Uncorked Ventures Blog
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.
So, I'm not one to be overly surprised by anything these days, but we received a Syrah from the state of Washington the other day which had the following as a closure:
My wife did get a good laugh as I had taken out the bottle opener only to look rather confused when I first pulled the cork.
In any case, have you ever seen one?
The good news about glass is that TCA (corking of wine basically) can't happen and of course glass is 100% recyclable.
The usual caveats apply of course including consumer sentiment (still strongly toward cork by most accounts) and the fact that it's still highly unusual.
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|
April 10, 2014
March 26, 2014
March 24, 2014
March 5, 2014
March 3, 2014
February 28, 2014
February 19, 2014
February 11, 2014
February 6, 2014
January 28, 2014
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