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.
What’s the killer social media app for a winery?
I can remember back in the early 1990s when the Internet, or the World Wide Web as most of us called it, was so new that nobody knew precisely what it could be used for. The search was on for “the killer app,” the thing that everybody would want to do, which would therefore earn its users a great deal of money.
As it turned out, some young guys, like Sergei Brim and Larry Page, realized that a search function–the ability to find anything amidst the vast (and growing vaster) hoard of information–was the classic example of a killer app: they created Google and got rich. A little while later, Mark Zuckerberg realized that social networking was the most natural thing in the world for a World Wide Web to do. He created Facebook and also got rich.
(A lot of porn site entrepreneurs also got rich. Enough said about that.)
So those were at least three things the Internet could do (aside from obvious B2B functions that are boring but crucial to companies, not to mention email). The question of the last 5 or 6 years has been, what is the killer app on the Internet for small businesses, and particularly for small wineries–the thing that will help them make money?
I’m not prepared to say, because I don’t know; but yesterday I asked my Facebook friends how they use social media at their wineries, and the overwhelming response was typified by this: “As a tool, FB, Twitter, Pintrest, WEM , are all wonderful ways to connect to your clientele” and this: “I rarely use FB/Twitter for promo and sales. Mostly just to reinforce the simple ‘voice’ of [the winery] and stay in front of my ‘likers’.”
In other words, communication. Several people warned that, as soon as the winery is perceived as trying to sell stuff, it turns friends and followers off. This remains the irony and contradiction within social media.
Central Coast Wrap-up
The Central Coast wine industry seems to be booming, according to this report from the Pacific Coast Business Times. Indeed, you can feel this buzz everywhere you go in wine country. Such a contrast to a few years ago, when a gloomy atmosphere pervaded. I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara next week for the Chardonnay Symposium, and am stoked by the thought of seeing all the winemakers and tasting their wines.
Blind tasting the cults
Interesting article by my old editor and colleague, Jim Gordon, in Wines & Vines, where he writes of an event at the Culinary Institute of America in which winemakers tasted each other’s wines blind, something they “rarely” get to do.
Winemakers really should do it more often. In fact, they should do it all the time. I know certain cult winemakers who’ve never tasted their own wines blind, much less tasted them against competitors. They might be surprised to find less expensive wines out-performing their own–according to their own palates! But then, that potential danger in blind tasting is probably why more winemakers don’t do it. And anyhow, when it comes to sales, it’s about image as much as it’s about quality. Along these lines, yesterday my sister emailed to ask why some bottles of wine are so heavy. She wanted to know if they cost more than lighter bottles, and, if so, how do the wineries make up for the difference? I explained to her, of course, that some wineries package their wines in heavy bottles in order to make the consumer think the wines are more important. This works very well, and the consumer is willing to pay more for a heavy bottle than for a light one. My sister was surprised, but she needn’t have been. P.T. Barnum spelled this out more than a century ago in his famous dictum about suckers.
I’ve been reviewing some really good Grenache Blancs lately that me me wonder if this isn’t the up and coming white variety in California.
Other critics, it seems to me, give more emphasis to Roussanne and Marsanne than they do to GB. But good as those wines can be, they’re sometimes too oaky or heavy in some way. GB on the other hand is usually unoaked or just neutrally oaked, and so pure and bright in fruit and acidity, it offers something for everyone.
For example, the Jaffurs Vineyard 2011 Grenache Blanc, from the Thompson Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, is one of the best I’ve reviewed this year. It was 35% stainless steel fermented and 65% fermented in neutral oak, which must be responsible for the creamy, smoky notes. But you’d never say this wine is oaky because it isn’t. Also typical of the successful GBs, the wine did not complete the malolactic fermentation, which is the secret behind the bite of green apple acidity that is so cool and refreshing.
I always get orange and tangerine fruit in GBs, although judging by winemakers’ notes, others find everything from melons (cantaloupe and honeydew) to peaches and citron. I can’t imagine a Chardonnay lover not enjoying the richness of a good GB, but I also can’t imagine someone who likes a crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc turning it away. It’s right in that middle of the spectrum, light-bodied, light-hearted and low in alcohol. Makes you think of a summer day in a garden (which is how Hugh Johnson used to describe Rieslings, but it applies equally to GB).
Other fine producers include Zaca Mesa, Tangent, Coghlan, Stark, Tres Hermanos and Tercero. Note the prevalence of Santa Ynez Valley origins. There’s no question that this wonderful, warmish inland valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, has established itself as the capital of Rhône varieties, red and white, in California. The Thompson Vineyard, by the way, is from the Los Alamos Valley, which, I understand, will be an official appellation sooner or later. It’s a very interesting part of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. I think of it as wedged between the warmer, more famous stretches around Los Olivos, Santa Ynez town and Ballard, and the cooler Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Los Alamos Valley, then, sits at the balancing point where the valley goes from cool to warm, which is always a nice place for a wine region to be. I suspect somebody could grow a nice Merlot down there, but I don’t know anyone who does, because it would be a hard sell.
If you’re ever down that way, make a quick visit to the funky little town of Los Alamos, which is on the west side of the Freeway. It has some big antique shops to browse. Eat at Full of Life Flatbread Restaurant, which makes pizzas to dream about. All the local winemakers hang out there. They have a great local wine list. If I lived in the area, I’d be at Flatbread all the time.
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.
Forty years isn’t particularly old for a European winery, but in California, it’s positively Methuselean. A handful of wineries began in 1972—Caymus, Jordan, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap, Edmeades—almost all of them in the North Coast. This was a time when viticulture in Santa Barbara County was mostly a gleam in people’s eyes; Richard Sanford was busy with his Pinot Noir, in the western Santa Ynez Valley region that’s now called the
Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. But inland the valley was still mainly cattle and horses.
In 1972, though, a group of friends bought some land in the Foxen Canyon region, north of Los Olivos. The next year they planted grapes to the usual mishmash: Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and so on, “to see what would work,” as they say on Zaca Mesa’s website.
They hired a guy named Ken Brown as their first winemaker, then planted Syrah in 1978—the first planting of that variety in the county. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zaca Mesa now is celebrating their birthday with some big events that will culminate in May with the 40th Anniversary Celebration.
What makes the winery so unique is not only its age and the quality of the wines, but the roster of winemakers who’ve worked there. It’s literally a who’s who of winemaking in Santa Barbara County: not just current winemaker Eric Mohseni, but Brown himself, who went on to establish Byron, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Daniel Gehrs, Adam Tolmac (Ojai), Chuck Carlson (Carlson), Benjamin Silver (Silver), Clay Brock (Wild Horse—the list goes on and on, making a stint at Zaca Mesa University almost a prerequisite for winemaking in the Central Coast.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to review Zaca Mesa’s wines for many years, and can say that few wineries anywhere have such a distinguished track record. The throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to see what would stick gradually evolved into a Rhône specialization, which in itself helped make the Santa Ynez Valley a hotbed of Rhône activity. (It’s fair to say that only one region specializes in Rhône-style wines, and that’s the Santa Ynez Valley.) Zaca Mesa’s top wine always is their Black Bear Estate Syrah, from a small block on the estate vineyard that was planted with cuttings from Hermitage. I don’t know if it’s the pedigree of the Chapoutier vineyard or the terroir of Santa Ynez Valley that makes this one of the greatest Syrahs in California, but it is. I gave the 2009 ($60) 96 points, but production was a mere 367 cases.
Other Zaca Mesa wines that always are good include the Z-Cuvée red blend (often a bargain), the fancier Z Three GSM and the Z Blanc, one of the better white Rhône blends in California.
I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”
I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.
But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.
The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?
* * *
In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”
This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.