Tag Archives: wine industry

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.

Photo Jan 04, 12 25 07 PMPhoto Jan 04, 12 26 55 PMPhoto Jan 04, 12 27 07 PM

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

EXPENSIVE WINE IS NOT A RIP OFF

I was going to let 2016 end without a new post, but then I came across and excellent article at VinePair.com (LINK to Article).

The article by Keith Beavers, is entitled “The People Calling Expensive Wine a Rip-Off Are Lying to You.” It is a thoughtful look at a recent trend in the wine media world – the trend of attacking wine experts, the folks who are highly trained in all aspects of wine  and who often recommend expensive wines to their readers. This would include people such as Robert ParkerJanis Robinson, and Eric Asimov.

Here is a sample from the article (I highly recommend that you read the entire article via the link above):

“The pleasure of “taking down” the wine industry is certainly understandable. There’s something devastating about knowing that other people are able to appreciate something that we can’t. It’s especially unsettling to know this about something we imbibe regularly, yet know we are not fully experiencing. There’s something mystical about wine – all those mouthfeels and blueberries and leather. What could be more delicious than to find out that those shamans, those mavens with their alienating knowledge, were nothing but charlatans, snake-oil peddlers whose knowledge was all a hoax?”

Now this blog is, if anything, a voice urging greater appreciation of wine without all the pretense. I have tried to simplify purchasing and enjoying wine, and generally removing the intimidation factor that many feel when confronted with a complex wine, a point system they do not understand, ridiculously mellifluous tasting notes, or a price tag in the hundreds of dollars.

But I have never said not to read the experts. I am self-taught in all things wine (meaning that I have never taken a wine course for certification; I have taken a few seminars) as is Keith Beavers, the author of the VinePair article. Like him, I learned, in part, by reading the experts. Unlike the experts, I am not doing regular tastings of dozens of Bordeaux or Burgundy wines. I have not tasted wines from dozens of other vintages to compare with what I am tasting now (although that is changing over time). So I count on the experts to be guides, although I am not a slave to their guidance.

A good point in the article is the difference between the typical European and American wine consumer:

“Then there’s the fact that there is just so much wine out there. It makes choosing and understanding each bottle that much more difficult. This is especially true here in the United States, because we are not a culture that grew up with wine. Wine in the U.S. is a relatively young culture, and though we want to understand wine, we’re very new at it.

“Compare us to Europe, where drinking wine is such an integral part of the lifestyle,  a part of the attitude. In the rural wine regions of Europe, you don’t go to a wine store and choose a bottle from a selection of 10,000. You live in a specific region that grows one kind of grape best, and the wine that comes from that grape is what you drink, probably every night with dinner. The soil itself determines what wine people drink, and they grow up with a specific varietal like mother’s milk.”

Americans face a huge variety of regions, varietals, wine growing techniques, wine making styles, terroirs, additives, and more when deciding which wines to purchase. The advice of experts is one pathway to take toward greater understanding, but they are never a substitute for trying things yourself and discovering what you like and enjoying yourself along the way.

 

As to expensive versus inexpensive wines, there are reasons why some wines cost more. And there are reasons why many people prefer cheaper wines, even in taste tests with more expensive wines. Again from the article:

“. . . people with less experience drinking wine tend to enjoy cheaper wines. It’s not because wine is one big hoax. It’s rather because their first experiences with wine were probably with cheaper wines, and cheap wine is manipulated to taste the same every year. There’s no inconsistency, no terroir. It’s homogenized, for a very simple reason: We are a culture that likes sweet things. When you’re drinking a really cheap wine like Yellowtail or Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, you’re drinking a wine that has added sugars and added coloring so it tastes the same every time you buy it. And it’s wine experts who teach us how to move past these wines, and how to enjoy the more expensive stuff.”

In my experience with expensive wines, which is somewhat limited I admit, once you get to about $50 per bottle, you can expect an excellent wine and will often get it. I have drunk and tasted wines that cost $250, $500, even $1000 or more. At those price points, if the wine is old, every bottle is unique, and the more refined your palate (LINK), the greater your experience. There is also a certain mystique in knowing that you are drinking say, a 1982 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild, which I have had the pleasure of drinking. What is that mystique like? Think of driving a Rolls Royce versus a Nissan – both will get you there, but the experience of the Rolls will be different. In fact, just knowing it’s a Rolls makes a difference.

For me, wine appreciation has been a slow but certain road toward wines that are well-crafted and which have different characteristics from year-to-year. I drink or taste from at least 500 bottles per year (considering that a day of wine tasting can mean 20 or so different wines). Maybe 40% of those are wines I have had before – at least the label is the same, although the vintage may not be. I would say that the average price per bottle of the wines I drink has gone from $10-$12 a dozen years ago to $25-$28 now. Over that time, my tastes have changed, my palate has improved (intentionally), I have read and learned more about wine in general and have experienced a greater variety of wines.

So I recommend that you read Eric Asimov’s Wine Columns in the New York Times (LINK), especially his wine school columns. Get yourself a copy of Janis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (LINK) or borrow it from the library. Read Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked (LINK) or A Pocket Guide to Wine (LINK). Or, go through the Amazon listings of wine books (LINK) and find something that appeals to you. Read Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast Magazines. And, this blog!

If you are a wine lover, or aspire to be, my suggestion would be to enter 2017 with the intention of deepening your knowledge and expanding your experience with wine. Your life will be richer for it.

Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard