A week or so ago I had the chance to meet Mike Kohne of Mercy Vineyards over coffee and came away impressed with the direction and goals of Mercy Vineyards, having already been impressed by Mercy’s wines, even if they won’t be showing up in one of our wine clubs for a few more months.
Kohne studied economics at UCSB (a place that I greatly enjoyed myself, so we had that in common, a rarity in the wine industry where Davis, Fresno and Cal Poly all have ardent supporters) and took a job with Beringer and has hardly looked back.
In many ways, Mercy and its location in the Arroyo Seco AVA is a natural progression for someone who broke into the wine industry, at an earlier time on the Central Coast. While everyone currently thinks of Santa Barbara as a popular wine mecca, think back to the years before Sideways burst onto the national consciousness and you had a very different wine region. Jaffurs which now seemingly has a line outside of their downtown tasting room on the weekends (Surfboards still present, thankfully) was once in a shared space, seemingly looking for ways to sell its 3,500 cases of high quality wine. Los Olivos wasn’t the 30+ tasting room behemoth in wine travel on the Central Coast, but it was a sleepy little place that you might pass through on the way to other locations, grabbing a quick cup of coffee and then heading over to Fess Parker.
All that is to say is that things have changed in Santa Barbara. Land is more expensive. Grower relationships are also increasingly competitive. Those of us who remember a simpler time, might opt for a simpler region that hasn’t had that “it” moment yet, despite it’s ability to produce world class wine.
Enter the Arroyo Seco.
When I met with Mike, he wanted to make sure I understood part of what makes the Arroyo Seco so special. Yes, it is a cool climate growing region, but it’s important to note that it has some famous neighbors. First, I am sure you have heard of the Santa Lucia Highlands, that sits directly to the north of Arroyo Seco. In fact, the unique geography of Arroyo Seco has it partially further to the west of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Now, I realize that the wine industry shouldn’t be in a race for the coldest vineyard locations in California, it only seems that way, but given the success of the Sonoma Coast, St Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands, how long is it going to be before someone makes a 98 point Pinot Noir from Arroyo Seco and puts the region on the map for the average wine drinker? My guess, under 5 years.
Mercy Vineyards is though, more than a simple stab in the dark at a region likely to gain in market share and reputation over the coming years. On the winemaking side of things they’ve brought on Alan Phillips who carries one of the best recommendations possible within California wine-he trained and worked with pioneer Andre Tchelistcheff at S Anderson Vineyards in Napa Valley.
Tchelischeff has been called everything from the brain of California’s wine industry (Mondavi would be its face in this example) to the father of California wine. Old friend Bill Daley who now writes over at the Chicago Tribune summed up Tchelischeff’s influence better than I could when he simply said, “Andre Tchelistcheff arrived in California on the eve of World War II to find a wine industry still reeling from Prohibition. His skill at winemaking, his peerless palate and his mentorship of other winemakers helped make American wine what it is today”
Phillips himself has had a storied career within California wine, most recently he has become well known for work on his own Pinot Noir project Fontes & Phillips.
I hope you can see the dots I am trying to connect here-industry veterans find a great set of vineyard sites, hire an outstanding winemaker and, as you might expect, produce really, really high quality at a fair price because they choose an AVA that isn’t part of the regular wine conversation.
I hope you’ll take the time to check out Mercy Vineyards, our wine club members will see Mercy show up in a shipment fairly soon.
Of course, having a quality winemaker and high quality vineyards in the Arroyo Seco isn’t entirely unique-there are other wineries with similar profiles (at least a few) so here’s what I thought was interesting about Mercy’s wines:
Single Vineyard Chardonnay’s: If you have a look at Mercy’s website, you’ll notice that they produce a few single vineyard Chardonnay’s and then an AVA designate Arroyo Seco Chardonnay. I always find the opportunity to compare vineyard sites within the same AVA rather interesting and informative. With small yields, you’ll notice rather quickly that these are wines of higher acidity and fit the profile of high quality Chardonnay, but ones which are not the stereotypical California butter and oak bombs of the past.
Sauvignon Blanc: Actually my favorite wine that Mercy makes, go ahead and call me a man of the people, it’s also their cheapest, it’s a Sauvignon Blanc with bracing acidity and one of the lighest colored Sauvignon Blanc’s that you’ll find anywhere. Mercy describes it as straw colored, but I’d call it more like translucent-it’s a wine you can almost see directly through. Truly clean, it’s a perfect summer wine and one my wife would easily enjoy as the temperatures continue to rise in the coming months.
The Pinot’s, much like the Chardonnay example above give the opportunity to taste a range of vineyards as well as an Arroyo Seco version. Again, the vineyard and climate shine through here. There is a bit of a tart finish on these, reminiscent of cooler climate growing regions that I’m sure you’ve heard of, but no so brisk and underwhelming to scare anyone away if they aren’t currently eating (Americans, lets remember drink wine with and without food). Mercy does a good job at walking the line here between the world’s extremes when it comes to Pinot Noir and show well because of it.
As you can tell, it’s a quality winery now and is only likely to continue gaining in both reputation and sales as time goes by. I’m happy to have gotten to know Mike a little bit before that all happened.