Exploring Terroir and Balance in Santa Barbara County
Earlier this month, I spent five days in Santa Barbara County visiting wineries, talking with winemakers and touring vineyards, including very impressive new plantings. I hadn’t visited the region for a couple years and my interest had been piqued by great Santa Barbara wines I had tasted at the In Pursuit of Balance tastings I recently wrote about here and the Sta. Rita Hills appellation tasting I summarized here.
My trip was organized by Sao Anash, formerly executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association and currently the very well connected head of her own Santa Barbara-based PR firm, Muse Management. The wineries and winemakers I visited included a number of Sao’s clients as well as several non-clients whose current projects Sao thought I would find interesting. On the way home, I took in the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event, where I focused on tasting additional Santa Barbara wines from some of my favorite producers during the Saturday grand tasting.
This Santa Barbara immersion confirmed for me what I’ve been suspecting for a few years now: this region is making some of California’s most interesting, compelling and balanced wines. Growers and winemakers here are earnestly delving into the varied terroirs of this region, trying to understand and appreciate their impact on their wines in great depth. Their work is making it possible to begin to discern very different qualities in wines from not only the deservedly celebrated Sta. Rita Hills appellation, but also from lesser known subregions in the area that also produce great wines. These include Santa Maria Valley, with its cool temperatures, fog and constant ocean breezes that favor Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the hillsides of Ballard Canyon, where distinctive and flavorful Syrah truly excels; and the warm and northerly Happy Canyon, where both Syrah and Bordeaux blend wines show tremendous promise.
In upcoming pieces on my blog I will write further about several of the producers whose wines and new endeavors most impressed me on this trip. To give you a little of the flavor for what’s happening in Santa Barbara County, I want to highlight two producers in particular.
The first, Goodland Wines, is a brand new project by three winemakers and a leading viticulturalist. Their limited production and reasonably priced wines are aimed above all at highlighting Santa Barbara’s distinctive terroirs.
The second, Dierberg/Star Lane, is a project that was launched in 1997 with major investments in vineyard planting and top quality winemaking facilities that have facilitated the creation of some stunning wines from three of the County’s subregions.
The principals behind Goodland are four men whose credentials and track records alone would suggest this is a project worthy a wine lover’s attention. For example, Matt Dees is the winemaker for Jonata, which produces exceptional, complex wines that sell for very high prices, while partner Ruben Solorzano is a premier viticulturalist, known to some in the region as the “grape whisperer.” The other two principals are Dave Potter, assistant winemaker at Fess Parker Winery in Santa Barbara who has run his own small label, Municipal Winemakers, for several years; and Chris Snowden of the family behind Snowden Wines, who has worked both as a cellar master for Frazier Winery and as head of sales for Snowden.
The Goodland wines are labeled with the appellation or subregion in huge letters; the wine varietal doesn’t appear on the front label and the “Goodland” name is listed in much smaller type. Their model is that of France, where, the appellation—such as Burgundy, or Châteauneuf-du-Pape—is what appears on the label, rather than the grape variety, and one simply knows that red wine in Burgundy is Pinot Noir or that Châteauneuf is normally a blend of red grapes typically dominated by Grenache. The winemaking—which includes picking for good acidities rather than maximum ripeness, long cold soaks that help draw out all the aromatics, and primarily neutral oak—is all aimed at letting the terroir of the place where the grapes were grown shine through.
The Goodland Sta. Rita Hills white, for example, is a Chardonnay—one of the grapes that does extremely well in the cool Sta. Rita Hills climate, where it slowly ripens while retaining very high acidity. This one was more reminiscent of a premier cru Chablis from a cool year than any California Chardonnay I’ve had in recent memory, due to its high acidity and sense of salinity. The Sta. Rita Hills red, on the other hand, is Pinot Noir, the other Burgundian grape for which this appellation has become renowned. It has a complex nose of ripe strawberry, cherry and tart raspberry, and a delicious, focused palate showing lots of minerality and strong acidity.
The Happy Canyon Red, by contrast, is actually Cabernet Sauvignon—one of the Bordeaux varieties that does particularly well on the loamy, warm hillsides of Happy Canyon. This is a Cabernet that is a welcome throwback to the great, moderately priced California Cabernets of the 1960s and 1970s, with good acidity, poise and a sense of that loaminess on the nose and on the palate. It is selling for $40. My other favorite wine of the lineup is the Ballard Canyon red, from a subregion not yet officially recognized as an appellation but where Syrah does particularly well. This Syrah, which I rated 94 points, is terrifically complex and powerful, featuring roasted fig and pepper among other flavors, with good acidity. It is priced at $35.
Goodland is selling their wines through their mailing list, for which you can register on their website here. This list is sure to be closed soon as the quality and QPR of these wines is just too outstanding for them not to be snapped up quickly by savvy buyers.
My favorite Syrah of the entire trip, and one of the best I’ve tasted in California in recent years, was the 2009 Dierberg from grapes grown in the Santa Ynez Valley appellation. This one exhibits roasted plum, black fruit, black pepper and violets with good acidity and a long finish. I rated it 95 points and it sells for $34.
Dierberg is owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, who are based in Missouri but who also spend a substantial amount of time in Santa Barbara County. They employed a good part of their fortune earned in the banking industry to buy and plant extensive vineyards—with a variety of clonal material, rootstocks, planting methods and exposures–in Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon starting in 1997. They also built one of the largest and most well equipped wineries in the region.
The talented winemaker there is Andy Alba, who has been with the project since 2001, having been put in charge not only of winemaking but also viticultural operations in 2010. Andy, who studied biology at U.C. San Diego, initially worked as a chemist in the biotech industry. His interest in chemistry led him into wine analytics, and he remains something of a mad scientist and constant experimenter. He employs the extra capacity of the winery in terms of fermenters and barrels to run lots of tests on different techniques, including different types of barrels and methods of fermentation.
For example, he tasted me on two different barrels of Pinot Noir which had both been fermented with a very high proportion of whole cluster, or stem inclusion. High percentages of stem inclusion in Pinot Noir can, over time, give velvety texture to the wine, but also imparts strong “green” aromas and flavors—like green bean, pine tree, and menthol. In one barrel Andy had used punch downs during fermentation while in the second the fermenting must was pumped over instead of being punched down. The difference in aroma and taste couldn’t have been more striking—in wine based on grapes picked at the same time from the same vineyard. I would have expected the punched down barrel to have the stronger, more extracted green characteristics, but it was actually the pumped over barrel that exhibited these to a much higher degree—the punched down barrel was much more integrated and subtle in terms of “stemmy” aromas and flavors.
Andy likens his work to that of a sculptor, seeing the grape harvest as akin to “cleaving a monolith” that he then “chips away at, forming it into” its ultimate shape. He also sees himself as adapting his winemaking to highlight the terroir and expression of each of Dierberg’s vineyards and sites.
The results—both of the Dierbergs’ extensive and thoughtful plantings and of the work of Andy and his team—are truly impressive. Besides the great Syrah—Andy’s favorite varietal to drink, especially when blended with a little Viognier—the Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is powerful and brooding while the Santa Maria Valley Pinots are aromatic and balanced. Even better, for me, are the Bordeaux varieties made under the Star Lane Vineyard label.
The Star Lane Cabernet includes small amounts of other Bordeaux varieties—Cabernet Franc and Merlot—and is wonderfully aromatic and complex, as is the Astral, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet is priced at only $44, while the Astral is substantially more, at $80.
For the complete tasting notes on the wines from Goodland and Dierberg/Star Lane, see below.
- 2011 Goodland Wines – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Slightly cloudy peach yellow color; clean, tart peach, citrus nose; tasty, light-medium bodied, tart lemon, citrus palate with salinity and medium acidity; medium finish (Petit Chablis like; 75% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Chardonnay; 14.5% alcohol; would be fabulous with oysters, or Santa Barbara rock crab) (89 points)
- 2011 Goodland Wines Sta. Rita Hills – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
Light yellow color; appealing, light pear, tart green apple nose; tasty, bright, tart lemon, very saline, mineral palate with high acidity; medium-plus finish (like Premier Cru Chablis from a cool year; 13% alcohol; about 3.24 pH; would be great with oysters, seafood, calamari) 91+ points (91 points)
- 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon Santa Barbara County – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County
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 Sta. Rita Hills Red – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
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 92+ points (5% whole cluster; Dijon 115; all neutral oak) (92 points)
- 2010 Goodland Wines Santa Ynez Red – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Very dark ruby color; very tart plum, salty plum, dried fig, black fig nose; rich, rounded, baked plum, baked fig, dried fig, fig jam palate with salinity and good acidity; for drinking over next 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (14.5% alcohol; 72% Syrah, 25% Grenache, 3% Viognier; raised in neutral oak) (90 points)
- 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red – USA, California, Central Coast, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Pre-release (Fall ’13 release): 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)
- 2011 Goodland Wines Ballard Canyon – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
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% alcoho9l) (94 points)
- 2010 Dierberg Chardonnay Estate Grown – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
Very slightly cloudy lemon yellow color; appealing, tart lemon, quince, preserved lemon nose; tart quince, lime, mineral palate with medium acidity; needs 1-plus year and should age nicely; medium-plus finish 90+ points (14.5% alcohol; 25% new oak; 10 mos in barrel, 4 mos in steel, on lees) (90 points)
- 2009 Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
Black tinged dark red violet color; appealing, very aromatic, violets, tart black cherry, black raspberry, tart berry nose; rich, dense, black raspberry, tart black cherry, tart blackberry palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.5% alcohol; nearly a dozen clones of Pinot including 2A, 828, Swan, Calera and assorted Dijons) (91 points)
- 2009 Dierberg Pinot Noir Steven Santa Maria Valley – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
Very dark black tinged red violet color; aromatic, ripe black cherry, black raspberry, mulberry nose; tasty, rich, ripe mulberry, ripe black cherry, black raspberry, graham cracker and caramel palate with sweet tannins and good acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.5% alcohol; ; 100% new oak; sourced from Block 4 planted to Dijon 667 & 777) (91 points)
- 2010 Dierberg Pinot Noir Drum Canyon Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
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 92+ points (13.2% alcohol) (92 points)
- 2009 Dierberg Syrah Santa Ynez Valley – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Opaque black tinged purple red violet color; very appealing, roasted plum, black fruit, black pepper, espresso nose; rich, delicious, roasted black fruit, pepper, violets palate with good acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (14.5% alcohol) (95 points)
- 2008 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, Central Coast, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Opaque black-tinged red violet color; aromatic, tart currant, mocha, pencil lead, light menthol nose; rich, creamy textured, ripe blackberry, mocha, violet palate with soft, sweet tannins; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, 11% Merlot; 14.7% alcohol, 18 mos in 60% new French oak; blend of hillside and valley floor fruit) (93 points)
- 2007 Star Lane Vineyard Astral – USA, California, Central Coast, 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)
- 2011 Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Estate Grown – USA, California, Central Coast, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Light yellow color; light smoke, tart gooseberry, grassy nose; rich, gooseberry, smoke, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.5% alcohol) (91 points)