For any fan of Santa Barbara County wines, the acres of white tents spread across the green lawns of Rancho Sisquoc Winery on October 11 promised an afternoon of unparalleled pink, red, and white exploration. And for this first-time visitor to the S.B. County Vintners’ Association‘s annual Celebration of Harvest – the autumnal gathering of winemakers and gourmet food purveyors scheduled to coincide with the season’s frantic grape-picking – there seemed no better way to spend a lazy Saturday.
Unable to convince any friends to change their predestined weekend plans, I was dropped off alone and, at noon, more than an hour early, somehow thinking that the party started at 11 a.m., when it really started at 1 p.m. But the place was already a-buzz with activity, if not buzzing yet from the wine, and the extra hour gave me plenty of time to map out my course.
I took a seat near one of the stages and began fingering through the 67-page brochure, which laid out more than 105 wineries and 30 food servers that had come together for the event. My challenge was two-fold: one, taste from wineries I’ve never tried or, better yet, never even heard of; and two, search out the most obscure varietals and interesting blends I could find. Food-wise, I had no plans other than to smell, look, and then grab what looked tastiest – or, if possible, what would complement the wine in my hand.
So after a few hours of entertaining my taste buds and subjecting my innards to fermented saturation, here’s my report, broken down into handy, if entirely arbitrary, categories. And keep in mind that while I visited nearly two dozen tasting tables and at least 10 food booths, my sampling of the day’s offerings was fractional at best. So there was surely much more to love than just what I list here.
Most Obscure White Wine: Grenache Blanc
The D’Alfonso/Curran Wine Group is run by Bruno D’Alfonso of Sanford Winery fame and his winemaking wife, Kris Curran, who brought Sea Smoke Cellars so many accolades before recently moving to be head winemaker at Foley Estates. (Her top spot at Sea Smoke is now occupied by Don Schroeder, son of Rebecca Work who owns Ampelos Cellars with her husband, Peter.) Knowing the reputations of both Curran and D’Alfonso was one reason for this stop, but the main reason was because Curran’s eponymous label offers a grenache blanc, one of the rarer white wine varietals around these parts. It proved light and refreshing, as expected, and then I was happily surprised by the chardonnay poured from D’Alfonso’s Badge label. It had that tongue-soothing warmth I’ve come to associate with some oak and some malolactic fermentation, but the perfect amount, compared to many chards that go so buttery they fall flat. I also sipped the Badge pinot noir, and the DiBruno sangiovese. You can taste them all at Trio Tastings in Solvang.
Tastiest Morsels of Wild Game: New West Catering’s Green Chile Wild Boar
With the D’Alfonso sangio in hand, I hit up my first food stop: green chili wild boar served over seasoned fries from New West Catering. Paired with the wine, it proved to be the best foodie experience I had all day, the crispy fries lapping up the remaining boar juice.
Crispest Sauvignon Blanc: Coquelicot
With the sun starting to warm up the day and take the bite out of the chilly winds, I headed across the lawn toward the tent that had wineries starting with C. I wanted to search out CORE Wines, which produces some very interesting Rhone blends from a vineyard in the Cuyama Valley, but they weren’t there yet. So instead I found Coquelicot, which I knew to be owned by Bernard Rosenson, who purchased the Wine Cask from Doug Margerum last year. I started with the sauvignon blanc and was very pleased – crisp but flavorful, like the best ones I’ve tried from New Zealand, and probably the best white I had all day.
Best Wine-Seafood-Juice Pairing: Wine Cask Ceviche and Grape Consomme
Conveniently, the booth next door to Coquelicot was the Wine Cask, and they were serving a ridgeback shrimp ceviche as well as a grape juice consomme. I was poured a taste of the Coquelicot riesling, and it served as perfect sidekick, slightly sweet, like the shrimp, and best washed down with the very sweet grape consomme.
Best Industry News of the Day: Happy Canyon AVA Coming Soon
As many have heard, there’s been a move for the past couple years to get Happy Canyon named as its own American Viticultural Area, or AVA, mainly because it’s hotter and has different soil types than the rest of the Santa Ynez Valley. Federal bureaucracy moves achingly slow, but a visit to the Cimarone booth brought good news, and not just because of their sangiovese and a Bordeaux blend, all grown organically on their vineyard in Happy Canyon. As the owner Priscilla Higgins poured me the two samples, she explained that the AVA process had cleared some significant hurdles and expressed some hope that it might happen as soon as the end of 2008. (Another winemaker later said they’d be lucky if it happened by the end of 2009, so slow is the bureaucracy with those applications.)
Best Chumash Lore: The Meaning of Piocho
Former Wine Cask owner and longtime winemaker Doug Margerum not only makes wines under his name, but also lends his expertise to the Piocho and Barrack brands, which come from Happy Canyon grapes. Piocho, according to Saturday’s wine pourer, is a Chumash word for the general location of the vineyard and means “where two rivers meet and go to heaven.” The pourer said that it referred to the Santa Ynez River and another creek, but looking at a map in relation to Happy Canyon, that doesn’t seem to make any sense. But the wine tasted good anyway.
Best Slate of Syrahs: Blair Fox Cellars
As people began pouring in by the busload around 2 p.m., I braved the steady stream and headed toward the letter B tent, where the newcomers mixed with those who’d been tasting awhile already. I found myself at the Blair Fox Cellars table, trying the three syrahs on the menu. The volunteer pourer fended off the I’m-an-expert types and joked about feeling like a tasting room worker. All of the syrahs were excellent.
Best and Only Barrel Tasting: McKeon-Phillips
McKeon-Phillips is one of the few wineries that has a tasting room in Santa Maria. The highlight was trying a cabernet sauvignon out of a little cask, a mini-barrel tasting of a yet-to-be-bottled wine. The wine seemed much fruitier and more accessible than the typical cabs coming out of Napa Valley, and made me want to rethink my opinions of Santa Barbara County cabs. The barrel was a nice twist.
Best Drinking News of the Day: Westerly Opening in Funk Zone
Westerly Vineyards is run by winemaker Seth Kunin, as is the label Kunin. In between tastes of some of my favorite wines of the day, Kunin explained that he is opening a tasting room in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, on Anacapa Street near Cabrillo Boulevard. It will house both Westerly and Kunin wines, and we should all be eagerly anticipating the latest addition to our very own urban wine trail.
Coolest Name of the Day: Paige 23’s Tinto Tarantula
Paige 23 makes the Tinto Tarantula, a tribute to the Priorat winemakers of Spain with 40 percent grenache, 40 percent syrah, and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. Priorat is one of Europe’s hottest regions these days, and I recently bought the cheapest bottle I could find at The Winehound. It was $28. The Tinto Tarantula is a deserved tribute.
Best Buddies: Christina LoCascio and Michael Larner
Christina LoCascio is the manager at Artiste Winery and the woman known worldwide for painting with wine, and her husband, Michael Larner, runs Larner Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, a hotbed for great syrahs and other grapes. We chatted a bit before the event about the ongoing harvest and wine tasting in Europe, where they’ve been recently and where I’m going next month. Midday, we met up again, and ran through some remaining wineries before ending the day drinking a Jaffurs Winery bottle, made from Michael’s grapes – peppery, he described it, and I agreed.
Best News for You: It Happens Again Next Year!!!!
For more info on the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association and a calendar of similar events, see sbcountywines.com. And for those who can’t wait, you can wine taste today in Santa Barbara on the urban wine trail or catch a ride up to the Santa Ynez Valley this weekend.