Thanks to the magical confluence of geology, geography, and botany, wines made from the genetically identical grapes grown the same way but in different places will, to the discerning palate, taste distinctly different. Few grapes on the planet express this more clearly than pinot noir, which, thanks to typically softer tannins and higher acidity levels, expresses fruit, earth, and spice flavors like no other. That’s why hundreds are coming to the Bacara Resort & Spa this weekend for the World of Pinot Noir, a two-day affair of grand tastings, seminars, and special dinners showcasing pinots made in every imaginable style from the nearest and deepest corners of the globe.
Attendees would be wise to stop at the table of Byron Winery, where the geeky but delicious study of vineyard, clone, and barrel is taking center stage. Founded with a commitment to high-quality bottlings by regional pioneer Ken Brown in 1984, the Santa Maria Valley winery earned an even stronger reputation for affordable pinot noir in recent years, as widely available appellation blends expanded under the ownership of Jackson Family Wines, which purchased Byron in 2006 as part of a $97 million, multi-property deal.
But starting this year, Byron is returning to its original goal: producing single-vineyard pinot noir and chardonnays that reflect the unique places where they’re grown, from both the Santa Maria Valley (specifically, Bien Nacido, Nielson, Julia’s, and Sierra Madre vineyards) and the Sta. Rita Hills (Rita’s Crown, La Encantada, and John Sebastiano). “This is a statement that Byron is going back to its roots, which are vineyard designates,” said winemaker Jonathan Nagy, who has been with the brand since 2001, became a winemaker in 2003, and will celebrate his 20th career harvest this year. “Since 1984, we’ve had a history of being a premium winery. We felt that was getting diluted with the Santa Barbara County and Santa Maria Valley blends.”
Thankfully, those appellation blends — which are, dollar for dollar, some of the best California pinot and chardonnay in the marketplace today — aren’t going away: They’ll just be labeled Nielson (and in small letters: “by Byron”) from now on. That’s a nod to the Nielson Vineyard, which is located right next to the winery and was planted by Uriel Nielson in 1964, making it the first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County. Byron, under Brown, purchased the historic property in 1989, and it’s been a major source of fruit for the brand ever since.
By Matt Kettmann