Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County’s 1st AVA

Early morning fog in Foxen Canyon

Santa Maria Valley is the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County.  The average temperature here is 64 degrees.  The area is bounded on the north by the San Rafael Mountains and on the south by the Solomon Hills.  They get early bud break here and then a long ripening season with an average of 125 days from bloom to harvest.  The maritime fog keeps things cool here from sunset until about 10 am.  This AVA boasts Nielson Vineyard, the oldest commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County that was planted in 1964.

The View from Zaca Mesa when the morning fog clears

The View from Zaca Mesa when the morning fog clears

The Santa Maria AVA was the 3rd established AVA in the United States. We think of this Santa Barbara region as being so new.  But truly AVA’s are new.  The Santa Maria Valley AVA was established in September of 1981.  To give a little perspective here, the first US AVA was established in June of 1980.  (And crazily enough that 1st AVA was in Augusta, Missouri!)  If you are like me, you won’t be able to read any further until you know where the 2nd US AVA hailed from…so….I did the research and it is the Napa Valley AVA which was established in February of 1981, just a scant 7 months  (or actually 6 and a quarter months) before the Santa Maria Valley AVA.  Are you still curious…you can find this info at The Wine Institute (http://www.iwineinstitute.com/avabydate.asp).  Feel free to search for AVA establishment dates to your hearts content.

There has been a massive replanting of the Santa Maria vineyards in recent years to varieties that are more suited to the climate and soil.  You will find lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here due to the climate, but you will find many vineyards expanding into cool climate Syrah as well as other Rhone varieties.

The Santa Maria AVA encompasses some incredible vineyards like Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, Julia’s Vineyard and Foxen Estate Vineyard.  As to Wineries… here you will find Cambria, Kenneth Volk, Riverbench and Tres Hermanas.  Fine wineries such at Alta Maria, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Byron, Qupe, Solomon Hills and others feature wines from Santa Maria.

To enjoy this area take a look at the Santa Maria Valley & Los Alamos Wine Trail that is listed on the Santa Barbara Vintners site  http://www.sbcountywines.com/tasting-routes.html#smv

Windmill on Saarloos & Son's Windmill Ranch Vineyard

Windmill on Saarloos & Son’s Windmill Ranch Vineyard

To fully experience this area I suggest that you start at the Saarloos and Sons Windmill Ranch Vineyard.  (Update…okay I made an assumption, because of the windmill, but clearly if you read the sign on the windmill, you will see that this is actually the El Camino Real Vineyard)  You can’t miss the landmark windmill if you are driving on the 101.  This is just their vineyard, you will have to head back into Los Olivos to do a tasting with them.  From here take Zaca Station Road out into the vineyards.  First on your drive you will pass Firestone (yes from the tire company).  They have a vineyard, winery and a brewing company.

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard

Further ahead is Fess Parker (yes, Daniel Boone from the TV series)  Their winery is out here, but they also have a tasting room and Inn in downtown Los Olivos.  A little further on is Zaca Mesa.

The Patio at Zaca Mesa

The Patio at Zaca Mesa

This place really got things going out here.  Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Linquist of Qupe both started out working here.  The property is lovely especially if you get there early and can watch the marine layer roll through from Vandenberg AFB, and then stay long enough to enjoy the views that it was hiding once it burns off.  The wines….I love their Rhones.  And on weekends they often have lunch available on the patio.  This place is really welcoming and….they have great trees.

 

Foxen  7600 - the Pinot House

Foxen 7600 – the Pinot House

A little further on you will come to Foxen.  Now you can go into the Pinot House at 7600.  It’s shiny and pretty and nice.  But I prefer stopping a little past there at “The Shack” .  This is their original tasting room and it is rustic and fabulous.  You look out the door onto the hills as you are tasting and often the girls in the tasting room will point out the resident mountain lion who hunts on the ridge.  The Shack pours their Bordeaux & Cal-Ital-style wines.  at 7600 you will find Pinots, Chardonnays and Rhone Blends.

Riverbench's tasting room a 1920's Craftsman style house

Riverbench’s tasting room a 1920’s Craftsman style house

Continue north and you will come to the cluster of River Bench, Cambria and Kenneth Volk.  I will give a shout out here to Kenneth Volk.  I have not been to this tasting room, but did taste at the tasting room with Lone Madrone in Paso Robles.

Kenneth Volk's old Paso tasting room

Kenneth Volk’s old Paso tasting room

He is another wine legend.  He was the winemaker at Wild Horse and now has his own winery where he gets to play.  He does Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Santa Maria and Bordeaux varieties from Paso Robles and then… he does Heirloom Wines.  This are rare varieties like Malvasia, Trousseau, Negrette, Touriga Nacional, Blaufrankish, Verdelho and Albarino.  This is a great place to go and explore varieties you may not have tried before.

Closer to Santa Maria you will find Cottonwood and Presqu’ile.  I have tasted at the old Presqu’ile tasting room in Los Olivos and look forward to an opportunity to see their beautiful winery!

Presqu'ile old Los Olivos tasting room

Presqu’ile old Los Olivos tasting room

And I know that I have skipped a few in here.  What can I say, I have more exploring to do myself.  This is a beautiful drive.  Start early and revel in the fog!

If you are heading up for the Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend April 10-13 you can stop by Zaca Mesa on Saturday the 12th for a Hike with your Dog & Picnic with their winemaker!  In addition Chef John will be offering BBQ Steak Sandwiches all day, so if you are hunger before or after the Grand Tasting…. Also on Saturday night Foxen will hold their Spring Dinner at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Cottonwood Canyon will have a Cook Your Own event.  They have the venue the music and the wine, you just bring something to grill and a side to share!

Early morning fog in Foxen Canyon

Early morning fog in Foxen Canyon

On Sunday Au Bon Climat & Qupe will have their Semi-Annual Spring Open House with a myriad of wines from  Au Bon Climat, Clendenen Family Wines, Qupe, Verdad, Ici La-Bas….and more and a luncheon prepared by Jim Clendenen.  Now how can you pass that up!  Of course you will need to squeeze this in around the Farm-to-Table Picnic and Concert with Jamestown Revival at the Fess Parker Winery.  So much to do….so little time.

Head to Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend for all the details!

Wiens, Barrel Tasting Room

Wien's Front Entrance

We have long been members of Wiens Wine Club.

Wien's Barrel Room from main room

Wien’s Barrel Room from main room

On our first trip to Temecula it was the last stop of our second day and we loved their wines.   Not trusting ourselves, we went back the next day in the morning to be sure that our consumption of wine the day before had not swayed our thoughts and were reassured that these were wonderful wines.  So…we stop by whenever we are in Temecula but of course we are always there through the week and never had the opportunity to taste in the Barrel Room whichis open exclusively for members on the weekend.  So….since we had a weekend…..

Wien's Barrel Room

Wien’s Barrel Room

The barrel room is stunning, it is warm and intimate and Susan who poured with us felt free to give us lots of information.  We began our tasting with their new sparkling wine done in the traditional medod. The Chanson de Soliel (Song of the Sun) is a beautiful Blanc de Blanc that is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir and it is done in a Brut style.  I got citrus and lime and a little yeast.  This is leaps and bounds above their Amour de L’Orange in style and sophistication.

Next we tasted the 2011 Solace which is a white blend with Roussane.  It had a dusty nose and nice acid. They mention camomile and lemon grass in their description and I definitely got that.

Now on to my favorite…the 2011 Verdelho.  Another one of those wines that you hear multiple pronunciations of it’s name.  I had been pronouncing it ver-DEY-ho but Susan said ver-DEL-oh, so I guess this ranks right up there with my learning curve for pronouncing Paso Robles (it’s ro-buhls), I was getting too fancy for myself.  Maybe that was just the tricky little joke that this wine started me out with to prime me.  This wine has all the tartness of a Savignon Blanc on the nose and lots of grapefruit ont he palate and it is completely “playful” as Susan put it and unexpected.  This wine also has pear on the nose and it is not overpoweringly tart or sweet.  When you take a sip it rolls up the center of your tongue and dissipates in the back of the palate.  It was enchanting and made me giggle!  I am infatuated with this wine.

We moved on to the 2011 Pinot Noir which is loamy on the nose like soil, green and earthy with good pepper and silky tannins.  It was cool in the mouth with cranberry and tart red fruit.  Yumm…

The 2011 Tempranillo-Petite Sirah Blend was plummy with strawberries and earth.  It was very smooth but had a thick mouth feel.  This is a lovely sipping wine that is warm in the mouth without being hot.  Complex with what felt like low tannins.

Now on to the Crowded (always one of my favorites) and the Reflection.  The 2010 Crowded is a blend of 38% Zinfandel, 26% Barbera, 18% Pinot Noir, 9% syrah, 6% Sangiovese, 3% Petite Sirah.  This leans Italian and is cool and smooth.  The Reflection Michael tasted more tannins.  I really enjoyed the Reflection (and look forward to drinking the 2 bottles that just arrived with the last wine club shipment).

Even though we were already feeling very VIP (there was a cheese tray on the side for everyone and Susan was taking very good care of us) Susan then went to pull a Cabernet Franc for us to taste.  This was cool with fresh black fruit and very soft tannins.  Like a well behaved Cab Franc this wild beast likes to nestle in velvet.

When we had entered the barrel room there were just a few people, by the time we left it was full, but still quiet and thoughtful.  Filled with people who really wanted to taste the wines and learn about them.  The public tasting room outside was packed when we left filled with people, who, if they like good wines, will soon be joining us as members.