What better way to wind down a stressful work week than a glass of Porto and some chocolate? I know the work week ended on Friday, but my day job took over my life for the last 10 days and my work week ended on Sunday night.
Everyone should have some NV Porto in their stash for just an occasion. You don't want to crack some crazy vintage Porto on a weeknight. You just want something delicious, fruity, and sweet, not some contemplative expression of years gone by.
I opened this up and was impressed by the clean fruitiness, gushing with red cherries, blue fruits, and plums. It has a nice subtle spice to it from 5 years in cask and it's a perfect foil for my chocolate choice: Sharffen Berger Nibby. First, as my readers know, I can't eat nuts or peanuts, so these reserve chocolates, which are made in a separate facilty than the regular chocolate bars, are something even I can enjoy. The Nibby has little crunchies of cocoa beans in it, which are very dry so the sweetness of the Cockburn's Special Reserve Porto is the perfect foil.
Now I can finally get some rest.
People are always asking me for good value wines, and I have to admit, I get quite a few samples that fall into that category, but very few stand out. This is one I can recommend. At the SRP $9.99, it's a great thing to pair a burger or, in my case, a Monday night pork chop on the barbeque. This is a medium-weight blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Barbera that has more of the density and acidity of the Barbera than anything else. The pinch of Petite Sirah gives it a nice color and adds a dusty touch on the nose, which I like, and the fact it weighs in at 13.5% and has plenty of fruit without feeling over-ripe, seals the deal. Nice.
A while ago, I made some New York Strips with an Ancho Chili Sauce I made up, and wanted an interesting foil. As I picked though the cellar, I came across the lovely Domaine Des Roches Neuves "Terres Chaudes" 2006 Samur Champigny from the master winemaker, Thierry Germain in the Loire. I knew it would be an earthy wonder and thought would be interesting to open a great California Cab Franc as well to contrast. I chose the 2007 Pride Mountain Cab Franc.
Old school: Smells of blackberries and limestone. A dark inner core protudes through this wild, unfiltered wine. On the palate, it' s an explosion of dense, dark black fruits and has an intreguing herbal note, maybe even a pleasant hint of brettanomyces which gives it a wild field-fruit character. Acid is pronounced and gives it some nervous energy. Unfined and unfiltered, this one can't be confused with a California Cab Franc.
New School: The 2007 Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Franc is suprsingly more spicy on the nose, with no sign of the bret or herbaceousness. On the nose, I do get classic Cab Franc with it's dark boysenberry core and cocoa. But, of course, with the requisite California touch of oak. On the palate, the oak smooths out the texture and adds body.
2006 Damien Lorieux Bourgueil “Cuvée Tuffeaux”
Postscript to this evening: I opened another great Old School Cab Franc that deserves a mention. From one of the new voices in the Natural Wine movement in France, Damian Lorieux, comes his top Bourgueil which he calls "Tuffeaux". I opened up a 2006 last night and it was amazing. The wine is fermented in cement tanks with no touching wood, which adds texture while keeping the pure fruit flavors come through. This is not nearly as earthy or funky as the Domaine Des Roches Samur above from the same year. It is made with a feminine touch. This was one of those wines that I bought a few years ago and I needed to go back and see how much I paid for it. Under $14.00? Just amazing.
I've been spending some time perfecting one of my favorite cocktails, the Brooklyn. It's an old fashioned affair, in the Mahattan family, aptly enough. I had one for the first time a couple of years ago at the restaurant Five in Berkeley and I was hooked. We in the U.S. are slightly hampered these days from absolute perfection as the original cocktail calles for Amer Picon, which is not imported at this time. Fortunately, the folks at Torani stepped in and have created the Torani Amer which is the normal substitute in the U.S. Part of my infatucation with this cocktail is sparked by a great review of the new Rye from Bulleit that I read in Wine & Spirits. I got a bottle and I love it's wild overtones.
Classic Brooklyn Cocktail
1/2 oz. Torani Amer
1/2 oz. Luxardi Maraschino Liqueur - less if you like it slighly less sweet
1 oz. Noilly Prat White Vermouth
2 oz. Bulleit Rye
Ice down a martini glass while you build the drink. Get a handful of ice in a shaker and, as in all cocktails, start with your cheap ingredients first: the Torani Amer, Luxardi, and Vermouth. (This way if you make a mistake, you're not tossing out your good stuff). Then add the Rye. Shake 10 times or so. Toss the ice that's chilling your glass, strain and enjoy straight up.
Sorry if half this post leaked out yesterday! Here's the whole post:
As much as I could hang out in Los Olivos all day, I had to run a couple of appointments I had made previously that were up in Buellton, so I grabbed a sandwich and headed out of town. First stop was to Alma Rosa, Richard Sanford's winery that I profiled in 2008. I was shocked to see how busy their tasting room was. By the look of the crowd, there were lots of people that had come up from Los Angeles to taste and knew Richard's wines from the Sanford days and followed him to his new venture. Like Foxen, there is a bit of tasting outside on the patio, and inside as well. It was nice on a spring day, but could be amazingly hot once summer comes. I was on my own here and didn't have too much time, so I tasted through their offerings pretty quickly. For vineyard info, check out their website. I have to say, that one reason this is a must-visit, is that they were selling some of their older vintages at fabulous prices at the tasting room. I was surprised to see that as of today, their 2006 Alma Rosa El-Jabali Vineyard Chardonnay is being sold on their site for only $16.00. I think the case price was $12 per bottle at the winery - either price is a steal for this quality of wine...but it's really ready to drink and not something to hold on to very long. Other favorites here were:
2008 Alma Rosa Pinot Gris La Encantada Vineyard - light and floral, this is a good summer quaff.
2008 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills - Very pretty wine with a brooding mid-palate. Great to accompany something on the grill.
2008 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard Clone 115 - This has a nice smokiness to it with generous dark spices.
2008 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard Clone 667 - Less smokey than the 115 and has better integration.
My final stop in the area was a visit to Morgan Clendenen's Cold Heaven. The last time I visited Jim Clendenen, he had told me about his ex-wife's passion for Viognier and I was anxious to check it out. I have also been reading about her collaboration with Yves Cuilleron from Condrieu --very unusual in California in general, but even more unusual to see in Santa Barbara County, where barely a French wine can be found! (except in the excellent small shop Bin 2860 in Los Olivos). I tasted here with Richard Bruce, cellar master and tasting room manager. I was pleased to see that Ms. Clendenen is branching out and doing some nice Pinots too, which I tasted in barrel. These should be something to seek out when they get released. The Deux C wine, which is a blend of California fruit and Condrieu fruit was unavailable to taste, unfortunately, but I do have a bottle that I will review at a later date.
Cold Heaven has a dizzying array of different styles of Viognier. Here were my favorites:
2008 Cold Heaven Viognier Le Bon Climat - Bone dry and has nervous vitality.
2006 Cold Heaven Viognier Saints and Sinners - Sanford & Benedict Vineyards. Is one of the collaborative efforts with M. Cuilleron, but with all California fruit. Smacks of honeysuckle and orange blossoms. Delicious and complex, ready to drink.
2005 Cold Heaven Late Harvest Viognier - A stunning California dessert wine. Not terribly sweet with beautiful floral and citrus flower scents. I had to buy one of these!
When I travel to taste wine, I am a man with a mission. I'm up early. Get a good breakfast in me and I'm out the door. I drove from Santa Maria to Los Olivos on Saturday morning and was there about 20 minutes before any of the many tasting rooms opened up, just enough time to walk around and get reaquainted with the town and make a game plan. This was a freeform morning and I knew I had a few places I had to hit, but only had a couple of hours before my first scheduled appointment closer to Buellton.
When I arrived in town, the Country Market was already cooking up the tri-tips for their excellent sandwiches as I waited for Qupé to open up. Tasting at Qupé is really tasting three very different wine brands and styles in one tasting room. Rob Wyngard is the tasting room manager and he pours Qupé as well as Verdad (Bob Lindquist's wife, Louisa's brand) and Ethan (Bob's oldest son Ethan's brand) wines. For a great overview of their portfolio, I would recommend the blog that Rob has started.
I've been a Qupé fan for 20 years. And I discovered Ethan's rich Syrahs and Sangioveses five or six years ago and snatch them up whenever I can buy them. I left the tasting room with several choice bottles! Out of the eight or nine wines I tried, here were my favorites:
2010 Verdad Grenache Rosé, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (Edna Valley) - This is a 100% Grenache rosé from a biodynamic vineyard and it hit me like a good Tavel from the Southern Rhone Valley. It smacks of fresh strawberries and watermelon and would be great on a hot summer day.
2009 Ethan Grenache Blanc - Good body to this wine from 50% malo but neutral barrels keeps the aromas of lemon and tangerine peels fresh.
2008 Qupé Los Olivos Cuvée - 14 mos. in neutral oak from 3 vineyards. This is always a great deal and offers up soft spices, strawberry and cranberry aromas. Only about 13% alcohol, so this is a quaffer.
2008 Qupé Syrah “Bien Nacido Vineyard” Santa Maria Valley from Block 11, and x-block. Beautiful spiciness on this syrah and blue fruits.
2008 Verdad Tempranillo - a blend with 20% Grenache. This took a bigger oak hit, with about 40% new, but it is by no means "oaky". It still has a nice tempranillo tang to it, big fruitness, and clean finish. Very good.
2007 Ethan Syrah Purisima Mountain - I have always really liked this biodymanic wine and the 2007 is no exception. It has a round, earthy sweetness to it and now shows a bit of new oak, but in a few years this will be a very good wine.
Next up is a winery that is generating a big buzz in the area: Dragonette Cellars. Everyone in the area was saying that if you go to Los Olivos these days, you can't leave without going to Dragonette, and if you're lucky, Brandon Sparks-Gillis, the winemaker, may just be pouring.
I got lucky and indeed Bandon was working the tasting room. He had also brought in some barrel samples which I was able to try as well. Brandon is full of enthusiastic energy and because he knows each of the wines he's pouring so intimately, it's a joy to taste when he's there. This is more proof that there are some great young mavericks in Santa Barbara County. I really liked all their wines and came home with several bottles to turn my friends on to. Many of these are sold out anywhere else but at the tasting room
2009 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc - Vogelzang Vineyard - Grapes from the Vogelzang Vineyard, part of the new Happy Canyon AVA, are popping up in some great new wineries in Santa Barbara County. Dragonette's Sauvignon Blanc is barrel fermented with 40% new oak, 12 months on the lees and it shows. This is a creamy wine full of tropical fruits with excellent acid balance. Delicious.
2010 Dragonette Cellars Rosé of Pinot Noir - My notes say "close your eyes and it smells like fresh Pinot. Holy crap!" Best Rosé of Pinot I have ever had.
2009 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills - nice perfume of spice and blackberries. Very pretty wine.
2009 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir - Hilliard Bruce Vineyard from Santa Rita Hills - darker and more brooding but still with the great cool weather freshness. Highly Recommended.
2009 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard - barrel sample. This will be a winner when it gets realeased.
2008 Dragonette Cellars Syrah - Shadow Canyon. This is a big syrah, chewy and pretty dense but with excellent aromatics of black fruits and meat.
2008 Dragonette Cellars MJM - This is mostly Syrah, with a bit of Grenache, Viognier and Mouvedre in it. Another substantial, meaty wine, but not over-ripe. It's a delicious blend and would be a perfect pairing with some nice Santa Maria Tri-Tip!
After leaving Volk, I headed to Foxen to taste with Co-owner, Winemaker, and Viticulturist, Billy Wathan. Billy and Dick Doré started Foxen in 1985 to focus on Pinot, Chardonnay, and Rhone-style wines. Foxen had achived fame way before Sideways but the film really put them on the map. (You may remember the scene where Miles and Jack help themselves to full glasses of wine when the pourer turns her back.)
Tasting here is a two-part affair. First you start at the old Shack, opened in 1987, which has current offerings, and then head up the road to the new solar-powered tasting room for some more reserve wines. In the shack, my favorite things were the bracing, leesy 2010 Foxen Sauvignon Blanc - rich and viscous, the 2008 Foxen Cabernet Franc Rock Hollow - quite a hit of new French oak, but had a nice Chinon-like quality to it (with a bit more heat!) and the spicy 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Grassini Family Vineyard from the new Happy Canyon AVA.
At the main tasting room, I started with one of the most lemony Chardonnays I have ever had, the 2009 Chardonnay, Bien Nacido Vineyard - Block UU. They refer to this as the lemon drop. This one might be fun to pair with something like a creamy shrimp dish that could use a citrus-y counterpart. Next was the 2009 Chardonnay, Tinaquaic Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley which I thought was excellent. It is creamier and bigger than the Block UU. Recommended. Of course, the reds are where Foxen shines brightest. They produce Pinots from some of the best vineyards in Santa Barbara county, including Bien Nacido Block 8, Julia's, Seasmoke, Bien Nacido Block N, and Sanford & Benedict to name a few. There weren't a lot of Pinots open, so of the ones I tried, I enjoyed the 2008 Foxen Bien Nacido Block 8 Pinot the most, with its spice and cranberry flavors. I also liked the 2009 Foxen Santa Maria Valley Pinot which comes from mostly Pommard clones from Bien Nacido and Julia's vineyards.
My next stop was one that defines why I spend my free time driving 800 miles in a rare mini-vacation weekend and writing about wine. My contacts at CCWS set me up with an exciting afternoon with a brand new winery, Presqu'ile, high on the hills next to Addamo off Clark Avenue. As I mentioned in my previous post, Presqu'ile was started by Matt Murphy (and family) and Dieter Cronje, both who were at Ambullneo previously. Most of my tastings are spitting affairs, where 95% of everything I taste goes down the drain instead of my gullet, but it was now 5 pm on Friday and the stunning Murphy house was set up with some awesome cheeses, Presqu'ile's wonderful wines and a breathtaking view of the Valley. So, Matt, Dieter, and I sat and chatted, snacked, and drank together for almost 2 hours. For now, there is no tasting room, but in 2012, there will be an extraordinary production facility, tasting room, and cave. They are just excavating the cave now and are setting up gravity-heavy production with old-school touches like adding cement fermentation tanks (like you see in the Rhone), natural yeast usage, and no filteration. The 2009 Presqu'ile Sauvignon Blanc was done partially in stainless, partly in neutral barrels and the some cement fermentation. The result is a wine with a complex mouth feel, crisp acidity and clean flavors. The 2009 Presqu'ile Chardonnay is treated to only about 10% new oak and 90% neutral oak with lots of stirring, so it has a beautiful weight to it. I think this will be one of those defining wines of the area. Lighter in alcohol than a lot of SB Chardonnays, it is very food friendly and priced at $35.00, which is a great value for a wine of this exceptional quality.
I was lucky to taste the sold-out 2008 Presqu'ile Santa Maria Pinot Noir and the current release from 2009. The 2008 was more extracted and felt like it had a touch more alcohol on it but the extra year gave it great depth. The 2009 Presqu'ile Santa Maria Pinot Noir, I feel is a more structured wine and in time will show greatness with age. It has lovely Burgundian truffle/forest floor aromas and feels very natural. Very highly recommended, especially at $42.00.
I said my goodbyes as the sun was setting, not without buying 2 of each wine.
Later, I found myself at Chef Rick's - The place to eat in Orcutt, the next down down from Santa Maria. Everything there always has something special to it and it is one of my favorite things about visiting the area. The garlic soup, tinged with Indian spices is amazing and is served with most entrees. I started off with some excellent fritters made with artichokes and goat cheese - with a nice red pepper sauce.
Next up was cheesy grits with spicy shrimp, Creole-style spices, rosemary, and thyme with a light beautiful sauce, sopped up with their amazing home-made rolls. Don't miss Rick's.
Day two of my excellent recent trip to Santa Maria Valley started with a visit to the Central Coast Wine Services Center which houses an expansive crush-to-bottle service center with access to the best grapes in the Valley, winemaking facilities, analysis, storage, bottling, filtering, branding, packaging, and more. The building houses 400,000 sq. feet of production space and can warehouse up to 685, 000 cases of wine. Yes, it is servicing some large scale operations, but it is also a beehive of activity for Garagiste winemakers that are using small footprint areas of the facility to house their tiny production facilities. Many of the names you may know (or should know)as boutique wineries are actually made here because of the instant access to Vinquiry (analysis) in the building, bottling lines and storage. Sans Liege, Paul Lato, Tyler Winery, Bonaccorsi, Conway Family Wines/Deep Sea, Nipomo Wine Group/Phantom Rivers, La Fenetre/Timeless Pallets, K Furtado, and Deovlet Wines are all here making small batch wonders.
My first winemaker encounter of the day was a tasting with Ryan Deovlet and he is making a Pinot and a Chardonnay that turned out to be two of my favorite wines out of about 60 that I tasted on my trip. Ryan has cut his teeth at such wineries as Stephen Ross, and the Central Coast cult phenomenon, Sanguis before striking out on his own. As I traveled around for the next two days, the buzz from other winemakers, tasting rooms, and wine-bars was that Deovlet was one of the new hot wines to watch. As I entered his space, (which consists of storage for a couple dozen barrels and a 10' x 12' area where he works) I noticed the small collection of dead soldiers on a top shelf, mostly Burgundies and the essential Chave. I knew I was dealing with someone with my kind of old-world palate and sensibility. It shows in his two excellent current releases, the 2009 La Encantada Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills and the 2009 Solomon Hills Chardonnay Santa Maria. These are both done in a Burgundian style, giving sensitive treatment to the fruit.The Pinot only had gravity racking --it never saw a pump. For now, the best place to find these delicious wines is on his site. Highly Recommended.
As I was supposed to be rushing out of the CCWS to my next appointment, Curt Schalchlin of Sans Liege Wines caught my eye and I had to say hello. His wines have a cult following and I can see why. I have had his "Offering" and "Call to Arms" wines, Red Rhone and White Rhone blends respectively from 2008 and they are unctous, rich, opulent wines. Worth checking out if you're a Rhone Ranger.
I left the CCWS with a bunch of wines that I can't wait to try, so the posts should keep coming about the wines coming out of this extradordiary place.
Next up was a trip across town to Kenneth Volk where I met Michael Brughelli, Director of Operations to taste Volk's current offerings and do some barrel tasting. Mike is an amazing talent and has staggering wine knowledge for someone as young as he. As we went through the '09 barrels, comparing the same wine, different barrel...same wine, different yeast...same barrel, different vineyard block...he spoke with a vivid memory of each element in the process, every inch of the vineyard from which it came, the flavor of every barrel. Several of the barrels popped out at me, especially the Sierra Madre Pinot and the Bien Nacido Vineyards Pinot. Both were great wines and things to definitely look for when they come out. We then tasted some finished wines and I got a feel for the vast array of grapes that Kenneth and Michael like to work with, some very rare in California, which they refer to as "Heirloom" Wines. I tasted the likes of Verdelho, Touriga, Negrette (maybe the most smoked-meat scented wine I have ever smelled), Alianico, Tempranillo, and Mouvedre. My favorite of this round was the 2007 Kenneth Volk Zinfandel from Enz Vineyard, a lovely, light, restrained Zin. If you're in the area, a visit here is a must.
Since my last trip in 2007, I've become very enamoured with Santa Maria Valley as a wine lover's destination. Before the Sideways phenomenon, which I can tell you is ever-presently real, the wines of Santa Barbara county have been captivating cool-climate wonders. The Pinots are world class, and the best Chardonnays are crisp, floral, citrus-y, and bursting with character.
I am lucky to have some friends in the wine trade in Santa Maria and they have been gracious with their time and contacts and I'm planning on the next few posts sharing a taste of the insider's guide to Santa Maria Valley/Los Olivos/Solvang/Buellton tasting and eating. If it's your first time in the area, there are quite a few tourist traps, and I'm afraid I'm not here to tell you what to avoid. I'm here to help you plan on the things to savor.
The first insider's tip is something that may appear at first as just a tourist destination, but if you're lucky, you'll strike gold.
Most people find the Tastes of the Valleys tasting room by searching for Au Bon Climat wines, as this is the main tasting place for the great wines of Jim Clendenen. But it's also the tasting room and retail shop for a lot of other excellent wines.
The most important find at Tastes of the Valleys really is Elizbeth Breen, who is one of the most knowlegable tasting people I have ever seen run a tasting room. If you spend an hour tasting with her, you'll walk out knowing some new wines to share with your friends, the up-and-coming winegrowing areas and AVAs, and brief histories of a bunch of new winemakers that you don't know yet. Go for the most expensive tasting flight, which is still remarkably inexpensive, so you can try as many things as you can.
If you're looking for a good dinner in Solvang and don't want to head over to the Hitching Post II (see below) I have heard lots of great things about Cecco. It's a new good local hang for brick-oven pizzas and pastas. Local sommeliers are also talking about Full of Life Flatbread Pizza in Los Alamos.
Here are the wine favorites that I tasted. They are all for sale in the shop, and some of them are pretty available in your local wine shop.
Margerum Sybrite Sauvignon Blanc 2009: Cold fermented with a tiny spritz to it and a good touch of wood. Not too grapefruity from the latest applelation in the area, Happy Canyon. Doug Margerum started the wonderful Wine Cask restaurant in Santa Barbara back in the 80s. After selling it in 2007, he's devoting all his time to winemaking and it shows.
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir "Knox Alexander" 2008 - Light and lovely with a distinctly spicy overtone. The '08 Isablle is lovely too but I think the Knox is in a great place right now.
Belle Glos Pinot Noir "Taylor Lane" 2008 - Very sweet nose. Chewy texture with ranier cherry on the nose. Very popluar in the tasting room because it's good a distinct sweet fruit character. It's too sweet for my usual tastes, but I can see the attraction.
Belle Glos Meiomi 2009 Pinot Noir - this is a mix of Sonoma/Monterey/Santa Barbara bulk wine, but picked out by Joe Wagner at Belle Glos. Very appealing at around $18 bucks.
Margerum M5 - this Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend is a great value at around $20 bucks.
My first night, I had to go to the Hitching Post II in Buellton. Yes, it was featured in Sideways, but it was picked out for a reason to be featured in the film. It is a local institution and deserves your attention if a good glass of wine and a perfectly cooked steak sounds good. After a day of tasting I can't think of anything I want more. Make no mistake --this is a tourist destination, but the steaks are perfect, the Pinots that are made by Hitching Post are delicious and inexpensive and you need to make a reseveration if you're going to be around the area for any length of time.
Part of the charm is the Central Valley itself. At the long table that was close to me, by the chef's window, there was a woman wit a straw ranger hat on and a guy in his late 50's with overalls on, and an older woman with a wild mane of gray hair --a far cry from the scene in San Francisco! The 10 oz. strip steak I had was cooked to perfection and basted with some kind of magic. Special feature? The relish tray, campy and weird, but great in its own way. Big plus --the garlic toast and perfect baked potato with tons of chives.