Uncorked Ventures Blog
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:
Every so often we find a winery and think, if we could make wine, we’d want it to be like this.
Chronicle Wines is one of those wineries.
We had previously featured their Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir in our Special Selections Wine Club and the reaction to it was superb. I think we’ve received more positive comments about this wine than we have any other Pinot Noir that we’ve shipped in 3+ years. Matt and I enjoyed the wine enough to have a bit of a “discussion” about where our last bottle should go. To a paying customer? To me? To him? To be enjoyed the two of us? To be enjoyed with our wives?
In any case, I wish we could make the case that we found Chronicle through some great exploration, but 94 point scores don’t grow on trees, even when you’re considering one of the most famous Anderson Valley vineyards in existence, so there’s that. Plus, one of our favorite questions to ask winemaker and winery staff that we meet is quite simple: What are you drinking? After we heard Chronicle come out the mouth of the 5th person in Sonoma, we thought that it might be a good time to find a way to get some of the wine for our customers.
We were incredibly happy to have been selected to offer their Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir to our wine club customers this month. We said it in our newsletter and we’ll say it again in this space, but Chronicle did a better job explaining the Cerise Vineyard than we ever could, so we’ll share their work here:
Cerise Vineyard is located between 800 and 1200 feet above the floor of Anderson Valley looking down on the little town of Boonville. The vines are planted on a series of steep slopes facing south, and all farmed organically. There are 40 acres total, scattered on a series of small, clonal blocks, generally each no larger than a few acres. They are quite exposed to both fog and cooling breezes from the ocean. The soils here are thin, hard and quite marginal, a blend of sandstones and fractured shale. The property is full of sunken boulders and bedrock that fractures only under great stress. If the old adage that great wines come from poor soils is true, then this site is the real deal. The vines struggle to produce two tons per acre in the very best years.
In many ways what we have here (and what you hopefully have in your glass) is in many ways the quintessential Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. If you consider this part of Sonoma to be one of the predominant Pinot production regions in the world, this is why. The Pinot produced by excellent Anderson Valley vineyards aren’t the lighter versions valued by other regions around the world, but in many they are darker and more brooding than you can find elsewhere. Chronicle describes their Pinot’s as having dark fruit flavors, which even the mention of in Burgundy might be heresy.
The reasons for that darkness are certainly sketched out above, but vines forced to struggle as much as these tend to produce both smaller yields and also smaller fruit. Smaller fruit is a key consideration here and I think isn’t given enough attention for how flavors are imparted to wine. If you think about the amount of grape skins available to impart flavors into wine, there are more skins in a ton of these grapes than there are on from other vineyard sites in the Anderson Valley, or really anywhere else in the world. More skins produce more flavor and more skins also produce darker wine. After all, red wine isn’t really red until it spends some time in contact with the grape skins. Additionally, the Anderson Valley has darker versions of Pinot because of the fog and cold that happens on the Sonoma coast, but all of that struggle is accented by the vineyard itself here.
Going forward, we’re excited to see what happens at Chronicle. They have released an Anderson Valley Pinot blend, which we think is going to end up a nice addition for their lineup, especially at a more wallet friendly price of $44. That’s a significant discount from their single vineyard offerings and places them $11 short of what we see the average Pinot marked as Anderson Valley from other well known and respected producers.
There is also a Chardonnay this year for the first time ($35) which I will admit, to not having had the chance to taste myself as of yet. We’ve certainly moved out of the day of Chardonnay in California, but again it’s nice to have a white wine offering and frankly, the story will bring in plenty of customers by itself:
This marks my inaugural Chardonnay release under Chronicle. My Dad Jim first planted our home vineyard in 1982, on a 14-acre plateau nestled into the mountain in the cool southwest portion of Sonoma Valley. The vineyard thrived for twenty years under his guidance, until his passing in 2002.
"I've long wanted to produce a wine from that fruit, given the deep connection I have to that site and to my Dad."
Given that one of the reasons Matt and I wanted to get into the wine business was to create a business of value that we could eventually pass on to our children, I feel a certain attachment to the story of Chronicle’s Chardonnay.
So I hope I’ve done a good job extolling the virtues of Chronicle. At it’s core, this is pretty simple. This is exactly the type of small production winery that we’re all clamoring for.
No, we’re not talking about what happens when you take a fall.
When it comes to the wine industry a shiner, is a wine which has been bottled but has not had a label affixed.
There are a number of reasons why a winery might go this route with their wine, but it usually isn’t a great sign on the marketing side, or on the quality side
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