Category Archives: The Vineyard

Angelica!

I solved it!  The back seat of my car is huge and I slept like a rock.  I awoke early Wednesday morning and took a tour of Solvang, which is about five miles east of Buellton.  It is the most tourist driven town that I have visited in the county, but it seems to have missed the boat when it comes to the wine crowd.  Lots of quaint inns and faux-medieval architecture, but only one wine bar and few tasting rooms.

My first winery of the day was Buttonwood, a producer who focuses on grapes from Bordeaux.  This is an oddity in the Santa Ynez Valley, but they are in a warm, well-elevated pocket.  Their flagship wine is a tasty Sauvignon Blanc.  They also offer a wine called Sibling Revelry, which is the best wine I’ve ever had under $5 per bottle. They only sell it by the case.

For me, the best wines are those that communicate the climate and the history of the vines’ surroundings.  My next stop provided a taste of the very early days of California wine.

Old Mission VinesGrapes are not native to California, but they have been grown here since the Spanish ruled.  One grape variety, called Mission, produced the wines used by missionaries in their church services.  Most of it was simple red wine, but the missionaries made a small amount of Angelica for themselves.  It was fortified and exposed to oxygen; similar to the sherries made in Jerez.  One very small producer, Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon, is making a modern homage to this lost classic.  She undertook the project when she discovered a Mission vineyard on her property that was planted in the 1880s and had been forgotten since Prohibition began.  Prickly ShoesWe took a tour of the vines to the chagrin of my shoes.  A more complete description of the wine and its production is coming tomorrow.

The next day I met with Peter Cargasacchi, who farms two of the best vineyards in the county.  The more winemakers I meet and the more wines I taste, the more I learn how direct the effect of the vineyard is on the finished wine.  The planting, pruning and trellising decisions do not simply produce good or bad grapes.  They determine if the wine will be fruit forward or earthy; full-bodied or light.

Shale HillsPeter began our visit on a mountain road, where we pulled over to see a side of the hill that had been cut away when the road was built.  Here we saw layer upon layer of marine sediment that had turned into shale over millions of years.  It was thrust out of the ocean when the Pacific plate collided with the North America plate.  This is the primary soil type in the Santa Ynez Valley.  It is very crumbly and has a high calcium content, which lowers the perceived acid level in the finished wine.

Bottling LineI was due back in Paso Robles that evening so I could get an early start on the bottling line at Dubost.  They do not have the equipment at the winery so they hire a mobile unit in a trailer. I was chosen to feed the foiling machine and to serve as quality control after the wine was corked.  If the fill level was too low or a cork was missing, I pulled it off the line and sent it back to the beginning.  The foil machine is an ingenious invention that pulls the foil from its stack and places it on top of the bottle for another machine to twist it down.  It worked really well – for the first three hours.  Then it didn’t.  My cushy quality control gig devolved into an I Love Lucy episode on the assembly line.

Wildfire HillsOn Saturday I returned to Los Angeles to relax, which sounds weird.  On the way I drove through the hills where the Santa Barbara fires had burned days earlier.

In the days since, I have been focusing on getting A Really Goode Job.  Murphey-Goode is a winery in Sonoma that is going to hire someone to live on their property for six months, tour Sonoma wineries and picnic sites, and make a wine to commemorate the harvest.  The Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent will be charged with blogging about the experience.  They are paying $10,000 per month!  The selection process has three stages.  The first involves submitting a resume and a sixty-second video showing your production prowess (or lack thereof) and personality.  It is progressing well and I will certainly have a good piece in time for the June 5th deadline.

To view more photos from this week, click here.

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Filed under Producers, The Vineyard, Travel

Sonoita AVA

Sonoita VineyardsWhen I left St. Louis I was intent on tearing my way across the country to hit the classic growing regions north of Los Angeles within five days of my departure.  Thankfully I realized on the road that this is a rare oppotunity to visit the regions that aren’t found on the shelves in Missouri.  Sonoita is near the Mexican border in Arizona, a little less than an hour southeast of Tucson.  For me it was another of the many names I’ve had to memorize over the years without thinking that I may go there one day and enjoy the wines.  There are at least eight producers in the area, but many are not open for tours and tastings during the weekdays.  If you find yourself on the way to Sonoita, I suggest making it a weekend trip.

Arizona seemed to be a curious place to grow grapes, particularly in the southern part of the state (there are some producers in the northern mountains near Sedona, but I did not get the chance to check them out) and as I drove through the sparse Tucson landscape I envisioned extreme viticulture akin to the conditions on Mt. Etna in Sicily.  As the interstate gave way to the two-lane highway, the road began to climb and I was back in mountain scenery as beautiful as I had experienced in New Mexico.  The elevation is responsible for cooler temperatures – mainly 80 degree days in the summer – and sufficient rainfall – an average of 29 inches per year.  Kief Manning of Kief-Joshua Vineyards named frost and hail as the most prominent threats to viticulture and Fran Lightly of Sonoita Vineyards mentioned significant damage to their Cabernet vines by deer feeding on the budding plant in spring.  The deer have good taste.  Sonoita Vineyards now has a seven-foot-tall fence lining their property.

In my research of the area I looked up Tucson on Wikipedia and found that they have a monsoon season from July until late August and often September.  I have read that southeast Asia would be a wonderful place to grow grapes if it were not for the excessive rain during the harvest.  Rain in the latter part of the growing season often leads to fungal diseases and diluted grape juice.  I was curious if this domestic monsoon had a negative effect on Sonoita.  Kief explained that the rains often provided a respite from late summer heat and that the humidity was a non-issue.  “The humidity levels often drop from 90% to less than 10% in a matter of minutes.”  I’ll be profiling Kief-Joshua in my next post.

Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest commercial winery in the area.  It is a lovely property with over 40 acres planted.  I tasted seven wines – four dry and three sweet.  The two dry whites were a Colombard and a Sauvignon Blanc.  Both showed true varietal character, particularly the Sauvignon.  For the reds I enjoyed the proprietary blend called MeCaSa – Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.  It had a very complex nose and was a bit lighter bodied than I would normally expect from this blend, which is not something I’m prone to complain about.  The sweet wines were classic examples of the American style, though one did have a heavy dose of sulphur.  A Cabernet Sauvignon is available, but is not opened for the tastings.  They offer back vintages of the Cab to the 1980’s as well.  Fran has had the 1984 at the last two staff Christmas parties and has been impressed both times.  The current release is $40 and the 1984 is $100.  The lineup proved to me that Sonoita is capable of producing varietally correct wines that would fit right in with other examples from California.

My time in the region was brief, but I came away with a newfound respect for the produce of America’s lesser known wine sources.

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What Makes a Vintage Great?

Vintages are routinely glorified in the wine press.  How do they come to the conclusion that a given year is superior?  Is it a guarantee of quality?

A vintage refers to one annual growing cycle for the grapevine.  The culmination is the harvest, which occurs in the early fall (or the early spring in the Southern Hemisphere).  A perfect vintage would be one in which the weather was ideal from the early spring when the buds are breaking and flowering until the grapes are taken off the vine.  The greatest threats are frost  during the spring flowering, hail damage, excessive heat for an extended period and rain close to harvest time.

I think that the importance of vintage is often overstated.  It should be viewed as a series of challenges that the growers and winemakers face.  It will determine the size of the crop and the character of the wine, but it should not be viewed as a guide to finding quality.  Great producers will make great wine in poor years, they will just make less of it.  Conversely, a poor producer will make poor wine in a great year.

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