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.
Chasing the Vine
Every so often, we run into a new, engaging and interesting wine blog. Since we know our readers and customers are often fascinated with all things wine and we’re typically limited by the whole running a small business thing, we like to share our finds in this space.
In this case, we present: Chasing the Vine.
Written by Lauren Mowery, reportedly a reformed (wording is my own) lawyer in New York City, there are a few things that we really enjoy about Chasing the Vine. First, it’s fun to get some greater geographical perspective. New York City is clearly one of the food and wine capitals of America and it’s location puts Lauren closer to Bordeaux and Burgundy than Chile, so there is a definite international (non South American division) focus of her blog. We’ve greatly enjoyed her entries on cool climate Australian wine, as well as her stories on South Africa (a region we’re bullish on).
Additionally, as a wine start up we can appreciate her experience within the wine industry which includes a stint at Gilt Taste as well as her column over at the Village Voice (it’s a fun free newspaper originally published from Greenwich Village and in many ways the precursor for many of my favorite weekly’s here on the west coast including the San Diego Reader and more recently the East Bay Express).
Overall, it’s just a fun blog and one filled with interviews of people within the world of food and wine. Hearing what winemakers have to say is always fun, but the chief’s and other people who help the sale of wine offer a different and important perspective as well.
We hope you’ll check out Lauren’s work.
Over the past few years, New Zealand is a destination that’s grown in terms of acceptance among normal international tourists, while also becoming a more sought after destination for wine drinkers specifically.
So why are wine drinkers flocking to New Zealand?
To start, the wine world has undergone a dramatic change of late. The rich and dense Cabernet Sauvignon’s that made California famous have become passé. Instead wine drinkers are looking for more complex and interesting wines from cooler growing environments. New Zealand in a way is an ideal cool growing environment because of its unique geography that most people simply aren’t aware of. Since New Zealand is actually two islands (let’s be honest, Americans don’t do wonderfully well at geography), there is an incredible amount of influence from the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean on grape vines planted near the coast on either island. While people generally only associate New Zealand wine with crisp white’s and Pinot Noir, there are warm enough vineyards to produce a range of other world class choices, some of which we’ll talk about below. Vines on both the north and south islands benefit from long summer days, but also the cooling affects of the ocean as well as the cooler night’s that you’d expect from the world’s most Southern vineyard sites.
One region which makes some great wine and also doubles as a great tourist destination is Hawke’s Bay. Hawke’s Bay is located on New Zealand’s north island’s eastern coast. The area is known for its majestic beauty as well as a focus on a local food and wine culture. To us, it reminds us a lot of Sonoma closer to home here in California. The region is home to New Zealand’s oldest farmer’s market, the world’s largest colony of Gannet’s (it’s a huge sea bird with a wingspan of 6 feet or so) as well as one of the best and most extensive Art Deco building collections in the world. There’s plenty to do outside of food and wine for visitors, but we’ll stick to some of the lesser known wineries that we’ve run into and what we like about them in this space, as well as the winery which might be the standard bearer in the region:
Alpha Domus: Owned by the Ham family since 1991, the winery uses only its own estate vineyards to produce their range of incredible wines. On the high end they produce a cool climate Bordeaux styled blend called AD the Aviator which has been consistently rated at 90 points and above by major wine critics, while being touted for its expressive aromatics as well as its firm balance between fruit and tannins. On the white wine side there are Chardonnay choices (please note, this isn’t going to be the big oak driven Chard’s that made Napa famous, but a more austere and light oak style that is the driving style of New Zealand Chardonnay) as well as a Semillon . Of note for American drinkers is the Noble Selection white which in essence is a late harvest (dessert wine) Semillon. Given the uptick we’re seeing locally here in San Francisco with sweeter wines, this is the type of wine that could easily find a home on the cocktail and dessert path in the city.
Mission Estate Winery: In a story which is quite familiar to those of us living in California, Mission Estate Winery was originally opened by a group of French Missionaries who planted vines in order to have something for sacrament as well as, table wine. As you might expect, the history of the estate gets rather complicated from there (as it should with a 150 year old history) but Mission Estate continues to be Hawke’s Bay’s oldest winery. With a high end price of around $40, these are approachably priced and likely under priced given the quality. The Antoine red blend combines a traditional Bordeaux approach with New Zealand fruit and is really a stunning example of traditional French winemaking style with locally available grapes. There is a lighter texture to this wine that simply isn’t possible in other parts of the world, almost a finesse to the Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Paul Mooney was once a geophysicist when combined with a family tradition of making wine in Bordeaux, makes a couple of good reasons why he makes a more acidic and less fruit driven wine than many of their neighbors.
Tironui Estate: Located literally next door to Mission Estate (much the same way that Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles shares a border with the famed James Berry Vineyard yet only charges a fraction of the price for its wine) Tironui Estate is owned by a family currently living in Malta, but with roots in New Zealand. We wanted to mention Tironui in this space because of that connection (the area has already been proven when it comes to winemaking great results are coming), but also because Tironui’s story helps to tell the story of what the wine industry might look like as time goes by. Oregon has complained recently of California’s buying wine in their state, just as California winemakers complain of new Chinese ownership of vineyards in Napa Valley.
It’s a global world in general and as we become more “flat” ownership may very well be more driven by heritage and dreams rather than current location. It’s already happened during an age of the jet set consulting winemaker whose name ends up on the label, perhaps for only a few days of work while others spend every day in the cellar and in the vineyard. As I have family living in South America, this style of a more global world of wine is a good thing.
The last time we saw a surge of globalization in the wine world, we saw Italian vintners accept modern winemaking techniques and bring their wines to their rightful place among the wine elite after a decades long struggle for consistent quality. I hope that ownership stakes like the one we see at Tironui benefit not only their namesake winery in New Zealand, but help bring winemaking and grape growing back to Malta. If you aren’t familiar Malta is an island in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sicily. That’s pretty much prime grape growing real estate, if there’s any land left over on a small island space and like most Mediterranean islands, there are native grapes to the area just waiting to be explored.
I’ve made the drive down the 101 Freeway between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area at this point more times than I can count and each time it seems like grape vines are springing up. One thing that you only see rarely though, is an actual winery within eyeshot of the freeway.
Laetitia Vineyard and Winery is one exception to that rule and it provides a litany of other differences between it many of the other wineries that consumers are more familiar with inside California as well.
Let’s start with the basics, Laetitia is located inbetween the towns of Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande which puts it about 75 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara and 50 miles south of Paso Robles.
For a long time people within the wine industry noted that this was the dead area when it came to California wine because although the only profitable grape vines back then (think the crash of 2008) were the vines right along the 101, wineries weren’t thriving there because of a lack of foot traffic.
Laetitia thrived then and continues to thrive now, yes they get some casual tourists passing by, but they’ve created a destination for people who love wine to enjoy on their trip up the California Central Coast.
Laetitia is different in another way as well, unlike virtually every other winery that has a household name in the state, they own all their own vines, or at least a huge percentage of them depending on whom you ask. Either way, it seems as if they either own, or have long term contracts with every important vineyard that they choose to work with.
Located largely in the Arroyo Grande AVA, Laetitia takes advantage of some of the unique characteristics of the area. First, you have an evolved and geographically diverse AVA, complete with both mountains and valleys. That combination of traits allows Laetitia to offer a range of estate wines both in terms of red and white wines, but growing blocks of both Syrah and Pinot Noir directly on the estate.
The Pinot Noir program, not surprisingly given their location near the land which brought the world Sideways, is largely the highlight of the winery. They offer at last count 6 different estate Pinot Noir’s, allowing consumers a real opportunity to experience the differences that small changes in either winemaking technique, clone choice or vineyard location can have on wine. One of our favorite experiences is the opportunity to taste different vineyards and compare them, but also to taste the stylistic differences between their whole cluster Pinot Noir versus their standard estate bottle.
Of course, if my wife had written about Laetitia, she wouldn’t have even gotten around to mentioning the Pinot Noir because Laetitia also boasts one of the most expansive sparkling wine programs in America. Yes, their estate vineyard and its blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are well suited for sparkling wine, but like most everything on the estate they’ve gone that extra mile to create the best wine experience possible. Laetitia boasts the only two remaining European style basket presses in America. It’s a Middle Ages technology that most wineries have modernized for one reason or another (ease of administration, winemaker frustration or profit among them) but it adds more than an incremental amount of work to the process of making their sparkling wines. It is true that most estate’s in Champagne still follow this process, which calls for four separate manual presses of each grape, often in the early hours of the morning to ensure that the Pinot Noir skins don’t touch the grape juice for too long a time period.
Of course, no winery exists only in a vacuum and no winery simply drops their grapes from the vineyard and lets them seemingly ferment on their own. Winemakers make a big difference in the finished product which has helped move this industry into the whole winemaker as celebrity culture which abounds. Eric Hickey is the lead winemaker at Laetitia and has had a long ongoing relationship with the estate. Trained largely at the Central Coast standout of Maison Deutz, perhaps the areas most prototypical French estate in America, his job as winemaker and general manager at Laetitia seems somewhat predestined. That training and the French style of thought process that goes into winemaking at Laetitia, as well as the belief that the winery and vineyard should be inexplicably linked, shows that Laetitia is a good fit for Hickey, himself with an expressed appreciation for all things French (wine at least).
Of course, just as a vineyard doesn’t make wine itself without a winemaker, a winemaker doesn’t exist without an owner. Laetitia’s owner is Selim Zilkha, whose biography I won’t try to lay out in any detail here (the winery website does a good job, as does this profile) but I can have a ton of respect for anyone with as diverse set of interests as an international mom’s to be store as well as wind energy.
All of this is to say that if you find yourself planning a trip to either Santa Barbara or Paso Robles, a slight detour to Laetitia makes a ton of sense. It’s a gorgeous estate with a ton of history and some of the best and most varied wines anywhere in California.
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