Vol. 3 No. 9 – a few of TB’s favorite Central Coast wineries

Here is an interesting problem. Friends are going to visit the Central Coast as I said in the last blog. They are flying in to different airports (LAX, San Jose, San Luis Obispo) and meeting in Paso Robles. Here are the distances and driving times (normal) between various cities and Paso Robles, the geographical center of the Central Coast:

From the north: Paso Robles from SFO 194 miles 3-1/4 hrs; from San Jose 160 mi, 2-1/2 hrs; from Santa Cruz 137 mi, 2-1/4 hrs – note these times are VERY variable!

From the south: Paso Robles from LAX 210 mi, 4 hrs (not in peak traffic!!!); from Ojai 158 mi, 2-3/4 hrs; from Santa Barbara 126 mi, 2 hrs; Los Olivos 91 mi, 1-1/2 hrs; Los Alamos 80 mi, 1-1/4 hrs; Santa Maria 64 mi, 1 hr.

Using this guide you can figure the distance between any two points along the route, to aid in calculating time to various wineries. Hope you find it helpful.

Santa Barbara is really the southern end of the Central Coast (unless you count Malibu Winery, and Moraga Winery, which TB doesn’t). It is really here for people who want to see more than the most visited towns.  The term here refers to Santa Barbara County which extends all the way to San Luis Obispo. Ojai Vineyard, Adam Tolmach is the most significant in the Southern region. Adam apprenticed under Ken Brown at Zaca Mesa, the first winery in Santa Barbara County (still alive and well in Ojai) along with Bob Lindquist, Jim Clendenon, and Lane Tanner among others. All of them are among the most influential winemakers in California. After leaving ZM, Adam and Jim were partners briefly before going their separate ways. Note that Zaca Mesa is still making incredibly good wines…but pricier these days.

Lindquist started Qupé winery, a Chumash indian word meaning ‘poppy’ and is a Rhone Ranger (more on this in Paso section), and teamed up with burgundian style winemaker, Jim Clendenon with a joint winery Au Bon Climat (or simply ABC). Jim is first and foremost interested in making wines of the quality found in Burgundy. While Bob started Qupé which he sold in 2013, but Bob continues as winemaker as well a producing Lindquist Family Cellars, Sawyer Lindquist wines, and some beautiful Spanish style wines under the Verdad Label (verdad means truth). His wines are all certified biodynamic.

The websites tell where their tasting rooms are, Jim’s in Santa Barbara, Bob’s in Santa Maria, but if you are going to be there on Saturday, October 14th the winery will be open from 11am to 3pm and you can taste all of their wines. At $20 it is a steal. Why? Because unless you are in the trade the winery is not open to the public at any other time during the year.

Earlier I mentioned Lane Tanner, who once made great pinots under her name, but the movie Sideways drove the price of pinot noir grapes to the moon, Alice…the moon, and on her smaller scale she could not compete. Have no fear, Lane has returned, teaming up with Will Henry of the Henry Wine Group which was sold last year and has turned “garagiste” but still making her acclaimed Pinot’s in Santa Maria, and other fine wines under the Lumen label. You can taste her wines in nearby Los Alamos at Pico, a wine bar serving tapas  (small plates) and featuring wine pairings dinners. Highly recommended!

Other wineries in the area are CambriaBaileyana  where winemaker Christian Roguenant came to after being brought over from France for the Deutz winery specializing in sparkling wines a and now called Laetitia, Alban (although it is unlikely you can visit them but they make superb Rhone style wines), Rancho Sisquoc, which is a fun small winery to visit on Foxen Canyon Road near Cambria and ABC. There is also Sanford & Benedict, and several more.

Moving north to San Luis Obispo is where we always stay in a beautiful French B&B, formerly a motel, called Petit Soleil. I can’t say enough about this wonderful place with warm owners and employees…better than France…with rooms in various French motifs, and the best wine tasting hour of anyplace we have ever found, and that is only topped off by their breakfasts. It is at the north end of SLO so you are very close to Paso Robles. Very close, if you need a lot of rooms is the Apple Farm, which began in 1924 and is the first motel in America…it has been remodeled but has been in continuous service since and it is at the extreme north end of town just before you go up the Cuesta Grade to Paso.

Santa Maria is the home of Santa Maria Barbecue…you must have it…a tri-tip grilled to perfection! San Luis Obispo has some wonderful restaurants both downtown by the beach and by Morro Bay. No need to go hungry here…whatsoever!

Finally, we are at Paso Robles and our primary destination. The choices are many and it is pretty much divided between west of town and east of town wineries. The first one I want to talk about is Eberle. Why? Because Gary Eberle was the original Rhone ranger, who first planted syrah there and with the exception of Joseph Phelps the first in California. He began at his family’s Estrella River Winery (now part of the Bronco Wines Group which makes Two Buck Chuck, aka Charles Shaw), then started his own winery. He makes Viognier, Syrah, Syrah Rosé, Côtes du Rôbles, as well as fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He is often overlooked but he provided the ‘canes’ for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and Bob Lindquist among others. Both Randall and Bob credited Kermit Lynch with convincing them that there were some great Rhone wines and from that they embarked on their Rhone Ranger adventure.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum is Tablas Creek, jointly-owned by Californian Robert Haas and the Perrin family which makes the great Chateau du Beaucastel (the highest rank of Chateauneuf-du-Pape). Had it not been for the Rhone Rangers (Graham was the first to be labeled that by Wine Spectator, but he acknowledges Eberle as preceding him). Tablas Creek makes all the other Rhone varietals too including mouvèdre, grenache, grenache blanc, rousanne, marsanne. There flagship wine used to be Esprit de Beaucastel but switched the name to Esprit de Tablas, perhaps to avoid confusion? The only other winemakers I know in the region that does this many is Bob Lindquist and Randall Graham…these are great wines to enjoy. Note that October 20-22 is Paso Robles Harvest Weekend…Tablas Creek among others has a great event.

Other top wines in the area are Justin, which was started in 1981 and has since been sold to the Fiji water company (I kid you not) and recently made news for removing a large number of trees without a permit…they apologized for the omission…yeah, right.  There is a tasting room in Paso for Turley Wine Cellars named after acclaimed winemaker, Helen Turley. Her zins are single vineyard and come from Napa as well as Paso Robles (her brother may now be running the winery). They are distinct and either you love them or don’t see them as zinfandel…Rather than name the rest of the wineries, here is a link to a downloadable map. Also, here is a list of Paso Robles wineries by varietal if you have a special interest…very useful!

A friend who lives there took me to Linne Calodo winery which is a favorite of the locals in adjoining Templeton. This is the type of place you might miss but is adored by the locals.

Heading north from Paso are thousands of acres of grapes on both sides of Highway 101. They are pretty flat and personally not of much interest to TB, but when you get to Santa Cruz, things change. First is the aforementioned Bonny Doon with a winery in the town of that name but the tasting room is about 10 miles north of downtown Santa Cruz in Davenport on Route 1…again, highly recommended, especially if Randall happens to be there – don’t worry he is very friendly and approachable…his life revolves around his wine.

Higher in the Santa Cruz mountains are a few more wineries, most notably Ridge, which also is located in Healdsburg on the mountain adjoining Dry Creek Valley, but it is here that their acclaimed and long-lived Montebello, and especially coveted Lytton Springs, are produced. Lytton Springs has one of the longest lives of any wine made in America.

I enjoyed the trip down memory lane and hope you find it useful…I think I’ll go have a glass of wine now!

What kind of wine does a wine geek choose for a special occasion? In this case, it was our 48th anniversary, so I built the dinner around the wine. A million years ago when my son-in-law, then a chef, and I toured Tuscany and Piemonte, we had the best steak I ever had in Europe: a Florentine steak. Most beef there is rather tough and lacking in flavor, but if you baste a nice thick top sirloin or similar with aged (in this case 20 year old) Balsamico,a little salt and pepper and some rosemary and a few other herbs, then grill it perfection…to us that is between rare and medium rare, it is exceptional! Rummaging through my cellar I stumbled across a 2007 (not a typo) Chianti Classico, not even a reserva from Felsina, the first Chianti ever on the Top 100 Wines of the World by Wine Spectator and consistently on that list. We visited Felsina and another favorite Volpaia (which is at the opposite end of Tuscany in a medieval town of that name, and when they built the winery the owners put all the utilities underground, hence no wires, and no cars on the streets in this little hillside town. They have four apartments you can rent for a minimum one-week stay. We were allowed to stay for one night -secluded and fantastic.

How was it? Incredible…we both loved it: it was fresh, no signs of aging. The next night I poured two glasses of the remainder which I accidentally left out overnight with using my Vacuvin and handed one to my wife and asked how she liked it. She loved it…said it was even better than the one the previous night. Oh really??? It was the same wine, and yes, it had improved…amazing for a 10 year old Chianti! That is the holy grail: storing a wine for long period…in a passive wine cellar I might add…and then being blown away by its charm and complexity.

Ciao bella,

TB

©Copyright 2017 by traderbillonwine.com

 

 

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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

 

 

Vol. 2 No. 27…Screw it! No more, put a cork in it!…and why!

TB is a hopeless romantic…the bottle of wine, a candlelit dinner, presenting the bottle, extracting the cork, hearing that little ‘pop’ as it comes out of the bottle…you get the picture.

My first experiences with screw caps on wine (sic) were Thunderbird, Ripple, Boone’s Farm, Red Mountain, all with those damnable accompanying hangovers…the morning after the night before. But then TB grew up! No more screw caps…not now, not ever!

Fast forward 50 (FIFTY) years and look what we have: wine in a box! Wine in can’s! …but screw cap’s? No freakin’ way!

Remember these are no ordinary screw caps. They are technologically engineered (aka new and improved), and mandated by the problem of cork taint which impacts as many as one in ten bottles. Some say they have never had a ‘corked’ bottle, others who are super-sensitive have had several…in any event the wine smells ‘skunky’. Once you smell it, you won’t forget it.

Also, recall that most wine is drunk within 30 days of purchase, but what happens if you are a collector or merely like to age your wines…not fun to spend $100 or more on a bottle of wine and have it smell funny (TB is told that on very old bottles there is ‘bottle stink’ – an ugly phrase – but that unless it is tainted fades with the recommended decanting).

What to do about it? Re-cork it and return it to your retailer for a refund or replacement – chances are the second bottle won’t have it but it could. Again, if you have stored it for years you won’t have this option because it could be due to improper storage or other factors.

Now imagine you as a winemaker. You have done everything right; you try to get the wine to the apogee of what you want it to taste like and then you bottle it, and with expensive corks. While producers try to make the corks as consistent as possible.

Stelvin produces two caps.I was told about them by Graham Painter, the Founder and CEO of NZ Wine Navigator which is an importer (exporter to the U.S.). He said that they allow for an oxygen exchange, something I had not heard before, thus allowing the caps to breathe.

I went to the best source I know, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. Not only is Grahm one of the luminaries of California wine and the first volume producer to use screw caps, eventually to all of his wines, both white and red!

Grahm explained to me that the producer of the caps/capsules is Stelvin. They, in turn, produce two capsules: Saranex, which is more ‘oxygen exclusionary’ and suitable for wines to be consumed relatively soon, and Saratin, which is slightly less exclusionary than a standard cork but about the same as a premium cork, and thus requires slightly less Sulfur Dioxide (which some drinkers cannot tolerate, as with herbicides or insecticides). He adds that in the barrel, oxygen exchange is approximately 1ppm per month!

Back to the winemaker: he/she decides the optimal time to bottle the wine. Changes due to oxidation are not desirable, except over long periods of time. For this reason, vintage Ports are bottled young, after just 6 months to 1 year in barrel, and that is why they shouldn’t be consumed for twenty years or more, hence the English custom of buying a ‘pipe’ when a child is born assuring that they will have some of it for the rest of their lives – how big is a pipe? It is a barrel of 550 litres!!! FIVE HUNDRED FIFTY LITRES. We Americans should be so lucky.

So, will Stelvins replace corks? Given the fact that it takes years for a cork tree to regrow its bark, and the increased demand for corks, especially premium ones, winemakers are turning to synthetics and plastics. TB’s bet is it’s the screw cap that wins out. I have opened too many bottles where the cork has deteriorated and some that were obviously ‘corked’. A skilled sommelier can open one without it appearing to be a screw cap. Time will tell…but to me, it is what is inside that counts, right?

TB ©2016