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California wine country

In September 1997, Fiona and I took a two week holiday in California, and among the other attractions we managed to squeeze in two half-days of winery visits, the first in the Santa Ynez Valley (this page), just north of Santa Barbara and the second in Sonoma (next page), a short drive north from San Francisco. Below are my no doubt rather superficial impressions of the wineries we saw. In the tasting notes, you'll see I've given the wines scores: the intention behind this rather silly practice is to give you a rough idea of how much I liked that particular wine. I'm no expert, and I don't pretend that these are objective evaluations, but when I read the tasting notes of others I'm often left wondering how much they actually liked the wine. The 100 point scale is used because we are all familiar with this sort of scale at school, where 70 is good, 80 is very good and 100 is just about unattainable.

Vineyards in Santa Barbara County

Heading out of Santa Barbara on Highway 154 brings you into the Santa Ynez mountains, home to over 30 wineries. Of these, we chose three to visit. Santa Barbara is a super place to stay, and this is a beautiful area and a great place to go wine tasting.

Fess Parker

Not having been brought up in the USA, my first question on visiting this winery was 'Who on earth is Fess Parker?' I got the impression I was supposed to know who he was, as there were pictures of him all over the place wearing a strange fur hat. Well, he's some sort of iconic TV/film star who set this winery up relatively recently. As Jancis Robinson says, to make a small fortune out of owning a winery in California, you first have to start off with a large fortune. Overall a good to very good range of wines, but they err on the expensive side. The tasting room was well laid out, and the staff were friendly but alas not too knowledgeable. There is a charge of $3, but for this there is a good range available and you get to keep the glass. Unfortunately the free tour wasn't operating on the day we visited.

The wines

1995 Chardonnay Santa Barbara County ($16) Excellent Chardonnay with a powerful nose and palate: flavours of buttered toast, vanilla and tropical fruit. Dry finish. 81/100
1995 Chardonnay American Tradition Reserve ($22) Less powerful nose. Dry palate with lots of oak and not a great deal of fruit. Made for ageing? 78/100
1995 Melange du Rhone Santa Barbara County ($22) 65% Marsanne, 35% Viognier. Heady floral aroma. Muscat-like flavours and a dry finish. Unusual but good. 82/100
1995 Fleur de Foxen Santa Barbara County ($14) Pinot Noir. Red with a slightly brown edge. Wonderful aroma of strawberries and cherries. Soft tannins. Excellent, and good value too. 86/100
1995 Pinot Noir American Tradition Reserve ($28) The nose is more closed than on the previous Pinot and there is more structure and acidity, too. Quite concentrated but not as much fun. 82/100
1995 Syrah Santa Barbara County ($18) Bright ruby red. Burnt rubber nose, black cherries and pepper flavours, without much new oak. I'd expect more for the money. 78/100
1996 Johannisberg Riesling Santa Barbara County ($10) Interesting aroma but on the palate it is simple and sweet without much acidity. Hugely overpriced. 72/100
1995 Muscat Canelli Central Coast ($7) Liquid sugar. 63/100

Hanging on the vine at Fess Parker


Here we tasted a good range of fairly priced wines and had an excellent free tour around the winery. We encountered friendly and knowledgeable staff. Generous cellar door discount of 15% per case. A charge is made only for tasting limited production reserve bottlings.

Gewurztraminer grapes being destemmed at Firestone

The wines

1996 Sauvignon Blanc ($8.50) Some varietal character, but the palate is dominated by vanilla/spice oakiness from partial barrel fermentation: if I'd tasted it blind I might have guessed it was a Chardonnay. Not what I'm used to, but tasty enough. 78/100
1996 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay Santa Ynez Valley ($13) Plenty of oak and a dry finish. 80/100
1996 Gewurztraminer Santa Barbara County ($9) Powerful aroma of lychee. Some oak complexity, broad flavours and a bone dry finish. 82/100
1995 Merlot Santa Ynez Valley ($14) Chocolately fruit flavours, good tannins and some complexity. 80/100
1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez Valley ($13) Well structured wine with strong tannins. 79/100
1994 Pinot Noir Reserve ($21) Bright ruby red, brick red edges. Gamey, caramel nose. Tawny port like flavour. Some tannin. Unusual and I don't like it that much. Is this a slightly off bottle? 78/100

The press at Firestone

Inside the winery

Zaca Mesa

A relatively small, friendly winery to visit that is a Rhone ranger's paradise. Good range of wines at largely reasonable prices. Friendly staff.

1996 Chardonnay Zaca Vineyards ($14.50) Includes some Viognier! Good nose and dry palate. 78/100
1995 Chardonnay Chapel Vineyard ($14.50) Some tropical fruit and nice vanilla oak. 82/100
1996 Z Gris ($10) Pale pink rose. Not wonderful. 75/100
1995 Rousanne ($15) Slightly floral. Fat palate with balancing acidity. Some oak complexity. 82/100
Tapestry ($7.50) Excellent value NV blend of Pinot Noir/Grenache/Mourvedre and Viognier. Wild flavours (caramel, port-like) and good acidity. 82/100
1995 Pinot Noir Sierre Madre ($25) Wild nose with gamey/vegetal notes. Very complex. 84/100
1995 Syrah Zaca Vineyards ($20) 10% Viognier (in the style of Cote Rotie). Heady nose. Good structure, with bags of cherry/damson fruit. No new oak flavours. Delicious. 87/100
1995 Late Harvest Viognier ($20 half) Excellent desert wine.

On to Sonoma...