to our friend, Tom, that I do not see a conspiracy/a thick plot here. But, I do think that the question of who gets invited and who does not get invited to those broad tastings is one that could stand a little more air.

    I ask this as a question, not as an accusation or judgment. Would it not be better, friendship aside, to let the association in Santa Barbara–or anywhere else for that matter–send out an invitation to every possible candidate rather than relying on someone, even a trusted someone who has specific winery connections, to get you the wine?

    And if that technique produces too many wines, then you have several available options, including setting rules of hierarchy by price or vintage or place within the area or some combination. You could also taste 60 and take the rest home.

    I have said before and I will say it here for the benefit of Mr. Merle and anybody else who is still tuning in to this discussion. I find nothing wrong with the way you went about your business. But, I do think there might be a better way. And, one of the things that I am learning after three decades in this business is that regardless of what Parker does, I do not have to do that if I find a better, more egalitarian, fairer way of doing business.

  30. Tom, I want to allow all comments, but there are obvious reasons why I need to approve. For one thing, I get a lot of spam (often from Russia) and for all I know if I approved it, they could spread viruses. But more importantly, I cannot and will not allow anybody to gratuitously insult anyone with unfounded charges and unsubstantiated rumors. It is always possible to build a case in a respectful way, and to gather information before you hurl charges. I hope you do so in the future. Your comments have caused people considerable pain.

  31. Steve,

    I might have been stirring the pot, but I hope you are not implying that I gratuitously (I’ve never understood the true meaning of this word in this context) insulted “anyone with unfounded charges and unsubstantiated rumors” Or hurled charges. I was simply drawing attention to what others wrote. I may be an insensitive curmudgeon, but I can’t believe my comments have caused people pain, considerable or otherwise, unless it’s Robert Parker (ha!).

  32. Charlie,

    You seem not to have read my last email–I guess you’ve given up on my commentary–since you are still misconstruing my use of the word “plot” . I’m surprised since you are a formidable writer. I specifically stated that I was NOT using the word as a synonym for conspiracy, but as a description of events:

    From the online Free dictionary on ~the plot thickens~: –something that you say when something happens which makes a strange situation even more difficult to understand “I had assumed the Irishman who keeps phoning June was her husband, but it seems her husband is American. The plot thickens.” Or –something has become more complicated or interesting “The plot thickens as police investigate dozens of deaths at a California hospital.”

    According to E.M. Forster in ~Aspects of the Novel~ (1927), a story is a “narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” whereas a plot organizes the events according to a “sense of causality.”

  33. Dayna Hammell says:

    Dave Corey, please have your facts straight before you decide to publicly “throw someone under the bus!”

  34. Dayna Hammell says:

    After reading more of the blog posts, I realize I have a few more comments to make. First of all, please do not forget that the characters in this “thick plot” are not fictional. They are real people, with real feelings. I believe it is perfectly okay to have a difference of an opinion, but when it is about someone, a certain amount of tact needs to be used when posting on a public blog. If you are a Winemaker making comments on a Wine Writers blog, that is PR and Marketing for you. It could be good marketing or bad marketing. Rude comments leave a bad taste in my mouth, which I will remember the next time I am making a decision as to which wine to choose on the wine list.

  35. The Gris says:

    The 2008 Fess Parker Ashley’s Chard is good – but the 2008 Fess Parker Bien Nacido Chard is better. Surprised you didn’t include it.

  36. The Gris says:

    And, by the way, ‘plot’ and ‘conspiracy’ are NOT synonymous. ‘Plot’ can mean simply ‘the way things unfolded’ or ‘how things happened’ as in “What was the plot of the movie? …answer… Boy meet girl”. Conspiracy implies negativity, as in a malicious plot.

    You guys should drink more wine; you obviously have too much (empty) time on your hands. Fill it with a wine glass.

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