Sunday, November 22, 2009

Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail

On a clear, crisp fall Sunday, I set out on the drive north on U.S. 101 to the city of Santa Barbara.  The drive north can convince anyone to move to the idyllic, yet sprawling seaside city destination.  Many wine travelers pass through the city on their way to the popular wine destinations in the Santa Ynez Valley and often overlook the more than half-dozen wine tasting rooms on Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail.

It was only a few weeks earlier that the wineries were filled wall-to-wall with fermentation bins and the aroma of fermenting grapes. Now, the bins are gone, the barrels are full, and fermentation is well underway.  Within 5 hours, I hit 5 tasting rooms and 6 wineries searching for undiscovered Central Coast wines.  Aside from Jaffurs and Kunin, I've never visited the other tasting rooms and tasted but a few of Carr's previous vintages, so this was a great opportunity to expose my palate to new wineries. Overall, I was pleased with the selection of wines on the tasting lists, but only a few wineries and wines stood out for me.  Everyone should jump on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail and taste these wines for yourself to find your favorites.  Cheers!

Jaffurs Wine Cellars has produced highly acclaimed Rhône varietal wines from Santa Barbara County for over a decade. Jaffurs is one of my top 3 favorite Rhône producers in the Central Coast and each vintage gets better. Jaffurs sources its fruit from the best vineyards in Santa Barbara County, including Bien Nacido, Thompson, Stolpman, Larner, Ampelos and Verna's.  Selections include award-winning Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah.  819 E. Montecito St., Santa Barbara. Open Fri-Sun 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. $10 Tasting Fee (glass included). (805) 962-7003

Jaffurs Wine Cellars

Carr Vineyards and Winery specializes in limited production wines from Santa Barbara County.  Selections includes their wide-ranging collection of Pinot Noir from vineyards throughout the Sta. Rita Hills, Pinot Gris, Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.  It's always a party in the tasting room and during harvest, you can sip on Pinot Noir and watch the crew crush the next vintage.  414 N. Salispuedes St., Santa Barbara. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (till 8:00 pm, Thurs-Sat). $10 Tasting Fee (805) 965-7985

Carr Winery and Tasting Room

Kunin Wines/Westerly Vineyards share a tasting room a block from East Beach and Stearns Wharf. Kunin Wines has produced hand-crafted wines from California's Central Coast for eleven years. Westerly Vineyards focuses on Rhône and Bordeaux varietals from the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA.  Kunin's selections include a spectacular, award-winning Viognier, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ("Pape Star"), Syrah and Zinfandel.  Westerly's selections include Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah and Merlot.  28 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara. Open daily 11:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. $10 Tasting Fee (Kunin), $8 Tasting Fee (Westerly) (805) 963-9633

Kunin/Westerly Tasting Room

Whitcraft Winery is a family-owned limited production winery specializing in Central Coast Pinot Noir. The wines are never fined, filtered or pumped.  Whitcraft's wine selections include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. 36 A S. Calle Cesar Chavez, Santa Barbara. Open Fri-Sun 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  $8 Tasting Fee (805) 730-1680

Oreana Winery produces small lots of Pinot Noir, Syrah and blends from Santa Barbara County. The winery once housed a tire shop in this industrial section of Santa Barbara, that has become home to many other wineries.  Oreana's wine selections include Chardonnay, Verdelho, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and blends. 205 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  $10 Tasting Fee (805) 962-5857

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dornfelder: Summer Blockbuster or German Grape Varietal?

If you have never heard of Dornfelder, you would think the Governor of California was in negotiations with a major Hollywood studio to start filming a new movie where a barbarian king conquers Europe. Fortunately for us, no such movie is set to hit the silver screen anytime soon. So what is Dornfelder, and how did this German red grape varietal hit the shores of the United States and land in a vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills?

I stumbled upon Dornfelder one afternoon in Century City (part of Los Angeles) during the First Annual Wine House and Winehound Santa Barbara Wine Fest and Futures Tasting. Near the entrance of the sprawling tent in front of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, stood a tall man (everyone is taller than me) with a trademark cowboy hat and a Danish accent. With only a couple wines in hand, this captivating winemaker poured for me what can only be described as "earth in a glass." With one swig, my teeth turned inky purple and my tastebuds peaked with excitement due to the earthy aromas and flavors. And who is this gallant winemaker from Santa Barbara County that took the bold step of introducing something so alien to wine tasters? Peter Work, winemaker/owner (along with wife Rebecca) of ampelos cellars, which produces superb Pinot Noir and Syrah wines.

So, you ask, who is planting Dornfelder? Well, German friends of Norman and Traudl Huber sent them four Dornfelder vines some years back, which grew into three acres of vines at their estate vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills. The big, dark and loose clusters of grapes are the last block to be harvested. Huber Vineyards & Cellars not only grows the grapes, but produces its own bottling of the German varietal.

From first glance, its clear this is the darkest, inkiest wine to ever fill my glass. Tilt the glass to the edge and unleash the reddish-purple color tones and notice how it has legs. This is one wine you have to sink your nose into the glass. This heavy-bodied wine unleashes so many uncharacteristic aromas and flavors that remind me of a pine forest or the Koala exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo (fragrance of eucalyptus in case you're wondering where the heck that came from); tobacco and violets are characteristic of this unique grape varietal too. What kinds of food can you pair with this wine? If you said game food, then you would be correct. Remember, every palate is different, therefore, you may pickup other aromas and flavors, especially as this wine ages over the months and years ahead.

Given the fact that there is no widely available information about Dornfelder, I posed a few questions to Rebecca Work of ampelos cellars to get the dish about this grape varietal and how you can get your hands on a bottle:

Give us some background about the grape varietal: Dornfelder is a German red varietal and has become quite popular in Germany since it performs well under viticulture conditions which traditionally were seen as more suitable for white wine production. Traditionally, the red wines of Germany were mostly pale and light-bodied, but new breeds of dark-skinned grapes led by dornfelder have allowed the production of more internationally-styled reds.

Why did you choose this grape to bottle: Peter and I always like to do something different in order to continue to learn. So we had an opportunity to purchase a little bit to play with. We did not really plan on selling it - it was going to be internal for us and friends. What turned out, surprised us how good it is and the fantastic reaction we have received from folks that have tried it so now it is our epsilon.

How do you foresee the wine market reacting to something completely new: I think in general people are usually hesitant to try something new that they know nothing about, however, there are exception. There are folks out there that like to try something new and different. So I think it will be slow on being tried.

When will this wine be available for purchase: We have just released it to our wine club and so it will go out to the public end of the year. Given this is a small lot, we will only sell it through our winery and on the website.

How many cases are you producing for the '07 vintage: About 120 cases.

Stop by either tasting room below to sample the current vintage. Cheers!

ampelos cellars
1633 W. Central Avenue, Lompoc
(805) 736-9957
Open Sat, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Twitter: @ampeloscellars

Huber Vineyards & Cellars
4892 Hapgood Road, Lompoc
(805) 736-3854
Open Sat-Sun, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's Official: TTB Approves Happy Canyon AVA

On October 8, 2009, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) formally established a rule designating the 23,941-acre "Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara" American viticultural area (AVA) in Santa Barbara County, California. The Happy Canyon AVA, which lies within the larger Santa Ynez Valley viticultural area, is effective November 9, 2009.

The Happy Canyon AVA comprises the area east and south of the San Rafael Mountains, west of Lake Cachuma, and north of the Santa Ynez River. TTB received an application from Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards on behalf of Happy Canyon vintners and grape growers, proposing the establishment of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara American viticulture area. The proposed AVA encompasses 23,941 acres, 492 acres of which are in commercial viticulture in 6 vineyards, including Happy Canyon, Vogelzang, Star Lane, Three Creek, Grassini and McGinley (formerly Westerly).

TTB's rule allows vintners sourcing fruit from the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA to include the designation on their labels. At least eighty-five percent of the grapes used to produce a wine must come from the newly designated "Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara" AVA in order to qualify for brand name purposes. The label will help vintners distinguish their wines from other vineyards in the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Happy Canyon AVA vineyards are known for growing Bordeaux varietals (due to the warm afternoons and cool evenings), including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Happy Canyon AVA - Official Website
Santa Maria Times: Happy Canyon earns formal wine designation
Examiner: Santa Barbara County's Happy Canyon approved as a new wine appellation Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

Monday, September 28, 2009

Diary of a Paso Robles Cellar Rat: Part I?

At what point does an obsession with wine take you to the next level? When you would rather work 13+ hours helping a small family winery crush approximately 7,000 pounds of Syrah and Grenache grapes instead of wine tasting. And who would allow this wannabe cellar rat and amateur wine blogger to jump right into the action without reservation? Victor Abascal, proprietor/winemaker of Vines on the Marycrest. And you know, its helps to work in a winery that produces wine you absolutely love - handcrafted Rhône blends from California's Central Coast. It was only a couple months ago that I was first introduced to Vines on the Marycrest by Twitter friends in LA. Now, I am helping Victor Abascal crush the 2009 vintage and earning my stripes. If you want to learn how hard, but gratifying this business is, you have to get your hands (and clothes) dirty, endure long hours and make quick thinking decisions when critical equipment fail you in the middle of crush. I am far from completing my informal degree in winemaking, but this one weekend was the most fulfilling and enlightening experience ever.

During my last visit to Paso Robles, Victor Abascal tipped me to an opportunity a couple weeks out to help him with harvest work in the winery. As the days went by, I waited in anticipation for the call, email or tweet from Victor inviting me to Paso Robles for the type of work I have been pimping myself out for these past few months. Once the semi-cryptic tweet streamed into my account, I cleared my work and personal schedule for the weekend, got a good night's rest, and was on the road north for the three hour drive at 5:30 a.m. After a brief stop in Los Olivos to visit Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines, I arrived at the winery on the westside of Paso Robles ready for any work Victor was willing to throw at me. So how many of us were ready to crush grapes that morning? Just me and Victor. Fortunately, we had a lot of help from Victor's friend and a neighbor who helped bring in the bins of freshly harvested Syrah and Grenache grapes earlier in the morning. When you are not used to this type of work, you slow down by the 9th hour, but I didn't let the pain of lifting thousands of pounds of grapes prevent me from completing the job. In the end, there was no task too small or too large for me to handle, whether it was sweeping the floors, washing bins, or crushing grapes. Then again, I don't think anyone wants me to operate a forklift anytime soon. For everything else, bring it on!

When I set out to write this post, I thought about describing all of the manual labor we endured from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (on Saturday alone; Sunday is for another post), but it occurred to me that this experience was more than a weekend gig in a winery; it was about building friendships and helping people succeed at doing what they love most and keeping all of us hydrated. Of course the three things that kept me alive that weekend were wine, quick meals (thank you Nick and Connie) and an aerobed. It hurt at 7:00 am on Sunday morning, but it was well worth the pain.

I am always amused by some folks who think this is an easy and glamorous business. It sure as hell isn't. For a small winery, the work is hard (and manual), the hours are long and the payoff is marginal. But it's gratifying to know there are many people who support small wineries like Vines on the Marycrest, and more importantly, enjoy their wines and share their love for these wines and California's Central Coast with family, friends and colleagues. California's Central Coast produces memorable and enjoyable wines worthy of accolades and 90+ point scores. In the end, I am humbled when a nice couple enters Victor's winery, compliments his wines, joins the wine club and/or purchases a few bottles to enjoy. Vines on the Marycrest, like many other wineries I have come to know and befriend this summer, are emblematic of what is great about this industry and in particular, the Central Coast. I highly recommend everyone - amateur or connoisseur - take an extended trip to Paso Robles, visit one of these family-run wineries, like Vines on the Marycrest, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. In this world of economic uncertainty and constant stress, you'll find the experience to be a welcome escape from the triviality of everyday life. I know this will be the beginning of many cellar rat experiences in the Central Coast.

Cheers to Victor and Jennifer Abascal (and Nick and Connie Valdez) for the most memorable experience! Your patience, generosity and support are humbling and inspiring. May your wines flow freely through our glasses, and I hope to add my labor to your cause (and many others) in the weeks, months and years to come. (That's Victor below pouring Grenache into the fermentation bin after crush, followed by a beautiful photo of the Remo Belli Vineyard where Victor and I joined neighbors Nick and Connie for an early breakfast on the patio overlooking the vineyard and Paso Robles)

Vines on the Marycrest
5050 Mustard Creek Road, Paso Robles
(805) 237-0378
Tasting Room Hours: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm, Friday-Sunday
Twitter: @Vines_Marycrest
Facebook: Vines on the Marycrest
Wines: Rhône blends with a dash of Bordeaux (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pinot Noir Clusters at Alma Rosa's El Jabalí Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills

During a recent trip to Santa Barbara County, I stopped for a sip of Pinot Noir at Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards located on Santa Rosa Road in the Sta. Rita Hills. Below are pictures from the El Jabalí Vineyard, a 7-acre vineyard planted to 3.5 acres of Pinot Noir and 3.5 acres of Chardonnay, which was first planted in 1983 along the gravel road that leads to the family ranch and tasting room.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wine Tasting at East Beach Wine Co. with Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines

Two hours and 45 minutes...that's how long it took me to get from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Why did I subject myself to such an excruciating commute? Larry Schaffer, owner/winemaker for Tercero Wines, was pouring his current selections at East Beach Wine Company. It was well worth the commute to Santa Barbara as the store was packed with people eager to taste his wines. I met Larry at the Santa Barbara Wine Futures Tasting hosted by the Winehound and Wine House in Century City last month. Tercero was my last booth of the afternoon and the most pleasant surprise of all the tastings. I am really looking forward to the '07 vintage. Below is a list of the day's tastings with some recommendations:

2008 Tercero Grenache Blanc, Camp 4 Vineyard
2008 Tercero Gewurztraminer, The Outlier
2006 Tercero Grenache, Camp 4 Vineyard
2006 Tercero Mourvedre, Camp 4 Vineyard
2006 Tercero Cuvee Christie
2006 Tercero Syrah, Tierra Alta Vineyard

Tercero Wines
(805) 245-9584

Friday, May 15, 2009

Winemaker Ken Brown (Ken Brown Wines)

Ken Brown (Byron Kent Brown) is recognized as one of Santa Barbara County’s pioneering winemakers and innovators. He was among the first vintners to realize the great promise for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in this cool-climate appellation in the mid-1970’s. He was also the first winemaker to introduce the Syrah grape, as well as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, to Santa Barbara County. Ken was one of a handful of winemakers to catapult Santa Barbara County into an established appellation.

Ken Brown began his career as the first winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery in 1977. He followed up this opportunity by forming Byron Vineyard with his wife, Deborah, and business partners, and embarked on an extensive experimental vineyard program featuring various rootstocks, clones and planting densities and built a state-of-the art gravity winery in 1996.

Ken Brown launched his label in 2003 which reinvigorated his excitement about the vineyards and the wines that brought him to Santa Barbara County in the first place 30 years ago. Ken continues to craft the most subperb Pinot Noir's in Santa Barbara County by cultivating grapes from the premier vineyards in the region such as Clos Pepe Vineyard, Cargasacchi Vineyard, Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, and Bien Nacido Vineyard among others.

Although Ken doesn't operate a winery, he opens his doors to the public for free tastings of his entire selection of wines once a month. Once you taste Ken Brown Wines, you will become a believer and loyal follower of this ingenuous winemaker from Santa Barbara County. To discover Ken's handcrafted wines visit

Current Central Coast Uncorked Review: 2006 Duncan's Cuvée Pinot Noir

Current Offerings (as of 12/09):

2008 Santa Barbara County Rosie's Rose ($20)
A delightful Syrah rosé featuring fresh aromas of peach, plum and floral. Goes with any food and great with turkey.

2007 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($32)
Blends fruit from 3 of Santa Barbara County's top Pinot Noir vineyards: Garey, Clos Pepe and Rancho La Viña. Lush fruit aromas on the nose and velvety richness on the palate. 378 cases made.

2007 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($35)
A blend from two of Santa Maria Valley's finest vineyards—Nielson and Garey—that truly showcases the depth, complexity and unique expression of Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.

2007 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($38) -- TOP PICK
New Release. A classic expression of Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir. Richly extracted with a luxurious texture and silky finish.

2006 Cargassachi Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50)
This Pinot Noir from the remarkable Cargasacchi Vineyard is all about complexity. Silky, elegant and seamless. Only 240 cases made.

2004 Bien Nacido Vineyard Syrah ($35) -- TOP PICK
One of California’s most sought-after cool climate vineyards. Rich and extracted with aromas of blackberry, plum and black pepper. A mirror image of the fabulous 2003 vintage.
Only 227 cases made.

2005 "A" Cuvée Syrah ($30)
A blend from Bien Nacido and Watch Hill vineyards. A velvety and elegant wine, which makes it Deb's favorite Syrah to date. Only 272 cases made.

Ken Brown Wines
70 Industrial Way, Buellton (Terravant Wine Center)
(805) 688-4482
Wine tasting by appointment or during open houses