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Monday, May 25, 2015

Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Santa Barbara, CA


Tell someone you are going to wine country in the US, and almost always you get a response that sounds like, "Oh, have you been to Napa before."  You may also hear, "Napa or Sonoma?"  Perhaps if someone is really into wine, they may ask if you are going to the finger lakes, or Willamette Valley.  Truth is, grapes are made into wine in all 50 states, some more successfully than others for sure, but Virginia, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and many others are beginning to make good wines from grapes grown on their soils.  It should also come as no surprise that grapes are grown throughout California, and not just in Napa that make some fantastic wines.  We just got back from such a place.  It was beautiful, heartland farm country, none commercial in the way Napa valley is, and in many ways an opportunity to simplify a wine country experience, while still enjoying wines that are fantastic, exciting, and stand up to food, maybe even better than the wines of "The Napa Valley."

Now, I say this tongue in cheek a bit, because I still do love Napa, but if you are willing to get out of your comfort zone, and spend some time doing research, which in my eyes was part of the fun, you will find winemakers and not marketers, willing to spend time with you talking about their passion for making great wines.

Just for this article, in case you were wondering,  Sta Rita Hills, which one cannot spell out Sana Rita Hills due to a lawsuit, but you are more than welcome to say Santa Rita Hills, just don't spell it out.  I am a little nervous that I will get brought up on charges, so for the remainder of this edition, you will see Sta and not Santa.
Ok, so knowing we were going, I reached out to Angela Osborne (owner and winemaker at "A Tribute To Grace" Winery), who has now played travel guide for me twice.  Once for this trip, and the second time was for a trip I took to the Yarra Valley in Australia last year.  She gave me many suggestions for people in the region who are doing great things.  In the absence of that, you could have read Jon Bonne's book, New California Wines, or The Wine Bible, and you would have found great places to start.  In both books they list wineries that are making great wines, and maybe not the ones that have the biggest advertizing budget.  Also, in regions like this, many of the wine makers will tell you who they think is worthy of visiting, and many times, they are not the usual suspects.  I suggest doing this anytime you are going on a wine-cation. 

Los Alamos, Ca
Fittingly, we started our trip last Monday with Angela, who took us to lunch in Los Alamos, CA, at a restaurant called Bell Street Farms.  This was a cute little place in a cute little town owned by a man who weekends in the area, and thus the restaurant is only opened from Thursday until Monday every week.  The food, like so much of the food in the area, is Farm to Table, but in this case, the farms are like 5 minutes from the restaurant.  Meats, breads, veggies all locally sourced, and it tastes like food from your garden.  It was really that fresh.  We talked to Angela about the area, her wine making, potty training kids (She has a two year old and one on the way), and had fantastic food.


From there, we went to A Tribute to Grace Winery, and I was sooooooooo glad that we were able to follow her there, because the winery is a co-op in which she rents space.  It is owned by Andrew Murray, another local wine maker in Los Olivos, in an area referred to as Area 51.  The drive in, like so much of the region is beautiful.  Rolling hills, Mountains, Crops of strawberries, squash, grapes, cattle being raised on grass, horses in pasture, and more grapes.  Far from the grapes only landscape of Napa.  In the area called area 51 there were also oil drills that were pumping away at the earth as well.  Area 51 was a fitting name for the location.

Tribute made about 1000 cases last year from 3 sites.  This year they will make 2400 cases from 7 single vineyard sites, including 2 that come from very tiny vineyards with vines dating back to the 20s and 40s.  It is a beautiful case study in place!  Angela color codes her labels and right now she is trying to decide what colors to use on her new bottles.  We drank each of her wines from the barrels.  Many were done fermenting and aging away nicely, some were a bit fizzy still undergoing Malolactic fermentation, a process that makes wines less acidic and increases the buttery mouth feel.  This MLF as it is called is why Chardonnay will often taste like butter.  Bacteria are used to convert Malic acid into lactic acid (Lactic acid is the same acid found in dairy and is less sharp than Malic).  What was cool about this experience besides the fact that Angela is like the nicest person ever, is that she only makes wines from Grenache, and yet, all 7 of her wines are different.  It is a great example of what growing the same grapes in different vineyards will do to a wine.  In addition, tasting while the wine is young gave us a great understanding of what time does to a wine.  These wines were Tannic, acidic, and like unruly teenagers.  Having had here wines before, I know that these wines will be perfectly balanced by the time they see the bottles that they are destined for.
Sea Smoke Vineyard from the Top


From there to sea smoke.  A tour that almost never happened.  You see, I called them and asked for a tour and was told, "We don't do tours."  Then I med a guy who shall remain nameless who said call them and tell them I thought you should have a tour.  I met him in the aisles of Costco, can't reach him now, don't really know him, and yet, he got us in.  Thanks CC.  We met a nice man in a VW Gulf at the gate named Victor Gallegos who is the GM of the winery and who was with his dog Luna.  The name Luna is fitting because they are a biodynamic winery.  As victor told us, he converted one plot over slowly prior to taking the whole winery that direction, because he feels making slow change is the best way.  Victor could not have been more gracious.  You need to understand that Sea Smoke does not do tours, and they don't really need to do tours because they sell out routinely.  That said, He was a fantastic tour guide, and a great person to share his passion with us about the winery, and what they are trying to do there.  Victor took us on a tour of a twisting and turning dirt road up the side of a mountain, through the 900 acre vineyard.  If 900 acres sounds huge, it is because it is.  Sea Smoke is in a bowl formed by mountains, and although they hold 900 acres, they only have 160 acres planted with vines.  With a view from the top u could see much of the wineries in Lompoc.  He explained that their neighbors were some of the big names in the Ava.  Stanford, etc...

Clay soils on a mountain farmed biodynamicly but they water... Why, there is no water no matter how far u dig. So they have to or the vine dies.  This goes back to Victor's theory about slow change.  He knows a guy who liked the concept of dry farming, and the guy stopped watering the vineyard.  Because these are high elevation wineries, on mountains that don't hold a lot of water, and there is a drought, in his eyes, the equation is simple.  You water, or the vine dies.  "There is no such thing as dry farming, it is a marketing term." was his thought.  "You do what is best for the vine, and that is all you can do."  In the case of Sea Smoke, you water but just enough, and they are doing what they can scientifically to make sure that their vines are getting the water they need, and nothing more.

Victor shared a bottle of Sea Spray, their proprietary name for the Champagne style, blanc de noir sparkler.  We had a view of the entire vineyard, but also saw why it is Pinot country.  It is cold and WINDY, so much so that after a while, we needed to get out of the wind so that we did not freeze.  Victor took us down the hill  and even showed us their newest facility equipped with Riddeling cages.  These were large machines used to disgorge the bottles.  I should also mention that Sea Spray was a delicious, bone dry champagne with no sugar added to the dosage.  This was yet another case of a really nice guy who makes really great wine in the Sta Rita Hills.

That night we went for dinner at the Santa Ynez kitchen.  There were too many great things on the menu to choose so we ended up booking a reservation for Thursday Night as well.  That night we got a Jonata winery (Of Screaming Eagle Fame) blend, and it was beautiful with out short rib ragu.  The food was fantastic.  We also got a pizza and a panna cota for dessert.

Sign over Liquid Farm
The next morning we woke up and went to a winery with perhaps my favorite name.  The wine is labeled Liquid Farm holds, and the winery holds a pick early and maintain the integrity of the grape mentality.  The grape, whose integrity they hold so dear is Chardonnay.  It is not however your typical California Chardonnay.  Much of it is done in Neutral oak barrels, and the grape, and the place in which it was grown is what stayed with you.  We tried 6 wines with winemaker James Sparks who is for lack of better description a wine guy through and through.  He loves the stuff and is passionate and it oozes from his being.

We tasted a rose and 4 other chardonnay options and a special wine that James is, "Trying to decide what to do with."  It is his own project, and one that he is proud of, a Grenache from Santa Maria Valley. The Chardonnay tasting was done from least complex to most.  All were plenty complex and interesting, all got wood to some extent and in various levels of newness, and all came from different sites in the area.  Rose is from Mourvèdre and Grenache. Had nice acid and was a great patio sipping wine.  We then tried the white hills which had tropical fruit and green apple with a nice buttery nose that was well balanced with a great amount of Limey acid.  Next we tried next was la Germans which was from Santa Maria and was a study in minerality with little fruit.  Golden slopes was next which gets newer wood and was a big wine with pommacious fruit and toasty goodness.  Finally the four was similar to the golden slopes, which had a bit more mustiness from the barrel adding complexity.  These were destined for the Golden Slope wine but got pulled upon tasting due to its wonderful complexity.  Therefore, 4 is like the "Reserve wine" from Liquid Farm.  I will say that this wine has a long finish.  I may still be tasting it a week later if it were not for the fact that we tasted a lot of wines that week.

We then grabbed lunch at Industrial eats.  Here it was an Indian Coliflower dish and a Bohn Mi sandwich.  We paired this meal with a Gruner Vetliner by Solminer, another local winery.  Yep, Gruner in California.  Very Crisp and acidic and paired well with both.  The next winery we visited was Stolpman.  Stolpmans property is beautiful and has a rare estate grown and bottled thing going on among people who make wine and don't farm grapes.  When we arrived at the estate Pete was working the fields bit urges U.S. To look around.  We did and took pictures of the picturesque property.  The wines were wonderful highlighted by his Roussane blend as well as his Syrah.  Besides tribute to Grace, Stolpman's wines were among our favorites in the area.  These were perfectly extracted wines with good acid and fantastic aging potential.  His wine club is a good value as well.

From there we went back to the same building that Liquid Farm was in (Called the Bodega) it is a co-op warehouse in which wine is made.  The winery this time was Lofi.  Craig, one of the wine makers, met us in the back of the bodega, and talked about the philosophy of making wines to be enjoyed young.  They were that.  Really great acid profiles, nicely made straight forward wines that would pair well with food. My favorites were the Cab Franc and the Riesling followed by an esoteric Cinsault that smelled like Marijuana, and tasted great to me, but admittedly was not for everyone.  That night we went back to the B&B we were staying at, for... a wine tasting, and did a sing-a-long with Jim, one of the inn keepers.  If you go to the area, stay at the 4 friends Inn (Free Commercial).  It was a great experience and a wonderful place with wonderful owners who are after all, White Sox fans from Chicago.

Dinner that night was at sides where we had arugula salad and lamb loin which we paired with a Grenache blend from Beckman vineyards. The salad was fantastic, and the lamb was rich and perfectly cooked with some yummy gnochi on the side.

The next day, we decided to get away from the wine thing, but were unable to do that.  We drove to Ojai, which everyone described as an old Hippie town that was rustic.  It may be an old Hippie town, but it was FAR from rustic.  This is a great place to shop for art, and jewelry, as well as a place to hike, do yoga, eat great food, and to find yourself.  There is also a great little winery, and Angela told us the winemaker there, is one of the "best winemakers in the world."  His name is Adam Telmach, and I came to find later that he had trained a lot of the top winemakers in the region (Angela Included).  We went to the tasting room without an appointment.  Started tasting with a Chardonnay got neutral barrels and. some butter that was well balanced with acid.  This was again more in a balanced style  picked early to keep the acid high and the Abv low.  Next we tasted the sauv blanc which had tropical fruits, red grapefruit, a bit of they cat pee thing and some minerals with a mild grassiness.  It was equally nice and had some racy tension.  The Pinot was light in color And had great red fruit bit also that dark Forrest floor thing with a little Pinot barrel funk/mushrooms thing going on.  Grenache was easy drinking with nice structure but was a nice burger or pizza wine.  All were good.  Then we realized that the winemaker Adam was sitting behind us and we said hi, and let him know that Angela told us he was the best winemaker on the planet. He talked for a bit and then said, let me get you something nice to try.  First we got the Syrah on the list which was beautiful in its own right with black fruit, blue fruit, a meatiness and a olive pepper finish.  When we were done Adam poured the 2011 Roll Ranch Syrah which was a more complex version of its brother.  We then tried the ice wine made from Viognier.  It was a lovely honeyed pitted fruit balanced dessert wine.  I asked about botrytis and was told it rarely happened here but in 2006 they had some Chardonnay with it and made an ice wine.  It peaked Adams interest so they opened a bottle to share.  It was also a pitted fruit luxurious beauty with a bit of orange and some lovely honeyed ginger.  This one had a big luxurious mouthfeel and was a beautiful complex beast of a dessert wine:  so balanced and lovely.  I am calling it a dessert wine, but truthfully I would love to eat it with some fantastic blue cheese or with some Foie.

4 Friends Inn
From there, we drove back to the Inn for a sing-a-long and went for dumpy Mexican food   This was a place called California Burito and both the service as well as the food was much better than the strip mall taco joint would have suggested. It was also farm to table and beautiful in its simplicity) We finished the bottle of Jonata that night, and went to bed.











Dimetria Winery Tasting Room
The next morning we went to Dimetria, which was another winery we sared with a tasting room with the winery dog, some birds and a cat, and sat sipping and tasting amongst the estate grown grapes.  The wines were Rhone varietals.  The first was a white with Marsane, Roussane, Grenache blanc and Picpoul grapes.   We also tried many reds and they had  the usual Rhone suspects (Syrah, Grenache etc.)  These were a bit more tannic and big wines than what we had been drinking but Demitria is a great advocate for biodynamic farming and wine production.  Also, as an added bonus, the property is so beautiful that you could eat or drink anything there and they would taste better, just due to the natural beauty.  Cuve Maria and Picpoul were among my favorite wines at this site, but most of their estate wines were great.

We next went to Foxen winery in Los Olivos.  Foxen Was among the largest of the wineries we visited making everything from.... Well everything.  Syrah, Chardonay, Sauv Blanc, Bordeaux style blends, Rhone Style Blends, and many more.  They have two tasting rooms, the original which is a barn shack that I am so proud of them for keeping.  It is a cool old building with outdoor tasting space and two hip people pouring.  It is here that they carry their more rustic wines.  They also have a very modern tasting room.  All power for the winery is governed by solar energy.  The owners are Dick and Bob, and they make shirts that say if you don't know Foxen, you don't know Dick...Or Bob.  Despite their success, it would seem that they have kept their sense of humor.  John was pouring at the tasting room, and he was an interesting cat.  He also was asking a lot of questions about my program, and before I left, he put me in the system as trade, ensuring that I get a nice discount on anything I order.  I LOVE THEM!!!  I am not sure I can exactly be impartial here as they were the first winery every to call me trade.  For that reason, I will always remember Foxen... You always remember your first after all.

Watching Humming Birds at Andrew Murray
We also tasted at Andrew Murray who has a lot of heavier, "bigger" wines of Rhone varietals of a good value, some of which are even carried at Costco.  I liked his Roussane blend best of all.  His Syrah was good, but after the more light acidic wines I had been drinking all week, they seemed heavy handed.

The final tasting that we did was at Qupe which means poppy in the Native American language that was prevalent in the area before we stole their land.  These wines were among our favorites in the valley.  Well balanced with racy acidity and sourced mostly from cool climate locations.  We particularly loved the Roussane  here as well, and also really liked many of their Syrah blends ranging in style from northern Rhone like in their meaty, herbal qualities, to southern Rhone like with more fruit and spice (Think Chateaunuf).

Back to SYK (Santa Ynez Kitchen).  This time it was fascinating.  On Thursday, they do a 3 course tasting menu for 35 dollars and any bottle of local wine you bring is corked for free.  There were locals everywhere including a table of winemakers that were talking shop.  They each brought a bottle of wine, some their own, others from all over the world.  I was jealous.  They would drink and talk about what they would like their last sip to be prior to their own death.  Some again sited local, others Rhone, and others still Bordeaux.  It was fun to be a fly on the wall, but it would have been more fun if I were tasting along with them.  It looked like a lot of fun, and it was definitely a great lineup of premium wines.  This one dinner summarizes what makes this place so different.  A group of guys sitting around with the locals, all of whom they knew, and all of whom knew them, geeking out over wine.  They were off the clock, and still talking about work and they were loving it.  Again, Jealous.

View From Stolpman Vineyard
Many of the wines made in the region are made at high altitudes in cool climates.  This allows for tannin development from the sunlight, but longer hang time.  These are structured wines with good aging potential due to both the tannic structure as well as the medium high acidity that most of these wines possess.  This is a BEAUTIFUL part of our country and one that you should try to visit if you like the qualities of the wines that I just described.

I for one will be back.  I love me some Napa valley, I also love Sonoma, but this is a part of the country that stands on its own, and I believe one that will get more popular for many reasons.  Good wine, beautiful country, beaches near bye, proximity to LA, and many more.  Please try to get there before "THE MAN" ruins its natural beauty.  You will thank me for the tip.

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