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WBC14: Panel of Santa Barbara Winemakers

Santa Barbara/San Ynes/Santa Rita are among some of my favorite California regions — I’ve never had a bad wine from this place — so it was both a pleasure to know that the Wine Blogging Conference 2014 would be held here, and also that they kicked off Friday with a panel of Santa Barbara winemakers.

Poor Larry Schaffer had a TERRIBLE time with his slides but had an incredibly legit panel of first-generation, super-famous Santa Barbara winemakers: Bob Lindquist of Qupé, Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines, and Richard Longoria of Longoria Wines. Lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara of course, and over 50% of the grapes they grow here aren’t vinified here.

Panel question the first: Why Santa Barbara?



Richard Sanford studied geography in college, came back from Vietnam War wanting to get into agriculture. A bottle of Volnay inspired him to find a place to grow Burgundy-style wine. He thought the places that were growing CA Pinot Noir were too warm, so he wandered around with his themometer in the coastal valleys near San Luis Obispo and bought some land and started a vineyard. The land had never been electrified, and he used gas lights for 6 years. In 1976, they had their first production, and the wines were so well received that they sold out their vintage. They were the first vineyard to grow their grapes organically. He’s super-serious and adorable.

Side note: winemakers are not accomplished conference speakers.

Ken Brown started in sales in IBM and real estate of Sacramento with a degree in finance, but his love for wine started taking over his life, so he went back to school at Fresno State and studied both viticulture and microbiology. His love was Pinot Noir, and he headed up the school vineyard. One of his assignments was to prove the market viability of Santa Barbara wines (guess that worked out). He then herd about this vienyard doing this great Pinot Noir: he headed up there, met Richard Sanford and tasted the best Pinot Noir he’d ever had. Ken was hired by Zaca Mesa winery out of college, and then started his own winery (Byron) in 1984 while he was still the winemaker at Zaca Mesa. Byron Wines was sold to Mondavi in 1990, and planted a 17 acre of experimental Pinot Noir in 1991 to assess all the different clones they had planted. Working with the Mondavis was really important to the development of Santa Barbara County, and in 1993 Ken and his wife opened Ken Brown Wines.

Rick Longoria was taken under the wine by Andre Telecheiff at Buena Vista, who also told him about a new area he was excited about: Santa Barbara County. Firestone was looking for a cellar master, and Rick was hired in 1976 and met his wife there — she was the winery tour guide — and they married in 1977. There were only about 5 wineries in the county. “Napa was becoming Napa in 1978,” but Santa Barbara/San Ynes was still laid back. Longoria, their own brand, stated in 1982 part-time, and not until the 90s did they start doing it full-time. They make a diverse portfolio of wines, because they can — the climate here lets them grow diverse grapes, like Albariño and Tempranillo. Rick describes himself as a restless winemaker, and so what he loves about this region is that he can grow lots of different grapes.

Bob Lindquist has been in the wine business his whole adult life — got the wine bug when he was 25 in the 70s, and got excited about wine at this great wine store, High Times Cellars. He wanted to be a wine retailer at the time: worked for a wholesaler in Ventura for a time, and one of his customers was a little store in Los Olivos and got hired to manage the store in 1979. It was owned by the son of the owner of Zaca Mesa, so he got to know the local winemakers, and fell in love with the area. In late August in 1979, he got fired from the store, and got hired by the owner of Zaca Mesa as a tour guide there. In his spare time, he worked as the cellar rat, working under Ken Brown and Jim Clandenon. A few years later he started Qupé (at the age of 29), making the wines at Zaca Mesa and paying to use their equipment with sweat equity. He fell in love with Syrah, and bought his grapes from Paso Robles but had to add acid to those grapes which told him that Paso Robles was too hot for Syrah. Europeans are always amazed that they can grow excellent Syrah and Pinot Noir so close together here, but that’s the climate.

Panel question the second: Why are you still here?

Richard Sanford says the best is yet to come for Santa Barbara. What excites him is that so many young winemakers have chosen to make wine in the Santa Rita hills.

Ken Brown says once he really began to understand this region that things took off, and he says since vineyards here are only 15 years old, and so he’s excited to see what wines can be made as the vineyards age further.

Richard Longoria is building a new winery so he’s not going anywhere.

Bob Lindquist likes that you don’t need an air conditioner if your house is built the right way, and all his family has set down roots here, so he’s here to stay.

It was such a pleasure to listen to these trailblazing winemakers talk about how they got started in this superb region

Austin Wine Shops events

Amazing Austin Tasting Alert for 3/30/2011

If you are in Austin and happen to be free between 4 and 6 pm today, I highly recommend you go to Austin Wine Merchant and taste wines from Tablas Creek.  I will not be able to attend, alas!  But everything Tablas Creek does is phenomenal, and you will not regret the expenditure of time.  Winemaker Tommy Oldre, will be there – ask him about his trip to Chateau de Beaucastel last year.

AWM tastings are awesome, anyway.  And they discount the wines they’re pouring, usually.  Which, FYI, is not to be sneezed at when you’re tasting Tablas Creek wines – they’re not ruinously expensive by a long shot, but they are high of quality and priced fairly given that fact.

Oh!  And I just noticed… dude.  Dude.  They’re going to pour the Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge 2008.  (expletive)   That is some gen-you-wine premium juice, Austin.  If you can possibly manage it, get your wine drinking self to this tasting, my friends.  And then tell me what you thought!   You don’t mind me living vicariously through you, right?  Awesome.

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Think, think, think…

Surprise! I’m leading a wine tasting in less than two weeks. I wonder what I remember about wine after 2 years of not really writing or reading much about it?


I was actually super-nervous about this, going down to Twin Liquors, which is a sponsor for the event, Hawthorne Montessori School’s Casino Night and Silent Auction. Barrett Nicholson, the GM of Wholesale for Twin, very kindly agreed to help me pick out the wines, and since I didn’t want to waste his time, I went down early to scope out the selection, which was excellent.  In the end, I picked all the wines myself with the help of The Really Nice Guy Behind The Counter Whose Name Might Be Bill – thus saving Barrett lots more time than either of us anticipated.

My working theme for this tasting is “Best Value Wines That Only Insiders Know About” – I may need some help tightening up that title – and the inspiration comes from periodic wine shopping trips I take with some girlfriends to Austin Wine Merchant on Saturdays when the store holds their wine tastings. My friends and I taste what’s on pour, and then I shop with/for them, helping them stock up their cellars with wines I know are good and that I know they’ll like. It’s mutually beneficial, because I get to shop for wine, which I love, without having to buy all the wine I love, which would put me in the poor house. And then my pals get the benefit of a personal wine buyer.

Wine can be such an effed-up business. There are so many variables that affect how a wine tastes, and you so rarely get to preview what the stuff is actually like. No, you have to plunk down $6-60 to see if that pretty rose with a heart on the label is even worth buying – imagine if that was the purchasing model for a pair of jeans or a book.

But if you have ever worked in the business, you learn a few predictors of quality. And if you have tasted lots and lots of wines (ahem), you also up your hit rate in imagining what a wine will taste like before you get it home.

Since I’ve been OUT of the business for so long (6 years now, but who’s counting?), I was particularly nervous about picking out the wines for next week’s tasting, because I was sure I wouldn’t recognize any of the brands and hot tickets any more. Imagine how my ego was soothed by 30 minutes of browsing in Twin’s wine stacks, recognizing old friends (wine, not people (though some wine makes me happier to see than some people, I admit)) and new efforts by producers I know I like. It was almost depressing, to see how far the business hasn’t come without me.

And I am supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-excited about this tasting, now! I picked out some really, really obscure wines that are HUGE values, and I will be researching them over the next week in hopes that their producers have some good stories to tell. I can’t WAIT to introduce 20 people to these 4 wines they’ve never heard of and would never pick out for themselves! Each costs about $10 and drinks like a bottle that costs at least twice that. That’s the kind of wine I’m most passionate about, if you were wondering – Really Cheap And Really Good.

Maybe I haven’t lost my mojo after all.

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Winebat Tales: Oregon Pinot Noir

I represented Oregonians with a brief talk at last Monday’s Winebat tasting of Oregon Pinot Noir, and had a blast doing it. The wines all showed beautifully, and the resulting tasting was an orgiastic, olfactory delight.

Here’s a summary of the infotastic blurb I introduced the wines with:

“As with most areas in the US, winemaking in Oregon dates back to pioneer days and was halted by Prohibition. Oregonians waited over 30 years after the Repeal to get back to stomping the grape, though, and it was actually Californians who brought the impetus and the grapes to plant in the Willamette (rhymes with “damn it”) Valley in the late 60s and early 70s. A milestone for Oregon wine was when a Pinot Noir from Eyrie Vineyards won the Wine Olympics in 1979. Oregonian wineries, like those in Texas, tend to be small and family-owned.

The Willamette valley, home to the largest concentration of Oregon wineries, is located at roughly the same latitude as Burgundy, with cold, wet winters and warm, dry summers. No, it doesn’t rain all the time everywhere in Oregon. Pinot Noir makes up about 70% of the wine output of the state.” Or something like that.
Then I laid down a brief description of What You Might Be Smelling and Tasting and commented on how PN is well known for its uniquely silky texture. And we all set to the serious business of sniffing and sipping. I’ve listed the wines below in order of my preference, but really all of them were lovely business.

Penner Ash WV PN 05Bethel Heights Casteel Reserve Pinot Noir 2005, $50: Gorgeous minty, Bing cherry, lavender, mushroom and forest floor aromas. Bright, sweet explosion of acidity on the palate, with really integrated tannins and lovely Portobello and clove flavors. The texture is truly fine, solid but satiny. Extravagantly good.

Penner Ash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2006, $48: Very fragrant, with mint and truffle, vanilla and strawberry syrup on the nose. HUGE on the palate, with bright cranberry and concentrated cherry cordial. Very intense, spicy tannins, and rich, unctuous, concentrated structure. Flamboyant, but sleek.

Benton Lane Pinot Noir 2006, $26: Candied cherry, vanilla, rose petals and over-the-top strawberry. Slightly on the astringent side, the palate has cranberry, earth tones and sharp-edged tannins, with a little Prince of Wales tea on the back end. Very structured.

A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir 2006, $19: Kind of a whang on the nose at first, but that blew off to show really distinct strawberry and cherry, with a really earthy palate of plum skin, crazy overflowing spice and ripe mushroom. The finish goes on and on.

Erath 05 PN labelErath Pinot Noir 2006, $19: Nutmeg and distinct strawberry cream cheese on the nose. Smooth and sensuous on the palate with black tea and bright cranberry cocktail. Sexy, sexy.

Solena Cellars Grand Cuvee Pinot Noir 2006, $25: There was this chewing gum in Mexico that came in the flavor “violet,” and this had that smell, kind of chemically flowers, along with some slightly charred truffle. Soft and supple on the palate, without much grip. Kind of mediciney.

I’ll be at the Winebat blind tasting tonight at Green Pastures, where we’ll be enjoying six Spanish reds and matching light apps for only $25. Coming?

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Winebat Tales: Australia

This was my first Winebat blind tasting since I started coming off of the cedar fever, and at the end of the night I didn’t think I was really 100%, olfactory-wise. Damon really Brought It as far as wines in this tasting, and none of them really blew me away.

Since we were tasting wines from a region, rather than a single varietal, we did a flight of whites and a flight of reds. This was a neat exercise in blind tasting to detect varietal, and I did medium-OK considering my nasal handicap. Wines listed in order of preference within each flight:

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BubbleFest Report: 17 Sparkling Wines

Unpreposessing from the outsideI had a fabulous time at Vino Vino’s BubbleFest last Saturday: a total of 28 wines were poured and I tasted 17 of them. Despite the crowd, everyone was civil, and I was jazzed to see so many people there to try those beautiful bubbles. I was also pleased to see so many people buying wine on their way out the door. The wine tasting was free, and it’s only right to buy a bottle to say thank you. I picked up a lovely little Bourgueil, and I can’t wait to try it.

The dispensers of the bubbly knew a lot about their wines (for a change; it seems like lately stores just take the lady away from her electric skillet at Costco and slide her behind a wine table) and it was obvious they were having a great time giving it away.

Periwinkle and unidentified though amiable tasterVino Vino is a great place to get your bubbles on, and any other wine you might desire. It’s a great place to try something you’ve never heard of — their selection is eclectic and unusual. Wine geeks browsing the shelves will have lots of “Oh! Interesting!” moments. Not sure it’s the best place for a newbie to buy, but then again their staff is very knowledgeable and not in the least snobby. Price points for wine kind of start at 15; there are lots of $20 wines to choose from and prices continue up to about $80, from what I saw. They offer a 15% discount on any 6 bottles of still wine you buy, and 10% off any 6 bottles of bubbly. Beat that!

Here are the tasting notes I made, in order of the wines I tasted. If you find long lists of tasting notes for wines you’ve never heard of really boring, scroll all the way down to see the crazy picture I took on my way home.

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WineBat Tales: The Rhone

French Wine mapLast Monday was the WineBat Rhone tasting at Green Pastures. Six wines were presented for blind tasting, accompanied by some light apps, which were delish. Check the compiled results of the tasting here.

Food included charred beef with truffle oil and manchego, bacon-wrapped cherry-stuffed quail breast, blackened oyster with chimichurri, and dates stuffed with boursin — the latter of which was a huge hit at my table! There was a nice big crowd for this tasting, as you can see.

CrowdDamon told us ahead of time that we would have one Rhone-inspired new world wine in the mix of six, so I was on the look-out for that one, but I confess I didn’t peg it. Here is a list of the wines we tasted, from my most favorite to my least. The first three, to be fair, were pretty-much tied for first place with me:

Tasting TableE. Guigal Hermitage 1999, $70-110: 100% Syrah. Plummy, with a huge stank on it. Funky delicious barnyard aromas of manure and wet hay, with raspberry fruit and a whiff of bermagot. This is a monster nose, very heady and interesting to sniff. On the palate, black pepper, raspberry preserves and violets. Scratchy tannins, but a very stylish wine. I represented Guigal when I worked for a distributor, but I’ve never had a chance to taste their Hermitage. This was a knock-out, a beautiful example of the way the French can make a Syrah that has just as much power as an Australian Shiraz, but frequently much more fascination.

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Bubble Fest at Vino Vino: Be There!

Girl on a CorkSo the guys at Vino Vino (4119 Guadalupe Street, Austin, TX 78751) are, for some reason I do not understand and yet heartily applaud, free pouring sparkling wine tomorrow, from 1pm until every bottle in the place runs dry (or 5pm, whichever comes first). 

And when I say free pouring, I mean FREE.  No money, unlimited bubbly.  Seriously.

They’re also pouring off all their sweet wines.  I hope this does not mean that they’re giving up on their Exceptionally Progressive Sparkling Wine Program and trying to ditch all their inventory in one fell swoop, because that would make me sad. 

I was over there the other night and enjoyed a gorgeous pink sparkler, the Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose if I remember correctly, for only $20.  (Sorry, no tasting notes, but the perlage was positively minute and the wine was delicious.)  Service was a delight and the prosciutto sandwich was lip-smacking. 

Vino Vino’s wine selection is wonderful and whimsical, and they offer 15% off of any six bottles of still wine you buy and 10% off any six of sparkling.  Because their markup on sparkling wine is so low.  Because they really want you, their valued customer, to discover the wide, wonderful world of bubbly.

I’ll be drinking stars tomorrow.  Will you? 

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Blind Pinot Noir Tasting with the Winebats

Another fine time at the Winebat Blind Pinot Noir Tasting last Thursday: at Green Pastures again, as they will be for the next 4-6 weeks, with a turnout of about 20-25 people.

The evening began at 6:30 with very tasty apps of bacon-wrapped scallops and a mushroom duxelle on puff pastry, and generous pourings of a rather atrociously over-oaked Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc.

At 7:00 we were seated. Host Damon spoke briefly about Pinot Noir, and we were all given a one-page handout on the iconic grape. In the first round of bites from Chef Charles Bloemsma, served with the first flight of three wines, were a fairly austere Sesame Tuna on Cucumber with Soy and a stunningly well-paired Brie Tart with Raspberry and Hazelnuts. With the second flight of three wines (still blind of course) we got a delightful Crispy Chantarelle with Almond Pesto and a very elegant, well-balanced Pork Tenderloin with Goat Cheese and Cranberry Chutney.

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Blind as a Bat

Night WingGo to a Winebat blind tasting. No one’s running events like this in Austin, and you should jump at the chance to experience a blind tasting, if you haven’t yet. And if you’ve already attended some kind of blind tasting, you should go to a Winebat tasting because they are so well-run.

What I like about blind tastings is that all preconceived notions, all expectations of what a wine will taste like based on the region, the winery, the label, the price point… all of those prejudices are stripped away, and all you focus on is the wine. There’s something really pure about it; like running is described in Sharon Olds’ poem Sex Without Love: “the single body alone in the universe/ against its own best time.” Also, I guessed right about region a couple of times that night, so I’m very pleased with myself.