The Chardonnay Symposium

Sierra Madre Vineyards

Sierra Madre Vineyards

Note: The following is a review of the 2011 Chardonnay Symposium

Ah, Chardonnay! Loved and cherished by so many, and yet dismissed, even derided by so many others. A recent dining experience was, in my mind, emblematic of the challenges that Chardonnay faces with the newest generation of wine drinkers.

Whenever we dine out with friends, the wine list inevitably falls into my hands. A venture to a well regarded LA restaurant found me scanning futilely for a great Santa Barbara County selection (why isn’t LA embracing it’s fantastic local wine scene?), so as I thought about the food choices being discussed at the table, I thought a nice Burgundian Chardonnay would be a great choice to kick off the evening. On presenting this idea to the table of 30-somethings, however, I was met with a combination of curious looks and furled brows. “Uh, Chardonnay?” one of them finally said. It was if I was proposing we drink dirty dish water with our meal. Despite my immediate regret for even asking (should’ve just said “we’re having a nice white Burgundy” and taken my chances that anyone would even know that it’s Chardonnay), and a half-hearted attempt on my part to defend the choice, I succumbed to the pressure of the situation and switched to a Vouvray – quite pleasant as well, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking “these people have no idea what they’re missing!”

Chardonnay is the one varietal that, more than any other, was responsible for the transformation in the wine drinking habits of millions of Americans. When Chardonnay started gaining popularity in the 1980’s, its sales skyrocketed and drove massive planting of its vines across California. Indeed, Chardonnay’s very ability to grow and thrive in such a wide variety of climates and soil types is undoubtedly part of the reason why for some people it has become a symbol of mediocrity in California wine. For while there is a tremendous amount of high quality California Chardonnay that will please and excite just about anyone’s palate (given the chance), there’s also tens of millions of cases of cheap, unbalanced, over-ripened, over-oaked, and just plain overdone Chardonnays. These mass production wines have surely contributed to the vastly oversimplified “ABC” (anything but Chardonnay) rule of thumb for inexperienced wine drinkers.

Sierra Madre VineyardsSo how did Chardonnay grow from an obscure varietal found almost nowhere outside of Burgundy and Champagne in the mid-1960’s grow to become the most widely planted grape in California just 20 years later? How can Chardonnay excite and draw in the newest generation of wine drinkers who are exposed to an ever-expanding range of choices? What does the future of Chardonnay in America hold in store?

 

These were but a few of the topics being discussed at the 2nd annual Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria, put together by the good folks at Santa Maria Wine Country. And if the answers to the questions above strike you as just a bunch of wine esoterica, there were plenty of Chardonnay tastings from top California Chardonnay vintners throughout the event to keep the palate pleased! Sure, this is an event for lovers of Chardonnay – and what’s not to love? But this event should be on any Chardonnay skeptics calendar as well. For after attending this event, one can’t help but walk away being surprised, amazed, and very happy about the trajectory of Chardonnay in California, and especially in Santa Barbara County.

Vineyard Bliss

Friday night started off with a trip to the famed Sierra Madre vineyards, a source of grapes to several of the top wine makers in the Santa Maria Valley and surrounding areas. We drove up the dirt roads into the vineyard, parked along a hillside block, and hiked the rest of the way up a hill to a fantastic view of the Santa Maria valley – a perfect backdrop for an afternoon of wine education, followed by a delicious meal accompanied by wines from Sierra Madre (and a few bottles snuck in by some party crashing wine makers).

A panel discussion hosted by Doug Circle, proprietor of Sierra Madre Vineyards which also included Sierra Madre winemaker Steve Rasmussen, Rusack and Falcone Family Vineyards winemaker John Falcone, Sanford Winery winemaker Steve Fennell, legendary viticulturist Bob Steinhauer, and UC Davis Editor of the National Grape Registry Nancy Sweet, to discuss clonal diversity in Chardonnay – what it means, where they came from, why winemakers use different clones, and what the various clones bring to the resulting wines. Backed up with side-by-side tastings, even a wine novice can gain a lot from attending these kind of events. Instant comparisons of wines, whether of different varietals, or in this case different clones of the same varietal, is definitely one of the best ways to improve understanding of wine and to develop a discerning palate.

Chardonnay Symposium

But what came after the panel discussion perfectly represented what the Santa Barbara County wine scene is all about. A tent perched on a hillside overlooking gorgeous vineyards and the Santa Maria River, with the lights of Santa Maria twinkling in the distance. A stroll through the vineyard with some of the top winemakers in the area talking the group through more tastings, answering any and all questions with enthusiasm and nary a trace of competitiveness among them. Excellent food catered by Far Western Tavern (my favorite steak house in all of SBC), and of course, outstanding Chardonnay. Earnest yet casual wine lovers gathered with enthusiastic and experimental wine makers. These elements come together in a wine community that, quite apart from the cutthroat attitudes and tactics so prevalent in business at large, feels like a throwback to a simpler time when business men gathered Friday evening on a porch to discuss the latest goings-on. Only now the porch is replaced by this place – where great wines come from, where wine makers dreams and ambitions are both nurtured and put to the test – a living place where the air, the soil and the vine combine to bring connection with people, and on this night with me. Although Saturday is the main attraction for this event, if you’re looking for a more low key and rustic experience away from the crowds, then Friday night is not to be missed.

 

Grand Chardonnay Tasting

Saturday brought another day of balancing wine education with some great tastings of both wine and food. A morning drive brought us to the Tantara winery along the gently flowing Santa Maria River. A “Taking Back Chardonnay” panel discussion was moderated by no less of a wine authority than Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (not kidding), while tasting through a selection of a dozen wines brought in by the wine makers on the panel. Ms. MacNeil did an admirable job of keeping the discussion (and wine) flowing, but also peppered the session with some more piercing topics. In one of the more energetic exchanges of the day, she posed to the panel:

Tantara Winery

“One big question. You hear wine makers and wineries say the following: Sentence one – ‘We spend a huge amount of effort growing really impeccable grapes.’ Sentence two – ‘We don’t want to mask that fruit.’ Sentence three -’50% new oak.’ Why is there ever a sentence three? If you spend time growing impeccable fruit, and you philosophically stated that you don’t want to mess that up or mask it – why, ever, use any oak at all?”

Steve Rasmussen of Sierra Madre immediately shot back with “I’ve got a short answer. I want to sell the wine! I want to stay in business! Next question.”

Laughter of course ensued, but herein lies perhaps the biggest challenge to California Chardonnay. How to keep the buying public plumbed with luscious, buttery and oaky Chardonnay, while also appealing to the more discerning palates of wine journalists, oenophiles, and the newer generation of wine drinkers more likely to reach for a Pinot Grigio than a California Chardonnay. Luckily, the answer was not far away.

Karen MacNeil

After a short bus ride and another fantastic meal hosted at the Au Bon Climat winery, we headed off to the highlight of the weekend, the Grand Chardonnay Tasting. Featuring over 40 wineries and delicious offerings from over a dozen local restaurants, this was a chance to find out first hand what the newest vintage of California Chardonnay had to offer. Within the first hour, one thing became abundantly clear. The range of styles, flavor profiles, and textures from winemakers just tables apart was simply astounding. This range of experiences is uniquely a Chardonnay phenomenon, as it is the one grape that can respond so well to such a wide range of treatments, soils, and climates so as to allow each wine to stand on its own, secure in its place on the spectrum of what’s possible with Chardonnay. This diversity of styles is, I think, what makes Chardonnay so exciting.

 

 

2010 Diatom Hamon

Greg Brewer

I spotted Greg Brewer, co-founder of Brewer-Clifton, wine maker for Melville, and more recently someone widely considered to be at the forefront of the naked Chardonnay movement, not only in SBC, but in all of North America. Greg’s small production of stainless steel fermented wines under the Diatom label are well renowned, and proved why they could be considered a benchmark from which any lean, unoaked style of Chardonnay should be compared. While many unoaked Chardonnays are very crisp and lean, with a pleasant precision to the fruit profiles, I’ve often found them lacking in complexity and depth. Not so with these wines. The 2010 Hamon, while still being incredibly expressive, also brought a distinct weight and rounded texture that perfectly balanced the layers of lychee and kiwi fruit, light white mushroom and wet stone minerality. This was unlike any Chardonnay I have ever had, but one which I would very much like to enjoy with a nice dinner.

Dieter Cronje

2009 Presqu'ile Chardonnay

Another unoaked Chardonnay that showed very well was the 2009 Presqu’ile Santa Maria Valley. Under the guidance of winemaker Dieter Cronje, this cement tank fermented wine featured an enticing nose of orange blossom and citrus, with a clean palate of white peach and orange that’s pretty lean and mean, but at the same time very refined. A racy acidity runs through the wine, but it’s balanced with a soft edge that made it very approachable. The balance, precision and complexity found in unoaked Chardonnays such as Diatom and Presqu’ile are definitely exciting new developments that will surely appeal to buyers looking for a more refined and sharp style of Chardonnay.

It was also clear from the tastings that wines that have seen oak fermentation and full malolactic conversion can still be very lively and focused. A 2009 La Fenetre Bien Nacido Chardonnay that I reviewed from a previous tasting, and which I had the pleasure of revisiting this weekend, is an excellent example. Another 2009 Sierra Madre Vineyard Clone 15, which also saw french oak barrel aging and full malo conversion showed a nice minerality, crisp apple palate, and a focused, but long finish. With several other examples in this genre, there’s plenty of more traditional Chardonnays that do not even hint at being overworked.

Chardonnay Symposium

And if you’re a fan of what has become in some people’s minds the classic California Chardonnay, there was plenty of that too. There’s a reason why the oaky, buttery Chards became so popular. Noses brimming with nectar-like fragrance perhaps only surpassed by brilliant Sauternes or Royal Tokaji’s. Texture that is both vibrant and mellowed. Audacious tropical fruit flavors of pineapple and melon. At their best, they are almost sinful delights of luxury, silkiness, vivaciousness.

But are they over the top? At their best, I say “no”. But if all the elements aren’t singing together in harmony, it doesn’t take much for it to feel a little cheap. A pleasure not unlike that weekend cigarette – you know you shouldn’t have it, and you know it’s not even really that great, but maybe you love it nonetheless.

One thing is for sure, there is a lot to celebrate about SBC Chardonnay. With a stunning range of wine making styles – from cutting edge experimental wines that are crisp and racy, to refined Burgundian styles, to luscious and buttery California classics – there is simply no shortage of options for a wine drinker who’s willing to explore. And after all, isn’t that what great wine drinking is all about?

The 3rd Anuual Chardonnay Symposium will be held June 29-30, 2012 in Santa Maria, California.

thechardonnaysymposium.com

Interview with Richard Sanford – Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

Alma Rosa

Legend. Pioneer. Vintner’s Hall of Fame inductee. Heady labels indeed, but Richard Sanford embodies every one of them, even if he hasn’t always been comfortable with the connotations that come with the labels. “I always think of a pioneer as having a long white beard, so I always sort of poo-poo’d that, but the reality of it is that I am a pioneer, so I’m recognizing that now.”

Through the course of a morning interview with Richard at the creekside offices of Alma Rosa Winery, I was struck by the humbleness of this giant in the wine industry. Here’s a man who has been through it all – the tough early days when all the attention in California wine was focused on Napa Valley, the success of establishing Sanford & Benedict vineyard and Sanford winery as top tier California institutions, the conflict and ultimate divorce from his namesake winery after entering into an ill-fated partnership, and the resurrection of his own wines through Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. And through all of this, Richard Sanford remains as he began – a steward of this blessed piece of wine country, steadfast in the principles he believes in, unfazed by the disappointments of his past, and optimistic about the future of the Santa Rita Hills appellation and Santa Barbara County wines.

El Jabali Vineyard - Alma Rosa Winery

When Sanford planted the first vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills in 1970, he was not only pioneering what has now become the most widely acclaimed AVA in all of Santa Barbara County, he was doing it without a whole lot of support from folks in his home base of Southern California. “I’ll always remember that so many people that I spoke with said ‘it’s a dumb idea’. But there was a gentleman named Ben Huey that I did some sailing with, and he was the only person who said, ‘Hey that’s a great idea, Richard. That’s something you should do.’ I think the importance of having support from people who you respect is so important. To branch out and do something a little bit outrageous – not everybody accepts (that). So it was great to have the support of at least one person, and I always feel very good about his support, because it was true that he saw my enthusiasm… so that was very important.”

Although born in Hawaii, Sanford grew up in the coastal Portugese Bend neighborhood of Rancho Palos Verdes in Southern California in the 1950’s. Now the land of multi-million dollar homes and the Trump National Golf Course, Sanford enjoyed a much more pastoral setting in his youth, working with a farmer growing garbanzo beans in the nearby hillsides.  “I was working on the tractor, and I’d go surfing in the afternoon when I finished. It was really a wonderful life. There was still lobster there at Portugese Bend, and red abalone. We’d just wade into the water and get red abalone right off the rocks.”

This connection with nature would draw him back in unexpected ways following a tour of duty in Vietnam in the 1960s. “For me personally, it was a very exciting time. It was almost a spiritual journey. I got into this after having come back from the Vietnam war, and I faced the rejection that all the other soldiers faced coming back from that, and so I in turn rejected the culture that had sent me to war and decided to do something a little counter-culture. To be out here, being involved in agriculture was a great healing experience. I had an opportunity to start off with a clean slate, to start all over again from a philosophical perspective, and I developed a very important connection with nature. There was no electricity out there, so I lived with gas lights for about six years – running the tractor and getting the vineyard established.”

Spirituality and respect for nature comes alive through his viticulture and winemaking practices, most notably in his adherence to organic farming practices for more than 30 years, long before it was fashionable to do so. “Organic is a matter of the convention of the time. I was using chemicals when I started out, but then I started wondering, what’s happening to all these tons of chemicals that we are spraying into the environment? I felt that the reality was that these chemicals were getting into our groundwater system, and poisoning us. We were eating out of an organic garden at the time, and one day Thekla said ‘Well Richard, why don’t you just start growing the grapes organically?’ and I thought, well that might be a big challenge. So finally we decided to pursue it, and within two years we had weaned ourselves off of all chemicals, and we’ve been organic ever since.”

 

Future Wine Greatness at Alma Rosa

And what’s the secret to being a successful organic grape grower? “I think the thing I’ve recognized in organic farming is that the farmer has to believe that it’s possible. So it’s really largely mental. People become fearful about it, because they’re not able to use all these fancy chemicals. In organic wine growing, we can use elemental sulfur, …beneficial insects depending upon what the circumstances are, flower beds for “good bugs” to nest, because if you have a large good bug population they can overcome the bad bugs. So, again it’s a matter of being in balance, and that’s the critical thing.”

At first, this was not something he was broadcasting very loudly to the wine community due to apprehensions about organically grown grapes and organic wines from oenophiles and the wine press. “I was very shy about saying anything about organic, because wine connoisseurs didn’t like organic wine.” To be clear, the Alma Rosa wines Sanford is currently producing can’t be labeled organic due to the odd law that prevents any winemaker from labeling their wines as organic if they add sulfur dioxide to the wines in order to prevent premature oxidation, even if the grapes themselves come from certified organic vineyards like those from Alma Rosa.

Richard Sanford

But he’s no longer bashful about proclaiming his faith in organic farming. Sanford became such a strong believer in the importance of organic viticulture that after forming a partnership with the Terlato Wine Group under his namesake Sanford Winery in 2002, he essentially walked away from the business over it three years later. “We got involved with some partners who we felt had a different value system. We were always committed to farming organically, and some of the partners weren’t. They were more bottom line oriented. It costs about 10% more to farm organically, and I think its an important investment in the future. Some people were thinking that you shouldn’t give that 10% away.”

After that difficult separation from Sanford Winery, Richard was once again faced with starting anew. His latest creation, Alma Rosa winery, was started soon after leaving Sanford in 2005, and is now in full swing and producing some fantastic wines. “When I chose to start Alma Rosa, I thought to myself, ‘We’re in this wonderful region, this cool growing climate, we have very bright acids and beautiful fruit. Let’s create these new wines which are a reflection of the quality of fruit from the place.’ And so that’s why these new wines of Alma Rosa recognize the acid of the cool climate, and the fruit of the cool climate.”

2007 Alma Rosa Chardonnay - El Jabali Vineyard

The Alma Rosa wines we’ve had the pleasure to enjoy are right on target with Richard’s description. The flagship Pinot Noirs from La Encantada vineyard carry a bright, fruit forward profile that’s balanced very nicely with the crisp backbone supplied by the acidity of the wine. This balance of gorgeous fruit and well defined structure results in a very enjoyable Pinot Noir.

And as good as the Pinot Noir is for showing off the terroir of Santa Rita Hills, Sanford’s white wines of Alma Rosa are where this “bright acids and beautiful fruit” approach to winemaking shines through most clearly. Across the board, Alma Rosa’s white wines do not go through malolactic fermentation, so you’ll find delightfully crisp wines with sharp acidity. We enjoyed a 2007 El Jabali Chardonnay while finishing this article – a wine with a zesty, citrusy nose; lemon and green apple flavors which framed a light and crisp texture, while a slightly yeasty background provided just enough roundness to balance things out; followed by a surprisingly long finish. To make a Chardonnay with this lean of a profile – no malolactic fermentation, and clearly a very light touch with oak barrel treatments – and to pull it off with such grace and complexity, you’ve got to have confidence in the fruit. Wines this chiseled and defined, while retaining a rich depth of fruit character are what reminds me that Santa Rita Hills remains the best example of a premium cool climate region in Santa Barbara County, and I dare say one of the best in California. Clearly, Richard Sanford and his winemaking team at Alma Rosa have become masters at bringing out the character of this unique slice of California wine heaven.

Besides being a pioneer in the viticulture of Santa Rita Hills, Sanford has also been a long-time ambassador for the region as it gained notoriety in the global wine scene. “Even though we made really fine wine right off the bat, there wasn’t the knowledge in the country about this area as a quality wine growing region. By differentiating ourselves as the Santa Rita Hills, we’ve established the appellation as the cooler growing area of the Santa Ynez valley. And the focus of course has been on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – these cooler coastal varieties with high acids. So I spent a lot of time proselytizing for the area, spending time in New York and Chicago, and saying ‘Hey, this is what’s happening out in the west’.

As the unofficial mission of SBC Wine to connect Angelenos with their local wine culture, we were curious how Sanford viewed the relationship of Los Angeles wine drinkers with Santa Barbara County. “Well, unlike Napa Valley, which already had a pedigree (when I started), this area didn’t, and so it took a long time to develop. I’ve been talking about the area for forty years, and finally I’m pleased that people from the Los Angeles area recognize the quality of wines coming from this region as the people in the Bay area recognize Napa Valley. So it used to be that people were going to ‘the wine country’ and they’d fly right over us. So I’d say ‘Oh, you’re going to the other wine country’.” Well here’s just one more great reason for wine lovers of Los Angeles to stay close to home.

Richard’s induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone in February was a formal recognition of what everyone in the business already knew. Richard Sanford is a pioneer of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, and is largely responsible for the recognition of the region as a source of top tier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here stands a man who had a daring vision to produce premium quality Burgundian variety wines in California; who did the research to find the best area to carry out that vision; who was steadfast in his belief of that vision despite long odds;  who carried it through to fruition; and who came to believe that being a good steward of the land was essential to sustaining the very thing that he had helped create.  Richard’s way may be becoming lost in the big business shuffle as the wine industry matures. But here’s one writer who is glad to have met this true legend of the Santa Barbara County wine world, and who’s hoping that future generations of winemakers will emulate this elegant and nuanced approach to wine.

 

More Q&A with Richard Sanford:

Q: Besides being good stewards of the land with organic farming, do you think it brings elements to the wine that wouldn’t otherwise be there?

A: “I think organic grapes speak to place, more than anything. And Pinot Noir particularly is expressive of place, so what you’re tasting in Pinot Noir is really the place that it comes from.”

 

Q: Winemaking is sometimes described at one extreme as just getting out of the way of the grapes expressing themselves, or at the other extreme as master craftsmanship. Where do you lie on the continuum?

A: “I think the important thing is to focus on the quality of the grapes. It’s hard to make fine wine out of a less than fine grape. Now, you can screw up a good grape, too. I think that typically winemakers tend to over process.  The most important thing in winemaking is patience, and not processing. Particularly in the case of Pinot Noir, because it tends to bruise rather easily – it becomes oxidized. There are some varieties that are more tolerant of processing.

 

Q; We heard you just sold the famed La Encantada vineyard to Hillside Road. What brought that about?

A: “My wife and I planted La Encantada – we planted close to 500 acres over the course of time – and the La Encantada vineyard was over 100 acres of Pinot Noir. And when we left Sanford winery we kept that vineyard because we had planted it ourselves. We had planted it to provide grapes to Sanford Winery, but Alma Rosa didn’t need 100 acres of Pinot Noir. It turns out there were some young people who were interested in being in the wine business, and it made more sense to sell the vineyard and identify the rows and blocks that we wanted our grapes to come from and commit to purchasing those back. And so it was purely a business decision to be able to enjoy the grapes, and not have the responsibility of farming.”

 

Q: Are the new owners going to continue organic farming practices?

A: “Yes. It was a critical element (of the sale) that these people are committed to organic farming.“

El Jabali Vineyard - Alma Rosa

Interview with Ryan Zotovich – Zotovich Family Vineyards

Zotovich Family Vineyards

Attending wine tasting events can sometimes feel like an exercise in defining shades of gray. Each new table represents the possibility of a palate-rousing experience that sets this winery apart from the pack. Yet so often, it ends up being a very pleasurable, but uninspiring experience in which I find myself trying in vain to discern the standout qualities from one producer to the next. And so it was with the latest incarnation of the STARS of Santa Barbara event at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in January. After some great tastings at many of the SBC superstars present at the event, I found myself wading through six tables of perfectly respectable, but frankly forgettable wines. I was about ready to pack it in for the night. And then I happened across Zotovich Cellars.

The flight of wines that Ryan Zotovich was pouring that night started off with a bang and just kept on delivering until the very end. The 2010 Viognier – carefully chilled to highlight the racy acidity that provided a solid backbone for bright pear and lime flavors coupled with a honeyed, even finish – this wine just sang.

This was followed by a 2008 Pinot Noir with gorgeous black cherry fruit as it’s basis, a solid earthy undertone, slightly smoky tannins and hints of anise – this made the whole night worthwhile.

When I heard Syrah was the last pour, I would have been happy with mediocrity. Two hits out of three ain’t bad. And yet, here again was an outstanding wine – spicy yet finessed, priming the nose with dusty pepper and white rose, and then revealing robust fruit that is unmistakably Syrah, but with a restraint that allows the full complexities of the wine to unfold and reveal itself. This wine will make a Syrah lover out of anyone.

Ryan Zotovich

Ryan Zotovich

This just emerging wine maker in the Sta. Rita Hills became the hit of the night for me, and in very respectable company, I might add. I was pleased to visit the Zotovich tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto a couple months later to not only confirm my prior assessments of the quality of the wines, but to meet Ryan Zotovich once again and set up this interview.

Zotovich Cellars is in its early days, and in a transitional period that will be undoubtedly scrutinized in the coming years to see in which direction it trends. After spending time with Ryan, it’s clear that he’s on a hot streak, with a string of events that have matched good fortune with hard work to put Zotovich Vineyards on the fast track to becoming another top site in Sta. Rita Hills, and Zotovich Cellars as a top producer of Burgundian and Rhone varietal wines.

 

A Vineyard on Solid Footing

We met Ryan on an overcast morning at the Zotovich vineyard which is positioned quite squarely in the middle of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Owner Steve Zotovich (Ryan’s Uncle) initially wanted a premium Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard site, but ended up deciding to focus on Pinot Noir instead, and purchased the vineyard in 2004. Ryan explains, “We felt like in 2004, Sta. Rita Hills was just on the precipice of gaining greater recognition in the wine world. Of course Sanford had been here for a long time, and there were some other established names with Sea Smoke and Brewer-Clifton. But most of the vineyards here were planted in ’98 or ’99, with first vintages in 2001. I tried them and was really blown away by how good they were. So there was obviously a lot of potential here. At the time the land was also a lot cheaper than it was in Northern California. So all of those things, combined with the uniqueness of the topography made Sta. Rita Hills a natural choice for us.” It didn’t hurt that their timing was perfect, closing the deal just months prior to the release of Sideways, which soon had the effect of wildly inflating prices for vineyards in the area.

Zotovich VineyardThe Zotovich vineyard is a 30 acre site which features sandy, well drained soils that might come as a surprise considering its location at the base of a hill. “Normally you wouldn’t want a flat land vineyard with a hill behind you, because you’d be concerned that the vineyard would be all hill deposit with very rich soil, and you’d be fighting vine vigor, but that’s not the case here. The sandy soils are really well drained and allow us to precisely dial in our water stress.”

As Ryan was pursuing his wine education (more on this later), the focus for the business was squarely on developing the vineyard. “Building the vineyard by linking it with really good, competent wine makers that are making great wines was our first step. So now we have Tyler Winery with Justin Willett – one of the first to do vineyard designated Chardonnays from here, plus we have Paul Lato, Brewer-Clifton, Rick Longoria, Dragonette and Kenneth-Crawford all sourcing fruit from us.” If you’re not familiar with these names, you should be. Quite a lineup of producers, which speaks volumes about the quality of the fruit coming from the vineyard.

While those first steps have yielded early success, there’s plenty more in the works. Building up the clonal diversity in both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay programs has been a top priority, and next on the list will be to add some new blocks of own-rooted, head trained Grenache and Syrah to fill out the Rhone program as well. Under the careful guidance of Ryan and the vineyard management team brought in from Coastal Vineyard Care, the emphasis is very squarely on producing grapes that are a true expression of the vineyard.

 

Journeyman of the Stars

Ryan Zotovich

Ryan Zotovich Explains Grafting Technique

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – Ryan Zotovich is a young winemaker. There are active winemakers in SBC that have been making wine longer than Ryan has been alive. After experimenting with an education in computer science – “hated it”, Ryan quickly switched gears to pursue his wine making education at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. An internship with Palmina during his final year in the program started another string of good fortune that primed him with winemaking experience from two of the top Pinot Noir producers in Sta. Rita Hills. “In ’06 I was interning with Palmina, and a little bit at Brewer-Clifton”, Ryan said. “After the first harvest Steve Clifton asked if I’d like to come aboard full time, which I was of course very excited about. I was commuting from San Luis Obispo to Palmina every day, which was horrible, so Steve said ‘Hey – why don’t you stay with my friend, he lives 30 seconds from the wine ghetto, and you won’t have to deal with that commute.’ So I went over there and it was Victor (Gallegos – wine maker) from Sea Smoke! After harvest in ’07, Victor offered me a job at Sea Smoke, and Steve said ‘you have to take this’, so I moved on over. My big goal out of school was to work for a couple of the top Pinot Noir producers in the area, and with Brewer-Clifton and Sea Smoke I had done that in very short order, so I was very fortunate. Lots of hard work went into that as well, but I was definitely very lucky”.

Asked about the biggest takeaways from working with such top names in Pinot Noir in SBC, Ryan was quick to point out the differences in winemaking between the two. “I was able to see both ends of the spectrum when it comes to approaches for Pinot Noir – Brewer-Clifton with a lot of stem inclusion, and a non-interventionalist approach; and Sea Smoke with hand sorting of all the berries, removing all the stems, all the jacks, to get pure expression of the fruit.” And where does Ryan land in the spectrum between the two? “I think I’m a healthy balance between both of them. I’m not looking to make a huge Pinot Noir, but also not a thin, light wine either. I’m really shooting for a pure expression of Pinot Noir that’s indicative of the Zotovich Vineyard – a lush, well structured, but elegant wine with a little bit of that juicy fruit quality.”

 

A Cellar in Transition

Zotovich Pinot Noir

2007 Zotovich Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

While Ryan was off pursuing his education in winemaking – both formally and on-the-job with Brewer-Clifton and Sea Smoke, the Zotovich Family Vineyard was already selling fruit to other producers starting in 2004. After Steve Zotovich produced a few barrels of wine with the Zotovich label in ’05 and ’06 under the direction of Mac & Russell from Barrel 27, in 2007 the production expanded to a couple hundred cases. Following that initial effort, Ryan explained the transition for Zotovich Cellars wine production program to the present, “In 2008 Barrel 27 moved to Paso Robles, so my uncle was trying to figure out what to do to continue the label. I talked to Steve Clifton about making the wines, and he was very cool with the idea. So Steve made the ’08 and ’09 vintages, and I took over the winemaking duties in 2010.” Having the relationships to get as talented and renowned of a wine maker as Steve Clifton to produce the early vintages was another great move for the Zotovich label, and one that is clearly reflected in the wines themselves.

While the 2010 Viognier is currently the only released wine with which to judge Ryan’s winemaking abilities, it’s certainly an excellent one. Having been produced from what was by all accounts a very challenging year in the vineyard makes the wine all the more impressive. I don’t imagine we will be the only people anxiously awaiting the release of more of the 2010s to flesh out how Ryan’s first cut at winemaking on his own will turn out. Touring the Zotovich tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto also made plain that these early vintages from Ryan will entail a fair bit of experimentation, as he discussed the various cooperage he has been using in search of the perfect varietal and oak combinations.

Only time will tell, but with an emphasis on fastidious attention to detail in the vineyard and the cellar, I’m betting on great wines coming from this rising star wine maker in the near future. Don’t let Ryan Zotovich’s youth and good looks fool you. This guy means business.

Zotovich Tasting Room

Zotovich Tasting Room - Lompoc Wine Ghetto

More Q&A with Ryan Zotovich

Q: It’s apparent from your Uncle’s ownership of the vineyard and winery, and your Dad’s manning of the tasting room this morning that this is a family affair. Do you come from a wine family?

A: “I was always told that my grandparents on both sides made wine, even during prohibition; and I’m Serbian, so if you go to Serbia pretty much everybody is making wine. It’s in our blood, but the program here stems from my family’s mutual interest in wine. Obviously I got a degree – that’s how involved in wine I was, where I wanted to learn how to grow it and make it by getting a degree at the professional level. My Dad and Uncle have always just really been into wine, and always wanted to get into winemaking, but realized that they needed to have other jobs in order to afford to do this (laughing).”

 

Ryan Zotovich

Ryan Zotovich

Q: How early did you realize that winemaking was something you wanted to pursue?

A: “I had grown up with wine and wine was always on the table, so my Dad was pretty good about making me try different things. At an early age I was exposed to a lot of high end wines like Sea Smoke, Turley, Justin, Brewer-Clifton, Caymus – that’s the kind of stuff that my Dad and Uncle really liked, so for me growing up with that I always thought it was really cool, and wine was always in the back of my mind. Then I went through this weird phase after High School where I went to San Diego State and wanted to be a Computer Science major, and just hated it. I came back and realized that I can’t work inside an office. I wanted to be outdoors, so I was looking at agriculture, and all roads kept leading back to this. That’s when I really started appreciating wine. Before I was just drinking wine to drink and enjoy it. Now I was taking a step back and I felt my palate all of a sudden did a 180, where I could actually appreciate a wine for what it was. I would try a (Brand X) and compare it next to something else, and think ‘this is way better – so why?’. I wanted to know how a great wine came to be like this. It spurred my curiosity.”

 

Q: Everyone has their “a-ha” moments with wine. What were yours?

 

A: “My family used to go to the Formula 1 races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and when I went there after turning 21, it was kinda cool being able to actually drink wine in a public setting. My uncle bought a ’95 Caymus that we were having with dinner. I had just come back from San Diego, and didn’t know what I wanted to do, and was there drinking the wine and thought ‘This is it. If I could do this, it would be really awesome’.”

 

Q: What do you see for the future of Sta. Rita Hills as a wine producing region?

 

A: “I think we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg as far as potential in Sta. Rita. Rick Longoria, Richard Sanford, Bruno (D’Alfonso), Wes (Hagen of Clos Pepe), Peter Cargasacchi – all those guys started this AVA, and they’re all very important in terms of where it goes from here. But now there’s this new breed of younger wine makers that are learning from what they did, seeing where the vineyards are going, and putting their hand print on the area. So now we’re moving forward with that. The wine market is also evolving – there’s a younger generation that’s being drawn to wine. It’s up to us to make wines that are really good, and then captivate that audience and bring them into the wine world. I think that’s what my generation of winemakers is trying to do with the area here. But the potential for Pinot Noir in Sta. Rita Hills is – I don’t know if it’s ever even knowable, it’s such a great area. It’s only going to gain more and more strength.”

Q: Tell us about your time working for Steve Clifton.

 

A: “I knew Steve back in ’04 when we started the vineyard and I was at Cal Poly, so it was really cool to know him and have him as a mentor. At Cal Poly they have a mandatory internship as part of the program, so in ’06 I did my internship with him. Right after harvest in ’06 he said ‘I want you full time’, and I worked with him through the harvest of ’07, at which point Victor (Gallegos) at Sea Smoke offered me a full-time Assistant Winemaker position, which I very happily took (laughing). But Steve Clifton was a great mentor and really taught me a lot. He’s still a really good and close friend of mine.”

 

Q: We noticed that your Syrah is more retrained than many of the Santa Barbara County Syrahs we’re used to. Tell us what you’re shooting for with the Syrah.

 

A: “Well there’s not a lot of people doing Rhone varietals in Sta. Rita Hills. It’s been a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay region, but for me the Syrah does very well here. It’s a cool climate Syrah, so a lot of spice, a lot of pepper, but we don’t get super ripe. It’s a struggle to get it over 24 or 24-1/2 (Brix), so you’re picking early with high acidity levels. So we create a very fruit forward wine, not a concentrated fruit but more of a fresh fruit with great acidity to back it up. It’s a leaner, more elegant Syrah.”

Nursery at Zotovich Family Vineyards

Nursery at Zotovich Family Vineyards

Q: What other big decisions are you looking to make at the vineyard in the near future?

A: “In terms of grafting, we’ve got two blocks that we just grafted over to Clone 954 Pinot Noir. We’ve also introduced three different Chardonnay clones as well, so we’re adding clonal diversity to the Chardonnay program, and a little bit more to Pinot Noir. With that clone, we also have (in Pinot Noir) 113, 114, 115, 2A, 667 and 777.  Up on our hillside we’re going to introduce some own-rooted, head trained Grenache – kind of an inter-mixed field planting of Grenache, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

 

Foxen


A long time favorite of regulars to the area, Foxen remains a “must taste” destination along the Foxen Canyon wine trail. The famous roadside shack, which served as the tasting room for many years, is still preserved, but has been renamed as “Foxen 7200”, and is reserved for featuring Bordeaux and Cal-Ital style wines, with the new winery and tasting room a few hundred yards down the road dedicated to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rhone style wines. There’s a lot going on at this winery, but founding partner and winemaker Bill Wathen has maintained a simple but meticulous approach to viticulture and winemaking that brings vivacity and elegance to his wines. While they’re not all home runs, there’s plenty here to be very, very happy about.

Luckily, Foxen knew better than to mess with it’s shack, and 7200 retains every ounce of character and charm that we remember from our first trips to SBC many years ago. Walking in, you instantly absorb the history of this former blacksmith shop, and the decades of casual revelry in wine goodness that’s taken place within this tiny room. The kitschy wine shrine only adds to the funkiness of the place. This is not a glossy tour bus stop for the brazilian blow-out crowd (although we did see an overtly car proud Aston Martin owner during our last visit who wasn’t even tasting – oh boy!), but a no-foolin’, no frills stop for soaking in the quiet beauty of this back country road.

The wines here don’t disappoint, either. One surprising standout from our recent trip was the ’08 Rock Hollow Vineyard Cabernet Franc. I can’t remember the last time I was excited about a California Cab Franc, but this wine was packed with spicy ripe blackberry and blueberry flavors atop a backbone of dusty earth and leather with muted tannins and a nice long finish. While it sounds powerful, this wine carries its weight very well, and offers up a richly balanced package of punch and grace.

Another great offering at 7200 was the ’08 Range 30 West, a nicely complex Bordeaux blend from the Vogelzang vineyard in Happy Canyon that features a beautiful round raspberry fruit tone that’s expertly balanced with pepper, cedar and fine-grained tannins.

What the new Foxen tasting room down the road lacks in charm, it makes up for in the bottle. This is definitely a winery where it pays to be in the wine club, since many of their best Pinot Noir wines are sold out through the club. But there was still plenty to get excited about without the Pinots. The ’09 Tinaquaic Vineyard Chardonnay we tried was outstanding, which, while maintaining an understated classic California Chardonnay character due to the oak barrel fermentation, was nonetheless crisp and almost lean. The Tinaquaic vineyard is the classic Foxen estate vineyard, and receives no irrigation, which accounts for the stony backbone that was layered with delightful pineapple and ripe apricot fruit.

The 2010 Rosé of Mouvedre was a dry and crisp wine with beautiful strawberry and watermelon fruit and an ultra lean and clean finish. A great summer wine that will complement just about any food, with just enough body and character to keep things interesting.

Foxen really has everything we love in a SBC winery – history, character, great people, beautiful setting, and outstanding wines. Are we happy yet?

Foxen

7600 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454

map

805.937.4251

Open daily 11 to 4

www.foxenvineyard.com

Coquelicot

Coquelicot Tasting Room - Los Olivos

Coquelicot Tasting Room - Los Olivos


 

Los Olivos is littered with tasting rooms. This is a good thing. But how do you choose? Well as usual, we’ll judge by what’s in the bottle rather than how many people are piling into the room.

Coquelicot is a winery that’s putting out excellent wines in a nice range of styles, and they’re not afraid to be a bit different from the rest. With several of their wines coming from their organically farmed estate vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, and what feels like a light hand in the winemaking process from winemaker Louis Van Tonder, this is one place where you’ll be sure to find some balanced, pretty wines.

Our recent tasting included their 2007 Estate Riesling ($22), which is one of the few Rieslings we’ve found that actually exhibits the famed petroleum nose that’s reminiscent of some fine German Rieslings. Thankfully, that nose doesn’t carry into the flavor of the wine, as it exhibited a slightly sweet, robust mouth feel, but was balanced with enough acidity and clean fruit flavors of peach and melon to avoid any heaviness. A nice clean finish made this a very enjoyable wine.

While Coquelicot certainly isn’t the only winery making a stainless steel fermented Chardonnay, it’s nice to see more wine makers embracing this lean style of what is typically a buttery, oaky wine. This approach provides a purity of taste that really brings out the flavor of the Chardonnay grape, and might make you wonder why it’s so often masked behind heavy treatments of oak and malolactic fermentation. While the 2006 Stainless Chardonnay ($14) from Coquelicot bore that nice clean fruit that we love about this style, this wine seemed to lack the acidity that really makes this style sing. This isn’t the best stainless Chard we’ve tried, but at $14, it’s definitely a great selection for everyday drinking.

Other wines we enjoyed include the 2007 Estate Syrah ($45), which takes dead center aim at what we would call the classic Santa Barbara County Syrah – big plum and ripe cherry fruit, bold but balanced earth and leather tannin, big structure and long finish. This is not a finely tuned Côte Rôtie, but we love this style of bold and beautiful Syrah nonetheless. The flagship Coquelicot wine, their 2007 Mon Amour Bordeaux Blend ($45) was another very nicely balanced wine that brought rich fruit of blackberry and fig together with tight tannins and a woody, minty note and a beautiful dry finish.

While not every wine here is a home run, these guys do an honest job of tackling some challenging wines and manage to pull it off with grace and style. Coquelicot is one of the standouts in the crowded Los Olivos tasting room scene, and definitely worth a stop.

Coquelicot

2884 Grand Ave., Los Olivos CA 93441

map

Open Sun-Fri 11 to 5, Sat 10 to 6

805-688-1500

coquelicotwines.com

Lincourt

 

Okay, we’re particularly biased about this one. My wife and I exchanged our wedding vows on the grounds of this Santa Ynez Valley winery on a perfect August evening many moons ago, and drank in the splendor (and wine) all night long as we celebrated with our friends and family. We wanted a relaxed and intimate affair, and Lincourt’s setting was absolutely perfect for it.

The old farm house tasting room and estate Alamo Pintado vineyard stretching out in front of your view provides a casual setting which almost requires that you leave any wine pretentiousness at the door, come on in, and just relax. We’ve always found Lincourt to be producing some of the best “straight down the middle” wines – very classic characteristics of whichever varietal they make, without trying too hard or inferring some odd flavor to the wine that might not suit it.

If you’re familiarizing yourself with the traits of wine varietals, Lincourt is a great place to easily taste what makes a Sauvignon Blanc so different from a Chardonnay; why Merlot is so different from Pinot Noir. You might say that this could be accomplished just about anywhere, but Lincourt, more than any other winery in SBC, has a real sense of classic styling to their wines.

All of this might be changing, however, as Leslie Mead Renaud was recently announced as the new winemaker for Lincourt. Only time will tell. But for our money, Lincourt has not only produced some very pleasing wines, but it’s also one of our favorite places to visit. But of course, we’re biased.

Lincourt

1711 Alamo Pintado Road

Solvang, CA 93463

map

805-688-8554

Open daily 10-5

lincourtwines.com

Alma Rosa

 

Forty years ago, armed with little more than a pickup truck, a notebook, maps and thermometers, Richard Sanford commenced his search for a California region that would be suitable for growing Pinot Noir grapes that could rival the best French Burgundys. The West coast of North America is dominated by mountain ranges that run North-South in direction. Even at the coastline, the abrupt rise of hills and mountains (think PCH from San Luis Obispo to Monterey) from the Pacific inhibit any cool maritime influences from reaching inland. But just East of Lompoc, Richard found a different topography.

Flanked by pronounced east-west running Purisima Hills to the north and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south, the Santa Ynez river valley’s orientation to the Pacific allows cool ocean breezes to flow into the valley, shrouding much of it in fog in the mornings. A mild afternoon heat gives way to an onshore breeze just before dusk. Et voila – perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noir!

And so it started. The very first Pinot Noir vines in SBC were planted at the now famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1970. In addition to being a true pioneer in Santa Barbara County wine making, Sanford has also been at the forefront of organic and sustainable farming practices, including being the first vineyard in SBC to be certified organic. After starting the Sanford winery in 1981, he and his wife Thekla continued to plant vineyards in what is now known as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, and produced exciting wines that were some of the first to garner world-wide attention and put SBC wines on the map.

After entering into an ill-fated partnership with the Terlato Wine Group based out of Chicago, Richard was faced with the tough decision of compromising his wine making methods, or leaving his namesake behind. Unwilling to compromise, Richard chose the latter and broke away from Sanford winery.

Reemerging in 2005, Richard and Thekla founded the Alma Rosa winery. Free again to pursue their own winemaking techniques from vineyard to bottle, the Sanfords have been producing some of the most beautiful wines in all of Sta. Rita Hills. Their understated wines typically embrace a refreshing acidity and bright fruit as the backbone of the wine, and feel otherwise as if they are treated with a very light hand. The overall impression is one of gorgeously flavored fruit, unimpeded by anything extraneous. While Pinot Noir was Richard’s first love and remains the frontline of this winery, don’t overlook the whites. Refreshing and crisp Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc wines pair well with almost any lunch fare and have graced our table for many afternoon gatherings with highly satisfactory results.

We always look forward to visiting this winery. The tasting room is set back a bit from Santa Rosa Road in a beautiful little gully that reminds me of the adventures I’d take as a young boy in the hills of my home town in Minnesota. It’s strikingly beautiful, rustic, and down to earth – a perfect reflection of the people behind the wine and their approach to their craft. And with such beautiful and elegant wines to taste, how can you lose?  Alma Rosa is solidly in our category of “guaranteed to please” wineries.

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

7250 Santa Rosa Road

Buellton CA 93427

map

805-688-9090

Open daily 11-4:30

almarosawinery.com

Lafond

 

California Chardonnay produces some of the most polarizing reactions from the world of wine drinkers. The buttery, oaky, ripe pear and tropical fruit flavors made popular in the late 80’s and 90’s propelled sales of American Chardonnay into the stratosphere, and kept it there. And while Americans were happily sipping away at these powerful and rich fruit bombs, their mere presence represented everything that was wrong with American wine for old world wine fans. In contrast to the floral, apple and mineral notes found in many racy Chardonnays from France, California’s version was seen as just plain overdone. Over-oaked, over-ripened fruit, and malolactic fermentation (the “second fermentation” that gives Chardonnay that buttery mouth feel) all combined into something that fans of classic Burgundian Chardonnay considered an abomination of the varietal.

Cast aside any preconceptions about what wine should be, however, and for pure enjoyment there’s something sinfully pleasant about American Chardonnays. The round mouth feel, richness and intensity makes for a versatile wine that can happily accompany a light afternoon snack, or be a great companion with hearty dishes of fowl or fish.

Of course there are plenty of examples of overdone wines that just feel flabby and lack character. And there’s been a recent move by several California winemakers to embrace a lean and pure style of Chardonnay that attempts to capture the essence of the Chardonnay fruit with no further distractions. But given the right combination of great grapes and just the right amount of restraint in the winemaking process, we’ve still got a soft spot in our hearts for these wines, and Lafond is a great example of what the classic California Chardonnay is all about.

These are not faint wines – with 100% barrel fermentation, about half in new oak, there is plenty of oakiness transferred into the wine. But while the richness and intensity is certainly present, there’s complexity on the palate and a sense of restraint that shines through, making what could easily be an overly powerful wine into something that is inviting and, dare I say it, sophisticated.

Long time Lafond winemaker Bruce McGuire oversees the winemaking operations, and also produces some very respectable Pinot Noirs, as well as a couple of Rhone varietal wines. In our latest tasting, however, we felt that the Chardonnays were the clear standouts. If you’re a history buff, it’s notable that Pierre Lafond founded the first post-prohibition commercial winery in Santa Barbara County back in 1962, and purchased the beginnings of the current Lafond estate and vineyards in 1972.

The drive along Santa Rosa Road that leads to the tasting room is so picturesque that it’s reason enough to take the trip to visit. But the luscious wines and knowledgeable tasting room staff at the impeccably maintained estate with a big grassy area for picnics makes it a regular stop for us when heading through the Sta. Rita Hills loop.

Lafond

6855 Santa Rosa Road, Buellton, CA 93427

map

Open daily 10 – 5

805-688-7921

lafondwinery.com