by George Yatchisin
On special assignment for the Santa Barbara Vintners
Since Santa Barbara County is so good at growing so many varietals of grapes so well (more than 50, if you cared to know), it makes sense its winemakers start to wonder, “What will happen if we put a bit of varietal A with some of varietal B?” Often that algebra of blending might mix varietals G, S, and M, but we’ll get to that.
Recently the Vintners Association hosted a tasting at Santa Barbara’s delightful and delicious Barbareño that featured 13 wineries pouring 33 red blends that attested to the palates and creativity in the region. While the red blends tend to play in century-old patterns begun by the French – people generally either mix Bordeaux grapes or Rhone grapes together – of course there’s always a wildcard or two. One of the region’s long-standing leaders, Fred Brander, makes a non-vintage F/Red that’s 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon (his declassified cab) and Syrah from Zaca Mesa. In addition to being a practically historic wine created from two of the pioneering spots of Santa Barbara, it’s a pure pleasure, with lively acidity and bright berry fruit. How nice to learn the two different grapes can play so well together.
Generally, though, the Bordeaux blends are more traditional, like the trio of just released 2013 stunners from Star Lane Vineyards: their Cab is actually 83% CS, 10% Cab Franc, 4% Merlot, 2% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot; their appropriately named Astral 99% CS and 1% Merlot; and their Merlot contains 7% CS. Star Lane seems to grow into their property with each passing vintage, as they help put Happy Canyon on the map for California’s best Bordeaux with other producers like Grassini Family Vineyards.
Similarly, the Rhones tend to be GSMs, or Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre, if you don’t speak abbreviations. Even there, though, Santa Barbara winemakers like to muck with the order to make fascinating wines, like Jaffurs – who had new owner Dan Green and assistant winemaker Matt Brady pouring their 2012 High Tide that’s 50% Mourvedre, 33% Grenache, and 17% Syrah. It’s hearty as heck with that Mourvedre leading the way, brooding and beautiful and age-worthy.
On the other hand there’s Dragonette Cellars, who opt to leave out the Mourvedre completely in both their 2014 Seven and 2012 MJM, blends that feature Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier for some aromatic lift and complexity. Both are delightful, but the MJM – “named in honor of our wives and co-conspirators Mitchi, Jen and Michelle,” as the winemakers put it on their website – is meant for aging, getting 27 months in barrel.
An event like this one was also notable, for while it featured wines from the founders of the county’s start – Bob Lindquist is still nailing things at Qupe, and proved it by pouring both a 1988 Los Olivos Cuvee and 2013 and 2014 vintages of this Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache that all simply knocked it out of the park (he also makes wines for the Dodgers, so that description was chosen very much intentionally) – it also featured someone who was pouring his first vintage ever. Scott Sampler, under the name Central Coast Group Project (to honor everyone who has helped him), is taking a unique approach to almost everything. Based in Buellton Bodegas complex, he gets to work with the likes of Larner and Liquid Farm, creating very small amounts (only 300 cases of the 2012 vintage) of very delicious wines. Take his GSM Barrington Hall, about which he aptly writes, “as if a classical form of Chateauneuf-du-Pape were a prism, refracting pure beams of modern California sun.” Or his fascinating “Variations on a Clone, Op. 1,” Syrah and Viognier, 100% whole cluster, co-fermented – the most raspberry on the nose any wine will ever deliver.
Past, present, future, it’s a gorgeous blend for Santa Barbara.
Below is the list of wines poured at the tasting. This is a good starting point to discover some new red wine blends from Santa Barbara County.
Andrew Murray Vineyards
2014 Esperance (Grenache 60%, Syrah 25%, Mourvedre 15%) Curtis Vineyard, Estate Grown
N/V Brander Vineyard F/Red (Cabernet Sauvignon 50%, Syrah 50%), Santa Ynez Valley
2014 Brander Vineyard Bouchet (Cabernet Sauvignon 72%,Cabernet Franc 20%, Merlot 8%, Santa Ynez Valley
Brophy Clark Cellars
2014 Brophy Clark GSM, Santa Ynez Valley
Casa Dumetz Wines
2013 Casa Dumetz GSM (Grenache 52%, Syrah 29%, Mourvedre 19%), Santa Ynez Valley
2014 Casa Dumetz GSM (Grenache 52%, Syrah 29%, Mourvedre 19%), Santa Ynez Valley
2013 Dragonette Grenache (Syrah), John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley
2014 Dragonette Seven (Syrah, Grenache, Viognier), Santa Ynez Valley
2012 Dragonette MJM (Syrah, Grenache, Viognier), Santa Ynez Valley
2013 Fess Parker Big Easy (Syrah 66%, Petite Sirah 18%, Grenache 16%)
Frontier Red Lot 94
2013 Epiphany Gypsy
2013 Epiphany Relevation
Grassini Family Vineyards
2013 Equipo (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
2013 Grassini Articondo (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
2013 Grassini Cabernet Sauvignon(with Petit Verdot), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
2012 Jaffurs High Tide Red
2012 Magia Nera (Sangiovese 60%, Cabernet Sauvignon 40%)
2012 Les Trois (Grenache 67%, Mourvedre 23%, Syrah 10%)
Lucas & Lewellen
2012 Toccata Classico (Sangiovese 40%, Merlot 25%, CS 20%, CF 5%, Petit Verdot 5%, Freisa 5%)
2012 Lucas & Lewellen Cabernet Sauvignon Valley View Vineyard (CS 75%, CF 8%, Malbec 7%, Merlot 7%, PV 3%)
2012 Toccata Riserva (Cabernet Sauvignon 50%, Sangiovese 30%, Petit Verdot 10%, Merlot 5%, Freisa 5%)
2014 Qupe Modern Red (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre)
2013 Qupe Los Olivos Cuvee (Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache), Santa Ynez Valley
2014 Qupe Los Olivos Cuvee (Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache), Santa Ynez Valley
Star Lane Vineyard
2013 Star Lane Cabernet Sauvignon (CS 83%, CF 10%, Merlot 4%, Malbec 2%, PV 1%), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
2013 Star Lane Astral (Cabernet Sauvignon 99%, Merlot 1%), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
2013 Star Lane Merlot (Merlot 93%, Cabernet Sauvignon 7%), Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
the Central Coast Group Project
2012 CCGP "Barrington Hall Wine Dinner Special Cuvée" (Grenache/Mourvèdre/Syrah)
2012 CCGP "Names" (Syrah,Viognier)
2012 CCGP "Variations on a Clone, Op. 1" (Syrah/Viognier)
Santa Barbara County officials have been working for several years on a slew of updates to the existing Santa Barbara County Winery Ordinance, first enacted in 2001. There have been several town hall meetings with the general public, the wine community, and County staff. It does appear this arduous process is coming to an end, though not without continued controversy.
The wine industry in California and around the world has changed considerably in the last five years. After the Great Recession there has been a significant positive sales trend toward premium wines, including pinot noir, the most planted red wine grape in Santa Barbara County. More people, especially women aged 25-44, are drinking and buying more wine than ever before. And more people are traveling to wine regions to meet the winemakers and learn the history and culture of these unique places. For many small wineries, the vast majority of their wine sales come from visitors coming directly to the winery, also known as DTC (direct to consumer), rather than purchasing the wines elsewhere.
At the same time however, there has been a mass consolidation in the wine wholesale business while the number of existing wineries in the United States since 2001 has grown from 3,000 to a little more than 10,000. In 2015 the four largest wine distributors in the United States sold 60 percent of all the wine sold to restaurants, retailers, grocery stores, and other wine outlets. 30 percent of wine sold at the retail level in the United States is now sold in supermarkets. These supermarkets and distributors mostly deal only with wineries that have production levels of tens and hundreds of thousands of cases, not hundreds or a few thousand cases. Unless smaller wineries can reach consumers directly to sell their wines, they face substantial challenges in building a sustainable business.
Unfortunately in the newly released Santa Barbara County Draft Winery Ordinance, there are few considerations for small family-owned wineries and vineyards to welcome onto their farms the important wine buyers, wine historians, wine lovers, and travel connoisseurs. Recently the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association submitted a recommendation to create a new Tier A2 that would allow for parcels of 10 acres to 19 acres to have a winery and up to a 400 square foot visitor space for limited visitation (by appointment only) by wine buyers from wine shops, restaurants, distributors, and the general public. No public tasting rooms or special events would be allowed in this new tier.
This recommendation is meaningful and timely because it gives the boutique winery owner and winemaker the opportunity to educate their clientele directly onsite where the wine has been grown and crafted. This one small, low impact, agriculture-centric improvement in the proposed Winery Ordinance could have a significant positive impact to Santa Barbara County’s wine community by creating a pathway to financial viability.
Agriculture remains Santa Barbara County’s largest industry. Local vintners are hard-working owners of small businesses who are chasing their entrepreneurial dreams and supporting their families while employing thousands of people and generating significant tax revenue for local government operations. Their farming activities preserve local culture and traditions, and their vineyards preserve the views and scenery that we all value so highly. They are your neighbors, the parents of your children’s classmates, and among the biggest supporters of innumerable charity fundraisers.
We have all seen what happens when farmers can no longer make a living: farmland sprouts subdivisions, views are lost, traffic problems increase, and demands for public safety and other government services grow exponentially.
We understand the need for reasonable regulation, but some foresight now and a spirit of partnership from our county officials will go a long way toward allowing local vintners to stay in business. In turn, vintners will continue to help preserve so much of what makes Santa Barbara County a special place.
To voice your support for small family-owned wineries in Santa Barbara County please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org in advance of the September 19th final Santa Barbara County Planning Commission Hearing regarding the Draft Winery Ordinance.
Santa Barbara County Vintners Association
Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County
On Special Assignement by George Yatchisin
2015 put the fear of god into many winemakers, if god is someone who doesn’t like grapes. Yields were down across California, often 50% down. The dreaded drought that began in 2012 continued, and while the quality of the grapes was strong, their amount was scant. “As much as we hate the drought,” Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine points out, “The struggling vines are giving us some pretty magnificent fruit to work with.”
So far into harvest 2016, things are looking much better, however. Vineyards have seen crews since as early as August 3, and different producers have picked everything from Sauvignon Blanc to even some Pinot Noir. “Quality looks pretty spectacular, and the quantity is surprisingly more than expected,” reports Callie Gleason, tasting room manager for Refugio Ranch. “We’re looking at volume more along the lines of our 2014 harvest, which was a high yield year.” Charles Rosenson of Coquelicot Estate Vineyard goes so far as to say, “This year the grapes look fantastic, possibly the best year ever.”
The winter and spring, of course, set up the year’s story, and 2016 has been somewhat unusual (perhaps there’s no truer Southern California weather story than “it won’t be what you expect”). “The lack of winter cold caused the vines to start up early, resulting in an early start to 2016 harvest once again,” explains Becky Barieau, controller for Foxen Winery. “We had good bloom weather in May avoiding the yield problems we had last year. The vines and grapes seem healthy and balanced and we expect the wines to reflect this.”
Despite the initial warmer start, August has been far from a summer scorcher, putting the brakes on brix. “The 2016 vintage started out early due to warmer weather but the pace of ripening tapered off considerably due to cooler weather in August,” says Kathleen A. Griffith, marketing manager for Flying Goat Cellars. “We will have longer hang time for Pinot, getting back to a more typical harvest in September rather than August. In 2015, we finished picking our Pinot (for still wine) by Labor Day weekend.”
“This year is really abnormal,” is how far Jon Karlo Macias, Café & Tasting Room Manager, at Ca’ Del Grevino is willing to go. “The grapes ripened to 22.5 brix and then we had a cold front slow everything down. Now we are waiting for it to warm up again. The later part of the summer has been really cold compared to the previous two years but our winemaker thinks the quality is still high.”
While El Niño barely cried any of its predicted rainy tears in Santa Barbara County, we did get enough rain to ameliorate a bit of the recent dry spell. Gleason says, “The rain helped us with some newly planted vines to solidify their strength on the vineyard, and luckily it wasn’t too much rain that it caused an issue.”
Even more fortunately, the fierce Rey Fire, which has burned well over 30,000 acres of Santa Barbara back country as of this writing, also seems a non-issue. A series of forest fires in Mendocino County affected Anderson Valley’s entire 2008 production, so smoke can be a real concern for winemakers. In fact, Rio Vista Vineyard reports, “Smoke damage in vineyard – none. Smoke damage elsewhere creates requests for additional tonnage, but none available.”
So to sum up: yields strong, quality high, harvest early, but not in a record-setting way. Margerum still promises, “It looks to be an early harvest so expect to see winemakers reappear in late October.” Most of them promise to clean-up by then, too. And Gleason insists, “We ended up with a very healthy harvest year, higher yields than expected, but really solid growth and great balance and concentration of flavors. We’re very excited to watch the magic happen in the winery over the next several months!”
Interesting stories from Santa Barbara Wine County.