Profile of Antonio Galloni &

Antonio Galloni May 2011

Below is the profile of Antonio Galloni I wrote for epicure, the magazine/program of Pebble Beach Food & Wine, whose 2014 extravaganza (PBFW2014) ended today. Antonio led four seminar panels for the event, and I can confirm he did a terrific job as I attended three of them. I particularly appreciated the wealth of background he brought to the 2008 Barolo seminar, where some of the fabulous wines on hand were from his own cellar.

Pebble Beach Food & Wine is fortunate to have Antonio Galloni on hand for four of its wine events this year. Antonio has ascended to prominence as an internationally renowned wine critic faster than anyone since the meteoric rise of his former employer, Robert Parker, Jr., in the mid-1980s.

Some might say part of Antonio’s success was a matter of luck. Antonio launched the first English language publication on Piedmont wines at a time—2004—when there was something of a vacuum in English language coverage of this important region. Subscriptions grew faster than Antonio ever imagined. And he was fortunate to be introduced to Robert Parker through a professor at his business school.

Antonio was well poised for success, however, having grown up in his family’s wine business and being able to speak four languages, including his native Spanish, Italian and French. In my view, however, the real key to Antonio’s growing influence in the world of fine wine, besides his keen intelligence, is his tremendous work ethic. When asked about the latter, he attributes it to the example of his dad.

Antonio was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to an American citizen mother and Italian-born father. Antonio’s dad built up his own wholesale and import/export fish and seafood business, serving Latin America generally. By the time Antonio was 11, business conditions in Venezuela had become less favorable so his parents moved to Sarasota, Florida, where they had close friends.

Antonio’s parents opened a food and wine store there specializing in Italian wine and Bordeaux futures. Antonio worked at the store evenings and weekends during high school. He continued to work there on breaks after he went away to study music in Boston at the Berklee School.

Antonio became fascinated by wine as a result of this exposure. His mother’s father was a fine wine aficionado who introduced him to the great wines of Burgundy. For Antonio’s dad, though, the world’s greatest wines were Barolo and Champagne.

After graduating Berklee in 1992, Antonio played gigs with his rock band and waited tables. That’s when he became acquainted with the hot new California wineries that began to receive a lot of attention in the mid-1990s.

In 1997, his then girlfriend convinced him to get a “more serious job.” He applied for an entry level position with Putnam Investments, and moved quickly from there into the firm’s sales and marketing training program. From 2000 to 2003, he was posted to Putnam’s office in Milan, Italy.

In this position, Antonio wined and dined clients at some of Italy’s great restaurants. He spent many of his weekends visiting winemakers.

Ultimately, he decided it was time to get a formal business education. When he was accepted at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, it seemed only natural to return to Boston to reconnect with his network there.

While at Sloan Antonio started writing about wine for himself. Eventually he started sharing pieces with friends, who encouraged him to continue and to think about making his passion for wine into a business.

At that time, the only person writing regularly about Italian wines in English was James Suckling. Antonio thought there was room for another voice reporting on this important area, so by the end of 2004, he started an online publication called The Piedmont Report.

Much to Antonio’s surprise, within several short weeks he had picked up subscribers in over a dozen countries, and producers and retailers were starting to quote his ratings and tasting notes. Antonio’s Italian wife, Marzia Brumat Galloni, who had been born into one of Friuli’s top winemaking families, served as the publication’s editor.

A Sloan professor whose class Antonio audited referred him to a Sloan alum who was running Parker’s website. This introduction led to Antonio meeting Parker, who invited him to write for Parker’s publication, The Wine Advocate. Upon his graduation from business school in 2005, however, Antonio decided instead to take a job with Deutsche Bank in New York City.

After the birth of Antonio’s first child in 2006, he re-evaluated the demands of having a full-time job and running a newsletter business. He therefore accepted Parker’s offer and started reviewing Italian wines for Parker as a consultant beginning in September 2006.

In 2008, Antonio’s portfolio for TWA expanded to include Champagne. In early 2011, Parker stepped down from writing about California wine and turned that prestigious assignment over to Antonio, along with coverage of Burgundy. Antonio by then had left his bank job to write about wine full time.

Many presumed Parker planned to eventually put Antonio in charge of TWA. It was a major surprise, then, when Parker announced the publication’s sale to Singapore investors toward the end of 2012. Antonio subsequently announced he was leaving TWA and starting his own Internet publication.

Launched in May 2013, contains everything Antonio has published since beginning The Piedmont Report, including his TWA reviews in which Antonio had wisely retained copyright. It is also beautifully designed and a tremendous resource for those of us interested in the wines of Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and California.

Antonio and his team have built a platform aimed at making the experience of fine wine and food more immediate and accessible through updates a few times a week. The site employs a variety of tools, including video and interactive vineyard maps. Antonio writes in a welcoming, conversational style that readily conveys his enthusiasm for particular wines and fine wine in general. It is also the first major wine publication to be fully optimized for smart phones.

With his reputation as a wine writer and critic already firmly established, Antonio has set his sights on nothing less than raising the bar on wine media. Given the results so far, and knowing how hard Antonio works, following his father’s example, I have no doubt that Antonio will be a leading voice in the world of wine for decades to come.

Antonio moderating 2014 Pebble Beach seminar on Salon Champagne, with Salon/Delamotte head Didier Depond

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Santa Barbara’s Happy Place for Bordeaux Varieties

view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane

view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane

Santa Barbara area grape growers nearly gave up on Bordeaux varieties planted here in the 1970s after they failed to ripen sufficiently to eliminate green flavors more vintages than not. There are exceptions, of course, and Jonata in Ballard Canyon proved there are warmer areas where Bordeaux varieties can do very well.

Santa Barbara’s hottest growing region, on the far eastern edge of Santa Ynez Valley, has also shown that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, can produce superlative results.

Some Cabernets and Bordeaux blends I’ve rated highly in the past year–93 points and higher–hail from this region. This includes Goodland Wines’ 2011 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red, and Star Lane’s 2007 Astral and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the works is the new Crown Point flagship wine, based on the 2013 vintage, being made by former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel. It is rumored to have a planned sales price in the $200 range. Our next stop then on our in-depth tour of Santa Barbara’s sub-AVAs is Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines

This appellation sped along a fast track, going from vineyards first being planted in 1996 to approval by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), effective November 9, 2009. How did a fairly tiny area—with only about 500 total planted acres—accomplish this in barely 13 years?

It helps there are some very deep pockets amongst winery owners here. The group also enlisted the aid of Sta. Rita Hills’s successful TTB petition scribe—Wes Hagen. Foremost in its favor is the fact the area does have a real variety focus, and climate and soils that are readily distinguishable from those of their neighbors outside the appellation.

Bordeaux varieties planted here include Sauvignon Blanc, which has shown very good results. My favorites to date have been the 2012 Grassini Family (92+ points) and the 2012 Star Lane (91+ points). In addition, there are some acres of Rhone varieties here, primarily Syrah, but also Viognier, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

According to Wes Hagen, who extensively researched the area in compiling the petition for appellation status, the area’s name originated during the Prohibition era when it harbored the only still in Santa Barbara’s north county. According to an area realtor whose father told him what he’d heard from his own father, if you lived north of Santa Barbara and wanted some alcohol in those days, you had to “take a ride up Happy Canyon.”

The TTB initially objected to designating the area as Happy Canyon because there are 10 locations in a total of six states that have the same name, including a wine growing region in Oregon. The petitioners agreed to add “of Santa Barbara” to the name, figuring it would help not only identify the location for those outside the area but also link it to a region with growing cachet in the wine world.

The TTB, in its finding, indicated they were impressed with an unusual feature of the soils here, which is their Cation-Exchange Capacity (CEC). A cation is a positively charged ion (e.g., NH4+ or Ca2+). Since soil particles and organic matter have negative charges, minerals with positively charged ions can easily be asorbed by and stick with these soil particles. Soils in Happy Canyon, which have elevated levels of exchangeable magnesium, had CEC levels nearly three times those of Wes’s own vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Temperatures in Happy Canyon, due to north-south mountain ridges lying 12 miles east that block the Pacific coastal breezes, can run into the 90s during the summer, but are tempered by wind that typically arises at 4 pm, and low evening temperatures. Doug Margerum, who makes wine for Happy Canyon Vineyards and his own Margerum label, claims that what’s great and unusual about the combination of the varieties grown here and the climate is that “the grapes become physiologically mature and ripe before they get a tremendous amount of sugar.”

It should be noted that many of the landowners in this area have traditionally been in the thoroughbred horse raising business. These wealthy landowners and horse fanciers don’t appreciate tourists, so none of the wineries here—and there are only three brick and mortar wineries so far located in the appellation—are permitted to have tasting rooms.

The first vineyards planted here outside of a very small planting dating to the mid-1970s were the McGinley Vineyard, originally called Westerly, and Happy Canyon Vineyards, both started in 1996.

McGinley was planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Roussane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This vineyard is now owned by Roger Bower, a Texan who made millions producing fire-fighting foam. Bower also recently purchased the former Cimarone Vineyard here, renaming it Crown Point. The Westerly label is being used by Bower for wines both from Happy Canyon and the Sta. Rita Hills. Former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel is winemaker for both the Crown Point and Westerly labels.

Happy Canyon Vineyards is planted to Bordeaux varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc and some Cabernet Sauvignon plantings on their own roots. Doug Margerum serves as winemaker. The two top wines here are Brand and Ten-Goal, together with two other Bordeaux blends, Piocho and Chukker.

The next two major vineyards in the area, both planted beginning in 1998, are Star Lane and Vogelzgang.

Star Lane represents half the planted acreage in Happy Canyon, with about 250 acres of vines. It’s the furthest north and east of the area’s vineyards, and includes several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are planted at the top of the vineyard at an elevation of 1500 feet on a 25 degree slope. There are also multiple clones of Cabernet Franc and Merlot planted, along with about 25 acres of Sauvignon Blanc that start on the lowest part of the vineyard, just as you enter the gate. It is 2.4 miles from this gate to the northern tip of the vineyard, which is fortunate to have access to water from 42 springs on the property. I visited here about a year ago and was very impressed by the quality of the plantings, as well as the Cab Franc and Merlot I sampled from barrel.

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane

Star Lane is owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, bankers who got their start in wine by owning the Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, Missouri, since 1974. They purchased the Star Lane property in 1996, and built a magnificent winemaking complex here, complete with hand excavated caves. This showcase facility is unfortunately not open to the public because of the area’s ban on tasting rooms. The Dierbergs also own a similar amount of acreage in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations, from which they produce wines for their Dierberg label.

The new winemaker for both Dierberg and Star Lane is the talented and articulate Tyler Thomas, who was formerly winemaker at Donelan in Sonoma. Tyler started here last summer. I got to visit with him briefly at Star Lane at the end of last year, tasting some terrific barrel samples with him. I look forward to the new Star Lane and Dierberg wines he will produce over the next few years.

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas

Vogelzgang was founded in 1998 and now has 77 producing acres of vineyards, planted to both Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. Winemaker Robbie Meyer, formerly assistant winemaker at Peter Michael, is working on estate wines for Vogelzgang, which first produced a Sauvignon Blanc from the 2005 vintage. Most of their grapes are currently sold to area wineries, including Foxen, Dragonette, Gainey and Ojai.

Grassini Family is among the newest arrivals, having started planting vineyards in 2002. They completed their winery in 2010. The vineyard includes 15 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, and I think that’s the best thing they make, by far, at this point.

Grassini CEO Katie Grassini

Two other small vineyards in this area, for which I can find little info, are Three Creek Vineyard and Tommy Town. The former grows Bordeaux varieties as well as Syrah and Sangiovese. The latter produces a small amount of estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Kirby Anderson is the winemaker.

With all that’s going on in this area, I predict you will be hearing a lot more about Happy Canyon wines in the coming years.

Since there are no tasting rooms here, you should plan to visit Grassini and Vogelzgang’s tasting rooms in the City of Santa Barbara. Star Lane’s tasting room at 1280 Drum Canyon Road in Lompoc is open daily.

For my tasting notes on 23 wines from this appellation, see below.


  • 2011 Anacapa Vintners Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Bright, light lemon yellow color; fresh, ripe grapefruit, tart peach nose; fresh, tart peach, ripe lemon, ripe grapefruit juice palate; medium finish (14.5% alcohol) 86+ points


  • 2012 Dragonette Cellars Rosé Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light pink color; appealing, ripe peach, ripe pear nose; tasty, juicy, refreshing, tart pear, ripe pear, mineral, light pink grapefruit palate; medium finish (75% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, 5% Syrah; 2 hour skin contact, neutral barrels; age on lees for 5-6 months) 91 points
  • 2012 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; tart peach, lemon grass nose; ripe peach, fleshy palate; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 75% neutral oak, 25% stainless steel) 90 points
  • 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Vogelzang Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; pungent, fresh grapefruit, mint nose; tasty, poised, ripe grapefruit, mint palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (11 months on lees; after barrel selection, blended and held another 6 months in 25% new oak) 91+ points


  • 2011 Foxen Cabernet Sauvignon 7200 Grassini Family Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark ruby color; lifted, ripe cassis, cherry, VA nose; ripe cassis, ripe cherry, berry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 89 points
  • 2011 Foxen Range 30 West Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe red currant, light olive nose: tasty, juicy, light-medium bodied bright, ripe red currant, cassis, cherry palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc) 91+ points


  • 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, tart peach, tart yellow apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, focused, tart peach, tart pear, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (reminiscent of a Sancerre, with that level of acidity, but w/o the smoke; no malolactic fermentation; Musque clone and clone 1; all stainless steel and very neutral barrels; 3.3 pH) 91 points
  • 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red
    Opaque purple red violet color; wonderful, loamy, tart black currant, cedar nose; rich but very poised, elegant, ripe black currant, loam palate with a sense of salinity and good acidity; could use 1-plus year in bottle; medium-plus finish (100% Cabernet Sauvignon clone 4 grown at about 1600 feet; 14.7% alcohol; twice used barrels; like a throwback to traditional California Cabs of the 1960s and ’70s with good acidity) 94 points

Grassini Family

  • 2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light lemon yellow color; appealing, smoky, lime, tart green fruit nose; tasty, medium bodied, tart green fruit, lime, mineral, lightly smoky palate with rich mouth feel and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; clone 1 planted in 2001) 92+ points
  • 2011 Grassini Family Vineyards Articondo Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark maroon color; appealing, black currant, mulberry, tobacco nose; plush, ripe black currant, ripe berry, blackberry, light tobacco palate, lacking structure; medium-plus finish (50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.5% alcohol; 25% new oak) 89 points
  • 2010 Grassini Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Almost opaque maroon color; stewed black fruit, baked black fruit, tart berry nose; medium-plus bodied, baked black fruit, baked berry palate with sweet oak and lowish acidity; medium-plus finish (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.4% alcohol; 75% new oak) 87+ points

Happy Canyon Vineyards

  • 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (good value at about $20; 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol) 90 points
  • 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Barrack Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Dark ruby color; aromatic, black currant, black raspberry, light menthol nose; rich, medium bodied, tight, tart black currant, black raspberry palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (55% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec; 14.1% alcohol; pH 3.65, TA 6.5) 92 points


  • 2012 Kunin Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Slightly hazy, very light yellow color; smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass nose; tasty, medium bodied, smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol) 90+ points

Liquid Farm

  • 2012 Liquid Farm Mourvèdre Rosé Vogelzang Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light orange pink color; appealing, Tavel-like, tart cranberry, tart pink grapefruit nose; tasty, poised, tart pink grapefruit, tart currant, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (95% Mourvèdre, 5% Grenache) 92+ points


  • 2012 Margerum Sauvignon Blanc Sybarite Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Pale green-tinged yellow color; tart green apple, lime, light smoke nose; tasty, bright, clean, light-medium bodied, tart lime, bright citrus, mineral, tart green fruit palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol; pH 3.4, TA 6.5; 9% neutral oak; clone 1 picked at different stages, early and late; battonage every two weeks) 91 points
  • 2010 Margerum Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry, blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol; good value at $14) 90 points

Star Lane
Star Lane bottlings

  • 2012 Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light straw yellow color; tart gooseberry, smoke, tart green apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe gooseberry, smoke, reduction, lime mid-palate, mineral palate with lime acidity; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 91+ points
  • 2009 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Opaque black red violet color; ripe black currant, deep berry, pencil lead, bittersweet chocolate nose; bittersweet chocolate, tart black currant, ripe berry palate with firm, fine, chalky tannins; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot; 15.1% alcohol) 93 points
  • 2007 Star Lane Vineyard Astral Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, pencil lead, cassis, tart black currant, mocha, dark chocolate nose; rich, ripe black currant, mocha, violets palate with sweet tannins; good now and should go for years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) 93 points
  • 2005 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez
    Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, black currant, blackberry, boysenberry nose; rich, delicious, tart black currant, berry syrup, dark chocolate palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol) 94 points


  • 2012 Westerly Vineyards Fletcher’s White Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; smoky, lime, lemon grass nose; smoky, lime, lemon grass palate; medium finish 89 points
  • 2010 Westerly Vineyards Syrah Côte Blonde Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar nose; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar palate; medium-plus finish (93% Syrah, 7% Viognier) 91+ points
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Bubbles Rising: Sparkling Trend in Santa Barbara?

L to R: Riverbank's Clarissa Nagy; Don Schroeder of Sea Smoke; Dave Potter, Municipal Winemakers; Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz; Brewer-Clifton's Greg Brewer; Blakeney Sanford

L to R: Riverbank’s Clarissa Nagy; Don Schroeder of Sea Smoke; Dave Potter, Municipal Winemakers; Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz; Brewer-Clifton’s Greg Brewer; Blakeney Sanford

One thing I’ve learned from several trips to Santa Barbara County over the past year is that there’s tremendous potential for making sparkling wines here. The exciting news is that an increasing number of excellent Santa Barbara area producers are trying their hand at creating delicious sparkling wines.

Like the great sparkling wine region of Champagne in France, Santa Barbara is blessed not only with a high proportion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plantings—the primary grapes used to make Champagne, along with Pinot Meunier—but also with cool climate sub-regions like Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley that have long, cool growing seasons, producing grapes that reach ripeness while retaining high levels of acidity.

There is, of course, a tremendous amount of extra work and time involved in making sparkling wine in a traditional style, with secondary fermentation in the bottle, as practiced in Champagne. This significantly raises the costs of making this kind of wine, which is also subject to three times the tax levied on still wines, with no tax credit for small producers as there is for still wine. It’s therefore tough to sell these wines for less than about $40 and even begin to break even.

Until recent years, it wasn’t clear there was much of a market for these kinds of wines. Most of what has been made to date has therefore been made in tiny quantities by winemakers who love Champagne and other sparkling wines so much that they were willing to put in the work simply to have some of these wines available for their own consumption.

Market research has shown, however, that the demand for sparkling wines in this country in recent years–both domestic and imported—-has been growing even faster than for still wines.

I had noticed a few Santa Barbara based producers–Flying Goat, Riverbench and Sea Smoke– were making increasing quantities of sparkling wine. As I continued to ask around about this phenomenon, I learned that even more producers had made small quantities, or were on the verge of doing so.

I therefore asked Santa Barbara-based wine publicist extraordinaire Sao Anash if she might organize a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines for me. I wanted to find out both what was motivating winemakers there to try making these wines, and to learn what techniques they were using.

So this past Friday, I braved California’s first massive rainfall in many months to zip down to Santa Barbara for a comparative tasting of Santa Barbara sparkling wines hosted by Sonja Magdevski at her Casa Dumetz tasting room in Los Alamos. My deep thanks to Sao, Sonja and the other winemakers who convened there for what proved to be a very enlightening tasting. On hand were Brewer-Clifton’s Greg Brewer, Sea Smoke’s Don Schroeder, Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench, Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers, and Blakeney Sanford, representing her father, Richard Sanford, of Alma Rosa and formerly of Sanford.

Casa Dumetz

Before summarizing the brief history of Santa Barbara sparkling winemaking to date, it should be noted that sparkling wine has been made nearby this region since the early 1980s.

Maison Deutz was launched in 1982 in Arroyo Grande, 12 miles north of Santa Barbara wine country, as Champagne Deutz’s California venture, in partnership with Beringer Wine Estates and a San Luis Obispo landowner. The first sparkling wine from this project was released in 1986.

Christian Roguenant, previously assistant winemaker at Champagne Deutz, became Maison Deutz’s winemaker. In 1997, however, Deutz and Beringer decided to unload their interest to Jean-Claude Tardivat, who renamed the estate after his daughter Laetitia. Shortly thereafter, he resold the enterprise. It is now owned by Selim Zilkha and his daughter Nadia Wellisz. Laetitia’s focus these days is non-sparkling Pinot Noir, although they still make about 7,000 cases of sparkling wine per year.

The first to make sparkling wine commercially from Santa Barbara fruit, as best I can tell from my research, was Byron, with a 1992 Brut Reserve, and non-vintage sparklers after that. Richard Sanford then made a 1994 Brut Rosé, with Sanford & Benedict Mount Eden clone Pinot Noir, with help from Deutz’s Roguenant.

We tasted this 1994 Sanford bottling that Blakeney brought with her last Friday. Blakeney told us it was the only sparkling wine Richard Sanford ever made. It was mature, with wonderful buttery texture, good acidity and a long finish. Blakeney reported that Alma Rosa–Richard Sanford’s current winery, where Blakeney has begun working with her father—has started to make sparkling wines, both from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 2013 will be the first vintage for these sparkling offerings.

As best I can tell, Fess Parker’s two vintages of Blanc de Blancs from Marcella’s Vineyard, made in 1996 and 1997, are the next historical Santa Barbara sparkling wines. When I met with Tim and Ashley Parker-Snider later that weekend, they explained those Blanc de Blancs had been created for millennium celebrations in 2000. They also told me their team is thinking about doing sparkling wine again—a Blanc de Noirs using the Sta. Rita Hills vineyard Rio Vista as the fruit source.

Fess Parker’s Ashley Parker-Snider and Tim Snider

Kalyra then made a 1999 Blanc de Noir, and has continued to make a non vintage Brut. Cottonwood Canyon made a 2000 Blanc de Blancs, a 2001 sparkling rosé, and has also produced non vintage bottlings. Lucas & Lewellen also started making sparkling wines in 2000. They were followed by both Mandolina and Mosby in 2004.

Oreana commenced making sparkling wine in 2005 and Norm Yost at Flying Goat produced that label’s first sparkling rosé in 2005, followed by a Blanc de Blancs in 2008.

Clos Pepe began making small amounts of Brut Rosé with the 2007 vintage, in conjunction with the sparkling wines Norm Yost was making from Clos Pepe fruit. Evans Ranch also produced a 2007 Brut.

I had a chance to sample the latest bubbly Clos Pepe, a 2011 Brut Rosé, when I visited Wes Hagen at Clos Pepe last December. It was quite good—one of the best Santa Barbara sparklers I’ve tasted to date. Since it’s made in very small quantities, however, it’s mainly for Pepe family consumption, with perhaps a few bottles for wine club members.

Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers (and one of four partners in Goodland Wines), is a talented and resourceful winemaker who got his degree in oenology and viticulture in Australia, where he also spent several years working at Henschke and Fosters. On his return to the U.S., he was associate winemaker at Fess Parker for six years.

Inspired by some of the ageworthy sparkling Shirazes he sampled in Australia, Dave has made several vintages of sparkling Shiraz, which he calls “Fizz,” starting in 2007. He shared a bottle from that vintage with us last Friday that was complex and impressive, definitely reminding me of the better, aged, sparkling Australian Shirazes I’ve tried. He also shared with us a sample of his 2012 Municipal Winemakers Blanc de Blancs, which will be disgorged this summer for a fall release.

The fruit source for this wine was the Mormann Vineyard in northern Sta. Rita Hills. Dave picked at 20.2 brix and inhibited malolactic. He has a total of two barrels, so will make about 50 cases. This is a delicious, focused sparkler with exceptional precision and a long finish. Dave used a fino style sherry he had made to supply the dosage, and he does all the work on his sparklings in house, using a riddling rack he obtained from Laetitia. He expects to sell the 2012 Blanc de Blancs for between $40 and $50. Based on these two samples, here’s hoping Dave continues to make sparkling wines for many years to come.

In 2008, Sea Smoke made their first sparkling wine, a Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir, called Sea Spray. At our gathering last Friday, Don Schroeder explained that Victor Gallegos, who became Sea Smoke’s Director of Winemaking in 2008, after being with Sea Smoke as VP and General Manager since its 2002 launch, wanted to try a sparkling. Way back in his career, in the 1980s, he had worked as a cellar rat for Carneros sparkling producer Domaine Chandon.

Don told us he and Victor were inspired by grower Champagnes. For the 2008, they picked between 18.5 and 19 brix. They made the base wine at Sea Smoke, with complete malolactic fermentation, and it was then finished at Rack & Riddle Custom Crush in Hopland, aging 16 months on the spent yeast cells from the secondary fermentation in the bottle, a period known as “en tirage.” A dosage of 11 grams was added before bottling. They followed a similar process in 2011 and 2012, but only completing 25-30% malolactic fermentation in 2012. They made about 1,000 cases both years.

I have sampled the 2011, which was disgorged in August 2013, on a couple of occasions. It is elegant, with a sense of minerality and chalk. I also think it would benefit from another couple years of bottle age.

For the 2013, Don told us all the work, including riddling and disgorgement, is being done in house at Sea Smoke. For that vintage too, the wine spent nine months in barrel and will be 24 months en tirage. They are also adding no dosage for 2013.

Riverbench, with vineyards in Santa Maria Valley, got into the sparkling wine business in 2008 as a project of their general manager, Laura Mohseni. They made their first vintage, a Blanc de Blancs, at Fess Parker. In 2010 they made a Blanc de Noirs, with a whopping production of 350 cases.

Riverbench winemaker Clarissa Nagy, who arrived there at the end of 2011, reports they are making about 900 cases of sparkling wines, including a demi-sec, from the 2013 vintage. They currently make the base wine and then send it to sparkling wine expert Gerald Ployez in Lake County for finishing. I’m looking forward to trying the 2013s, but the 2010 Blanc de Noirs was quite good, with complexity and a saline note.

Both Fiddlehead Cellars and Saarloos & Sons made sparkling wines in 2009. While in Santa Barbara’s Funk Town district over the weekend, I also sampled a very good 2009 sparkler from Carr, a Blanc de Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills Kessler-Haak Vineyard. I’m told that Kessler-Haak also recently made their own sparkling wine, but I don’t have any further details as yet.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton, who drink a lot of Champagne and sparkling wine according to Greg, made their first sparkling wine—a Blanc de Blancs, inspired by “linear, Chardonnay-based Champagnes”—in 2010. Of the 150 cases they made that year, that set aside 50 for release in five or six years as a late disgorged offering.

They produced 220 cases of Blanc de Blancs in 2011, and hope to grow production to 300 cases in future vintages. They do all the work—hand riddling, hand corking, hand cranking the cage, hand disgorging—in house.

We sampled both the 2011 and one of the bottles of 2010 that is awaiting future disgorgement that Greg opened for us last Friday (an appropriate kickoff to celebrations for Greg’s birthday, which happened to be that day).

celebrating Greg Brewer's  birthday with an impromptu birthday cookie

celebrating Greg Brewer’s birthday with an impromptu birthday cookie

The 2010 was hugely impressive—definitely the best Santa Barbara sparkler I have tried to date, and one of the greatest domestic sparkling wines I’ve ever sampled. In 2011, they used 50% clone 76 and 50% Hyde clone from their 3-D Vineyard. Greg explained that they picked the fruit from the more sun exposed western cane of the vine’s two canes, bringing in the grapes at 21.5 to 21.8 brix. They did a cold ferment in neutral barrels, inhibiting malolactic, and used Montrachet yeast. They added no dosage, and don’t think dosage is necessary or desirable for making sparkling wines from Santa Barbara fruit, given the sugar levels achieved there with good acidity.

I’m very much looking forward to the disgorgement of the rest of those 2010 bottles some years from now.

The final sparkler we got to try at last Friday’s comparative tasting was the 2012 edition of the Casa Dumetz Sonja’s Suds, a sparkling Syrah rosé from Santa Ynez Valley fruit grown at Tierra Alta Vineyard. Sonja Magdevski created the original version of this wine with the 2010 vintage, after having received Syrah picked at 21 brix and figuring she’d be best off turning it into rosé.

At the suggestion of Tessa Marie Parker, who has been making a sparkling Vermentino under her Tessa Marie label since 2010, Sonja called Dave Potter for advice on how to make a sparkling wine from her Syrah rosé. Dave suggested using encapsulated yeast, available from Scott Laboratories, for a fast, efficient ferment in bottle. The double encapsulated yeast designed for sparkling wine secondary ferments is contained in alginate beads, made from a natural polysaccharide extracted from seaweed.

checking out the encapsulated yeast beads in Sonja's Suds

checking out the encapsulated yeast beads in Sonja’s Suds

With the first vintage, Sonja disgorged the wine, to remove the beads after the fermentation. She no longer goes to that trouble, however, explaining to customers who buy the wines through Casa Dumetz’s tasting room to simply leave the beads alone to settle at the bottom of the bottle. The result is a creamy textured, tart red currant flavored sparkler with abundant bubbles that Sonja is able to sell for only $35.

Other red sparkling wines reportedly produced from non-traditional sparkling varieties in Santa Barbara to date include Blair Fox’s “Foxy Bubbles,” made from Grenache; Cass’s 2010 Grenache Brut; and Palmina’s sparkling Nebbiolo.

A final, exciting source of traditionally made sparkling wines from this region that I happened onto at the end of my trip is The Ojai Vineyard. When I met with Adam Tolmach and assistant winemaker Fabien Castel this week, I found out that they’ve been making a small amount of sparkling wine since 2006. Adam says he expects the 2006, of which there will only be 15 to 20 cases, to finally be disgorged in the next year or so. From the 2013 vintage, they have the potential of making 200 cases. Like Brewer-Clifton and Municipal Winemakers, Adam and Fabien are doing all the work on their sparkling wines in house. Also like Brewer-Clifton, Adam believes Santa Barbara fruit can be made into good sparklers with either no or very low dosage.

Since I am a big fan of other wines from this producer, I can’t wait to have the opportunity to taste The Ojai Vineyard’s first, long aged sparkling wine.

Because most of the wines mentioned above are made in such small quantities, there is, unfortunately, relatively little on the market at the moment. Nonetheless, Brewer-Clifton’s 2011 edition is available from the winery for $68. Riverbench’s 2010 Blanc de Noirs can be purchased from the winery for $45, and can be sampled at Riverbench’s tasting room in Santa Barbara’s downtown Funk Zone.

Flying Goat’s Goat Bubbles are available from the winery and several outlets that specialize in Santa Barbara area wines for $40 or less. Palmina’s sparkling Nebbiolo, called Lumina, is available from the winery for $48. Lucas & Lewellyn is offering their 2011 Brut for $30. Sierra Madre Vineyard has a 2010 sparkling wine available on their website for $29. The 2012 Tessa Marie sparkling Vermentino is available from the winery for $38. And a number of outlets around the country are offering Sea Smoke’s 2011 Sea Spray at an average price of $94.

Since Santa Barbara has the grapes, acidity and talent to make terrific sparkling wines, I hope we’ll continue to see more bubbles from this region in the coming years.

For tasting notes on the sparkling wines from Santa Barbara that I’ve sampled to date, see below:

Brewer Clifton

  • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Blancs 3-D Vineyard – Sta. Rita Hills

    Light lemon yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; almond, tart apple, dried white fig nose; rich, tasty, almond, mineral, tart apple, tart pear, almond pasty palate with scintillating acidity; long finish (this bottle disgorged 2/28/14 for the occasion, from a batch being held for a late disgorgement release in 3 years or so) 92+ points

  • 2011 Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Blancs 3-D Vineyard – Sta. Rita Hills
    Light yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; almond, saline, light honey, sesame seed nose, that changes after 20 minutes in the glass, to add floral and apricot aromas; tight, tangy, rich, tart apple, lightly oxidative, tart lemon, tart lemon drop, light honey palate; could use 2-3 years; long finish (all Chardonnay–50% clone 76 and 50% Hyde; no dosage; 13% alcohol; picked at 21.5-21.8 brix) 91+ points


  • 2009 Carr Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir Kessler-Haak – Sta. Rita Hills

    Light pink yellow color with abundant, speedy, very tiny bubbles; lightly yeasty, almond, tart apple nose; tasty, tart apple, mineral palate with sprightly acidity; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; aged 1 year in bottle, hand riddled; 1st vintage, 52 cases) 90+ points

Casa Dumetz

  • 2012 Casa Dumetz Syrah Sonja’s Suds Santa Ynez Valley

    Medium dark pink color with pale meniscus and abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; reduction, tart plum, dried blood orange nose; creamy textured, tart red currant palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 86+ points

Clos Pepe

  • 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir Brut Rosé – Sta. Rita Hills

    Very light salmon color with steady, very tiny bubbles and some large speedy bubbles; tart pear, chalk, unripe strawberry, light brown sugar, grapefruit peel, kirsch nose; delicious, poised, juicy, tart strawberry, tart pear, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (100% Pinot Noir, fermented with sparkling wine yeast UC1118) 91+ points

Flying Goat

  • 2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Blanc Crémant Goat Bubbles Sierra Madre – Santa Maria Valley

    Light yellow color with few, medium-sized bubbles; tart apple, yeasty nose; tart green apple, lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 89 points

Municipal Winemakers

  • 2012 Municipal Winemakers Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs – Sta. Rita Hills

    Pre-release (to be disgorged in summer for fall 2014 release) – light lemon yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; yeasty, chalk, tart baked pear nose; tasty, focused, precise, mineral, tart pear, lightly saline palate with medium acidity; long finish (clone 76 Chardonnay from sandy sites at Moorman Vineyard; free run juice only; picked at 20.2 brix, inhibited malo) 91+ points

  • 2007 Municipal Winemakers Shiraz Fizz – Santa Barbara County

    Medium dark ruby color with initial abundant mousse; aromatic, tart black cherry cotton candy, tart berry, black raspberry, black cherry leather, baked plum nose; tasty, creamy textured, tart black cherry, black raspberry, baked black plum, reminiscent of some of the better sparkling Aussie Shirazes with age on them that I’ve sampled; long finish (disgorged in 2009 and kept under crown cap; 13.5% alcohol) 89 points


  • 2008 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs – Santa Maria Valley

    Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; almond, safflower oil, honey, chalk nose; rich, almond, tart apple, mineral, safflower honey palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points

  • 2010 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Cork Jumper Rosé Blanc de Noirs – Santa Maria Valley

    Light pink color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; appealing, lifted, almond, tart red raspberry, light saline, golden raspberry nose; tasty, amond, mineral, saline, golden raspberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points

Sanford sparkling

  • 1994 Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley

    Light medium peach yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, oxidative, melted butter, almond butter, nutty nose; mature, oxidative, buttery textured, tart lemon, lemon cream, mineral palate with near medium acidity; long finish (made from Mount Eden clone Pinot Noir; 12.5% alcohol) 90+ points

Sea Smoke
Sea Smoke Sea Spray

  • 2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Sea Spray – Sta. Rita Hills

    Light pink yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; chalk, tart golden raspberry, very tart strawberry, light honey nose; tasty, tight, chalk, almond, mineral palate with firm, chalky tannins and medium acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish (100% Pinot Noir; 12% alcohol; 100% malolactic, 6 months in barrel, 16 months en tirage) 91+ points

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Lion in Winter: Robert Parker Addresses Wine Writers

Robert M. Parker, Jr., addressing wine writers at Meadowood

Robert M. Parker, Jr., addressing wine writers at Meadowood


This year’s Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in St. Helena was the 10th anniversary of this annual event. It was my second time attending, and perhaps because I am further along in my career than I was when I first attended two years ago, it felt like a much richer and deeper experience for me this year.

Among the sessions that particularly impacted me were perspectives on photography from Bonjwing Lee, a food blogger and highly successful food photographer. I chatted with Bonjwing at the symposium’s first dinner and during other gatherings, as I wanted to learn as much as I could from him. A riveting talk by Columbia School of Journalism Professor Michael Shapiro will also stay with me for a long time. It included suggestions on methods of inquiry for getting past writer’s block, and enabling one to come from a place of authority and true “need to write” when composing a piece.

There were the usual helpful workshops on pitching pieces to editors, this time from the likes of wine writer David White, C Magazine’s Alison Clare Steingold and Travel & Leisure Senior Editor Jacqueline Gifford. And there were talks and panels that included distinguished wine writers like Eric Asimov, Jay McInerney and Ray Isles. McInerney’s segment, moderated by Ted Loos, was particularly entertaining and memorable.

The session that provoked the most ongoing debate through the succeeding three days of the symposium, however, had to be that of our keynote speaker, Robert M. Parker, Jr. It was also the event’s most newsworthy aspect, containing statements likely to be of interest both to the many who follow Parker as well as to those who find themselves periodically provoked by him. I therefore attempted, speed typist that I am, to take down the core of his remarks verbatim as much as possible.

I did not capture everything Parker said. I thought a couple of questions Parker was asked by fellow symposium attendees were not particularly good—-like “what’s your favorite wine?”—-so I’ve omitted those questions and their not surprisingly unenlightening answers. Below, however, you will pretty much find the gist of Parker’s presentation and most of his answers to our better questions.

I think I speak for everyone on hand when I say we were immensely appreciative to have Parker speak to us. This was his first ever appearance at the symposium. Although he did not stay to take part in the succeeding events, as speakers and faculty members traditionally do, it still meant a lot for him to address us and take some of our questions.

Many of us, like me, were avid readers of Parker when we first got into wine. Parker has obviously had a huge impact on wine criticism and wine education in the 30 years since he came to national and international prominence with his eventually triumphant opinion on the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux.

Parker published widely read books and is responsible for the influential 100-point rating scale, as well as the success of a great many now important wineries, from Bordeaux and the Rhone to Napa and Paso Robles. So for him to share his perspectives and attempt to give some advice to other wine writers was a significant moment.

As you will see from the summary below, he was very forthcoming with his thoughts and opinions. Even though I have issues with several of his statements, I applaud him for accepting the invitation to address us this year, and for being willing to speak before an audience that included many of us who have sharply criticized one or more of his actions or pronouncements in the past.

Parker’s symposium appearance comes at a time when a number of observers have suggested that Parker and The Wine Advocate’s influence has waned in recent years. Some say that’s because there are now many more good sources of information about wine, and because there’s been a shift away from the kind of big, intense, higher alcohol wines that typically receive high scores from Parker.

Ironically, the session that immediately followed Parker’s appearance included empirical data that further evidenced this decline in influence on the part of The Wine Advocate (“TWA”).

That data, presented by John Gillespie of Wine Opinions, was based on surveys last fall of Wine Opinions’ Drinks Opinions panel, individuals statistically chosen to reflect the 30% of U.S. wine buyers who are “high frequency wine drinkers.”

Wine Opinions' John Gillespie

Wine Opinions’ John Gillespie

A portion of that data—presented on two out of a few dozen slides Gillespie shared with us, analyzed who had the biggest influence on wine buying decisions by this segment of the market. Gillespie explained that a mean score of six indicated the highest influence; a score of one indicated no influence.

Not surprisingly, the biggest influencers, with a mean rating of six, were buyers’ wine knowledgeable friends. Second most influential were wine shop staff, with a rating of 5.3 As far as major publications, Wine Spectator had the highest mean rating of influence at 4.7. Wine Enthusiast followed with a 4.4 score. A high Parker rating in TWA rated only 4.1. Newspaper wine columnists, several of whom were represented at the symposium, were only a notch below that at 4.0.

Parker referred at length in the comments summarized below to the criticisms and attacks he’s received over the years. I have to note that, unlike other highly influential critics—people like Stephen Tanzer, Jancis Robinson and Allen Meadows—Parker often issues strident, strongly worded and combative statements. Arguably, Parker often has his own intemperate and extreme statements to thank for sparking many of the personal attacks he receives.

During the course of his keynote, Parker called for us wine writers to be more supportive of each other and less negative. Nonetheless, during this hour long session, he made remarks and affirmed recent prior statements that themselves could be read as highly negative and combative.

A final note: Parker’s physical appearance came as a surprise to many of us there. The last time I saw him speak—ten years earlier at a vertical tasting of Chateau Latour in San Francisco—he was well groomed. This time, he had long, unkempt hair and sported a shaggy beard. He walked slowly and hesitantly with the aid of two canes. Obviously he has had a very challenging recovery from extensive back surgery that he referenced at the beginning of his talk below. Nonetheless, one wonders what Asian audiences who are paying substantial fees to attend his talks over the coming month will make of his current wild and wooly appearance.

Parker at Chateau Latour tasting in San Francisco in 2003

Parker at Chateau Latour tasting in San Francisco in 2003

Synopsis and Excerpts from Parker’s February 19, 2014, Keynote Session

After walking very slowly up to his seat behind the microphone, Parker explained that he now has a “completely rebuilt lumbar spine.” This has taken “lots of metal and rehab,” but he reported that he is now in “no pain.” In fact, Parker claimed, “at 66 years of age, I feel about 20.”

Looking Back to His Beginnings

Parker spoke for about 25 minutes before opening the floor to questions. During these remarks, Parker reminisced that he, “came out of nowhere and a farming background and never dreamed of the success I’ve had.” He stated, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession wither away. There’s a lot of good talent out there.”

He told the familiar story of his dropping out of the University of Maryland to follow his then girlfriend (now wife, who was listening in the audience) to France in 1967-68, since he was afraid she might turn her attentions to a Frenchman.

“I got interested in wine by fortuitous circumstances. I went to France to protect my investment. I went to see her, and she made me drink wine. I wasn’t fond of alcohol. I thought liquor was numbing, and beer was so filling. We drank bistro wines, probably the kind I wouldn’t touch today. For me, the most important part was a nice euphoria that came incrementally. You could talk after drinking it.”

After six weeks in France, Parker returned to school and started a wine group. He bought the classic wine books of the time and started learning.

He told us he was fortunate that where he lived in Maryland was near the national headquarters of Les Amis du Vin. They had great speakers, like Peter Sichel, and he learned a lot.

When Parker was practicing law at a bank, he told us he looked forward to Wednesdays when he would buy The New York Times and Washington Post for the weekly wine columns there.

He found he hated the practice of law. In 1976 he got the idea of starting a wine newsletter. He ultimately launched it in 1978. From the eight-page newsletter he first produced, TWA is now up to 124 pages.

Parker told us, “1978 seems like yesterday to me.” He reminisced that, “Mohammed Ali was still boxing.”

Parker stated there were some very good wine writers back then, but most of them made their living in the wine industry. Parker wanted to take a “consumer-focused, independent approach.”

Parker told us, “I was extremely lucky. I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.”

Parker reminded us that what brought him to international attention was the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. “It takes that threshold event that separates you from the pack.”

“Robert Finigan, whom I respected enormously, did not like the vintage. Nor did Terry Robards. I was the new guy and there was a real civil war as to who was right—this new guy who comes from nowhere, or these esteemed long time critics. Consumers ended up siding with me and I’ve never looked back. I believe in standing up for what you believe in. I’ll always do that, regardless of the fallout.”

“When I started in 1978, the greatest wine in Spain, Vega Sicilia, wasn’t even imported to the United States. The alleged greatest Australian wine, Penfolds Grange, wasn’t imported to the United States. There were no by-the-glass programs. Sommeliers were intimidating. They had kinky leather aprons with a lot of chains. They looked like they were working in a sex club.”

“The level of education in the wine community, among consumers and professionals, is 20 or 30 times what it was when I started.”

“My philosophy is to live and let live. Even though people accuse me of having a thin skin, I actually have a thick skin, and waistline.”

“Wine to me is something that brings people together. Wine does promote conversation and promote civility, but it’s also fascinating. It’s the greatest subject to study. No matter how much you learn, every vintage is going to come at you with different factors that make you have to think again.”

Parker 2014 Meadowood closeup

Advice to Wine Writers

Turning to one of the topics Parker was asked to speak to–suggestions on where opportunities were today for wine writers–Parker noted that the number of magazines and newspapers carrying wine columns had greatly decreased in recent years.

“Streaming, educational video programs that are professional but affordably priced is a great direction. The real growth market is in Asia. And virtual tastings with people.”

Parker told us he was on his way to Asia for a month of lectures, “all of which are sold out.”

“You have to find the right purveyor there,” Parker advised. “Everyone gets a commission. But you make it up in the volume of people looking for wine education there.”

“Women in China are a huge, huge resource. When it comes to wine, for some reason there is no ceiling for women in wine in those countries—positions as buyers and wine directors.”

“When you have a blog, you have to have original content. I may have been the first wine blogger when I was the wine expert for Prodigy. But there’s got to be real content. Not rehashed news or other people’s headlines. It has to be compelling and consumer-oriented. There has to be creativity. People buying this blog need to have a sense that there’s continuity. And you can’t give it away. The idea of giving it away when you have high quality content makes no sense. People will always be willing to pay for high quality content.”

“In the blog world, I see too much negativity and a lot that’s derivative of other sources. You may have to do something with four or five people to make it work and have enough to read.”

“People do still want to read tasting notes. You may disagree, but I think it’s as true today as it was 35 years ago. They don’t have to agree with you, but people want some guidepost, some sign that this is what that guy or woman thinks about the wine.”

“I don’t think it’s easy. We’re in a tough, tough market for new and upcoming businesses, but you can still do it on a shoestring. Video to other countries, with translations, would be a huge success.”

“I don’t think there are enough positive stories. What’s happened in California in the last 25 years is remarkable. I see Chards and Cabs that can rival France’s best. And keep in mind I’m a Francophile–everything I learned about wine I learned in France.”

Closure of World’s Biggest Online Wine Community

I asked about the Fall 2010 shutdown of the world’s largest online wine community by far—the once very active bulletin board on, that financial types had estimated attracted an audience that was worth millions. I asked Parker to speak to the thinking that led to the decision to close the board, overnight and without warning, to everyone except TWA subscribers, and to say whether he had any regrets about that decision.

Parker responded that he knew it was the most open and active wine board. He also stated upfront, “No one at The Wine Advocate has any regrets about closing it.”

“When I was Prodigy’s wine expert, I saw a deterioration of communication standards beginning there. There was more and more aggressive stuff and hostile behavior. One person’s handle was ‘Not Fun to Play With.’ The breakdown in civility chased a lot of people away. And sinister, invidious trends started up.”

“My critics would say I didn’t like the criticism of me. But I still get criticized on the bulletin board by Advocate subscribers. There was a thread there recently about how many wines people ‘disagreed with Parker’ on.”

“[Bulletin board editor] Mark Squires kept throwing people off, warning them at first. It just got worse and worse though. [Squires] was turning into a schizophrenic because so many people were complaining.”

“We knew we were going to lose a lot of traffic and endure a lot of criticism. Now, however, the board is much more civil, but traffic there is high quality and people self police.”

“The mistake that was probably made was that I should have policed Mark a little better. I believe in ‘killing them with kindness.’” Parker indicated that, by contrast, Mark, an attorney, metaphorically “took a sledgehammer,” beat people down, and then “poured sulphuric acid over them. That doesn’t engender a lot of friends.”

Parker noted that Stephen Tanzer’s and Jancis Robinson’s boards are likewise closed [they were never publicly open to non-subscribers] “but they don’t get the same criticism.”

“Do I miss some of those high test posts that were on the edge? Yes, I do sort of.” But the policy of a bulletin board closed to non-subscribers is “not going to change. But then, who knows? I’m not the majority owner anymore.”

Defining Personal Success

Parker was asked, “What does success at this point mean to you?”

Parker explained that TWA “went through a transitionary stage with staff where there were some scandals.” Those scandals were “damaging and embarrassing and I was certainly at fault for not watching as carefully as I should have.”

“Now there are strict rules. Our writers are no longer independent contractors. And we’re not done hiring.”

“I think The Wine Advocate is as brilliant as it’s ever been. No one covers more wines under $25. We have a great team now and I’m excited about it. 2011-2012 were troublesome years. The appearance of doing something wrong is just as bad as the reality, and our writer in Spain, although he didn’t do anything seriously wrong, surely wasn’t careful.”

Success for Parker today, he continued, was “enjoying the new team we have.” Parker claimed, “I think we have some real superstars. You’ll see it two and three years from now.”

“I continue to cover the north coast of California, and Bordeaux, which is in a major, major bad patch right now. When some vintages came along, they should have dropped their prices. Napa and Sonoma, and bands of areas in Paso Robles are making great wine.”

“In my career I’ve been able to cross lines that haven’t existed before. I’ve received awards from kings and presidents that were unprecedented. I don’t want to be the last one to get those awards.”

“I want to leave some kind of legacy in Asia. I started going there in 1998. In China, although the government is a dictatorship, there is robust capitalism. The people there are great students and fast learners. They’re too respectful to challenge you on anything, but they’re learning. They’ve read all the books. And each year we see progress in Chinese wine. Last year we actually had an 85 pointer, didn’t we Lisa?”

Parker was directing that question to TWA Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who was also scheduled as a speaker at the symposium, and who was sitting in the audience along with TWA correspondent Jeb Dunnuck.

“You can’t just say you’re going to be successful. You have to earn it and it’s hard work. You can’t do that and have an idyllic life. In the early days I was traveling three or four months a year. After tasting all day, you end up alone in a room, popping an Ambien to sleep. The next day it starts all over again. I missed a lot of my daughter’s growing up years.”

Parker’s Critics

Parker 2014 Meadowood closeup 2“My wife suggested that all the things that were written that were false and malicious about me be flashed up on the wall while I am talking. But I was getting criticism even before I was terribly well known. Criticism about the 100 point system. I’ve been told I’m the person people love to hate until they meet me.”

“The press has exaggerated my power and tried to pigeonhole my taste. They attributed power to me to make or break a winery, which I’ve never been able to do.”

“Virtually every one of those hateful things that have been written about me, they don’t bother me. I wish it didn’t happen but it does. You just let it slough off your back.”

“The wine world is so big. Yes, there are styles of wines I don’t like. Orange wine, natural wines and low alcohol wines. Truth is on my side and history will prove I am right.”

“I don’t think people making or drinking these wines should have a brain transplant. As a consumer advocate you are required, expected to state your opinion. Do I sometimes overdo it? Do I sometimes get carried away? Yes. Sure.”

“People who’ve written nasty things, people that fire back, I can’t get angry at them because I know it’s coming from passion.”

“As I look around the room now, I see a tiny number of people here that I have met. That’s sad. I am out in the boondocks, and I’m alone a lot while I’m traveling. Early on people told me I should move to New York or San Francisco if I wanted to cover wine. But I wanted to look at things through clear glasses and not live in a bubble.”

“2003 Pavie was a very controversial call. Jancis, for whom I have a lot of respect, said it was akin to late harvest Zin and basically undrinkable. Clive Coates, for whom I don’t have the same respect, said ‘Parker needs a brain transplant.’”

Parker then mentioned a recent charity event for the U.S. Seal Foundation, supporting Navy Seals, for which he provided Bordeaux from his cellar for a “master class,” and where the 2003 Pavie was poured. “Three quarters of the people there loved the wine. I was having problems with it though. The gritty tannins seemed to me to be excessive. It is a vintage that’s evolving very fast. I kept those problems to myself though, until today.”


Another attendee asked, “What is a Parkerized wine?”

Parker responded, “In the 1960s in Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud was very influential. Some of his critics started using the term Peynaudization. People said all the wines were tasting alike. I think Parkerization is a derivative of that. The people who use that term don’t read The Wine Advocate. It’s a gross simplification, an effort to pigeonhole my taste. People who know me are shocked by what they read, by what I’m supposed to drink.”

“I do believe flavor intensity is critical, and I look at what the wine is going to be. You need some power, some richness, some intensity. Otherwise, the wine will fall apart because there’s nothing there. And I am looking for wines that will be better in five to ten years than they are today. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You can’t expect soft, shallow wine to get any better. You need some intensity.”

As an example of what he was talking about, Parker referred to recently drinking [at Press Restaurant two nights previously] “a last bottle of 1969 Chappellet. Philip Togni, the winemaker, said it was the greatest wine he ever made. Jay Miller found it on auction and bought four cases at $35 a bottle. The wine is brilliant, powerful and rich, with lots of nuances. It could go another 45 years.”

“I remember talking to Gerard Chave about the ’03. There was no acidity in it. The pH was over 4. He explained that it was just like his father said the ’29 was, that it had so much fruit and dry extract it would survive on that. “

‘Natural’ and Low Alcohol Wine

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné asked a lengthy question involving Parker’s recent screed against “natural” and low alcohol wines, those who produce them and writers who champion them, that appeared on Parker’s website in January. Among other things, Parker referred there to an “anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.” Concluding his question, Jon asked, “Under the philosophy of live and live, why not allow more diversity?”

Parker said he agreed with what Jon said, “even though the passage you read is a call to arms. I think it’s a mistake to have a formula to pick grapes at lower brix just so you can have low alcohol and then slam the word ‘elegant’ on it. You just have a wine with low alcohol.”

Parker referred to Steve Kistler’s new project, Occidental, “where he is able to get exceptional flavor concentration in his Pinot Noirs at 12.5 and 13%, due to the microclimate and viticulture.”

“I’ve never used alcohol as a criteria. It’s just not that important to me. Most of the labels lie anyway.”

“I am going to flunk a wine if it doesn’t have the requisite concentration of flavor. If you’re just picking under ripe fruit.”

“I had this argument with Adam Tolmach at Ojai. I used to visit there every year. One year he brought out a Chard that had no flavor and was too high in acidity. He said he was going to do this in the future. I just don’t think people making those wines should trash those that are big and alcoholic.”

“I wrote that column to encourage conversation on this subject. I think there are terroirs in California where you can get the concentration and flavor. If it isn’t ripe, you don’t get expression of grapes or the terroir or the vintage.”

“Excessive manipulation includes picking too soon, or too late. Or following a rigid non-intervention philosophy.”

“When I first started, there was too much fining and microfilters going on. I don’t know any quality producers that use megapurple and enzymes. If they do it, they’re doing it really well.”

“And I never talk about having a vineyard with my brother-in-law [Beaux Freres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley]. That vineyard in most vintages has sulfur levels that are sometimes so low we could have put no sulfur on the label. It is biodynamically farmed, which I am not in full agreement with, and I don’t allow him to put it on the label. We don’t fine or filter, and I think the wine is fairly delicate. Only two or three vintages have had alcohol over 15%. But I think the very best was the 1994, which came in at 15.5%.

“I would like to see more civility. If I had one hope, it’s that we stick together a little better than we’re doing and move forward together as wine lovers. And if you’ve got something that you really disagree with me on, or have a question, pick up the phone and call me. I’m not going to bite anyone.”

The (410) area code telephone number for TWA’s office was then given out.

Parker concluded by saying he would like to come back, and to do a tasting with us.

Brief Reaction

Again, I applaud Parker for coming to face a room full of fellow wine writers, including many of us who had written attacks on various things he has said or written in the past.

I am sure Parker meant well with his comment that he hoped “the wine writing profession” doesn’t “wither away” on his retirement, but it hit me as one of the single most arrogant statements I have ever heard him say. I think it’s safe to say that wine writing is more varied, robust and informed than it has ever been. It is in no danger of “withering away” when Parker hangs up his quill.

Parker’s suggestions as to current opportunities for writers struck me as surprisingly narrow and uninspired. Wine education videos for Asia? There are already people doing that, including people who actually speak Asian languages who are quite expert in wine. I have met some of China’s own wine experts and journalists on press trips and they are very knowledgeable and possess impressive credentials. And TWA is obviously now focused on providing wine education to Asia. I hardly see that as a growth area for the average Western wine writer.

Parker’s assertion that “truth is on my side” and “history will prove me right” sounded disturbingly Nixonian, or Dick Cheney-esque, to me. In my view, such arrogant and empty assertions are hardly valid, useful or reasoned arguments in support of his position.

As to Parker’s continued diatribe against orange, “natural” and low alcohol wines, I could go on at length, and some of my esteemed wine writer colleagues already have (e.g., Alder Yarrow and Eric Asimov). In sum, though, for Parker to follow his broad over generalizations and unfair blasts at producers and writers with a call for greater collegiality on the part of wine writers struck me as more than a little disingenuous. If that’s what Parker wants to see on the part of the wine writing community, I think he needs to learn to practice a little more thoughtful moderation of his own comments.

Posted in Wine Critic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

Ballard Canyon: Santa Barbara’s Newest, Rhone-Variety Focused AVA

view of Larner Vineyard at southern end of Ballard Canyon

Next up on our tour of Santa Barbara County appellations is its newest AVA—Ballard Canyon. The aromatic, flavorful, structured Syrahs from this small area southwest of Los Olivos invite comparisons to wines of France’s Northern Rhone. The aromatics, firm tannins and good balancing acidities particularly remind me of the wines of Rhone’s tiny Cornas appellation.

Wines labeled Ballard Canyon AVA are just starting to hit the market. Lovers of cooler climate Syrahs and other Rhone varieties should be on the lookout for great wines from the likes of Beckmen, Jonata, Larner, Rusack, Stolpman and others.

Ballard Canyon AVA was officially approved by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) on October 1, 2013. It is relatively tiny, only 7,800 acres in total. Its boundaries amount to an elongated oval sitting virtually in the center of the 30-mile-long Santa Ynez AVA. Solvang lies about a mile to the south. It becomes the third sub-appellation of the Santa Ynez AVA.

Ballard Canyon starts several miles to the east of the subject of my first Santa Barbara appellation report here, Sta. Rita Hills. The north-south orientation of the hills that frame this canyon protect it from the fierce wind that pours through the Santa Rita Hills. During the growing season, lighter winds from the west push back the morning fog layer, and significant breezes pick up typically around 1:30 in the afternoon. This greatly moderates the effect of the mid-summer heat in this area. It is therefore a milder climate than that found further to the east in the third sub-appellation of Santa Ynez AVA, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Potential hang time here is very long, much like Sta. Rita Hills.

The soils are a mix of sand and clay loam with excellent drainage. In some areas, especially under Jonata’s vineyards, sand predominates. There are also limestone subsoils in the middle of the appellation that are very unusual for California.

Slightly more than half of the AVA’s 561 acres of vineyard are planted to Syrah. It was this grape, and the aromatic, concentrated but balanced nature of it coming from this particular area that was the subject of a 2010 visit here organized by the Sommelier Journal. Planning for this event, which began in 2009, brought the vintners of Ballard Canyon together for the first time.

As they met and worked to coordinate the event, the growers and producers here learned that many of them had been thinking about creating an AVA for the area. The hugely positive reaction to the 2009 Syrahs poured at the 2010 event on the part of the visiting sommeliers galvanized that thinking. Michael Larner spearheaded the effort to keep them talking and to bring in Wes Hagen, the successful draftsman of both the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVAs, to meet with them.

Work then proceeded to map appropriate boundaries. With the support of all the area’s growers, the AVA application was filed with the TTB in 2011.

I was fortunate to receive a tour of the AVA from Michael on my last visit to Santa Barbara in December last year, followed by a day of comparative tastings of Ballard Canyon wines Michael organized for me. I had also been on hand for a celebration of the AVA the preceding month at Rusack Vineyards, where I spoke with Michael, Wes and others involved in the effort to create the appellation.

In all, I was able to taste over three dozen wines based on Ballard Canyon fruit over the past year. My complete tasting notes and ratings for those wines appear below.

There are 18 vintners and winegrowers based in Ballard Canyon. Of those, the largest and most significant producers are Beckmen, Jonata, Rusack and Stolpman. Harrison Clarke, Larner, Saarloos and Tierra Alta are also major vineyards that supply a number of winemakers, and the first three of those also produce a small amount of their own wine.


The area’s first vines were planted in 1974 at Gene Hallock’s Ballard Canyon Winery. Geoffrey Rusack, an aviation lawyer, and his wife Alison Wrigley Rusack, a Disney exec and descendant of the Wrigley chewing gum family, purchased this property in 1992. The 17-acre estate vineyard here is planted primarily to Syrah and Sangiovese, with smaller blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Petite Sirah. They also grow one-half acre each of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, with meter by meter spacing, for their Bordeaux blend called Anacapa.

L to R: Mike Larner, Geoffrey Rusack, Wes Hagen & Alison Rusack at Rusack Vineyards

L to R: Mike Larner, Geoffrey Rusack, Wes Hagen & Alison Rusack at November 2013 celebration of AVA approval at Rusack Vineyards

The vineyard was substantially replanted in 2002-2003 with realigned rows, following the contours of the land and running 11 degrees off from a north-south direction, to allow for balanced sun exposure on both sides of the canopy. The Rusacks also own most of the remaining plantable area in Ballard Canyon.


Tom Stolpman, a Long Beach based trial lawyer, bought 220 acres here with his wife Marilyn in 1990. They had been looking for limestone based soils in a cooler climate. They began planting in 1992, putting in a wide variety of grapes. Over several years, they got to see which varieties excelled. Bordeaux varieties did less well than Sangiovese, Syrah and other Rhone varieties.

They originally sold all their fruit to the likes of Sine Qua Non and The Ojai Vineyards. In 2001 Sashi Moorman came on board as winemaker, working with vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano. Tom and Marilyn’s son Peter now manages the operation, which currently uses 90% of the estate fruit for the Stolpman label. The 152 planted acres are largely dry farmed, and predominantly planted (92.4 acres) to Syrah. There is also substantial acreage growing Sangiovese, Roussanne and Grenache.


Beckmen Vineyards purchased 365 acres in 1996 and began planting what is now the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. The elevation here ranges from 750 to 1250 feet. Steve Beckmen and his father Tom have farmed this vineyard biodynamically since 2006, receiving certification in 2008. It consists of 37 sub-blocks, 18 of which are planted to eight different clones of Syrah. Another eight blocks contain five different clones of Grenache. There are also smaller plantings of Mourvèdre, Counoise, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The assistant winemaker here is Mikael Sigouin, who also has his own Grenache-focused label, Kaena, working mainly with Ballard Canyon fruit.

Tom Beckmen left and Steve Beckmen right, with tasting room manager


The Larners purchased their 134-acre ranch at the southern end of what is now the Ballard Canyon AVA in 1997. Stevan Larner was a Hollywood cinematographer who got interested in wine early in his career when he worked in France on a government documentary on Algerian vineyards. Stevan’s son Michael explains that there was nothing but sage, chaparral and Texas Longhorn cattle here when they put in irrigation in 1998 and planted, starting in 1999. The 34-acre vineyard contains 23 acres of Syrah including seven different combinations of clones and rootstocks. They also have six acres of Grenache, and much smaller amounts of Viognier, Mourvèdre and Malvasia Blanca. Michael tells me they plan to put in an additional 34 acres.

After selling all their fruit to a number of different producers for several years, the Larners began making a small amount of their own wine starting with the 2009 vintage. Michael, who is the winemaker, was a geologist who received his masters in viticulture from U.C. Davis in 2005. His sister Monica Larner lives in Rome where she is the Italian reviewer for the Wine Advocate.


Jonata arrived here in 2001, when Santa Barbara-based money manager Charles Banks and his business partner, Stanley Kroenke, a real estate developer and owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball and Colorado Avalanche hockey teams, purchased 586 acres and began planting the first of what is now 84 vineyard acres on predominantly sandy soils. They planted Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. Banks reportedly left the partnership in 2009. The winemaker is the very talented Matt Dees, who studied geology before learning winemaking at Staglin Family Vineyard in Napa and Craggy Range in New Zealand. Matt and vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano are also partners in the Goodland Wines project I profiled here.

Jonata Estate Manager Armand de Maigret

Jonata Estate Manager Armand de Maigret

Now that the AVA has been approved, Ballard Canyon will start appearing on wine labels. The Stolpmans began bottling wines with the AVA designation in January this year, and four of those, including their 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and 2012 Roussane, are on the market now. Their 2011 Petite Sirah and 2012 Grenache will be released April 1.

The Rusacks expect to release their first AVA labeled bottling, a 2012 Zinfandel, this April. They plan to use the designation on their Syrahs starting with the 2013 vintage, which will likely be released in Spring 2015. Jonata plans to use the AVA designation starting with its 2012 vintage wines. And Beckmen will release seven wines with the AVA on the label this year, including two 2012 Syrahs in the new Ballard Canyon embossed appellation bottle.

Estate producers here have designed a special bottle, what they are calling a “cartouche,” inspired by what’s used in some European appellations, like the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape raised seal with papal emblems and the appellation-designated bottles of Savenierres and Piedmont. The Oregon Yamhill-Carlton appellation similarly introduced an AVA bottling with raised lettering in November last year.

Ballard Canyon’s special bottle may only be used for Syrah made from estate grown AVA fruit. Contrary to some misinformation that appeared in the press last year, there is no pricing requirement on wines sold in this special bottle. The bottles have been ordered and are supposed to be available for bottling in August.

Below are my notes on 38 wines made exclusively from Ballard Canyon fruit. In addition to powerful, balanced and flavorful Syrahs, there are some terrific white wines and Grenaches listed below, as well as Jonata’s rich and complex Bordeaux blends. In the future, all or most of these will carry the Ballard Canyon AVA on their label.

Currently, the only Ballard Canyon tasting room that is open daily to the public is the Rusack Vineyard visitor center at 1819 Ballard Canyon Road. The Larners are working to get the building on their property that used to be a general store restored and licensed as a tasting room. Their current tasting room is on Los Olivos’s tasting room row, along with the Stolpman tasting room and those of Kaena and Tercero whose wines are listed below. Beckmen’s tasting room is at the winery located south of town in Los Olivos.

Tasting Notes

Steve Beckmen

  • 2012 Beckmen Vineyards Viognier Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Light lemon yellow color with clarity; aromatic, floral, tart pear, honeysuckle nose; tasty, poised, ripe pear, crisp, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; from own rooted, very low yielding vines) 92 points
  • 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Grenache Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium ruby color; tart cherry, light herb, tart berry, light tar nose; delicious, juicy, bright red fruit, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, pomegranate palate; ready now and should go 5 years; medium-plus finish (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah; 14.9% alcohol) 92+ points
  • 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Clone #1 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium ruby color; appealing, tar, roasted black fruit, roasted coffee nose; rich, tasty, medium-plus bodied, roast coffee, roasted black fruit palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could benefit from 2-3 years of age; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; about 50% new French oak) 91+ points
  • 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Estate Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color; lifted, appealing, vivid, black berry, ripe black cherry, baked black cherry, blackberry nose; rich, tight, ripe berry, tart berry, baked berry, blackberry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; no whole cluster; 14-16 months in 33% new French oak) 93 points
  • 2010 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Block Six Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; aromatic, baked berry, ripe cherry, tar, tart berry nose; tasty, tight, juicy, medium bodied, ripe berry, tar, espresso, ripe cherry palate; needs 3-plus years; long finish (14.8% alcohol; block six is at the top of the vineyard, between 1100-1200 feet in elevation, planted to Estrella, 383 and 174 clones) 91+ points
  • 2008 Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Red Wine Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; appealing, aromatic, ripe cherry, baked cherry, black raspberry, violet nose; delicious, rich, crushed raspberry, black cherry, ripe berry palate; long finish (55% Grenache, 45% Syrah) 92+ points


Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

  • 2011 Goodland Wines Syrah Ballard Canyon
    Pre-release (Fall 2013 release): Opaque purple red violet color; evocative, aromatic, roasted plum, tart black fruit, wild berries, tart blackberry nose; rich, complex, powerful, roasted plum, light pepper, roasted fig palate with light salinity and good acidity; needs 2-plus years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (97% Syrah, Estrella clone; 3% Viognier; 8% whole cluster; 14.7% alcohol) 94 points


  • 2010 Jonata Winery Flor Santa Ynez Valley
    Light yellow color; aromatic, smoky, green almond, olive oil, ripe lime nose; rich, tasty, medium bodied, creamy textured, mineral, ripe lime, almond oil, green almond palate; medium-plus finish (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon, co-fermented; 15.2% alcohol; pH 3.3; TA 6.5; 1/3 new oak, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 stainless steel) 91+ points
  • 2009 Jonata Winery El Desafio de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque black-tinged red violet color; tar, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit, lead pencil nose; rich, tight, tart black fruit, tar, pencil lead, espresso palate with firm tannins; needs 4-5 years; long finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot; racked once off gross lees at 18 months and then for bottling at 24 months) 94+ points
  • 2008 Jonata Winery El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; aromatic, smoky, intense, red currant, tar, black fruit nose; tasty, intense, medium bodied, rich, tar, tart black fruit, tart blackberry palate with sweet firm tannins; medium-plus finish (75% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot) 94 points
  • 2007 Jonata Winery Fenix Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; baked black fruit, black currant, baked berry nose; tasty, tight yet, ripe black currant, tart berry palate with firm, sweet tannins and medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (84% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 % Petit Verdot, all co-fermented; only made three times as the Merlot rarely gets ripe enough; next vintage will be 2012) 93 points
  • 2005 Jonata Winery El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; rich, ripe black fruit, ripe blackberry, nutmeg, baking spice nose; a little tight yet, rich, ripe blackberry, black fruit, mulberry, tar, mulberry syrup palate; long finish (93% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot; 14.9% alcohol) 94 points

Jorian Hill

  • 2010 Jorian Hill Viognier Santa Barbara County
    Light green-tinged yellow color; wax, baked green apple, pear candle nose; ripe pear, baked apple palate; medium finish 88 points
  • 2008 Jorian Hill BEEspoke Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color; light VA, baked berry, ripe black chery nose; fresh, rich, ripe black cherry, black raspberry, bake cherry, baked berry palate; medium-plus finish (60% Syrah, 40% Grenache; 14.5% alcohol) 89 points

Mikael Sigouin

  • 2012 Kaena Sauvignon Blanc Ballard Canyon
    Light yellow color; aromatic, lemon grass, tart gooseberry nose; lemon grass, tart gooseberry, smoke palate; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol) 91+ points
  • 2011 Kaena Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium ruby color; tar, roasted red fruit nose; rich, ripe red fruit, cherry, maraschino cherry, ripe berry, tar, black cherry, spice palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol; clone 362 from south facing vineyard on pure sand) 92 points
  • 2011 Kaena Grenache Tierra Alta Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; reduction, tar, dried berry nose; rich, juicy, ripe cherry, Grenadine syrup, raspberry syrup, baked raspberry palate with near medium acidity; ready now but could use 1-plus year; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol; 1/3 whole cluster) 91+ points
  • 2010 Kaena Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Dark ruby color; baked berry, charcoal, clove nose; tasty, rich, baked berry, clove, charcoal, tart berry, black cherry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 93+ points
  • 2010 Kaena Hapa Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; smoke, dried black fruit, tar, coffee nose; tar, roast coffee, currant, ripe black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (50% Syrah, 38% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre; 15.3% alcohol) 90 points


  • 2011 Larner Grenache Rosé Santa Ynez Valley
    Medium pink color with pale meniscus; appealing, tart cherry candy, tart berry, light cinnamon, dried cherry, almond nose; tasty, angular, tart red berry, juniper berry, mineral, dried thyme palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.6% alcohol) 91 points
  • 2011 Larner Malvasia Bianca Larner Santa Ynez Valley
    Light green-tinged yellow color; appealing, aromatic, fresh, ripe grapefruit, lime aid, freesia, orange blossom, chalk nose; angular, very tart lime, mineral, chalk, saline palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol) 88+ points
  • 2011 Larner Vineyard Viognier Estate Ynez Valley
    Light medium lemon yellow color; vanilla, pear, light sweet butter, cream nose; buoyant, light-medium bodied, juicy, ripe pear, ripe lemon, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 1/3 new oak, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 stainless steel) 89 points
  • 2009 Larner Vineyard Grenache Estate Santa Ynez Valley
    Saturated, very dark ruby color; appealing, focused, ripe berry, black cherry, dried berry, tar, black raspberry nose; tasty, near medium bodied, tight, tart berry, smoke, baked berry, black cherry, dried berry palate with sweet tannins and medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
  • 2010 Larner Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Pre-release (April/May ’14 release) – opaque black red violet color; tart berry, roasted berry, tar, licorice, blackberry syrup nose; tasty, rich, juicy, tight, ripe blackberry, tart berry, spice palate with fine, firm, sweet tannins; long finish 93 points
  • 2009 Larner Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; reduction, tart berry, dried berry, espresso, dark chocolate nose; rich, tasty, juicy, medium bodied, tight, tart berry, black cherry, light violets, blackberry palate with near medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; 6 clones; 24 months in 25% new French oak) 92+ points
  • 2009 Larner Syrah Reserve Santa Ynez Valley
    Saturated very dark red violet color; appealing, baked berry, black cherry, baking spice, licorice nose; tight, roasted black fruit, smoke, licorice, black cherry, baked berry palate with sweet tannins; needs 4 -plus years; medium-plus finish (14.9% alcohol; 3 clones; 30% whole cluster; 24 months in 50% new French oak) 91+ points
  • 2010 Larner Vineyard Elemental Santa Barbara County
    Opaque black purple red violet color; focused, red berry, reduction, tart berry nose; juicy, tasty,medium bodied, rich but balanced, ripe berry, blackberry, black cherry palate with sweet, chalky tannins; medium-plus finish (55% Grenache, 35% Syrah & Mourvedre) 92+ points
  • 2009 Larner Vineyard Elemental Santa Barbara County
    Medium dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, reduction, tar, espresso nose; tight, tar, tart berry, light pepper, mineral palate with firm, chalky tannins and medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (65% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre; 14.9% alcohol) 91 points
  • 2010 Larner Vineyard Mourvedre Estate Santa Ynez Valley
    dark ruby color; ripe black cherry, blackberry, blackberry liqueur nose; tasty, tight, ripe black cherry, ripe raspberry, baked black cherry, violets, charcoal palate with firm tannins and medium acidity; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 2 years in oak, 50% neutral and 50% 2nd year) 92 points


  • 2000 Ojai Syrah Stolpman Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark red violet color; aromatic, black pepper, tar, charcoal nose; tasty, maturing, medium bodied, tart black cherry, black raspberry, tar palate with a vein of black pepper and medium acidity; long finish 93 points

Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac

  • 2011 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Dark ruby color; aromatic, ripe cherry, black cherry, black raspberry nose; tight, tasty, tart black cherry, black raspberry, cherry palate with balance; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish 91 points
  • 2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; tart plum, roasted black fruit tart berry, light lavender, cherry nose; tasty, concentrated, tart cherry, black cherry, roasted berry palate; medium-plus finish (good value at about $25; with 9% Petite Sirah; 2% American oak) 91 points
  • 2011 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; tart black cherry, ripe black raspberry nose; tight, tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, roasted black fruit palate; needs 4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
  • 2010 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; tart dried berry, charcoal nose; smoky oak, roasted tart black fruit, tart red berry palate with medium acidity; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% new oak) 89 points
  • 2010 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
    Very dark ruby color; green peppercorn, roasted plum nose; tasty, rich, dense, complex, tart plum, charcoal palate showing salinity and good acidity; medium-plus finish 92 points


  • 2010 Stolpman Syrah Originals Santa Ynez
    Opaque ruby color; lifted, aromatic, pepper, roasted plum, tar, tart red currant nose; tasty, pepper, tart roasted red fruit, raspberry puree palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.1% alcohol) 93+ points

Tercero owner/winemaker Larry Schaffer

  • 2009 Tercero Cuvée Loco Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Black tinged dark raspberry red color; reduction, light pepper, tart berry nose; tasty, complex, tart berry, violets, tar palate with medium acidity and firm, drying tannins; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (75% Grenache, 25% Syrah; 42 months in neutral oak) 91 points
  • 2009 Tercero Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Black tinged dark raspberry red color; lifted, tart red berry, dried cranberry nose; tight, tasty, ripe red berry, tart berry, dried berry, licorice palate with depth and medium acidity; firm, somewhat gritty tannins; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (75% whole cluster, neutral oak for 30 months) 90+ points
  • 2009 Tercero Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color with bright red meniscus; dried berry, black cherry, baked blackberry, berry compote nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe berry, tart blackberry, violets, dried berry, black cherry palate; with nice acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (5% Viognier co-fermented; no whole cluster; 14.4% alcohol; 42 months in neutral French oak) 91+ points
Posted in Santa Barbara, Syrah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Plea for Authenticity: No Bogus Wine for Your Valentine

sparkling moment

Wine consumers in the U.S. have a problem. Our government is one of the few in the world that takes no action to protect consumers from being misled by erroneous wine labeling that suggests a wine made in the U.S. is actually from one of the world’s special winemaking areas that have a long tradition, particular soils and climates, and strict rules on what can be bottled and sold as wine from that region.

I’m talking about outmoded and highly misleading laws and treaty provisions in the U.S. by which wineries here that happen to have misused terms like “Port,” “Sherry,” “Champagne” and 13 other place of origin names on their labels at any time prior to 2006 are allowed to keep doing so on a “grandfathered” basis.

Although consumers should rightly expect potatoes labeled as being from Idaho to actually be from that state and that a “Napa Cabernet” started out as grapes grown in Napa, many don’t realize they are being seriously misled as to the origin of certain wine products.

Wine not actually produced in France’s Champagne region is prohibited from being sold with that designation in over 100 countries of the world. The only major countries that currently permit this kind of labeling are Russia, Vietnam, Argentina and the U.S.

The biggest abusers of this giant anti-consumer loophole are a handful of big producers of sparkling wine misleadingly labeled “Champagne.”

When crates of sparkling wines mislabeled as “Champagne” accidentally show up in other parts of the world, which does periodically happen, they are seized by authorities and destroyed. Here in the U.S., however, sparkling winemaking giant Korbel–the country’s 12th largest wine producer at 2.4 million cases per year—uses “Champagne” in the name of its brand, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and in all of its marketing. Its website even has a lengthy story purporting to describe the “History of American Champagne.”

Korbel box
E&J Gallo, the country’s biggest wine company, dominates the domestic sparkling market with over 40% of sales, based on labels like André and Barefoot Bubbly.

Cook’s and Tott’s are the two other major labels that advertise themselves as “Champagne,” with “California” appearing in much smaller letters, providing minimal adherence to the U.S. legal requirement that those who continue to use a grandfathered wine name also indicate the actual place of origin somewhere on the label.

And it’s not only consumers who are misled. One even finds people writing about wine who mistakenly refer to products that never came near France as “Champagne.” For example, a piece in Huffington Post last December made that error in its headline, purporting to recommend “The Best Champagnes under $11.” Not a single wine included in that post was actually a Champagne.

Barefoot Bubbly
Besides the fact that none of these ersatz “Champagnes” allowed in the U.S. are actually from Champagne, and therefore follow none of the strict rules laid down for that region, they bear no resemblance to the real thing. They are typically not made with the grape varieties required for real Champagne (i.e., Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). And most are not made by “méthode champenoise” or “méthode traditionelle,” the process of inducing a secondary fermentation in bottle, including lengthy aging of the wine on the spent yeast cells, or “lees,” used for finer sparklers.

Bubblies of this caliber rely on a much cheaper process created for industrialized production levels called “charmat.” This process uses pressurized steel tanks that induce a rapid secondary fermentation after a sugar and yeast mixture is added. The product is then cooled, clarified and bottled, ready for sale. Some cheap sparklers are even made by simply injecting carbonation, just like soft drinks.

There are, of course, very good sparkling wines from other areas of the world. Some sparkling appellations, like Spain’s Cava, and Prosecco and Franciacorta in Italy, also have rules about what kinds of grapes can be used, how long they need to be aged and the like. These kinds of standards help to promote quality and ensure that consumers are receiving a product actually made in those regions according to those rules.

We have some excellent domestic sparkling wines too. My recommendations on best buys among domestic sparklers currently on the market appear below.

What all the top domestic sparkling wines have in common is that they are not misleading about where they are made. The ones on the market that abuse the loophole and prominently display the word “Champagne” on their labels, websites and retail store signage are the ones you should avoid. Not only are they committing a fraud on unsuspecting consumers; the wine inside also tends to be of inferior quality to accurately labeled domestic sparklers on the market.

The fact is, sparkling wine as a category has experienced a significantly greater increase in U.S. sales than other wine categories in recent years. There’s a demand for both the imported and domestic stuff, and plenty of people buy good sparkling wine that isn’t mislabeled as “Champagne.” So why do some of the biggest sparkling wine producers continue to use misleading packaging on their wines in this country?

I sent a request for an explanation to Korbel weeks ago, but they never bothered to reply. Korbel’s answer seems to be that they’ve been producing something they’ve called “Champagne” since 1892, so they’re darned well entitled to continue.

Well, we’ve made a lot of improvements in our society since 1892. Women have the right to vote; racial segregation was outlawed. And there are truth-in-packaging laws that apply to the vast majority of products we buy. That makes outliers like grandfathered “Champagne” all the more insidious. Since consumers rightly expect most of what they buy to be accurately labeled, they tend to believe what they see written on the label.

So this Valentine’s Day, if your love is true, shouldn’t your bubbly be authentic too?

Loving toastDomestic Sparkling Wine Recommendations

If you’re looking for good, authentically labeled domestic sparkling wines, here are your best bets. And these bubblies aren’t all from California either. The best domestic sparkler I’ve had to date, my first listing below at 93 points, was actually produced in Massachusetts! There are also a few very good Virginia bubblies and one from Oregon on my list of 20 domestic sparklers rated 88 points and above. (None of the ersatz domestic “Champagnes” I’ve tried rate anywhere near that high.)

A few of these are very limited production, so not available in many parts of the country, but the excellent Roederer Estate sparklers can be found in most states.

2003 Westport Rivers Brut Robert James Russell RJR – Massachusetts
Light yellow color with steady stream of pinpoint bubbles; flavorful, tart pear, tart apple, chalk nose; tasty, rich, poised, delicate, juicy, tart pear, tart nectarine, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (astonishingly good) 93 points

2002 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut California, Anderson Valley
Delicate, light, creamy citrus nose; tasty, tart creamy citrus, mineral palate; medium finish (I prefer it to the ’02 Louis Roederer Brut Cristal, at least at this stage) 92 points

NV Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley
Biscuit, apple nose; apple, stone fruit palate with great acidity; medium finish 91 points

2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Sea Spray Sta. Rita Hills, California
Light pink color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, light tart cherry, golden raspberry nose; tasty, tart cherry, golden raspberry, tart strawberry, chalk, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (very impressive Cali sparkler, and excellent pairing with foie gras; 12% alcohol; sample provided by winery) 91+ points

2003 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut Anderson Valley
Light green yellow color with lots of small, speedy bubbles; poached pear, tart apple nose; tasty, tart apple, tart pear, yeasty, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points

NV Piper Sonoma Brut Réserve California, Sonoma County
Pale yellow color; seductive blossom nose; big entry, nectarine, white peach palate with good acidity; short-medium finish 90 points

NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut Sur Lees California
Light lemon yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; saline, chalk, tart lemon nose; tasty, leesy, tart lemon, chalk palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (unexpectedly leesy and non-fruity for a California sparkling wine) 90 points

2009 V. Sattui Winery Chardonnay Prestige Cuvée Napa Valley
Light pinkish yellow color with abundant tiny bubbles in several columns; appealing, chalk, tart apple, floral, tart pear, ginger nose; tart apple, chalk, mineral yeasty palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (81% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Noir; 12.5% alcohol) 90 points

2009 Buena Vista Sparkling Brut Napa / Sonoma, Carneros
Light yellow color with abundant tiny bubbles in multiple columns; chalk, tart lemon, ripe peach, apple butter, yeasty nose; vinous, mineral, chalk, tart grapefruit, light toffee palate with medium acidity; tart apple medium finish (12% alcohol) 89 points

2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Blanc Crémant Goat Bubbles Sierra Madre California, Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with few, medium-sized bubbles; tart apple, yeasty nose; tart green apple, lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 89 points

NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut California
Wheaty, baked bread nose; grapefruit, floral palate with depth and good balance; medium finish 89 points

NV Veritas Vineyard Scintilla Brut – Virginia, Monticello
Light yellow color with a good amounts of tiny bubbles; tart apple, tart peach nose; sharp acid attach, light mousse, crisp tart apple, mineral palate with near medium acidity; medium finish (2 years in bottle) 89 points

2010 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs Riverbench – California, Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with speedy column of very tiny bubbles; lemon powder, tart apple, lime, tart pear nose; bright, tart pear, fresh cut lime, mineral, chalk palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (12.5% alcohol) 89+ points

NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut California, North Coast
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; poached pear, ripe apple nose; yeasty, poached pear, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (55% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier) 88+ points

NV Horton Vineyards Viognier Sparkling Virginia, Orange County
Very light yellow color with an abundance of tiny bubbles; tart green apple, tart citrus nose; tasty, refreshing, tart citrus, very tart apple, lime, chalk palate, reminiscent of a good cava, but with little Viognier character; medium finish (left on lees for 7 years) 88+ points

NV Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs California
Light medium peach yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; tart peach, apple nose; baked apple, ripe apple, chalk palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (approx. 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier) 88 points

2009 Argyle Brut Oregon, Willamette Valley
Light yellow color with few small bubbles; tart apple, oxidized apple nose; tart apple, oxidized apple palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.5% alcohol) 88 points

NV Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs Napa / Sonoma, Carneros
Light yellow pink color with abundant, tiny bubbles; light cherry, raspberry cream, raspberry nose; creamy textured, ripe raspberry, golden raspberry, black cherry palate; medium finish 88 points

2008 Afton Mountain Vineyards Tête de Cuvée Brut Virginia, Monticello
Light lemon yellow color with medium-sized bubbles; chalk, tart green apple nose; tasty, chalk, tart green apple, mineral palate; medium finish (50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay) 88 points

2005 Mumm Napa DVX Napa Valley
Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; tart lime, yeasty, gooseberry nose; tart gooseberry, ripe lime palate; medium finish 88 points

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Sta. Rita Hills: Top Choices from One of California’s Greatest Sites

view of southern portion of Sta. Rita Hills AVA, from the top of the Mt. Carmel vineyard

(This is the first in a series delving into what I think is one of California’s most exciting wine regions these days: the several appellations that make up Santa Barbara County wine country. This sprawling area of rolling hills and diverse climactic zones begins about 20 miles north of the City of Santa Barbara and continues for about 35 miles, to the area east of the town of Santa Maria. The series begins with Sta. Rita Hills AVA, the most famous of Santa Barbara County’s five official appellations.)

Sta. Rita Hills AVA is a ten mile stretch of land between the Santa Barbara County towns of Buellton and Lompoc that encompasses two wind buffeted valleys and the east-west transverse hills that rise between them. The cool climate, super long growing season and largely poor soils here facilitate the production of wines that potentially “have it all”: weight, body, richness, minerality and scintillating acidity. Winemakers elsewhere around the world would kill to have this combination of favorable conditions, making it possible to produce fine wines in just about any style a winemaker wants.

That doesn’t mean that growing grapes here doesn’t take significant effort. The fog and cool temperatures generate significant mildew pressure throughout the year. Wind is a constant factor during the growing season, and some areas lack sufficient protection. And, as elsewhere in the State, the lack of rainfall is of growing concern. Whereas Sta. Rita Hills normally receives an average of 12 inches of rain per year, total precipitation for the past two years combined has been a meager 14 inches.

Winegrowing here dates back only to the 1974 planting of the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard—the subject of a previous piece here. Most of the existing vines in the AVA were planted starting in the mid-1990s. Nonetheless, the results to date have already shown the tremendous potential of this area, and refinements are constantly going on in vineyards here and with new plantings. I truly believe that anyone interested in New World wines in general and cool climate wines in particular should know about this region and seek to sample some of its stellar Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrahs.

I spent two days in the appellation on my last Santa Barbara County visit at the end of last year, doing a day and a half of intensive comparative tastings, organized by Sao Anash and Chad Melville. I got a much deeper sense of the appellation’s geography thanks to a three-hour tour led by Chad, whose family has been growing grapes here since 1997. I also spent a few hours with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, the author (he prefers the term “scribe”) of the region’s 1997 application for AVA status that was ultimately approved in 2001.

Chad Melville beginning my appellation tour at Melville Vineyard

As Wes explains, this special microclimate began forming 20 million years ago during the Miocene, when marine sediment was deposited under the Pacific Ocean. Tectonic plate movements subsequently pushed mountains up from the ocean here in a north-south orientation. Over a period of 12 million years, the mountains gradually broke from the plate and shifted east to west. Wes calls the area “the most erosive, geologically unstable part of California,” claiming that it “was underwater 12 million years ago and will be again within one million years.”

It’s this east-west orientation of what has been described as “the most clearly delineated transverse range on the Pacific Coast” that makes this 100 square mile area so special. Fog and cool winds generated by the Humboldt Current off the coast are drawn in daily through the east/west maritime throat, keeping temperatures predictably low and balmy, even throughout the summer.

The northernmost of the two east-west oriented valleys that comprise the appellation begins below the La Purisima Hills and extends to the Santa Rosa Hills in the middle of the appellation. This portion is easily accessible via Route 246. The southern valley begins at the southern flank of the Santa Rita Hills, which includes Mt. Carmel, and extends southward to the northern foothills of the Santa Rosa Hills. The Santa Ynez River winds through this valley, and its upper section is reached via an access road entered from the east on private property belonging to a Peruvian Horse ranch. The main drag through the southern portion of this lower valley is Santa Rosa Road.

A map showing the parameters and older vineyards of the appellation can be found here. A much needed update to this map, to indicate vineyards planted since 2005, is underway.

As Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict learned when they explored the region back in the early ‘70s, temperatures increase by only about one degree per mile as you head east through the region from its western border, which lies about two miles east of Highway 1 in Lompoc.

The poor marine based soils here have elevated calcium levels. The soils are diverse, and vary a lot even within vineyard parcels. Nonetheless, one finds more largely sandy areas in the northern section and running downhill from Mt. Carmel, with a preponderance of clay, most notably Botella clay loam, in the south. There are also significant veins of diatomaceous earth, consisting of fossilized remains of a hard-shelled algae called “diatom.” One of three diatomaceous earth plants in the country is located here.

Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict originally planted a number of varieties, including Bordeaux varieties, at their pioneering vineyard. Reportedly the results were good even with the Merlot, which tends to perform better in warmer growing conditions. It was the Pinot Noir at Sanford & Benedict, however, that really grabbed the critics’ attention, leading to lots more Pinot being planted as additional growers arrived.

Wes Hagen by the 900,000 gallon irrigation pond at Clos Pepe

According to Wes Hagen, 72 varieties of grapes are now grown in this compact appellation, with approximately 400 different clones represented. The vast majority of its 2800 planted acres, however, consists of Pinot Noir, amounting to over 75% of the plantings. Chardonnay follows with about 18% of the vineyard area. About 150 acres are planted to Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and other white grapes. Manfred Krankl’s Grenache vineyard, Eleven Confessions, is located at the southern end of the appellation to the east of Sanford & Benedict.

When plantings got going in earnest in this region, in the mid-1990s, the newly released Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, like 115, 667 and 777, were all the rage. These clones produce distinct red and black fruit characteristics. With the long hang time potential here, and a common tendency to wait until full ripeness through the late 1990s and early 2000s, those flavors became quite intense. With wines from Sea Smoke, Loring and others in this style getting high points from major critics who favor big, ripe wines, the appellation quickly gained a reputation for this style of wine.

In more recent years, however, California heritage clones, like Mount Eden and Calera, have also been planted, helping to diversify the flavor profile. Melville’s 66 acres of Pinot, for example, contain 14 different clones.

Producers like Melville, Brewer-Clifton and Sandhi have also used significant whole cluster or stem inclusion to add texture and savory characteristics to the fruit. It takes a lot of work in the field to do this successfully, including identifying the parcels and particular vines where the stems reach “senescence,” i.e., lack of bleeding, which will keep them from overwhelming the fruit with excessive green flavors. Estate producers like Melville, after years of vineyard work, are making that happen, and it’s helping to bring a depth and dimension to their wines that is very appealing, and quite different from the superripe, jammy Pinots for which this region became known in the early 2000s.

one of the comparison tastings at Melville with, from left to right: Rick Longoria, Mark Horvath, Bill Wathen, Greg Brewer, Fred Swan, Richard Sanford, RJ and Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi

Another characteristic of Pinot Noirs here is deep color. Wes attributes that to both the elevated calcium levels, which tend to result in thicker grape skins, and the small berries due to the low vigor soils and cool climate. With thicker skins on smaller berries, the amount of juice per berry is reduced, but the color and tannin producing elements of the skins are increased.

Out of the 150-plus Sta. Rita Hills wines I sampled over the past year, I rated a high percentage of them, over 46%, 92 points and higher. Below are tasting notes for the 70 wines I rated at this level, divided first by variety: Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Within each variety, the wines are listed by producer, including a little more information on many of the major producers.

In the case of the Chardonnays, there is exceptional minerality amongst the best of those, along with lively acidities and rich fruit. Those ranked highly are very ageworthy.

Pinot Noir here still does tend to show a lot of ripe red fruit—cherry, raspberry and cranberry—along with black fruit typical of certain Dijon clones. Wines from the southern end of the appellation, from the Sanford & Benedict and Fiddlestix Vineyards, for example, often show beet root flavors, as well as great tannic structure. I also find a lot of appealing spice here, like cinnamon, orange spice and Asian 5-spice. Thanks to the cool climate and soils, there is always that balancing acidity to the Pinots that distinguishes them from ripe, Dijon-clone dominated Pinots from warmer parts of the State, like the Russian River. Because of the small berry size and thick skins, there is also a structure to the Pinots here that, like great Burgundies, makes them more enjoyable with at least a few years of bottle age, giving a chance for those firm tannins to resolve.

Final note: The AVA was known from 2001 to 2006 as Santa Rita Hills AVA. As the result of a protest by and subsequent negotiations with Viña Santa Rita, a large Chilean wine producer, the name was officially changed on January 6, 2006 (with producers given a year to change their labels), to Sta. Rita Hills.


  • Brewer-Clifton
    This is a Sta. Rita Hills focused partnership between two seasoned winemakers–Greg Brewer, winemaker for Melville, and Steve Clifton, who has his own Italian varietal project, Palmina. They began their collaboration, making wines solely from the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, in 1996. They now farm five dedicated vineyards from which they obtain all the fruit, and also purchase fruit from several other Sta. Rita Hills growers. Their Chardonnays are made for aging, with richness balanced by bright SRH acidity. I’ve had thoroughly delicious examples that have spent eight years or more in the bottle.

    From the 2011 vintage, they made one Sta. Rita Hills appellation and four single vineyard bottlings. I have so far only sampled the one made from a largely sandy, 10-acre vineyard on the eastern side of the appellation. My favorite Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay to date was the rich and mellow 2008 from Sanford & Benedict fruit.

    • 2011 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay 3-D
      Light medium lemon yellow color; Brazil nut, almond, lemon gelee nose; rich, medium bodied, tart lemon, Brazil nut, saline, mineral, lemon gelee palate with medium acidity; could use 1-2 years of bottle age and should go 15+; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% each clones 76, 4, Hyde, Wente from Sea Smoke and Mount Eden) 92+ points
    • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills
      Bright light yellow color; appealing, tart lemon, ripe lemon nose; rich but poised, tart lemon, ripe lemon palate with medium acidity needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 92 points
    • 2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
      Light lemon yellow color; reduction, tart lemon, saffron nose; tasty, almond, ripe lemon, saffron, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
  • Clos Pepe

      Clos Pepe was started by owners Steve and Catherine Pepe when they purchased a 40-acre horse ranch in 1994 in the center of what would eventually become Sta. Rita Hills. They planted the first half of what is now a 29-acre vineyard starting in 1996. The Pepes’ son-in-law, Wes Hagen, pictured above, worked for three years in the vineyard before becoming vineyard manager in 1998. He designed and led the planting of the last 14 acres of the vineyard. Most of the vineyard–25 acres–are planted to Pinot Noir, with four acres being devoted to Chardonnay. Most of the fruit is sold to six or seven producers a year, so only a small amount is made under the Clos Pepe Estate label. The Axis Mundi label uses purchased fruit.

      The voluble, wonderfully opinionated Wes is also the winemaker, with his wife Chanda serving as assistant winemaker. (And Wes was an English major who loves to write, so you can follow his thoughts on farming, winemaking and blog on the Clos Pepe website.) The grapes are fermented with a mix of commercial yeasts. They use no new oak on the Chardonnay, and between 25 and 35% new French oak on the Pinot Noir. They barrel age the wines for 11 months before bottling. There are generally two Chardonnays, a barrel fermented version and one raised exclusively in stainless steel, “Homage to Chablis.”

    • 2012 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay Barrel Fermented
      Spring 2014 release – Light yellow color; tart pear, tart apple nose; tasty, juicy, very precise, tart apple, mineral, tart pear palate with good acidity; could use 6 months; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 11 months in 12% new French oak; 100% barrel fermented) 92 points
    • 2012 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay Homage to Chablis
      Light lemon yellow color; lightly reductive, tart lemon, chalk, almond nose; silky textured, mineral, chalk, tart pear, saline, baking soda palate; medium-plus finish (Chablis-like) 92+ points
    • 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay Barrel Fermented
      Light yellow color; appealing, poached pear, tart apple nose; tasty, tart pear, tart apple, lemon palate; with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • Deovlet
    Ryan Deovlet began buying fruit from Sanford & Benedict three years ago; 2010 was his first vintage from the vineyard for his relatively new Deovlet label. Now he’s getting three tons of fruit. He gets his fruit from block T15, a block of old vine Chardonnay. The 2011 Chard is a really brilliant, minerally effort that should age beautifully.

    • 2011 Deovlet Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
      Light yellow color; a little reduction, almond, tart pear nose; poised, rich, almond, tart pear, tart lemon, mineral palate; could use 2 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (an exciting Cali Chard; 13.4% alcohol; picked at about 22.5 brix; 1/2 malo) 93+ points
  • Diatom
      Diatom was a very interesting project of Greg Brewer’s, dedicated to Chardonnay, that was influenced by Japanese philosophy. The bottlings were named based on emotional connections and the wines’ personality. Unfortunately the label became a casualty of Greg’s recent divorce. This was a sample from the last vintage of Diatom, 2011.

    • 2011 Diatom Chardonnay Hana Shinobu
      Light lemon yellow color; focused, ripe lemon, tart golden delicious apple nose; tasty, mineral, light green herb, very saline palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.8% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Liquid Farm
    4/2/12 Sta. Rita Hills Tasting
    This has been an impressive project to date, with assistance from the winemaking team at Dragonette Cellars (see below). Nikki Pallesen and Jeff Nelson, who live in L.A., are the proprietors. The couple share a love for Champagne and white Burgundy, so it figures that their new project is Chardonnay-centric. Jeff has worked in wine for over 20 years, specializing in Champagne houses. He worked for both Veuve and Laurent-Perrier before joining Henriot as their Regional Division Sales Manager, representing Henriot Champagne as well as Bouchard, William Fevre and some Italian and Spanish producers. They met while Nikki, who has a degree in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was working for Henry Wine Group, Henriot’s sole California distributor. Nikki has since left HWG to focus full time on Liquid Farm. 2009 was Liquid Farm’s first vintage. All three of the 2011s are delicious Chardonnays, with the Golden Slopes being particularly impressive—one of the best Chardonnays I’ve yet tasted from this appellation.

    • 2011 Liquid Farm Chardonnay White Hill
      Light yellow color; tart lemon, almond, light hazelnut nose; tasty, silky textured, tart lemon, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.4% alcohol) 93 points
    • 2011 Liquid Farm Chardonnay Four
      Slightly hazy light medium yellow color; ripe pear, apple nose; luscious, juicy, tasty, creamy textured, ripe pear, light vanilla palate; medium-plus finish (14 months in 25% new French oak; 14.1% alcohol; 75% Clos Pepe, 25% Rita’s Crown) 92 points
    • 2011 Liquid Farm Chardonnay Golden
      Slightly hazy, light medium green-tinged yellow color; appealing, focused, green apple, white jasmine nose; tasty, luscious and rich but poised, silky textured, tart apple, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (14 months in 18% new French oak; 14.1% alcohol) 93+ points
  • Longoria
    Richard and Diana Longoria

    Richard and Diana Longoria

    I am a big fan of Richard “Rick” Longoria and his body of work, which I highlighted in this piece. For me, Rick’s most striking and successful wines are his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, especially those based on fruit from his Fe Ciega vineyard. His Sta. Rita Chardonnays are among my favorites of the appellation. The 2011 Rita’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay, his first vineyard designate Chard in 10 years, also stands out for its crystalline acidity and minerality, and its long finish.

    Rick’s winemaking history in Santa Barbara County goes back to his first stint, as cellar foreman for Firestone in 1976. (His very first wine gig was at Buena Vista in Sonoma.) He worked at Chappellet in Napa before returning to Santa Ynez Valley as winemaker for J. Carey Cellars. He had a long run as winemaker for Gainey, which he left in 1997 to devote full time to his own production. He had started his own label in 1982. His winery was the first in what is now Lompoc’s “wine ghetto.” His own vineyard is the eight-acre Fe Ciega (which means “blind faith”).

    • 2011 Longoria Chardonnay Rita’s Crown
      Light lemon yellow color; Brazil nut, lemon gelee, nutmeg nose; rich, round, ripe lemon, mineral, lemon gelee, lemon tart, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; long finish (like a round Mersault with good acidity, very impressive; 13.6% alcohol; pH 3.07; clone 96 from block 13, very steep, south facing slope; lees stirring every two weeks, never racked; no malolactic) 93+ points
  • Melville

    • 2012 Melville Chardonnay Clone 76 Inox Estate
      Light yellow color with clarity; focused, tart lemon, ripe lemon, saline nose; tasty, Chablis-like with more body, tart lemon, lightly briney, minerally palate; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol) 92+ points
    • 2012 Melville Chardonnay Estate
      Light medium yellow color; appealing, focused, ripe lemon, tart apple nose; tasty, rich but balanced, minerally, tart lemon, tart white grapefruit palate with medium acidity; should mature beautifully over many years; long finish (14.5% alcohol; all neutral oak; 9-10 months on lees; great buy at $25) 93 points
    • 2011 Melville Chardonnay Estate
      Light medium lemon yellow color; intriguing, tart lemon, ripe lime, tart pineapple nose; tasty, rich but balanced, tart lemon, quince, mineral, saline, briney palate; medium-plus finish (good value at $26; 14% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Sandhi
    • 2011 Sandhi Wines Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
      Light medium lemon yellow color; tart lemon, tart pear, lemon oil, white jasmine, almond nose; rich, tasty, firmly textured, ripe lemon, tart pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; should age very well; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; picked at about 21 brix; 25% new oak; full malolactic; from vines planted in early ’70s) 93 points
  • Sanford
    • 2010 Sanford Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills
      Light yellow color; hazelnut, almond paste, light Abba Zabba nose; rich, creamy textured, ripe pear, butter poached pear, almond, hazelnut palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
  • Tyler
    February 2013 079

      Justin Willet, pictured right above, started Tyler Winery in 2005 when he was assistant winemaker at Arcadian. He produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from selected vineyards in Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. With the 2011 vintage, production had grown to 2500 cases, comprising 12 bottlings based on fruit from seven vineyard sites. The lineup is very strong, minerally and balanced, and the 2011 Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay is one of my favorite Sta. Rita Hills Chards yet.

    • 2011 Tyler Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
      Light yellow color; very appealing, almond, hazelnut, pear, butter nose; tasty, poised, creamy textured, tart pear palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
  • Viognier

  • Cold Heaven
    4/2/12 Sta. Rita Hills Tasting
    Morgan Clendenen, pictured above, has been making Viognier under the Cold Heaven label since 1996. She typically makes two single vineyard bottlings, the one from Sta. Rita Hills coming from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard that was planted in the early ’70s.

    • 2011 Cold Heaven Viognier Sanford & Benedict
      Light lemon yellow color; appealing, fresh, floral, ripe pear, pear cream nose; silky textured, tart pear, pear cream, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 93+ points

Pinot Noir

  • Alma Rosa
    Richard Sanford, pictured above, is both a California Pinot Noir and Sta. Rita Hills pioneer, having planted one of the State’s great Pinot Noir vineyards, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, at the western end of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 1974, when the area was simply part of the Santa Barbara County appellation. Wines from this vineyard were produced by the Sanford & Benedict winery from 1976 to 1980, at which point it became the Sanford Winery, which Richard Sanford ran from 1981 to 2005. He planted La Rinconada Vineyard in 1995 and La Encantada Vineyard in 2000. La Encantada’s 100 acres are planted mainly to Pinot Noir, with 1.9 acres of Pinot Blanc, and 1.5 acres of Pinot Gris. La Encantada’s Pinot Noir is planted to Dijon clones 114, 115, 667 and 777, and to Swan and UCD 4. Differences in business philosophy led Richard to part ways with his Sanford Winery partners in 2005 by exchanging his interest in the brand to the Anthony J. Terlato Family for the El Jabali Ranch and La Encantada vineyards. Richard and his wife Thekla then established Alma Rosa, producing wines from El Jabali and La Encantada. The winemaker is Burgundy native Christian Roguenant, who worked at Champagne Deutz for 15 years. These 2011s were very impressive—silky textured, very balanced and delicious.

    • 2011 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard
      Medium ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, black cherry, tart berry nose; delicious, silky textured, flavorful, poised, ripe raspberry, cherry palate; medium-plus finish 94 points
    • 2011 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills
      Dark cherry red color; very appealing, tart cherry, ripe raspberry nose; tasty, poised, delicious, raspberry, tart cherry palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
  • Ancien
    • 2011 Ancien Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard
      Dark cherry red color; tart cherry nose; tart cherry, tart raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 92 points
  • Bonaccorsi
    • 2011 Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard
      Dark ruby color; ripe raspberry, tart cherry, baking spice nose; tart raspberry, tart cherry, raspberry puree palate; medium-plus finish (Pommard & Dijon clone 115; 100% destemmed; 18 months in 25% new French oak) 92+ points
    • 2010 Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Cargasacchi Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; tar, light black pepper, green peppercorn nose; tight, tart cherry, peppercorn, tar, mineral, raspberry puree palate; needs 3-plus years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (clone 115, 100% destemmed, 20 months in 50% new French oak) 92 points
  • Brewer-Clifton
    Greg and Steve make remarkable Pinot Noirs that have shown steady improvement over the years as they’ve refined their vineyard techniques toward picking for substantial whole cluster inclusion. In 2011, they produced one appellation and six single vineyard bottlings. The 2011 edition of the Machado, from a vineyard adjacent to Clos Pepe in the northern part of the appellation, is particularly complex, showing orange and Asian spices. The 2010 Mount Carmel bottling noted below, from the steep, south-facing hill located around the ruins of the unfinished Carmelite Monastery comes from grapes planted in 1991, largely on their own roots in the sandy soils there. It’s wonderfully saline and minerally and should see a long development.

    • 2011 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado
      Medium dark ruby color; baking spice, Asian spice, baked raspberry, dried cherry, orange spice nose; medium bodied, rich but elegant, orange spice, tart cherry, briney, black tea, dried cherry palate with firm, sweet tannins; could use 2-plus years of bottle age and should go 15+; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 25% each clones 459, Mount Eden, Pommard and Merry Edwards; 100% whole cluster) 93 points
    • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado
      Dark ruby color with clarity; complex, appealing, ripe blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry nose; plush, rich, tart blackberry, black cherry, baking spice, black raspberry palate; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points
    • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Mount Carmel
      Very dark purple red violet color; focused, iodine, tart black cherry, tart berry, saline nose; iodine, tart plum, saline, mineral palate; tasty now but will develop further over 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (80-85% whole cluster; 14.9% alcohol) 93 points
  • Cargasacchi
    Peter Cargasacchi, pictured above in his new tasting room, is one of Sta. Rita Hills’s major personalities–with a wicked sense of humor and a passion for communicating about the intricacies of grape farming and his region’s peculiar weather patterns. He comes from a line of Italian Americans who lived and farmed in the Central Coast since the early 1900s. After Peter graduated Berkeley, he wanted to plant grapes and was thinking Merlot, as he enjoyed Merlot-based wines. He met Richard Sanford, however, who told him, “You’re in a great spot for Pinot Noir.” Peter planted Cargasacchi Vineyard in 1998. It consists of 12 acres of Pinot Noir, all Dijon clone 115, on two different rootstocks, 3309C and 420A. Most of the fruit is sold to other wineries, but Peter reserves a small amount for his own wines.

    • 2010 Cargasacchi Pinot Noir Estate Cargasacchi Vineyard
      Medium dark ruby color; baking spice, ripe cherry, tart black berry, black raspberry nose; tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, baking spice palate with near medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Clos Pepe
    • 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir Vigneron Select
      Very dark cherry red color; intense, lifted, lavender, ripe black cherry, reduction nose; rich, plush, ripe black cherry, ripe cherry, lavender, berry palate; needs 3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish 92 points
    • 2010 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir
    • Dark red color; appealing, floral, hibiscus, tart cranberry, tart cherry nose; tasty, poised, tart cranberry, tart cherry, mineral palate with a little toasty oak; needs 2 years to integrate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 93 points
  • Cold Heaven
    • 2010 Cold Heaven Pinot Noir Never Tell Sta. Rita Hills
      Dark ruby color; appealing, berry pie filling, ripe black cherry, black raspberry nose; rich, ripe, tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, berry pie filling palate; could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (15.5% alcohol; excellent version of Pinot in a very ripe style) 92+ points
  • Crawford
    • 2011 Crawford Family Wines Pinot Noir Walk Slow
      Very dark ruby color; appealing, black cherry, black raspberry, subtle spice, nutmeg nose; tasty, poised, elegant, tart black cherry, black raspberry, nutmeg palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; pH 3.59, .63 TA, 33% whole cluster; 1 year in neutral oak) 92 points
  • Dierberg
    • 2010 Dierberg Pinot Noir Drum Canyon Vineyard
      Black tinged dark ruby color; light peppercorn, roasted black fruit, tart black fruit, light green herb, dark roast coffee nose; brooding, tight, dense, tart blackberry, sweet green herb palate with firm sweet tannins and good acidity; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (13.2% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Dragonette
    The proprietors/winemakers of Dragonette are John and Steve Dragonette and their friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis. They source Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah from vineyards in the cool, coastal areas of the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley and York Mountain (west of Paso Robles). They try to buy on a “per acre” basis, allowing them to control major viticultural decisions during the season, like shoot and cluster density, canopy management and irrigation. They also personally walk the rows, fine-tuning the farming (leafing, green harvesting) and select harvest dates for each block based upon flavors. Their Sta. Rita Hills wines have included a Rosé, from a saignee of their 2011 Pinots, an SRH appellation bottling and a Fiddlestix Vineyard designate. The grapes are destemmed without crushing, given a 4-7 day cold soak, and then fermented with a mix of indigenous and commercial yeasts.

    • 2011 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir Black Label
      Medium ruby color; baked red fruit, oak, green peppercorn nose; tight, ripe cherry, tart raspberry, tart strawberry palate with good acidity; could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; 80% new French oak; best five barrels; 100% destemmed) 92 points
    • 2011 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills
      Medium ruby color; baked raspberry, ripe cherry nose; tasty, poised, tart cherry, tart raspberry, mineral, light clove palate with good acidity; long finish (14.2% alcohol; 23% new French oak; 100% destemmed) 92+ points
  • Fess Parker
    • 2011 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Ashley’s Vineyard
      Very dark cherry red color; appealing, black raspberry, black cherry, berry, talc nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe cherry, raspberry, tart red berry, grenadine syrup, mineral, raspberry syrup palate with good balancing acidity; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol) 92+ points
    • 2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Clone 115 Sta. Rita Hills
      dark ruby color; floral, rosehips, light sous bois, ripe raspberry nose; rich, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, spice, blackberry, light oregano palate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% whole cluster) 92 points
  • Flying Goat
    4/2/12 Sta. Rita Hills Tasting
    Norm Yost and Kate Griffith are the proprietors of Flying Goat, which Norm started in 2000. He chose the fanciful name because of his two pet Pygmy goats and their gymnastic antics. Norm has been making wine for over 30 years, serving stints in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Russian River and now Santa Barbara County. He makes several Pinots, a Pinot Gris from Santa Maria Valley, and some interesting sparkling wines. I have been most impressed, however, by the Pinots from the Rio Vista Vineyard, the appellation’s easternmost vineyard. Flying Goat receives clones 2A, 115, 667 and 777 from Rio Vista. From this fruit they make three clonal-designate wines–clone 2a, clone 667 and a Dijon clone blend.

    • 2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Noir 2A Rio Vista Vineyard
      Very dark cherry red color; focused, rosehips, tart cherry, tart raspberry nose; tasty, tart raspberry, baked strawberry, rosehips, cherry pie filling palate with medium acidity; could use 1-2 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; 3.71 pH, .56 TA, 100% destemmed) 92+ points
  • Foxen
    Foxen winemaker and co-owner Bill Wathen

    • 2011 Foxen Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard
      Dark ruby color; lifted, baked raspberry, Asian spice, light pepper, black cherry nose; tasty, complex, spice, dried cherry, Asian spice palate; needs 3-4 years bottle age; long finish (13.8% alcohol) 94 points
    • 2011 Foxen Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard
      Black tinged dark ruby color; baking spice, tart cherry, light orange spice nose; tasty, orange spice, tart orange, tart raspberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; 100% destemmed, 16 months in 60% new French oak; 50% clone 115, 50% 667) 92 points
  • Furthermore
    • 2010 Furthermore Pinot Noir La Encantada
      Dark ruby color; cherry pie, berry pie filling nose; rich, poised, baked cherry, berry, black cherry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • Gainey
    • 2012 Gainey Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills Dark ruby color; aromatic, tart berry, blackberry, black raspberry, berry compote, rosehips nose; complex, tart black berry, tart berry, tart raspberry, mineral, cranberry, rosehips palate with medium acidity; could use 1 year of bottle age; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; 10 months in oak, 20-25% new) 92+ points
  • Goodland
    Goodland's Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

    Goodland’s Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

    • 2011 Goodland Wines Sta. Rita Hills Red
      Dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cherry, ripe strawberry, tart raspberry nose with a sense of salinity; delicious, focused, tart cranberry, rosehips, mineral palate showing salinity and medium-plus acidity with firm, sweet tannins; should age beautifully; medium-plus finish (5% whole cluster; Dijon 115; all neutral oak) 92+ points
  • Hilliard Bruce
    • 2009 Hilliard Bruce Pinot Noir Moon
      Dark cherry red color; appealing, baked cherry, baked raspberry nose; tasty, balanced, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry, mineral, bright red fruit palate; medium-plus finish (pricey at about $80) 92 points
  • Longoria
    The Longorias relied entirely on purchased fruit until Rick had a chance to plant his own vineyard, a partnership with Hank and Brenda Klehn, on the Klehns’ 40-acre ranch located on a small mesa at the western end of the Santa Rita Hills. After discussing and planning the project for two years, they planted 7.75 acres in 1998 to three clones of Pinot Noir: Pommard, 115 and 667.

    They named the vineyard Fe Ciega, Spanish for “Blind Faith.” The name is partly a tribute to a favorite band—Rick is a huge music lover, and there is a musical reference in another of his wines’ names (“Lovely Rita”). In 2008, they planted an additional 1.25 acres of Pinot Noir, Mount Eden clone, and three-quarters of an acre of Chardonnay. With his Pinot, Rick destems completely and usually inoculates. The wine stays 11 to 12 months in barrel, with racking only right before bottling.

    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Block M Fe Ciega Vineyard
      Saturated very dark ruby color; very appealing, tart cherry, ripe raspberry, roses nose; youthful, ripe and delicious cherry, ripe raspberry palate with fine tannins and good acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (14.5% alcohol; 30% new oak for 14 months) 93+ points
    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Lovely Rita
      Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cranberry, strawberry, light sous bois nose with a sense of salinity; delicious, well delineated, poised, ripe raspberry, strawberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (an elegant Cali Pinot for $32; 3.24 pH; 20% new oak) 93 points
    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; sous bois, forest floor, tree bark, light cinnamon nose; tight, powerful, complex, juicy, ripe cherry, orange oil, cinnamon, nutmeg palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (13.6% alcohol) 93 points
    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard
      Medium dark ruby color; saline, tart black cherry, tart raspberry, earth nose; tight, tart black cherry, ripe black raspberry, tea leaf, mineral palate with medium acidity and sweet, firm tannins; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 14 months in 33% new French oak; 100% destemmed) 93 points
  • Lutum
    • 2012 Lutum Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
      Barrel sample – very dark ruby color; appealing, tart berry, tart cherry, pepper nose; tight, tart cherry, tart pepper, mineral palate with a sense of dried herbs; will need 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 92-93 points
  • Melville
    • 2012 Melville Pinot Noir Estate
      Dark cherry red color with clarity; appealing, baked raspberry, roses, floral, cranberry, sous bois nose; delicious, balanced, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, mineral palate with good, balancing, medium acidity and firm tannins; could use 2 years and should age beautifully; medium-plus finish (one-third whole cluster; 100 different lots; all 16 clones planted; no new oak) 93+ points
    • 2011 Melville Pinot Noir Terraces
      Medium ruby color; appealing, roses, sous bois, rosehips, tart berry, blackberry nose; tight, tasty, berry, blackberry, tart raspberry palate with medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (about 70% whole cluster; Dijon clones 115, 667, 777, Mount Eden, Pommard and Swan) 92+ points
  • Pali
    • 2011 Pali Wine Co. Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard
      Pre-release (Fall ’13 release) – dark cherry red color; baked cherry, baked raspberry nose; rich, poised, silky textured, baked cherry, baked raspberry, baked strawberry palate; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol) 92 points
  • Paul Lato
    • 2011 Paul Lato Pinot Noir Cest le Vie Wenzlau Vineyard
      Dark cherry red color; appealing, ripe cherry, cherry pie filling, baking spice nose; lush but fine, tart cherry, tart black cherry, violets palate with good acidity; needs 3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (13.8% alcohol; 3.45 pH; 70-75% new oak) 93+ points
  • Rusack
    • 2011 Rusack Pinot Noir Reserve
      Very dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, roses, loamy, earthy nose; delicious, rich, ripe raspberry, roses, tart cherry, ripe cranberry palate with good acidity and structure; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; 3.5 pH) 93+ points
  • Samsara
    • 2012 Samsara Pinot Noir
      Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry, grenadine syrup, loam nose; rich, plush, ripe cherry, grenadine syrup, baked raspberry palate with balance; accessible and tasty now; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 25% whole cluster; 1 year in neutral oak) 92+ points
    • 2010 Samsara Pinot Noir Melville Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; sous bois, tar, roasted green bean, soy nose; tasty, complex, sous bois, roasted green bean, mineral, tar, roasted black fruit palate with fine tannins; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 50% whole cluster; a Saint Joseph style Pinot Noir; ideal pairing with roasted veggies, seared steak, Moroccan lamb) 93 points
  • Sandhi
    • 2011 Sandhi Wines Pinot Noir Wenzlau
      Medium ruby color; sous bois, stems, rosehips, hibiscus nose; textured, sous bois, stems, rosehips, hibiscus, tart cherry, mineral palate with medium acidity; needs 4-5 years to integrate the stems; medium-plus finish (100% whole cluster) 92 points
  • Sanford
    Sanford winemaker Steve Fennel at the Hitching Post

    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Estate Bottled Sta. Rita Hills
      Dark ruby color; appealing, roses, rosehips, ripe cranberry nose; tart cherry, cranberry, rosehips, mineral palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 93 points
    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
      Very dark ruby color; ripe raspberry, tart cherry, tobacco nose; very tasty, medium bodied, silky textured, tart raspberry puree, tart cherry palate with medium acidity and grip; could use 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol) 92 points
    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir La Rinconada Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; appealing, tar, tart black cherry, tart raspberry, saline nose; very tasty, rich but poised, medium bodied, tart raspberry puree, saline, tart cherry, mineral palate with firm, sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; paired remarkably well with rib eye steak) 93+ points
    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Old Block Sanford & Benedict
      Medium dark ruby color; very appealing, roses, tart cherry, rosehips nose; tight, tart cherry, cranberry, tart raspberry, mineral palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (not yet labeled) 93+ points
  • Sea Smoke
    • 2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Southing
      Medium dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, baked cherry nose; tasty, lush but poised, tart cherry, baked cherry, tart raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • Storm
    I wrote about Ernst Storm’s relatively new project here. One of Ernst’s two Pinot Noir bottlings is from Sta. Rita Hills, from two blocks of the John Sebastiano Vineyard, a west-facing vineyard, buffeted by winds, on the appellation’s northern edge. Both of Ernst’s Pinot Noirs are gently handled during the winemaking process. The Sebastiano Vineyard is more powerful and rich, with darker red fruits showing, along with spice notes and great acidity.

    • 2011 Storm Wines Pinot Noir John Sebastiano Vineyard
      Dark red violet color; very appealing, buoyant, tart cherry, spice nose; tasty, youthful, rich, tart cherry, spice, cinnamon palate with medium acidity; good now but could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; no whole cluster; 115 clone; 3.69 pH; 6.3 TA) 93 points
  • Tyler
    • 2010 Tyler Pinot Noir Clos Pepe
      Medium dark ruby color; very appealing, ripe cherry, raspberry, roses nose; rich but poised, very tasty, ripe cherry, raspberry, roses, lightly saline, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
    • 2011 Tyler Pinot Noir La Encantada
      Black tinged dark cherry red color; black cherry, berry, oak nose; tight, black cherry, ripe berry, blackberry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 93 points
    • 2011 Tyler Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
      Very dark cherry red color; very appealing, tart cherry, forest floor, savory, light green peppercorn nose; tight, silky textured, tart cranberry, mineral, green peppercorn palate with lots of extract; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (from top 4 rows of block T13) 92+ points
  • Syrah

  • Melville
    • 2012 Melville Syrah Estate
      Very dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, toast, charcoal nose; rich, tight, tart black fruit, black cherry, charcoal palate with near medium acidity; needs 4-plus years; medium-plus finish (25 to 30% whole cluster; all neutral oak) 92+ points
  • Ojai
    • 2000 Ojai Syrah Melville Vineyard
      Very dark red violet color; liquid pepper, white pepper, tar, tart black fruit nose; intense, tasty, liquid pepper, lavender, anise, peppercorn, roasted plum, tar palate; medium-plus finish (should go 15-20 years; 14% alcohol) 94 points
  • Samsara
    Samsara is the very small production project of Chad Melville and his wife Mary. They make the wines out of quarters in the Lompoc wine “ghetto.” I was tremendously impressed by these wines. The cool climate Syrahs here compare favorably with the best in the State.

    • 2010 Samsara Syrah Melville Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; very appealing, aromatic, chili releno, pepper, green peppercorn nose; velvety textured, rich, medium-plus bodied, chili releno, green peppercorn, roasted green chile palate; could use 3-4 years; long finish (14.8% alcohol) 93+ points
    • 2010 Samsara Syrah Turner Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; very appealing, pepper, roasted fruit nose; delicious, Cote Rotie-like, tar, roasted black fruit, black pepper, very tart black fruit palate; could use 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 100% whole cluster; 2 years in neutral oak, 1 in bottle) 94 points
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