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A day on the road: My drive to Santa Maria

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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!


A day in the life: My trip to Santa Maria Valley

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Woke up at 6:30 on a gloomy, foggy Saturday morning at the lovely Radisson in Santa Maria, so close to the airport that, walking Gus, I could see the ghostly forms of little planes sulking on the grey tarmac, across a weed-choked lot. Gus kept smelling the gopher holes but nothing came out to smell him back, fortunately.

The hotel is bursting with tourists. They don’t seem to be wine people. Everybody smiles as Gus trots by, off leash, staying loyally by my side. I stash Gus in the room while I grab some eggs and bacon and much-needed coffee. The line for the single toaster is so long, I decide to forgo my English muffin. Ah, the joys of the on-the-road hotel buffet. Two cups of java later, I am sufficiently fueled to get through the day.

It’s still too early to leave for my first appointment, so, back in the room, I flop back and leaf through the new Tasting Panel magazine. Fattest I’ve ever seen it: Life is good for Andy Blue and Meredith May. See Karen MacNeil’s column, a bit of poesy on the virtues of “place.” A photo of my old buddy, Phillip Pepperdine, whom I met when he was brand ambassador for St.-Germain; now he’s with Bowmore.

More pix of handsome, runway-ready Karl Wente, who seems to be a fixture in Tasting Panel. I always like Fred Dame’s “A Conversation With…” article. This month his guest is Ryan Stetins, somm at Parallel 37 in the S.F. Ritz-Carlton, a restaurant considerably “more approachable” (Fred’s words) than its predecessor, The Dining Room, which always got high marks from the critics but is no longer in tune with the weltanschauung. I personally don’t like it when a waiter puts a napkin in my lap. “Thank you, but I can do that by myself.” The overly-formal clearly is on the way out in favor of cazh (as in casual), which is fine by me. I also always like reading Randy Caparoso’s take on things. This ish, he muses on the 2011 Rutherford Cabs, and comes down loving them. As did I. The conventional wisdom is that 2011 was a tough year (nearly every winemaker I’ve ever talked to about it has called it “challenging”), but I found the Cabs pretty good, especially if they were from hillsides. In retrospect, the vintage was not so awful as is commonly said.

Drive up the 101 a few exits, get off at Betteravia, and head east past Pappy’s Mexican down Santa Maria Mesa Road to Cambria, where I have a nice visit with Denise Shurtleff, the winemaker. Then it’s around the bend to Byron, where I meet up with Jonathan Nagy. He takes me on a tour in his truck of the Santa Maria Bench, the uplifted, northern section of the Santa Maria Valley, about 400-800 feet above sea level, where the alluvial sandy soils are fine and well-drained. As with most benches, this is the tenderloin of the appellation, home to vineyards including Cambria, Bien Nacido and Byron’s Nielson, which was the first modern vineyard (1964) ever planted in Santa Barbara County.

The Santa Maria Valley is remarkably cool despite its southerly latitude because its east-west orientation allows maritime air to funnel in. This photo of Jonathan looks toward the west;

 

NagyBench

you can see that fog out there by the Guadalupe Dunes, about 20 miles away. The bench itself is called that because it resembles a bench: The Tepusquet Ranges are the upright back, the seat itself is where most of the vineyards are, and then there’s a big dropoff, which you can see in this picture,

 

dropff

of about 200 feet, down to the Sisquoc River. This shot shows the bench from below.

Below

After my visit, I drove out to the Guadalupe Dunes, on the beach.

Dunes

The nearby little town of Guadalupe, pop. 715, is pretty basic. The interesting thing is how the wind starts howling in every day around noon or so. This picture shows Old Glory flapping stiffly towards the east.

 

Flag

That same wind sweeps into the Santa Maria Valley and is why it’s a cool place (in both senses of the word) for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. Around 3 p.m. the fog starts piling in, carried in on the winds.

 

Fog

(Sorry about the sideways thing!)

It’s a very dramatic effect. Unfortunately, and from my experience of many years, few people really understand the Santa Maria Valley; in fact, it’s the least understood major Cru in California. The valley itself has few if any nice places to stay or eat, unlike the more famous Santa Ynez Valley to the southeast. Consequently, even wine writers don’t get there much on their junkets. Ditto for sommeliers. We’ll be having an event on Dec. 2 down in L.A. on the Santa Maria Valley and bench, in order to let folks know what’s going on. I’ll be writing more about this later.

It is odd, by the way, that I’m taking notes on my Santa Barbara trip in a Napa Valley Vintners notebook. It’s because I have about a million of them. Memo to Napa Vintners: The spiral is really tough on us left-handers.

 

NapaBook

Anyhow, after Guadalupe, it was back to the Radisson, where I ended the day with a perfectly fine dinner of crab cakes and Ahi tuna salad in the hotel restaurant, followed by my fave, a vodka gimlet with freshly squeezed lime juice at the bar, which even had a decent three-piece rock band. I sometimes complain about life on the road, but you know what? I kinda like it, especially when Gus is with me.

Gus


To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74

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Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!


What electric car patents and some AVAs have in common

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Elon Musk made a bit of news last week when his Tesla Motors announced that the company is “opening all its electric car patents to outside use.”

This “open sourcing” means that anyone can use Tesla’s proprietary procedures without having to worry about a patent lawsuit.

Why would a successful company like Tesla give the farm away? Originally, Musk had hoped that “the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive…sales and marketing power” to promote electric cars. While this would have presented Tesla with serious competition, it also would have promoted the concept of the electric car, which is a hard sell for most consumers. This “rising tide lifts all boats” concept would, Musk hoped, in the end benefit Tesla.

But it didn’t happen. “The unfortunate reality,” he said, “is…electric car programs…at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent.” Musk therefore is gambling that giving his manufacturing secrets away for free will help lift the tide that will help lift Tesla.

This story neatly dovetails with something that’s been on my mind lately, namely whether a winery in an appellation should promote only itself, or promote also its appellation, which means promoting all the other competing wineries in its appellation. This can be a tough decision for a winery. For example, I remember when I was a critic how surprised I was that Fess Parker Winery almost never put local appellations on their wines, like Santa Ynez Valley. Instead, they put Santa Barbara County. I thought it was wrong then, and told company officials so, but they argued that in their judgment no one had ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley, whereas everyone knew about Santa Barbara (which conjures up images of white-sand beaches, palm trees, movie stars and affluence). When I asked them, in turn, how the public ever would learn about Santa Ynez Valley, if wineries wouldn’t put it on their labels, there was radio silence.

We have a similar situation with regard to the Santa Maria Valley. It’s a great place to grow wine grapes, as I assume readers of this blog know. But it’s off the beaten path; even wine tourists to Santa Barbara County are more likely to visit Santa Rita Hills or Santa Ynez Valley than this northwestern, fairly remote part of the county. How, therefore, should S.M.V. wineries deal with the situation?

In different ways. Although they all (to my knowledge) put Santa Maria Valley on their labels, they still struggle with the public’s general absence of understanding of this region (which is shared, alas, in too many cases by sommeliers and merchants). Therefore, it would stand them all in good stead to promote the valley, but this would mean cooperating together, which is easier said than done. There have been efforts over the years to promote Santa Maria Valley, mainly through a local association, but, having followed these efforts, I have to admit they’ve been fairly tepid. Some influential local powers organized the Chardonnay Symposium a few years ago (with which I was involved), and held it at Byron Winery, where it largely showcased Santa Maria Valley wines. But this year, the Symposium closed up shop and moved north to Shell Beach, so now, even that slight exposure of the valley’s wines to consumers has ended.

My own feeling is that a single winery can’t promote its appellation, especially these lesser-known AVAs. A winery doesn’t have enough money, manpower or clout to pull off the massive consumer educational program that’s needed. It takes collaboration between all the local wineries, but as I said above, this can be politically difficult to achieve, because after all, these wineries are competing against each other. But in the end, collaboration is something they should do. It’s like Ben Franklin’s old woodcut says: Join, or die.

join_or_die_flag

 

Unity is better than disunity. It worked for Napa Valley: that region promoted itself with ruthless efficiency, so that now, a winery that isn’t even making very distinguished wine benefits from having “Napa Valley” on the label. Even earlier than that, it worked for Bordeaux. Promoting the appellation is a tried-and-true practice.

* * *

I’m off to Anderson Valley today, to spend a little time at Edmeades. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been there and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be reporting from there for the next several days.


Live from Santa Barbara County: Day two

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Short post today, as I’ve been down here in Santa Barbara County shooting videotapes (or rather, being shot) for a project for Cambria’s blog. It was a very long day yesterday, shooting from just past dawn until after sunset, because the videographer wanted to take advantage of the “golden hours,” when the sun is low in the sky and bathes everything in a 24-karat glow.

As a result, when the day was over, Ellen and I headed back to the guesthouse, instead of going out to eat. There was some pizza at home plus, of course, a lot of wine, including one of my favorites, Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, so we just kicked back and went to sleep early. There were coyotes all over the place—at Cambria, at dusk, a large pack of them howled so loudly that the hair on the back of Gus’s neck bristled, and, later, back at the guesthouse, when I took him out for his nightly ritual, he refused to walk beyond the small circle of light provided by the front door light, but instead peered fitfully out into the shadows, his little nose quivering. There were beasts out there; I couldn’t see them or smell them, like he could, but I could sense them. Our in the country, I’ve been repeatedly warned to keep a close eye on my dog. If it’s not a coyote, it could be a hawk, or a rattlesnake. In Oakland, the main thing Gus and I have to worry about is cars. Vive la difference!

Cambria’s winemaker, Denise Shurtleff, and I talked a lot about the “Santa Maria Bench,” the unofficial name for the stretch of Santa Maria Valley where the best wines are made. This includes, of course, Bien Nacido Vineyard, which is right next to Cambria’s vineyard. I have written and blogged several times over the years about Santa Maria Valley, which is little known, not only to the general public, but even to the so-called gatekeepers, sommeliers and folks like that. They may understand that it’s in Santa Barbara County, but less well comprehended are its special qualities: the well drained, gravelly-limey soils, the long, dry growing season, the moderately warm days and, especially, the downright cold nights. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country par excellence, as well as cool-climate Syrah. The near total absence of water makes for small grapes that result in concentrated flavors, which natural acidity brightens.

Part of Santa Maria Valley’s problem is that there’s very little infrastructure for tourists to enjoy, unlike the neighboring Santa Ynez Valley. Santa Maria Valley has almost nothing in the way of charming little towns, B&Bs, good restaurants, art galleries and so on, and so wine lovers don’t really know about it, or its wines. Some of us are thinking of putting together an educational road show; if anything happens, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, thanks as usual for sticking by my blog during these days of personal transition for me. I’ll continue to post five days a week insofar as that’s possible, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.


Live, from Santa Barbara County

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I’m at the Cambria Winery guest house this cold but clear May morning, in the Foxen Canyon part of Santa Barbara County, a beautiful, hilly region I think of as midway between the cooler, more austere Santa Maria Valley and the warmer Santa Ynez Valley. You take Foxen Canyon Road all the way through the Santa Maria Valley until the road winds south and starts to climb into the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. That’s Foxen Canyon.

Gus and I drove down here yesterday. It was a beautiful day for driving, sunny and warm, and also a good day for judging the climate differences along the Central Coast. Around Gilroy the temperature already was in the high seventies. As you come into the Salinas Valley, it cools down to the low seventies, then soars as you hit Paso Robles, where it was over ninety. Then down the dramatic Cuesta Grade toward the coast, and it gets downright cool again, back into the low seventies, before rising once again here in Foxen Canyon, where it was about 84 degrees at mid-day yesterday.

We passed Bien Nacido Vineyard on the way into the Santa Maria Valley, and I appreciated once again how beautiful its vineyards are, set on the benches and then climbing into the hills. There, the climate is cool; with an east-west orientation, the valley is so wide and flat, there’s nothing to stop the foggy maritime influence from sweeping in from the Pacific, across the city of Santa Maria. Right next door to Bien Nacido is the expansive Cambria vineyard, set, like its neighbor, on the Santa Maria Bench, about which Cambria’s winemaker, Denise Shurtleff, and I will be talking later today.

But by the time you get to where I am now, in the guesthouse, just about a mile south of Foxen Winery, the hills pretty much cut off the coastal influence—not entirely, not as much as, say, in Happy Canyon, but largely. This is still a coolish climate, but it’s getting warm, which is why the great wine from these parts—evidenced by Foxen’s and Cambria’s bottlings–is Syrah. We had a glass late last night of Cambria’s Tepusquet Vineyard, following a wine-filled dinner at Grappolo, and it was damned good.

On this trip down from Oakland to Santa Barbara, I always have three must-stops: first, the Rest Area in Bradley, which is where Gus has his first break of the journey. Then, ten miles later, I pull in for a quick pit stop at Starbucks, in Paso Robles, for a java jolt. In wintertime I’ll have a hot cappuccino. Yesterday, in that 90-degree heat, it was a cold vanilla latté. Finally, when you hit the ocean at Shell Beach, my third stop is DePalo’s Market, for a sandwich, which I’m afraid to admit I eat while driving.

I’m here at Cambria to do a video with Denise Shurtleff. My cousin, Ellen, is joining me; she lives in Malibu, and almost always drives up for my visits to Santa Barbara County, just to hang out with me. Her being with me on these expeditions makes them immensely more enjoyable. My job is a nice one, but don’t let anyone tell you these long trips to wine country can’t be lonely for a writer.


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