Visits in This Issue:
(Journal and tasting notes from a recent tour of the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez wine areas. Tasting notes: each wine was scored using the requisite sight, smell, and taste impressions. Scores reflect two of the tasters opinions (EA, first column, MP second), and uses an alpha-oriented rating system. "n/n" indicates no notes , and "n/t" indicates not tasted. Although more extensive note-taking took place, specific descriptions are not included here.
Saturday, June 22, 1996
The time was at hand to initiate another band of wine-tasting/touring
novices to the fabulous rigors of semi-professional wine tasting. In addition
to our usual threesome, we were accompanied this time by D1 and Mel (no
real names, please). Departed Irvine in MP's Vino Van, and barreled up
the 405 & 101, managing to dodge all the weird drivers on the road,
briefly pulling off in Montecito to pick up some sandwiches from the Pierre
Tasted at Santa Barbara Winery:
Arrived at Sunstone Vineyards & Winery to a nearly empty tasting room. Located on Refugio Road in Santa Ynez, this small family winery is just starting to make a name for itself with very nice Estate wines, especially Merlot and Chardonnay. Tasting is $2.50 and you keep the logo glass. On return visits, if you bring your glass, the tasting is free. Rather than just winery employees, it turned out our hosts were the Rice family son and daughter. As she poured our tastes, their daughter pointed out that although they were a family winery, the Rice's wisely elected to use something other than the family name. Afterall, she said, "Rice Winery" just wouldn't work. Their son, Bion Rice, who designed the winery logo, admired our tasting cards and suggested we get in touch with someone from the Wine Enthusiast catalog to try to market them. He seemed to feel we were missing a great opportunity (deja vu; see journal notes from Napa/Sonoma Part Deux). During the tasting, he even gave us an impromptu tour of the whole small facility. Dad and Mom Rice are contractor and designer respectively, and before the beautiful makeover, the tasting room used to be a birthing barn in its previous horse ranch days. Now, all the winemaking and stainless steel tank storage take place in the back room, along with a very nice barrel aging cave which is built into the hillside. We picnicked on Sunstone's pristine and quiet grounds. If it weren't for the grapes from distant vineyards calling to us, we'd have just stayed there all day; maybe all weekend. Fabulous visit, great place, and very nice wines. Purchased some of their red meritage, Equinox.
Tasted at Sunstone:
Driving through Solvang, we headed for Sanford. The small group of rustic buildings and out-back tasting room well off the main road give this stop a rural old-west feeling. They still haven't bothered to put real glass into the window frames, apparently preferring plastic drop cloth stretched across the openings to cut the wind. Usually on weekends, they set up a second tasting area, just a table at the other side of the small room, and two pourers try to keep the crowds moving in and out. But, we're still finding very light crowds thus far, and the departing few visitors left us momentarily alone in the tasting room. Today, they were pouring 4 wines N/C, but none of their top-of-the-line "Barrel Select" varietals. Bought some of the Sauvignon Blanc.
Tasted at Sanford:
Arrived at Foxen after 27 miles of Mr. Toad's wild ride. A roadside barn on Foxen Cyn Road serves as the rustic tasting room for this winery, which is only open on weekends. As we approached, we could see lots of cars, and some sort of BBQ going on across the street at the big house. Inside was a very busy room that was to get busier and busier as time passed. There had to be 25-30 people (and one large dog) in the small tasting room, and the lady pouring was both polite and friendly, but it was apparent she was taking no prisoners. She had no help behind the bar, and was washing glasses almost as fast as she was filling them again. The young lady tried to keep everyone tasting the same wine at the same time ("on the same program," as she put it), but had little success. No wonder, with new tasters arriving at less-than-5-minute intervals, and few people departing. So much for our luck with the lack of crowds. Actually, this place is always crowded. Maybe their opening time of Noon is a little less frantic, but I wouldn't bet on it. Primarily known for making some of the best reds in the area, Dick Dore and Bill Walthen have made this winery a Mecca for those in the know. Several requests to purchase their Merlot were answered with regrets from the pourer. They were sold out. (Red varietals, it should be noted, generally don't do well in the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez area, since they pick up a vegetal or "green" quality to both the smell and taste. The vineyards in the North Santa Ynez Valley and on into Santa Maria Valley seem much less inclined to pick up these vegetal attributes.) Foxen also goes for the unique in its T-shirts. Their last one had the back emblazoned with Robert Parker's verbose adjectives describing Foxen wines. And, their newest shirt, "If you don't know Foxen, you don't know Dick (or Bill)," clearly set a new standard, even for them. Interesting collection of customers, too. One fellow seemed quite content to stand in the background quietly sipping his bottle of Heineken while others tasted. Quite a place. I think the visit impressesd me (it always does) more than the rest of our group. Also, while we were tasting, what has become a recurring subject of discussion on our tours was loudly brought up once again, as a large pack of Harleys motored by. Man, that has just got to be the way to go wine tasting. Poured 4 tastes N/C, including their first Syrah. Very nice!
Tasted at Foxen:
Making a decision on the fly to forego a planned tour at Fess Parker (we'd already gotten a brief glimpse of Sunstone's facility), we decided to add Zaca Mesa to the itinerary. Heading back down Foxen Cyn, we arrived at Zaca Mesa to its ever-busy tasting room. They too, had some sort of BBQ going on out in front. Welcome to the land of the elbows, 'cause that's what you have to use to move up to the tasting table in this place. Weekend tasting at Zaca can be an exercise in frustration. For some reason (maybe because the tasting is done at a table instead of a bar), the customers here just don't seem willing or able to get their respective 1 oz of wine and withdraw from the table. Instead, they just camp out, clogging up the natural order of things. You'd think Zaca was pouring free wine. Well, duh! Tasted 7 wines N/C, although there is some question as to whether we tasted the same Chardonnay twice. So, we did our best to keep track of likes and dislikes and pushed forward. Browsed a bit through the spacious room and headed to next stop.
Tasted at Zaca Mesa:
Arrived at Fess Parker to yet another busy place, who was also doing its own BBQ. Beautiful grounds of lawn and vineyards surround this winery's spacious tasting room, and, dare I say, gift shop. The place is usually quite busy on weekends, and when Fess Parker himself comes downstairs from his office for autographs and pictures, I'm sure everyone feels like they're visiting a piece of Americana. What a marketing dream, even down to the mini coonskin caps adorning the display bottles of "American Tradition" wines. I figure they've got a Dan'l Boone Chicken Restaurant hidden somewhere around here. As to the wines, they offer two choices of tasting: the 5-wine Blue List for $3 including logo glass, or the 7-wine Red List for $5 including logo glass. And, would you believe it, the glasses even have the coonskin cap logo on 'em! Commercial appearance and celebrity status aside, this winery occasionally turns out some very nice wines.
EA thought all the wines were good to very good; MP was less enthusiastic. Due to the crowd, plus the fact Fess was sitting within eyesight, our pourer was working fairly quickly to keep his tasters satisfied. At one point, a large group of tasters had been straggling up to the tasting bar one-by-one making it difficult for the pourer to keep track of who in their party was tasting what wine. Finally, fatigue was setting in. Thinking he was finished his pouring chores with them, a straggler approached and was met with, "...Oh, I forgot there was a whole nest of you." Interesting choice of words. Nest, huh? As in nest of vipers? Or, nest of hornets? Doubtless, a slip of the tongue. We browsed around a bit and left about 4:00.
Tasted at Fess Parker:
Arrived final stop of the day at Los Olivos Vintners/Austin Cellars. Located in a small storefront on Grand Ave in quaint Los Olivos, this particular tasting room is somewhat different from other "tasting rooms" in the area. While the latter tasting rooms offer tasting of wines from wineries who do not have their own tasting rooms, LOV/Austin Cellars makes its own wine in Los Alamos from purchased grapes, and sells the wine under three different labels (priced accordingly). We walked around the small town square a bit, then headed for the tasting room. Moderately busy and quite warm inside, tasting was $2 for up to 10 tastes from a list of 13 wines. MP purchased a Pinot, and asked our pourer if he might have the small bag of corks accumulating by their cork remover. For some reason, the staffer didn't want to part with the entire bag, and offered MP about half the bag. Overhearing the conversation, a foursome visiting from Australia asked MP why he wanted the corks. MP replied that he was collecting them, because one could make wreaths or trivets out of them. Trivets? After MP explained just what a trivet was, one of the Australians responded that back in Australia they hang the corks from their hat brims to keep away the flies. Sounds like a Croc [Dundee] to me. Finally, the room heat and our pending dinner reservation sent us out in search of a meal.
Tasted at LOV/Austin Cellars:
With a couple of exceptions, visits averaged 30-40 minutes, with anywhere from 4 to 9 tastes. Totals for trip: 415 miles, 7 wineries, 40 tastes each for EA/MP out of 44 different wines poured. Impressions: Sunstone was undoubtedly the best stop of the day. Sanford gets second nod, with Foxen, Santa Barbara, and Fess Parker tied for third. Santa Barbara also gets special mention for the extra pour of the '93 Zin. Zaca Mesa and Austin Cellars were disappointing, both for difficult tasting conditions, and Austin for wines that only rate as fair. Overall, another fine day visiting wineries. As they say, the worst day spent tasting wines is still better than the best day at work.