Santa Barbara Wine Country - Delicious Drought-Stricken Wines

On a recent work trip to California I spent a few days in Santa Barbara with some good friends of mine (Tyler + Jamie). Not surprisingly, we spent our Saturday driving around wine country in Santa Barbara. I wasn't too familiar with the wine region but there were a few wineries and tasting rooms in the area that have been on my bucket list for a while: Stolpman Vineyards, Beckman Vineyards, and Au Bon Climat. 

Santa Barbara is stunning. Boulevards flush with lush palm trees and green ivy, ocean views from every vantage point, and mountains cozying up to the edge of town, no wonder this is where celebrities go to retire. It's too bad California is experiencing its worst drought in centuries though, because once you venture off the coast, the desert feels like it's slowly taking over every inch of the landscape. Trees are graying and dying, if not already dead. The land is so fucking parched that it is unbelievable at times. The transition to a drier climate is no pretty thing. It is not as if the vibrant yet stark beauty of a drier, desert-like environment is already on display. It is so damn... gray and brittle... everywhere.

Most winemakers for smaller, independent wineries I've spoken with downplay the negative side affects of the drought, noting that viticulture is one of the few major agriculture industries that utilizes drop irrigation or is dry-farmed. Compared to other cash crops in California like lettuce, vineyards consume significantly less water per acre. Grape vines are also incredibly resilient, assuming you have the right varietal for the climate (Rhone varietals may take over California in the coming decades), but it is still scary to think about what California's wine industry will look like in 10-20 years. To some degree, drought (and dry farming) can concentrate flavors and lead to higher quality wines, but vines can't survive forever without water. Barring a miracle, it's not going to get any better. 

 Beach in town looking out at University of California Santa Barbara.

Beach in town looking out at University of California Santa Barbara.

 Looking west into the mountains from the top of the Santa Barbara courthouse.

Looking west into the mountains from the top of the Santa Barbara courthouse.

aubonclimattastingroom

With those doomsday thoughts in mind, we started our day off at Au Bon Climat's tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara. I have always been a fan of Jim Clendenen's effort to make more restrained California pinot noir but the visit was far more interesting than I expected. I'd first come across Jim's wines at the International Pinot Noir Festival in Oregon and I thought they always competed well with the best from Burgundy and Oregon. Not only did we get to taste his classic California pinot noir and chardonnay, he had a healthy selection of aged wines and a bunch of of Italian-varietal wines under the Clendenen Family Vineyards label. The tasting fee wasn't cheap but that's to be expected when you are in the heart of Santa Barbara. 

Biggest takeaway from this tasting was that restrained California pinot noir is absolutely phenomenal at 5-10 years of age. My favorite was the 2008 Santa Maria Valley Nielsen Vineyard pinot. Absolutely amazing and super well-integrated because of the age. If cost was no issue, I would have picked up a case of this, as it was one of the more memorable California pinot noirs I've ever had. 

There were a bunch of Italian varietals for tasting. We tasted a Tocai Fruilano, a refreshing, tasty and incredibly rare varietal from northern Italy that is rarely grown in the US, a nebbiolo that was true to form, and my favorite, an aged Supertuscan blend called 'Vita Nova' that was from all the way back in 1999. I couldn't believe this wine was only $30 so I bought up a bottle to take up to San Francisco. $30.... for a nearly 20-year-old wine from a great producer in California. Where can you find deals like this anymore? Clearly Clendenen is focused on releasing the wines when they are ready, a simple but all-but-forgotten principal in a lot of California wine country these days. 

 On the road to Beckmen Vineyards to have a tipple of some damn fine Rhone wine.

On the road to Beckmen Vineyards to have a tipple of some damn fine Rhone wine.

A quick 45 minute drive over the Santa Ynez Mountains landed us in the Santa Ynez Valley near Los Olivos, California. Our stop was Beckmen Vineyards, one of the top five producers of Syrah and Rhone varietals in the US. Beckmen's wines have a blend of pure fruit and old world funk that I can't resist. They also happen to make one of the best pink wines in America. I've never had the opportunity to taste their smaller production bottlings though, so with three of us tasting, I made sure we got through every wine they had available that afternoon.

Beckmen's standby Rhone blend is 'Cuvee Bec' and is available in most areas around the country for $17-25. Cuvee Bec is a syrah-dominant blend that is always lively, full of fresh fruit, and painfully gulpable. It's a great introduction to what's possible with Rhone grapes in California. The 2014 Estate Grenache was equally delicious and classic take on the varietal with bright red fruits. If you like grenache, you will love their effort with the grape. We tasted several very small production bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate, which I thought were very good, as were the Marsanne and Chardonnay, but jesus, the 2013 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah and the 2013 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah 'Block Six' were the stunners of the tasting. Apparently, every wine coming from that vineyard is gold. It's not surprising that it's farmed biodynamically and located in the famed Ballard Canyon AVA, a relatively new AVA that is all about the syrah. These wines were lively but also had a concentration, density, and depth of flavor beyond any syrah I've had in ages. Can't complain about our visit to Beckmen. Outstanding!

 Entry to Stolpman's tasting room in the heart of Los Olivos

Entry to Stolpman's tasting room in the heart of Los Olivos

 This is probably my favorite one of the day. Pure Syrah fruit but with some old world funk on it as well. Very reasonably priced at $30 too.

This is probably my favorite one of the day. Pure Syrah fruit but with some old world funk on it as well. Very reasonably priced at $30 too.

Our last stop was Stolpman Vineyards in the middle of Los Olivos' cute-as-shit downtown. From what I could tell, the heart of Los Olivos really has nothing in it but a bunch of tasting rooms, restaurants, and kitschy wine country shops. Not the worst combination in the world and certainly pleasant to walk around in, but damn, this must have been a ghost town 20 years ago. Stolpman first came on my radar while I was living in Chicago and frequenting the free Saturday tastings at Vin Chicago. One Saturday, they were pouring Stolpman's entry-level red blend called "La Cuadrilla" that clocked in at just around $20. I liked it so much it was the first review I posted on the blog, almost 2 two years ago (!!). It was phenomenal and incredibly alluring with a dark and spicy palate but a lightness and liveliness to it that I hadn't tasted in many domestic syrahs. Even more, profits from La Cuadrilla are given to vineyard workers. 

So, with that introduction to their wines, I was understandably excited about tasting more of their offerings. Their tasting menu wasn't huge at just six wines but the fee was reasonable at $12. Our first wine was a Roussanne, a varietal I'm not ecstatic about but was well-made. Reds filled out the rest of the menu. The 'Para Maria' was a super intriguing blend of syrah (93%) and petit verdot (7%), which had a portion of the syrah carbonically fermented. This enhanced the fruitiness and adds a high-toned and lively note to the palate. Immensely drinkable, nearly gulpable, and a wine that I would proudly call a house wine.  

The wine of the tasting was the 2014 Estate Syrah. After coming from Beckmen Vineyards and being near the end of our day, the bar was set damn high but this wine absolutely delivered. The Estate Syrah was $30, far more affordable than most of the other reds on the tasting menu, but it was easily my favorite. This wine was fermented in concrete tanks and was incredibly dark purple in color but was lively and fresh on the palate. The linear, pure blue and black fruit burst out of the glass on the nose and on the palate. The key with this wine, and several at Beckmen earlier in the day, is that they seamlessly meld a richness and freshness on the palate. This seems to be the underlying similarity between wines from the Ballard Canyon AVA. We've got to consider this AVA to be one of the premier in all of California. 

Go visit Santa Barbara.