Tag Archives: Santa Ynez

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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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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