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What I’m drinking this winter

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We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.

Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.

I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.

Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.

Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.

Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.


The “Sideways” effect on Merlot is officially dead

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Somebody has to be the first to say it, so I will: Merlot’s back.

Did it ever leave? Everyone said so, after Sideways appeared to destroy the wine’s viability among consumers. I was never so sure; the facts never supported it, only anecdotes. For example, ACNeilsen reported, in 2006 (two years after the movie came out), that “the next most popular wine [in America, after Chardonnay] is Merlot,” a fact they said would deal “a blow to all those who relished in the dissing of the varietal in the film Sideways.” Then, two years ago, Neilsen again reported “that Merlot has the single largest consumer base of any varietal wine in the U.S.” Not only that: “More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white.” So, in retrospect, we can see that all those reports of the demise of Merlot were exaggerrated.

Still, I didn’t pay much attention to Merlot in the years 2005-2011. I mean, I certainly reviewed the wines as they came in, and some of them got some pretty good scores. But I can’t remember writing an article about Merlot, or having a serious discussion about it with a winemaker, as opposed to, say, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I did plenty of writing about those.

But over the last 6 months, I’ve been thinking about Merlot a lot. This was occasioned by the simple fact of so many great ones I happened to review. I did a tasting earlier this year that planted the thought in my head that maybe there actually is a reason to drink a fine California Merlot at a fancy meal, instead of a Bordeaux blend. Then, last week, I did my big tasting at the Napa Valley Vintners, where the stars of the show included a clutch of Merlots [Seavey, Darioush, Coho]. Since this was a blind tasting, I didn’t know that these spectacular wines were Merlot until they were unbagged. When I found out, I was surprised–but not overly surprised, as the groundwork already had been lain for my new-found appreciation. I also was pleased. Merlot has been the “Rocky” of red wines for decades (despite its consumer popularity), the underdog, always losing to Cabernet. Nothing against Cabernet, but I usually root for the underdog.

Since last Nov. 1, I’ve tasted some really marvelous Merlots, but I have to say that of my 10 top ranked, 8 came from Napa Valley or its various subappellations. They included Merlots from Mt. Brave, La Jota, Turnbull, Jarvis, Hunnicutt, Frazier, Rutherford Grove and Keenan. (The other two were a Matanzas Creek, from Bennett Valley, and a Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve, with a Sonoma County appellation.) Napa Valley remains the quality standard in Merlot, as it does in Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. We can argue about why: is it Nature, or Nurture? Nature has blessed Napa Valley with preternaturally warm, rainless summers and the cool evenings that give California’s coastal valleys their diurnal drama. Napa’s warmer than most of Sonoma, being an additional mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland. It’s also drier; the mountains wring moisture from the coastal clouds. On the nuturing side, Napa growers can lavish viticultural care on their vines, while winemakers can afford to keep yields low and buy new oak barrels–at least, they can at the level of a Jarvis (where the 2008 Estate Merlot will set you back $75) or a Mt. Brave (the 2008 Mount Veeder retails for $60).

If there’s any single thing that marks these Merlots, it’s sheer lusciousness, which has always been Merlot’s obligation and strong suit. Here’s how I described the Turnbull 2007 Fortuna Vineyard Merlot (from Oakville, 94 points, $55): “Does what Merlot’s supposed to do, flatter the palate with soft, voluptuous richness. Blackberry pie, red cherry, currant, licorice, mocha, bacon and pepper flavors flood the mouth, leading to a long, spicy finish. Defines the opulent, cult style of California Merlot.” Most of my top Merlot reviews run along similar lines.

So, if there ever was a Sideways effect on Merlot, it’s as dead as a doorknob, and it’s time for wine writers to alert the public: Merlot’s back. Go out, find yourself a great bottle, and see.


Making sense of the Merlot anomaly

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I don’t think there’s ever been a wine as maligned and misunderstood as Merlot. Even people who don’t have a clue what it is seem to have an opinion. Blame it on Sideways, if you will. The idea somehow got out there that Miles hated Merlot–Miles was a wine expert who knew what he was talking about–and therefore Merlot must be hateful. Never mind that by the end of the movie Miles was inhaling ‘61 Cheval Blanc, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The damage had been done.

What we know of the movie’s impact is largely anecdotal, but there are some statistics suggesting that Merlot went into a time of despair post 2004. That year, there were 55,100 bearing acres of Merlot growing in California, the most ever recorded by the state Department of Food and Agriculture. By 2009, that number had fallen to 50,000. Meanwhile, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec all were up. Growers budded Merlot over to other varieties because they couldn’t sell it or, or thought they couldn’t sell it, or, if they could, they couldn’t get enough money for it.

And yet…there’s always been something contradictory about Merlot that brings to mind Mark Twain’s “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The Nielsen Company reported in 2010 that

• More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white
• Consumer affinity for Merlot is based on the key factors of taste and value
• Merlot has the highest repeat purchase rate of any wine variety in the U.S.
• Merlot drinkers strongly agree that Merlot is a good, versatile and food-friendly everyday wine
• Merlot sales, measured in both dollars and volume, have grown steadily since “Sideways” was released in 2004
• The number of U.S. households purchasing Merlot is more than double those purchasing Pinot Noir
• Over 50 percent of current U.S. Merlot drinkers are consuming more Merlot than they did five years ago
• Despite rumors of a “Sideways effect,” 45 percent of participants in Nielsen’s custom survey of Merlot drinkers never saw the movie, and 93 percent of those that saw the movie say it had no effect on their opinion of Merlot

Furthermore, two years ago The Wine Institute, in a study that asked the question “What is the reason for Merlot’s popularity?,” reported that “Merlot is the second leading red varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon purchased by Americans today,” after having increased in sales nearly 700 percent since 1994. (Yes, I know that “second leading red varietal” stands in direct opposition to Nielsen’s “More American households purchase Merlot than any other wine variety, red or white” statement. I don’t know what to make of it.)

How are we to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable facts? I’m not the only one wondering. Tomorrow, I fly up to Washington State to be on a panel for the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. The topic: Merlot and its travails. The panel is chaired by Rob Griffin (Barnard Griffin Winery), who told me he wants me to offer my thoughts on such issues as Should growers plant it? Does Merlot have a future, or in his words has “the blush gone off the variety?” “There’s a certain loss of consumer confidence” in Merlot, Rob said. What can be done about it?

I’m not sure I have any reassuring answers. I don’t know how to reconcile the Nielsen findings with the decreasing acreage (at least, in California) or with the anecdotes. From my perspective, Merlot seems something of an afterthought in restaurants; despite its apparent consumer popularity, I seldom hear it mentioned when I dine at fine establishments, and I can’t remember the last time I heard a sommelier recommend Merlot. That’s not me bashing Merlot; it’s just a fact. Could this be another instance where the broad mass of consumers is one step ahead of the cultural elites?

But there’s one additional thing you have to take into account in order to make sense of the Merlot anomaly: price. According to the Nielsen report, “[O]ver 80 percent of respondents to the survey consider Merlot ‘a good everyday and food wine,’ while roughly 70 percent find Merlot to be ‘a good value’ (rising to ‘great’ when priced under $12 per bottle)…”. In my world–and I suspect in the  world of most people who read my blog–we tend to think more about ultrapremium wines than inexpensive ones. If we play the word association game, ask me about “Merlot” and I’ll probably start talking about Chateau St. Jean, Rutherford Hill, Duckhorn, Jarvis, Turnbull, Shafer–all expensive wines to which I give high scores. Unless you asked me to, I’d probably overlook the value aspect of Merlot, as exemplified by such brands as Cameron Hughes, Pedroncelli, Black Box, Avalon, Bogle and Tin Roof. Yet those are the Merlots Americans are buying. This forcefully reminds me that it’s important for a wine writer to get out of the bubble and look at the real world, where real wine drinkers live.

Still, that can be little solace to the producers of expensive Merlot (and by the way, Barnard Griffin’s 2009 Merlot is an affordable $17, so I have to assume it’s selling okay). Consumers inclined to dig deep into their wallets are proving over and over again they’re willing to shell out big bucks for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, not to mention certain foreign wines. Not so Merlot. I suppose that’s the real question: When there are so many really good Merlots around, how come more people don’t trust it?


Musing about Merlot

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I have to agree with my buddy and Wine Enthusiast colleague, Paul Gregutt, when he says that most California Merlot priced between $6-$8 is “just watery plonk.”

That’s from Paul’s Seattle Times column yesterday. Now, Paul takes seriously his job of promoting Washington State wines, often to the detriment of California wines (although he loves hanging out here during Washington’s evil winters, and why wouldn’t a grape like our climate?). In the same way, I feel obligated to defend California wines as among the world’s best. Washington State does produce some pretty good wines. I don’t get the chance to drink them a lot, but whenever I’m up there, if Paul’s around he treats me to treasures from his cellar.

But he’s right about cheap California Merlot. I’ve tasted about 200 Merlots at all price points this year. Of those, I scored around one-third 85 points or less. Now, that’s a “good” wine, by Wine Enthusiast’s definition, but it’s not really one you’d want to be stuck with over a nice meal, especially when the price is $30, $49, $56, as some of these were. Granted, none were as awful as the one I found undrinkable, which will be unidentified, except here’s the review: A horrible wine. Smells like rotting garbage, tastes like cough medicine. Even at seven bucks, it was a total ripoff. Something obviously went tragically wrong with that wine, but we can’t hold it against Merlot, the variety, when somebody starts with crappy grapes and then makes a crappy wine.

More typical of Paul’s “watery plonk” Merlots was this one, which I scored 81 points: Raw and harsh in green tannins, with bubblegum and raspberry sour candy flavors. The problem with the tannins in Merlot is that, unless they’re really fine, they stick out like a sore thumb, and rob Merlot of the velvety, sexy mouthfeel it should have. (I love Hugh Johnson’s characterization of Pomerol as “fleshy and delicious.”) When the tannins are off, so is everything else.

I will identify a typical 86 point Merlot I reviewed because, while the score isn’t all that high, it’s only $11, and I gave it an Editor’s Choice special designation: the Greystone 2009, also with a California appellation. Here’s my review: Softly delicate and dry, this affordable Merlot has lots of charm. It’s a smooth, medium-bodied wine with pleasant cherry, cola, pepper and sandalwood flavors.

Not a bad description, if I do say so myself!

Paul, however, misses the boat when he paints all of California with the same brush, arguing that “the state can’t seem to find a handle on what Merlot is, or should taste like.” He can’t have access to the best Cali Merlots, the way I do, but if he could, he’d understand that there is a California Merlot style at the high end, as exemplified by Rutherford Hill, Keenan, Duckhorn, Turnbull, Hall, Pride Mountain, Shafer, Jarvis, Yates Family, Kennefick Ranch, Carter and others, all of which have Napa Valley AVAs or sub-AVAs (except for the Pride Mountain, which is Napa-Sonoma, and the Carter, which is Napa-Carneros). These wines are rich, dense and deeply flavored, soft and lush in the mouth, and stuffed with jam fruit and cedar flavors, often enriched with cocoa. They are distinguished from their brother, Cabernet Sauvignon, by gentler tannins. They are, pace Hugh Johnson, fleshy. Wouldn’t it be great to stage a blind tasting of some of these against some of Paul’s Washington faves, such as Leonetti, L’Ecole, Quilceda Creek, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Sineann and Northstar?

By the way, the highest scoring Merlot I ever reviewed was Chateau St. Jean’s 2005 Reserve, which I gave 96 points. It cost $90, the second priciest ever, after a $100 Blankiet 2004 (95 points). Those are serious, seriously good Merlots. I think even Paul Gregutt would like them.


I didn’t get the Merlot memo

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Apparently, Merlot is “back.” That’s what Bloomberg News’s Ryan Flinn (my friend and a fellow Oaklander) says in this online article, which has the wine “rebounding” after its Sideways debacle.

I did not know that, but then, there are lots of things I don’t know. So I decided to do a little research and see if Merlot really is rebounding.

The statement that got me was, “California winemakers say sales of upscale merlots are rising. And, after four years of declines, new acreage devoted to the grape almost tripled in 2009.”

I went to my “California Grape Acreage Report, 2009 Crop” (the most recent available from the Calfornia Dept. of Food and Agriculture): In 2009 there were 46,229 acres of Merlot in California (bearing and non-bearing). In 2008 there were 47,263 acres. In 2007 there were 49,781 acres. In 2006 there were 53,384 acres. So what’s this “new acreage devoted to the grape almost tripled in 2009.”?

Nor did non-bearing acreage increase in 2009 over previous years. (The Dept. of Food and Agriculture considers vines under 3 years of age to be non-bearing.) I won’t bore you with the numbers, but in 2009 there were actually fewer non-bearing acres of Merlot than in 2008, 2007 or 2006. So I called Ryan and asked how he got the “almost tripled” statistic.

He said he got it because in 2008 there were 57 new acres of Merlot planted in California, and in 2009 the number of new acres had risen to 158. So it was technically true that from 2008 to 2009 the number of new acres of Merlot “almost tripled.”

But consider a few more facts. In 2006, the number of new acres of Merlot was 449–way more than 2009’s 158, which was the lowest number of acres of new Merlot of the entire decade (except for 2008). So 2009 did not represent some new era of Merlot installation. It was just a few more vineyards.

And consider, also, that 2009’s 158 new acres represented about .03% of the total number of acres of Merlot in California. That hardly seems indicative of a rebound.

Finally, where were those new Merlot vines planted? In order, by county: San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Napa (49 acres), Mendocino, Sonoma and Alameda (!!). The problems here are obvious. There may be some decent new plantings of Merlot coming online, here and there, but not enough to make the slightest different in the overall market.

I don’t blame the winemakers Ryan interviewed for talking Merlot up. They included Philippe Melka, Janet Trefethen, Jeff Smith (Hourglass) and Doug Shafer. They all make great Merlots. But of course they’re going to say positive things about it when a reporter asks them.

I think the truth about the state of Merlot was more accurately expressed by Christian Moueix, in an interview in the Jan. 31, 2011 issue of Sommelier Journal. “The fame of Merlot was partly destroyed by that stupid movie Sideways…Petrus was not directly affected by that movie, but my basic Merlot that I used to sell in the States–about 1 million cases all told–was almost destroyed…”.

There are difficulties with Merlot, more so than with any of the other Bordeaux red varieties. Give it too much heat, and the wine turns heavy and dull. Not enough heat, and it’s thin and harsh. It seems to like clay soils, which are not found everywhere in California, especially in the mountains and hills. In my experience, more serious winemakers are eliminating Merlot from their Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends, relying more on Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Yes, there will always be great Merlots and popular ones on restaurant wine lists, but I have to respectfully disagree with Ryan. I don’t think Merlot is on the rebound. It had its day in the sun. It may still be the third-most consumed variety in America (after Cabernet and Chardonnay), but I’ll bet a lot of that Merlot is in boxes and jugs, and was grown in the Central Valley.


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.


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