In these dog days of summer, with dangerous wildfires burning up and down the coast, and the country in a state of political hallucination, I retreat into the pleasanter realms of wine history, where everything is neat, tidy and comprehensible.
Well, almost. Dan Berger’s recent column on Santa Barbara wine history ignores one of the Founding Fathers of modern-day viticulture and winemaking in that county, H.W. “Bill” Collins, whose Tepusquet Creek vineyard was planted as far back as 1964, according to the historian Leon Adams, in his signature 1973 book, The Wines of America. It was Collins, Adams tells us, who planted 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, Sylvaner and Chardonnay “on virgin land in a sparsely populated area where nobody had ever tried to grow grapes before.”
That area was, of course, the Santa Maria Valley, and specifically a high bench of the San Rafael Mountains above the winding Sisquoc River, 20 miles inland from the sea. Those first grapes, Adams reports, were bought by the old Mont La Salle winery, belonging to Christian Brothers, in Napa Valley; the winemaker who bought them was then-Brother Justin Meyer, who famously went on to found Silver Oak. Meyer, says Adams, “said the wines were of superior quality.”
One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there (which is why Santa Barbara vintners developed the more inland Happy Canyon region). As for Sylvaner, I don’t know if it would ripen in the Santa Maria Valley, but who cares? Nobody would buy it anyway; maybe a somm here and there. Instead, the valley has become a hotbed (pardon the pun) of Pinot Noir, but fifty years ago, only a clairvoyant could have known that Pinot would become a superstar.
History is a very important thing to “get right” but it’s all too easy to get it wrong, or at least to omit the details, like that of Collins planting his vineyard well before the other vintners Berger mentions (Mosby, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Fess Parker) planted theirs. Having said this, as one who’s done a lot of historical wine reporting over the years, I’m the first to testify how hard it can be to pin down the facts. My own employer, Jackson Family Wines, who owns the Tepusquet Vineyard, on their own website states that the vineyard “was planted between 1970 and 1971.” But whether or not the Tepusquet Vineyard was or is the same thing as the Tepusquet Creek vineyard of which Adams wrote, I have no idea. A tantalizing hint is contained in this reporting from The Prince of Pinot, who states that a certain “Bill Collins” was—not the owner, but the vineyard manager of that original vineyard, which was owned by Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei. (The Prince of Pinot article agrees that the planting dates to 1964.) And Uriel Nielson, we know, planted his eponymous vineyard, now owned by Byron (also a Jackson property) in 1964. Coincidence? Was Nielson’s Tepusquet Creek vineyard that which today is known as Nielson?
All this at any rate suggests how slippery history can be, an alarming thought when we consider Santayana’s prescient warning (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and also how certain politicians in this country try to take cynical advantage of certain people’s ignorance in order to launch themselves into power. An ignorant fool is always more susceptible to the snake oil of a charlatan than an educated man or woman, who cannot be persuaded by some charlatan’s blatant lies on Twitter. An ignorance of wine history, fortunately, is not nearly so dangerous to the republic as ignorance of political and cultural history. But still, ignorance, in any field, never is a good thing. One might object—it certainly is feasible—that it hardly matters who planted what, when; what counts is how the wines are today. That is certainly true. But anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine, from a property with significant history behind it, will find her enjoyment of that wine immeasurably enhanced by a proper understanding of that history.
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.
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.
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.
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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!
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
Lutum Sanford & Benedict
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.