Tag Archives: Santa Barbara

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

MY YEAR IN WINE – 2017

This has been a very unique year for me in terms of wine exploration and enjoyment. After traveling full time between North America and Europe for 2 ½ years, Dorianne and I have settled in Lyon, France. Although we continue to travel for various reasons (I’m writing this in Southern California), we have been exploring the local wine scene in and around Lyon since July – and have discovered that there is a lot to learn, and even more to enjoy.

Lyon France

The year began with our annual few days in Pismo Beach, CA with our friends to explore wineries from Paso Robles, the Edna Valley, Santa Maria, and the Santa Rita Hills AVAs. The highlights of that trip were Sculptera Vineyards in Paso Robles (we all joined the wine club and bought two cases), Presqu’ile Vineyards in Santa Maria, and Pence Winery in the Santa Rita Hills. (LINK to Post about the last two)

The cases from Sculptera (mixed cases) were sent to Roam Miami (LINK), where Dorianne and I stayed last winter. A co-living/co-working space, Roam offered a haven of tropical peace and calm right next to downtown Miami and the Brickell area. We were surrounded mostly by Millennial digital nomads, and we conducted a few wine tastings and seminars to help educate them about wine enjoyment. (LINK to Post about Millennials and Wine).

In late March, we headed back to southern Oregon, Medford and Ashland, to see friends and explore more of the Rogue Valley wine scene. A month there took us to several wonderful wineries (LINK to Post) and some great restaurants.

The next highlight was two weeks in New York, staying in my daughter’s Harlem apartment, where we got to explore the burgeoning Harlem French wine and restaurant scene (LINK to Post about Harlem). Lots of good experiences there.

In June I traveled solo to Kelowna, British Columbia, the heart of the rich Okanagan Wine Region in western Canada (Link to Post about the Okanagan). Here I explored a variety of wineries and wines, as global warming has opened the region to growing red grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon, to Tempranillo, to Syrah. Kelowna is a boomtown for vacation homes and recreation on its 90-mile-long glacial lake. The wine scene is growing more sophisticated with over 200 wineries in the area. Dirty Laundry Winery showcases much of what is fun in the Okanagan (LINK to Post).

After Kelowna, we spend some time in London (LINK to Post) it was off to Ireland’s Connemara area, where we drank Guinness for the most part. Then, in July, we made the move to Lyon (LINK to Post on Living in France).

Lyon has been a revelation in terms of wine. Centered between Burgundy to the north, the Rhône Valley to the south, Beaujolais to the west, and Jura to the east, there is an embarrassment of riches. And some surprises.

  1. The French don’t like to spend a lot of money on wine. I’m sure that there are exceptions, but you rarely see a bottle above 20€ in a grocery store or over 40€ in the local wine cave (shop). Restaurants generally sell wine bottles at or just above retail. And winemakers sell wines for half to 2/3’s what they would cost in the US. A potis a 460ML bottle – a bit more than a half-bottle – of house wine which will cost 8 to 12€ in a Bouchon (Lyonnaise for bistro). There are also demi-pots and rare 500ML bottles.
  2. Box wines are better quality than I expected. For about 25€ you can get a 5-liter box of a very drinkable Luberon Valley red wine; 18€ for the rosé.
  3. Rosé wines are very good at 4€ per bottle, excellent at 7 to 10€. We drank rosés almost exclusively during the hot summer months.
  4. Maconnais Chardonnays are wonderful wines. Just north of Lyon, the vineyards of Macon produce some wonderfully approachable wines which sell for ½ or 1/3 of what their Burgundian cousins to the north fetch. Another nice surprise was Aligoté, the other Burgundy white – crisp, with a mineral/floral nose, it is a great value choice from the same winemakers who make the expensive stuff.
  5. In France, Cabernet Sauvignon is just Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc is just Sauvignon. Cases in France are 6 bottles. Just FYI.

As I noted in the Moving to France Post (LINK), we tend to shop every day for fresh items at the open-air marchés and the mom-and-pop bakeries, butchers, etc. This may also include a stop at the wine cave to pick up a bottle or two and have a conversation with the proprietor about what is new and interesting.

We have not yet begun to explore the wineries and vineyards in the area – our focus has been on learning French, getting to know the city, and finding a flat to purchase – however, we expect to do a lot of that in 2018.

We are winding up 2017 in Southern California with friends and family. Our New Year’s Eve dinner with friends will feature a cold lobster appetizer that I am making and a Ken Brown Chardonnay to accompany it; then roast leg of lamb with a 2005 Opus One and a 1994 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to see the year out with something wonderful.

Next week, we return to Pismo Beach to explore the Central Coast some more, then . . .

Who knows?

Thanks for being a part of this year on the blog.

As always, your comments and suggestions are welcomed!

Copyright 2017 – Jim Lockard

TWO WINERIES TO VISIT IN SANTA BARBARA COUNTY

Recently, Dorianne and I visited two very impressive wineries in Santa Barbara County with friends. The purpose of the trip was to scout locations for a wine tasting tour to benefit a non-profit organization. We tagged along to be of any possible assistance!

The first winery, Presqu’ile Vineyard & Winery (LINK), is located in the Santa Maria Valley AVA (LINK) near the Bien Nacido vineyard in northern Santa Barbara County. A family run operation set on a beautiful 200 acre  vineyard property and boasting some amazing architecture, Presqu’ile (pronounced press-KEEL; it means penninsula) focuses on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The beauty of the tasting room, cave, and winery seem beyond what one finds at a vineyard & winery operation producing only 1600 cases per year.

Matt Sobczak, the Tasting Room Manager, conducted our tasting. The wines that we tasted were very good, even exceptional in the case of the Chardonnays; and the Pinot Noirs were a close second. The Sauvignon Blanc was also very good. The 2013 Steiner Creek Vineyard Chardonnay was particularly good, with a rich mouth feel, ample green fruit on the nose and palate, and a pleasant finish. We bought a bottle to share with some cheese and snacks after the tasting, and several of us bought more to take home.

The 2014 Presqu’ile Vineyard Chardonnay is also beautifully crafted and should please those who love the traditional California-style Chardonnays in a slightly less oaky, more modern form.

Dieter Cronje is the wine maker at Presqu’ile. We did not meet him, but I will laud his talents in crafting Burgundian-style wines with a California influence. Presqu’ile wines can be ordered from their website (LINK) and the winery is worth a visit and not far from other wineries off the 101 Freeway.

Our next stop was Pence Ranch Vineyards & Winery (LINK), along Route 246 West in Buellton, California in the Santa Rita Hills AVA (LINK). As I have noted before (LINK), the Santa Rita Hills AVA is unique in that the mountains and valleys run east to west due to a geological anomaly – the AVA is on land not connected to the North American Tectonic Plate. The Pence Ranch property is relatively narrow and runs north from Route 246 West, just west of the part of Buellton made famous in the film, “Sideways.”

Josh Hamilton was on duty in the small, but nicely appointed tasting room (open only by appointment for now). There is also another area adjacent to the tasting room that can accommodate more visitors. Pence has a relatively small production, under 1500 cases, and is expanding into a second label for restaurants. The Pence labels represent depictions of images of freedom and coins from the founding of the United States.

For our tasting, Josh poured the Pinot Noirs first, then the Syrah, and only then the Chardonnays. The reason for this is that the Pinots are elegant by California standards, as is the Syrah. The two Chardonnays are rich and fuller-bodied, yet still retain a sense of elegance. So, this unconventional tasting pattern – reds first – makes sense at Pence Ranch Winery.

The wines at Pence are exceptionally well-crafted. The Pinots are a bit spicy and peppery, but hold their soft fruit on the nose and in the mouth. They are very well-balanced and will work sipping alone, with light cheeses, or with foods such as salmon or vegetarian dishes.

The Chardonnays, both single-vineyard as are the Pinots, are rich yet very smooth. There is an oakiness present, but it does not dominate. The mouthfeel has a nice viscosity and there are many layers to both wines – great complexity here. All the Pence wines (LINK) are well-crafted. Get your hands on some if you can! We took away several bottles.

I am a huge fan of Santa Rita Hills wines, where the Burgundian style has been carried forward by such local legendary labels as Sanford, Clos Pepe, Ken Browne, LaFond, and others. Pence is establishing itself among those names – they produce Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that reflect the Santa Rita Hills terroir very well.

I really didn’t find anything to complain about at either winery. The price points are a bit high, but they make sense when you understand the size and the quality of the operations at both vineyard/wineries. Both Presqu’ile and Pence are wineries worth your time if you are in the Santa Barbara County wine regions. And if you can’t visit, you can order their wines to enjoy at home.

As always, your comments are appreciated.

 

Copyright 2017 – Jim Lockard

A DAY IN NORTHERN SANTA BARBARA COUNTY – THREE WINERIES

I love the Santa Barbara County AVAs. Not only do they produce great wines, have lovely scenery, and a host of great winemakers and tasting rooms; they are easily accessible from the Los Angeles area.

On Tuesday, Dorianne and I were joined by Mary Stec and Richard Clark for a day trip to Santa Barbara County (LINK). We visited three wineries and had lunch at Industrial Eats in Buellton. Mary is a home chef and runs a cooking school & is a weight-loss coach (LINK) (LINK); Richard is the winemaker for the Conejo Valley Wine Co-op (LINK to previous post).

Our plan was to visit two wineries in the Santa Rita Hills AVA (LINK), have lunch, then visit two wineries in the northern section Stana Ynez Valley AVA (LINK), north of Los Olivos. The Santa Rita Hills are known for Burgundian varietalsChardonnay and Pinot Noir; the northern Santa Ynez Valley is Rhône varietals – especially Syrah, but also Mouvedre, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Cinsault.

A late start and a few other things shifted out plans a bit, but we made the most of a magnificent sunny day in the 80’s.

Our first stop was Babcock Winery (LINK) along Rt. 246 near Lompoc. Babcock has been around for a while and they make some excellent wines, with Pinot Noir leading the way. Our tasting room host Jamie showed the four of us through two different tastings, one featuring their estate fruit, the other wines sourced from elsewhere in the Santa Rita Hills AVA. Babcock’s new and updated tasting room is filled with their wines mixed with places to sit, antiques and other items, some of which are for sale.

Babcock’s strongest suit is their Pinot Noir. They produce several estate wines and a blend of several vineyards. All of them drink well and show excellent craftsmanship, balance, and quality. We purchased a bottle of their 2013 Radical Pinot Noir, which showed the most character (to us) and will age well. We will be laying this one down for a while. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is notable as well, as is their Backroads Red BlendBabcock offers tours and you can have events there. It is a great winery to visit.

The next stop was lunch at the wonderful Industrial Eats (LINK) in the warehouse area of Buellton (of “Sideways” fame). This artisanal eatery also features a number of local wines on tap for $9 a glass, beer, cider, and more. You eat at common tables and can watch the pizza maker use the brick ovens.

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Menu Wall at Industrial Eats

As we were leaving the restaurant, we noted that the tasting room next door, Alma Rosa, showed the proprietors to be Thekla and Richard Sanford, well-known pioneers of the Santa Rita Hills. Richard is in the Vintner’s Hall of Fame. It turns out that I did not know that Alma Rosa was the Sanfords’ (relatively) new wine operation. So, our plans changed and in we went.

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards (LINK) has been around since 2005. Like most in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, they specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, also producing Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and a Pinot Noir-Vin Gris Rosé. They have two levels of tastings, so each couple had one of them. The wines here are uniformly well-crafted and each has unique characteristics. There are five Pinot Noirs (three are single vineyard/clone) and two each of the Chardonnays, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blancs. We purchased some of the La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Gris and the Clone 667 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir. We would have purchased more, but our wine locker is nearly full (really).

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The Tasting Crew at Alma Rosa
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Rena of Alma Rosa Wine

The tasting room staff included Rena, who is both knowledgeable about the wines and the process and very outgoing. This small wine tasting room is really lovely (and you can have food sent over from Industrial Eats to boot!).

Next, it was on up the 101 Freeway to Zaca Mesa Road near Los Olivos. Our destination was Andrew Murray Wines (LINK) and their new facility at the former Curtis Winery which was purchased and added to the Andrew Murray operation a few years ago. Long known as the producer of the best Syrahs along the Central Coast, Andrew Murray has expanded into some additional Rhône varietals plus a few others since taking over Curtis. Our tasting was a reminder that these are truly exceptional wines. Highlights of the tasting were, of course, the Syrahs, especially the 2013 Thompson Vineyard Syrah, and the 2014 Watch Hill Vineyard Syrah. Both had nicely balanced fruit and minerality, a beautiful bouquet, and a smooth finish.

Also notable were the 2014 Estate Grown Cinsault, and the 2013 Curtis Vineyard Mourvèdre. Both were very well crafted and balanced with minerality and fruit that alternately competed for your attention. We bought some of the Cinsault. And finally, the 2015 Espérance Rosè, a light and crisp rosé made of nearly 100% Cinsault. It results in a surprising rich and flavorful rosé reminiscent of the wines of the Tavel A.O.P. (LINK to previous post) in the Rhône Valley. This is one of the best rosés I have had in some time. Richard and I took a case of this beauty home. Well – it was on sale and I will find the space!

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That was our day – we headed home with wine in the trunk and some great memories that will be rekindled each time we open a bottle.

And a reminder – our amazing Wine Tour of the southern Rhône Valley and Provence (including Tavel) still has some space left. Visit (LINK – Deluxe Wine Tours) to get all the information and to register.

Wine Tour Online Image 1

Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard

NEW DIRECTIONS IN CALIFORNIA WINES?

A very good article from the NYTimes Magazine, “The Wrath of Grapes,”  describes some new wine making styles emerging in California. Interesting stuff, but my take on it is that the larger wine-buying public will still flock to the high-alcohol fruit-bombs that have become popular in California. Some wine makers are re-examining what is possible in California. Read the article for more – link below the photo.

Wine - Rajat Parr in CA
Rajat Parr in his Domaine de la Côte winery in Lompoc, Calif. Credit Damon Casarez for The New York Times

(LINK TO ARTICLE)

CLOS PEPE ESTATE WINES WILL BE MADE NO MORE

In an announcement to his mailing list and via his website, Wes Hagen, Vineyard Manager and Winemaker at Clos Pepe Estates in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, announced that the vineyard and operations have been leased to Hall/Walt Wines of Saint Helena, CA. (LINK TO WEB PAGE)

The 2014 Vintage will be the last for Clos Pepe Estate Wines and for their secondary label, Axis Mundi. Wes Hagen and his wife will move from the vineyard property and he will be looking for other opportunities in the Central Coast of California.

I have been a particular fan of Wes Hagen, his wines, his wine making, and his personality and depth of knowledge about all things wine. He is as much a philosopher as a wine maker. He has been a pioneer in the Burgundian style so prevalent in the Santa Rita Hills, and a leader in establishing the AVA designation there.

Clos Pepe Estate Wines will be missed.

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Jim Lockard and Wes Hagen at a Clos Pepe Estates Wine Tasting Event in Newbury Park, CA in 2014.

A FIND IN SANTA RITA HILLS – MARGERUM WINES

Continuing our series on the wineries I visited on a group wine tour in the Santa Rita Hills Appellation on Saturday, we will take a look at Margerum Wine Company (LINK). Our group tasted at the winery near Buellton, but the regular tasting rooms (LINK) are in Santa Barbara. Assistant Winemaker Sam Smith conducted our tasting on Saturday.

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Sam Smith describes Margerum Wines.

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Margerum produces a number of wines from a variety of vineyards (LINK) in Santa Barbara County. They produce small quantities of each wine, seeking to maximize the quality. Their stable of wines runs from Sauvignon Blanc (including a rare late harvest dessert version), to Pinot Gris and a Grenache Rosé on the white side, with Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blends under a couple of labels. You can read about each of the wines at the link above. I really enjoyed the 2013 LATE HARVEST SAUVIGNON BLANCa very light and smooth dessert wine that has a light mouthfeel and not too much sweetness.

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I found the wines we tasted to be well-crafted with a tendency toward lightness and elegance, even a sense of understatement, which is consistent with the style that many winemakers adopt in this region. As noted in earlier posts, if you want the big fruit-bomb reds, you need to head north a bit to Paso Robles, where that style is more prevalent.

The owners of Margerum Wine Company are also involved in the Wine Cask Restaurant (LINK) in Santa Barbara. The restaurant has an excellent reputation, and, I am pretty sure, you can get some Margerum Wines on the premises.

Later, more posts on the other two wineries we visited, LaFond and Tyler, each very interesting in its own right.

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Stainless Steel Barrels at Mergerum.
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A Line Up of Rosés.

SOME AMAZING PINOT NOIRS

On Saturday, I joined a group for a wine tour of four wineries in the Santa Rita Hills Appellation (LINK), near Santa Ynez, California. The four were: Tyler, LaFondMargerum, and Ken Brown. I will blog about each separately, beginning with Ken Brown Wines (LINK). The Santa Rita Hills are located about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara. A unique geological area, they are on a circular land mass that separated from the North American tectonic plate about 12 million years ago. Since then, that circle of land has been turning about 1/4 inch per year, so that now, the mountain ranges and valleys run east to west instead of north to south. This provides a “chute” for cool breezes and moisture from the Pacific Ocean to come farther inland and created one of the perfect places on earth to grow Pinot Noir. The film “Sideways” (LINK) was filmed here (before the appellation was established), and the rest is, well, a rich history.

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Ken Brown is a legendary winemaker in the Santa Rita Hills area. He began at Zaca Mesa Wines. His first name is actually Byron, and after Zaca Mesa, he started Byron Winery in 1985, selling it to the Mondavi Family in 1990. He said that both of those wineries got to the level of 80 to 90,000 cases in annual production, and by that point, actually before that, it was no longer fun for him. The current annual production at Ken Brown Wines is just about 3,000 cases in total.

Along the way, Ken Brown has trained a number of winemakers in the area, including Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Lindquist of Qupé Winery. His tasting room is in Buellton, CA, just off the 101 Freeway. It is very nicely appointed, with a corkwood floor that got a lot of attention from some of the women on the tour.

Ken Brown Holding forth about his Wines.
Ken Brown Holding forth about his Wines.

Ken was very expansive in describing his process of winemaking and each of his wines. We tasted one Chardonnay, five Pinot Noirs and one Syrah. My general comment is that his wines are amazingly well-crafted in a Burgundian style, not big fruit bombs like many California wines. In fact, some in our tour group thought his wines were not big enough.

I found them to be nuanced, balanced, and each had different characteristics. I just about fell in love.

The Chardonnay was beautifully made, and very oaky – not to my taste, but you could readily smell, taste, and see the quality of the wine. Several bottles of this were purchased by tour members.2015-02-07 15.43.28 2015-02-07 16.11.47

Each of the five Pinots, one a blend of two Santa Barbara appellations, the rest from Santa Rita Hills, two blends of vineyards and two single-vineyard wines, had a strong sense of place and a very nice blend of fruit, mineral, and spice.

I won’t go into all of the individual wines in detail – mainly because it is unlikely you will be able to get any! All are small production, and available only through the winery (LINK to wine shop site).

I purchased the 2012 Zotovich Vineyard Pinot Noir (LINK), a very complex Pinot; the 2012 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (LINK), his most approachable Pinot – fruity and very refreshing; and the 2012 Watch Hill Syrah (LINK), a rich fruit-forward Syrah with great complexity. If we were not moving soon, I would have bought more.

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If you are in the Santa Rita Hills area any time soon, put Ken Brown Wines on you list of places to visit, You will not be disappointed (unless you only like the big, big wines. Then you better stick to Paso Robles).

MY FAVORITE WINERIES AND VINEYARDS – Clos Pepe Estate

Clos Pepe, owned by Steven and Kathy Pepe (the Spanish pronunciation, not the French), is a unique winery and vineyard for several reasons. Their wines, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown and crafted in the Burgundian tradition, are one. The miniature heritage sheep who keep the undergrowth beneath the vines trimmed and the dogs that herd them are another. Their secondary labels, Axis Mundi, featuring wines crafted from fruit from other Central Coast vineyards are another.

But the main reason that Clos Pepe Estate is such a unique operation is the winemaker, Wes Hagen. Wes is unique among winemakers in a variety of ways – one of which being that he is as much, or more, of a philosopher than anything else. Oh, he crafts amazing wines – some of my absolute favorites – but it is the depth of knowledge about all things wine and wine-related (plus a lot of other stuff) that make being around him so entertaining and enriching.

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Jim Lockard and Wes Hagan at a recent charity tasting of Clos Pepe and Axis Mundi wines.

Visitors to the Estate (by appointment only) are greeted in the vineyard by Wes. Everyone gathers around a vine and he begins his very thorough presentation that includes the geological history of the Santa Rita Hills (a part of California that is separated from the North American tectonic plate and has been rotating at about ¼ inch a year for the past 12 million or so years, so that the valleys here run east and west rather than north and south. This makes for excellent conditions for cool-weather loving grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay); the 6500 year history of wine and viniculture that began with a single vine in Kazakhstan – the ancestor of every wine grape vine on the planet today; the history and philosophy of Clos Pepe in growing their fruit and making their wine; a bit about the sheep and the dogs; Q&A time; THEN up to the owner’s home to taste (and purchase) some wine.

As the videos on the Clos Pepe website show, Wes can tell a story, explain a concept, delve into science, and bring up Joseph Campbell without skipping a beat. He truly loves his work, and he continually studies in a variety of areas to keep his incredible mind occupied and productive.

Clos Pepe wines are beautifully crafted from vines on the 28 acre estate. A number of top California wineries also source fruit from Clos Pepe vineyards. Wes, ever the experimenter, yet aware of tradition, crafts Pinot Noirs in both the lighter, more elegant French tradition, as well as the bigger, bolder California style. They emerge beautifully and age very well.

Wine - Clos Pepe label

The Chardonnays are also crafted in the French style primarily, with a nod to what California consumers are looking for as well. Wes is given to grand descriptions of his wines (that prove to be very accurate). Here, is a description of the Chardonnays from the website:

The Chardonnays are naturally lean, mineral-laden and racy, but with more winemaking influence can exhibit richness and roundness: new oak, malolactic treatment, extended barrel aging. When young, the wines have austere structure and bright apple fruit with hints of tropical fruit and peach. Clos Pepe Chardonnay is crafted for both early enjoyment as well as cellaring for a decade or more. As the wines age they gain a hazelnut and mineral complexity, quite similar to Premier Cru Chablis and White Burgundy from great vintages. Try young Clos Pepe Chardonnays with oysters, fried chicken or barbecue. Older vintages can be enjoyed with sand dabs in a lemon cream sauce, firm cheeses, cream-based soups, or any kind of delicate seafood preparation. Clos Pepe Chardonnay seems to like 3-5 years from vintage date to fully integrate, and can last up to 10-12 years for those that appreciate full maturity and a bit of oxidative aromas and flavor.

Dorianne and I have Pinot Noirs from Clos Pepe in our cellar going back to 2007, and Chardonnays from 2010 on (hard to keep the Chardonnays on the shelf). We pull them out mostly for special dinners or to share with good friends. With every bottle, I think of Wes Hagen, the depth of knowledge that he carries into his winemaking, and those sheep. Beautiful wines and beautiful memories.