traveled with a few friends from the Bay Area to the Central
Coast three weeks ago, timing our trip to coincide with the
Santa Barbara Vintners' Festival weekend. I've done this for
many years, although I've never actually gone to the festival
itself, instead going to the many wonderful winery open houses
over the weekend. A couple of my friends reserved a time-share
condo in a new complex in Solvang - that was a great idea,
a central location very close to most of the restaurants where
we were planning to have dinner, and a much more relaxing
place to stay than a motel.
were some relatively unremarkable winery visits on this trip,
so I'll just focus on the better ones here.
After driving down from the Bay Area Thursday morning, we
met Dave Corey at one of the cavernous Central Coast Wine
Services (CCWS) buildings in Santa Maria, where he makes his
wines. We tasted through lots of '05 barrels, just prior to
blending - Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache (including
the barrel of Grenache that's being offered in this year's
Wine Cask futures program), Mourvedre, Tempranillo, Cabernet,
different co-fermented varietals, reds on Roussanne lees....whew,
we tasted through a ton of barrels! And we tasted some previews
of upcoming fall releases of '04 Elevation Sensation, Hard
Core, and "Mr. Moreved", plus some future releases
(including "Cuvee Fletcher", which should be killer
juice). All really interesting stuff - it's fascinating to
barrel taste with Dave as he explains which barrels he plans
to use in which blend, and what elements they'll add to the
blend - upfront fruit, structure, mouthfeel, etc. I wish we
could have participated in his blending "party"
the following week....maybe one of these days. Dave continues
to make some really nice blends, different from most other
California Rhône style wines I've tasted.
Parker: I had contacted Mikael Sigouin about tasting his
Kaena wines. Since the last time I had visited him a year
ago, Mikael had taken on the position of assistant winemaker
at Fess Parker as part of a change in the winemaking team
there, and he suggested that we also taste some of their wines
during our visit. Conveniently, part of Fess Parker's winemaking
facilities are now almost right next door to CCWS, so we drove
the short distance to their building and met Mikael there.
We also said hello to Larry Schaffer, who had also invited
me to visit Fess Parker while I was in the area. From Mikael's
talk with us and the barrel samples of several '05 wines,
it seems like the winery is making an effort to upgrade the
quality of their wines, particularly their higher-end wines.
I was interested to taste some of their new efforts as I hadn't
visited the winery in 4 or 5 years. We tasted several barrels
of Ashley's Vineyard Pinot and a couple of Rodney's Vineyard
Syrah - all quite promising. It will be interesting to follow
Fess Parker's wines over the next few years - I think good
things are in the works.
Mikael proceeded over to his own small group of barrels in
the large Fess Parker facility. We tasted through about a
half-dozen very good '05 Grenache and Syrah samples - I thought
the Larner Grenache in particular stood out among these. Some
blended '04s were delicious - we had tasted the individual
components of these a year ago and Mikael has done a great
job blending them. Wish I could remember more specifics but
after all the barrels we'd sampled that afternoon my memory
was obviously getting fuzzy by that time! All in all, Mikael
is producing some really nice Rhône style wines, and
Kaena is a label to watch.
Fox: Blair, who became the head winemaker at Fess Parker
about a year ago, joined us after we'd finished tasting the
Kaena wines, and he pulled a few barrel samples from his own
small label, Blair Fox Cellars. We tasted some Syrahs which
were very nice. If I remember correctly, at least one sample
was from the Paradise Road Vineyard, a warmer-climate vineyard
compared to most in the County - it's located near Lake Cachuma.
I recall tasting one or two other wines from this vineyard
over the weekend - it's quite distinctive in comparison to
most Santa Barbara County wines grown in more cool locations.
dinner was at the Ballard Inn - this is the best restaurant
I've been to in Santa Barbara wine country, and we were treated
to another excellent dinner there from Chef Budi Kazali. In
my view, the Ballard Inn and Hitching Post are the two "must"
restaurant visits in the area.
We stopped at Melville on the day they were releasing their
'05 Clone 76 Inox Chardonnay - consistently one of my favorites.
The new release did not disappoint. Other highlights were
the '04 Estate Pinot Noir and '04 Carrie's Pinot Noir. They
were sold out of the '05 Estate Viognier - we tasted the '05
Verna's Viognier, which was nice but not as good as I recalled
their '04 Estate was.
Almost right next door to the Loring/Cargasacchi/AP Vin/Pali
"Pinot Prison" at the northwest edge of Lompoc is
another small group of industrial buildings, where Ampelos
and Ken Brown wineries have recently moved in. As Ken Brown
was busy washing wineglasses when we arrived, we started out
tasting the Ampelos wines. Peter Work was pouring a Rosé
and several reds. The Syrah Rosé was very nice, but
several of the reds were even better - the '03 Fiddlestix
Vineyard Pinot and '03 Evans Ranch Syrah were my favorites.
After I asked Peter about his '04 Estate Pinot, as I'd tasted
it at World of Pinot Noir in March, and he brought out a sample
- it's not yet ready for release. I think this wine will be
exceptional, and their vineyard could become one of the top
ones in the SRH area. Several people in my group signed up
to buy the Estate Pinot when it's released later this year.
Brown: By the time we finished tasting the Ampelos wines,
Ken Brown was back behind his small table. Ken is one of the
true Pinot pioneers of Santa Barbara County - he founded Byron
Winery in the '80s. He was pouring several '04 Pinots and
'03 Syrahs. Very good wines across the board, with my favorites
being the Santa Barbara County Pinot (actually preferred this
to their SRH Pinot), Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot, and Bien Nacido
Syrah. We didn't taste Ken's Rosé until later that
weekend - at the Ballard Inn tasting room - but it was excellent.
We managed to get to Foxen when it was not too crowded (a
difficult feat, especially since "Sideways"). Mariana,
the tasting room manager, and her entertaining terrier Mabel
are always fun to visit with. As usual, Foxen's wines were
very good - I thought the standouts were the Chenin Blanc
and the Cuvee Jean Marie Rhône blend.
We headed to CCWS again to taste with Paul Lato. He was running
late, and as we were wandering around one of the huge CCWS
buildings, someone came up and asked who we were looking for,
and when he found out we were waiting for Paul, he offered
to have us taste some of his own wines. It turned out that
we had met Jeff White of Ovene Winery, a relatively small
and new producer making Syrah, Cabernet, some whites, and
a killer dessert wine. Unfortunately this was another fuzzy
memory period for me and I'm short on specifics - I need to
start taking notes!
Lato: After finishing our visit with Jeff White, we followed
Paul the very short distance to his own barrels. For those
of you who don't know his wines, Paul makes tiny amounts of
exquisitely crafted Pinot and Syrah - fewer than 10 barrels
in all, two different Pinots & two Syrahs. His wines combine
impressive concentration and intensity of fruit with an elegance
and restraint that seems unusual in California. He's not shy
with new oak, but his wines stand up to it with ease. His
'05 barrels include Pinots from Gold Coast and Solomon Hills
Vineyards, and Syrahs from Larner and Bien Nacido. All were
top-notch, the highlight being one barrel of Bien Nacido Syrah
that reminded me of SQN (though I've only tasted a couple
of those) - and it turns out that Paul's block in the vineyard
is right next to the SQN block. He's totally uncompromising
in his approach to winemaking, and I think as his wines become
better-known he's going to make a big splash.
tried out someplace new to us for dinner on Friday - A-Ru
in Buellton. John Tomasso had recommended it very highly,
and we were not disappointed. Very good sushi, extremely fresh
and well-prepared. We even brought a bottle of Japanese wine
to dinner - a white from the Koshu grape, made by Grace Winery.
We weren't quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to
be a very pleasant wine that went quite well with the sushi.
First stop on Saturday morning was at the Babcock open house.
We tasted their current regular releases, which were nice
but unexceptional. We then went on to a special tasting of
their limited "Terrior Exclusives" - I thought the
best were the Cargasacchi Pinot Noir, Hearthstone Syrah, and
Vogelzang Cabernet. Finally, there was a vertical of their
"Fathom" Bordeaux-style blend, vintages from '97
to '03. Interestingly, of all of them, the '97 and '03 were
my two favorites.
Rosa: For those of you who don't know, Alma Rosa is the
new winery started by Richard Sanford. Chris Burroughs, formerly
the tasting room manager at Sanford Winery, followed Richard
to his new venture, and he was pouring at "Camp Alma
Rosa" - a very clever setup of the inside of their small
industrial park space made to look like the inside of a miner's
tent. Alma Rosa featured a Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sta.
Rita Hills Pinot, and "La Encantada" Pinot (basically
their reserve bottling). The Pinots are from Richard Sanford's
own organically-farmed vineyard. They were all very good,
especially the Chardonnay (which Chris accurately described
as a Chardonnay for people who don't like California Chardonnay)
and the "La Encantada" Pinot.
Murray: Now in their new location, not far from the Firestone
Winery - unfortunately it's not nearly as scenic as the old
spot, but that would have been a lot to ask. Andrew and his
family were pouring a bunch of new releases - my favorites
were the '05 Viognier (I think the Viognier has probably been
their most consistently good wine in recent years), '04 Estate
Syrah, '04 Bien Nacido Syrah.
/ Tensley: Visited the tasting room just off the main
street of Los Olivos. We started on the Carina side of the
room. The Tierra Alta Grenache and the "7%" (Colson
Canyon Syrah with 7% Viognier) were my favorites there. The
Tensley wines were all outstanding, starting with the '04
Blanc, a blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne from Camp 4
Vineyard. Three '04 Syrahs followed, from Tierra Alta, Thompson,
and Colson Canyon Vineyards. The Tierra Alta was my favorite
by a hair over the Colson Canyon. All three were delicious
and showed their distinctive vineyard character.
Bear: We walked the hundred feet or so down the street
from Tensley to the Wine Country wine shop. Dave Corey and
Brad Lowman were there pouring their wines that afternoon.
Since we'd tasted with Dave a couple of days earlier, we spent
most of our time tasting Brad's Waltzing Bear Pinots. Brad
was pouring all five Pinots he's released to date, starting
with his '02 Cargasacchi Jalama Vineyard, and proceeding to
four '03s - Cargasacchi Jalama, Rancho Ontiveros, Solomon
Hills, and Garys'. All very nice wines, with the Rancho Ontiveros
being my slight favorite over the Cargasacchi Jalama (although
a couple of others in my group preferred the Garys'). Brad's
making some very good Pinots, yet another up-and-coming label
dinner was at a long-time favorite in the area, Thai Cuisine
in Lompoc. Love their green papaya salad! We've found on previous
visits that Curran Grenache Blanc is a terrific match with
We stopped in before heading over to the big ABC/Qupé
open house on Sunday morning. They were pouring a nice lineup
of wines, including a few that I found especially interesting
- some limited single-clone wines. These included an '02 Clone
667 Pinot and '02 Clone 23 Pinot, and '01 Clone 877 Syrah.
Interesting program to bottle these single clones separately,
and although they were all good wines, I had the feeling that
some blending might well have improved them.
Bon Climat/Qupé: Always one of the highlights of
Vintners' Festival weekend, the ABC/ Qupé open house
is a great party. With a terrific lunch catered by American
Flatbread in Los Alamos, there are loads of wines to taste
from ABC, Qupé, and their related labels. My only criticism
of the tasting was that I felt the whites were served too
cold - I had a hard time getting much of an aroma from most
of them. Favorites included the ABC '05 Pinot Blanc / Pinot
Gris and '03 Knox Alexander Pinot Noir, Cold Heaven '05 Le
Bon Climat Vineyard Viognier, Verdad '05 Albarino, Qupé
'04 Purisma Mountain Grenache, '04 Stolpman Vineyard Syrah,
'03 Alisos Vineyard Syrah. Also, the Qupé '01 Bien
Nacido Hillside Syrah library wine that was being poured was
fantastic. Funny story - a guy comes up to one of my friends
during the open house and asks where the Qupé Syrahs
were being poured (and the guy pronounced the winery name
as "Kee-oop"). My friend points out where they were,
and the guy then turns around and takes off in the opposite
Goat: Several wineries were holding open houses on Sunday
afternoon at the Lompoc "Wine Ghetto" on the east
edge of town, so we headed out that way. We started out at
Flying Goat, where Norm Yates was pouring his Pinots. He actually
started us out with a teaser - a sample of some '05 sparkling
wine (from Pinot, of course) that's not yet ready for release.
It was delicious, and was quite a hit with everyone there.
We moved on to the '04 Pinots, and found that Norm has done
separate clonal bottlings for his Rio Vista Pinot - a Clone
2A and a Dijon Clone bottling. I preferred the Clone 2A, and
in fact that one and the Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot were my two
favorites of all the Pinots. All the Flying Goat wines were
Our group met up with John Tomasso at Fiddlehead, in the next
group of industrial buildings in the "Wine Ghetto".
"Fiddlechix" Kathy Joseph and Karen Steinwachs were
there, pouring three Sauvignon Blancs (my favorites were the
'04 Happy Canyon and '03 Gooseberry, both non-ML) the '05
Pink Fiddle Rose, and several Pinots - favorites were the
'00 Elton, from Willamette Valley, and the '02 Fiddlestix
The last stop in the "Wine Ghetto" as at Palmina,
where Chrystal Clifton was pouring seven of their Italian
varietal wines (Steve Clifton stopped by for a brief appearance).
Three '05 whites - Traminer, Pinot Grigio, and Tocai Friulano
- were all from the recently-planted Honea Vineyard in Santa
Ynez Valley, the first crop from this vineyard. All three
were very good, with the Tocai Friulano being my favorite.
A Rosato and three reds followed - the '04 "Alisos"
blend of 75% Sangiovese / 25% Merlot is always very nice.
The '04 "Undici" Sangiovese and '03 Nebbiolo really
seemed very young and a bit tough to judge at this point.
Inn Tasting Room: Before heading back to Solvang, we made
a slight detour to the Ballard Inn tasting room, where Barry
Rossum was manning the small tasting bar. The wine line-up
is always very good - usually including Arcadian, Curran,
Kenneth-Crawford, Palmina, and Carhartt. This time Barry also
was pouring Ken Brown and Lane Tanner. Lots of good wines,
my favorites being the Ken Brown Rose and Kenneth-Crawford
visit Santa Barbara County wine country without dinner at
the Hitching Post. We met up there with John Tomasso, Peter
Cargasacchi, and Dave & Becky Corey (with baby Fletcher
Corey too!). The food, wine, and company were all outstanding!
headed back to the Bay Area on Monday, and stopped for lunch
in Paso Robles, where we were joined by Raquel Rodriguez of
Hug Cellars (unfortunately Augie was out of town). Raquel
recommended a relatively new Italian restaurant, Gaetano.
The lunch there was delicious, and I'll have to remember this
place and give it a try for dinner sometime.
always, thanks to everyone my friends and I visited for being
so generous with their time and their wine!