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.
My visit to Santa Barbara County continues apace, as they say. Yesterday dawned clear and cold, with frost on the windowpanes of the little red cottage. We took a little walk, Gus and I, and he basically lost it when he saw the goats—critters he’d never encountered before. Bien Nacido, which is much more than merely a vineyard, but is a working ranch, must be an infinitude of smells for a dog with a nose as big as Gus’s. He’s half Chihuahua; they were bred to be ratters, I’m told, and he is the sniffiest dog I’ve even known, able to obsess on a single point of a leaf for as long as I let him.
Anyway, later, I drove with Bien Nacido’s vineyard manager, Chris Hammell, and their new winemaker, Trey Fletcher, to the Miller’s Solomon Hills Vineyard, where we tasted through some Bien Nacido and SH Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Nicholas Miller was lucky to lure Trey away from Littorai. For such a young  man, Trey has an impressive resumé and I’m sure that both the BNV and SH brands are in good hands. Trey is obviously thrilled at being able to work with fruit of that quality.
Then it was on to Presqu’ile, a newish winery in the western part of the Santa Maria Valley whose owners, the Murphy family, have big plans. Matt Murphy showed me the enormous construction project they’re engaged in, which surely must make the contractors and builders of Santa Barbara County ecstatic in this economy. Matt plans to put in a big tasting room with tourist amenities, such as visiting chefs preparing wine-and-food pairings. The topic of bringing tourists into Santa Maria Valley often arises down here, as the wine people are acutely aware that fashionable Santa Ynez Valley gets all the foot traffic, and frankly, there’s nothing for visitors to do in SMV, except to drive from tasting room to tasting room. A real dearth of decent restaurants and no place to stay worthy of mention. So maybe the Presqu’ile people can start to turn that around. Presqu’ile’s winemaker is Dieter Conje, the dreaded [as in hair] South African who’s turned into a pal over the last year or so. He was on my panel at the 2011 Chardonnay Symposium and I guarantee he’ll be on it next year because he’s articulate, funny and smart, exactly the qualities a panel moderator needs his panel participants to possess. Presqu’ile’s wines, incidentally, are quite good. They’ve been buying fruit, but the estate vineyard is starting to come into production, and I predict it is going to be the source of spectacular Pinot Noir.
After that, we went back to the little red cottage, where I’d left Gus, and man, was he happy to see me and take another walk. He tugged me straight to the goat field, but they were gone! The Mexican field hands had brought them someplace else and Gus was disappointed. He’d particularly liked watching the rams butt each other, and I think their mounting behavior totally puzzled him.
Finally it was back to Santa Ynez for a long, lugubrious dinner at Mattei’s, a local favorite. Lots of winemakers there. It’s always a little weird to know that they’ve turned out for me, so I try to return the respect by letting them know how highly I think of Santa Barbara County wine. It’s true, and it completely blows my mind that many other writers, some quite well known, tend to dismiss the region, as evidenced by how seldom they visit it. At least, that’s what the winemakers tell me, and after all, they would know! Andrew Murray was there, his hair much shorter than when I first met him, but looking fit and trim. Chad Melville, too, whom I toasted (along with his partner, Greg Brewer, who wasn’t there) as my first hosts to Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills when I first visited. They schlepped me all over the place, answering my questions [this was back in the 90s] and being such fine ambassadors for the region—a role they’ve played with many others. One of my favorites, John Falcone, was there. I’ve known John since his Atlas Peak days but fortunately he’s now at Rusack, and also has his own brand, Falcone, from Paso Robles grapes. The delightful Paul Lato was there, enigmatic and smiling and funny. Blair Fox, Sam Spencer, Ryan Devolet, Matt Dees, a cat named Max Gleason I don’t know much about except that he was an artist in NYC and Kurt Aamman rounded out the group. Everybody brought at least one bottle, which meant a lot of wine, and personally speaking I indulged happily because I didn’t have to drive. The topics of conversation included the 2011 vintage [challenging to say the least] and what makes Santa Barbara different from Napa Valley. The consensus was that SBC is about farming, with all that implies: a sense of rectitude, of rural modesty, self-sufficiency and helping your neighbors. I’m not sure the Napans wouldn’t say the same things about themselves. But without being able to exactly put my finger on it, Santa Barbara County is a very special place; and the wines speak for themselves.
I’ll be bringing Gus with me today on the 5 hour drive down to Bien Nacido Vineyard, the first leg of my Santa Barbara trip. This will be Gus’s longest voyage yet, and I can only hope his car sickness issues have been resolved.
If I recall correctly, my first visit to Santa Barbara, for the purposes of writing about its wine industry, was to the Fess Parker Winery. It was a thrill to meet Fess himself. As a little kid, he’d been one of my heroes as Davy Crockett. I made my mom buy me a coonskin cap (as did millions of other little American boys). That fad, which mercifully didn’t last too long, probably sent the native raccoon population dangerously close to extinction. How Fess Parker went from being a T.V. and movie star to a winery proprietor, I never did find out. I think on that first trip I also visited with Richard Sanford–at the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard? Memory fails.
I like Santa Barbara, as a place and as an appellation. Perhaps because they developed their wine industry more slowly than the North Coast, their AVAs make a lot more sense than, say, Sonoma’s. There are only four of them: the Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon and the Santa Rita Hills. The latter used to be part of the Santa Ynez Valley, but wiser heads prevailed in determining that it should be its own appellation on the basis of weather patterns. The Valley is one of only two wine valleys in California (Santa Maria is the other) that lies east-west rather than southeast-northwest (as, for example, are Napa Valley and Alexander Valley). This so-called “transverse” orientation allows chilly maritime air to funnel in from the coast, at Lompoc, spilling over the Santa Rita Hills and cooling them down. By the time you get to the 101 Freeway, the coastal influence has dropped considerably; and at Happy Canyon, it’s virtually non-existent, although there must be a little of it, because otherwise Happy Canyon would be as hot as the Mojave Desert.
For years there’s been talk of adding a fifth AVA, Los Alamos, which sits kind of inbetween Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. If they ever do that, I’m going to have to figure out what makes Los Alamos special, if anything. The American system of appellations always provides wine writers with endless fodder for intellectual speculation. Appellations are elusive things. At first, you think they make sense, and then, the more you look into them, the less sense they make. I wrote about the expanded Russian River Valley the other day, and that elicited several comments, among which was one from Charlie Olken, whose blog is always a good read. He said that the Russian River Valley is a really cumbersome appellation–too big, too varied–a view with which I largely agree. But there are plenty of other equally cumbersome appellations and nobody ever complains about them. The Santa Cruz Mountains doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because they grow their Pinot Noir on cooler west-facing slopes and the Cabernet Sauvignon on warmer east-facing slopes, and where’s the unity in that? Napa Valley is a crazy mixed up appellation, making terroir sense only in the most general way. (The real terroir of Napa Valley is money. Money, more than weather or soil, is what primarily influences all the wines of Napa Valley.) Then we have other nonsensical AVAs: San Francisco Bay, Sonoma Coast, Northern Sonoma.
But Santa Barbara County has got it about right. I imagine there will be opportunities for further subdivisions one of these days. Maybe the Santa Rita Hills can be broken up into northern and southern sections. They may decide to carve something out of the northern Santa Ynez Valley, in the Foxen Canyon area. But in these matters of appellations, my advice always is to go slow. No use rushing into legal things you’ll regret later.
Some of the things I’ll be doing in Santa Barbara, in addition to my big blind tasting on Thursday, will be seeing friends, both new and old. Among them are Nicholas Miller, Andrew Murray, Paul Lato, Chad Melville, John Falcone, Ryan Devolet, Dieter Cronje, Dan Gainey, Greg Brewer and Pierre LaBarge. If I run into Jim Clendenen, that will be the cherry on top of the whipped cream on the chocolate cake.