Santa Barbara: Day 2
My visit to Santa Barbara County continues apace, as they say. Yesterday dawned clear and cold, with frost on the windowpanes of the little red cottage. We took a little walk, Gus and I, and he basically lost it when he saw the goats—critters he’d never encountered before. Bien Nacido, which is much more than merely a vineyard, but is a working ranch, must be an infinitude of smells for a dog with a nose as big as Gus’s. He’s half Chihuahua; they were bred to be ratters, I’m told, and he is the sniffiest dog I’ve even known, able to obsess on a single point of a leaf for as long as I let him.
Anyway, later, I drove with Bien Nacido’s vineyard manager, Chris Hammell, and their new winemaker, Trey Fletcher, to the Miller’s Solomon Hills Vineyard, where we tasted through some Bien Nacido and SH Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Nicholas Miller was lucky to lure Trey away from Littorai. For such a young  man, Trey has an impressive resumé and I’m sure that both the BNV and SH brands are in good hands. Trey is obviously thrilled at being able to work with fruit of that quality.
Then it was on to Presqu’ile, a newish winery in the western part of the Santa Maria Valley whose owners, the Murphy family, have big plans. Matt Murphy showed me the enormous construction project they’re engaged in, which surely must make the contractors and builders of Santa Barbara County ecstatic in this economy. Matt plans to put in a big tasting room with tourist amenities, such as visiting chefs preparing wine-and-food pairings. The topic of bringing tourists into Santa Maria Valley often arises down here, as the wine people are acutely aware that fashionable Santa Ynez Valley gets all the foot traffic, and frankly, there’s nothing for visitors to do in SMV, except to drive from tasting room to tasting room. A real dearth of decent restaurants and no place to stay worthy of mention. So maybe the Presqu’ile people can start to turn that around. Presqu’ile’s winemaker is Dieter Conje, the dreaded [as in hair] South African who’s turned into a pal over the last year or so. He was on my panel at the 2011 Chardonnay Symposium and I guarantee he’ll be on it next year because he’s articulate, funny and smart, exactly the qualities a panel moderator needs his panel participants to possess. Presqu’ile’s wines, incidentally, are quite good. They’ve been buying fruit, but the estate vineyard is starting to come into production, and I predict it is going to be the source of spectacular Pinot Noir.
After that, we went back to the little red cottage, where I’d left Gus, and man, was he happy to see me and take another walk. He tugged me straight to the goat field, but they were gone! The Mexican field hands had brought them someplace else and Gus was disappointed. He’d particularly liked watching the rams butt each other, and I think their mounting behavior totally puzzled him.
Finally it was back to Santa Ynez for a long, lugubrious dinner at Mattei’s, a local favorite. Lots of winemakers there. It’s always a little weird to know that they’ve turned out for me, so I try to return the respect by letting them know how highly I think of Santa Barbara County wine. It’s true, and it completely blows my mind that many other writers, some quite well known, tend to dismiss the region, as evidenced by how seldom they visit it. At least, that’s what the winemakers tell me, and after all, they would know! Andrew Murray was there, his hair much shorter than when I first met him, but looking fit and trim. Chad Melville, too, whom I toasted (along with his partner, Greg Brewer, who wasn’t there) as my first hosts to Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills when I first visited. They schlepped me all over the place, answering my questions [this was back in the 90s] and being such fine ambassadors for the region—a role they’ve played with many others. One of my favorites, John Falcone, was there. I’ve known John since his Atlas Peak days but fortunately he’s now at Rusack, and also has his own brand, Falcone, from Paso Robles grapes. The delightful Paul Lato was there, enigmatic and smiling and funny. Blair Fox, Sam Spencer, Ryan Devolet, Matt Dees, a cat named Max Gleason I don’t know much about except that he was an artist in NYC and Kurt Aamman rounded out the group. Everybody brought at least one bottle, which meant a lot of wine, and personally speaking I indulged happily because I didn’t have to drive. The topics of conversation included the 2011 vintage [challenging to say the least] and what makes Santa Barbara different from Napa Valley. The consensus was that SBC is about farming, with all that implies: a sense of rectitude, of rural modesty, self-sufficiency and helping your neighbors. I’m not sure the Napans wouldn’t say the same things about themselves. But without being able to exactly put my finger on it, Santa Barbara County is a very special place; and the wines speak for themselves.