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Ridge Montebello

Montebello is perched in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking Silicon Valley.  Many of the world’s most esteemed commentators and winemakers are of the opinion that this vineyard produces America’s greatest wine.  Its reputation has grown steadily for fifty years under the stewardship of Ridge and its remarkable staff.

MontebelloMontebello’s story began thirty million years ago when the magma that resulted from the collision of the North American plate and the Pacific plate pushed a mound of marine sediment half a mile into the air.  It is still rises a bit every year.  These are limestone soils, which are very rare in California and highly prized for water retention and the calcium content that imparts flavor.

The high elevation combined with the proximity to the ocean results in a higher rainfall than any other growing region in the state.  Montebello is one of California’s few vineyards that is effectively able to be dry farmed.  Some irrigation is used to help young vines establish themselves.  Rainfall totals often range between 70 and 100 inches per year, which is three to four times as much rain as the Napa Valley.

The mountain was first developed in 1886 by an Italian family from San Francisco.  Prohibition destroyed the market for the wine and it was barely maintained; effectively abandoned by the 1940s.  The vineyard is still smaller than it was in 1920.

Four scientists from nearby Stanford purchased the property and founded Ridge in 1959.  Paul Draper, who is the chief winemaker and the face of the organization, joined the company in 1969.  The original winery was rehabbed and the first estate Montebello was the 1971 vintage, a highly prized wine because it competed in the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting.

Old Vine RidgeThe vineyard is planted in three tiers ranging from 1300 to 2660 feet in elevation.  Inversion pushes warm air from the valley to the top of the mountain; in March this aids budbreak, when the vine wakes from winter dormancy.  The hill is planted with Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  Chardonnay is present as well.  Chaparral bushes growing on the mountain add a black tea flavor to the wines.

The winemaking team strives to intervene as little as possible in the conversion from grape to wine.  The grapes are removed from their stems, then native, ambient yeasts convert sugar into alcohol.  The vineyard dictates the alcohol content, which is always less than fourteen percent and well below average for California.  The grapes hang on the vine into October, so they have plenty of time to take in nutrients and develop complexity.  Napa Valley producers have extended their harvest dates to October as well, but the warmer climate results in overripe fruit and higher alcohol levels.

Much of the fermentation occurs in a large tank and as the process finishes the wine is moved into oak barrels.  While the alcoholic fermentation winds down, the malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity and adds richness, is getting under way.  They have found that the residue  from this second fermentation tempers the influence of the oak barrels, all of which are new.

Ridge BarrelsRidge only uses American oak.  The forests and coopers are mainly in Missouri and Kentucky.  American oak has a terrible reputation, and rightly so.  It typically imparts a dill pickle and sawdust taste on the wine.  None of these flavors are found in Montebello.  The difference is in the cooperage. After a tree is cut down, the planks must be seasoned for two years before they can be made into barrels.  California coopers typically have the oak shipped from the Midwest to be dried in California.  Ridge asserts that the correct climate for seasoning is in the forest where the tree was grown.  The barrels are made locally and shipped complete, instead of being assembled in California.  This increases cost, but the difference in quality speaks for itself.

The commitment to quality American oak combined with the site’s elevation, rainfall and soil solidifies Montebello’s place as the great American wine.  It is the only top tier wine from a site that does not require irrigation and is completely a product of our country.


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Gypsy Canyon Angelica

While researching Santa Barbara I came across a very small winery that only produces three hundred and fifty cases per year called Gypsy Canyon.  The draw was one of the two wines made here – a dessert wine called Angelica.


I’ll begin with some geography.  Two mountain ranges form the north and south borders of the Santa Ynez Valley.  They funnel the cool ocean air and fog into the region.  The cooler, western portion of the valley has been granted its own region called Santa Rita Hills.  Canyons run between those mountains and are generally a bit warmer, especially as one moves away from the coast.  Gypsy Canyon is on the northern side of the valley and is closer to the ocean than most, but the morning fogs do not always make their way up the canyon to the vineyard.  


Gypsy CanyonDeborah Hall originally intended to plant a few acres of Pinot Noir to sell the local winemakers, but while the vines were being planted, some nearby brush was cleared to reveal an old vineyard of scraggly vines.  They were identified as a grape called Mission, which was originally brought to California by Spanish missionaries.  After researching the history of her property, she concluded that the vines were probably planted in 1887; that makes it the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara County.


In the modern wine making era Mission has fallen out of favor because the table wine it produces has little character.  Deborah thought it a crime to let these old vines go unused, so she looked to the history of the missionaries for inspiration.  The mission in Santa Barbara has collected the annals from all the missions in California.  There she read correspondence among missionaries about the various wines they produced.  


Mission is a red-skinned grape, so it can be used to produce red and white wine.  For sacramental purposes, a table wine was produced.  The missionaries also made a wine for themselves and their guests called Angelica.  Deborah decided to make her own wines and resurrect this long lost style.  She follows the historic model as closely as she can.


The grapes for Angelica were left to hang on the vine as long as nature would allow, making them as ripe and as sweet as possible.  For Deborah, the Mission is harvested in the middle of December.  Both red and white versions of Angelica were made, but the white was more highly prized.  For the white, the grapes were pressed and the skins were quickly removed.  Halfway through the fermentation the wine was fortified with grape spirit, which raised the alcohol content, killed the yeast and protected the wine from oxygen.  This left some degree of sweetness in the partially-fermented wine.  


After fortification, it was transferred into barrels.  Typically a wine barrel is filled to the top to prevent oxygen from getting to the wine, but the Angelica barrels were only half-full.  This allowed oxygen to turn the wine an amber color and change the fruit characteristics.  When they were ready for a new batch of bottles, they blended wines from a few years to increase the complexity in what was akin to a solera system in Spain.


Deborah’s homage is an amber color with ruby highlights.  It tastes like butterscotch, toffee, sour cherries and orange-flavored liqueur.  In keeping with the historic theme, she sought out a glassmaker to individually craft each bottle.  The labels are handmade and the neck is dipped in beeswax.  She also signs every bottle.  


Her Pinot Noir is in similar packaging.  It was a very elegant style, perhaps the lightest I have had on the journey.  I would have never guessed that she had been working with wine, let alone a grape as difficult as Pinot Noir, for less than ten years.


Too few wines in California are able to claim a sense of the state’s viticultural history, and even less live up to the quality of the reputation.  Deborah’s Angelica succeeds on both fronts.



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Arcadian Winery

ArcadianDue to my choice of route and my penchant for the grapes, Pinot Noir  and Chardonnay have been my primary focus thus far on my journey.  Arcadian is producing wines that outshine many of the producers in Burgundy, France, where the grapes originated.  

Joe Davis is a strong believer that great wine is made in the vineyard.  He secures long-term contracts with the landowners and spends much of the growing season among the vines.  In Santa Barbara County, he works with fruit from the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills.  He also sources from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.  

Many of the producers in the Santa Rita Hills promote the unique natural conditions that shape the longest growing season in the world, with budbreak in February and harvest often lasting into November.  In the case of the 2005 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Joe began his harvest on September 4th.  Also in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that praises the 2007 vintage as the best the region has seen, Joe considers 2005 to be the best vintage of the decade.  

Joe seeks fruit that is balanced with an emphasis on acidity which lends his wines their structure and potential for aging.  He finds many of the wines produced in California to be like mushy, overripe apples; they are soft, but they fall apart.  I had always thought of higher alcohol wines as possessing a fuller body, but Joe’s wines check in around 13.5% alcohol and have more structure and density than the high alcohol examples.  

His Chardonnays are equally impressive.  They had a nutty, creamy texture with fruits like lime, golden apple and pears.  Joe compares barrels to salt, just the right amount adds a great deal to a wine, but too much assaults the palate.  The barrels spiced 2005 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands with a cinnamon flavor.

Joe also makes Syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Santa Ynez Valley.  He finds a natural progression to Syrah from Pinot Noir, with many of the same production processes.  The grapes are treated a bit differently during the fermentation with a longer maceration time and less foot treading.  

Over the course of my time in the restaurant and retail sides of the business I never had a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay from California that approached the quality of Arcadian.  Joe Davis’ wines are the gold standard.

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Hildegard is Dead

The internet has a marvelous way of simultaneously propagating and refuting misinformation.  This phenomenon came to Bacchanal Babble last week after my post titled Scouring The Central Coast hit the blogosphere.  In it I recounted how the vineyard Corton-Charlemagne earned its name.  As the story goes, Charlemagne’s favorite wine came from a vineyard in Burgundy called Corton, which exclusively produced red wine.  In his later years his beard turned gray, but for the area around his mouth which was stained red from all the Corton that he consumed.  His wife, Hildegard found this unsightly and had a portion of the vineyard replanted to white grapes so he may still enjoy the wine without the stains.  I do not recall where I heard this story in the first place, but I have told it many times since. 

Shortly after my post was published I received an email from Charles Hodgson who has just published History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology and Word Histories from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.  He found some evidence to refute my favorite of wine tales.

According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (the entry is actually written by Dr Hanneke Wilson author of Wine and Words in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages) Corton-Charlemagne is named because it is produced on land Charlemagne gave to the Abbey of Saulieu in 775.

“It turns out that Hildegard was only 13 when she married Charlemagne in 771 and she was kept pretty busy having nine babies before she died in 783.  At the time she died she’d have been 25 and he’d have been 41.  He lived to be 72. So for the story to be true he’d have had to have his grey beard fairly early in life, though he is reported to have been fair haired.

“None of this proves that the stained beard story is false. But it tends to show that there isn’t solid documentary support for it either.”

So it goes.  

Thanks to Charles for the information.  


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Georis and Madeleine

I am in Sand City, just to the north of Monterey, sitting in a combination café, bar and restaurant called the Ol’ Factory.  Great name!  There is a very comfortable feel to the joint and I can see myself spending my upcoming days here.  It was recommended to me by Joni Barna and Damien Georis, who I met at the Pisoni cookout.  Damien makes the wines for Georis Winery in the Carmel Valley and has his own label called Madeleine, which he dedicated to the woman who introduced him to wine. 


Monterey Fisherman's WharfI visited him last Thursday after a visit to the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf – clam chowder central.  I would guess that there are twenty restaurants on the wharf.  All claim to have the best clam chowder and all provide samples to prove it.  It’s all you can eat!  Some were better than others, but all had really fresh clams. 


The Carmel Valley runs northwest to southeast and is populated by high hills that greatly restrict the marine influence on the vines.  They also restrict travelers from moving to quickly through the valley with steep slopes and hairpin turns; though not far from town as the crow flies, the winery is isolated.


GeorisWalter Georis, a restauranteur from Carmel, purchased the ranch and planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the early 1980s. The primary plot is a steep, dusty hillside that experiences warm days and cold nights.   The other plot is called Clos des Moutons, or hill of the sheep, which is a former pasture.  It is planted with cuttings from Petrus, one of the great domaines in Bordeaux.  Yields are tremendously low on these vines and they produce four barrels of a tremendously intense, rich red from Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  I tasted the 2006 out of barrel and was very impressed.  It is selling for $85 per bottle, which is more than I would pay for most any wine.  In order for a bottle to be worth that much, it must offer the ability to age, high complexity and a balanced palate.  The Clos des Moutons has all three, with the added incentive of rarity.  Only 145 cases of this tremendous wine are produced.


The Damien Georis is the winemaker and he shares Walter’s last name, but they are not related (in any immediate way).  He was working in Bordeaux when Walter was searching for a new winemaker and found him via the internet.  Since he was working with the same grapes grown in the Carmel Valley, it seemed like a natural fit.  


We tasted the current release of the Madeleine, which is a blend of Cabernet and Syrah from 2006.  It is an intense, inky wine that shows particularly well after decanting loads of dark berry fruits.  I don’t know how he can sell this for $18 per bottle.  It is an even better value than Andrew Murray’s “Tous les Jours”.  


After the tasting we met with Joni at a local tapas restaurant called Mundaka, which provided filling small plates at a small price with a value driven wine list.  I haven’t been to any other restaurant in Carmel, but it’s hard to imagine getting more for your money.  And for all you cured meat lovers, they have Iberico!

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Go Slowly

My journey began at a whirlwind pace that pushed me to spend as much time documenting the adventure as I did living it.  Many important points did not make their way into the sprawling posts that attempted to record whole weeks on the road.  The pace has gradually slowed and now I have decided to set up shop in Monterey for as long as I can manage so that I may recount the details in my woefully scattered notes.  Of course I will continue to seek new experiences while I am here.

Croque MonsieurCurrently I am in the Paris Bakery, where I have found the best food this side of the Seine.  The Croque Monsieur is a ham and swiss sandwich topped with a  Béchamel sauce and served warm.  Magnifique!

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Scouring The Central Coast

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.

P5152057My 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.

P5162064Lane 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.

P5162069It 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.

P5162095These 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.

PisoniMy 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.

YodaSpeaking 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.”

Golden GateThe 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.

P5212202I 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.

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