Uncorked Ventures Blog
We recently wrote a bit about Randall Watkins, the winemaker at Bugay Vineyards who describes part of his Sonoma upbringing by mentioning that his dad was a garagiste.
We thought that a few of our readers here at Uncorked Ventures might not recognize the term since some of the tasting room staff we run into aren’t familiar with it either.
A Garagiste in its simplest form is simply someone who makes wine in his or her garage. After all, not everyone has access to Crushpad (or something similar) and there are plenty of people whom would simply love the experience of making a barrel or two.
Of course, in different regions of the world the Garagiste term has different meanings, for example in Bordeaux the most famous use of the term includes a small group of vintners still making wine in a garage, but making it using local grapes and producing a more international wine in terms of style. The results made the world took notice when famed wine critic Robert Parker rated one of their wines more highly than a Petrus (typically the world’s most expensive wine in any given year) back in 1995. In Bordeaux the movement seems to be dying out a bit, but the whole idea is alive and well in Sonoma where tasting rooms are beginning to be set up to help these new age vintners sell their wine directly to interested consumers. After all, being able to meet the winemaker is still possible with Garagiste styled wines, which is something that most wine drinkers want to experience during a trip to wine country.
Since we’ve already professed that level of enjoyment of their wines, we thought a longer feature in this space would be a good fit as well.
Let’s start where all great wines start: the vineyard.
The Bugay Vineyard is located on the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County, an area we’ve traveled to in order to find a couple of other wines over the years as well. It’s one of the most rugged regions for wine grapes left in Sonoma to be sure and it’s not always an easy visit, but it rewards those wine drinkers willing to venture slightly off the beaten path in much the same way it rewards vintners willing to take some added risk and avoid the valley floor.
Bugay sits at approximately 1200 feet of elevation, above the cooling elements of the fog which floats up from both the Pacific Ocean to the west, but more importantly the San Francisco Bay directly to the south. We know a few neighboring properties have views of the Golden Gate Bridge, which we think speaks to the level of wind and exposure that is faced by these vines. While the vineyard avoids the fog which robs sunlight during the morning and late evening hours, the cooling help from those bodies of water still exists to be sure. That helps the grapes ripen evenly. One thing you’ll notice about Bugay Vineyard wines, they are full bodied and supple, but they aren’t lacking in acidity.
Lastly, we’ve been on hand to experience what a double or triple pass through the vineyard can mean at harvest time, something Bugay talks about on their website. Most vintners and wineries wouldn’t dream of it because it literally adds double the extra time, or more and there are no guarantees that what they find during the second or third pass will end up being significantly better than the first run. Of course, adding extra passes might make your wines that small bit better, so for a farm like Bugay that’s all the reason they need to employ the practice no matter how much extra work it adds.
Ok, so about the wines and what we find interesting. As you might expect, Bugay is able to grow and produce some world class Cabernet Sauvignon from their mountain vineyard. I’m sure I could bore you all into submission talking about their mirco vineyard sites and how each Cabernet block is picked at different times etc. Frankly, I’ll let sell you on that, instead I wanted to focus on something more eclectic.
A 100% varietal Cabernet Franc. We haven’t seen many of them and even when we’ve had a few requests for it, too view winemakers are given the required grapes and even further still find those grapes planted in an area which is condusive to growing the grape. As you might expect, Cabernet Sauvignon needs similar sites, so Cab Franc is largely out of luck. The results here are splendid though and the wine carries most of the memorable Cab Franc traits, which again as you might expect are similar to what you probably think of when you consider Cabernet Sauvignon-with some important differences. The first difference you’ll notice is that Cabernet Franc is lighter in color than its more famous relative. We also find it more expressive on average on the nose than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also less dense with less significant tannins, which is interesting because the grape is one of the latest to be picked and in some areas of Napa, the last grape to come off the vine.
Of course, for any winery to truly make a name for itself, it needs a high quality winemaker. Bugay has exactly that in Randall Watkins. We’ve gotten a bit leery when we read a long list of previous stops for winemaker that typically include a bunch of larger production facilities that we’ve all heard of a million times, but a stint at Hartford Family & Moon Mountain will still get our attention. He also crafts some wine under his own label, Watkins Family Winery, which has been well received in its own right. Having grown up in Sonoma, Watkins is one winemaker who really does seemed destined for what he does for a living.
Of course, we couldn’t write anything about Bugay Vineyards without mentioning the man whom the project is named after: John Bugay. It’s interesting, most winery websites talk at length about their founder, leaving little room for conversation and background about anyone else. Bugay is a different animal to be sure, there is little to no information about John’s background on the site. For now, he’ll happily continue as something of the mystery man of Sonoma winery owners.
Lastly, I hate to mention it but it does seem like there are some changes afoot at Bugay. The good news is that John who planted and then managed the vines will continue his daily ritual at the vineyard and the winemaking team continues to be in place, so we don’t expect to see any change in quality or style from the estate.
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|
The Coastal Town of Cayucos:
One of the things that makes Paso Robles still unique within California wine is that it isn’t a huge built up tourist destination. Sure, the signs are there and developers are clamoring for the opportunity to build more around the rapidly expanding wine industry, but a lot of people are surprised at the relative lack of hotels around Vineyard Drive and downtown Paso Robles.
That lack of space when combined with tourists long held beliefs about California (everyone lives next to the beach right?) means that staying in small coastal areas a few minutes drive from Paso Robles makes sense for a lot of people.
One of our favorite places to stay when we visit Paso Robles is the town of Cayucos. Located on the Pacific coastline where the famous Highway 1 intersects with Old Creek Road, Cayucos makes an almost ideal spot to stay when visiting Paso Robles’ wineries.
If you have a look, yes it’s a bit of a restored wild west town-although the California coastline wasn’t as developed originally (outside of San Francisco of course) as the inland valley’s and mountains were because of the gold rush.
In any case, people stay in Cayucos because the downtown area is walkable, it has an easily accessible beach, enough shopping to keep people interested in shorter stays and enough restaurants to last you a week, when you’re probably only there for a weekend.
Many people who stay in Cayucos enjoy renting a home via a vacation by owner site like (http://www.seelyon.com) while others go a cheaper route and simply stay in one of the 150+ motel rooms, largely found in smaller motels right in town (check Tripadvisor for both a current list as well as update to date reviews).
In any case Cayucos makes an enjoyable and convenient place to visit the wineries of Paso Robles. The drive from the beach can be breathtaking and takes you under 30 minutes door to door.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Alan Baker and Serena Lourie who are the husband and wife team behind Cartograph wines. Their story is an interesting one in itself, Alan came to California’s wine country via public radio in Minnesota, bitten by the wine bug like so many others, myself included. He met Serena during his time at a custom crush facility in San Francisco, where after a few vintages he was tasked with helping first time winemakers who were making wine as a fun side project. One of his projects was being the assistant winemaker for Serena who remembered the days of fresh locally grown food and wine from her family home outside of Prentrez France, a small town on the northwestern edge of the country. They came together to craft a single barrel of Pinot Noir for that vintage and reportedly, the idea behind Cartograph was planted.
Cartograph was a personal recommendation from William Allen at Two Shepherds and has come highly recommended from a handful of other sources as well. I was excited to get the chance to meet the people behind the wine and of course, to see if anything they make would be a fit in one of our wine clubs.
Cartograph is in the process of moving their tasting room from a shared facility to their own space, only a few blocks off the main square in Healdsburg. While we haven’t talked about Healdsburg much in this space before, it’s clearly the crown jewel of tourist sites in Sonoma County and offers a range of interesting and unique restaurants and shops. Additionally Alan mentioned that there are a number of other high end Pinot Noir producers opening tasting room’s in the area, making a sort of Pinot Noir alley in the middle of Healdsburg. We’re excited for it.
When I saw their tasting room, it was in essence a large empty space. The floor was marked for where the walls would be placed to create a wine club only tasting area as well as space to sell some additionally products in accordance with the city’s specifications. Seeing the marks on floor made me remember when I was a kid and my parents had found a space to open a Dairy Queen, the space they opened in had previously been occupied by a scrapbook store which had added an additional set of walls. Taking those extra walls down via sledgehammer is still one of the best times that any 9 year old could possibly have.
In any case, I had the opportunity to taste two of Cartograph’s wines: their Gewurztaminer which was shipped in our Exploration Wine Club this month as well as one of their Pinot Noir offerings.
Cartograph has an interesting and perhaps even an eclectic winemaking style at play. The Gewurztaminer is a dry version of the varietal, which isn’t often seen outside of the Alsace France. Alsace is located in the far eastern corner of the country, so the focus in this cooler climate are white wine’s, especially Gewurztaminer and Riesling. Unlike their nearby German neighbors though, Alsace crafts dry white wine’s while Germany’s are typically sweet. We mention all this to simply say that finding a dry Gewurztaminer isn’t exactly an easy proposition even in the old world, let alone in California where it is virtually unheard of.
The Pinot Noir had a similar old world style. It was among the most Burgundian I have tasted in California. As you probably realize, crafting a true Burgundian Pinot in Sonoma isn’t exactly the easiest task in the world. While vines in Burgundy consistently struggle to reach full ripeness, which is never an issue in our California sun.
There are some ways and choices of course, that a winemaker can make in order to get as close to Burgundian growing conditions as possible even on California’s coast. One of those choices means finding vineyards which are both close to the cooling influences of the Pacific Ocean, but when we’re talking about Sonoma, finding a vineyard in close proximity to the Russian River itself as well. The best example here is Cartograph’s Floogate Vineyard Pinot Noir, which comes from a vineyard which sits at the southern end of the river’s flood plane. Being situated in the flood plane means that the soil is incredible from centuries of natural irrigation, has an accessible water table, but more than anything else, is cooler than many vineyards in and around Sonoma. The vineyard also sits almost directly east of the famed Petaluma Gap which is one of the few breaks in the coastal mountains of Sonoma and allows fog and other maritime influences to help cool the vineyard even further. The end result from the coastal and river influences is a vineyard site, among the coolest in inland Sonoma. Unlike some coastal vineyards, ripeness is achieved, but without a higher than wanted acidity.
Other than the wine and the story behind Cartograph, we wanted to feature the winery both in this space as well as with our wine club members because they’re both willing and seem to enjoy interacting with people, both in the trade and outside of it in person and via social media. Alan was quoted in a USA Today article having said
"Good wine is simply the starting point," Baker says. "If you make good wine, you've got a shot. But this is about creating a relationship with people."
It’s the type of attitude that consumers wish was more prevalent in the wine industry. I can feel comfortable sending my friends who enjoy studying wine to Cartograph because there are plenty of interesting wine geeky things happening here, but my friends who are also more likely to have a beer at Russian River Brewing Company than to pay for corkage at Bistro Ralph, would also feel welcome in this tasting room. Creating a space and a winery which works for both sets of people isn’t easily done and I can applaude Cartograph for pulling it off.
Oh and a sense of humor is a good thing:
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