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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

Wine tasting in Santa Barbara County

It’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to blog! Travels have been busy, and the bit of downtime I had in the last little while happened to be in Cuba, where WiFi access is verrrry limited, so I’ve yet to have a chance to update you on this little 34-day excursion.

Once I returned from Italy, you’ll recall that I wound up in New York City for an overnight at the brand-spanking-new TWA Hotel at JFK and a whirlwind 24 hours in the city, featuring a killer al fresco sushi lunch at the Bowery Market (review to follow next week), an organ recital by my dear friend Tyrone (followed by drinks with the gays, of course), and a night out with my beloved Jo.

The next morning I was at EWR (airport code should instead be “UGH”) bright and early to catch my flight to Los Angeles, and was particularly excited for this flight, since it was on United’s sparkling new 787-10 Dreamliner, which they have configured with their Polaris business class product. I was lucky enough to catch this aircraft in its early stages, before it has been deployed on major international routes, while United operates two daily EWR à LAX flights on this aircraft, which can rightly be called their “flagship.” When I saw an open upgrade slot on one of these 787-10 legs on the 6-hour flight to LAX, I jumped on it and used a Regional Premier Upgrade certificate to slide into Polaris. This is probably the best business class product being flown within the US, and I was insanely impressed by the hard product (the soft product, i.e. the food and other service, not quite as much).

I have a love-hate relationship with LA, but enjoyed my visit, particularly staying with my buddies Ryan and Amanda and visiting with an old Utah friend, Cameron. I was most excited, however, to take a little excursion in my Turo-rented Porsche Boxster convertible to Santa Barbara to taste wine in one of my very favorite wine regions in the US.

Santa Barbara County is one of the most diverse winemaking regions in the US, and while the wines are top-notch, and the Happy Canyon cabs can compete with those from Napa while the Sta. Rita Hills pinots hold their own against Willamette, it’s still a less “developed” and commercialized wine region, and still feels like cowboy country in many ways, which is something I have always appreciated about the area. Additionally, you can’t possibly get a grasp of the entirety of Santa Barbara County’s vast winemaking world in a single day or even a single trip––the microclimates and AVAs vary so significantly, and one can taste a bounty of deep, magnificently robust reds and feather-light, sexy pinots within a 20 minute drive of one another.

Last time (and the first/only time) I visited Santa Barbara County, I focused on tasting in Foxen Canyon in the Santa Maria Valley AVA, which begins as prime pinot and chardonnay country and ends with climates better for syrah and heavier varietals. Along this route are spectacular pinot heavyweights such as Riverbench and Foxen, as well as Rhône rockstars Demetria and Zaca Mesa.

The first day on this tasting trip, I took a drive up PCH with the Porsche’s top down and found myself in the center of old Santa Barbara seeking a place to chill, charge my phone, and taste some wine. Grassini Vineyards had been recommended highly by my research, and while I was sad to learn that they do not have public tastings at their beautiful estate in the Happy Canyon AVA, I took a seat at their tasting bar right in the heart of Santa Barbara. Cabernet sauvignon is the star here, and the heat of Happy Canyon produces bold, brooding cab fruit that Grassini has managed to tame and balance beautifully. Really lovely wines, though not the varietal that I go to SB to taste.

More interesting, I took a quick trip around the city to taste at some tiny rooms outside the downtown area. Jaffurs, on my radar for some time, is a rockstar producer of Rhône varietals, which (remarkably) grow just as well in pockets of SBC as the more common SB grapes. The syrahs are the jewels in their crown, and I was very impressed by their killer prices for the quality of wines being produced. Even more impressive was the parade of local dogs that came to visit the warehouse, and the staff seemed to know each of them.

My next stop, however brief, was probably my favorite on day one, if only because I enjoyed one of the most ridiculously cool wines I’ve had the chance to taste. Whitcraft is a cult producer of pinot in particular, and the tiny operation (just two guys) is housed in a warehouse just outside the hip Funk Zone district. I entered to a full bar, and was disappointed to be told by the employee that he didn’t think he could let me do a full tasting because he needed to top the barrels before he left for the day, but offered me a taste of two wines for free. After the crowd had thinned and he gleaned my passion for pinot, he poured me a special wine––a single-vineyard pinot from the KickOn Ranch vineyard, harvested in 2014, at the end of an unusually brutal multi-year drought. I tasted this wine and said immediately “this tastes like jalapeño;” come to find out, a jalapeño farm is on the property next to this vineyard. I have never had a wine with more umami and earth, and less fruit––it was crazy interesting and truly special. They were out of the bottles, but their “Farmer” blend, complete with an illustration of their most trusted harvester of grapes, was 50% this wine and 50% another vineyard, so I was happy to take a bottle home for just north of $30, a total steal. I was told, “When this guy brings me grapes, I know I don’t even have to look at them or check them. I know they are the best.”

My AirBnb, up in the foothills above the city, was my dinner location for the night after I decided to visit Trader Joe’s rather than a downtown restaurant. Rather than taking the highways up into the winemaking country the next day, I took a surprisingly awesome winding drive up through the morning “June Gloom” of low clouds hugging the mountains (featuring alarmingly thick fog) and came out on top of the range, above the clouds, and wound my way down (aggressively, as one does in a Porsche) into the Santa Ynez valley. It was like a sea of clouds, and these mountains were the islands.

I’d received a slew of recommendations for my tasting day, but the first on my list was in the town of Los Olivos, a tiny, charming village built almost entirely around wine. Dozens of picturesque tasting rooms of area wineries line the two main cross streets, and one has endless options of where to go. I had so many recs for tasting rooms in town, and was so charmed by it when I arrived, that I decided to just spend the day there.

I started with Brewer-Clifton, a somewhat legendary producer of pinot and chardonnay in the Santa Rita Hills, probably my favorite AVA in the SB area, recommended to me by Burgundian specialist Greg LaFollette of Alquimista (and formerly the mammoth Sonoma Coast winery Flowers) in Sonoma, with whom I tasted in January. Brewer-Clifton was part of the inaugural crowd, along with the legendary Sea Smoke, to map the new Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 2000, which is a haven for Burgundian varietals due to the warm days and cool nights when the marine layer blows in from the Pacific and cools the fruit. The result is pinot that is simultaneously distinctly Californian and fruit forward, but also sexy like a good Côte d’Or.

The tasting was nice, and I liked small-production pinots, particularly their 459 clone specimen, very much, but the tasting fee was a bit expensive for SB and the reception was a bit chillier than I tend to expect at the generally relaxed SB tasting rooms. The sole acquisition was a magnum of their standard issue chardonnay, which was really nice, for over half off, and she waived the tasting fee, which meant the magnum only cost me $11.

The lady at Brewer recommended a place across the street that had also received praise from folks in town, Story of Soil, and I made a hop over to their gorgeous tasting room and received a decidedly more low-key and chill experience from the staff. The gamay, which is a varietal that is having a “moment” in the US, was a particular hit, and the youth of the wine highlighted the fruit character over the game and funk that can come with the grape. I also really enjoyed their grüner Veltliner, and learned that Austrian varietals are becoming in vogue in the area. After another 90 minutes chatting with the gent behind the counter, tasting their single-origin pinots, and bemoaning the effects of climate change and the Trump administration on winemaking, I headed to the next spot recommended to me, an upstart called Liquid Farm.

This stop continued my exploration of Sta. Rita Hills Burgundian-style chard and pinot––owner Jeff Nelson worked for decades with the very best winemakers in Burgundy and Champagne, and desired to create California wines that could support local agriculture and celebrate the climate and terroir while maintaining old-world elegance in their craftsmanship. Liquid Farm was the result, a testament to the equal importance of what grows above and what grows below the soil, and the way that the terroir influences the grapes. Their tasting room in Santa Barbara is really cool; it kind of feels like a branch of Anthropologie, but with more wine and less hipster elitism. I was particularly taken with their wall made of rosé bottles, and indeed, their rosé was really stellar, as I’d heard from many folks in advance of my visit. The chardonnays were my favorite here, and the pinots were also excellent, but tended to blend together in my memory since I’d tasted so many throughout the day.

I was happy to receive the final recommendation to try a spot not known for their Sta. Rita Hills pinot, but instead for some other diverse Rhône, Loire, and Italian varietals, Stolpman, best known for their syrah. The name had been thrown around at pretty much every previous winery I visited, so I was excited to try it as my last stop of the day, particularly to taste Italian varietals, some of which I’d come to know from my week and a half in Italy. Stolpman is based in Ballard Canyon, south of Los Olivos, another slightly warmer area in the county, and the estate, modeled after a Tuscan villa, is supposed to be absolutely stunning, and is used for weddings and events, but sadly closed to non-club members.

I was greeted by the dog of one of the employees, who milled about seeking scratches from the various folks at the wine bar. This was the only tasting room that was very busy, but I managed to meet a couple of cool girls from the area, and when the crowds thinned out, I was able to chat with the very chill guy behind the counter about wine, particularly about the absurd tasting notes that have become so common among certain wine snobs. He poured me some of his favorites, including a few of their prized syrahs, but my favorites were their killer chenin blanc and a super Tuscan called La Cuadrilla, which features barrels selected by the farming staff, and the profits are given to the same folks. Unfortunately, some of their “greatest hits” that have had the SB wine crowd buzzing were sold out and I wasn’t able to taste them, including a gamay that the staff at Story of Soil called a “game changer.”

On the way back to the city, I stopped in Solvang at a spot called Industrial Eats, which has a counter-service “omakase” of sorts where the chef selects five dishes from the menu for you for $50. I met up with the girls I’d talked with at Stolpman and we enjoyed a bottle of Chandon alongside our food. The food was good but overall just too much food, and I would have been better off sticking to the pizza I ordered on the side (which was INCREDIBLE). The sunset drive along the Pacific with the top down was magical, and I settled in for my last night in California with a bottle of pinot on the patio overlooking the foothills.

Keep an eye our for my report on dinner at é by José Andrés in Las Vegas!

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