The varied and amazing wines and wineries of Santa Barbara County

It’s no secret, I’m in love with the Santa Barbara County Wine Region.  It is laid back with an incredible range of variety.  “Sideways” got it right.  This is the best up and coming wine area in our country.  Up and coming actually seems a little silly, the wineries and winemakers here have quite a history.  There are giants of winemaking here including: Richard Sanford, Jim Clenedenen, Bob Linquist, Richard Longoria & Bill Wathen. And the list of amazing winemakers continues to grow and the wines they are producing are varied and amazing.

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

Santa Barbara lies in a unique area that separated from the plates along the coast.  Over the past twelve million years this little section shifted and created a Transverse valley.  This means that the valley here runs east west as opposed to north south like all the other valleys on our coast.  The transverse valley and the microclimates within it lead to a place where you can grow an amazing variety of grapes in a relatively small area.  On the western edge the valley is cool and is perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  As you move east the valley warms by a degree a mile!  This makes the middle section perfect for Rhone varieties like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Roussanne and as you continue to the east side where Happy Canyon lies you have enough heat to support those Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.

So if you are a wine geek like me…this is a great place.  But if you are not a wine geek and want to avoid the intimidation of wine talk and just enjoy a glass…well this is the right place too.

So…make your first stop in the Funk Zone near the beach in Santa Barbara on the Urban Wine trail.  Stop into one of the many great tasting rooms there.  Maybe hit Municipal Winemakers first and soak up some of the funky atmosphere.  Sit down at the picnic table and enjoy a glass of rose.

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

Then if you are feeling like learning a little about where these wines come from head up the street to AVA Santa Barbara. Here you can taste wines from all the different regions in Santa Barbara County.  The entire wall over the tasting bar is a huge chalk mural by Elkpen that  shows the regions soils, microclimates and topography. The wines, by Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines are lovely and deliberately varied to feature the microclimates in this incredible area.

Au Bon Climate, Grassini, Margerum

If you head further North into downtown, you will find Grassini, Au Bon Climat & Margerum to choose between for a tasting.

Bistro Dining and Sunset Tasting at Deep Sea

Bistro Dining and Sunset Tasting at Deep Sea

Head back through the downtown shopping district and stop at  Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro for lunch.  Then take a stroll on the beach and finally enjoy a nice glass of wine at Conway Family Wines – Deep Sea Tasting room on the Santa Barbara Pier while you enjoy the sunset.

 

Saarloos & Sons & Cupcakes

Saarloos & Sons & Cupcakes

Oh, but my friend, you are just getting started in Santa Barbara County.  Tomorrow drive into Solvang, the adorable little Danish town and get some aebleskivers for breakfast at the Solvang Restaurant.  You can then stroll this town and taste at several tasting rooms that you can walk to, or drive a little further into Los Olivos where you will find over 35 tasting rooms to choose from!  And…I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a great place to dine at Side’s Hardware & Shoes.  Don’t miss Saarloos and Sons for a pairing with cupcakes from Enjoy Cupcakes.

Carhartt Patio Tasting Area

Carhartt Patio Tasting Area

They are there Thursday thru Sunday from 11-5 (or until they run out of cupcakes, so go early!) and one of my favorite tasting rooms, the tiniest one on the planet is across the street from Saarloos and Sons at Carhartt.  Carhartt stays open an hour later than the others and this often becomes quite the gathering spot on the beautiful but tiny back patio.

Are you overwhelmed yet?  There is more…I highly recommend Terrravant Winery Restaurant in Buellton for dinner and pairings.  They have an Enomatic wine dispensing system set up so you can try small tastes of many of the amazing local wines.  And the now World Famous Hitching Post II is also here in Buellton, made famous by the movie “Sideways”.

Avante Front Entrance

Avante Tapas & Wine Bar Front Entrance

Tomorrow morning you have more wine country to explore!  There are amazing wineries outside of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley like Buttonwood Farms & Beckman.  Or travel up to Santa Maria through Foxen Canyon and enjoy the morning Vandenberg Fog.  Stop at Zaca Mesa and try their Rhones.  This place has been around a while and popped out some pretty amazing winemakers!  Further up the road, you can’t miss stopping at “The Shack” at Foxen.

Zaca Mesa chess set

Zaca Mesa Patio with the oversized chess set

And…then there is the Sta. Rita Hills. If you love Pinot or good Chard you want to drive through here.  Make an appointment and stop by Clos Pepe.  Wes Hagen has more vineyard and wine knowledge than you can imagine and a tasting with him is amazing!  Just past Clos Pepe is Hilliard Bruce.  John and Christine have an incredibly beautiful landscaped property and their vineyard management is state of the art.

Clos Pepe and Hilliard Bruce

Clos Pepe and Hilliard Bruce

Keep driving down 246 to Lompoc and top into the Wine Ghetto.  Filled with small wineries working out of an industrial park you will find Flying Goat Cellars, Fiddlehead & Palmina as well as a host of others.  Check the hours though, because they are often just open on weekends for tastings.  Further into Lompoc you will find Brewer-Clifton, which again brought out my geeky side as we talked about stem inclusion and how they thin the vines to ripen the stems!

Lompac Wine Ghetto

Lompac Wine Ghetto

Have I covered it all?  Not even close.  There is so much exploring I look forward to going back to do.  But…if you are short on time…The Grand Tasting at the Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend will have all of these great wineries and winemakers in one place on April 12th.

Or at anytime for information visit Santa Barbara Vintners

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Gravity flow wineries. Isn’t this just common sense?

Halter Ranch Gravity Flow

Gravity flow wineries.  Lately it’s a high tech term, but really it seems like common sense doesn’t it?  In Bordeaux Chateau Lynch-Bages built a tank house that employed a railed gravity flow system in 1850. The lower level held the vats and the upper level was for de-stemming and crushing so that the juice would flow (via gravity) into the vats below.

Gravity flow these days is seemingly expensive with huge complexes built to support this method.  The Palmaz Winery in Napa is the ultimate example of this. This is  the ultimate in gravity flow winery design.  This winery is built in Mount George in Napa.  The wine cave is 18 stories tall with fermentation tanks that rotate on a carousel under the crush pad.

 

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch in Paso Robles just finished a beautiful new facility that is designed for gravity flow and ease of work flow for winery workers.   On top of that the place is stunning. ( more on Halter Ranch Soon)

Of course there are simpler methods.  Take Willakenzie Winery in Yamhill Oregon.  This winery is simply built to be 3 stories down the side of a hill.  The top floor is for sorting and de-stemming, the middle floor for fermentation and tank storage and the bottom floor for barrel storage.  The juice/wine flows from one floor down to the next via gravity.

But even small wineries can make this system work.  You just have to have your tanks higher than your barrels!  A simple hose from the tank to the barrel will work!  You save the expense of the pumping equipment as well as the maintenance and energy costs.  This method is a bit more time consuming though.  You can fill a barrel in 4 to 5 hours, but…if you don’t wish the gravity to push too hard on your wine, you might adjust your hose to allow the juice to flow more slowly taking 7 to 8 hours to fill a barrel.  So if you are a big mass producing winery you probably don’t want to take the time to do this.  But…if you are in the business of making good wine…

So what kind of damage can pumping do to wine?  From the top you want to gently press the grapes and have them release their juice.  Crushing is actually a pretty harsh word.  In crushing the concern is breaking the seeds and imparting the astringent tannins into your wine. (of course there are winemakers who utilize the tannins in both seeds and stems to great result! ie Brewer/Clifton)  Pumping can force through solids and then requiring additional filtration for your wine.  Pumping also imparts oxygen into the wine and this can affect the aging of the wine.  Pumping can be especially unwanted with the more nuanced varieties of wine like pinot noir as it can disturb the subtleties in the wine.

From an environmental standpoint it is reducing the energy use.  You don’t have to pay for gravity on the electric bill!  Building a gravity flow winery in the beginning will save you energy and equipment cost in the end.

So does it make the wine better?  Well, it treats it more gently and after we torture the grapes on the vine, that seems to be the preferred method of treating them post harvest.  It is energy efficient and seems to be kinda common sense (work smarter not harder!).  In the end there are so many variables.  When you use gravity flow you are again trying to have as little outside influence on the grape as possible.   After that it is in the winemaker’s hands.  And…well before that it is in the vineyard managers hands, as well as the weather.  So many variables.  All in all, a gravity flow system is an ideal, that can be put into practice with a little forethought in building.  It is environmentally better and should in the long run be cheaper.  As to it making the wine taste better?  Maybe it’s time for a comparison test!?  (Any excuse to taste more wine!)

The Lompoc Wine Ghetto

Breakfast at Sides

Day 3 in Santa Barbara wine country and breakfast at Sides Hardware and Shoes was in order.  I had a goat cheese and summer squash tart and a latte.  Michael had Challah toast with a blueberry compot.  Once our tummy’s were full, we headed on to the Lompac and the Wine Ghetto!

The drive to Lompac takes you out from Buellton along the 246 and you pass many of the well known Santa Rita vineyards on the way.  Melville, Sea Smoke, Fe Ciega…next time we will take the drive south and stop by Sanford where you have gorgeous views of the vineyards I am told.

 

Brewer-Clifton

I had been reading Steve Heimoff’s book New Classic Winemakers of California so tasting some of Greg Brewer’s wines were on my list.  Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton opened this winery in Lompoc to produce wines that were vineyard specific and to cleanly let the grapes of these vineyards express themselves in the wine.  They exclusively make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  We tasted 3 chardonnays and 3 Pinots in their beautiful modern tasting room at their winemaking facility which is outside of the “Wine Ghetto”.  The first wine we tasted was the 2010 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay which is a blend of Mount Carmel, 3-D, Gnesa, Sea Smoke and Zotovich vineyards they make 2500 cases.  This was followed by the 2010 Sea Smoke Chardonnay.  They are the only winery allowed Chardonnay grapes from this property (you will remember me mentioning earlier that only Foxen is allow access to their Pinot).  This single vineyard Chardonnay they only made 290 cases of.  Lastly we tasted the 2009 Gnesa Chardonnay.  This is a 4 acre vineyard that the Gnesa family planted in 1996.  This was my favorite…lime leaf, lemon curd, cardamom…

On to the Pinots.  The 2010 Santa Rita Hills is a blend of Mount Carmel, 3D, Machado, Ampelos, Zotovich and Sebastiano and they made 1850 cases of this.  The Single vineyards are 2010 Machado of which they produced 288 cases and the 2010 Mount Carmel of which they produced 864 cases. The Machado from a 15 acre parcel on their property and is made of 4 selections that were planted (Merry Edwards, Pommard, Mount Eden and 459).  The Mount Carmel is specifically from the Mount Carmel site and is spicy with dried orange peel, tart fruit like rhubarb and an earthiness.  All of these were beautiful.  One of the things I noticed while tasting was how subtle the tannins were.  I remembered that they believed in full cluster fermentation.  Stems are vital in their opinion to their wines.  Typically this adds tannins and a bit of vegetal quality to the wines and this was not their.  Our pourer explained how it is important to ripen the stem also. They thin leaves not only to ripen fruit, but to ripen the stems.  The result is beautiful.  This was a fascinating stop. I look forward to coming back and tasting at Melville and finding away to taste his diatom Chardonnays.  As to Mr. Clifton…well we are on to Palmina in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.

 

 

Lompoc Wine GhettoPalmina

Palmina Winery in the Lompac Wine Ghetto

 

First about the Wine Ghetto.  I understood that it was a group of wineries in an industrial area, all grouped together.  Cool…I pictured large warehouses where they had their tanks and barrels stored for aging.  The warehouses were much smaller than I had pictured.  Truth is crush facilities are typically elsewhere and bottling facilities, probably a truck that comes in when needed.  So the facilities are not that large with the front being the tasting room.  We only had time for one tasting since we needed to get to the airport for our flight home so we opted to try Palmina and taste some of Steve Cliftons wines.  These are a departure from what they are doing at Brewer-Clifton in that these are Italian varieties.  This tasting room was busier and the pourer seemed to be exclusively a pourer as opposed to the pourer at Brewer-Clifton who works at the winery and interrupted what he was doing to come down and help us in the tasting room.  As a result, we tasted but were unable to have the kind of great conversation and get great information as we did a Brewer-Clifton.  We did the traditional tasting and tasted the 2010 Tocai Friulano from the Honea Vineyard, the 2010 Malvasia Bianca from the Larner Vineyard, the 2010 Dolcetto which is a Santa Barbara County blend, the 2009 Alisos (a blend of Sangioves and Merlot) from the Alisos Vineyard and the 2007 Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County.

Our drive back to Santa Maria took us up the coast a bit and then inland to the airport where the air show continued to entertain us as we enjoyed a mexican lunch before the flight home.  This is a beautiful section of California Wine Country with some amazing vineyards and terroir!