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by Ken Zinns

Ken is a Bay Area architect with a passion for wine. After taking a few wine courses through UC Extension, he started becoming more "serious" about wine in the early '90s. Ken has been taking wine-tasting trips to the Central Coast since early '92, and has come to love the area - not only for the wines, which just get better year by year, but also for the people. Ken's interest in wine is more than passive, and he's been volunteering his help at several urban East Bay wineries since 2001 - and in fact was recently named assistant winemaker for both Eno Wines in Berkeley and Harrington Wine in San Francisco.

Central Coast - January '10

Visits in this Issue:

Giornata Wines
Dubost Winery
Hug Cellars

Midnight Cellars
Lone Madrone / Stephen’s Cellar

Core Wine Company / Kuyam / C³ / Turchi
Dierberg Estate Vineyard / Star Lane Vineyard
Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery
Ampelos Cellars / Chien Wines
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards
Richard Longoria Wines
Qupé Wine Cellars / Verdad Winery / Ethan Wines
Epiphany Cellars
Tre Anelli Wine
Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard
Foxen Winery / Foxen 7200
Riverbench Vineyard & Winery
Costa de Oro Winery
Villicana Winery & Vineyard

It had been awhile since I’d been able to get away to visit the Santa Barbara County wine country, so even though I couldn’t talk any friends into joining me this time, I headed out for a road trip to the Central Coast in late January. The weather had been especially chilly, and the previous week had brought an unusual amount of snow to the coastal hills – something I saw on my drive south from the Bay Area on a Sunday morning. I only made a handful of winery appointments before leaving, so I gave myself plenty of time to play things by ear as I traveled. Since I wanted to make this a relaxing trip, I decided to split up my driving time by stopping in the Paso Robles area on Sunday before continuing on to Santa Barbara County the next day.

Sunday - January 24, 2010

Giornata Wines

It was nice not having to deal with weekday traffic driving south from Oakland and through San Jose, and I breezed down Hwy. 101, arriving in the Paso Robles area by 11am. I continued to Templeton, where I left the freeway and headed east through the hills for a few miles along El Pomar Road, until I reached my first destination at the home of Brian & Stephanie Terrizzi of Giornata Wines.

I’d visited Brian and Stephanie (or Stephy, as most everyone calls her) with a small group of people last spring at Luna Matta Vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles. Stephy is the vineyard manager there, and the vineyard sells fruit to Giornata for several of their wines. Giornata focuses on Italian-style wines, and currently produces a Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, and a blend called “il Campo.”

A few months after that visit, Brian and Stephy moved, to a home located in the eastern extension of the Templeton Gap, an area known for funneling cool ocean air through the coastal mountains. Sure enough, when I arrived at the Terrizzis’ home late that Sunday morning, the surrounding area was still shrouded in fog. Brian and Stephy wanted to find a place where they could plant their own estate vineyard for Giornata, and this turned out to be an ideal spot for them. Looking out from the porch of their house at the rolling hills, Brian remarked how much the landscape reminds him of parts of northern Italy.

Current releases (tasted at a later date):

’08 “il Campo,”
Central Coast:
I picked up a couple of bottles of this wine when I visited Brian and Stephy, and opened one at dinner with some friends at Marzano Restaurant in Oakland a few weeks later. As with the ’07 vintage that I’d had before, this is Giornata’s “Italian field blend style” wine, and is once again Sangiovese-based, while also including Merlot, Barbera, and other varieties. Medium-red color and medium-bodied, it’s got plenty of cherry/berry fruit and spice on the nose, with a bright acidity that went well with our pizzas and pastas at dinner. A delicious everyday wine that’s well-priced too.

We stepped outside to take a short walk around nearby the house. Brian and Stephy pointed out the south and southwest-facing slopes where they’re going to plant their vines. They’re planning to plant 4-6 acres of Nebbiolo and Aglianico this year. They expect they’ll end up using most of the fruit for their own label but they may sell some as well. They pointed out a surprisingly wide assortment of different rock types on the surface of the soil as we walked. Brian noted that the soil there is very high pH, and said that was one thing they were looking for in a vineyard site. With Stephy’s vineyard management background and their passion for making fine wines from Italian grape varieties, it should be worth the wait for them to start producing Giornata wines from their own vineyard in a few years.

Dubost Winery

Current releases:

‘08 “Alexandrine,” Paso Robles: 75% Viognier, 25% Roussanne. Tank-fermented and aged in neutral oak, with partial malolactic fermentation (ML). Light color, showing citrus and leesy aromas, rich and silky texture with enough acidity to keep it lively.

‘07 “Homestead Red,” Paso Robles:
Mostly Tempranillo and Grenache, with some Syrah and Petite Sirah. Medium-dark color, smoky plum and darker fruits on the nose, a big wine but not too tannic. At $16, this is a very good value for a wine that’s got more going for it than the typical budget red blend.

‘06 Tempranillo, Paso Robles:
100% Tempranillo from neighboring Starr Ranch, aged for 32 months in 50% new oak (half each French and American). A bit lighter color than the “Homestead Red,” with plum, boysenberry, cedar, and tobacco aromas, along with just a hint of coconut-dill American oak notes. Good structure for aging, with fairly big, chewy tannins, very nice.

’06 Syrah, Paso Robles:
From Starr Ranch, aged in 60% new French oak. Medium-dark color, with meaty dark fruits and streaks of sweet oak and mint. Medium-bodied and not too tannic.

‘05 “Gran Reserva,” Central Coast:
50% Tempranillo from Silleto Vineyard in San Benito County and 50% Grenache from Starr Ranch. The two components were blended after two years in barrel, racked to neutral oak and aged one more year, then bottle-aged an additional year. Medium color, featuring dark fruits, earth, leather, and an interesting orangepeel note, a big wine with bright acidity and moderate tannins on the finish.

The fog was finally clearing by the time I said goodbye to Brian and Stephy, and drove back through Templeton and across the freeway to the west side of Paso Robles. I continued for miles through the green countryside along curving Chimney Rock Road until I reached my next stop at Dubost Winery, set in the pretty Adelaida Hills. Mary Baker – longtime Paso vintner and now of Central Coast Wine Blogs – had recommended the winery as one that was worth checking out, and Mary’s guidance is always worth following.

Kate at Dubost

I stepped in out of the cold and said hello to the friendly woman behind the tasting bar. She introduced herself as Kate Dubost, and told me a little about the winery as she poured me samples of their current releases. Dubost is very much a family operation – Kate’s son Jake is winemaker, and other family members play key parts in the winery business. Five generations of the Dubost family have lived on the 320-acre property, which they bought in 1882, and they have been noted members of the community. Their white Rhône-style blend is named “Alexandrine” after Alexandrine Dubost, who was the postmistress of the small town of Adelaida and ran the general store there. There’s nothing left of the town today other than the old one-room schoolhouse, not far from the winery.

The vineyard is actually one of the more recent plantings on the property, with the first vines dating from 2002. Viognier and Grenache are among the varieties grown. There are also walnut and olive orchards (they produce a limited amount of their own olive oil), and the family grows persimmons, pomegranates, and other fruits and nuts as well. The distinctive structure that houses the winery and tasting room is strawbale construction, and was completed in summer 2008.

The winery produces mostly reds, with a current emphasis on Tempranillo and Tempranillo blends, though they also make Chardonnay, various Rhône-style wines, and a Carménère in addition to the wines I tasted. They produced about 1,500 cases in ’08, and 2,000 cases in ’09. Much of the fruit is sourced from nearby Starr Ranch, just a short distance up the road. Dubost seems to be a promising new winery, and their fine Tempranillo-based wines set them apart from the crowd. They should be worth watching in the coming years.


Hug Cellars

Barrel samples:

‘08 “Gemelos,” Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco:
Single barrel, 65% Viognier, 35% Sauvignon Blanc. An unusual blend that features the tropical fruit/floral Viognier element on the nose, yet in the mouth the more herbal Sauvignon Blanc component comes forward. Light color and medium-bodied, one of the more interesting white blends I’ve tasted lately.

‘08 Pinot Noir, Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco:
From 115 and 777 clones, about 50% whole cluster fermentation. Medium color, spicy black cherry and raspberry aromas, very lively mouthfeel and finish.

‘08 Pinot Noir, Rancho Ontiveros, Santa Maria Valley:
100% whole cluster fermented. Darker color than the Cedar Lane, along a with darker fruit profile and loads of spice, but little if any “stemmy” character. Plenty of acidity and some moderate tannins with a lingering finish, this should be a terrific Ontiveros Pinot.

‘08 Grenache, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
Will become part of the “el Maestro” blend. Light color, bright mountain strawberry aromas, not a lot of complexity but very pleasant and should be a good component in the blend. Bottled on its own, it would make a nice lighter-style Grenache.

‘08 Grenache, Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco:
75% whole cluster, 353 and 362 clones, will become part of the “el Maestro” blend. Here’s the more “serious” Grenache component of the blend – darker color, darker berry fruit, lots of spice, and with much more tannin and structure than in the SBH barrel.

‘08 Mourvèdre, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
100% whole cluster, will become backbone of the “el Pape” blend. Medium color, with great varietal aromas of rare meat, plums and darker berries, herbs, and earth. Medium-bodied and lively on the palate, with moderate tannins – this is destined for a blend but it would make a killer Mourvèdre on its own.

‘08 Cabernet Franc, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
Medium-dark color, smoky and herbal fruit with an oak overlay, rich mouthfeel and finish.

‘08 Merlot, Mission Ranch, Arroyo Seco:
Tasted from an American oak barrel. Spicy black cherry aroma with a touch of bell pepper and herbal notes, medium-bodied with a moderately tannic finish.

‘08 Cabernet Sauvignon, Booker Vineyard, Paso Robles:
Tasted from a new Taransaud barrel. Super-dark color with intense nose of dark fruits, oak, and spice. Voluptuous on the palate, with loads of tannin on the finish. If you like big Cabernets, this should fit the bill nicely.

‘08 Syrah, “el Grandé,” Terry Hoage Vineyard, Paso Robles:
Tasted from a new Demptos Bordeaux barrel. Dark color, ripe blackberry, spice, and cedar/oak – a big wine but not over-the-top. Another rich, mouth-coating wine with a huge, tannic finish. A well-named wine indeed!

‘08 “Enorama,” Central Coast:
Made in an Amarone style (the name is “Amarone” spelled backwards), this is a blend of a number of varieties. Fermented to dryness, this has an ultra-ripe, jammy fruit character that you’d expect from this style of wine. Amarone is not my favorite, but I can see where this will appeal to a number of people.

‘08 Petit Verdot, Booker Vineyard, Paso Robles:
This barrel will probably be made into a dessert wine – it’s got about 3% residual sugar (RS) and Augie will keep it in barrel another year or so. Almost black color, showing ripe black fruits, herbs, and some oak. Very dense on the palate with medium tannins along with a chocolate-like note, it needs time to all come together but could make an interesting sweet wine.

Current releases:

’07 Pinot Noir, Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco:
From 114, 115, and 777 clones. Medium color, cherry and raspberry with some baking spice and earth elements, medium-bodied with a smooth, pleasant finish.

’06 Syrah, Cedar Lane Vineyard, Arroyo Seco:
3% Viognier. Medium-dark color, slightly floral aromas with bright blackberry fruit, pepper and spice, a leaner style with great structure. A few more years in the cellar should really have this one singing.

’07 Zinfandel, Cushman Vineyard, Paso Robles:
Medium-dark color, with ripe raspberry/boysenberry and chocolate notes, rich and opulent in the mouth with medium tannins on the finish.

‘07 Syrah, “el Grandé,” Terry Hoage Vineyard, Paso Robles:
Dark color, ripe black fruits, mocha and sweet oak along with a note of dried herbs, this is a very big wine on the palate but has enough acidity to keep it from being heavy, and finishes with firm, youthful tannins.

My last stop of the day was a visit with Augie Hug at Hug Cellars. I’ve known Augie and his wife Raquel longer than just about anyone in the wine business, and I almost always drop by to say hello when I’m in the Paso area. Fortunately for me, Augie wasn’t too busy when I stopped by, and he asked me if I had time to taste some of his ’08 wines from barrel – I couldn’t pass that up!

Augie’s first Hug Cellars wine was a 1994 Edna Valley Syrah. Learning his craft from noted winemaker John Alban, he went on from there, and he’s made his wines in several different facilities (including at Alban Vineyards and Garretson Wine Co.) before settling in a number of years ago at his present location on the northeast edge of Paso Robles.

Hug Cellars sources fruit from as far north as Arroyo Seco in Monterey County to Santa Maria Valley in the south. Augie has made a wide array of wines over the years, but has focused more on Pinot Noir, Rhône varieties, and more recently, Bordeaux varieties. He’s been in the process of moving from more single-variety / single vineyard wines and toward blends. The exceptions to that will be the Cedar Lane Vineyard and Rancho Ontiveros Pinots, Terry Hoage Vineyard Syrah, and Booker Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Along with current blends such as the “el Pape” (a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blend), some of the other upcoming blends we can expect to see include “el Maestro” (mostly Grenache with some Syrah and Mourvèdre) and “Vino de Cielo” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Mourvèdre). The "el Maestro" is named in tribute to Augie's mentor John Alban, who Augie says makes one of the best Grenaches in the world. Not long after my visit, Augie bottled 13 different wines, and will have about 15 bottlings altogether, totaling around 1,500-1,600 cases for ’08, but less for ’09.

Augie Hug

The winemaking at Hug is pretty straightforward. One change I wasn’t aware of is that Augie has been using all native yeast fermentations recently. He told me that he began making his wine that way when he started, but switched to inoculated yeast cultures as he moved through a couple of different shared wine facilities over the years. Now that he’s in his own space, he’s gone back to native fermentations for about the past 4 years. Quite a few different coopers are used, and the new oak percentage varies quite a bit depending on the wine – as you’d expect, the big reds tend to see more new oak.

We tasted through a number of different ’08 barrels (some of these will probably go into small-production lots for the Hug wine club), including samples of all the single-vineyard wines as well as from wines that will be blended. We finished up with a few bottled ’06 and ’07 wines in the tasting room – the two Syrahs were my favorites of these. Augie has stayed true to his winemaking style over the years – they tend to be on the bigger end of the scale, yet the Hug wines are never simple or one-dimensional, and usually maintain a balance and even finesse that you don’t find in many bigger wines.

I mentioned that I’ve known Augie and Raquel for quite a few years, so it’s a treat when they have time to get together for dinner, which they can’t always do because of their busy schedule. They suggested having dinner at a new restaurant in downtown Paso Robles, Ristorante il Cortile. The focus there is on southern Italian cuisine – the food and overall dining experience was very good, and I’ll certainly have to return there. And it was good to run into Villa Creek’s Cris Cherry and his family dining there too.


Monday - January 25, 2010

Midnight Cellars

Current releases:

’07 “Aurora,” Paso Robles:
50% Viognier, 25% each Roussanne and Marsanne. Medium-light color, ripe tropical fruit aromas, bright and pleasant if a bit simple, a nice summertime quaffer.

’06 “Full Moon Red,” Paso Robles:
This vintage was a blend of Syrah, Zin, and Cab, with the blend changing from year to year but remaining mostly Syrah and Zin. Medium-light color, featuring lots of upfront berry fruit with a touch of creamy oak, a straightforward red blend and good value at $14.

’06 Malbec, “Solstice,” Paso Robles:
Dark color, earthy dark berry and tobacco on the nose, a big wine with good structure and fairly tannic finish, very nice.

’05 Merlot, Estate, Paso Robles:
Medium-dark color, bold blackberry and herb aromas, bright and well-structured with a big, grippy finish – this is a serious Merlot.

’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Nebula,” Paso Robles:
Medium color, a leaner style of Cab, not showing a lot of fruit and somewhat hard and tannic right now.

’04 “Mare Nectaris,” Paso Robles:
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% each Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec. Medium-dark color, intense ripe boysenberry and darker fruits, plus herb and tobacco notes, dense yet lively on the palate, and tamer tannins than the varietal Cab. Very nice wine that seems like it’s coming into a good drinking window now but should have a good future in store too.

’06 Syrah, “Nocturne,” Paso Robles:
Medium-dark color, spicy blackberry aromas, clean and pure in the mouth, with milder tannins.

’05 Zinfandel, “Crescent,” Paso Robles:
From five vineyards, including the estate vineyard. Medium color, bright, tangy boysenberry and spice, smooth finish.

’06 Zinfandel, Estate, Paso Robles:
A bit darker than the “Crescent” with riper fruit on the nose but more complexity too, showing black pepper, herb, and spicy oak notes along with more structure and grip on the finish.

’05 Petite Sirah, “Eclipse,” Paso Robles:
Very dark color, featuring blueberry, tobacco and pepper, mouthfilling texture with big chewy tannins.

’08, “Luna Rose,” Paso Robles:
Rosé wine made mostly from Zin, fermented in stainless steel. Nice way to finish after the big reds, this light pink wine had clean strawberry flavors with maybe a touch more RS than I'd prefer, but with enough acidity to balance it pretty well.

I planned to drive to Santa Barbara County on Monday but figured I may as well stop at a couple more Paso-area wineries before heading south. My first visit was to Midnight Cellars, just off Hwy. 46 a couple of miles west of 101.

Rich at Midnight

I’d been to Midnight once or twice before, though it had been at least 5-6 years since my last visit there. I arrived at the tasting room shortly after their 10am opening time – the door was open, but there was no one around. Hmmm…I could sneak off with a couple of cases of wine…but I checked around and after a few minutes, I caught the attention of winemaker Rich Hartenberger. He’d been out in the winery and had just found out that their regular tasting room person that day would be late getting in.

Midnight Cellars is another family operation, founded in 1995. In addition to the winery and tasting room on Anderson Road, they have an estate vineyard, located about two miles to the northwest. Midnight’s hillside vineyard, about 25 acres in size, is planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay. Like much of the west side of Paso Robles, the vineyard soil contains clay, shale and calcareous soil.

Midnight produces about 8,000 cases annually, with the biggest production wine being the “Full Moon Red”, at about 2,000-2,500 cases. As Midnight’s “pizza wine”, this is the most widely-distributed. The flagship wine is the “Mare Nectaris” Bordeaux-style blend. The actual blend for this wine changes from year to year but all five red Bordeaux grape varieties are always included. It’s aged a minimum of three years in barrel and another 6-12 months in bottle before release. Most wines average about 10-20% new oak, and they’re given more barrel age than at many wineries. In the past, Rich used a good deal of American oak barrels, but he’s cut back in recent years and uses much more French oak these days.

I don’t recall previous tastings at Midnight Cellars being particularly notable, so my guess is that quality has been on the upswing there, since the wines I tasted on this visit, though some tended toward the hard and tannic side, were well-made and tasty. My favorites included the Malbec, Merlot, Estate Zin, and “Mare Nectaris,” all solid reds that feature more structure than many from Paso Robles.

Lone Madrone / Stephen’s Cellar

Current releases:

’08 “La Mezcla,” Paso Robles:
70% Garnacha Blanca, 30% Albariño with no ML, sourced from Dawson Creek Vineyard, El Pomar, Templeton. Very light color, bright aromas of citrus and green apple with an underlying spice component, crisp and refreshing in the mouth and a clean finish.

’07 “Points West White,” Paso Robles:
100% Roussanne, sourced from James Berry, Booker, and Glenrose vineyards, aged for 22 months in 40% new Russian oak. Light yellow color, showing melon, honey, fig, and a touch of oak, rich and viscous on the palate with some mineral notes, long smooth finish, very nice.

Stephen’s Cellar ‘06 Pinot Noir, Moore Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County:
From the York Mountain area, this is from Clone 115 vines planted in 1999. Medium-light color, ripe cherry and allspice on the nose, fairly smooth mouthfeel. Well-made but, like most Paso-area Pinots I’ve tasted, not all that exciting.

’07 Barbera, Paso Robles:
From Glenrose Vineyard. Brilliant medium-red color, bright black cherry and spice with moderate acidity for a Barbera, and some noticeable grip on the finish.

’06 Zinfandel, Bailey Ranch, Paso Robles:
From a vineyard along Peachy Canyon Road. Medium color, fairly intense berry and spice notes with good acidity. A more subtle, less “in-your-face” style of Zin than many from the area.

’06 Syrah, Paso Robles:
Sourced from Glenrose Vineyard, and using some Hungarian oak barrels. Medium-dark color, complex aromas of blackberry, smoked meat, herbs, pepper, and black olive, lush yet lively on the palate with moderate tannins. Wow – this is really tasty now but it’s got the stuffing to improve with more bottle age.

Lone Madrone is one of those places that makes you say to yourself “I can’t believe I’ve never stopped here before.” Started in 1996, the winery is run by Neil Collins – who is also the winemaker for Tablas Creek – along with his sister Jackie Meisinger. So as much as I love Tablas Creek wines, I can’t really explain why this was my first visit to Lone Madrone.

Shannon at Lone Madrone

The tasting room is located at the old Sycamore Farms site along Hwy 46 West, where Bonny Doon used to have a tasting room years ago. I walked from the parking area past the enclosures with chickens and goats that I remembered from the Bonny Doon days, and entered the tasting room. Shannon Coleman was a vivacious presence behind the tasting bar and she was especially interested in hearing about the urban East Bay wine scene – it turned out that she’s a friend of Brendan Eliason of Periscope Cellars in Emeryville, not far from where I work part-time at Eno Wines in Berkeley. The wine world is a small one indeed.

The grapes that go into Lone Madrone wines are sourced almost exclusively from the west side of Paso Robles, and mostly from vineyards that are organic and dry-farmed. All the wines undergo native yeast fermentation. Current production is about 2,500 cases, and the wines are all small production lots, usually only a few hundred cases each. In addition to varietal wines – which include some, such as Tannat and Picpoul Blanc, that will be familiar to Tablas Creek fans – Lone Madrone makes a number of unusual blends. And you can’t ignore the clever (maybe overly-clever) names for some of the wines – including "Sweet Cheeks"; (Viognier), "Von Dog"; (Tannat/Cabernet/Syrah), and "Barfandel" - let's face it, you're not going to forget the name of that Zin/Petite/Barbera blend!

Shannon also poured a Pinot Noir from Stephen’s Cellar, made by Steve Goldman, the former owner of York Mountain Winery. I enjoyed the Lone Madrone wines quite a bit. It was quite interesting to taste what Neil Collins decides to make on his own – some wines bore some resemblance to the Tablas Creek style while others were nothing at all like them. They were all good but I thought the Syrah was a real knockout. I may have waited awhile before visiting Lone Madrone, but I can see it will have to become one of my regular stops in the Paso Robles area from now on.


Core Wine Company / Kuyam / C³ / Turchi

Current releases:

Core ’07 Rosé, California:
From seven red and three white varieties. A darker color on the Rosé spectrum, with a spicy berry nose and more weight on the palate than many Rosés.

Core ’06 “b.core,” Santa Ynez Valley:
73% Roussanne, 27% Marsanne. Medium yellow-gold, showing floral, honey, and leesy aromas, fairly rich mouthfeel, and long smooth finish. This would be a good candidate for laying down for another five years or so.

Core ’07 Grenache, Santa Barbara County:
This bottling replaces the old “numbered” red blends. Medium-light color, bright strawberry and herbs with a touch of spice, very juicy acidity and smooth finish with only mild tannins. Very easy to drink and a good value at $20.

Core ’06 “Elevation Sensation,” Alta Mesa Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
61% Grenache, 39% Mourvèdre. Medium color, darker fruit profile with some meaty and spicy overtones. Medium-bodied with tannins that seem to be resolving nicely.

Kuyam ’07 “Thirteen Moons,” Santa Barbara County:
37% each Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec. From Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. Medium-dark color, black cherry and plum with tobacco/herb notes, medium-bodied with some chewy youthful tannins on the finish. At $19, this is a great value for a tasty Bordeaux blend.

C³ ’06 “Crazy Eights,” California:
78% Tempranillo, 11% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. Medium color, with smoky, earthy Tempranillo character along with plum and darker fruits. Lively acidity on the palate, leading to a big, grippy finish.

Turchi ’07 Malbec “Block I,” Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, Santa Barbara County: Hungarian oak, 50% new. Medium-dark color, complex aromas include floral, herbal, and peppery notes along with black cherry and currant. Bright and minerally acidity in the mouth with a big, tannic finish, very nice.

After a quick but delicious lunch at Hush Harbor Bakery in Atascadero, I continued south on the freeway through southern San Luis Obispo County, before driving into “Old Town” Orcutt, a quaint spot just south of busy Santa Maria. I was there to see Becky Corey of Core Wine Company, which opened a tasting room in Orcutt in the fall of 2009.

Becky at Core

I’ve tasted with Becky and her husband Dave a number of times, but usually within the vast Central Coast Wine Services facility in Santa Maria, where the wine is made. So it was pleasant to sit at an actual tasting bar rather than trying to avoid tripping over hoses and dodge speeding forklifts. Guess I’d better not spit wine on the floor, though…

The tasting room is a cozy space, but nicely laid-out for the size, and it includes a display showing the Corey family’s long history in the area – over 100 years. In addition to regular wine tastings, the Core tasting room also features wine by the glass and BYOB (bring your own burger) Thursday movie nights.

Dave and Becky started Core in 2001, and now make wines under a number of labels – Core, Kuyam, C³, and Turchi – all involving different family members. Core focuses on Rhône varieties, Kuyam features Bordeaux-style blends, C³ produces Tempranillo-based wines, and Turchi makes mostly value-priced varietal wines. The wines are somewhat unusual for California in that the higher-end wines tend to be blends while the more value-priced ones are mostly single varietal. The total annual production is 7-8,000 cases. Becky designs the distinctive and beautiful wine labels – she told me that the pattern on the Kuyam labels is from a Chumash sun design. Vineyard sources include Alta Mesa and Santa Barbara Highlands in the far eastern reaches of Santa Barbara County, Fess Parker’s Camp 4 and Rodney’s vineyards in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, Laetitia farther north in Arroyo Grande, and French Camp in the Paso Robles area.

I sat at the handsome wood bar and Becky poured me tastes of a variety of wines from all four of the Coreys' labels. As always, these are wines that have a brightness on the palate and often more minerality than you find from many Central Coast wines. Most of the reds (and the b.core white) will benefit from bottle age. The Kuyam “Thirteen Moons” and the Turchi Malbec were both terrific Bordeaux-style wines, while the C³ “Crazy Eights” and the Core “Elevation Sensation” were standouts as well. The Coreys’ various labels remain ones to watch.


Dierberg Estate Vineyard / Star Lane Vineyard

Current releases:

Star Lane ’07 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
Made in 67% stainless steel and 33% neutral oak. Very light straw color, lightly grassy grapefruit/citrus with crisp acidity, clean and refreshing finish, nice.

Dierberg ’08 Chardonnay, “Steel,” Estate, Santa Maria Valley:
Fermented and aged 9 months, all in stainless steel. Light color, citrus and tropical fruit with leesy undertones, medium-weight with somewhat soft mouthfeel and smooth finish.

Dierberg ’06 Pinot Noir, Estate, Santa Maria Valley:
From a number of clones, aged 17 months in 75% new French oak. Medium color, slightly earthy cherry aroma, with tea leaf and a hint of tomato (I get this in a number of Santa Maria Pinots), medium-bodied with mild tannins.

Star Lane ’06 Merlot, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
88% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in 75% new French oak. Medium color, very bright cherry and tobacco/herb on the nose, juicy acidity and moderately grippy finish – a Merlot even Miles from "Sideways" might like!

Dierberg ’06 Syrah, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
From Star Lane Vineyard, 40% whole cluster fermentation, aged 22 months in two-year old Chardonnay barrels. Medium color, blackberry and spice with some distinct floral notes, mouthfilling texture and big, chewy tannins. Pretty tight now and still showing some stemmy character, this could be outstanding in a few years.

Star Lane ’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, aged 18 months in 75% new French oak. Medium-dark color, cassis and black cherry fruit along with smoke and herbs, medium-bodied with refined tannins.

Star Lane ’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Astral,” Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
Aged 15 months in 100% new French oak, then racked and aged another 9 months in more 100% new oak. Darker color, similar aromas to the regular Cab bottling but with more noticeable oak component, richer mouthfeel, and bigger, tooth-staining tannins on the finish. I preferred the regular Cab bottling to this one, though the “Astral” clearly needs a lot of time for the oak to integrate and the tannins to mellow out.

When I was in the area a couple of years ago, the Dierberg / Star Lane tasting room was not quite ready to open, so I wanted to make sure I didn't miss it this time. I took the scenic route – from Orcutt into the small town of Los Alamos, and then up and over the hills on narrow and twisting Drum Canyon Road to the tasting room just off of Hwy. 246 between Lompoc and Buellton. There was a big crowd of people inside the barn-like building when I arrived, but they cleared out before too long and I had a better chance to discuss the wines with Holly, who was behind the bar pouring that day.

Holly at Dierberg

Dierberg and Star Lane share the same owners, Jim and Mary Dierberg. They have a third label as well, Three Saints, that offers more value-oriented wines. The Dierberg wines focus on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, from Dierberg’s estate vineyards. Their 160-acre Santa Maria Valley vineyard, planted in 1997, is exclusively Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The smaller and more hilly Sta. Rita Hills site, planted in 2005, includes six different clones of Pinot. Dierberg’s Syrah comes from their Star Lane Vineyard.

Star Lane features wines from Bordeaux grape varieties grown in the family’s Star Lane Vineyard, located in the in brand new Happy Canyon AVA just east of Santa Ynez Valley. First planted in 1996 and now up to over 235 acres of vines, the warmer-climate vineyard includes plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah. The winemaker for both Dierberg and Star Lane labels is Nick de Luca, who’s worked at such diverse wineries as Cline in Carneros, Williams Selyem in Russian River Valley, and Highfield Estate in New Zealand.

The first vintage was produced in 2001, and the wine is now made in a new gravity-flow facility that includes 26,000 square feet of caves, dug into the hillside above Star Lane Vineyard. The tasting room on Drum Canyon Road opened in April 2008. Holly was an engaging hostess at the tasting room, and I thought the wines were very good. At least on this occasion, I preferred the wines sourced from Star Lane Vineyard – in particular, the Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot were quite nice, and I thought the Syrah, though in need of cellar age, had great promise. I’m glad that I made it to the tasting room on this visit and I’ll certainly return.


Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery

Current releases:

’08 Chardonnay, “Steel,” Sta. Rita Hills:
Made entirely in stainless steel, with no ML. Medium-light yellow, lemon and spice aromas with good weight in the mouth and a zippy, lip-smacking finish. Out of a number of stainless steel Chardonnays I tasted on this trip, I thought this was the best of the bunch.

’07 Chardonnay, Rancho Santa Rosa, Sta. Rita Hills:
Aged 16 months, with full ML. Medium-light color, apple and pear with some buttery notes and oak/vanilla overtones. Ripe and smooth, very much a “California-style” Chardonnay.

’07 Chardonnay, “T Anchor Ranch,” Sta. Rita Hills:
Sourced from two estate vineyards, Rancho Santa Rosa and Courtney’s, aged for 20 months in 100% new French oak with partial ML. Veering more to tropical fruit on the nose, and with a bigger vanilla/oak component, but this features a livelier mouthfeel and some mineral notes on the finish.

’07 Pinot Noir, Rancho Santa Rosa, Sta. Rita Hills:
From a number of clones, aged 20 months in 30% new oak. Medium-light color, black cherry and darker fruits, earth, and some vanilla notes, medium-bodied with hints of tea leaf in the mouth, and moderate tannins. A bit unresolved right now, but has the components to develop very nicely over the next few years.

’06 Syrah, Rancho Santa Rosa, Sta. Rita Hills:
From Clones 1 and Noir, aged 15 months in 22% new oak. Medium-dark color, lots of black pepper on the nose along with blackberry and herbs. Medium weight on the palate, with a fairly smooth finish.

My last stop of the day was at Foley. As with Dierberg, I’d hoped to stop at Foley when I was visiting the area a couple of years ago but the tasting room happened to be closed that day. This time, I had to really move on the short drive down Hwy. 246 to the Foley facility as it was getting near closing time, but I made it with some time to spare. The winery and tasting room share an impressive new building just off the highway not far from Lompoc.

Foley’s Sta. Rita Hills estate vineyard, Rancho Santa Rosa, stretches far beyond the winery building, with 230 acres planted on a property twice that size. Initially planted in the late ‘90s, the vineyard is almost evenly divided between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with a little Syrah and a tiny amount of Pinot Gris. The Pinot is planted on the higher south-facing slopes of the vineyard, with Chardonnay farther down and closer to the winery. The vineyard is divided into 59 “micro-blocks” – each of these are farmed separately, with the wines from each micro-block being vinified on their own before either being blended or, in some cases, bottled separately for limited release wines. Well-known local winemaker Kris Curran, previously at Sea Smoke Cellars, was made Foley’s Director of Winemaking in early 2008.

Founder Bill Foley (not to be confused with Napa vintner Bob Foley) has expanded his winery portfolio over the years. After starting in 1996 with Foley and sister winery Lincourt (named after his daughters Lindsay and Courtney), he has acquired a number of other properties including Firestone in Santa Barbara County, Sebastiani in Sonoma, Merus and Kuleto Estate in Napa, and Three Rivers in Walla Walla. He also owns Las Hermanas Vineyard (formerly known as Ashley’s) in the Sta. Rita Hills, which provides fruit to a number of well-known producers.

I tasted through the Foley wines a bit quickly, not wanting to keep the tasting room staff past closing time. I particularly enjoyed the “Steel” Chardonnay – from the number of similar stainless steel-fermented and aged Chards I tasted on my brief trip, it’s clear that there is a surge in interest in this style. The Pinot was very good too, although it will require some patience for all the parts to really come together. My only nit-pick regarding the Foley wines is that I feel they’re a bit pricey in comparison to some other local wines of similar quality. But there’s no question that they have a first-class operation, and that doesn’t come cheaply.

From Foley, I drove the few miles east to Buellton and got ready for dinner. When I’m in the area on a Monday night, that means burger night at the Hitching Post! It’s never difficult to convince some of the local vintners and other friends to join in – the burgers there rank with some of the best I’ve had. Our group at dinner included John Tomasso, Peter & Julia Cargasacchi (of Cargasacchi/Point Concepcion), Peter & Rebecca Work (of Ampelos), Morgan Clendenen (of Cold Heaven), and Scott Manlin. Great food, wines, and company. Can’t beat Monday burger night at the Hitching Post!

Tuesday - January 26, 2010

Ampelos Cellars / Chien Wines

Current releases & tank samples:

Chien ’08 Edelzwicker, Santa Barbara County:
45% Pinot Blanc, 40% Riesling, 15% Gewürztraminer, sourced from Bien Nacido, Camp 4, and Alisos vineyards. An Alsatian-style blend, all made in stainless steel. Very light color, fragrant floral aromas with some tropical fruit and stone fruit character, just off-dry but with crisp acidity and clean finish, very enjoyable.

’09 Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley (tank sample):
Sourced from a number of vineyards including the estate vineyard. Light color, stone fruit and mineral notes, smooth yet lively mouthfeel and refreshing finish.

’09 Rosé of Syrah, Santa Barbara County (tank sample):
From whole-cluster pressed Syrah, farmed especially for the Rosé. Light pink color, bright strawberry and watermelon with juicy acidity. I’m not usually a big fan of Syrah-based Rosés, but this is a very fine one.

’06 Pinot Noir, “Lambda,” Ampelos Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills: From the third harvest of the estate vineyard, about 33% new oak. Medium-light color, spicy black cherry with oak overtones, a silky texture with good acidity on the palate, long tasty finish, very nice.

’06 Pinot Noir, “Rho,” Ampelos Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
A barrel selection with around 50% new oak, and aged in barrel three more months. As expected, similar to the “Lambda” but bigger and richer, with a more noticeable oak element as well as a savory note I didn’t get in the other Pinot. Although more viscous in the mouth, it’s still not heavy at all, but it does have more grip on the finish.

’07 Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From 115 and 667 clones, aged in about 33% new oak. Medium color, featuring riper and darker fruit character than the two estate Pinots, along with more spice. Lush mouthfeel and a more tannic finish.

’06 “Syrache,” Santa Barbara County:
27% Grenache, 73% Syrah, sourced from Byron, Alisos, and Stolpman vineyards, aged in about 33% new oak. Medium color, this features both a brighter strawberry component and darker fruit, plus some meaty and spicy notes. Medium-bodied, this has fairly big tannins.

’06 Syrah, “Gamma,” Ampelos Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From 99, 383, and Estrella clones. Dark color, big blackberry and vanilla/oak aromas, rich texture with grippier tannins on the finish.

’06 Grenache, “Delta,” Ampelos Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From the first Grenache harvested from the estate vineyard. Medium-dark color, this showed blueberry and plum on the nose, very structured in the mouth with some minerality, and very big chewy tannins on the finish. This is not your light strawberry-bubblegum Grenache!

’07 Dornfelder, “Epsilon,” Huber Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From Norm Huber’s vineyard along Hwy. 246. Intense dark purple color, this had slightly floral black fruit aromas along with earth, leather, and pepper elements. Rich but not heavy on the palate, with big but not aggressive tannins – quite an intriguing wine.

After a couple of days of cloudy but not especially wet weather, the rain came in waves early Tuesday morning. Fortunately I was headed to a dry (but not exactly warm) destination, the production facility of Ampelos Cellars in Lompoc. Ampelos shares a space with Dragonette Cellars in a small industrial park on the northwest edge of the city, not far from other wineries including Cargasacchi/Point Concepcion, Loring, and Sea Smoke. I arrived just ahead of winery owners Peter and Rebecca Work, and we were joined a few minutes later by John Tomasso.

Peter wasted no time in getting John and I started with tasting some current and upcoming releases, including two tank samples that were to be bottled shortly after my visit, as well as a wine from family members Don and Lindsay Schroeder’s Chien Wines label. Don (who’s now the Sea Smoke winemaker) and Lindsay are also releasing a Grüner Veltliner this spring. Ampelos produces a Viognier, Rosé, three Pinots, three red Rhônes plus one more wine that changes from year to year – the current ’07 “Epsilon” bottling is a Dornfelder from nearby Huber Vineyard. The winery’s 2009 production includes about 4,000 cases of Ampelos wine plus about 1,700 cases of Chien and other custom crush clients.

If you’ve ever visited with Peter, you know that his special passion is farming the Ampelos estate vineyard, adjacent to Peter and Rebecca’s home in the Sta. Rita Hills between Lompoc and Buellton. The initial plantings were done in 2001, with more in 2004, and include Pinot Noir (interplanted with Pinot Gris in the newer blocks), Syrah, and smaller blocks of Viognier and Grenache. Peter has been a strong proponent of organic and biodynamic farming, and the vineyard is both USDA organic certified, and received biodynamic certification from Demeter in 2009. In addition, it’s one of the first vineyards to be certified under the new SIP (Sustainability in Practice) program for Central Coast vineyards. The SIP program was started in 2008 by the Central Coast Vineyard Team (a non-profit group promoting sustainable winegrowing), and is modeled on the successful “Lodi Rules” sustainability program. And on top of all that, power for the Works’ home and their vineyard is generated by solar panels.

As John and I tasted through the wines, Peter told us a bit about the winemaking process for some of the wines. The Viognier and Rosé are cold-fermented in stainless steel and aged in tank with no malolactic fermentation. The Rosé is mainly whole-cluster pressed Syrah, specially picked early just for the Rosé, with some pressed through Viognier skins. Most barrels are French oak, but Peter uses some hybrid barrels with both French and American oak, as well as some Hungarian and Polish oak.

John Tomasso, Peter Work

Peter also updated John and me with some vineyard news. As we tasted the ’07 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot, he mentioned that the ’08 vintage would be their last from that vineyard. Peter also talked about a new Sta. Rita Hills vineyard that he’s had a hand in developing. Named Vigne Cesarina and located near Sea Smoke Vineyard, Ampelos will get 2A, 115, and 667 Pinot clones from there. I was excited to taste the first Ampelos estate Grenache, from ’06, as I had visited the vineyard shortly after Thanksgiving that year and the Grenache had just been harvested days before! Peter told me it was pressed shortly before New Years.

Tasting through the Ampelos line-up, I particularly liked the Viognier, Rosé, “Lambda” Pinot, and “Delta” Grenache, while the “Epsilon” Dornfelder and Chien Edelzwicker were captivating wines as well. Ampelos continues to produce some very fine wines, and as more of their fruit comes from their own vineyard (and in the future from Vigne Cesarina as well), I think we can expect to see even better wines in the years to come.


Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

Current releases:

’07 Pinot Gris, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
Very light color, showing bright citrus and stone fruit aromas with lightly floral undertones, good acidity and mineral note on the finish.

’07 Pinot Blanc, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
Light color, with pear, ripe apple and citrus on the nose, a rounder mouthfeel than the Pinot Gris, yet retaining a clean and refreshing character. Year after year, I think this is one of the best Pinot Blancs made in California.

’06 Chardonnay, El Jabalí Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From 25-year old vines near the tasting room. Light yellow color, displaying a slightly flinty nose along with fresh citrus and pear, along with just a touch of oak. A bit more full-bodied than the Pinot Blanc, with a creamier texture.

’08 Pinot Noir, Clone 115, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
Medium-light color, very aromatic with pretty rose petal, black cherry, and spice character. Fairly light-bodied, this is bright and juicy in the mouth, really a delightful lighter style of Pinot that you don’t often find from this area.

’08 Pinot Noir, Clone 667, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
Medium color, the nose was tighter on this wine but displayed darker fruits and an earthy streak. Bigger on the palate, with some moderate tannins creeping in on the finish.

’07 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills:
Medium color, pretty aromatics not unlike the ’08 Clone 115 bottling though with a bit darker fruit profile, this had a smooth silky mouthfeel with good acidity and some mineral character, and a long, flavorful finish. A lovely SRH Pinot that’s ready to drink now.

’07 Pinot Noir, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From Swan and 667 clones. A bit darker in color, this featured deeper fruit plus some cola and spice on the nose, with a richer mouthfeel and bigger structure than the SRH bottling.

’06 Pinot Noir, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
From Swan and 667 clones. Similar color to the ’07, this was not as fruit-forward, with more earth and forest floor character, plus some smoky, plummy notes. The extra year in bottle has mellowed out this wine in comparison with the ’07 as well.

The heavy rain had let up a bit by the time John and I left Ampelos, though it was still quite chilly. John had to get back to work, so I headed into town for lunch at the Jalama Beach Café in Lompoc, which thankfully has preserved the wonderful “Hi! Let’s Eat” sign of its predecessor. Afterwards, I took a scenic drive east along Santa Rosa Road, past vineyards and orchards, until I arrived at Alma Rosa Winery.

Alma Rosa is Richard & Thekla Sanford’s label, which they started after they parted from Sanford Winery about five years ago. In that short time, they’ve already established Alma Rosa as one of the best Chardonnay and Pinot producers in the area. They also make a wonderful Pinot Blanc, a real favorite of mine. It’s always a pleasure visiting the rustic old tasting room that Sanford used for so many years. After parking and dodging a few raindrops as I made my way from the car, I was welcomed inside by Mel Lewis. He and fellow tasting room worker John had the wood stove cranked up, and the winery cat was certainly enjoying the warmth!

Mel at Alma Rosa

Alma Rosa produces both appellation wines and vineyard-designates, and most grapes are sourced from their two estate vineyards, which are farmed organically and certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers. Rancho El Jabalí, near the tasting room, was first planted in 1983, and its 7 acres are divided evenly between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The 100-acre La Encantada Vineyard was planted in 2000, and includes 96 acres of Pinot Noir along with small blocks of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The appellation wines are in fact sometimes sourced from a single estate vineyard – for example, the 2007 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir was made entirely from La Encantada Vineyard fruit.

Christian Roguenant, who works with other Central Coast wineries as well, is the winemaker at Alma Rosa. All of the whites are cold-fermented in stainless steel, aged in tank and older oak barrels, and do not go through malolactic fermentation. Pinots are all aged from 8-10 months in barrel, with new oak ranging from a bit under 20% for the separate clonal bottlings up to 40% for the La Encantada Vineyard bottling. I tasted two new clonal bottlings of Pinot Noir – 115 and 667 – and a third bottling will be made from Mt. Eden clone. These will go mostly to wine club members although some is available direct from the winery too. As they have been from the start, all the wines are bottled with screwcap closures.

With his Alma Rosa label, Richard Sanford remains one of the top producers of wine in the Sta. Rita Hills. The wines consistently hit the mark with gorgeous aromatics and great purity of fruit. One of my favorite winery stops, for the relaxed atmosphere, congenial tasting room staff, and the excellent wines.


Richard Longoria Wines

Current releases:

’08 Albariño, Clover Creek Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley:
From a vineyard along Refugio Road in the southern part of the valley, the fruit was picked at 21.3 brix. Very light straw color, with an almost greenish tinge, nectarine/stone fruit aromas, medium-light weight in the mouth with zippy acidity, clean and refreshing finish.

’07 Chardonnay, “Cuvée Diana,” Sta. Rita Hills:
Named for Rick’s wife and sourced mostly from Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, with some Rancho Santa Rosa fruit as well, and aged in 90% new oak. Light yellow color, ripe apple with spicy oak overtones, fairly rich and creamy on the palate, with a bit of roughness in the finish that suggests another year or two in the bottle to mellow it out.

’07 Pinot Noir, “Lovely Rita,” Sta. Rita Hills:
About 98% of the fruit came from Fe Ciega Vineyard fruit and 2% from Rancho Santa Rosa, aged in barrel for about 12 months. Brilliant medium-ruby color, pretty aromatics of black cherry along with dried herb and tea leaf, medium-bodied and lively mouthfeel with some mild tannins, a very attractive SRH Pinot at a reasonable price.

’07 Pinot Noir, Fe Ciega Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills:
From Longoria’s estate vineyard, this spent about 15 months in barrel. Medium color, the aromas were similar to the “Lovely Rita” bottling but deeper and more intense, and with less herbal notes and more pepper and spice character. Richer on the palate but retaining good acidity while showing a bit more tannic bite. While it still needs time to blossom, this could be a classic Fe Ciega Pinot given a few more years in bottle.

’06 Syrah, Clover Creek Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley:
From 877 and Estrella clones, with about 15% new oak. Medium-dark color, the aromatics were a bit muted, but displayed very spicy blackberry along with a touch of oak. Medium-bodied and not too tannic.

’06 Tempranillo, Clover Creek Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley:
94% Tempranillo, blended with a little Malbec, Syrah, and Cabernet, and aged in American oak, 35% new barrels. Medium-dark color, ripe plum and darker berry fruit along with a noticeable vanilla/oak component. Dense and mouth-coating, with refined tannins.

’07 “Evidence,” Santa Barbara County:
40% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 6% Malbec, aged in 50% new French oak. Dark color, ripe black cherry and currant with mocha and herb undertones. Fairly rich texture, with a big chewy finish.

’07 Syrah, “Vino Dulce,” Santa Barbara County:
A Port-style wine, made from 100% Syrah. Medium-dark color, rich chocolate aromas with moderate sweetness and a long, smooth finish. Not especially complex but very pleasant.

By the time I left Alma Rosa, it was getting toward mid-afternoon, and I decided to get the most of the remaining time until tasting rooms started closing by heading into the town of Los Olivos, which these days is packed with winery tasting rooms. The rain had pretty well stopped by the time I parked along the main street and walked into the Longoria Wines tasting room. It had been years since I’d stopped in there and I was curious to see how their latest wines were tasting.

John at Longoria

Along with Richard Sanford, Richard “Rick” Longoria is one of Santa Barbara County’s pioneer winemakers – he began working with local wine producers in the mid-1970s and he founded his own winery in 1982. His own production is small, with a maximum of about 3,500 cases per year. Rick planted his estate Fe Ciega Vineyard in the cool western part of the Santa Rita Hills in 1998, with the first harvest coming in 2001. Besides Fe Ciega, Rick sources Pinot from such vineyards as Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido, and Rancho Santa Rosa.

The other wine Longoria is especially-known for is their “Blues Cuvée.” Introduced in 1993, this is a Cabernet Franc based wine, with the blend changing each vintage and including other Bordeaux varieties and sometimes some Rhône grapes as well. Every vintage’s label is unique, with a different artist each year working with the “blues” motif.

Elizabeth and John in the small tasting room were very helpful as they poured a selection of Longoria’s current releases. I was fortunate to get a taste of their highly-regarded Fe Ciega Vineyard Pinot Noir – the 2007 is still a youngster in need of more bottle age, but should develop nicely in time. 2007 also marked the first release of the “Lovely Rita” Pinot Noir, which includes the most aromatic and fruit-forward lots from Fe Ciega plus some Pinot from other vineyard sources to round out the blend. Longoria has also branched into Spanish varieties in recent years, and the Albariño and Tempranillo I tasted were both very good.

I don’t visit Longoria often enough. They’re such a low-key winery – reflecting the nature of Rick Longoria himself – that it’s sometimes easy to forget how good their wines can be.


Qupé Wine Cellars / Verdad Winery / Ethan Wines

Current releases (all Qupé except as noted):

Verdad ’08 Rosé, Edna Valley:
90% Grenache, 10% Tempranillo, about 86% of the fruit was sourced from the new Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard. All the fruit was picked early, destemmed and then pressed. Light pink color, bright melon/strawberry on the nose, nice purity of fruit with palate-cleansing acidity.

’08 Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley:
81% Marsanne, 19% Roussanne. Very light gold color, showing apple fruit framed in oak, medium-rich mouthfeel and smooth finish. I’ve found Qupé Marsannes tend to display a lot of oak when young and need much bottle age to really show their best.

’07 Chardonnay, “Bien Nacido Reserve – Block 11,” Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
Blended with 22% Roussanne, this was aged in mostly new, heavier-toast François Frères barrels. Light yellow color, the nose featured plenty of vanilla and toast along with pear and apple notes. Rich on the palate, this is another wine that will need time to develop.

Verdad ’07 Tempranillo, Santa Ynez Valley:
76% Tempranillo, 20% Grenache, 4% Syrah. Medium-light color, spicy red fruits with a touch of oak, medium-bodied with a livelier mouthfeel than many California Tempranillos, and some grippy tannins on the finish.

’07 “Los Olivos Cuvée,” Santa Ynez Valley:
58% Syrah, 26% Mourvèdre, 16% Grenache. Medium-dark color, slightly floral blackberry aromas, with pepper, spice and mineral notes. Moderate weight in the mouth, with well-refined tannins.

’07 Syrah, Central Coast:
Sourced from 16 vineyards. Medium color, this was less fruit-forward than the “Los Olivos Cuvée”, showing more earthy/leathery elements along with plum and white pepper. Medium-bodied with mild tannins.

’06 Syrah, Santa Barbara County:
Includes 36% Purisima Mountain, 21% Alisos, 14% Colson Canyon, 11% Bien Nacido, plus other vineyards. Medium-dark color, this featured stronger aromatics of black fruits, pepper, and dried herbs, with less of an earthy component than the Central Coast bottling. It also had a richer mouthfeel and good tannic structure. A very fine Syrah, and at $20, it’s tough to beat.

’07 Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
28% of the fruit was sourced from the vineyard’s X Block. Medium-dark color, this displayed similar aromas to the SBC Syrah but with even greater intensity, together with a rich yet minerally texture and bigger, more chewy tannins.

’06 Syrah, Alisos Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
From Alisos Vineyard near Los Alamos. The Syrahs kept getting bigger – this one had a very dark color, ripe plum and darker fruits with pepper and gamy notes. Very dense on the palate with tannins that just wouldn’t let go, this will reward patience in the cellar.

I’ve greatly enjoyed visiting Qupé, Au Bon Climat, and related wineries at their facility at Bien Nacido Vineyard during their open house events. But aside from those times, it hasn’t been easy to find a place to taste these wines, especially since Bob Senn and his tasting room south of Los Olivos are no longer with us. So I was very happy to see that Qupé now has its own tasting room right in “downtown” Los Olivos, and that it shares it with Verdad and Ethan.

Russ at Qupé

It’s all in the family: Bob Lindquist heads up Qupé, his wife Louisa Sawyer Lindquist makes Verdad, and son Ethan Lindquist makes – you guessed it – Ethan! So it was a natural to group these three labels together at the tasting room. Bob was one of the earliest of California’s “Rhone Rangers,” establishing his winery in 1982. The library wines from the 1980s that Bob often pours at the Hospice du Rhone event in Paso Robles are special treats, and proof of his wines’ longevity. Louisa’s Verdad label was one of the first in California to focus on wines from Spanish varieties, and even as we’ve seen many more wineries working with these grapes in recent years, Verdad still does it as well as any of them. Though I didn’t taste any of the Ethan wines on this visit, he’s following in his father’s footsteps in producing Rhône-style wines, and adding Sangiovese to the mix as well.

A major new development in the family’s winemaking has been the first harvests in the past few years from the new Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley, which was planted in 2005 mainly to Syrah and Tempranillo, and includes Grenache and a tiny block of Pinot Noir as well. A tiny percentage of fruit from the vineyard forms part of the 2007 Qupé Central Coast Syrah, while the ’08 Verdad Rosé is made mostly from the vineyard’s fruit. The 50-acre vineyard, almost directly across the road from famed Alban Vineyard, is farmed organically and biodynamically, and is certified by Demeter. Volcanic and marine soils, along with the cool Edna Valley climate, were key drawing cards in selecting the site, as was the fact that the land had not been farmed before, having been a cow pasture. Seven different Syrah clones are planted, as well as four Grenache clones, on a variety of rootstocks.

I enjoyed talking with Russ Gonzales, who manned the bar at the tasting room. He told me that they had been open for just over one year. I tasted a nice cross-section of wines, from the widely-distributed Qupé Central Coast Syrah (the winery’s largest-production bottling at over 20,000 cases) to smaller-production wines such as the Block 11 Chardonnay, Alisos Syrah, and Verdad Tempranillo. As has been my feeling about Qupé wines in the past, I think that most of these wines – particularly the whites and the bigger Syrahs – really demand more bottle age to show their best, but with patience, these should be terrific. For more near-term drinking, the Verdad Rosé is lovely and the ’06 Santa Barbara County Syrah is an amazingly good wine for the price – and one that should only improve over the next few years to boot.


Epiphany Cellars

Current releases:

’07 “Inspiration,” Santa Barbara County:
35% Marsanne, 30% Roussanne, 25% Viognier, 15% Grenache Blanc, partly barrel-fermented, 0.5% RS. Light yellow, ripe tropical fruit aromas, medium-rich mouthfeel, slightly sweet but fresh finish.

’07 Roussanne, Camp 4 Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
80% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, aged 9 months in French oak. Medium-light yellow color, waxy pear and stone fruit, more richness in the mouth, with a touch of bitterness on the finish.

’07 Grenache Rosé, Santa Barbara County:
Light salmon color, watermelon and spice on the nose, medium-bodied with a little grip on the finish, a nice rendition of a more weighty Rosé.

’05 Grenache, Santa Barbara County:
About 15% Syrah, aged 18 months in French and American oak. Medium color with slight bricking on the edges, lots of ripe fruit and American oak aromas, moderate richness and ending with a bit of heat.

’05 Petite Sirah, Rodney’s Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
Aged in 70% French and 30% American oak. Dark color, smoky dark berry fruit, vanilla/oak, and a big black pepper component. Mouth-coating, viscous texture with huge, chewy tannins.

’05 Syrah “Block 2,” Camp 4 Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
From Syrah Clone 1, aged 25 months in 50% new oak (80% French, 20% American). Medium-dark color, aromas of plum, smoke, and dried herbs along with chocolate/mocha notes. Lots of up-front fruit along with rich mouthfeel and a big, tannic, and slightly hot finish.

I’d hoped to catch up with Larry Schaffer of Epiphany and Fess Parker (and his own Tercero label as well) on this trip, and though the timing didn’t work out, I decided to drop in at the Epiphany Cellars tasting room while I was in Los Olivos. I’ve tasted Epiphany wines with Larry before, as well as at various wine events, and wanted to check out some of their most recent wines.

The sister label of Fess Parker Winery, Epiphany mainly features Rhône-style wines. Fess Parker’s son Eli heads up the label, while Blair Fox (who also has his own Blair Fox label) has been the winemaker since 2005. Blair was awarded the Andre Tchelistcheff Winemaker of the Year Award at the 2008 San Francisco International Wine Competition, an award that Eli Parker had won himself two years previously. Most fruit for Epiphany is sourced from Fess Parker’s Rodney’s Vineyard and Camp 4 Vineyard.

Jonathan at the tasting room poured me samples of some of Epiphany’s current releases. They tend to be made in a very ripe, hedonistic style – not always my cup of tea (or cup of wine?) – and I picked up some alcoholic heat in a couple of them, but I still found some of these wines appealing. The just off-dry “Inspiration” white blend would be a good summertime sipper, while the dense Petite Sirah is an fine example of a full-throttle red that’s got some complexity to it – not just raw power. Overall, this wasn’t the best showing for Epiphany’s wines, but I know from previous tastings that they can be significantly better, so I’ll certainly be back to try them again.

Tre Anelli Wine

Current releases:

’06 Pinot Grigio, Santa Barbara County:
Tank-fermented. Light color, slightly floral notes along with citrus, stone fruit, and hazelnut, light-bodied with a crisp, fresh finish, very nice.

’07 Pinot Grigio Riserva, Central Coast:
Barrel-fermented. Showing riper tropical fruit character and undertones of vanilla/oak, this had a creamier texture and smooth finish.

’07 Grenache, Santa Barbara County:
Medium-light color, bright strawberry fruit with a touch of oak, light-medium weight in the mouth with a moderately tannic finish.

’06 Sangiovese, Santa Barbara County:
Medium-light color, cherry and smoke with a touch of earth and dried herbs, good acidity and medium tannins, nice.

’07 “Centellinare,” Santa Barbara County:
Blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, with the ’07 vintage being 45% Cab. Medium color, smoky wild berry and currant aromas with spice and herb notes, more weight on the palate than the Sangiovese with a more tannic finish.

’07 Barbera, Walker Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
100% Barbera. Medium color, bright cherry and smoke on the nose, lively acidity and grippy tannins.

’08 Nebbiolo, Santa Barbara County:
Sourced from Estelle Vineyard. Medium-light color, fairly aromatic with floral notes supporting a ripe, fruit-forward style. Medium-bodied with big but not aggressive tannins.

’07 Dolcetto, Walker Vineyard, Santa Barbara County:
100% Dolcetto. Medium color, ripe plum and darker berry fruit along with smoke and dried herb notes, and a rich yet lively mouthfeel with huge tannins.

With just enough time to stop in at one more tasting room in Los Olivos, I thought I’d try one I’d never visited before, and decided on Tre Anelli. Although it wasn’t obvious from the outside, they have one of the largest tasting rooms I’ve visited in town, with a long and impressive-looking bar, open-beamed ceiling and a fireplace. Tasting room manager Janeen Garcia was behind the bar, and I learned from her that Tre Anelli is the sister label to Consilience Wines. Tre Anelli translates as “Three Rings” – the rings are indeed prominent on the label, and are also a tie-in to the Consilience logo.

Headed up by Tom Daughters, his brother Ken, and winemaker Brett Escalera, Tre Anelli was launched in 2007. Tom and Brett, along with Tom’s wife Jodie, are the owners of Consilience. The focus of Tre Anelli is on wines from Italian and Spanish grape varieties. More fruit for the label will be starting to come soon from the 80-acre Estelle Vineyard. Located near the warmer eastern end of Santa Ynez Valley near Happy Canyon, the vineyard already supplies fruit to a number of local wineries.

Janeen poured me tastes of most of Tre Anelli’s wines. They also produce an Albariño, Grenache Rosé, and Lagrein that I didn’t taste. Among my favorites was the Santa Barbara Pinot Grigio, which was more complex than most I’ve tasted from the area. The Grenache (which of course is known as Garnacha in Spain), made in a lighter, fruity style, was pleasant, and the Sangiovese and “Centellinare” were very good. While none of these wines blew me away, they were intriguing enough to interest me in following how Tre Anelli does in the future.


Wednesday - January 27, 2010

Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard

The sun was back out on Wednesday morning, and I was up bright and early to visit Buttonwood Farm Winery, near the small town of Ballard in the heart of Santa Ynez Valley. I’d never stopped there before, but I wanted to check them out since their winemaker is now Karen Steinwachs, whom I’d met a few years ago when she was the assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead Cellars. Since Karen came on board with Buttonwood in early 2007 and the wines from that vintage are now mostly in bottle, I thought this would be a good time to taste them.

Current releases & tank / barrel samples:

’09 Sauvignon Blanc, “Zingy,” Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
Harvested early and cold-fermented in stainless steel with no ML. Very light yellow color, lovely aromatics, fresh and floral with lightly grassy/gooseberry notes. Very lively acidity and long, clean finish. In a word – zingy!

’08 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
91% Sauvignon Blanc made in stainless steel with no ML, 9% Semillon, barrel-fermented (20% new) with partial ML. Very light yellow, lemon/citrus on the nose, with a richer mouthfeel than the “Zingy,” but still with a crisp and tasty finish, nice.

Sforzando ’09 Gewürztraminer, Alisos Vineyard, Santa Barbara County (tank sample):
An upcoming wine from Graham, this is just off-dry. Very light color, with a classic Gewürz nose of lychee and spice, light-bodied with a smooth finish, with the little RS in the wine being hardly perceptible.

’09 Rosé, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley (tank sample):
100% Syrah, mostly whole-cluster pressed with some destemmed first, all made in stainless steel with a touch of RS. Light pink color, featuring fresh ripe strawberry and spice aromas with some floral notes, light-bodied with good acidity and long, smooth finish. This should be a perfect summertime wine.

’07, Pinot Noir, Hibbits Ranch Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills:
Harvested early and cold-fermented in stainless steel. Medium-light color, with slightly floral notes along with darker berry fruit on the nose, lighter-bodied and lively on the palate, with mild tannins.

’07 Grenache, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
95% Grenache, 5% Syrah. Medium color, tart cherry with a spicy overlay, medium-weight in the mouth with moderate tannins. Karen noted that this wine was more shut down than usual.

’07 Syrah, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
100% Syrah, Estrella and Tablas Creek clones. Dark color, peppery, herbal ripe plum and blueberry fruit, big but not heavy on the palate, and some tangy and minerally notes on the grippy finish.

’07 Merlot, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
100% Merlot. Medium-dark color, displaying blackberry and herbs with spicy notes and a notable mineral component. Nice acidity in the mouth and a big, chewy finish.

’07 Cabernet Franc, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley:
100% Cab Franc. Medium-dark color, plums and a strong tobacco/herb element, medium-bodied on the palate with loads of structure, should age nicely.

“Lupe’s Dilemma,” ’07 Syrah Port, Santa Ynez Valley (barrel sample):
A Port-style wine from Syrah, this has about 11% RS. Dark and rich, this featured loads of sweet dark chocolate character, not especially complex but really tasty. I won’t face any dilemma as to drinking this if I get my hands on a bottle!

After a few minutes of trying to locate the winery building, I found my way up the hill beyond the winery’s tasting room, and pulled up alongside the utilitarian structures that house the actual winemaking facilities. Karen greeted me there, and offered to show me around the vineyard if I didn’t mind a ride along the muddy roads in her Jeep. Sure – I love a good vineyard drive! As we headed slowly along the bumpy road, Karen told me about the background of Buttonwood Farm. First of all, it really is a working farm – they raise animals, farm orchards, and grow flowers in addition to growing wine grapes. The 106-acre property was purchased in the 1960s by Betty Williams, who is now 91 years old and still going strong. There had been cattle ranching on the land before that. Betty began growing organic vegetables in the late ‘60s, long before organic farming became popular, and she bred horses on the property as well. As is the case with many farms, it’s a family operation – Betty’s son-in-law Bret Davenport runs the business these days, while her daughter, artist Seyburn Zorthian, designed the distinctive artwork for the wine labels.

Graham, Karen, Lupe at Buttonwood

Betty had the vineyard planted in 1983 by Michael Benedict (of Sanford & Benedict fame). The 39 acres of vines are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Syrah, and Grenache. Originally all own-rooted, some of the vines have been grafted over to their current grape varieties through the years. The vines are all cane-pruned, and are sustainably-farmed but not certified organic. Karen told me that they do not use any chemical fertilizers or Roundup in the vineyard, but do use fish emulsion and other products associated with organic farming.

We bounced along the rough, muddy road to one of the highest knolls in the vineyard, which had a commanding view over the Los Olivos area. We got out there, and Karen pointed out some of the local landmarks, including several other Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. She told me that there is a proposal to form a Los Olivos AVA, as the character of this particular locale is felt to be distinct enough from the rest of Santa Ynez Valley to warrant a separate appellation. Karen said that Buttonwood’s vineyard is in an area with a warm but not really hot climate – she noted that the vineyard crew needs to leaf-position carefully in order to get some of the grape varieties fully ripe. She told me that the Cabernet is usually not picked until late October.

Planted on rocky alluvial soil among rolling hills, it was evident that the vineyard was laid out using an older style of planting, with fairly widely-spaced rows and vines. The orientation of vineyard rows differs in various parts of the vineyard, and Karen noted that both spacing and orientation would be done differently if planted today. But there have been improvements made to the vineyard over the years, and these continue. Karen told me that just recently, improved frost protection has been instituted in some of the frost-prone swales in the vineyard. Buttonwood is especially known for its Sauvignon Blanc, and much of the vineyard is devoted to that grape (all Clone 1). One block of Syrah is farmed specifically for use in their Rosé. Buttonwood sells a little Marsanne and Merlot, but all the other fruit goes into their own wines.

After returning from the vineyard, Karen told me that the first winery building on the property was built in the late ‘90s – before that, the wines were made at Zaca Mesa. Buildings have been added in stages since that time, and the most recent addition, a cold room, was added in 2009. The main winery building is partially built into the hillside. Karen showed me the winery’s in-house bottling line, which can handle up to about 600 cases per day. They had just bottled one wine (the ‘09 “Zingy” Sauvignon Blanc) the day before my visit, and were getting ready to bottle their ’09 Rosé, though that ended up being delayed for a few weeks due to technical difficulties – those pesky bottling lines! Both of those wines are being released in February-March this year. Buttonwood is using Diam corks for their wines, in an effort to reduce potential TCA issues. A total of about 8,000 cases were produced in 2007, of which around 3,000 were Sauvignon Blanc.

Before making the move to Buttonwood in 2007, Karen worked with Norm Yost (then at Foley Estates) and with Kathy Joseph at Fiddlehead Cellars (where Karen became assistant winemaker). While Karen is happy with the first Buttonwood wines she made in 2007, she realized it would take a few years for her to really get to know the vineyard and to fine-tune the winemaking to match the fruit, so she’s even more excited about the ’08 and ’09 vintages. Karen has brought back the use of some new oak into the winemaking program. She’s also making use of délestage (rack and return) and extended maceration to help control tannins. Currently, Karen uses a average of about 20% new oak on red wines. Most of this is French oak (from various coopers, including Belair, Sirugue, Rousseau, and World Cooperage), along with some Eastern European oak on the Syrah.

Karen introduced me to two key members of her winemaking team, assistant winemaker Graham Palmer, and cellarmaster Lupe Flores. Karen mentioned that Lupe’s father-in-law has been the vineyard manager for the past 26 years. We gathered in the small winery lab, and Karen began opening bottles for us to taste. In addition to the Buttonwood wines, we tasted a Gewürztraminer from Graham’s upcoming “Sforzando” label, and a Port-style wine from Lupe, which Karen likes to call “Lupe’s Dilemma.” Karen is also working on releasing a wine from her own label, which will be called Seagrape Wine Company. She’s currently making a 2007 Pinot Noir from Huber Vineyard, which includes about 33% whole-cluster fermentation. She’s also making a Chardonnay and may introduce other wines to her line-up as well.

Almost all fruit for Buttonwood’s wines is estate-grown. The main exception is their Pinot Noir, sourced from the 3-acre Hibbits Ranch Vineyard near Lompoc, which Karen told me is the most westerly vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The Pinot Noir there includes lots of clones and rootstocks, and is interplanted with a little Pinot Gris. We tasted 2007 vintage reds (all the ’07 reds have been bottled except Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot/Cab Sauvignon/Cab Franc blend), some ’08 and ’09 whites and an '09 Rosé. The just-bottled ’09 “Zingy” Sauvignon Blanc was aptly-named! With a pH of 3.22 there’s loads of brisk acidity in this rendition of the variety. Karen added the “Zingy” to the Buttonwood line-up in ’07. Karen apologized for the Grenache we tasted being somewhat shut down, more than she’s usually experienced with that wine. But since all the wines were opened immediately before we tasted them, they didn’t have the benefit of aeration time, which I’m sure would have helped the Grenache.

My favorites included both Sauvignon Blancs, the Rosé (along with the Ampelos version, two of the best Syrah Rosés I’ve tasted in recent years), the Syrah, and the Cab Franc. Based on the few Buttonwood wines I’d tasted in the past, I’d say that the current winemaking team has had some immediate positive impact, and I’m sure the wines will only become better in the years to come. I’m certainly looking forward to tasting more of Karen’s wines at Buttonwood.

Foxen Winery / Foxen 7200

Foxen 7200 current releases:

‘08 Sauvignon Blanc, Vogelzang Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley:
Blended with 11% Viognier, whole-cluster pressed, fermented in 40% stainless and 60% French oak (20% new barrels). Pale yellow color, floral and aromatic with some ripe melon and spice notes, medium-bodied and smooth.

’06 “Volpino,” Santa Ynez Valley:
72% Sangiovese from Faith Vineyard, 28% Merlot from Vogelzang, aged in 2 & 3 year-old French barrels. Medium-light red, showing black cherry and lots of spice, fairly smooth texture with mild tannins.

’06 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley:
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, aged 22 months in French oak, 80% new. Medium color, with black fruits framed by sweet oak, medium-bodied with modest tannins.

‘06 Merlot, Vogelzang Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley:
100% Merlot, aged in 60% new French oak. Medium color, this displayed riper black cherry and plum fruit and a more up-front vanilla/oak component, with a richer mouthfeel and more grippy finish.

’06 “Range 30 West,” Santa Ynez Valley:
65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 22 months in 80% new French oak. Medium color, displaying black fruits with tobacco/herb and oak notes, smooth texture and nicely-refined tannins.

’07 “Mission Accomplished,” Rancho Tepusquet Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
A Port-style wine made from Mission grapes planted in the 1950s. 17.7% alcohol and 7% RS. Medium color, fruit-forward dark berry character with a spice component, lighter and less sweet than many wines in the Port style.

Foxen current releases:

‘08 Chenin Blanc “Old Vines,” Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
From old own-rooted vines, mostly tank-fermented. Light yellow color, showing citrus and spice, with crisp acidity and a pleasant, slightly sweet finish. Foxen used to make this wine bone-dry, and I have to say I preferred those earlier vintages to the off-dry ’08.

‘08 Chardonnay “Block UU,” Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
All François Frères barrels, 20% new. I lucked into tasting this wine, which is rarely opened in the tasting room but had been opened the day before. Medium-light yellow color, spiced apple and vanilla/oak aromas, lush, creamy texture and smooth finish.

‘08 Chardonnay, Tinaquaic Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
From estate-grown, dry-farmed fruit. All François Frères barrels, 25% new. Similar color to the “Block UU” but more bright citrus on the nose, great intensity on the palate, with a crisp and clean finish, an impressive Chardonnay.

‘08 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley:
From Julia’s and Bien Nacido vineyards, mostly Pommard clone, aged 8 months in older oak. Medium color, very aromatic, featuring bright, ripe cherry fruit with floral overtones. Full of up-front fruit, it continued smooth and slightly tangy in the mouth, finishing cleanly. An uncomplicated but very pretty Pinot.

’07 Pinot Noir “Block 8,” Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
From 2A, 113, and Mt. Eden clones, aged 16 months in 60% new François Frères barrels. Darker color, this showed both deeper, darker fruit as well as more vanilla/oak. Richer on the palate, where spicy and savory notes appeared, this also displayed more structure that should make this a more “serious” Pinot for the long haul than the SMV bottling.

’07 “Cuvée Jeanne Marie,” Santa Ynez Valley:
60% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 7% Mourvèdre, aged 14 months in 1 & 2 year-old French oak. Medium color, with strawberry, rhubarb, and raspberry notes along with spicy oak. Medium-bodied, this finished with moderate tannins.

‘07 Syrah, Tinaquaic Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
Durell clone, from estate-grown, dry-farmed fruit, and aged in about 67% new French oak. Dark color, very savory/meaty character along with plum and earth notes. Medium-full bodied in the mouth, it finished with fairly chewy tannins.

‘07 Syrah, Williamson-Doré Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley:
From clones 174 and 877, aged in Hungarian oak puncheons, 40% new. This dark-colored wine featured more of the peppery black-fruited side of Syrah. More fruit-forward than the Tinaquaic bottling, it also showed more richness on the palate along with a distinct minerality and mouth-coating tannins. Both Syrahs were very good, showing two different sides of the grape.

After saying goodbye to Karen and her crew at Buttonwood, I drove north through Los Olivos and continued along beautiful Foxen Canyon Road, which, along with Santa Rosa Road, is one of my favorite drives in Santa Barbara wine country. The scenery was especially pretty on this day, with a good deal of snow still covering higher peaks. I heard from several local wine folks that there was a lot more snow than they usually see in the area, and that it even snowed at the Demetria winery above Foxen Canyon Road the week before I visited the area.

My next destination was Foxen Winery, which co-owners Bill Wathen and Dick Doré founded in 1985. The winery is named for William Benjamin Foxen, Dick Doré's great-great-grandfather, who settled in what is now Santa Barbara County in the early 19th Century. In 1837, Foxen purchased Rancho Tinaquaic in the scenic canyon that is now named after him.

Big news from Foxen – they have a brand new winery about a quarter-mile east of their old cramped winery barns along Foxen Canyon Road. But not to worry, the wonderfully funky old tasting room is still operating! In fact there are now two Foxen tasting rooms, the original one and a spiffy new facility adjacent to their new winery just up the road. Different wines are poured at each place – the old tasting room focuses on the new “Foxen 7200” line, which includes the winery’s Bordeaux-style and Cal-Ital bottlings, while the new tasting room pours their Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Rhône-style wines. Most of the Foxen 7200 wines are sourced from vineyards in what recently became the Happy Canyon AVA, east of Santa Ynez.

Victoria at the new Foxen tasting room

I headed to the old tasting room first, figuring I would backtrack to the new one afterwards. The Foxen 7200 label is named for the old winery address, 7200 Foxen Canyon Road. It was an unusual experience for me in being the only taster at the bar, so Terry & Carrie at the tasting room were able to spend a bit more time discussing the wines with me. A new wine to me was the “Mission Accomplished” Port-style wine, made from 50+ year old Mission grapes grown at Rancho Tepusquet.

The new Foxen tasting room opened in the summer of 2009, and the first crush at the adjacent winery will be the upcoming 2010 one. The new facility is mostly solar-powered. Besides the extra space in the new tasting room – for all its charm, the old one could be uncomfortably packed with visitors on weekend afternoons – the location is noticeably less windy than at the old tasting room, where you could rely on feeling chilly winds from the ocean whipping through the canyon. That was a big plus on this day, when it was good to feel the warm sun after the previous day’s cold rains. Victoria Adams was behind the tasting bar in the large, airy space, and poured me a selection of current releases.

Overall, I preferred the Foxen line-up to the Foxen 7200 wines, but both are definitely worth the stop if you make the trip along Foxen Canyon Road. Favorites included the “Range 30 West” Bordeaux-style blend, Tinaquaic Vineyard Chardonnay, as well as both Pinots and both Syrahs. I’ve felt that Foxen’s wines have been a bit up and down over the years, but I’d say they’re in a good place these days.


Riverbench Vineyard & Winery

Current releases:

’08 Chardonnay, “Bedrock,” Santa Maria Valley:
Made entirely in stainless steel. Light color, with bright lemon/citrus aromas, crisp acidity, a touch of minerality, and a clean finish, nice.

’07 Chardonnay, Estate, Santa Maria Valley:
Aged 9 months in 30% new French oak, partial ML.  Light yellow color, showing more guava/tropical fruit character along with a touch of vanilla/oak, and a richer mouthfeel.

’06 Chardonnay, Reserve, Santa Maria Valley:
Aged 14 months in 40% new French oak, partial ML, plus a little tank-fermented Chard blended in. Deeper yellow, with tropical fruit, spice, and toasty oak components and a slightly nutty note. Rich and creamy on the palate with a smooth finish.

’07 Pinot Noir, Estate, Santa Maria Valley:
Mostly from Martini clone, this had medium color, herbal cherry aromas with spice and smoke notes, tangy fruit in the mouth with medium weight and very mild tannins.

’07 Pinot Noir, Reserve, Santa Maria Valley:
A barrel selection with longer aging in more new oak, this is also mostly Martini clone. Similar to the Estate bottling but with more intense aromatics and more vanilla/oak overtones. Bigger and richer on the palate with a moderately grippy finish.

’07 Pinot Noir, “Mesa,” Santa Maria Valley:
From the vineyard’s Mesa Block, a bit higher elevation than the rest, this includes 115, 667, and Martini clones. Medium color, displaying a pretty floral component along with bright cherry, strawberry, and rhubarb on the nose, plus clove/spice notes. Tangy and silky in the mouth, this finishes with well-resolved tannins, very nice.

Just a short distance down the road from Foxen is Riverbench Vineyard & Winery. I’d heard of the vineyard before, but the wine label was new to me. A couple of winery people in the area suggested I stop there, and since it was right along the route I was headed, it was an easy choice. The tasting room opened in spring of 2008, and is located in a beautifully-restored 1920s house.

Riverbench Vineyard dates back to 1973, and has grown over the years to 350 acres. The current vineyard owners purchased the property in 2004. On a relatively flat site overlooking the Sisquoc River just to the north, the vineyard has mainly sandy alluvial soil, which provides good drainage. About 80% of the acreage is planted to Chardonnay and 20% to Pinot Noir. There are also tiny new blocks of Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris – the first harvest for these should be in 2012-13. Most fruit from the property is sold to other wineries, while the first wines under the Riverbench label were made in 2006.

All Riverbench wines are made from their estate-grown fruit. Chuck Ortman is the winemaker – he has worked and consulted with a number of well-known labels, including Heitz, Far Niente, Shafer, and Cain in Napa Valley and Meridian on the Central Coast. It was while he was at Meridian that Ortman first gained familiarity with Riverbench Vineyard fruit. The winery’s production is relatively small, at only about 3,000 cases per year.

Jackie at the tasting room was friendly and knowledgeable, and she poured me three bottlings each of the winery’s Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. In addition to their core production of Chardonnay and Pinot, Riverbench also produces a Pinot Rosé and a sparkling wine. The wines were very good, each displaying distinct character. The “Bedrock” Chardonnay, made in stainless steel, was one of the best in that style that I tasted during my trip, and the “Mesa” Pinot Noir in particular was a very fine Santa Maria Valley Pinot.

After my tasting, I sat out at one of their picnic tables and enjoyed the sun while munching on a sandwich I’d picked up in Los Olivos. I learned another piece of exciting Foxen Canyon news, too – at long last, a bridge was being completed over the Sisquoc River along Tepusquet Road, with the grand opening scheduled for about a month after my visit, in late February. Up until now, travelers had to drive down a dirt and gravel road from the riverbench and across the dry riverbed to the other side when conditions permitted, but during the wetter months it’s been necessary to detour almost all the way back into Santa Maria to cross over. So among other benefits, the new 700-foot long bridge will be a most welcome development to those wishing to visit wineries on both sides of the river.


Costa de Oro Winery

Current releases:

’08 Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County:
Fruit sourced from Faith Vineyard in SYV, cold-fermented in stainless steel, aged in neutral oak, no ML. Very light straw color, lightly aromatic grapefruit/citrus nose with some herbal notes, fairly smooth on the palate and displaying a touch of oak on the finish.

’08 Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County:
Barrel-fermented with partial ML. Light yellow, featuring tropical fruit aromas, with medium weight in the mouth and a smooth finish.

’07 Chardonnay, Gold Coast Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
Barrel-fermented in 25% new oak and full ML, aged 10 months on lees, 12 months total. A bit darker color, with ripe pineapple/tropical fruit and a more noticeable vanilla/oak component. Bigger and richer than the SBC bottling.

’07 Chardonnay, “Reserva Dorada,” Gold Coast Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
Barrel-fermented in 50% new François Frères barrels and aged 12 months on lees, 16 months total. Similar to the Gold Coast bottling, with a more leesy note on the nose, and richer, creamier texture on the palate.

’08 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County:
Aged about 11 months in older French oak. Medium color, up-front black cherry fruit with a distinct dried herb/tea leaf component, medium-bodied with a smooth finish.

’07 Pinot Noir, Gold Coast Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
100% Martini clone, aged for 16 months in 25% new oak. A little darker color, with more intense aromas and darker fruit profile plus hints of cola and vanilla/oak. A more lush feel on the palate and more structure.

’07 Pinot Noir, “Reserva Oro Rojo,”
Gold Coast Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley: A barrel selection with about 50% new oak, from mostly Martini clone plus a little 115 and 777. Medium color, ripe black cherry, berry, earth, and tea leaf, plus spicy oak. A little tangy in the mouth with a very rich and smooth texture.

’05 Late Harvest Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley:
A botrytized wine, with grapes picked at 46 brix. Tank-aged, the final wine is 11% alcohol and 27% RS. Deep gold color, honey, apricot, and spice aromas, ultra-rich and sweet, though a bit more balancing acidity would have been nice.

I was planning to drive back to Paso Robles for the night before returning to Oakland the next day, so I just made one more winery stop before heading north. A couple of friends had told me they’d recently stopped at Costa de Oro Winery, and since I’d never visited their tasting room, I thought I’d drop in.

Costa de Oro is part of Gold Coast Farms, founded by Ron Burk and Bob Espinola in 1978. In addition to wine grapes, they farm a number of other crops, including strawberries, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cilantro, and corn. In fact their tasting room, opened in 2006, is at the location of their old strawberry stand just off Hwy. 101 in Santa Maria. The vineyard was planted in 1989, and now includes 20 acres of Pinot Noir and 10 acres of Chardonnay. Over the years, much of their fruit has gone to local producers including Au Bon Climat, Hitching Post, Foxen, and Lane Tanner.

The first wines under the Costa de Oro label were produced in 1994 at the Au Bon Climat facility, and production is now about 6,500 cases per year. Ron Burk’s son Gary is the winemaker. He spent a number of years working at Au Bon Climat / Qupé, and honed his skills there working with Jim Clendenen. Paul Lato has been part of the winemaking team at Costa de Oro as well, and Paul has sourced fruit from the vineyard for his own wines too.

The tasting room is officially called the Gold Coast Marketplace, and they sell some produce from Gold Coast Farms there in addition to the Costa de Oro wines and the usual tasting room assortment of gourmet food items. As I tasted through the winery’s line-up, I enjoyed the wonderful view – one of the better tasting room vistas in the area. It was a rare treat to see so many snowy peaks in the distance, beyond the green hills above Santa Maria Valley. I thought the wines there were good, but not especially outstanding, with the “Reserva Dorada” Chardonnay and the “Reserva Oro Rojo” Pinot being my favorites.

After leaving Costa de Oro and driving north, I left the freeway at San Luis Obispo and continued along the coastal route, through Morro Bay and Cayucos, before turning east along Hwy. 46 and over the mountains to Paso Robles. There’s a wide pull-out just west of the summit where I love to stop and watch the sun go down. With expansive views south to Morro Rock and west across the lower hills to the ocean, it’s really a magical spot. After pausing for awhile there, I continued on to Paso, where I walked from my motel to Villa Creek Restaurant and enjoyed a casual meal in the bar area (along with an excellent ’06 Dry Stack Vineyard Syrah from B. Kosuge Wines). It was a quiet evening there – no other vintners around as they often are – but still a fine way to end the day.

Thursday - January 28, 2010

Villicana Winery & Vineyard

Current releases:

’08 Viognier, Paso Robles:
Cold-fermented in tank, aged mostly in neutral oak, with 20% new. Light color, bright tropical fruit with a touch of vanilla/oak, fairly lively mouthfeel and smooth finish.

’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Paso Robles:
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, aged in about 40% new French oak. Medium color, herbal black cherry on the nose, lighter-bodied with a mineral component, and mild tannins.

NV “Winemaker’s Cuvée,” Estate, Paso Robles:
40% ’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% ’06 Syrah, 15% ’06 Grenache, 5% ’06 Zinfandel. Medium color, more earthy raspberry and boysenberry aromas, richer and more tannic than the Cabernet.

’07 Merlot, Estate, Paso Robles:
Medium-dark color, slightly floral and herbal black cherry and raspberry, mouth-filling texture with big but not harsh tannins on the finish.

’07 Mourvèdre, Estate, Paso Robles:
Medium-dark color, displaying earthy dark fruit with tobacco/herb and savory notes, big mouthfeel with grippy tannins.

’07 Syrah, Estate, Paso Robles:
80% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 10% Mourvèdre aged in 33% new French and Russian oak (plus neutral French and American barrels). Medium-dark color, this had smoky black cherry, mocha, black olive, and spice on the nose, with bigger structure and chewy tannins.

I planned to take Hwy. 1 along the Big Sur coast on my Thursday return to the Bay Area, so I only had time for one or two quick winery visits before I needed to head out to Cambria and the coast. I’d hoped to check out Caparone Winery, as I was interested in trying their Italian-style wines, but alas, there was no one there when I pulled up a little while after their scheduled opening time. Alta Colina was another winery I was curious about, but I walked up to their tasting room and there was no one there either, and the packages sitting by the door told me they might be out of town (which turned out to be the case).

Alex at Villacana

Hmmmm…0 for 2 so far, should I risk the strikeout and try one more? Alta Colina shares a location with Villicana Winery, so I walked down the steps to the Villicana tasting room. Bingo! The door was open and I walked in – but no one was around. Fortunately, after just a minute or so, someone came in from the winery portion of the building, and he introduced himself as Alex Villicana. I was spared the rare tasting room strikeout!

Alex told me a bit about his background as he started to pour me his winery’s current releases. He has worked in Paso Robles area wineries since 1990, and began making his own commercial wine three years later. In 1996, Alex and his wife Monica bought 72 acres on the west side on Paso and planted a 13-acre vineyard there, all the while commuting on weekends from their “real” jobs in southern California. They finally moved to Paso Robles full-time in 2002, when they completed their own winery.

Their organically-farmed Villicana Mountain Springs Vineyard, on a hillside near Hwy. 46, is mostly south-facing, at an elevation of around 1,400 feet. The vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Zinfandel. Alex told me the typical yield is 2-2½ tons per acre. Villicana typically makes 1,500-2,000 cases per year, mostly from estate fruit, and most of their wine is sold direct through their tasting room and wine club. Alex expects that the winery’s annual production will eventually top out at about 5,000 cases.

The wines were very good, though not particularly exceptional, with the Merlot and Mourvèdre being my favorites. The “Winemaker’s Cuvée” was also quite good and offers solid QPR. All in all, a worthwhile stop if you find yourself traveling along the west side of Paso Robles' beautiful back roads.

After leaving Villicana, I made my way out to the coast and was able to enjoy pretty good weather on my drive up Big Sur. Even several stops – some of them lengthy – for the maintenance work so common along this stretch of road wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the journey.

Overall this was a much-needed and relaxing trip to the Central Coast. It was good to see some old friends and check in on some wineries I’ve enjoyed before, while revisiting a few I had not tasted at for years, and exploring a number of other places for the first time. As always, thanks to everyone that I visited for being so generous with their time and their wine!


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