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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Travelers Tip #1: The Sunroof

If you are sleeping in your Honda Accord, an open sunroof makes the car much more comfortable. Unfortunately it also drains the battery. At least I have a well-ventilated place to sit while I wait for the gas station to open.

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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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Bouncing Around

Farmer's MarketSaturday morning I awoke at the rest area and drove back to Santa Barbara to meet Doug, Pam and two of their friends at the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market.  What a scene!  Aisle after aisle of strawberries, cherries, pistachios, flowers and herbs.  There is so much life in this community.  We visited a couple tasting rooms then ate a monstrous burrito.  Late in the afternoon everyone had to get back to LA.  I intended to join them, but I was having too much fun in the country.  I decided to head north in the hope of running into Mike Whitehead, who I used to work with at The Wine Merchant.

Mike WhiteheadMike left St. Louis a couple years ago for Napa Valley.  Over the past two years he worked at the Napa Wine Co. and Joel Gott.  He is engaged to Katia from Columbia and they have begun the long process of moving to South America by driving to St. Louis.  We knew our paths would cross at some point in our journeys, but we had no idea where that would be.  It turned out to be at the home of Kate Dubost in Paso Robles.

Kate is the aunt of a friend Mike made in Napa and she was putting him up for the night in an unused guest house.  She is in the wine business too, as an owner of the Dubost Winery.  She showed us around downtown Paso Robles, then sat out on the porch with us.  We tasted the first wine Mike made two years ago from juice given to him by the many winemakers at the Napa Wine Co.  It is still developing and I would encourage him to leave a bottle with his family in St. Louis and forget about it for a few years.  We also had the 2006 Espirit de Beaucastel from Tablas Creek and an excellent vin gris (darker rosé) of Pinot Noir from Adelaida Cellars.

Which way to France?We were due at the Dubost Winery for lunch the next day.  On the way we made a couple stops to sample Paso Robles.  The first tasting room was staffed by a crotchety old man who has probably been acting salty since he was a kid.  Sour grapes I suppose.  Tablas Creek was next on our tour, and tops on my list of Paso wineries.  The winery was inspired by Chateau Beaucastel in the Southern Rhone region called Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  The wines were as close to those from France that I have seen thus far, with a Counoise being the highlight.  When my focus moves from Santa Barbara County to San Luis Obispo County, I will be attempting to get a more in-depth look at Tablas Creek.

Kate’s husband Curt had the grill fired up when we arrived.  Pork ribs, chicken and cole slaw were the main course.  On the appetizer plate were caper berries.  Have you seen these?  They are the fruit of the plant that produces capers and they taste like, well, capers.  But they’re big!  We had a rosé from the South of France that Mike and Katia brought, and the Andrew Murray rosé that I picked up from his tasting room.

Mike had to hit the road, so I drove him back to the guest house to get his car.  Kate was kind enough to let me stay two extra nights.  In return I cleaned some glasses for the tasting room and helped label some bottles on Monday.  I intend to return this coming weekend to help bottle some wines.

In the mean time I have returned to Santa Barbara for a few days.  Last week I spent most of my time in the eastern half of the Santa Ynez Valley, which is where the sun-loving Syrah grows.  Today I toured the western end, which is closer to the ocean and has its own appellation – the Santa Rita Hills AVA.  As I drove I could feel the winds picking up and the temperature dropping.  Welcome to Pinot country.

Alma RosaI hit the tasting room at Alma Rosa, which is another Sideways scene.  I have always found their Chardonnay to be happily different from the typical California style.  I try to avoid the term “minerality” as a descriptor, but the chalky, steely characteristics are very forward in the Alma Rosa.  I enjoyed the Pinots, but the prices were a bit high.

Further down the Santa Rosa Road between Buellton and Lompoc is the facility that houses Arcadian Winery.  The Arcadian website frequently mentions an affinity for Domaine Dujac in Burgundy and Joe Davis, the wine-maker and owner, has spent considerable time visiting and working for Dujac.  Joe fiercely believes that California Pinot and Chardonnay can emulate the wines of Burgundy.  After tasting his produce I believe him.  More on Joe’s work in a later post.

Another night at the rest stop is in store.  I’m going to set up a living room in the back seat and watch Slumdog Millionaire.

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Andrew Murray Vineyards And The Santa Ynez Valley

andrewmurrayAndrew Murray Vineyards is located in the Santa Ynez Valley, which was the first AVA in Santa Barbara County.  The eastern end, where Andrew is located, is farther from the influence of the Pacific Ocean.  It is a moderate climate well suited to grapes from the Rhone Valley in the south of France.  Andrew took me on a tour of two vineyards and talked about the growing conditions in the valley.

The soils are former sea beds composed of shale and gravel raised from the ocean by tectonic collisions.  Most of California’s coastal mountain ranges run parallel to the coast and keep much of the cool ocean air on their western side.  The Santa Ynez Valley lies between two exceptional ranges that run from east to west and act as a funnel for the cool air to reach much further inland.  As a result, the region has one of the longest growing seasons in the world, with budbreak in February and grapes often hanging on the vine into November.   The rainy season is in the winter and they are currently in a drought cycle.  The last three vintages have all been very dry, which has led to low yields, concentrated fruit and a particularly high quality vintage in 2007.  A late-spring frost in 2008 damaged much of the valley’s early season growth and led to a small and difficult harvest.

Thompson VineyardWe visited the Thompson vineyard, which was planted in the early 1990s and Watch Hill, planted later in the decade.  I never realized that the California hills turn brown in the summertime, and the vineyard showed the progression.  The low-lying, water-retentive areas still had green grass growing between the rows of Chardonnay whose growth was already vigorous.  A visible line between these soils and those that drain well could be seen where the lush green ground abruptly turned brown and the better suited Syrah vines were just beginning to sprout.

After the tour of the vineyards, I left Andrew and headed into nearby Los Olivos to visit his tasting room.  Eleven wines were available, including those from his Days Off label.  The Andrew Murray label is dedicated solely to Rhone grape varieties, so on his “days off” he makes wine from other grapes like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese.  My favorite of them was a wine called Road Trip – a Sangiovese-based wine with twenty percent Syrah.

Andrew Murray Tasting RoomThe Andrew Murray label offered one white, one rosé and five reds.  The rosé,made from Carignan and Cinsault, was just what I needed to wake up my palate.  His winery is best known for a Syrah called Tous les Jours that retails for less than $20.  The wine is meant to be consumed in its youth and is very approachable, it doesn’t have any of the aggressive elements that would lead me to say “I’d love to try that in five years.”  Rather it is a fleshy, soft wine with a meaty nose.  It is the best value I have come across on the journey thus far.

The single-vineyard Syrahs were  from 2006 and came from Watch Hill, Oak Savanna and McGinley.  All were dense, well-structured, elegant and age-worthy.  I prefered the Oak Savanna, since it brought out my favorite Syrah adjective – ‘brooding’.

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Pinch Me

Santa YnezCould things get any better?

For the first time this week I was awake before Doug and Pam.  No, I haven’t been burning the candle at both ends; I’ve simply grown to appreciate the comfort of a good mattress.  Today was my first foray into Santa Barbara wine country.  I had an appointment with Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards at 10 o’clock so I had to get moving early.

Escaping LA was uneventful (thanks in no small part to the GPS that Doug and Pam let me borrow); though I’m sure that the poor souls sitting in traffic going the opposite direction would hate to hear me say that.  After I hit the 101, which follows the coast before running for the hills, one scene after another left me shaking my head with an ear-to-ear smile.  Mountains falling into the ocean followed by high-county lakes and hills draped in vineyards.

Which One Will It Be?Andrew was the first person to reply to my requests for a visit and he was also the most empathetic, having gone through periods of wanderlust himself.  The typical winery appointment consists of a tour of the winemaking facilities and a tasting of the produce.  To make the experience more unique, Andrew took me on a tour of the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, where grapes native to the Rhone Valley thrive.   We visited two vineyards, Thompson and Watch Hill, to inspect the early season development of the vines.  Keep an eye out for an upcoming post that will chronicle the tour.

Andrew Murray has a tasting room in the small town of Los Olivos.  After my time with him I went into town to taste his wines and mingle with the tourist set.  In 1998, his tasting room was the third to open in the small town.  After Sideways put the spotlight on the Santa Barbara scene, the number of tasting rooms grew to fourteen.  Now a town with one stop sign is the favorite imbibery of LA’s weekend warriors.  I heard horror stories – people were dumping the spit buckets on their heads on a regular basis.  No lie!

At three o’clock I traveled the short distance to Buellton, another Sideways setting.  Just off the highway is a new multi-million dollar venture for boutique wine production called Terravant.  Ken Brown is an eponymous husband-and-wife operation that uses the facilities for wine-making and storage; their offices are on the property as well.  Ken is one of Santa Barbara’s wine pioneers.  He worked at Zaca Mesa from 1977 until 1984 when he founded the Byron Winery.  He sold Byron to Mondavi in 1990 and stayed on to manage the wines through 2004.  We had an enlightening two-hour conversation and tasting in his office.  We talked about the growing conditions in Santa Barbara, the history of California wine and the advancements that have been made in the vineyards over the course of his career.

Hitching PostAs I left Ken Brown in the late afternoon, I came across the Hitching Post restaurant of Sideways fame.  They make their own wines and serve them by the glass.  I had the 2006 St. Rita’s Earth with grilled quail and mashed Wild Turkey sweet potatoes.  The dish was an excellent pair with the Pinot, but it worked even better with the 1985 Chateau Palmer.  How did I end up with Palmer?  I sat at the bar next to an off-duty waitress whose customer had brought it the night before along with a 1978 Leoville-Las Cases.  They didn’t finish the bottles, so I had the leftovers.  Not much of the 78, but at least I got a taste.  Over half the bottle of Palmer remained and I shared it with another wine tourist sitting on the other side of me.  The staff didn’t care for the wine, saying it was too heavy for their tastes.  More for me!

Now I’m off to complete the day with a viewing of Wolverine before finding a rest area to try out my latest theory on comfortable car sleep.  We’ll see what this passenger seat is capable of!

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Goodbye San Diego. Hello, Los Angeles!

San Diego ShoreLast week I set out from Annie and Simon’s house to see the Arizona wine country before heading over to San Diego.  When I first left St. Louis these stops were not on the itinerary, but the first week on the road had instilled a more leisurely mindset that continued through the second.

On the way into San Diego, I spent my first night sleeping in the car at a rest area.  This will take some getting used to.  My second night was at a campground on a beach north of the city.  It was pleasant, but not worth the $35 per night price tag.  The last night I met up with Doug to share his room US Grant Hotel, which made up for having to sleep in the car two nights before.

I could tell that San Diego is normally a beautiful town, but the weather did not cooperate with me much on my visit, save for a sunny afternoon on the cliffs just south of the pier.  Most of my time was spent in Ocean Beach, a surfing community to the northwest of downtown.  On the last day in town I traveled to the eastern hills to check out the relatively new Ramona Valley AVA.

Los AngelesI brought Doug from the conference back to his home in Los Angeles.  This is my first L.A. experience.  It had never been high on my list of places to visit, and I was sure that I was going to hate it when I got here.  Thus far I love it.  The weather is always sunny and at a temperature comfortable enough to wear a jacket, but you don’t have to.  It begs you to get outside.  I have been hiking at Runyon Canyon Park in West Hollywood, which provides great views of the city.  Healthy food is more accessible than junk food.  The traffic is horrifying, but I can avoid it.  AND the radio stations here are actually worth listening to!

The vast number of people allows for a comfortable anonymity similar to New York or Chicago, but people here smile and are open to making conversation.  Everyone is from someplace else.  The only two natives I met in San Diego were the guy who brought my bags to my hotel room and the guy who cleaned my windshield at the gas station.  I have yet to meet an L.A. local.

Macaroon StoreWe checked out the Beverly Hills shopping scene.  They have a store that exclusively sells macaroons.  So dangerous, but so delicious.  These were almost as good as those I became addicted to at the Loire Valley chateau.

Wine MerchantThe Beverly Hills wine scene did not disappoint, with their own version of The Wine Merchant demonstrating how to cater to the cost-no-object rich.  The selection consisted of the greatest names in wine and included the world’s most expensive bottle.  Mouton JeroboamThe Jeroboam (Three-Liter Bottle) of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was thought to be destroyed in World War II, only to be unearthed in Ethiopia in the early 1970s.  A gift from Phillipe Rothschild to Wine Merchant owner Dennis Overstreet.

Doug and Pam are providing me with a base for conducting operations in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties over the next few weeks.  Up to now, my path has led through the obscure vineyard land of the southwest.  As I prepare for the next leg, I am excited to see the homes of the wines I have been drinking and selling for the past five years.

For more photos from my second week on the road, click here.


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