On December 14 of last year, a dedicated team of 16 individuals converged at a secret location to partake in the next in a series of office wine tastings put on under the umbrella of The Santa Barbara Independent. There were wine and food professionals in attendance as well as newbie sippers just looking to learn a thing or two. C’est Cheese nibbles were on hand to cut the booze, specifically Seascape, Piave, and Humboldt Fog cheeses, some cured meats, and a variety of fruits, nuts, and olives.

The task for the day, based on the bottles that had piled up in my office over the past few months, was “Random Whites & Red Blends,” and we took to it with vigor, running through 11 wines of varying price points and California wine regions, from $13 Sonoma County bottles to nearly $50 whoppers from Paso Robles.

Here’s what we thought in the blind order we poured.

Random Whites

Conundrum White Table Wine 2010: This blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, muscat canelli, and semillon proved “peachy,” with some feeling that it was perhaps overly “super sweet” but others opining that they had always thought it was “way more expensive” than the sticker price. (13.5% alc. / $15)

Les Deux Chats Rousanne Lodi 2010: Submitted by one of the participants in last year’s first ever Paso Garagiste Festival, this Rhone white comes from the Ripken Vineyard of western Lodi near the Sacramento River Delta. Our tasters noted its “toastiness” and some “musky” notes, and liked the tight bit of acid it delivered to the tongue. (12.5% alc. / $22)

Ballard Lane White Wine Central Coast 2010: A new offering designed for restaurant-only sales of by-the-glass and affordable bottles, this wine is a blend of pinot grigio, riesling, and chardonnay. We felt that this “honeyed” wine had a “light body” that was “soft-sweet” on the tongue, with one saying, “Not bad for a cheese wine.” Others felt that it was “squishy fruit,” a “bit flabby,” and “bordering on overripe.” (12.5% alc. / $??? )

Roark Wine Company Chenin Blanc Santa Ynez Valley 2010: Ryan Roark is an assistant winemaker for Andrew Murray, and he gets these chenin blanc grapes from 30-year-old vines located behind the Curtis property. This crisp wine, with only 120 cases produced, was described as “cypressy” with one taster saying that it had “good acid backbone and balance.” One complained, however, that there was “no there there.” (12.3% alc. / $16)

Seghesio Pinot Grigio Russian River Valley 2010: Hailing from the Russian River’s coldest vintage on record in the last 40 years, this stainless steel-fermented pinot grigio was said to have “a very appealing nose” and otherwise was noted as “crisp,” “light,” and “tight.” (13.3% alc. / $20)

Red Blends

Ballard Lane Red Wine Paso Robles 2010: This red blend from the Ballard Lane line of restaurant wines features the regionally, if not globally, distinct mix of barbera, syrah, aglianico, and valdigue. The result is a “serious” wine that’s slightly “sweet,” which some suggested did taste like barbera. Solid buy if the per glass price is right. (14% alc. / $??? )

The Loyal Companion Red Wine Sonoma County NV: Nonvintage wines can excel when winemakers mix what’s good from last year with what’s needed from this year, but that did not hold in this bottle, which is a blend of 60% syrah, 25% cabernet sauvignon, 10% malbec, and 5% zinfandel. After being greeted by the “smell of alcohol” and encountering “bell pepper” flavors, our tasters remarked that it seemed like it “came right out of the corner liquor store,” that it was “ghetto,” and that it was “not recommended.” (14.8% alc. / $13 )

Pomar Junction Trainwreck Paso Robles 2009: Perhaps the afternoon’s most thoroughly enjoyed wine, this blend of 25% cabernet sauvignon, 25% petite sirah, 25% syrah, and 25% zinfandel was described as “having a soft mouthfeel” and “very chocolatey” with an “earthy nose.” “Oh, I like that!” exclaimed at least one taster, with another saying that it reminds happily of a port wine. (15.5% alc. / $48)

Per Cazo Epi Telos Paso Robles 2009: This bottle comes from a batch of 316 cases that features a blend of 58% syrah, 27% grenache, 7% zinfandel, 5% petite sirah, and 3% mourvedre. Though excited by the brand, our panel was not overly enthused with this otherwise meticulously cared for bottle, with some noting bell pepper notes on the nose, and a vegetal atmosphere in general. In general, it seemed like a much cheaper wine than it’s priced at, but based on past popularity, we may have had a bad bottle. (15.6% alc. / $32)

Andrew Murray’s E11even Red Wine Central Coast 2006: This Spinal Tap-inspired (“turn it up to 11!”) blend of 50% grenache (Paso Robles), 25% syrah (Los Alamos), and 12.5% cabernet sauvignon/12.5% cabernet franc (both from the Santa Ynez Valley) was another crowd pleaser. “Delicious,” said more than one of the “brick-colored” wine, with another explaining, “It’s not a big wine, but it’s really pleasant.” (15% alc. / $20)

Cimarone Cilla’s Blend 2009: Perhaps the blend of 69% syrah, 20% cabernet franc, 4% malbec, 4% petit verdot, and 3% cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux-friendly Happy Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley is what caused some of our tasters to call this a “confused” wine. High hopes for a standout gave way to “middle of the road” opinions, with one saying that it was “light but non-offensive.” (14.5% alc. / $24)

Stay tuned for the next round of Independent office tastings, coming up sometime this spring. If you’re a winemaker interested in submitting a bottle or a wine drinker interested in lending your expertise, send an email to wine@independent.com.


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