Tag Archives: Napa Valley

SANTA RITA HILLS AVA – BURGUNDY ON THE CENTRAL COAST

I recently spent a couple of days in the Santa Rita Hills (LINK to Prior Posts), located north of the city of Santa Barbara and west of the cities of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County. The unique geography and geology of the Santa Rita Hills AVA (the mountains and valleys run west to east allowing cooling Pacific winds and moisture to come further inland), make this an excellent location for Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is also a decent amount of Syrah grown here, along with a few other varietals in smaller lots.

Over two days, we visited five wineries and stopped at a sixth just to buy some wine. I am going to feature four, Ampelos, Foley, Hilliard-Bruce, and Pence Ranch.

Pence Ranch Vineyard & Winery (LINK): I visited here last year, when they were relatively new as a tasting room operation (LINK). At that time, I was told that their plan was to open the tasting room for regular hours in the future. When we stopped without an appointment, I was told that they were back to the appointment system, but there was availability. Jake, took us via a large golf cart to a part of the property where an outdoor tasting room area had been created. We had a very nice experience tasting the Pence wines, and then got a tour of the vineyard portion of the property. The Pence Ranch is relatively narrow and runs nearly two miles deep off Route 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. The front of the property is where the vineyards and wine tasting rooms are, the back is an equestrian center and a working cattle ranch. The winery is in Lompoc.

At Pence, you taste the Pinot Noirs before the Chardonnays, the former being elegant in style, the latter being more pronounced, if not the traditional butter-bomb California Chardonnay. Their wines are uniformly well-crafted and made to enjoy with food. This year, we also tasted a Gamay wine, which is young and crisp but very complex. I plan to take a bottle back to France to share with my friends used to drinking Beaujolais. So, make an appointment to visit, or order their wines from their website – you are not likely to find Pence Ranch Wines at your retailer.

Foley Estates Vineyard (LINK): Foley has been making great wine in the Santa Rita Hills for decades. Their tasting room is nicely appointed, next to the huge “barrel room” where special events can be held. Like all the SRH wineries with some history, Foley makes very good Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. They also make a very good Syrah. Their blended Chardonnays, Pinots, and the single vineyard versions of these varietals each have their own characteristics. We particularly liked the 2015 “T-Ranch” Chardonnay and the 2015 “T-Ranch Pinot Noir (there are also 2013 and 2014 Pinots available currently), but all were good. Foley is worth a visit when you are in Santa Barbara County. You can also order wines from their website.

Hilliard Bruce Vineyards (LINK): A smaller, boutique producer, Hilliard Bruce Vineyards occupies 101 acres (21 under cultivation) to the west of storied Clos Pepe Vineyard along Route 246. This was my first visit to Hilliard Bruce and you have to be impressed with the beautiful grounds, architecturally striking winery/tasting room building, and the vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The wines do not disappoint. Four 2014 Pinots from their Earth, Sun, Moon, and Sky vineyards, each have nuances that separate them from the others, yet all are clearly in the same family. Spicy, peppery, soft and velvety Pinots will go well with food.

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The Chardonnay is also made to go with food, as the bottle we bought to have with our picnic lunch showed. Well-structured, with a hint of buttery mouthfeel, the 2014 Chardonnay is classic Santa Rita Hills in style and should drink well for several years. We did meet John Hilliard during our visit – he was most cordial and, like almost everyone in the wine industry, liked to talk about his wines and his property. Hilliard Bruce is open by appointment; their wines are available via their website.

Ampelos Cellars (LINK): Full disclosure – my wife has known Peter and Rebecca Work for a few decades, having worked with them years ago when they were all with Price-Waterhouse. But Dorianne was not with me on this visit, and Peter and Rebecca, sadly, were not at the tasting room in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto when some friends and I visited recently. I have enjoyed their wines for years.

Ampelos uses biodynamic and organic farming practices (LINK) and produces a range of wines, some of which are atypical for the Santa Rita Hills AVA. These include their Viognier and Grenache (bottled as a single varietal and blended with Syrah for their Syrache red blend). Viognier and Rose of Syrah constitute the lighter end of their offerings; two Pinot Noirs in the mid-range; and Grenache, Syrah, and Syrache at the heavier end. Of course, none of these wines are really big wines like you would find in Napa Valley or Paso Robles these days. Ampelos focuses on balance and elegance, putting them well within the Santa Rita Hills style in this regard. The vineyard is down the 246 a way; the winery is also in Lompoc. Wines are available for order at the website, and you will find them at better wine shops here and there.

I also stopped at Ken Brown Wines in Buellton to buy some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on our way out of the area. Brown is one of the pioneers of the AVA and produces some amazing wines in the Burgundian style. I frequently tell my friends in France about the Santa Rita Hills with their east-west mountains and valleys and their Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Now I will have a few to take back and share with them.

Copyright 2018 – Jim Lockard

DEMYSTIFYING YOUR WINE ENJOYMENT

The wine world is filled with possibilities. There are dozens of nations, hundreds of regions, thousands of appellations, tens of thousands of vignerons and wine makers, and probably hundreds of thousands of wine outlets if you count restaurants. You can add to that all of the wine knowledge, science, literature, publications, websites, bloggers, and well, it’s a lot. Can you imagine walking into a restaurant, asking for a wine from a specific label which you happen to like, and them actually having it?

How is one to make choices about what to drink and when?

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Dorianne at Gallerie Lafayette’s Chateau d’Yquem Display – Paris

And there are price points to consider, wine rating points (should I order a 91 or an 88?), sometimes snooty sommeliers and wine shop employees, various vintages of differing quality, and labels, labels, labels. And those labels are on bottles with corks, bottles with screwcaps, boxes, cans, casks, and more. And by the way, how should you store that wine?

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Too many options can be frustrating.

Oh, and what wines to serve with which foods? Which wines to sip alone? What kind of wine opener should I use? What other wine accessories should I buy? What temperature at which to serve the wine? In what kind of glass (or slipper)? Bubbly, sweet, dry, demi-sec? Port or late harvest? And ice wine!

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Many “experts” are just guessing.

All of this can be seen as a huge obstacle to wine enjoyment, or it can be seen as a vast array of opportunities to enjoy wine. Like much of life, it all depends on your attitude.

Entry into the world of wine is really quite easy. Wine is practically ubiquitous – it’s pretty much everywhere. I was just in eastern Ukraine and had local wine, some of which was delicious (LINK).

One way to view the many options in the wine world and all of the different types of knowledge and skill that goes into the whole process of bringing wine to your table, is to see an opportunity for almost endless exploration. You can have a different wine every day and never repeat yourself (assuming varied wine retail options in your area and online).

Another way to approach the wine world is to find a few wines that you like and stop there. I have a friend who rarely drinks anything beyond Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay; another who will only drink oaky chardonnays. Some may only drink Port wines; others Napa Cabernets.

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You can study broadly or do a deep dive into a narrow range of wine knowledge and experience. Most will be somewhere in between the extremes, but there is a niche for everyone. The key is not to pay too much attention to what the “experts” or the marketing forces tell you as they try to steer you toward their own preferences. Find your own way – if it isn’t interesting or fun for you, you’re not doing it right.

Me, I have some favorite wines, some favorite producers, some favorite growing areas, and some favorite countries. I also like to experiment with wines I have not tried yet, but I tend to favor a known quantity with a good meal. For example, we were in Kraków, Poland recently (LINK), dining at Padre, a local Polish restaurant. I was having lamb and noted that there was a very nice French Malbec from Cahors on the list. Knowing how a rich, inky Cahors Malbec would go with lamb made my decision easy – so I passed on some Polish wines. I picked a favorite over the chance to explore – that time. At other times, I will make a different decision. But that is me. You may well do something different.

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Visiting Wineries can be both Fun and Educational.

My point is that the bulk of the effort in learning about wine should go into learning what YOU like about it. Then go from there. You may become an expert in Cabernet Sauvignons from the east side of Paso Robles; or you may be the go-to person for advice on Hungarian reds. Or, you may be that person who always drinks Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.

So, if you are new to wine, consider building yourself a starter case (LINK) to see what you like. Let your local wine retailer know your preferences, including if you like to try new things or stick close to what you already know. If you travel, check out the local wine scene, either in town – wine bars, urban wineries and restaurants; or head out into the local wine country to taste and explore. In an airport? Stop at Vino Volo and try a wine that you’ve never had before. Sign up for an online service like WTSO.com (LINK) and opt for something new to you.

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A Starter Case is a great way to find out what wines you like.

Maybe you are a long-time wine consumer who is ready to spread your wings a bit. You might begin with your local wine shop – tell them what you like and ask them how you can explore some new wines that have a similar profile. Go to a Greek restaurant with good Greek wines on the wine list, and try some if that is new to you. See if there are some small producers of wines in your local area and give them a try. There are lots of possibilities. Try not to be intimidated by the experts or by too many choices. Take your time and stick to what you like – and maybe explore around the edges.

The world of wine is literally at your feet. Enjoy!

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Text Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard

 

WINE ENJOYMENT SHOULD BE ACCESSIBLE AND ENJOYABLE, OR WHAT’S THE POINT?

There is a false notion that permeates wine culture at almost every level. That notion is that there is a level of knowledge that is attainable that will enable a person to know about every wine that exists. Now I know that most wine experts (a word that is past its expiration date IMHO) will say that this is not so, but it is conveyed in wine media of all kinds and by many individuals. My wine Twitter feed includes a number of people who purport to have a very deep knowledge of a very wide variety of wines. I have my doubts.

The reason that this is a false notion is that the sheer numbers relating to wine have grown so large and are so widely distributed around the globe. The California Wine Institute (LINK) has figures on its site for world wine production through 2012 – it shows 25,721,000 liters of wine produced world-wide (LINK). WineSearcher.com (LINK) shows about 3,600 wine regions in the world. There are probably around 100,000 wine producers in the world (this number is a bit difficult to nail down). The number of labels that you find in a decent wine store grows each year, with mega-stores like Total Wine and Spirits carrying upwards of 9,000 wines.

How is anyone going to know about all of these wines?

Wine Angst

For someone who is new to wine appreciation, or even for seasoned collectors, it can seem impossible. Most end up narrowing down their focus to a few regions or varietals, or even a single one. I have a friend who only drinks Kendall Jackson Chardonnay for example. Most collectors focus narrowly, some are more expansive, seeking out a wide variety of wines from various locations, vintages, and varietals. Those who focus will likely have a more in-depth knowledge of the particular area or areas of their attention. Those who explore more widely will have a more superficial knowledge of a variety of wines, regions, and varietals.

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Unless you are in the wine business, you will not have time to taste and understand the thousands of wines that are out there, or even the hundreds on the shelves on your local wine retailer’s shelves. And even if you are  in the wine business, it is doubtful that you will need to know about every region, varietal or producer. The idea that one needs to have so much knowledge can drive people away from the enjoyment of wine, and that serves no one.

My recommendation is to find your own way into and through the many types, styles, and iterations of wine. You may just have a glass or two a week of whatever is being served, or you may be an avid collector of all things from the Piedmont in Italy or Napa Valley in California, it does not matter. There are ways for you to access information about your own desires and preferences.

I tend to be an explorer. Even though I drink wine every day, blog about wine, and will be doing wine-related tours in the near future, I do not spend hours and hours pouring through information about wine. I tend to be an explorer – trying all kinds of wines from various regions – but I also have my preferences and I spend more time exploring those in greater depth as time and my wallet allow. Writers like Eric Asimov of the NYTimes work for me, because he explores a variety of wines from different places. I also enjoy Kermit Lynch, the amazing wine purveyor in Berkeley, whose newsletter (LINK)  is very informative and focuses mostly on French and Italian wines.

But you will find your own sources. I try to keep my blog as general as possible, but since I travel a lot, I write about the wines and the wine culture where I travel, so there may be some posts that do not interest everyone.

the world of wine should not be an impenetrable maze of secret or obscure or overwhelming information. It should be accessible, enjoyable, and allow each wine enthusiast to savor the experiences that he or she discovers. Whether that is a focus on First Growth Bordeaux or on trying to sample each of those 3,600 wine regions in the world, it should be an enjoyable experience, or what’s the point?

I would love to see some comments on this post – what do you think? What is your approach to wine?

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GETTING THE CELLAR READY FOR OUR DEPARTURE

The For Sale sign is up in front of the house. Dozens of folks are streaming through our completely staged home – meaning that it looks pretty much like we don’t live here. Every morning, we hide all of the evidence of our occupancy and we depart whenever the realtor notifies us that a showing is happening. Fortunately, that has been happening very regularly of late.

We will be heading to Europe for a while, no fixed address, probably for most of 2015 and maybe beyond. I am looking forward to sampling more of the wines of Spain, France, Germany, and Austria (at a minimum), but what to do about our wines in our home cellar?

Now, when I say “cellar,” I should note that we live in a suburban tract house. No basement. Our “cellar” consists of a number of stashes around the house, where lighting is minimal and temperature is fairly steady. The really good stuff is in a wine refrigerator in the garage, but there are bottles on a rack in our utility closet, another rack in a hallway, another on the cabinet in our dining room (French only!), and more on a small rack built into our kitchen breakfast nook.

When the move was being planned, we had about 350 bottles in total. We rented a locker at CELLAR MASTERS in Newbury Park, CA, where we put a dozen cases right away and where the remainder will go when we leave.

The focus now is on drinking wines that will not age well, or that are at or near their peak now. We are also supplementing with some purchases of whites, which we do not tend to keep over time for the most part. Our wines are mostly from California, with the Central Coast and Napa and Sonoma well-represented; plus a couple of cases of French wines, and a few Australians and one or two from British Columbia’s Okanagan Region.

So, our case of ARTISTE wines, our CLENDENDEN FAMILY WINES and the AU BON CLIMAT are being consumed, as are our STOLPMAN and some CABERNETS. Our French wines, mostly Bordeaux, will age well, as will the Burgundies. We will keep some of the newer CLOS PEPE Pinots, which should last a few years, and we will have a lot of assorted CABERNETS and MERLOTS from California to keep.

I expect that we will be down to about 200 bottles when we depart sometime in mid to late February. At some point, we will likely have the wines shipped from the storage facility to wherever we land, or sell it off. It is both fun and a bit sad to be consuming some of the bottles that we obtained from the wineries or through friends. But, there are worse things that one has to do, right?

ALMA SOL WINERY – SMALL PRODUCER GETTING BETTER AND BETTER

Dorianne and I returned to Alma Sol Winery’s tasting room the other night with three other couples. Alma Sol Winery (Link) is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of John Shaw and Lisa Cuevas Shaw.

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The heading of the tasting list at Alma Sol Tasting Room in Thousand Oak, CA

John Shaw, who serves as winemaker for the couple – really a two-person operation, from the vineyard to the tasting room – met us at the door. Lisa Cuevas Shaw was inside with a bottle of wine in her hand. We began the evening’s tasting, which John had selected from his list of Bordeaux-influenced wines.

“It’s a cool evening,” he said, “so it’s all reds and all full-bodied wines.”

The wines he poured were indeed, red and were generally fuller bodied wines as well. The exception was the first wine, a 2010 Cuevas Cabernet Sauvignon, which was very elegant and a fruit-forward wine. After that, the wines had more of a mineral presence and varied as to the fruit presence. I won’t go into detail, because these wines are produced in such small quantities that they are very unlikely to show up outside of the tasting room. You can obtain some of them at the website (link above).

We first met John and Lisa at the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival a couple of years ago. They told us that they would be opening a tasting room in Thousand Oaks – our neck of the woods – very soon. The location is shared with Sunland Vintage Winery (Link), whose mostly Italian varieties we plan to return to sample soon. Alma Sol, using mostly grapes from the Cuevas Vineyard in Paso Robles and other fruit sourced from Paso and as far north as Napa Valley. In fact, we tasted a blend of five Napa Bordeaux-style grapes in the tasting – it was made in a middle ground between the French and California styles –  fruity and elegant, but higher in alcohol.

We finished the tasting with their dessert wine: 2012 Almazan Dessert Wine, Paso Robles ($34.00)

From their website: This Portuguese Port-style wine uses both Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional grapes from the east side of Paso Robles.  The beautiful nose is made up of cherries and cranberries and follows through with a very fruit forward, elegant mouth feel. The finish is long with a touch of fortified wine that lightly warms your mouth. This wine pairs great with your favorite dessert, Dark chocolate raspberry truffles, or a cigar (if you like them, of course).

Production: 70 cases   

We bought a bottle. Very nice!

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It is really nice to see more tasting rooms open in the Thousand Oaks area. Alma Sol is a great addition to the local line up – I look forward to seeing how John and Lisa continue to develop as winemakers.