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 (  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

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!

Aglianico (don’t try to say it on your own!)

On our last trip to Paso Robles, Michael and I stopped into the Kenneth Volk tasting room that is next to Lone Madrone and tasted his 2008 Aglianico.  Okay don’t try to pronounce this without assistance or you will butcher it like I did.  Let Bruno de Conciliis teach you how to correctly pronounce it.  (ah-L’YEE’AH-nee-koh)

I was doing research on Aglianico to figure out how long I should cellar this and found lots all kinds of interesting information on this variety.

In many places you will hear that this grape came from Greece in the 6th century and was used to make Falernum (it’s latin name) or Falerian wine.  Falerian wine was a favorite of the Romans and was said to be made with Aglianico and sometimes Grecco grapes.  These grapes were grown on the slopes of Mt. Falernus and is mentioned in Roman literature.  This wine was a white wine that was at 15% alcohol.  The grapes were a late harvest grape harvested after a freeze (like eiswein?).  The wine was aged in an amphorae for 15 to 20 years so the wine became amber to dark brown before drinking.  The area these vines were grown in is now the vineyards of Rocca de Mondragone and Monte Massico.  The name was thought to be a version of the word Hellenic or Ellenico the Italian word for Greek.

Okay now that I’ve given you all that rich history…DNA research shows that Aglianico is not related to the Greek varieties that were used to make Falernum.  Still…great story huh?

This grape was almost completely wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century.  It is a late ripening variety that has strong tannins a deep black color and a firm structure.  It is said that these wines can be harsh in their youth and 5-10 years in the bottle allows the fruit profile to emerge and the tannis to soften.  These wines exhibit a smooth, rich texture with aromas of coffee, leather, smoke, dark chocolate, black fruits and mineral and tend to be complex.

Jancis Robinson has a beautiful speaks of this wine which she describes as “exuding class”.

The variety is grown in Campania where it is made into Taurasi.  Taurasi is mostly Aglianico, but may have up to 15% of other grapes, such as Piedirosso which is a fresher and more aromatic local grape or the Primitivo of Puglia. The addition of these grapes makes this wine mature earlier and leans toward fruity.  It buds early and harvests late.  In high altitudes in Taurasi it has been harvested into late November.

In Basilicata they turn this grape into Aglianico del Vulture (Vul-tur-e not like the bird!)  This wine is 100% Aglianco.  Both Campania and Basilicata are located in Southern Italy.

This variety is slowly being grown outside of Italy, thus my Kenneth Volk ’08 Aglianico!  Seghesio is also growing it in the Alexander Valley and it is now being grown in Australia in the inland wine regions.  It has been discussed that this grape could be a great alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon in California as it is more suited to the warmer climate.  By the looks of the multiple vineyards that popped up on my search for “California Aglianico”, it is finding a foothold.

So after all my research I was still wondering…should I cellar this for another 5 years?  So…I e-mailed Kenneth Volk and received a wonderful personal response.  His Paso Aglianico is grown in Pomar Junction and as it often does not have the opportunity to be as late ripening as traditional Italian Aglianico it tends to not cellar by typical Italian standards.  He suggested that the ’08 was drinking well now and will probably drink well for a few more years.  Since it was drinking well now I asked for his suggestions on pairings.  He did tell me that this was a food wine and suggested something protein rich like lamb, waterfowl or a rustic pasta.

Well…now my day was complete.  I had two correspondences from Kenneth Volk (who I have a bit of a wine crush on) and determined what I was having with Thanksgiving dinner.  Michael and I started a new tradition last year in that, since it is just the two of us, rather than cooking a whole turkey, we indulge in a duck.  So….that will be my waterfowl.

And I have to say a huge thank you to Mr. Volk for personally answering my questions so thoroughly about his wine.  Not only is he a genius, he’s a nice genius!  Now to figure out what to pair with the duck!

Wines you can’t forget, part three

Vineyard view Lange Estate 2011

On to Part three of the wines I can’t forget.  We will venture into Paso Robles, Virginia and Oregon!

Lone Madrone The Will.

The enchanting grounds at Lone Madrone Paso Robles

Okay it’s no secret that I have a wine crush on Neil Collins and I had done research on their winery before going there so I was extra excited when his sister was pouring for us.  The grounds transport you before you ever enter the tasting room.  The story behind The Will probably got to me also.  The Will is a blend of Petite Sirah, Grenache Noir and Zinfandel source fromt he organic dry farmed Heaton Vineyards.  It is known to stain teeth!  The grapes are grown on Will’s Hill named after the Heaton’s son Will.  The wine is named in memory of Will.

The Porch at Veritas in Virginia

Veritas Cabernet Franc.

Here’s my Shout out to Virginia wineries!  I did a wine tasting day with my two best friends from College in Virginia this year and fell in love with Virginia Cabernet Franc.  My best friend found a new favorite wine in Cab Franc.  It is rich without being big and fruity, and it is easier drinking than Cabernet Sauvignon. This was the last stop of our day at Veritas and after our tasting we enjoyed a bottle out on the patio.  Of course the setting and the company made the wine taste better and makes me want to drink it to revisit that day, but also, Cabernet Franc is one of my favorite reds!

Wildhorse Unbridled Bien Nacido Pinot Noir.

The view from Wild Horse Winery

I happen to be a big fan of Kenneth Volk.  I love the way he pushes boundaries.  So going to Wildhorse was a little like a pilgrimage.  It was late in the day in the middle of the week and we were the only ones in the tasting room.  We had a fantastic tasting with a fabulously well informed (if not enthusiastic) pourer. I enjoyed everything, but when he poured the Unbridled Bien Nacido Pinot Noir I was enthralled.  This is barnyard in the best sense.  All hail to Bien Nacido for providing such incredible fruit!  We left with a bottle and I will track this wine down!  This is a wine that I will drink with my eyes closed.


Trisaetum Reisling.

Trisaetum Riesling with Tapas

Trisaetum was one of the last vineyards we visited in the Dundee Hills and it is WAY out on a backroad. We were there early and were the first tasters of the day.  This was a departure from our Oregon tastings because they specialize in Reisling.  The variety of Reisling that they create from several different vineyards is amazing.  Their Coast Range Reisling stands in my memory as my favorite.

When we visited the winery we did get great service from an eager and knowledgeable pourer and once others wandered in for tastings we were able to stroll the beautiful art gallery in the tasting room.  So ambience and people played a part in our initial love of the wine.

It’s fall and time for me to order some of this!  We were lucky this summer to find that Khoury’s had a few bottles of their Estate Reserve Reisling so we snatched those up.  And yes, compared to other Reislings that we had been drinking this was still far superior.

So…that’s the tip of my iceberg for wines that I can’t forget.  Of course as I have been writing more and more wines have come to mind and I know that there are many more out there that I have yet to taste.  And…did I answer the question as to why?  Probably not.  As usual wine is hard to pin down, the experience  and the taste are connected in ways that we cannot fully understand or describe but that we can most certainly enjoy.

Wildhorse the finding and the tasting

So we left Cass and turned on the GPS only to find we had no signal. After floundering trying to find the back way to Wild Horse, we gave up and headed back to 46 West to 101 South and exited on 224 to Vineyard Dr.  That takes you to Templeton Drive and out to Wildhorse.

Wildhorse Sign

We managed to arrive around 4:30 when they close at 5:00.  We walked into an empty tasting room.  This is my preference as you get to talk more with the winery staff, but I was feeling guilty knowing we were probably slowing down the end of his day.

He was gracious and we tasted 5 of their wines.  They have 3 menus, one for the widely distributed wines, one for the winery reserves and an additional list with Pinots.  We tasted the 20010 Viognier it was clean and tart and a little too stainless steel for me, but nice. With honeysuckle on the nose it was tart and mouth watering.  This is a drier style of Viognier than I am accustomed to.

Next we tasted the Blaufrankisch, this Austrian/German/Hungarian varietal grows great here!  They say there are 700 tons grown in the US a little in Washington, some in Ohio and some in the finger lakes in NY.  500 of the tons are grown here on the estate.  Great round mouthfeel and great flavor without being heavy. 14.28 Alc.  560 cases $24.  This was full Flavored with a light body.  Great pairing wine for anything! Turkey or Thanksgiving stuff is perfect!  Easy drinking with cranberry hitting the sides of my tongue.

Next we tried the 2009 Unbridled Zinfandel.  This was delicious and much lower in alcohol than most Zin’s at 14.5.  Less alcohol makes it cooler and cleaner.  You get pepper and red currants on the palate.    This is very red currant wine.  So you get great Zin flavor without the heat and headiness of your typical fruit bomb zin.

We then tried the Unbridled 2009 Syrah which was really lovely.  Again lower in alcohol at 13.5% it had lots of spice and darker berries than the Zin. The fruit is grown at Halter Ranch.  It had a  medium finish with lavender and dark earth.  Slight tannins on the teeth.  this runs $36 per bottle.

Lastly we went to try the Pinot 3rd down on the list that Jacob recommended.  Only one of the 1st Pinots was sold out, so we didn’t know if it was really the 3rd down or the 4th.  Jacob mentioned earthiness, so our pourer figured it was 4, but poured us side by sides of both.  The first Pinot was from Arroyo Grande (fruit from Laetitia) the 2nd from Bien Nacido in Santa Maria.  The noses were incredibly different!  The Arroyo was fruity and light and lovely, but the Bien Nacido was earthy with a bit of barnyard that was really fulfilling.  Done in a burgundian style this had a long finish and while it is terrific now, it will age well for about 5 years.  It was the priciest thing on the menu, but we could not leave without a bottle.  (Thanks Jacob).  We were given a discount since Cass sent us so we paid $42.90 for the $50 bottle of heaven!

When I asked for suggestions on vineyards, he mentioned Kenneth Volk.  Of course I said, your founder… that led to Lone Madrone and Tablas Creek which are of course already on our schedule.  Three other suggestions were Red Soles, Fratellie Perato and Linne Calado.  Castoro was on our list and a guy we were talking to at Cass recommended retasting at Peachy Canyon.  they have a new wine maker and the wines are night and day from what they were.  The sun was setting as we left and with the mist over the hills and the stark trees almost leafless, it was lovely.

more to come