Uncorked Ventures Blog
This Wednesday between 6-7pm PST we’ll be one of the 10 official tasters for #winechat.
This week 6 Santa Barbara County Vintners Association wineries have shipped wine to 10 different blogs or media outlets and asked everyone to come together for a virtual tasting.
The wines are:
Imagine Wines 2010 Viognier
Baehner Fournier 2012 Sauv Blanc
Summerland 2012 Sierra Madre Chard
Brewer-Clifton 2010 Gnesa Chard
Fontes & Phillips 2010 Sauv Blanc
Palmina 2011 Arneis
I’ll talk a bit more about each wine including our tasting notes after the event tomorrow evening, but I’m quite excited for the Arneis. Arneis is a Italian wine grape from Piedmont that many Italian vintners have stopped growing over the years because it is so fickle. With under two thousand acres planted across the world, it is without a doubt a grape on the verge of extinction and one that I’ve never tasted in a varietal wine before. Seeing a planting on the central coast says a lot about Palmina and their willingness to take some risks.
Hurricane Katrina was certainly one of the tragic event’s in our nation’s history, living in San Diego at the time I remember reading the stories of the people and events of those dark days and hoping that something good could come out of the outpouring of support. For many, it simply meant being helped to find new places to live, from Texas to California.
Presqu’ile Winery is in some ways, an off shoot of that terrible time. Presqu’ile means “almost an island” in Creole, a nod to the ownership’s family deep sense of place and belonging and farming tradition on the Gulf.
Owned by multiple generations of the Murphy family (Matt, Amanda, Jonathan, Lindsey, Anna, Madison and Suzanne) Presqu’ile is definitely a family operation and should continue to be indefinitely. It seems that Matt Murphy has been the driving force here, he is responsible for bringing the love for wine to the family, as well as for his building a friendship with a South African, who would eventually become the estate’s winemaker. For those looking for a wine experience where you meet someone in the tasting room who is intimately connected to the wine and the winery, Presqu’ile offers that opportunity, an opportunity which seems to be dying in California wine.
Of course, an interesting and unique family story is only that, without some good wine to back that up. Presqu’ile is located in the Santa Maria Valley (which we’ve talked about in this space before) and offers some of the most varied terrain and terrior in the state from which to craft wine.
We’ve borrowed their own image for their vineyard location, but really the highlight of the growing region is an incredible combination of sun and cooler breezes from the Pacific Ocean. Wine grapes need a delicate balance these days between sun, which promotes ripeness and cooler breezes and night time temperatures which allow the grapes to regain acidity and achieve a higher quality of wine. Santa Maria Valley has that combination in spades and the Prequ’ile Vineyard is no different. We’ve talked a lot in the past about how wine seems to bring people with different backgrounds, but vineyard manager Jim Stollberg might have the most divergent background for a vineyard manager that we’ve ever seen. Spending time at UC Davis sometimes seems like a prerequisite for winemakers and other winery staff in California, but seldom do we see people with biomedical undergraduate work enter the world of wine. Evidently Stollberg entered Davis with plans to play baseball and spend an awful lot of time in labs, only to find himself interested and eventually working in the world of wine for his company, Maverick Farming.
Since we are in the time of superstar winemakers, we can’t possible talk about a winery and vineyard without spending some time on the man, or woman behind the winemaking decisions. Dieter Cronje holds the winemaker post and is one of the younger members of that select group on the Central Coast. Like Presqu’ile and their grower, he’s something of a maverick. As an example, we’ve run into very, very few winemakers who are willing to use natural yeast. Yeast occurs naturally on grapes and fermentation will occur if you given juice and skins enough time, but you won’t necessarily know how long fermentation will take. That’s part of the allure to commercial yeast, you are adding a known quantity to your winemaking process. Natural yeast throws mother nature right into your wine production, just as it is in the vineyard. We’ve seen winemakers like Jean Hoefliger at Alpha Omega use natural yeast (we love their wines and the people at Alpha Omega btw) but generally winemakers willing to take those chances have already made a name for themselves and something to fall back on if things go wrong. Now, there’s no real reason that things would go wrong with natural yeast, but it isn’t how you’re generally taught to make wine.
That willingness to experiment is one of the things that we continually hear about Presqu’ile. They experiment in their vineyard and allow their winemaker to experiment with what’s being produced. This is about as natural of a process as you can find, native yeast, no filtering, no fining. Only sulfur is added. As you might expect, this isn’t a winemaking style that you see taught at large scale American winemaking schools or intern programs, Cronje originally hails from South Africa.
Ok, ok you probably want to know something about the wine. First, given their process, it isn’t surprising that these are among the most food friendly and restrained wines that you’re going to find in the Santa Maria Valley. Pinot Noir is the requisite star of the show here and Presqu’ile offers both a Santa Maria Valley blend, as well as a number of single vineyard choices. For the wine enthusiast inside me, I love the variety of vineyard choices, even when the vineyards are only a mile or two apart. The differences in vineyard and block sites are evident, especially when comparing their estate vineyard and the Rim Rock which adds some other interesting aspects to a high end Pinot Noir discussion because it is fermented in cement and comes in via whole clusters.
Additionally, if you’re a big fan of Pinot Noir on the Central Coast, 100% of the Rose grapes are from Pinot Noir. The Presqu’ile Pinot is a buzzy and rounded version of Rose that should appease even those who don’t usually drink pink, assuming they find it on a warm enough day.
As you might expect the estate also crafts a range of Chardonnay’s as well as two different Sauvignon Blanc choices. One other wine of note though is their Syrah, which is currently sourced from the outstanding Bien Nacido Vineyard. I thought this was an interesting wine on two levels. First, it was really good. Second, it is one of the few Syrah’s in California that you can find being made from a single clone and within a single vineyard. In this case, it’s clone 99. Clone 99 has become something of a catch phrase of sorts in the Santa Maria Valley when you speak with growers. It grows slightly larger berries than other grapes, as well as offering a good yield per acre. It’s also one of the better known Syrah clone’s around these days, with widespread plantings internationally. I think those wide spread international plantings are especially important given the chances being taken by Presqu’ile on the yeast side-they need clone’s with as much available information as possible.
Having spent close to five years living in Santa Barbara, the wineries of Santa Maria Valley still feel a bit like home for me. I’m going to date myself here even a bit further than my picture does, but I moved from Santa Barbara in the summer when Sideways was being released, which would inescapably change the wine industry in the region.
While Santa Ynez Valley and the newly formed Happy Canyon AVA’s are gaining momentum, in many ways the Santa Maria Valley is the most traditional of Central Coast AVA’s, it’s the oldest in the area and consumers more familiar with northern California wine regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma will recognize the classic funnel shape, almost pulling in cool breezes and fog from the Pacific Ocean into it’s warmer inland vineyards. What no one outside of the Mediterranean will recognize though is the 200 or so mile long stretch of coastline which runs west-east, the only such significant stretch of coastline in California to do so. If you’re looking for a true Mediterranean climate in which to grow wine, this is your best bet in California and I don’t think it is especially close. The result of this unique topography are vineyard sites largely considered cool by modern standards, but warm and sunny enough to achieve ripeness and enough fruit in their wines to keep everyone happy.
Let’s start with the basics, what’s the Santa Maria Valley?
Like many cooler climate regions in the state of California, the focus here is largely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two grapes which came of age in perhaps the coldest of all growing climates: Burgundy.
Lately, there has been a focus on not only expanding offerings, but taking advantage of some sites where Pinot Noir has trouble growing. Syrah is seeing increasing plantings on the red wine side and almost every winery in the region is now on the lookout for another white wine grape. Pinot Blanc is getting much of the critics buzz, but the wineries of the region are more actively planting Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris (see chart below). You might not be familiar with Pinot Blanc, but the grape is actually a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, crafting a full bodied white that reminds some of Gewürztraminer or even a dry Riesling (good luck finding one of those).
In any case, a few of my favorite wineries in the region:
Byron Vineyards: The first thing I love about Byron is their willingness to experiment. While so many wineries try and guess or work toward the perfect clone of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in their vineyard, Byron took a simpler approach-simply plant a sampling of the available clones and see what worked best. That initial planting was over 20 years ago and the results shine through their estate bottled wines to this very day. Here’s what they have to say about the Santa Maria Valley:
The Santa Maria Valley is located on an unusual topographic slice of land known as a transverse range. Unlike the majority of California’s wine producing valleys, the orientation is east to west rather than north to south. As a consequence, an unprecedented amount of marine air and accompanying fog is pulled into the vineyards from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The unimpeded flow of cold air from the Pacific Ocean makes our appellation unique. Where the grapes come from really does matter!
Byron currently has three wines which are marked as coming exclusively from the Santa Maria Valley, a Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Core Wine Company: So, simply put they don’t fit in. They don’t make a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay. Instead the focus is on bigger wines, with bottling reflecting Rhone choices as well as those grapes most closely associated with Bordeaux. If you’re someone who likes some variety when wine tasting, a visit to Core’s tasting room while you’re looking around the Santa Maria Valley is a nice choice.
Kenneth Volk: Volk made his name (and according to many his fortune) by starting and then building Wild Horse Winery into a 150,000 case behemoth on the Central Coast. Maybe it was a stroke of genius, but he didn’t name that first winery after himself and only after selling it to Jim Beam Brands (Bourbon, Maker’s Mark Whiskey and more recently Skinnygirl) he opened Kenneth Volk Vineyards to focus on smaller production, higher quality wines. This is the winery which introduced me to the wines of the central coast as Volk makes a range of offerings from Pinot Noir & Chardonnay grown in the Santa Maria Valley, to Bordeaux varietals from Paso Robles and finally to a range of unique offerings you won’t find anywhere else like Cabernet Pfeffer and Negrette. My personal favorites are typically his Bien Nacido Vineyard offerings (typically Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) because of their higher than normal acidity as well as his Albarino, which I wish more people would attempt in the Santa Maria Valley.
This photo of Foxen Vineyard is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Foxen: One of the founding members of the region, Foxen has been around since 1985 in northern Santa Barbara County, well before anyone knew that Hollister was a street! I can appreciate Foxen because they truly make a bit of everything. Classic Santa Maria Valley fare with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (which made a name for them originally) but also a spattering of Rhone’s, Bordeaux’s and now even a few Italian based wines like Sangiovese (which I think the climate is well suited for). Pick up any major wine magazine and you’ll see multiple 90+ rated wines in each vintage from Foxen, according to many this is the best juice in the Valley.
Lastly, do you want some proof that the Santa Maria Valley is still tinkering and looking to find that elusive second white wine grape? Looking at the winery list from the Santa Maria Valley AVA Association, we see 11 wineries with tasting rooms in the Valley. We thought the following chart would be interesting to see who is growing and producing what!
|Winery||Chardonnay||Pinot Noir||Pinot Blanc||Sauvignon Blanc||Pinot Gris|
|Costa de Oro||X||X||X|
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