Sunday, April 5, 2009

Off the wine club free agent market

My girlfriend and I settled on a new wine club and went the direction we had always anticipated, joining the Longoria Wine Club. We already have several of their wines in our cellar and have been impressed by the vast majority of their wines we've tasted. Although their wines aren't cheap by any means, the yearly allotment via wine club shipments is 8 bottles per year (most wineries aim to send at least 12 if not 16 or 24 bottles yearly). This might not be enough wine for a trophy hunting collector, but it's just about right for an eclectic drinker who wants to sample a cross-section of a winery's new releases.

There are quite a few aspects of Longoria Wines that are positive from the perspective of an informed consumer. Their business is small and family-run, for one. In terms of their winemaking, Rick Longoria has been making wine in Santa Barbara County, quite literally, since before I was born. While his portfolio has expanded to about a dozen different bottlings, he initially started with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. There's almost always a positive correlation between winemaking skill sensitive to varietal and regional characteristics and the production of Cabernet Franc; it's not a varietal one can harvest super ripe, heavily oak, then sell it based on varietal name recognition. It's also a positive in my mind that Rick Longoria started producing Pinot Noir well before Sideways made Santa Rita Hills en vogue. Although he may have been able to raise his prices due to growth in demand, he is not beholden solely to current trends and can make wine based on his personal aesthetic and experience.

One final note of interest come from Longoria's promotional material. Promotional material is often little more than propaganda and is not all that trustworthy, but the following statement resonates given the Longoria wines I've tasted: "My goal has always been to discover the 'grand cru' vineyards in our region and to work with their owners to grow the best possible grapes every year." Implicit in this statement is an appreciation of the French model where certain vineyards are designated as Great Growth, First Growth, Second Growth, First Great Growth, et cetera based on their established reputation over decades if not centuries. There's a certain anti-democratic sentiment to a system that legislates greatness via legal designation, but there's also an undeniable truth that certain sites are better than others. In this sense, Longoria's wines combine the best qualities of Old World and New World wines. There's a respect for the terroir and for specific vineyards, yet because Santa Barbara County is still very young as a wine region, an ambitious winemaker by nature must constantly be evaluating his sources. Longoria does have an top-notch estate vineyard, Fe Ciega, where he grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Santa Rita Hills, but otherwise sources from others' vineyards. He purchases Cabernet Franc, for example, from Alisos Vineyard in Los Alamos, and based on my experience with several other producers' Alisos Cab Franc, as well as the Los Alamos region in general, this may well be a 'grand cru' vineyard for Cabernet Franc. Moreover, the reputations of the vineyards from which Rick Longoria sources his Pinot Noir speak for themselves.

I suppose that exposition is a bit longwinded, and what really matters is in the bottle. But this synthesis of Old and New World does extend to the finished wines. Perhaps what I've enjoyed most in Longoria's wines is the combination of classical, Old World structure with the layers of rich flavors typical in California wines. He's not trying to produce one-dimensional blockbusters, nor is he trying to duplicate a French model that likely does not apply in a vastly different climate. His wines are substantial, yet not exaggerated, and have sufficient acidity and tannin to hold up over the long run. This style simply seems right, and what better way to vote as a consumer than to patronize a business whose approach you appreciate.

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