On special assignment for the Santa Barbara Vintners.
There’s that great bit in the 1963 comedy-thriller-romance Charade where Audrey Hepburn’s character asks Cary Grant’s character, “You know what’s wrong with you?” to which he replies, “No, what?” and she pauses, then says in elongated exasperation, “Nothing.”
Well, Santa Barbara wine country is sort of like Cary Grant without the chin dimple. As writer and marketing maven Allison Levine from Please the Palate puts it, “What do they grow in Santa Barbara? Everything.” Which makes it tricky to introduce people to the wines of the area; where should one start?
For the past few weeks, the place to start has been 90 miles south, as the Santa Barbara Vintners has been hosting a series of tastings and dinners under the banner Road Trip Los Angeles. Levine, based in LA, has helped SBV put together themed events as a way to help people get a handle on the wonder of Santa Barbara County.
For just one example (see the full schedule here) on Sunday, May 15 at the Commissary at the Line Hotel in Koreatown, Angelenos can experience a dinner billed Weird & Wacky Santa Barbara Wines & Winemakers. “Chef Roy Choi does very fun and funky food,” Levine points out, “and their wine director has a very eclectic list, so she wanted to do weird grapes.” While Santa Barbara might still be most famous (thanks, Sideways!) for its Pinot Noir, you can also get things like a sparkling Vermentino, or Counoise, or Freisa, two ways, no less – at least you can at this dinner (needless to say these more unusual wines are made in teensy quantities, so enjoying them as a special treat).
“I fell in love with Vermentino in 2007 and went on a mission to plant some right away,” says winemaker Tessa Marie Parker of Tessa Marie Wines. “We grafted over an acre at Camp 4 Vineyard back when my grandfather owned it. Before Vermentino, Sangiovese had been my only love. Vermentino was the perfect match to my Italian ‘program.’ It grows great and produces some amazing wine – sweet, dry and sparkling. It’s not your typical white, so why not turn it into bubbles? I am personally not a Chardonnay fan. And on top of that, I love to be different. In a nut shell, with my love for Champagne/sparkling wine and Vermentino, it seemed like the next logical step for me.”
The Counoise, a Rhone varietal generally only found in blends, also has its SB roots with Fess Parker. “Fess Parker planted a couple rows on the estate as an experiment and to blend into their Rhone programs,” says Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers. “It makes such delicious wine, but it never had a real home, so they started letting me buy a little bit. Also, the producer that I interned for in the Rhone valley had some 80 year old vines that were his favorite wine he produced, so he programmed a soft spot in my heart for it.”
But if those are too normal and easy going for you, there’s Freisa, a grape from Italy practically no one grows in North America (of course Randall Grahm did at Bonny Doon, but what grape hasn’t he grown). Lucas & Llewellen, however, in their Italian varietal sub-house Toccata (see, that’s how hard it is to explain who does what), makes both a dry Freisa and a Freisa “Rosso Dolce.” “Louis Lucas purchased the vineyard from Joe Carrari in the ’70s,” explains Megan McGrath Gates, director of winemaking. “There was Freisa planted on the ranch in 1979. These grapes have been a testament to tradition for almost 40 years. Freisa is a common wine in the Piedmont area of Italy, often served slightly spritzy. We find that this wine is old world and that made us think of the wines you might find in a little village, made in a home winemaker’s cellar, quite possibly with residual sugar. Thus, we made a wine called Rosso Dolce and left 4% residual sugar in it. I originally wanted to name it Little Village.”
These wines, along with a Lieu Dit Melon and a Palmina Alisos blend (80% Sangiovese [5% of which is appassimento], 20% Merlot), will no doubt make clear Santa Barbara has a host of wonders up its grapey sleeve. “One thing I love about this valley is that we can be diverse in our own ways within this growing region,” Parker claims. “Especially in downtown Los Olivos we can get away with uncommon varietals, blends, and pride ourselves on specific vineyard locations while not focusing so much on Pinot and Chard – that has really changed in the last couple years. We are more complex than tasters think.”
“The vineyards haven’t always been here; I watched them begin to spring up out of nowhere in the early ’90s,” Gates sums up. “The gorgeous hills, the unbridled wilderness of the forest and the ocean close by makes this a sliver of heaven. It just so happens that the climate and soils here are perfect for wine grapes. Santa Barbara wine country is a treasure in our own backyard, just 1.5 hours from downtown L.A. There are few areas of the world that grow amazing wine grapes. This isn’t a hot area like some of the inland growing regions. We are tucked away in a river valley but still directly influenced by the ocean. Perfection!”