Vol 3 No 8…a ‘sideways’ look at the Central Coast – prelude to a guide

Back in March, TB wrote a series of posts on his trip from the Central Coast up to Washington (Vol 3 No. 2.0-2.5). In light of all that has happened since I thought I would provide some ideas if you are making a trip there soon. This was prompted by a chance meeting with a friend…in a wine shop of course (Wine Republic, Excelsior MN), and promised to provide the names of some wineries to visit. Given the way the harvest is looking September would be a much better time to go than August…as always!

Let’s recap the weather in California (or the entire West Coast for that matter), over the past decade. Until 2016 it can be summed up in a word: drought!!! Not just drought, mind you, but the equivalent of right before the Great Flood. Imagine, a 900 year record drought…not just in one area of California but the entire state and much of the rest of the West Coast too!

TB grew up in Southern California…Santa Monica to be exact in the early years of surfing…although he was really a body surfer. In those bygone days one would go to the beach and spend a day – sans sunscreen, get a bad sunburn that peeled and then have a great tan for the rest of the summer…fortunately no melanoma so far!

About the time TB got married in 1969, he noticed a change. It didn’t take all afternoon to get burned…in fact he had it happen in about an hour at the beach one day! Rains? We always had a wet rainy season…can’t recall a dry years. Oh, and fires…Malibu, one year, Mandeville Canyon the next, Bel Air the next, then the San Fernando Valley…like clockwork. TB recalls being at school and knowing there was a fire starting: Santa Ana winds, a dryness in the hair, above normal temperatures and finally the sun would turn orange and the temperature would soar into the hundreds. Later, the destruction on the evening news…but it was simply a fact of life in Southern California.

So what happened to the weather? Dare I say climate change or the dreaded ‘global warming’? The naysayers…of which I have never found among winemakers…say it always changes…yes it does but over much longer time periods and we have, through burning fossil fuels destroyed the ozone layer which is our insulation from ultra violet rays, and in a nutshell, that is the argument for why we must change our ways or leave our grandchildren in a very precarious position. Take a look at Burgundy, where the weather is becoming more extreme, or Bordeaux where winemakers say there will be no more merlot in a decade or so. Alarmist? Hell no, that is their livelihood. Now you know.

To those who think we can relax again…think about the fires so far this year, following that incredible rainfall (except in the Central Coast between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria. Lake Cachuma provides the water supply for Santa Barbara and it was virtually empty at the start of the season and unlike the other dams in the state is the only one that isn’t full to capacity. Note that is the lack of rainfall that stresses the vines and produces rich, intense fruit, but this is ridiculous. As of yesterday, Cachuma is at just 49% of capacity! That is not much margin for error…or another dry year.

Ah, but there were few vineyards in the 1960’s…although there was one just east of Los Angeles that went back to the days of the Spanish explorers…Virgina Dare – now gone and the site was between two freeways (San Bernardino and Riverside). About the only other ones were in Livermore, where Wente, the first, and Concannon reigned supreme. Today there are about a dozen.

Moving north to Napa Valley there were also perhaps a dozen…mostly In Napa, such as Beaulieu (aka BV), Beringer, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers and a few others, until 1966 when Robert Mondavi built his beautiful winery and that kicked off a surge in winery openings. His was the only one that looked like a winery, sleek, and reminiscent of the California missions, instead of an industrial warehouse. That was all about to change. In 1969, vineyard land in the valley was $5,000 an acre…but you had to buy a minimum 20 acre parcel. Compare to today’s $350-450,000 an acre going price, and you cannot make money at that price…so more McMansions of the wealthy, producing their 50-100 cases of wine a year, getting 90 point ratings and selling for upwards of $150 a bottle. Still not profitable…but they don’t care…they call it passion but is it really? Not unless you do the grunt work yourself and few do (Rupert Murdoch bought one of the two in Los Angeles (Moraga), a second one is in Malibu…which also provides the name. Not recognized as great growing areas….unless the terroir is smog? But who cares?

Moving back to the north again, Contra Costa County had a few small ones, bulk producers where you brought your jug to the winery in those days. There are now even some in Orinda where TB lived before being transplanted to Minnesota (Lamorinda AVA…huh?). Oh, wait. Lake County had Konocti Winery and Sonoma had Buena Vista and a couple of others that went back to the 1800’s.

Ah, but the Central Coast? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch…not until 1978 when six investors took a chance and started Zaca Mesa in the belief that good wine could be made there. How right they were, especially when a young Ken Brown was hired as winemaker. Ken in turn hired numerous luminaries to work for him including Adam Tolmach, Jim Clendenon, Bob Lindquist, Lane Tanner and others. A ‘who’s who’ of the Central Coast!

Still, even as the winemakers above started their own wineries, the area was virtually unknown except to locals and people from Los Angeles. However, they started a project that continues today: the Central Coast Classic and Wine Auction organized by local radio personality, Archie McClaren. Only because we had friends who moved to Santa Maria did we learn of it in its infancy in about 1989…it began in 1986 and is a charitable event second only to the Napa Valley Wine Auction, but to TB a lot more fun. It became and remains the second largest wine event in California!

Still, it was pretty much virgin territory except to locals but that event started a change. This was augmented and superseded in notoriety by the movie, Sideways, which while fun, gave a distorted view of wine, denigrating merlot while elevating pinot noir to star status. Within weeks, merlot moved to the bottom shelf, replaced by pinot at eye level there is a certain irony to this as protagonist Miles’ favorite wine was Cheval Blanc which is…primarily merlot (by the way if you decide to read the book, you will find that Miles is really just another wine snob and it gets disgusting in the sequel – avoid!).

It also created so much demand for the grape that Napa vintners were buying it and driving the price up to where many of the locals couldn’t compete. Wait…what about Paso Robles?

There are two initiators of the fame of Paso: Gary Eberle and Kermit Lynch. Eberle was the first to plant syrah and also provided the shoots for Randall Graham who was called the ‘Rhone Ranger’ in an article in Wine Spectator and the name stuck for the region. However, he, Bob Lindquist and others traveled to Berkeley, California to talk to a budding wine importer with a penchant for Rhone style wines. After tasting them, including Vieux Telegraphe, Domaine Tempier, August Clape, and more.

Kermit’s book Adventures Along the Wine Route is a fantastic addition to anyone’s library and love of wine…highly recommended…it was a game-changer for TB!

All of the names in the previous paragraph our passionate about wine and winemaking…it is not a rich man’s hobby for them…respect that! Besides they make some of the best wines on the planet!

Wow…talk about a diversion from my original outline…so I will follow this up with suggested wineries to visit on the Central Coast.

Back soon.

 

Advertisements

Vol 3 No 2.1 – to the home of the Rhone Ranger

After a great breakfast at Petit Soleil, it was off to Paso Robles (where I didn’t stop this time except to visit a friend in Templeton), then on to Santa Cruz – this is where it gets interesting.

The weather was threatening and all of you have by now heard of the horrendous rains in California. Leaving Paso, I was noticing the flooding in the vineyards, and in case you haven’t been to the Central Coast recently, it is virtually ALL vineyards from their to Kingsburg. Then I saw the first of two cars facing backwards on the center divider. Nope, not CHP trying to catch a speeder, but cars that had hydroplaned and spun into the divider, just moments before I passed. A mile further and there was another one on the opposite side of 101.

How bad was it? Well, the car’s GPS had HUGE red ‘X’s in rows from the time I passed the cutoff to Cambria and the famed Hearst Castle. I have driven this route literally hundreds of times in my life but had put Bonny Doon’s location in Santa Cruz in the GPS only to estimate my arrival time – didn’t want to be late for my meeting with Randall Grahm!

But when I got to the Santa Cruz turnoff, the GPS directed me to the next offramp – huh? About a mile down that road it told me to turn left at the intersection??? From there I literally zig-zagged to Santa Crux due to numerous landslides  resulting in closures including the main road, Highway 17! Never saw that before.

Frustrated but on time I arrived for my meeting with Randall. When I met him I was totally surprised by his warmth and friendliness…like he was greeting an old friend. But if you meet him, be prepared to talk wine…not just wine, but the ‘proper’ wine. He then led me into his office for an engaging discussion on his latest project, and a huge one it is.

Have you ever visited a famous cathedral in Europe and wondered at how much faith the builders had in a project they would never see finished…nor would their children or maybe even their grandchildren? Of course the were mainly serfs who built churches and fortifications during the dormant winter season.

But nothing Randall does is wasting time: there are his wines, his creative and fun newsletters, and now his project to find the true California grape. Not far from the Santa Cruz turnoff is the little town of San Juan Bautista, that my older friends know at least from the classic Hitchcock film, Vertigo, with the scenes of the mission there and the eucalyptus-lined Highway 101. It has always been one of our favorite stops in the area. Where else can you stand on the edge of the San Andreas Fault and look beyond at the hills and the Carizzo plain? Why not drive down now and see it in all its splendor, a bed of green with the wildflowers soon to show off?

His project, which caused him to sell off his low end but extremely well-made and popular Pacific Rim Riesling and Big House Red, now available in the box, is a sacred Indian site called Popelouchum, best described by the man himself:

“Join me on a journey of discovery to change the way we grow grapes, to change the way we think about vineyards, to perhaps discover an entirely new vinous expression, and to maybe even get a unique grape variety named after yourself!” – Randall Grahm

Make no mistake, Randall Grahm like TB is a firm believer in ‘terroir’ – a sense of place that helps one identify the tasted of a wine and is burned into your memory. Note this does not apply to all wines, only a select few: the best Burgundy’s; a few great Bordeaux, even fewer California Cabs, Chateauneuf du Pape, hopefully you get the picture.

Ironically, there is a new book out, not worthy of mention in either Randall’s or my opinion, by a since-retired professor at UC Davis School of Enology. A heretic in the words of Grahm and myself, as he says there is no such thing as terroir. Hope he enjoys his retirement as that is where he rightfully belongs.

Grahm grew up not far from TB in West Los Angeles with ‘enologically-challenged’ parents, but he stumbled into Beverly Hills’ Wine Merchant, one of the premier wine shops in the area and was hired. This was both a blessing and a curse because with virtually no knowledge of wine he was introduced to some of the great wines of the world with no point of reference.

He, like so many great winemakers, was bitten by the bug from which there is no cure. He attended UC Santa Cruz then UC Davis where he received a degree in Plant Sciences. With his family’s help he bought land in Santa Cruz (Bonny Doon), and was determined to make a great Pinot Noir. This was his biggest disappointment because he had picked the wrong place to grow that regal grape but after meeting Kermit Lynch and Alice Waters, as did Bob Lindquist, he fell in love with Rhone style wines which he felt were best suited to the area from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz…and how right he was! He humbly gives credit to Gary Eberle for being the first to plant Syrah in the Central Coast but was named the first ‘Rhone Ranger’ in a magazine article and cover. Today that applies to all those who are disciples of wines from around the 42nd parallel.

Despite his laid-back demeanor, he is a serious winemaker and recognized as one of the most influential winemakers in California and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was the first American winemaker to see for himself if the Aussies and Kiwi’s were right about screw-caps (more properly Stelvin capsules), and the first to shun corks entirely, proving that they have a place in top quality winemaking. You will have to wait for the book for more on his philosophy and the interview.

In the tasting room, he is very proud of his wines but let’s you decide for yourself. As always his Cigare Volant exceeded my expectation and the Cigare Volant Blanc, captured me as only a white grenache can. Then he completes the trilogy with a Vin Gris de Cigare -an excellent example of  what a rosé from the region can be (note that in 2016, for the first time, rosés were the fastest growing segment of the wine spectrum, finally overcoming the ‘sweet’ stigma that early California winemakers had imposed on it.  Also, don’t miss his ‘Proper’ series of more affordable wines, a Proper Claret, Proper Pink, and others. His quiver doesn’t stop there however, with his Old Telegram (not a knock-off but a tribute to Vieux Telégraphe, which Kermit Lynch introduced him to years ago).

Sadly, the meeting had to end as he had to pick up his daughter, but I bought several of my favorites of his wines…the Cigare Volant Blanc, did not make it home. As we would approve, it was quaffed with friends over a nice dinner at Artisan Bistro in Lafayette, California, while celebrating my wife, Marybeth’s birthday…3o something! Her birthday was a movable feast also celebrated in Napa Valley, Seattle (our son, Greg flew out to surprise her), and then in Bend and Portland, Oregon.

Before I left, Randall asked where I was headed, and when I said Oakland, he shook his head and said, “good luck.” As it turned out the drive up the coast was absolutely beautiful and when I turned inland for the San Mateo bridge the traffic was light until I neared the bridge but despite it only being around 4:30pm, the opposing traffic headed home to Santa Cruz the only way available was bumper to bumper and at a crawl. I felt very sorry for them.

We had a great weekend in the Bay Area seeing many of our old friends before heading north to Napa Valley on Monday morning…many great visits there to be reported in the next edition.

TB