Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Trip Through Santa Barbara County: Day 1

My girlfriend's birthday took place a few weeks back, and to celebrate we spent the weekend wine tasting. Over two days we tasted, well, just about everywhere in Santa Barbara County. Not everywhere in the sense of every winery, but we did visit tasting rooms in Los Alamos, Santa Maria, Foxen Canyon, Santa Rita Hills and Lompoc. Aside from the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, that's a wide swath of Santa Barbara County ranging from the warmer inland valleys to cooler coastal vineyards. For now, I'll touch on the highlights and lowlights and post notes on the wines I found most delicious or interesting from each tasting.

Tasting at Bedford Thompson in Los Alamos was certainly one of the high points of the trip. As I'd speculated in a previous post, this small producer holds its wines back before release. Whereas most producers are pushing the 2006 and 2007 vintages, Bedford Thompson is still offering the 2000 and 2001 vintages as current releases. Their style is ripe and forward, but the wines have good acidity and low alcohol (under 14% ABV); the former is almost an absolute prerequisite for aging. As a result, everything they poured, including their '01 Pinot Grigio, was drinking quite admirably. It's quite remarkable that a 7 year old Pinot Grigio that costs only a few dollars more than most mass produced examples still has much more going for it than the light, watery stuff you'll find at a grocery store from 2007 or 2008. The reds were doing just as well, if not better, from the lighter bodied Grenache to the earthy, meaty Mourvedré.

Wines of interest:

2001 Pinot Gris - Citrus, floral, fresh. Still going strong. Nice acidity.
2001 Grenache - Strawberry, floral, light mature tannin, medium body. Almost Pinot-like.
2001 Cabernet Franc - Red currant and violets. Almost round on palate, good stuff.
2001 Mourvedré - Meaty nose, again nice balance and maturity.

The next stop was Cambria Winery in Santa Maria. As you can see above, their vineyards and winery provide one of the most idyllic locations to visit in wine country. Cambria isn't exactly a small boutique operation as their vineyards stretch for several miles between the Sisquoc River and Santa Maria Bench and they produce around 200,000 cases of wine per year. But they have pursued Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a location well-suited to the varietals and do what they do very well. I didn't love everything I tasted; their Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay had overwhelming aromas of smokey toasted barrels and their unoaked Chardonnay just seemed to be missing a little something. But each wine they poured had its own character with very few crossing into over-oaked or over-ripe territory. Their mass produced wines provided a more than perfunctory expression of the varietal, while the limited production wines highlighted a specific winemaking style, grape clone or terroir.

Wines of interest:

2006 Rae's Chardonnay - Nice balance of fruit, toast, vanilla, acidity. Long finish! Good body, but not too full.
2006 Julia's Pinot Noir - Top QPR. Earth-funk, strawberry, cherry, sage and a hint of vanilla. Delicious, great balance.
2006 Bench Break Pinot Noir - Similar to Julia's, but more earth-funk and tannins. Big structure.
2006 Clone 667 Pinot Noir - Big red fruit exploding from glass, hugely aromatic. Round fruit on palate. Simpler, but more intense.

Stop number three was at Kenneth Volk Vineyards. Winemaker Kenneth Volk seems to have an abundance of intellectual curiosity judging by the broad array of wines he produces. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are his primary focus, but he also produces Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, Rhone varietals like Syrah and Mourverdé, and a little bit of everything else like Tempranillo, Negrette, Malvasia Bianca, Zinfandel and Orange Muscat. The downside, however, as is often the case, is that it's very hard for a small winery to do a dozen things that one person will really like when it's extremely difficult to make just several great, broadly appealing wines, especially when individual tastes of customers are so variable. There wasn't a bad wine out of the handful we tasted, but there were a few that were not all that exciting or were somewhat unbalanced to my palate including a pair of Pinot Noirs that seemed somewhat disjointed, heavy and alcoholic. My preference is for a winery to aim for excellence in just a few varietals, though the adage that you can please some people all the time and all the people some of the time is applicable here. Volk's approach is probably best suited for those who'd like to try a broad range of wines from one producer.

Wines of interest:

2004 Negrette: Nice aromatics. Somewhat meaty and earthy. Smooth like a Southern Rhone blend. Good find.
2004 Claret: Blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Plum and raspberry, nice mix of fruit. Round palate, great structure. Clean, well-made.

Foxen Vineyards was our penultimate stop on the day. Unfortunately, we hit at what appeared to be happy hour and it was like a loud, raucous party in their wooden shack/tasting room. You can't blame the winery, but it's hard to learn about the wine if you must fight to get a pour like you're at a bar trying to buy a pint. Regardless, the overall impression was of generally big, ripe, but reasonably balanced wines. All were ambitiously priced without crossing the line into the realm of being outrageous head-scratchers given the quality.

Wines of interest:

2007 Vogelzang Vineyard Viognier - Great aromatics, honeysuckle, peach. Crisp and fully dry. Top notch. Big, ripe style.
2005 Range 30 West - Blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Black fruit, tobacco, deep nose. Top notch. Hits palate on all levels. Best Bordeaux blend of the day.

Our last stop was at Fess Parker Winery. Again there was a happy hour atmosphere that made it kind of difficult to appreciate the wine. Unfortunately, nearly every wine was mediocre and I can't recommend anything from the tasting. The Chardonnay was a Cali-style butter-bomb complete with overwhelming smokey and nutty aromas. The Viognier was not fully dry, and Viognier is already rich enough as it is without being vinified off-dry. Although Riesling is often produced with residual sugar, their Riesling came across as flabby, though the nose had an intriguing mix of lime and tarragon. The reds were even worse. A Pinot and a Syrah were both hot on the finish, and the final Syrah they poured was corked! This might even have been a pretty good wine, but the pourer apparently did not check to see if the wine he was pouring was spoiled. If there was anyone there who was halfway sober, he or she would have come away thinking their top Syrah smelled like a moldy basement. That's not a good impression to give a potential customer.

Day 2 will follow in my next post.


maulmatt! said...

was foxen pouring any of their single vineyard pinot noirs in their tasting room? great blog!

CabFrancoPhile said...


They poured only one Pinot Noir, which was their Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir. Maybe they had a few single vineyards open, but I didn't bother to ask for a taste since it was so crowded.