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.
There’s nothing quite like being a wine writer and hitting the road. Every trip I take begins with a sense of adventure and ends with a degree of exhaustion. Inbetween is all the fun stuff.
My most recent journey, from which I returned yesterday afternoon, was Santa Barbara County, where I spent four days. I like going to Santa Barbara for many reasons: it’s beautiful, the people there are very nice (both old and new friends), the weather is gorgeous, and above all the wines are very good. It always startles me, when I’m down there, to hear from vintners who are convinced the public at large and certain segments of the wine press remain ignorant of their wines. I don’t have a clue why that would be. Whatever the cause, it’s shameful, because Santa Barbara is an extremely important part of California’s coastal wine terroir, and it’s getting better all the time.
When you’re a writer visiting a region you can only get to two or three times a year, it’s vital to pack your schedule as fully as possible, to take advantage of every precious moment. That’s why I was on the go from breakfast through dinner, each day, with multiple stops at wineries inbetween. It all culminated in my big blind tasting on Saturday at Bien Nacido, where I went through about 80 wines that had been bagged for me by Chris and Dayna Hammell. He’s Bien Nacido’s general manager (I think that’s his title) and his wife, Dayna, is part of the team, and a more likeable, professional and helpful duo could not be imagined.
Eighty wines is a lot, for me anyway, so I needed to pace myself in the days leading up to the tasting. That required getting a good night’s sleep, which meant in some cases shortening the dinners (cutting out the dessert course isn’t a bad idea anyway), but I think my hosts understood; after all, they want me to be in good shape so that my judgment is sound, as much as I want to be in good shape. It may sound obvious, but it’s really unthinkable that a wine critic would taste wines when he or she is feeling lousy or tired. I’m sure it happens, but I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.
Of those eighty wines, perhaps one-third were Pinot Noirs, and many if not most of them were from either the Bien Nacido Vineyard or the Solomon Hills Vineyard, both of which are owned by the Miller family. The best way to taste wine is in flights of the same type, and the closer in origin the wines are, the better you can make minute judgments. In this case, all the wines were very closely related, so the quality differences between them stood out as clearly as if they’d been etched in stone. It also became clear afterward, as I debagged the wines, that some blocks in Bien Nacido are much better than others, and these are generally sold to longtime customers or, I think, to younger customers somehow lucky enough to get access to them. We all know that old saying “Great wine is made in the vineyard” and in the case of Bien Nacido it’s evident, but the vineyard is a large one, and some areas are better than others. The Pinot Noirs that came from these top blocks or rows clearly stood out above the others, not just in concentration but in complexity and overall balance. (Rick Longoria’s Bien Nacido Pinot was really great, even in that august crowd.)
After the tasting, my schedule mercifully permitted me to spend my last night, Saturday, alone, except, of course, for Gus. I’d earlier gone to one of my favorite roadside joints, Pappy’s, where the 101 hits Betteravia Road. Pappy’s is like stepping back to some retro 1950s era diner of big hair on waitresses wearing jeans perhaps wrapped a little too tight. There, I’d bought a gigantic chicken burrito to go (3 pounds? Felt like it) and taken it back to where I was staying in the Red House, right in the middle of Bien Nacido, where so many itinerant writers bed down for the night in simple but hospitable and certainly picturesque pleasure. As the sky darkened and the stars came out thicker than I’d seen them in years (Orion, directly overhead, shined as light as bulbs) I kicked back tired but happy, watched T.V. with Gus in my lap, and inhaled the better part of the burrito. I’d had quite enough wine; with my supper I drank Perrier.
The Symposium was last Saturday in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. I hope you like these pictures.
The red house at Bien Nacido Vineyards, where I often stay in Santa Maria Valley
Bien Nacido on a sunny afternoon
Bien Nacido, fog blowing in
Gus outside the red house. He loves to run free on the ranch
My panel at the Symposium, which was at Byron Winery
Byron Winery, vineyards
Dieter Conje (Presqu’ile) and Josh Klapper (La Fenetre)
Jonathan Nagy (Byron)
Eric Murphy (Talley)
Bob Cabral (Williams Selyem)
James Hall (Patz & Hall)
Gus, back at the red house, after a long day!
W. Blake Gray wrote, on his blog, a pretty good book review on Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal’s inaugural edition, so I won’t, not just because Blake did but because I’d rather comment on some of the remarks that Greg Brewer made in the author’s (R.H. Drexel, a pseudonym) interview with him.
Greg is, of course, the winemaker at Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, and Melville (did I forget any?). He’s also emerging as a sort of mentor to a younger generation down in the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills (although Greg’s hardly elderly; I don’t think he’s hit 40). I always liked Greg because he was one of the people who welcomed me to Sta. Rita Hills years ago when I first visited, driving me all around and telling me who’s who and what’s what. Reporters depend on the kindness of strangers like Greg, who is no longer a stranger but a friend; I profiled him in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversation with Steve Heimoff, and I contact him from time to time with questions about wine, vintages and other things.
Greg has a reputation as an intensely thoughtful guy, a philosopher. He will go all esoteric on you, if you want, but won’t if you don’t. (I also dig his tattoos.) Anyhow, this R.H. Drexel (whoever he is) asked Greg a great question: “How do you stay relevant?”
The issue of staying relevant if you’re a winery or a winemaker obsesses me. The main place I look for clues is Napa Valley, because of all the wine regions in California, it’s (a) the hardest place to achieve relevance and (b) the hardest place to stay relevant.
This past February I wrote an article in Wine Enthusiast called “The Class of ‘72.” It was about the wineries who began life in 1972. They’ve had a tumultuous ride and not all of them have ended up for the better, sad to say. Some are stronger than ever (Diamond Creek, Caymus, Montelena) while others have languished. There’s no better illustration of “staying relevant” than to look at the Class of ‘72 and see that while some have, others haven’t.
Getting relevant in the first place if you’re in Napa Valley is difficult for multiple reasons. First off, competition is fierce. Does the world really need another $80 or $100 Cabernet Sauvignon (which is probably what you’re going to do if you have a Napa Valley winery)? The economy suggests that, no, it doesn’t. Wineries try to achieve relevance in all sorts of ways, from sending samples to people like me (to get a high score) to not sending samples to people like me (to foster the illusion of exclusivity) to hiring Famous Name growers and winemakers for bragging rights. (It also helps to get an important somm in your corner.) Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I never feel sorry for new Napa wineries that don’t really make it, because I figure that their owners are rich, and knew what they were getting into, although I’ve been around long enough to know that’s not always the case. Some of them may be rich, but they’re dumb as doorknobs when it comes to selling wine. Either way, I don’t feel sorry for them.
Even if you get relevant it’s hard to remain at the top. I’ll mention two names. Take Chappellet and Trefethen. Both are old wineries (by Napa Valley standards). Both make magnificent wine. Both are intensely relevant to me and to all serious writers. But I wonder if the collectors and showoffs, especially in China, who just want the latest new kid on the block could even be bothered to try Chappellet or Trefethen. That’s a mistake, of course, a big one. Their wines are better than ever. Winemakers learn from their experiences. They seldom make the same mistakes over and over again (well, some do, but not at the level of a Chappellet or Trefethen), and they learn new tricks to make their wines better.
I have no idea how Chappellet and Trefethen stay relevant, or if their owners even try to or care about it. Maybe they’re doing just fine; I hope so. But I’ve seen wineries that were stars for years before their ascent slowed and then they began the long, inevitable descent back to Earth. They couldn’t figure out how to stay relevant and so they didn’t.
In his interview Greg Brewer said he hopes to stay relevant by mentoring a new generation of talented young winemakers. If I were a 21-year old budding winemaker (oh, that would be nice!) I’d certainly hope that Greg would take me under his wing. But I also assume that Greg’s hardly ready to call it quits and just “mentor.” He and his wineries will stay relevant for just as long as he wishes to continue working. After that (and let’s hope it won’t be for many decades), his wineries will reach a turning point: all wineries do when their veteran winemaker dies, moves on or retires.
You meet so many different kinds of people on the kind of long, complex journey I’ve just returned from. Sommeliers, winemakers, cellar rats, winery owners both rich and not so rich, chefs, personal assistants, field hands, bartenders, valets, waiters, the spouses and kids of all the above–it’s a veritable whirlwind of social networking.
It can be exhausting over the course of three or four days to do the visiting wine writer’s dance. People want to know who you are. You can sense them probing into your character: is he authentic? A phony? Does he know what he’s talking about? Is he an asshole or a nice guy? Of course, you want everyone to feel good about your visit. The wine writer gets used to being put on a slide and examined under the microscope.
The days are long. There are tastings early in the morning, throughout the day and on into the evening. Endless schmoozing, winery tours, rides and walks through vineyards, walk throughs of homes. Then there are the inevitable late night dinners, with intense drinking and conversing. It’s fun, I like it because I like people, and it’s obviously a vital part of my job, but it can take a physical toll. Early last Thursday night, I slammed into the wall. Crashed right out until Friday morning, when I awoke at 4 a.m. wondering what the hell had hit me.
Since there are so many different personalities, one finds oneself talking about all sorts of different things, looking to fit into whatever the situation demands, trying to connect across the spaces that separate us. People want to talk about what they love. One minute a grower is telling you about clones he presumes you understand. The next, an owner is explaining the intricacies of his new press, a machine whose functions he assumes you know all about. A particular personality type endemic to the business is the winemaker who’s also a fine wine aficienado. These are people who buy and study famous wines and love to talk about them. They can tell you the difference between the 1978 and 1979 Chambolle-Musignys, how things changed when the old winemaker left and the new one arrived, where rare old wines might still be available for purchase at auction or through private connections, even how labels have changed over the decades. These tastings are the arcania of connoisseurdom. They are the high wire act of wine, and if you’re merely a humble wine writer from California, you can feel adrift.
What all the people I meet on these trips have in common are two qualities. The first is brilliance. Each is accomplished in some distinguished way. Even if you’re “just” a lowly cellar rat, the fact is that if you’re a 24 year old working in the cellar for some great winemaker, you’ve worked very hard to get and stay there, and have thus achieved something noteworthy. The wine industry is as pure a meritocracy as exists; the cream rises to the top, and on these trips I tend to meet the creamiest of the cream.
The second quality the people you meet have in common is hopefulness. The cellar rat dreams someday of being a great winemaker in his own right. The winemaker dreams of making ever greater wines in his unattainable quest for perfection. Even the millionaire businessman, for all his success, dreams of his little brand being the next Au Bon Climat, Sine Qua Non or Williams Selyem. Endemic to the wine business is the truth that as soon as the current vintage is over, no matter how bad it was, next year will be better. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” the saying goes, hope being programmed into Nature herself; and those who work with Nature live and breathe that hope. Of all the discoveries I make on these wine tours, the greatest is not some fabulous old vintage wine. No, it’s the hope in the breasts of the people I meet.