Santa Barbara's fabulous Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Chardonnays show why this cool county is California's hottest wine region, writes MICHAEL SCHACHNER.
THE label ‘California’s hottest wine region’ for Santa Barbara could be misleading to a literal thinker because, while the county’s 60 or so wineries are indeed turning heads with their constantly improving wines, they are doing so in one of the coolest wine-growing regions in the state.
The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, and the newly christened Santa Rita Hills – the three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that comprise the larger Santa Barbara County AVA, just north of Los Angeles – are hot stuff. Taste the Syrahs from Qupé or Ojai, the Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat or Tantara, and the Chardonnays from Melville or Gainey, and you’ll see what the buzz is about. These and dozens of other wines from various producers are impeccably structured, the products of long, fairly chilly growing seasons that allow for fully developed flavours and healthy, racy acids.
For proof that ‘hot’ is but a figurative adjective when it comes to Santa Barbara, just step into a vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills on a summer afternoon. Chances are that a crisp, chilling wind will be blowing in from the Pacific Ocean. Therein lies the key ingredient to Santa Barbara’s terroir.
Only inland Santa Ynez, such as Santa Maria valley which runs west to east and away from the coastline, sees growing-season temperatures most people would consider warm. As a result, some wineries in Santa Ynez try their hand at Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but with sketchy results. ‘As much as I hate to admit it, we simply don’t have the climate to produce good Cabernet and Merlot,’ says Fred Holloway, winemaker at Cambria in the Santa Maria Valley.
What Santa Barbara does have is a near-perfect climate for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and several other Rhône varieties, grapes which ripen earlier than their Bordeaux counterparts and don’t require as much raw heat. ‘I think we can nearly replicate Côte Rôtie, especially in Santa Ynez where it gets warmer than the other parts of the county,’ says Andrew Murray, the mercurial, youthful owner of his eponymous winery.
Throughout most of Santa Barbara County, especially Santa Maria, the summer consists of dry, moderately warm days that frequently give way to late afternoon fog and cool nights. Rain is barely an issue – only 30–45cm of precipitation falls during an average year. And the terrain is mostly sand and loam, a soil type the grapes enjoy. The end result is a marine-influenced desert, a terroir well suited to these grape varieties.
There are currently about 8,100ha of vineyards in Santa Barbara, led by Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir second. And more than a million cases of wine are now being made here. One of the veterans who has seen it all happen is Bob Lindquist, founder and winemaker of Qupé. Lindquist, who recently turned 50 along with Jim Clendenen – his good friend, long-time business partner and the man behind Au Bon Climat and several other labels – jokes that in 1972, when things really started to take off in Santa Barbara, he was just 20 years old, doing drugs and decorating store windows in and around Los Angeles. Some 30 years later and he’s doing more than 25,000 cases a year of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Mourvèdre and Syrah.
Lindquist’s whites are some of the best of their type in the US, delicious, fresh and acidic. But it’s his Syrahs that have really built and maintained Qupé’s stellar reputation, especially the Hillside and Bien Nacido Vineyard reserve-level Syrahs. With rich black fruit, a fair amount of extract and loads of spice, these Syrahs are chewy enough to sip by themselves yet balanced enough to drink with a meal.
Bien Nacido is a name that comes up again and again with the region’s best wines. Known for producing some of California’s best Pinot Noir grapes, it is one of the biggest small vineyards in the world, with about 365ha planted with Chardonnay, Pinot and Syrah. It’s managed by Chris Hammell in micro plots, with each winery that contracts with the owning Miller family for Bien Nacido fruit managing its own parcel.
Bill Cates, a former Virginia horseman who now makes about 3,500 cases a year of Tantara wines with his partner, Jeff Fink, says Bien Nacido is giving better fruit today than ever before. ‘When we got here in 1997, yields were 15 tonnes/hectare, which is too much for great wine. Now it’s down to three or less, which is just right. It’s all because of better farming.’
Indeed, Bien Nacido is the source of some of California’s great wines: Ojai, Jed Steele, Au Bon Climat, Qupé, Tantara, Hartley-Ostini, Foxen, Fess Parker, Jaffurs, Gary Farrell and Lane Tanner, among others, have all bottled Bien Nacido wines at some point in time, and most still do.
Dick Doré, who has been making wine with Bill Wathan under the Foxen label since 1985, noted that Foxen’s 5ha Bien Nacido plot, called Block 8, was planted in 1996 with exactly the clones he and Wathan wanted. ‘They farm it, but in essence we manage it,’ he said. ‘And it gives great crops.’
Situated in the Santa Maria Valley, at the northern tip of Santa Barbara wine country, Bien Nacido could legitimately be called the focal point of the region. And this is despite the fact that beyond the no-frills winery shared by Qupé and Au Bon Climat and the tiny winery inhabited by Tantara there’s nothing at Bien Nacido but grape vines.
When I paid Clendenen, Lindquist and their legion of co-corkers a visit this past December, Clendenen cooked one of his famous ‘team’ lunches and we tasted a number of wines – stunning new ABC Pinot Noirs such as his 2000 Isabelle and Knox Alexander bottlings, and a few older ones, holding onto their vitality.
‘I definitely want wines that age; I think we both do,’ says Clendenen, speaking for himself and Lindquist. ‘We’ve been called trendsetters, and for me that means making wines with ageability. We were weaned on Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Burgundy – what do you expect?’
Later he and I shuttled over to Tantara to taste Cates’ and Fink’s excellent line of wines. There we compared and contrasted about half a dozen Pinot Noirs, all of high quality, and some from outside the region. That Clendenen, Cates and Fink were so comfortable swapping suggestions for how to make better wines reinforced how the spirit of cooperation is engrained among virtually all of Santa Barbara’s winemakers.
How else would Doug Margerum, the long-time owner of the Wine Cask wine shop and restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, have been able to build his shack-like winery on the grounds of Brander, a much larger and more established producer? Once again, a helping hand was extended.
‘Mine has to be the smallest bonded winery in the county, maybe in California,’ says Margerum, squeezing between his dozen or so barrels to extract samples of his Austrian-inspired Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. He also bottles four basket-pressed, vineyard-designated Syrahs, my two favourites being his Colson Canyon and Purisima Mountain bottlings.
Margerum could be compared to a Bordeaux garagiste. He wouldn’t argue with the moniker. ‘The garagiste philosophy, for me, is a return to winemaking that is handcrafted and personal.’
Doing it in a more traditional and larger-scale manner than Margerum, but with the help of one very talented and meticulous winemaker (Greg Brewer), is Melville Winery, located in the Santa Rita Hills, about halfway between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton.
Although the Santa Rita Hills AVA is only a year or so old, and its right to use that name is being challenged in the US courts by Bodegas Santa Rita of Chile, grapes have been grown in the area for nearly 30 years. Ron Melville was inspired to sell his Cabernet and Merlot vineyard in Knights Valley, just north of Napa Valley, and to move to the Santa Rita Hills in 1997.
Today Melville farms about 30ha of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, some of which goes into Melville’s own wines, with the rest sold on. And the Chardonnays, Pinots and Syrahs that Brewer is making for Melville are the epitome of cool-climate wine.
Interestingly, the Santa Rita Hills AVA comprises the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. But the terroir here is very different from inland. It is said that for each mile (1.6km) one travels east from Lompoc, the temperature increases by 1?Fahrenheit (1.8?C). What this all means is that grapes grown in Santa Rita Hills vineyards such as Melville, La Rinconada (Richard Sanford’s), Blind Faith (Richard Longoria’s) and Sea Smoke are cool-climate ones, which sit on the vine well into early autumn, developing intensity and powerful acids. How else does one harvest their Syrah on 15 November, as Melville did this past year?
‘I liken these grapes to the best fish procured by a master sushi chef,’ says Brewer. ‘It’s all about freshness and minimal handling.’ To support his point, he shows me how the 2002 Melville Syrah that had been fermenting slowly in open-top bins was being transferred into barrels – bucket by bucket. Neither a pump nor hose was anywhere to be found.
And this was all taking place in December. Clearly the growing season is a long one in Santa Barbara.
Michael Schachner is a freelance wine, food and travel writer based in New York City.
THE GOOD LIFE, SANTA BARBARA STYLE
While some spa resorts, in an effort to cleanse, push tofu and herbal tea, Bacara Resort & Spa, 10 miles north of Santa Barbara, is happy to lean towards indulgence, fine food and wine.
With 360 luxurious rooms and suites, all with private balconies or patios (many with fireplaces), a 3,900m2 spa, three swimming pools, golf and tennis, and three restaurants (all with access to a world-class wine cellar), Bacara must rank as one of the most well-appointed, best place to stay anywhere between LA and Pebble Beach.
Among California’s numerous wine-country spa resorts, Bacara is a leader in service and dining. The best of the resort’s three restaurants is Miró, named after the Spanish artist. With a view over the Pacific Ocean, the restaurant is home to several Miró paintings and sculptures. Executive chef Remi Lauvand (formerly of Montrachet in New York) favours an artistic blend of French and California cuisines using fresh ingredients grown at Bacara’s organic farm.
The sommelier Gillian Ballance has assembled a 10,000-bottle collection from around the world, much of which is well priced. There are also regular winemaker dinners featuring the region’s best wineries.
Room rates begin at $395 and rise to $5,000 for the Presidential Suite, while serious spa treatments start at about $100. A full dinner at Miró costs about $200 per couple, maybe a little more if you plunder the wine list.
Bacara Resort & Spa, 8301 Hollister Avenue, Santa Barbara, California 93117 Tel: +1 805 968 0100. www.bacararesort.com
Other places to stay & eat:
Brothers Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern Inventive yet hearty wine-friendly cooking in a rustic, old-California setting. 2350 Railway Avenue, Los Olivos; Tel: +1 805 688 4820.
Hitching Post II in Buellton Excellent grilled meats, from the unofficial ‘World’s Best BBQ Steaks’ to ostrich and lamb chops. 406 East Highway 246, Buellton. Tel: +1 805 688 0676.
The Ballard Inn Elegant, 15-room hotel with a good restaurant. Wine, hors d’oeuvres and breakfast are complementary. 2436 Baseline Avenue, Ballard; Tel: +1 805 688 7770.
Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa A good, less expensive option than Bacara (rooms start at $250). 2860 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos; Tel: +1 805 688 7788.
21st Annual Santa Barbara County Vintners Festival
This two-day outdoor wine and food festival showcases wines from Santa Barbara County’s approximately 60 wineries alongside culinary delights from the area’s most heralded chefs. In addition, guests may enjoy a wine-blending seminar, a barrel tasting, and live blues. There is also a silent auction in aid of Arts Outreach & the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation.
When: 12–13 April, 2003, 12–3pm
Where: Firestone Meadow, Los Olivos
Tickets: $75 for one day; $125 for the weekend. Tickets must be purchased in advance from the SBCVA. Tel: +1 805 688 0881. www.sbcountywines.com
RECOMMENDED SANTA BARBARA WINES
Cold Heaven, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Viognier, Santa Barbara County 2000 **** £21.99 (1999); M&V, The
Fess Parker, Marcella’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County 2000 **** N/A UK. Tel: +1 805 688 1545
Gainey, Limited Selection Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County 2000 **** N/A UK. Tel: +1 805 688 0558
Melville, Estate Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills 2001 *** N/A UK. Tel: +1 805 735 7030
Qupé, Marsanne, Santa Barbara County 2000 *** £13.99–15.99; HvN, M&V, TWr, Wmb
Au Bon Climat, Knox Alexander Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2000 ***** £34.99; M&V
Tantara, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2000 ***** £32.18; VCl
Cambria, Rae’s Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2000 **** N/A UK. Tel: +1 888 339 9463
Foxen, Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2000 **** CKe
Margerum Wine Company, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley 2001 **** N/A UK. Tel: +1 805 680 7268
Hitching Post, Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills 2000 **** N/A UK. Tel: +1 805 688 0676
Firestone, Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley 2000 *** £9.99; Rbs
Andrew Murray Vineyards, Tous Les Jours Syrah, California 2001 *** N/A UK. Tel: +1 805 686 9604
Written by Michael Schachner