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Day 3: Santa Barbara visit

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Down here in Bien Nacido Vineyard, the vines are looking healthy and green. I read yesterday that Paso Robles experienced severe frost last month. Here, 100 miles further south, there was evidently some damage, especially in the Santa Ynez Valley, but not as severe. Summer arrives much earlier in Santa Barbara County than in San Luis Obispo. Yesterday, it was about 90, although today a front is moving through with a big cooldown, which I think the growers welcome. Such a beautiful vineyard, Bien Nacido, bringing back memories of such great wines. Much construction too, of new roads and even dwellings on this large, almost feudal estate, which suggests to me business is good despite the economy.

I tasted a red wine yesterday, a Syrah from Happy Canyon I won’t identify, but it was the kind of wine I’ve been writing and thinking about: distinctly Californian, massively ripe and fruity. However you don’t get a wine that ripe without paying the price of excessive softness. The vintner consequently acidified the wine, so much so that in spite of a luscious aroma the first impression in the mouth was “Wow, is this ever sharp!” Acidity is a very tricky little beast. Wine needs enough of it to be lively and fresh, but it should never stick out. Well, maybe in certain white wines (Riesling, or a nice dry sherry), but not a dry red table wine, in which the acidity should be a secondary impression, not the primary one.

I read in Lewis Perdue’s news fetch that the TTB has reopened public comments on the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. This is turning into another of those appellation wars over boundaries. The issue was that the original petition had defined a certain area, but a few growers to the north of the boundary challenged it and demanded to be included. The original petitioners said, No, we think we got it right in the first place. TTB, ever sensitive to controversy, has thrown up its hands and said, “We can’t decide, so let’s open the public comment period.” (Their actual statement was “Given the conflicting evidence…TTB has determined that it would be appropriate to re-open…” etc.) So here we go again. I’m not taking sides because I’m not familiar enough with the precise acres in question, but I hope they resolve this quickly, and by this time next year we’ll have a Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. It’s a unique, distinct growing area, the name has historical meaning (hearkening back to the first Russian colony), and we need to start carving up this silly Sonoma Coast mega-appellation ASAP.

If you want a chuckle, check out Tom Wark’s blog from yesterday. He takes on this guy, Parnell, and lets him have it right in the eye, Osama-style. Way to go, Tom, always a respecter, appreciator and defender of fine wine writing.

Blake Gray, honorable colleague, is now Blake Gray, CWP (Certified Wine Professional). Seems he took an exam and passed it. I’m glad Blake took a good-natured poke at himself (“Please do not use the abbreviation W. C. [i.e. water closet/toilet),” because now, I don’t have to. Congrats, Blake!

And now early Friday morning, sun coming up over Bien Nacido. I am waiting for a 7:30 a.m. pickup after a rousing late night at a restaurant in charming old Orcutt with a bunch of winemaker friends, some old, some new. I’ve developed a case of laryngitis from talking so much, but I managed to squeak out a thank you toast expressing the connection I feel to beautiful Santa Barbara County and its wonderful wines, which seem to get better with every visit.


Santa Barbara, here I come

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Off to Santa Barbara County very early this morning for my semi-annual tastings and winery meetings. As usual I look forward in particular to visiting Santa Barbara County. One of California’s most beautiful wine regions, it tends to get overlooked in favor of the North Coast (Napa-Sonoma). I’ve been told by SBC vintners that they do feel overshadowed by certain media who prefer to report on the wine country north of San Francisco.

It’s important for wine writers to show their faces. Sure, you can sit home and wait for samples to come in, and they will, but there’s nothing like actually getting to these places, to walk the vineyards and smell the wildflowers and meet new people and discover new, interesting things. I suppose it’s possible to taste through a bunch of Santa Rita, err excuse me Sta. Rita Hills Pinots at home and arrive at various conclusions, but to know those lands intimately (or as intimately as a non-resident can), to have discussed things with the growers and winemakers, and to have done so over a period of years, adds immeasurably to the experience. That’s not just to my benefit, it’s (hopefully) to the benefit of readers, with whom I can share the things I have learned.

There’s something else, too. Winery owners or CFOs or whoever makes the decision to send samples want to know that the person they’re sending to is serious. I’ve heard lots of complaints from winery personnel that it’s hard for them these days to know who’s a proper, credible reviewer and who isn’t. Mainly that’s because of the bloggers. Ten years ago, a winery had to send samples to maybe 8 or 10 reviewers. (P.R. people: weigh in on this, please. How many writers were you sending to in 2001?) Nowadays there’s a blogger everywhere, all clamoring for samples, not to mention writers for tiny little magazines of unknown provenance. No wonder winery proprietors are paranoid– and sending samples isn’t cheap. In my case, it’s to reassure proprietors that I’m still here, Wine Enthusiast still cares about them and their areas, and we want to continue or develop our partnerships into the future.

Partnerships? What do I mean by that? I mean that we, the wine media, need the wineries to keep us writers in business, so we have something to write about. And they, the wineries, need the wine media to publicize them (if they care about publicity to begin with, and most do). This partnership doesn’t imply anything complicit or unsavory. It’s a professional relationship, like any other, a symbiotic one that’s healthy for both sides. Relationships only get dysfunctional when they’re parasitic.

Not everyone wants, cares about or needs a visit from a writer like me. They’re happy to go their own way, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re doing just fine, and feel that a review could “fix” something that ain’t broken. Maybe they’re just shy. There are lots of shy winemakers; I could name some in Santa Barbara that hate chit-chat and public displays of forced affection almost as much as I do. I’m good at overcoming this inclination on my part, because it’s my job to get out there and socialize and, besides, I’ve discovered that the hardest part of socializing is the anticipation. Once I jump in, everything’s fine, especially if there’s lots of good liquid flowing. Some winemakers feel they have something to prove. They’re overbearing, constantly on message; they turn me off. That shrill approach may work with newbies, but not for long. Fortunately, most winemakers are sensitive and intelligent; they desire an adult conversation as much as I do. I’m hoping and trusting that will characterize my Santa Barbara meetings this week.


Santa Barbara update

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If you’re wondering why I didn’t have a new post yesterday, it’s because my #%@&*?! laptop had a nervous breakdown. I was on my last morning in Santa Ynez, and had a post in mind, but for some reason the ‘puter couldn’t figure out how to send it to the blog. I’ve had it with that antique laptop, and figure it was a sign from above to go out and buy a new one. On my way home, I stopped by my friend Thomas Reiss’s graphic design and web design firm, Kraftwerk, in SLO city, and his young, tech savvy staff recommended I buy the new Macbook Air, explaining that the reason it costs so much is due to the coolness factor. Well, I am nothing if not cool, so sometime this week, I’m heading over to the Apple Store with Chuck, who helps me organize the incoming wine but who also knows more about tech stuff than I do. Whether or not a new laptop will result in a better blog remains to be seen, but it certainly make this a more regular blog.

At any rate, I digress from what I wanted to talk about, which was my Santa Barbara trip. It was a quickie, mainly for an upcoming Wine Enthusiast article on what I’m calling “winemaker dives” — places where winemakers hang out with each other. These aren’t fancy white tablecloth restaurants where they do winemaker dinners or host important clients. They’re greasyspoons, hash houses, rock and roll bars, tacquerias and pizza joints, the kinds of places you and I frequent. Well, I do, anyway. And I had a great time. You’ll read all about it in the February issue, but we went to this funky old barbecue joint way up in the hills where the bikers lit up doobies and a hippie duo cranked out some pretty good Delta blues. That night we ate at a great pizza joint in Los Alamos that was packed with enough winemakers to teach a semester of undergrads at U.C. Davis.

Most of the talk in Santa Barbara was about the vintage, of course: the wild, crazy ride that’s been  2010. The mantra goes like this: bizarrely cold spring and summer. Massive heat spike in August. Then back to cold. Then last week’s rains, fairly heavy. The one bright spot is that right now we’re experiencing a welcome week’s worth of warm sunshine. As of this past weekend, I was told, there’s still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to come in, as well as a boatload of Syrah. The Santa Rita Hills vintners were cautiously optimistic; so were the inland winemakers. My impression is that the Central Coast will have an easier time of it than the North Coast. But, as winemaker after winemaker emphasized, 2010 has been a challenge, in which vintners and growers alike had to rise to the occasion. One interesting comment from a winemaker was that, when everybody else was opening their canopies to expedite ripening during the cold months, he didn’t. “I knew the heat was coming,” he explained. “It always does.” As a result, he avoided the sunburning so common throughout the state. Or so he claimed.

A bunch of us also had a chat about the merits of labeling wine Santa Barbara County, or using the smallest appellation to which the wine is entitled. (The county’s other appellations are Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon.) Some winemakers felt that they should use only Santa Barbara County, in order to promote the region to consumers. I, personally, feel that you should always use the most distinct appellation you can; but, on the other hand, my position is a critical and esthetic one, not a commercial one. I don’t have to sell wine. The winemakers do. So if they don’t want to use the smaller appellations because they feel it’s counter-productive, I have to respect that.

The Santa Barbarans also tend to feel overlooked by consumers. They think the average wine drinker doesn’t understand how good their wines are. They also think that the wine press doesn’t pay them enough attention, a belief with which I concur if we’re talking about certain well-known magazines. I myself have devoted lots of time and attention to Santa Barbara County for a long time, and I hope to pay it even more attention in times to come. This is a very important and very distinctive California winegrowing region, and it’s only going to get better.


Santa Barbara, day 2

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Still in Santa Ynez, with the Big Temperature Warmup scheduled for today. Yesterday I visited and tasted with Matthias Pipping, the winemaker at Grassini, who’s also doing his own thing with Sanguis. Terrific and compelling wines. Then over to Nick DeLuca at Star Lane and Dierberg wineries, in Happy Canyon. From there to Doug Margerum at Happy Canyon winery as well as his own brand, Margerum. I’ll have a Happy Canyon piece on Wine Enthusiast’s website shortly, so will just say that these folks are betting on Bordeaux varieties, and they advance their case, for me personally, every time I do a little tasting. But they still have their work cut out for them, and I said so.

It’s not always easy saying things to a winemaker that aren’t flattering. They’re human; I’m human; it can be awkward. But if they ask, then in the spirit of candor I must answer. We all see things from our unique vantage points, and it can be helpful to see yourself, and your work, from another person’s point of view. Of course, what you do with that feedback is up to you.

Lots of talk about the vintage. Like I wrote yesterday, people down here in Santa Barbara don’t seem as worried as they do up north. Lots of talk, too, about social media. Where’s it going, what should they do with it, what’s it worth. But mostly we talked about grapes and winemaking.

The subject of “natural” arose a lot. What is a “natural” vineyard? Is it one in which you use no herbicides or pesticides? In which your canopy management techniques are held to a minimum? Is an old-fashioned head-trained vine more natural than a trellised vine? No easy answers. The wines I appreciated yesterday were the more “interventionist” ones. I know we’ve visited this topic before, and undoubtedly will again, but if the object of a wine is to be delicious, then the winemaker should do whatever it takes to make delicious wine! I just don’t understand applying an ideology to winemaking.

It struck me also that you can be ideological about not acidifying, but if you’re picking your grapes really ripe, in order to attain flavor, then the natural acidity is going to drop, and the resulting wine — no matter how much flavor it has — is going to be heavy and lifeless if you don’t acidify. We also talked about watering down. Nothing wrong with that. If you’re overweight, then you go on a diet. Again, when ideology trumps pragmatism, the wine suffers.

This morning I am suffering from a surfeit of gnocchi and Doug Margerum’s M5 Rhone blend, both of which I had too much of last night at Grappolo. I ate at the bar, which is a cool place to watch the frenzied chefs do their thing, throwing pizza dough, flaming things, and avoiding crashing into each other with the finesse of dancers.

Today, much excitement. My big, “secret” interview, a visit with Bill Foley at Lincourt, tasting with Chad Melville, then a get-together with Sashi Moorman out at the wine ghetto in Lompoc. I’d more or less dropped contact with Sashi for a few years, until he started making the fantastic Pinots at Evening Land, so it will be nice to pick things up.

I’m very glad about our new system at Wine Enthusiast wherein Virginie Boone will be tasting most of inland California, freeing me up for the Coast. I’ll be able to travel more and focus in on what some of these coastal winemakers, like Sashi, Matthias, Nick and Doug, are doing, with their own small brands as well as the brands they consult with.

Finally, I want to highly recommend a new book: “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine,” by Mark Oldman. Don’t think it’s for beginners just because he phonetically spells out how to pronounce words (e.g., Faiveley = FAVE-uh-lee). There’s terrific basic information here about grape varieties and regions, and Oldman is one hell of a good writer.

Have a good weekend!


On the road in Santa Barbara

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I’m in the little town of Santa Ynez, in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. The weather is coolish. As in the North Coast, Central and Southern California have had their coldest summer since the 1940s. Meteorologists are now saying it’s because there’s been a big old low pressure trough cleaving the West Coast for the last six months, but they seem unable to say why the normal weather pattern of trough-ridge-trough-ridge has been discombobulated, let us hope temporarily.

Vintners down here don’t seem as freaked out about the vintage as those in the North Coast, though. I think the main reason for that is because they basically don’t have to worry about rain, even though the harvest is 2-3 weeks later than normal. Precipitation falls off rapidly south of San Francisco, although it’s also true that in an El Nino year, L.A. can have more rainfall than the City by the Bay.

I like the drive down from Oakland to the Santa Ynez Valley — that is, once I’ve busted out of Bay Area traffic. The drive this morning was a nightmare. Every freeway in the area was gridlocked. Even the traffic reporters were impressed, and they’re a pretty hard-boiled bunch. It took me 1-1/2 hours to get to San Jose. That’s only 40 miles. Thank goodness for CDs. I put on “Revolver” and it hasn’t lost a thing over the last 45 years. The Beatles are rock’s Beethoven.

Past San Jose, the 101 opens up. People knock the 101 but to me, as a wine lover and someone who appreciates California geology, geography and history, it’s a fabulous road. First you hit the Coyote Valley, still verdant despite on the verge of being gobbled up by San Jose. Then there’s that long, tortured stretch through the hills of San Benito County, old, rugged, rural California, at this time of the year golden and craggy and just fine to see. I always look for the turnoff to the Monterey Peninsula. It’s a sign I’m about to break out of Northern California to the Central Coast.

Then you come to the city of Salinas, so drab, so ugly, and yet so useful — California agriculture wouldn’t exist without it (and vice versa). All of a sudden, you pass a little curve, and wham! There it is, the great Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, all green and flat like a vast billiard table. To the west, the majestic Santa Lucias, gleaming purple and beige in the Fall sunshine. What an amazing success story for Pinot Noir. I always keep an eye out for Mark Pisoni’s little house in Gonzalez, just off the freeway.

At this time of the year the Salinas Valley is a beehive of activity. Not so much for grapevines, which are mainly in the hills, but for row crops. Mile after mile, field after field I saw workers, hunched over, picking our lettuce, radishes, the pricy arugula we munch in restaurants. These people are mainly Mexicans. Some of them, I would think, are illegal. It fills me with shame to know that these hard working men and women, and their families, are the targets of such political venom.

I like to stop at the Starbucks in Paso Robles for a pick-me-up cappuccino. I know a lot of people who won’t patronize Starbucks, but the fact that it’s a chain doesn’t really bother me. Then you drive down over the Morro grade from inland San Luis Obispo to San Luis, the temperature drops, and a little while later comes another place I always look forward to seeing: where the 101 comes to Pismo Beach and, with breathtaking suddenness, there it is, the blue Pacific.

California!

Past the Seven Sisters of the Arroyo Grande, which always remind me of Brian Talley, because he told me about those bizarre volcanic peaks. But you really have to cross the Santa Barbara County line to feel like you’re in Southern California. It’s hard to say just why. There are palm trees in San Francisco. The hills and mountains aren’t that different. It’s a quality of the light. Cezanne would have liked to paint in Santa Barbara. If you know David Hockney’s landscapes, they have that luminous quality.

I pulled off the 101 in the Los Alamos Valley, at Highway 154, which takes you to touristy Los Olivos and, a few miles later, Santa Ynez, where I type these words. I like to stay at the Santa Ynez Inn. I stopped by to say Hi at winery on the way, and the owner, a friend, told me Parker prefers to lodge in Los Olivos. Chacun a son gout, as they say.

I had a small dinner at Grappolo, the local winemaker hangout (and why, oh why don’t they complain that the wine list features Parker and Spectator ratings? WTF is up with that? Santa Ynez winemakers, get on the ball!) Other than that, the evening is very beautiful and warming: a heat wave is setting in. If it’s 90 degrees in the North Coast, it will be a good thing. If it’s 100, it could doom this vintage. On this visit to Santa Barbara, I will blind taste a lot of wines, tour Happy Canyon and several properties, and do an amazing interview I’m not allowed to talk about yet. All this will duly appear in the pages or on the website of Wine Enthusiast. But tonight is all mine, alone by choice, under a harvest moon, with the crickets chirping, content to be in a place I love.


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