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A wine writer’s pleasures of the road

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There’s nothing quite like being a wine writer and hitting the road. Every trip I take begins with a sense of adventure and ends with a degree of exhaustion. Inbetween is all the fun stuff.

My most recent journey, from which I returned yesterday afternoon, was Santa Barbara County, where I spent four days. I like going to Santa Barbara for many reasons: it’s beautiful, the people there are very nice (both old and new friends), the weather is gorgeous, and above all the wines are very good. It always startles me, when I’m down there, to hear from vintners who are convinced the public at large and certain segments of the wine press remain ignorant of their wines. I don’t have a clue why that would be. Whatever the cause, it’s shameful, because Santa Barbara is an extremely important part of California’s coastal wine terroir, and it’s getting better all the time.

When you’re a writer visiting a region you can only get to two or three times a year, it’s vital to pack your schedule as fully as possible, to take advantage of every precious moment. That’s why I was on the go from breakfast through dinner, each day, with multiple stops at wineries inbetween. It all culminated in my big blind tasting on Saturday at Bien Nacido, where I went through about 80 wines that had been bagged for me by Chris and Dayna Hammell. He’s Bien Nacido’s general manager (I think that’s his title) and his wife, Dayna, is part of the team, and a more likeable, professional and helpful duo could not be imagined.

Eighty wines is a lot, for me anyway, so I needed to pace myself in the days leading up to the tasting. That required getting a good night’s sleep, which meant in some cases shortening the dinners (cutting out the dessert course isn’t a bad idea anyway), but I think my hosts understood; after all, they want me to be in good shape so that my judgment is sound, as much as I want to be in good shape. It may sound obvious, but it’s really unthinkable that a wine critic would taste wines when he or she is feeling lousy or tired. I’m sure it happens, but I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.

Of those eighty wines, perhaps one-third were Pinot Noirs, and many if not most of them were from either the Bien Nacido Vineyard or the Solomon Hills Vineyard, both of which are owned by the Miller family. The best way to taste wine is in flights of the same type, and the closer in origin the wines are, the better you can make minute judgments. In this case, all the wines were very closely related, so the quality differences between them stood out as clearly as if they’d been etched in stone. It also became clear afterward, as I debagged the wines, that some blocks in Bien Nacido are much better than others, and these are generally sold to longtime customers or, I think, to younger customers somehow lucky enough to get access to them. We all know that old saying “Great wine is made in the vineyard” and in the case of Bien Nacido it’s evident, but the vineyard is a large one, and some areas are better than others. The Pinot Noirs that came from these top blocks or rows clearly stood out above the others, not just in concentration but in complexity and overall balance. (Rick Longoria’s Bien Nacido Pinot was really great, even in that august crowd.)

After the tasting, my schedule mercifully permitted me to spend my last night, Saturday, alone, except, of course, for Gus. I’d earlier gone to one of my favorite roadside joints, Pappy’s, where the 101 hits Betteravia Road. Pappy’s is like stepping back to some retro 1950s era diner of big hair on waitresses wearing jeans perhaps wrapped a little too tight. There, I’d bought a gigantic chicken burrito to go (3 pounds? Felt like it) and taken it back to where I was staying in the Red House, right in the middle of Bien Nacido, where so many itinerant writers bed down for the night in simple but hospitable and certainly picturesque pleasure. As the sky darkened and the stars came out thicker than I’d seen them in years (Orion, directly overhead, shined as light as bulbs) I kicked back tired but happy, watched T.V. with Gus in my lap, and inhaled the better part of the burrito. I’d had quite enough wine; with my supper I drank Perrier.

  1. Just did a quick trip to Los Olivos, great wine and definitely beautiful wine country. Californian’s are extremely lucky with how many amazing areas we have to taste, let alone the weather in DECEMBER. Anyway, Demetria’s ‘north slope’ syrah was beautiful, ripe and concentrated. Dinner at Side’s was also pretty kick ass. Life is good in SB county.

  2. Steve, great article on an area of California I have wanted to visit for some time now. As a sidenote, I tend to turn to Zinfandel as the weather turns colder and was wondering if you came across any Zins of quality from SB County. I was also recently looking through some of your tasting notes of Turley and couldn’t help but notice the huge differential between your review (score and notes) and Wine Spectator’s review (Tim Fish) of the 2010 Turley Howell Mountain Cedarman Zinfandel. The 09′ Cedarman made me remember how good a Zin can be, so I made sure you buy some of the 2010 when it was released. I was slightly dismayed and confused to see you gave the wine an 84 calling it “thin” and “hot” while WS slapped it with a 92 saying it was “impressive” and had “powerful fruit, focus, and pinpoint acidity.”

    I suppose this could be attributed to differences in preference to some degree, or a bad bottle, but usually that would only change the score a couple of points. If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.

  3. Dear GrapesRGreat, I can’t say I’ve had any Zin from south of Paso Robles that made an impression on me. As for the difference between my score and Tim’s, c’est la vie! That’s the way it always is.

  4. Steve,

    I must agree on some level to the lack of major wine media coverage of Santa Barbara County in general. In speaking with some, I’ve often heard reference at some point in the discussion to advertising dollars. In many cases it seems the coverage is from regions where the dollars are sent that obtain media. With exception to your coverage, the SB media coverage seems thin from my perspective.

    There are several high quality winemakers that offer great values. Maybe partially it is because of the low level media coverage that the wines remain at such great QPR?

    I really love to drink wines from both Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. Curious if you’d feel comfortable sharing which blocks within BIen Nacido were special standouts?

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