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Three cheers for Zaca Mesa!


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.
  1. Interesting insight on “Zaca Mesa University.” Kinda reminds me of the flow of talent through Chez Panisse. What accounts for that do you think?

  2. @tom barras: Some places are like that. Gallo has had generations of talent pass through.

  3. Just had an 06′ Black Bear Syrah that was pretty stellar. Took awhile to open up but had tons of blackberry and blueberry with a little bit of chewy leather and a long long finish.

    Zaca Mesa is definitely one of the “old guard” in California at this point.

  4. I ran a wine bar in 1980 and featured their 1979 Toyon Blanc, which was a white wine with a hint of color

    nice folks – Jim Fiiolek running around the country with the Zacamobile in the late 1980’s – a regular Ken Kesey – good stuff

  5. Always a stand-out, from an outstanding Rhone-style region. In good hands with Eric, among my favorite Central Coast winemakers’.

  6. I think that Zaca Mesa made the important leap in quality when they retained Coastal Vineyard Care and Jeff Newton to mange and replant many of the older vineyards which had been originally planted in the 70’s; their winemaking has almost always been top drawer, but now the cellar team has high quality fruit to make even better wines. Hurray for the Cushman family and their commitment to quality!

  7. I was at the winery last December and tasted Zaca Mesa’s entire line-up. These wines go where few others follow,in terms of quality and elegance. I don’t know if “classic” is the right word because they are hardly textbook styles – certainly not typical of the region in terms of what is commonly accepted as Cal-Style Rhone. I am very glad to read Steve’s post and share with others.

  8. Jim Fiolek says:

    Steve, thank you so much for this article. And Mr. Alfonso “C”, above, how many times did we howl with Omar and the Howlers on the Zacamobile on Lower or Upper Greenville?

    As Zaca Mesa’s J-the-Baptist during the ’90s (I named the Z Cuvee, Z Gris [or Gris Z as we call it in Memphis], and Black Bear Block/B3) I am proud to have been associated for more than a decade with a winery you so correctly noted as having “such a distinguished track record.”

    And Steve, for your distinguished track record of blogging “outside-the-case,” thanks once again.


  1. NEWS FETCH – JANUARY 21, 2013 | Wine Industry Insight - [...] Three cheers for Zaca Mesa [...]

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