Vol. 8 No.1. Feb '00
Journal and tasting notes from a visit to several Santa Ynez Valley wineries.
Tasting Notes / Scores: Brief tasting impressions are included following the winery write-up. An "n/n" indicates that no notes were taken.
Fri, Feb 18, 2000
Taking advantage of the 3-day weekend, we headed out for the Central Coast to visit a few wineries - hoping that Friday would put us way ahead of potential crowds. Left Irvine about 7:10am for points North. Arrived at first stop in Santa Ynez Valley about 10:25am.
Housed in a former private art gallery, Curtis Winery is owned by Firestone Vnyds and located about 1-1/2 miles north of the parent winery. (Curtis, is Brooks Firestone's mother's maiden name). The tasting room is relatively new and very nicely appointed. The lineup of mostly Rhone varietals and blends is being made at Firestone until facilities are completed here. Our pourer, Heidi, was both friendly and knowledgeable about the wines and winemaking in general. Chatted about the changes in the valley, with the advent of more wineries and the visitors who descend on weekends primarily to drink and party. The wines here are of good quality, if a bit lightly extracted. And, the label design, with its painted rancho/cowboy graphic themes, could have more appeal. But, rather than just create a second label, Firestone is making an attempt with Curtis to establish a Rhone presence. And, Curtis could be an up-and-comer, if they concentrate on the winemaking and good fruit. Out about 11:10.
Tasted at Curtis:
Arrived at Fess Parker Winery at 11:15. It's been a few years since I've visited this winery, and I was interested to see what changes may have been made. Here's a place that has the money, the fruit and the potential winemaking ability, but doesn't seem to be able to dodge their name and corporate approach to knocking out wine. On the other hand, maybe they're merely striving to be the Knott's Berry Farm of wineries. Pouring 7 wines for $3. Our pourer, Martin, was friendly and fairly knowledgeable about the Parker lineup. So, using the Curtis winery example, I asked if Fess Parker Vnyds was intending to spin-off any new labels, and/or open another winery. After a surprised look, Martin grabbed a copy of the Parker newsletter/gift catalogue, and turned to a page with an illustration of two bottles labeled "Epiphany" - a Viognier and a Syrah from Rodney's Vnyd. Apparently something was afoot, although it seemed many of the staff were caught by surprise by the appearance of this new label in the catalogue. Out at Noon.
Tasted at Fess Parker:
On to Zaca Mesa. Arrived at 12:10 to just a few people in the tasting room. Tasted 7 wines N/C. Our pourer may have been new, and seemed a little unsure of herself. Though very friendly and outgoing, when asked about the "appellation" on one of the wines, we got a befuddled response and admission that she was "...not familiar with that term." Wine chat with pourers can be a mixed blessing. Generally, it's very informative. But, I've been steered wrong more than once about the source of the fruit or the wine's appellation. On the other hand, they often end up in very hectic situations, trying to remember who had what wine last and still answer a bunch of inane questions. Usually. it's best to gauge the staff's wine knowledge before asking particular questions. I suppose, "where's the wine from," would have sufficed. But, sometimes it's just easier to look at the bottle for yourself if you just gotta know the details. Did some tailgating on the grounds, and out at 1:00.
Tasted at Zaca Mesa:
From Zaca we headed up the road to Foxen. Arrived at 1:10 to just a couple of people in the room, and very soon we had the place all to ourselves. Pouring 4 wines for $3. But, Kathryn Clark, tasting room manager, led us through the entire lineup of 14 wines. Since several of the wines had been open from the beginning of the week, Kathryn offered to crack open a few newer bottles (with the weekend approaching, there was the expectation of big crowds) so we could taste the older and newer bottles side-by-side. Very instructive, as we could pick up the effects of air on most of the wines. A few small groups of tasters came and went while we were there, and I could sense the opportunity to visit other wineries slipping away. No matter, we had a great visit going, and this one-on-one is what wine touring is all about. During our visit, a group of restauranteurs from out of town arrived for an appointment with proprietor Dick Doré. So, while Kathryn was handling the ever increasing crowd in the tastingroom, Dick was shuttling bottles back and forth to the group at the plastic picnic table on the cement pad out back. If you don't know or haven't been to Foxen, it presents quite a contrast with most of its brethren in the valley. (Now that Sanford has moved out of its old tasting room, Foxen remains the most rustic in the area.) Dick Doré and Bill Wathen have done a great job here. If memory serves me right, this is Foxen's Tenth vintage. Quite a place - one that I hope will never change. Their latest T-shirt says it all, "...if you don't know Foxen, you don't know Dick -- or Bill." Out at 3:20, after a fabulous long visit.
Tasted at Foxen:
With the hour getting late, we decided to forgo a visit to Rancho Sisquoc and instead double back to Rusack and LinCourt. Arrived at Rusack about 3:50. Located 1/2 way between Solvang and Los Olivos, this is the site of the former Ballard Cyn Winery. After a brief flourish, Ballard Cyn fell on hard times and into receivership. It sat vacant and untended for several years, and the Rusack family apparently had to start over with the vnyds, turning out the '95 as their first vintage. Just a few other tasters in the room and out on the inviting redwood deck. With tasting room staffer Malcolm working the patio, Katy took a break from her cellar duties to assist inside. Pouring 5 of their 7 wines for $3.75, we were able to try a cross-section of their regular product line. A reserve Chardonnay and an Anacapa Meritage of 90%CF, and 5% each of Merlot and CS was available for purchase, but not for tasting. Rationalizing $32-35 for an untasted wine from this appellation and producer seems a bit foolhardy to me. While I understand the economics of such a decision, it seems shortsighted (especially with the holiday weekend just starting) for the winery not to have some of their big guns available to taste. The Rusack label design is somewhat ornate, even a bit reminiscent of the old Ballard Cyn design - swapping out a stagecoach for a tall ship. The wines were all decent, many with the usual herbal characteristics of SYV (who says we don't have terrior in California). Generally, the mouthfeel and taste of each wine outperformed the nose, the exception being the Muscat Canelli - which is usually very dependable from this area, but didn't measure up on any account. With all of our questions (okay, my questions), Malcolm wondered if we were "...in the industry." Naw, just crazed hobbyists we assured him. Out at 4:25.
Tasted at Rusack:
On to LinCourt. Arrived at 4:30 to a lively place. Just one pourer, Hillary, was handling the busy room, pouring 7 wines for $3 tasting fee. Much of the signage for the former Santa Ynez Winery is still up, despite the fact that the place was bought by William Foley (also owns Foley Vnyds in Los Olivos) a few years back. With the stated intention of "...taking a new direction...with a focused approach ensuring wines of the highest merit," I expected to find a big turnaround in the quality of wine over the previous SYV stable. Unfortunately, they're falling a bit short of their aspirations - at least at this point in time. The wines were adequate, but many posessed overly ripe noses and underripe tastes. The Cab proved by far the worst of the lot, with a largely tart and acidic mouthfeel combined with overly vegetal components. In retrospect, I suppose the old SY Winery signage should have been a tip-off that little seems to have changed in quality around the place. Of course the other tasters in the room seemed to feel quite different - considering the cases of wine I saw people carrying out to their cars. Out at 5:15.
Tasted at LinCourt:
Next to back to Los Olivos to check out the tasting rooms. Noticed that Daniel Gehrs' tasting room is about ready to open for business. Longoria closed early, so we opted for a visit to Andrew Murray. We arrived about 5:25 to Stephanie counting out the cash register. Oh-oh, she's closing I thought. Nope, just winding things up. Apparently, she was nursing a broken or sprained foot. But, this didn't seem to slow her down much as she poured 3 wines for $2. I've always liked the Murray product line - especially when the wines are young. This time out, however, they didn't impress me quite as much. Generally, the wines seemed a little light on their feet, and tasted somewhat tart. Don't know if this represents the vintage, a change in style, or bottle variation, or what. Out at 5:50 and raced to our dinner reservation in Buellton.
Tasted at Andrew Murray:
Wrap up: Off to the Hitching Post for our traditional steaks. Very satisfactory day. Totals for the day: 7 wineries, 53 wines. Foxen was a super visit! Everyone was very friendly and attentive. And, out of seven wineries, we only had to listen to 1-1/2 pitches to join cellar clubs. Now, that's a good day!
Rambling: I must admit, I haven't given much thought in the past to the tasting room practice of pouring wines from previously opened bottles. While I've always realized that this could effect my opinion of the wines being poured, I felt it was of minor consequence. I certainly don't expect a winery/tasting room to open brand new bottles every few hours just to give people a pour of "fresh" wine. But, I have to question the effects of having these bottles open for several days. How is the consumer supposed to judge a wine that has been exposed to the air for this long a period? Given that Foxen had bottles open for 3-4 days (with little degredation, I might add), I have to wonder how long the other places I visited had their wines open. Then, I have to wonder if I judged them fairly. On the other hand, I can only judge them by what they pour. Let the chips fall where they may.