Monday, November 22, 2010

A Visit to Vino V Wines & Old Creek Ranch

A weekend back I had the opportunity to talk with winemaker Michael Meager and taste through both his label Vino V Wines and the Old Creek Ranch label, for whom he also makes the wines, at the winery just south of Ojai. Michael started at famed producer Mount Eden in Santa Cruz after finishing school before moving on to work under the famed (but modest and shy) Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard. In 2004, he started producing wines for his label at Old Creek Ranch. Then in 2007 when the winemaker position opened up at Old Creek, he took that position over as well.

Ojai isn't the best known of wine regions. While I learned there are 58 vineyards in the Ojai area, most of which are not commercial, there are only a handful of producers in the region and most of the fruit is sourced from the north in Santa Barbara County. In fact, Pierce's Disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by leaf hoppers, killed off most of the vines in the Ojai area within the last decade or two. So what's a guy with Michael's pedigree doing here in Ojai? Making damned good wine. (Though it's worth noting between The Ojai Vineyard and ultra-cult Sine Qua Non he's in rather rarefied company.)

The winery is located off of Highway 33 at the end of a residential road that crosses a small creek. It's pretty unassuming, and in fact we discovered the winery by accident last spring when driving back from a day hike in the Ojai back country. I was half expecting wines with 'Central Coast' if not 'California' appellation designations. What we found, though, was a treasure trove of small-lot wines from excellent vineyard sources. (A lesson: never prejudge a wine or winery!) After tasting an aromatic yet refreshingly acidic Portuguese variety named Loureiro that wasn't yet available for sale, we resolved to return later. Michael Meager made it even better by offering to give us a tour and tasting of his wines.

Michael's over-arching philosophy is to produce wines with light-handed intervention and little new oak that are expressive of variety and place. In fact, the red wines are generally allowed to start malolactic fermentation spontaneously, without inoculation. Most wines are aged in neutral barrels, including some whites. The main difference between the two labels is sourcing of fruit, with Vino V being focused more on what Michael terms as "strawberry, chocolate, vanilla," i.e. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah--not the flavor profile. Old Creek tends to source a diverse mix of varieties in addition to the 'meat and potato' wines like Syrah, Cab and Chard.

Tasting notes will follow in the next post, but it's worth highlighting a few wines with a bit of context. The Old Creek Ranch 2009 Loureiro is an aromatic powerhouse, brimming with floral aromas, yet tart and mineral, even a bit austere, in flavor. The Vino V 2009 Confundida, which is 100% Albariño, has a similarly floral impression which I've never encountered with this varietal. It was a bit richer in flavor than the Loureiro as well. Both wines were made from grapes sourced from Estelle Vineyard in the warmer eastern portion of Santa Ynez, though they were harvested at a fairly low sugar level by California standards. That was a bit of a surprise as I generally haven't liked wines from this area as they often seem a bit jammy and boozy. Yet these two wines stood out for their freshness and aromatic lift.

Another important observation came by way of tasting a few barrel samples. We tried two samples of the 2010 Albariño, one from neutral oak barrel and the other from a stainless steel vessel. Both were milky in color due to the suspended lees and a bit tart like lemonade as they have not gone through malolactic fermentation--nor are they intended to. But the barrel aged version was incredibly aromatic with a bright lemonade-like flavor, while the stainless steel was much more closed, albeit seemingly deeper in flavor with more grapefruit pith. Indeed, it seems that neutral oak is an important part of aromatic wine's development. Michael noted via email,
I think the neutral oak does accentuate the expressive aromatics, while the [stainless steel] tends to accentuate more of the flavor/acid/core profile in the mouth. The combination ends up being pretty neat.
Tasting of a 2010 and a 2009 Barbera proved instructive as well. The 2010 has yet to undergo malolactic fermentation and was a bit edgy and sharp in acidity as a result. The 2009, while still showing Barbera's characteristic freshness, was considerably more rounded as the tangy malic acid had been converted to softer lactic acid. But you know what, barrel samples almost universally taste really good. The freshness of the fruit and chunky, unfiltered texture is always enjoyable.

I'd be remiss if I didn't end by mentioning the various Syrahs we tasted. There were the Vino V 2004 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, the Vino V 2006 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, the Old Creek Ranch 2007 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, and the Old Creek Ranch 2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah all available to taste and purchase. White Hawk Vineyard is nestled in the cool Los Alamos region of Santa Barbara County, and all of these wines showed the spicy, peppery and floral nuances of cool-climate Syrah, though vintage and age of the wine differentiated the wines. These are not light wines at all, but they have a clarity of flavor on top of the structure. At around $30 give or take a few dollars, these are first-class wines, which qualifies as a value in my book.

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