For the time being I have put Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in my rearview mirror. I left with a much more positive view of L.A. than I expected. The most intriguing cultural aspect is the extent to which the “industry” permeates daily life; many people act as though they are auditioning every time they walk out the door. The culture and the weather allow Angelenos to wear anything they want – you can never be the most bizarre looking person on the streets of LA.
I would be remiss to head north before extending a fervent thank you to my friends Doug and Pam Niedzwiecki for their support and hospitality. The journey would have a very different dynamic were it not for them and I am in their debt.
My last days in Santa Barbara were dedicated to the Santa Maria Valley AVA. Like the Santa Rita Hills to the south, its vineyards are planted as far to the west as the climate will allow. Most of the best-known vineyards are on a south-facing bench of the mountains. Byron, Cambria and Kenneth Volk, collectively the oldest and largest of the county’s wineries, hail from these hills.
Any list of top flight Santa Barbara producers would surely include Au Bon Climat and Qupé, which are operated by Jim Clendennon and Bob Lindquist, respectively. Their shared production facility lies within the Bien Nacido vineyard. Au Bon Climat focuses on grapes from Burgundy and Qupé on those from the Rhone.
I arrived for a visit on Friday morning that began with barrel samples of the 2008 vintage. The most interesting was the Qupé Roussanne from Bien Nacido. It was creamy, but had a piquant acidity atypical of Roussanne. Perhaps that is a stage of the wine’s development that will change over time. I will be checking back in on it.
My favorite wine of the day was a white called ‘Hildegard’. While teaching classes in my Wine Merchant days I often poured wine from a vineyard called Corton-Charlemagne because I enjoy its etymology. Charlemagne’s favorite wine was from a hill in Burgundy called Corton. Late in life he had a long gray beard that became stained when he drank the red wine. His wife, Hildegard, found that to be unsightly so she had a large portion of the vineyard converted to white grapes so he could enjoy Corton and look good doing so. That parcel is now called Corton-Charlemagne. The ‘Hildegard’ at Au Bon Climat is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté, which are thought to be the grapes used in Charlemagne’s day.
My final appointment in Santa Barbara turned out to be the most hospitable. Rather than meeting at a vineyard, winery or tasting room, I spoke with Lane Tanner and her husband Ariki Hill around their kitchen table overlooking the valley.
Lane has always been dedicated to Pinot Noir; her car is burgundy. Before founding her own label, she was the winemaker at the Hitching Post. We tasted her 1987 Hitching Post Sierra Madre Vineyard, which she said used to be a better vineyard. Even after twenty years the wine had plenty of ripe fruit which was surrounded by the leather and herb notes that come with that much time in bottle. We compared it to her 2007 Lane Tanner Bien Nacido, which showed the ripeness and concentration that 2007 is known for, but was still crafted in the elegant style that Lane advocates.
Ariki is from Australia and is also a winemaker. His winery is Labyrinth and he makes wine in both countries. He comes from the Yarra Valley in Victoria, where drought and bush fires caused massive damage to the crop six months ago. Like Lane, Ariki loves to work with Pinot Noir. We had his 2005 Pinot from the Yarra Valley. It was one of the rare Australian Pinots that I have had and it was quite good. It had a strong red cherry nose. Ariki said that the clay soils of the region make for more subdued aromatics.
I find Santa Barbara to be a fascinating wine scene. It is a young region – many of the founding personalities are still living and working in the appellation. The various meso-climates allow grape varieties from throughout Europe to be planted. In the vineyards closest to the ocean, the growing season is the longest in the world. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from these extraordinary sites have redefined my idea of California wine.
The wines of Santa Barbara will only get better as their vineyards mature. In the mean time they are struggling through the busted Sideways bubble. The popularity of the wine was so great that they raised the price until the market could not support it. Now winemakers are holding on to expensive juice that the consumers would love to drink, but not at $50 per bottle.
On Saturday it was time to hit the 101 and head north to the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. My next realm of interest lies between here and San Francisco. Some of the regions, like the Santa Lucia Highlands, are well regarded and well known, but many of the AVAs in the Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties are small and obscure. I began with a broad overview of the Highlands at a gala event.
One of the best known producers in the area is Hahn Estates. On Saturday they hosted the Santa Lucia Highlands Gala Tasting, a public event for 300 people. Thirty producers were on display, so it provided an overview of the appellation. From previous experience I was familiar with eleven of the wineries and I was able to sample most of those I had not tried before. The tasting conditions were difficult; outside in a hot and crowded tent. Most of the wines were too warm and the alcohol levels, which are generally high to excessive in the SLH, were particularly potent on this day. Two wineries made an especially good impression on me and I’ll be attempting to visit with them in the coming days.
It was time for a return to the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I was fifteen at the time when our family came to California for two wonderful weeks. No amount of words, pictures or memories can do justice to the scenes south of Monterey on Highway One – but I’ll be happy to try.
These are stubborn mountains that refuse to be swept into the ocean; their beaches washed away long ago. The waters are clear, you can see the ocean floor for a few hundred yards. Every shade of blue and green mingle with each other in the water. The vegetation is lush. The air is mild and a bit damp. The road is narrow and dangerous. I finally saw the great California sunset that I had been longing for since the day I arrived. I slept on the side of the road at one of the many places you can pull off to take in the sights.
My Sunday began with a slow exit from Highway One as I returned to the Santa Lucia Highlands for a cookout at the Pisoni Family Vineyard. The family have been in the area for generations and were early adopters of the vine. Their vineyards are tucked into a canyon with a warmer climate than those out on the bench. We didn’t talk much about the wines, but we sure tasted plenty since the price of admission was an open bottle. One couple was celebrating their anniversary and sharing their Ruinart (!) as well. I brought a great rosé given to me by Mike Whitehead and made by Charles Smith of Washington and Charles Bieler of The Three Thieves. Lunch was chicken, beef and sausage with asparagus on the side paired with lots of Pisoni wine out of magnum bottles for over 50 guests.
The next morning I learned that if I keep my sunroof open all night, my battery dies. Luckily a tow truck with a powerful battery was nearby to jump the car.
It was time to hit San Francisco to visit with my uncle’s family for a couple of days. Parking there is a nightmare so he let me pull into his garage and forget about the car. It felt great to do some walking. He lives in the Castro district, which is where I did my exploring the first evening. I found a wine bar called Swirl where I enjoyed a glass of Bastianich Friuliano (formerly called Tokay Friuliano before the Hungarians beat them in court) which was a great sipping wine – no food necessary.
Speaking of food, I returned to my uncle’s home for a pork tenderloin dinner paired with a bottle from Rasteau. The next day I set out on foot, determined to absorb the city by walking across it. I felt the need for pictures of the Golden Gate bridge, which is five hilly miles from the Castro. It took a couple hours, but I found a wise sage who said, “If going to San Francisco, you are, to wear flowers in your hair be sure. Herh herh herh.”
The day had been foggy to begin with, so I was uncertain that the walk would yield a decent picture. Over the course of my time on the street, the air cleared and by the time I arrived the bridge was in full, sunny regalia.
During a break in the walk, I was catching up on Eric Asimov’s blog and learned of a wine bar called Terroir located downtown. They were hosting a tasting with Catherine Breton, a producer from Chinon in the Loire Valley where I had visited last year. The Cabernet Francs were laden with green herbs, spices and dark berry fruits. The shop had great merchandising, with empty display bottles lining the walls and the stock in the cellar. They only deal with organic wine, mainly from Europe.
Just up the street on Folsom is a unique business that could really catch on. It is called City Beer and it is set up like the typical wine bar with beer instead. They had a great selection and owner Craig Wathen is well versed in his wares. He and his wife, Beth, are the sole proprietors and employees.
I left town yesterday to return to the central coast. I am wrapping up this week’s article on the shores of Monterey Bay as I prepare to head into Carmel Valley to taste some wine with Damien Georis.
For more photos from the week, click here.