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A tasting of Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay



I was really looking forward to our first Chardonnay tasting yesterday, after a half-year of exploring Pinot Noir. Although Pinot is inherently a better, more complex variety than Chardonnay—at least, in California, IMHO—the latter is the most important variety and wine in our state, and across America, and the winery I work for, Jackson Family Wines, has a big stake in Chardonnay. So I thought it was important to taste intensively across all of the important appellations. We begin with Santa Maria Valley.

Chardonnay somehow seems to be in the crossfire of critics, who always have something to inveigh about it, or so it seems. These days, the invocation is for drier, lower alcohol and more streamlined Chardonnays—dare I call them “minerally”? In this Santa Maria Valley tasting, which was completely blind, we set ourselves the task of determining just what makes some wines more balanced than others, despite all of them being grown in close physical proximity to each other, and made more or less identically, along white Burgundy lines: barrel fermentation and aging, stirring on the lees, the malolactic fermentation.

We tasted eighteen wines, over nearly four hours; there was a great deal of conversation. My top-scoring wines (and the other tasters generally agreed) were Alta Maria 2014 Bien Nacido ($40, 95 points), Ojai 2013 Solomon Hills ($35, 95 points), Jackson Estate 2013 (98 points, about $20) and Alta Maria 2013 Rancho Viñedo ($40, 96 points). Yes, it was gratifying, but not entirely surprising, when the Jackson Estate took top honors. Other wines tasted were from Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Presqu’ile, Qupe, Chanin, Paul Lato and Rusack.

These Santa Maria Valley Chardonnays shared much in common. All show masses of fruit, due to the cool climate and exceptionally long hangtime of this southerly growing region. All exhibit mouthwateringly brisk acidity, and a firm minerality that I always think comes from the sands and fossilized seashells scattered throughout the soil. Sometimes there can be a slightly green note, although not in great vintages, such as 2013. The best wines show a real sense of terroir—not that generic feeling that the grapes could have been grown anywhere. And all the wines handle oak well, although, to put this into the proper context, I should say that on average the wines have between 10% and 35% or so of new oak. Beyond that, the barrel influence can dominate, especially when the wood has a good amount of char.

The greatest problem with these Chardonnays concerns residual sugar. Often, the wines are noticeably sweet, which in my book is a no-no. Sometimes, I think, the winemakers leave a little sugar in there to counter-balance the acidity, which can be fierce. But sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any discernible reason for it. There’s an exceedingly fine line between balanced R.S. and unbalanced R.S. For me, the former happens when the wine tastes opulent and honeyed yet finishes throroughly dry. The latter unfortunately strikes when the finish is not dry, giving the wine a somewhat insipid, cloying taste; the word “candied” frequently arises. Finding exactly where this line is is the supreme task of the winemaker.

The Santa Maria Valley is the least well-understood important coastal appellation in California. Critics and other tastemakers seldom get there, due mainly to the absence of tourist amenities such as hotels and restaurants. Whenever I visit, I stay at the Santa Maria Radisson near the airport—good enough for my needs, but well outside the appellation’s boundaries. In the valley proper, and especially on the bench and in the southern hills, Chardonnay can be as spectacular as any other region makes it. But, as our tasting showed, even though Chardonnay seems to be a “winemaker’s wine” that adapts to the most extreme interventions without resistance, it really is not an easy wine to make in a balanced way.

As we did with Pinot Noir, we’ll continue our Chardonnay tastings, moving northward up the coast. Next time: Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. How does it differ from Santa Maria Valley? We’ll see.

Climate, Santa Maria-style, and the vagaries of bizarre vintages

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It’s one thing to write or talk about how consistent the Santa Maria climate is. We all know about how the fog blows in in the evening and then melts away the following morning, giving way to turquoise skies.

All this is true, but to be here, as I am now and have visited frequently for the last 25 years, is to appreciate it anew. For an eastern-born boy, where the weather changes every 15 minutes, such invariability of the annual pattern is mind-blowing. Each year has two seasons, wet and dry; each day has two times, foggy and sunny. So it was when the mastodons roamed these parts, and so it is today.

Yesterday, Thursday morning, I awoke at 6 a.m. to an impenetrable ground fog. When I walked Gus I needed my hoodie. Even when the surface fog blew off at 8 a.m., the high clouds remained throughout the morning.

By 1 p.m., when I met Jonathan Nagy, Byron’s winemaker, for lunch in Los Alamos, the sky was cerulean blue, clear, infinite. The sun was strong and hot on the skin. Yet the day remained cool, never getting out of the 70s. Stand in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s hot. Move a corner into the shade and the breeze, and it’s cold. This is indeed the “refrigerated sunshine” that Hawk Wakawaka, I think it was, so aptly described. The vines, like us, to it are sensitive.

Like the rest of coastal California, the Santa Maria Valley had a dry, record warm winter. Then May came. I think, in the annals of California vintages, May of 2015 will have some renown, recounted by aging geezers around bars. It set records for chill and damp, just at a time when the plants thought it was all right to blossom. Budbreak had occurred early; May’s moisture posed the risk of widespread botrytis. Growers turned a hopeful eye towards June. This month, so far, has extended the pattern for weirdness. The rainfall of last Tuesday and Wednesday was epic, by mid-June standards. Thursday, when I wrote this, finally was warm (not hot), dry and breezy, ideal weather for blowing away water in the vines. But it’s still to early to assess whatever damage this bizarre June storm caused. Although I’m here in the Central Coast and not in close touch with the media, my understanding is that Wednesday’s rain in the North Coast set all kinds of records. In Oakland, it rained for the better part of a day, not heavily, but consistently. I can’t recall anything like that in June in the 36 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area.

Viticulturalists—the folks who keep the vineyards healthy—are watching the skies. This has been an unsettling period for them. They know well that this is farming, and that farming never has absolutes when it comes to the weather. But even absent absolutes, they’ve come to expect at least some sort of pattern. But the pattern, alas, seems to be shattering before their very eyes. It may well have been warmer in January than in May. It may well have been wetter in June than in February. Unless you understand our climate, you cannot appreciate how insane these realities are.

As I reread what I wrote, I realize I’ve made it sound like all vintages are the same down here in the Santa Maria Valley. I do think that vintage variation here tends to be less than in more northern regions, like Carneros or Anderson Valley. Still, it exists, especially with wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, low-tannin varieties than transmit the terroir into the wines with high-tension precision. The problem in Santa Maria Valley is a cold year, like 2011. I’m hearing increasing comparisons between 2011 and 2015 from winemakers and growers, but I think it’s way too early to go there yet. July and August could continue this cool pattern; equally, they could be hot. Nobody has the slightest idea. Our most expert meteorologists are puzzled. Even with these increased predictions of a strong El Nino in 2015-2016, no one is willing to say what it means. More rain? Average rain? Will Southern California get more rain than Northern California? Will the drought continue, or won’t it? You’d be hard-pressed to find a weatherman who will say anything remotely specific about any of this. The only good news is that this recent rainfall has reduced the early danger of catastrophic wildfires. A blessing.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Gems vs. rhinestones

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I was chatting the other day with the great Richard Arrowood when he said something that really caught my mind. “I want to focus on gems, not rhinestones.”

What is a “gem” of a wine? It’s an unofficial term, of course, and therefore subject to interpretation; but I think Richard meant wines that are made in small quantities and come from a single vineyard (historically, Richard is one of the important pioneers of vineyard-designated bottlings in California). And moreover, the vineyards must have proven themselves over time to possess unique characteristics that make the wines particularly interesting. So much the better if and when the winemaker has long familiarity with those vineyards, and knows how to apply his art gently enough to allow the terroir to shine through, and yet indelibly enough to stamp the wines with his own style and personality.

This balance of natural terroir and winemaker style fascinates me. It’s not easy sorting the two out. Like tangled hair, they interweave with and cross over and under one another; separating out which strand is which is an impossible task. After all, why do we separate human activity from natural activity? Are we humans not part of the natural world? (Plato may be to blame for this conundrum.) And yet, he who would understand wine must attempt to analyze what nature, for her part, and man, for his, contributes to wine.

It used to be easier to distinguish between the two for the simple reason that, in times past, all winemakers in a given region tended to use more or less the same techniques. Because they all imposed a similar signature upon the wines, any differences between the wines had to be due to terroir, right? And so we got the Bordeaux communes, each of which had its own personality.

How much more complicated things now are! Winemakers have a plethora of clones and rootstocks for any varieties they want. Their canopy regimens and pruning practices are more sophisticated than 18th century viticulturalists could have imagined. Winemakers also can choose barrels from just about anyplace, toasting them in any way they want. They can select from among a vast array of yeasts, or depend on indigenous yeasts. Their choices of destemming, crushing and fermentation vessels are limited only by their budgets. They can take out alcohol and tinker with their wines in the most amazing ways. In America, unlike most of Europe, they have an entirely free hand, without an overweaning government telling them when to pick or how to blend. And with every touch of the hand, they replace, or add to, what the natural terroir gives the wine with what they themselves want it to have.

But the final definition of a gem, as I think Richard meant, has to come from the winemaker’s mind. With all our emphasis on terroir and winemaking technique, we sometimes forget that the formative character of a wine—call it its Platonic nature—begins in the winemaker’s imagination. He or she first creates the wine mentally, as an idea or image, and then transmigrates it, godlike, into physical manifestation. Some winemakers do this formulaically. Others adopt the artist’s attitude. It’s risky to be an artisanal winemaker, because sometimes your idea of art is contradictory to what the market—as interpreted by your sales force—wants. If you march too stridently to the beat of a different drum, people won’t buy your wine. But if you follow the dictates of the mob, your vision suffers. This is the stuff, the challenge and irony, of what truly artistic winemakers confront every day.

* * *

I’m off on another trip to Santa Barbara County and the lovely, windswept and austere Santa Maria Valley, “a house of sand and fog,” home to Cambria and Byron wineries. Will be down there for the rest of the week, but I’ll try to get daily posts up. Salud!

A Thursday afternoon Pinot Noir tasting



I did a small tasting session yesterday up at Jackson Family Wines for some folks and, as it was highly informative, I thought I’d share some of the findings here.


All the wines were 2012 Pinot Noirs. Here was the lineup:

Foxen Fe Ciega

Siduri Clos Pepe

Domaine de la Côte, Bloom’s Field

Foxen La Encantada

Cambria Julia’s

Loring Cargasacchi

Brewer-Clifton 3D

Lutum Sanford & Benedict

Brewer-Clifton Machado.

You’ll notice that all the wines were Santa Rita Hills except for the Cambria. I thought it would be nice if we included the Julia’s (a wine we at Jackson know well) to see if we could detect it and also if it showed a “Santa Maria Valley” character as opposed to a “Santa Rita Hills” character. After all, the two appellations have nearly identical climates, although the soils are different, and are separated only by the 101 Freeway and a little bit of latitude.

My top wines easily were the two Brewer-Cliftons, the two Foxens and the Loring. All showed what I think of as the fleshiness I want in a great California Pinot Noir: rich, ripe, almost flamboyant fruit, great tannins and acidity, enormous complexity, and deliciousness right out of the bottle yet with the capacity to age. Interestingly, all five were at least 14% alcohol by volume. By contrast, the wine with the least alcohol, the Domaine de la Côte, at 12.5%, was my least preferred wine.

The tasting was blind, and all of us thought the Bloom’s Field was dominated by oak. Even though the tech notes say there was zero percent new oak, still, the wine was aged in barrel for 20 months, and the vanilla and char were overwhelming. I think the problem was that the wine simply didn’t have the power to support the extracted wood. It’s fine to aim for a low alcohol wine, but not at the cost of trading away richness and ripeness. This is California, not Burgundy. If you take ripeness away from our Pinot Noirs, there’s not much else that remains.

The Lutum, which was made by Gavin Chanin, was an interesting wine, but even though the alcohol was offfically 13.7% I found it a bit hot and rustic. I think, concerning these lowish alcohol levels, that we really have to resolve this discussion about how to keep Pinot Noir “balanced” and yet retain its opulence. Balance for the sake of balance seems silly to me, if by “balance” you mean simply alcohol below 14%. I don’t think “balance” is determined by a number. Shouldn’t deliciousness and opulence be a part of the equation?

Incidentally, the four Foxen and B-C wines were fabulous, but aside from neither of them having an obsession with alcohol levels, they were separated by the fact that Greg Brewer loves whole cluster fermentation whereas Billy Wathan destemmed all his berries. And yet their wines were magnificent, stunning and, yes, balanced. This shows that the degree of whole cluster is irrelevant, provided, of course, that those stems are lignified if you do include them.

Did I identify the Julia’s? No. Mea culpa. It was right in the middle, score-wise.

Anyhow, I can think of worse ways to spend eternity than tasting Pinot Noir and talking about it! Salud, and have a great weekend.

Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and the loss of a pioneer, Daniel J. Gainey

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Santa Barbara County has been much on my mind lately. Last month, we at Jackson Family Wines did our “Sand & Fog” event in L.A. that focused on the Pinot Noirs of the Santa Maria Valley. I followed that up with a small private tasting of additional Santa Maria Pinots. Next week, I’ll do Santa Rita Hills Pinots, up at the company in Santa Rosa. Since Jackson Family Wines has no properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I’ve chosen the following eight wines, which I think give a good representation of the region:

Siduri 2012 Clos Pepe

Loring 2012 Cargasacchi

Brewer Clifton 2012 3-D

Brewer Clifton 2012 Machado

Domaine de la Cote 2012 Bloom’s Field

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict

Foxen 2012 La Encantada

Foxen 2012 Fe Ciega

As you can see, the vineyard sourcing is from all over the appellation, north to south and west to east. There’s also a good spectrum of clonal material ranging from the Dijons to older selections like Pommard and Calera. Some of the wines were fermented without the clusters while others, notably Greg Brewer’s, were whole cluster fermentation. And alcohol levels—always of such interest—range from the Cote’s 12.5% to Siduri’s 15.6%. All of the wines are, of course, sourced from individual vineyards or from specific blocks within vineyards.

Does a blended wine give a better representation of regional terroir than a single-vineyard wine? This is a tough question to answer. A blended wine—say, a Pinot from La Encantada, Cargasacchi and Brewer-Clifton—is hard to imagine in the real world. But if you had no idea what the Santa Rita Hills was like for Pinot Noir, such a mythical beast would undoubtedly give you a good idea. On the other hand, it’s terrific fun to explore individual vineyards, especially provided that you’re able to do so over many vintages. Fortunately, I can always go into my database and see what I’ve said over the years about most of these vineyards. Encantada, Fe Ciega, S&B, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi—I have a history with these wines, which are all very great expressions of their terroir.

For this Santa Rita Hills tasting, I think we’ll do it blind. It will be instructive to see if, for instance, we can tell the Domaine de la Cote and the Siduri because both are the outliers in terms of alcohol level. I, myself, am not always to detect highish alcohol in a California wine. I always try to, before peeking at the label, but I’d say my batting average is just that: average. I also want to see if we’ll be able to detect the whole cluster wines blind. I’d look for more body, more spiciness and a different feeling to the tannins. I don’t think Greg Brewer would whole-cluster his Pinots if the stems weren’t fully lignified. I’ll be looking for that architectural element that stems can give, which you can feel in the mouth.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Barbara County, just as I was writing this post, I got an email that Daniel J. Gainey, the founder of Gainey Vineyard, has passed away, at the age of 89. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Gainey, although I was closer to his son, Dan H. I was a frequent visitor to their lovely winery, which was just down the road from Santa Ynez town, where I often stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn. Gainey made excellent wines, from cool-climate Pinots and Chards grown in their Santa Rita Hills vineyards to the Merlots, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from warmer vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. As a matter of fact, before the advent of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, I used to write that Gainey made the best Merlot in the county. Over the years, I gave 48 Gainey wines scores of 90 points or higher. Not bad.

Mr. Gainey was a true pioneer, having founded his winery in 1984, when practically no one had heard of the Santa Ynez Valley, or of Santa Barbara County wine, for that matter. He was a true wine lover and a gentleman. My sympathies to Dan H. and the entire family.

A day on the road: My drive to Santa Maria



Set out on my Santa Barbara trip yesterday around 9:45 a.m. It was still mild in Oakland, but those clouds were moving in in advance of a big storm. Which we need!

Not for nothing is the 880 Freeway known as the Nasty Nimitz. They don’t allow big rigs on the 580 freeway, so the 880 gets them all, rumbling along. The freeway, besides being a parking lot most of the time, is also an ugly freeway, 40 miles from Oakland to San Jose of strip malls and degraded infrastructure. In Milpitas, traffic came to a complete halt, but fortunately I had good radio to listen to. Michael Krasny was interviewing Jacques Pepin on KQED’s Forum. What a fascinating man Chef is. I recalled a time when the two of us, Pepin and I, had been at a gala gourmet thing down in Carmel Valley. I was going back to Oakland, so he hitched a ride to SFO with me, to catch a plane back east. We piled into my little Honda, but I proceeded to get lost—I missed the turnoff back to the 101, so we had to go over Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Poor Jacques was frantic that he’d miss his plane, but we got to the airport in plenty of time. But he was so nervous that I parked at the airport and accompanied him into the terminal, where we had coffee. So that’s my Jacques Pepin story.

Just before the 237 exit I saw why traffic was so backed up: a horrible accident. The fire department was loading someone onto a stretcher. You really take your life into your hands on these freeways, especially the Nasty Nimitz.

Well, as bad as 880 is, it’s always a relief to hit the 101 South at San Jose. You’re pretty much assured of smooth sailing for the rest of the way to Santa Barbara. Whenever I drive through the Coyote Valley, I always look to the mountains, to the west. Ridge is somewhere up there, although I’m not sure which peak. It’s funny, how the same thoughts hit me at the same places.

For the next hour or so, we (Gus and I) will be traveling through this part of southern Santa Clara and San Benito counties, until we come to the city of Salinas. This used to be one of the great vineyard regions of California. Today, it’s Silicon Valley; most of the vineyards are long gone, although I do notice a billboard advertising the Santa Clara Valley Wine Region, about which I know precisely nothing.

Of course, you also go through Gilroy along this stretch of 101. In high summer, the air is perfumed with that heady scent, slightly sweet and acrid, of garlic, and even now, with November just two days away, it’s there—such a good smell.

When I come to the big red Disneyana barn, we’re about one-quarter of the way. That barn is one of my landmarks for progress along the road. From here, the turnoff to Monterey is just down the road, if I were going that way. Then it’s Salinas City, and, just beyond, the opening up of the Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, and the tremendous wall of the Santa Lucias, a spine of the Coast Ranges that peters out west of Paso Robles, more than 100 miles to the south. Along the flank of the mountains are the Santa Lucia Highlands; I think of old friends, like Rich Smith, the Pisonis and Dan Morgan Lee, as well as new friends, like Kris Kato, at Carmel Road. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country.

One by one the Salinas Valley’s little farm towns file past: Chualar, Gonzales, Soledad, King City, Greenfield. At Gonzales, I always remember my car getting stuck in the mud outside one of the Pisoni boys’ house, hard by the freeway. That was embarrassing. That was the same trip when Gary Pisoni kindly offered to share his game with me: an entire haunch of venison. I was grateful, but had to decline. I mean, what am I going to do with half a deer?

On this hazy but sunny day, the broad expanse of the valley lies like a sleeping infant cradled in the embrace of the Gabilans and the Santa Lucias. At Soledad, the temperature is 73 degrees. I used to get a lot of speeding tickets on this stretch of the 101 until I wised up and slowed down. How much earlier will I get to Santa Barbara if I go 80 instead of 70? Not enough to risk getting busted.

As we approach Soledad I see the big sign that always makes me grin: “It’s Happening in Soledad.” I’m not sure what’s “happening” there, but for me, it’s about a quick pit stop at Starbucks for a caffeine jolt and maybe a cookie. Now, we’re about halfway to my destination.

At Lagomarsino Avenue, approaching King City, comes another of my landmarks: a few miles of enormous eucalyptus trees, planted on the west side of the freeway, presumably as a windbreak. In the famous hundred year freeze of December, 1990, these trees froze to death in the 17-degree temperature. Or so it seemed: they remained blackened, with no foliage, that summer. But the next year, the leaves came back, and today they’re as sturdy as ever. Somewhere deep down inside their tree-souls, a spark of life remained.

I have my favorite landmarks, but Gus has one of his own: The Camp Roberts Rest Stop in Bradley, with its dog walk!


Rest Stop

“I give this rest stop 100 points.” — Gus

I always try to imagine what goes through Gus’s mind when he does all his sniffing. One analogy is a big wine tasting. All those different scents. Probably Gus is looking for the best ones, the most interesting and savory. Some don’t interest him at all: those are the smells ordinaires. Gus, a connoisseur of smells, is looking for the Grands Crus of scent!

Beyond the rest stop we come to the oil wells on the east side of the freeway. I always wonder why some are pumping and some aren’t. Guess I’ll never know, but those rigs do signal that Paso Robles is just down the road.

The temperature gradient between the northern Salinas Valley and Paso Robles is well known. It heats up rapidly in summer. Even though winter is just around the corner, this season has been so mild that there’s still a temperature effect. At Paso it’s 82 degrees as I drive by. After that, the landmarks pile up: The slow, gradual climb to the top of the Cuesta Grade, and then the 1,500-foot, roller-coastery plunge through the Los Padres National Forest (so fire plagued), with its dramatic canyons and soaring vistas. Then past SLO town (I could live there). Then the 101 veers closer and closer to the coast, so on a typical summer day you lose all the heat of Paso as you approach the Five Cities, whose names I always try to remember, usually unsuccessfully: Shell Beach, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Oceana and Grover Beach. (Calling them “cities” is s stretch, but that’s what the locals like.) At Shell Beach is one of those dramatic views when the freeway rounds a curve and suddenly the Pacific Ocean is revealed in all its blue glory. (Another one is on Highway One, just south of San Francisco, as you drive into Pacifica.) Today, it’s not blue, because the fog is rolling in as the big storm front approaches. By the time we hit Pismo, Santa Maria is so close, you can smell it: just 26 miles away. At some point, south of the Five Cities, coastal vineyards pop into view. The best known is Laetitia’s, in the Arroyo Grande Valley, a fine if underappreciated terroir for Pinot and Chardonnay. A few miles south of that, and the vista to the east levels out and opens up to show the San Rafael Mountains, the northern boundary of the Santa Maria Valley. Just inside the Santa Maria city limits, the mountains take an abrupt curve to the southeast, and on a clear day you can see Bien Nacido, a little carpet of greenery on the brown slopes of the Santa Maria Bench. Just next to it, but not visible, is Cambria.

And that is my destination for Friday, when I’ll be tasting and chatting with my remarkable panel of winemakers for our big Dec. 2 event in L.A., of which I will be writing much more.

Have a great weekend!

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