Vol. 8 No.4. Sept '00
photos courtesy of: Michael Poston
Tasting Notes / Scores: Brief tasting impressions are included following the winery write-up. An "n/n" indicates that no notes were taken.
Fri, Sept 15, 2000
Having been notified that my Santa Barbara Futures order was ready for pickup was all the excuse I needed to head out for a day of wine tasting in the Santa Ynez/Santa Maria area. Left Irvine about 7:00am for Santa Barbara. After some ugly traffic through LA, finally arrived at the Wine Cask warehouse at 9:45, and after a quick loading, we were off and into the Santa Ynez Valley, stopping about 10:30 at the small market in Los Olivos to pickup some sandwiches for later. Starting at the North end of the valley and working South means that we have to actually drive by wineries to get to our first planned stop. This is a lot harder than it sounds -- wine everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Arrived at Bedford-Thompson about 10:30. Weekdays are nice around this valley. No crowds, and plenty of time to chat about the wines with the proprietors - assuming they're around. In this case, David Thompson was working the room. Complimented him on the quality of his vineyard in general and the Syrah in particular, and passed along that Craig Jaffurs really likes working with his fruit (I'm sure he already knew). The Thompson Vineyard started out with 25 acres of grapes, but David added another 17 acres about 3 years ago. He felt this increase should allow him to boost the Syrah allocations to both Craig and to Brian Babcock, who uses the Thompson Syrah in the Babcock Black Label Syrah. While we were tasting, some fellow passing through was asking David about purchasing some small cooperage - presumably for his own home winemaking. David was nice enough to jot down a few references for the fellow. We're not in Napa, Toto. Out about 11:10.
Tasted at Bedford-Thompson:
Arrived at Byron / IO at 11:40. To an empty tasting room. Our pourer, Debra Garrison, was very pleasant to chat with, as well as quite conversant about the wines. Byron is making some changes in the labeling of their higher-end "Reserve" wines. Gone will be the Reserve labels, which will be replaced with "Santa Maria Valley Estate" labeled bottlings. Chatted a bit about the IO label, Byron's take on a Rhone-style blend. This label is in it's second vintage, and there may be talk of spinning-off the brand. Since there's apparently no [current] intention to bottle some of the varietals independently, I have to wonder if there's a market for a one-wine label. Sure, one could cite Opus and Dominus, but these are Bordeaux varietal-based wines -- with big price tags. At $50 per bottle, IO is no slouch either. But, at 1,000 cases/year it would seem to me that brand spin-off is a long way down the road for IO. A few other tasters came and went while we were there, but otherwise it was a nice quiet visit. Out at 12:15.
Tasted at Byron / IO:
On to Rancho Sisquoc. Arrived at 12:10 to this bucolic ranch setting. The tasting room had a small party of folks going through the wines, but that didn't seem to slow the two ladies doing the pouring. Even though this winery does a respectable job with its white wines (in fact, the Sylvaner is quite nice), we decided to pass on most of them, and just taste through a few of the necessities, then move along with our tardy itinerary. Out at 1:00.
Tasted at Rancho Sisquoc:
Arrived at 1:15 at Foxen. This is a visit we always look forward to, because Foxen turns out some of the area's finest wines. Generally bigger in aromas and concentration, the wines have very nice qualities right out of the box ...'er, bottle. I've had mixed results at aging some of their wines. But, I usually can't resist them in their youth anyway. Foxen buys about 65% of its fruit to satisfy its 12,000 case production level. Their own estate vineyard, Ma-Mere, is only 1/3 acre of Cab and is right across the two-lane Foxen Cyn Rd from the tasting room. The 1/3 acre produces a minuscule amount of wine, which used to get blended into the regular Cab, but now gets a vineyard-designated bottling. When we arrived, winemaker Bill Wathen was driving a fork lift around moving some of the newly-arrived Chardonnay and Pinot into position for crush. Meanwhile, for a $3.50 fee, tasting room manager Kathryn Clark poured us 11 wines, including the just-released '98 Cab. Being a label collector, I asked about the various white-on-pink versus pink-on-white labels. "That's adobe...not pink," Kathryn politely admonished me. "The white-on-adobe label is for vineyard-designated bottlings." Yeah, I knew that. We had been the sole visitors in the tasting room for quite awhile, until the arrival of a large group of 6-9 tasters signaled our need to move along. Out at 2:35, after another fabulous long visit.
Tasted at Foxen:
Arrived at Zaca Mesa 2:45 . For a weekday, the parking lot behind the winery had a rather large number of cars in it, and we were a little worried that the tasting room would be packed. But, apparently all these cars must have belonged to people working on the harvest or crush, because there were only a few people in the room. Recent changes here include a new winemaker, with Steven Roberto replacing Dan Gehrs, and Benjamin Silver (previously Asst winemaker to Gehrs, and nominally running the place while Gehrs moves his own brand into higher production) supposedly becoming "Associate" winemaker to Roberto. But, I got the distinct impression that Silver has at the least moved along to other pursuits, if not another winery in the valley. Zaca Mesa has been transitioning toward a Rhone-only house for some time now, and currently is carrying Chardonnay as the lone exception. Once again, we skipped the whites, and tried their rosé and red Rhone varietals. Unfortunately, many of the bottled Rhone varietals are not available for taste or for sale, as these are small output wines destined for their Cellar Club mailing list. Having tried the last two vintages of the Mourvedre at the Santa Barbara Futures tastings, my intention was to sign up for the Cellar Club. After being underwhelmed by the selections available for tasting, I was a bit more dubious. But, I decided try it out for awhile, and was able pick up a Grenache and Cinsaut for my effort. Out at 3:20.
Tasted at Zaca Mesa:
Arrived at Blackjack Ranch about 3:35. First time visiting this winery. Started in 1996 by Roger Wisted, who planted Estate vineyards of Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Merlot, and purchases local fruit for the balance of his lineup. Establishing Blackjack's reputation rather quickly, the Wine Cask's "Santa Barbara Futures Program" saw fit to include the winery's '97 Wilkening Vnyd Cab in last year's program, and included both a very impressive '98 Syrah, as well as the '98 harmonie blend among this year's offerings. At this year's Futires tasting, the first-release Estate Syrah sold out almost immediately, signaling the entry of yet another hot Santa Barbara County winery into the quickly growing Syrah market. As we drove up the long approach past vineyards to the tasting room, we could see proprietor Wisted driving the forklift around, moving fruit into the winery. Blackjack opened their tasting room in Spring of '99. Nicely appointed and very spacious, the tasting bar itself has been constructed from the hardwood bowling lanes of a defunct local bowling alley. Staffing the tasting room were Marie and Asta, two charming ladies who could keep absolutely any conversation going. Asta is a recent transplant from Newport Beach, and Marie, maybe not so recently transplanted from Paris, is a next door neighbor to the winery. We were poured 7 wines for a $5 tasting fee, along with a Rhone blend for an additional small fee. Out at 4:10.
Tasted at Blackjack Ranch:
On to Beckmen, and arrived at 4:15. This is the old Houtz property -- although, enough time has passed that most people have forgotten there ever was a previous winery [before 1994]. Taking over a 16 acre vineyard that was planted with Chardonnay along with the usual Bordeaux varietals, Beckmen kept some of the Cab and Merlot, but also struck off in new direction -- Rhone-style wines. In 1996, they acquired an area in the Purisima Hills to the West, and have cultivated 190 acres of the 365-acre property above Ballard Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley. Using a few different clones, the Purisima Mtn Vnyd is dedicated to Rhone varietals, and Steve Beckmen has already produced some noteworthy wines from this source. Steve's Assistant Winemaker, Joey Tensley, has also produced some fabulous wines from this property.
When we arrived, crush appeared to be taking place, or at least finishing up. A crusher was parked on the pad, with Tensley and a winery-hand finishing off some Chardonnay. Luckily the tasting room was still open, although that seemed fleeting for a moment as Joey poked his head inside and told our pourer Mikael that he'd need to clean out some tanks soon. Then, turning to us said, "I hope you guys are into power tasting." Heck, that's our specialty! Joey never came back in to grab Mikael, so we tasted through the lineup. Another gentleman in the tasting room turned out to be a visitor from Texas who was in the Valley for a day or two and wanted to sample some of the local wine. He seemed quite interested and didn't want to miss a thing while he was here. So, we unabashedly gave him pointers and suggestions about who to visit. Out at 5:00.
Tasted at Beckmen:
Dan Gehrs. We arrived about 5:05 to a quiet tasting room -- just a couple of people tasting and milling about. Dan Gehrs is the former Zaca Mesa winemaker, and has had his own brand for several years, although he continues to consult with a few local wineries. Along with Longoria and Andrew Murray, this recently occupied tasting room is one more reason to make this block in "downtown" Los Olivos a must-stop for wine tasting. I'm sure it will also increase the kudos for Dan's wines, and they definitely deserve it. Our pourer, Marcia, seemed quite knowledgeable about wine in general and these wines in particular. Very enjoyable visit. Pouring 6 wines for $3.50.
Out at 5:30 and raced to our dinner reservation in Buellton.
Tasted at Dan Gehrs:
Wrap up: off to the Hitching Post for steaks. Very satisfactory day. Had originally planned for 10 winery visits - majorly optimistic on my part! On the other hand, we never made up the lost time on the front end trying to get through LA. Totals for the day: 8 wineries, 46 wines. Foxen was another super visit! Everyone was their usual very friendly and attentive selves. And, out of eight wineries, we only got pitched to join 1 cellar club. Of course, I volunteered for one on my own.
Rambling: no major surprises this trip. Had hoped to get to a few new wineries this time, but somehow visiting old friends to see what's been happening is hard to pass up. It's very gratifying to see Beckmen start to make a name for itself. Tom and Steve Beckmen have done a terrific job at planning and executing their vision of Rhone varietals in this valley. And, Blackjack Ranch is for real! Roger Wisted is producing some very tasty and unique wines, and his offerings will be the talk of many future tastings. The Thompson Vnyd is continuing to crank out some fabulous fruit, and it's nice to see that Byron wines are still as dependable as ever. Apparently, corporate ownership hasn't adversely affected them. And, it's too early to tell what lies ahead for Zaca Mesa -- the change in winemaking talent won't be apparent for a year or so.