I’m in California again. This time for a press trip, with some fellow UK journos: Oz Clarke, Anne Krebhiel, Jane Parkinson and Erin Smith. We arrived on Tuesday evening, and so yesterday, Wednesday, was our first full day. We spent it in Santa Barbara County, which is the catch-all appellation that includes the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, and various sub-appellations inside these (most notably the Santa Rita Hills). It’s quite a complicated region to get your head around, but it’s making some of California’s most lovely wines.
This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, although as you head east away from the coast it gets warmer, and Syrah begins to star. First visit was with Jim Clenenden of Au Bon Climat. He began making balanced wines 35 years ago, and was celebrated by influential critics such as Robert Parker. Then in the late 1990s Parker started giving his wines, which hadn’t changed, much lower scores. But Jim kept on making wines they way he had, and now balance is back in fashion.
I like his wines. They’re not the leanest; nor are they big. They express their place well, especially the lovely Chardonnays. But Jim is also making serious Aligote (it’s a thing!) and Nebbiolo. These are side projects, but they show how he gets wine. He tastes and drinks widely, and is a real wine geek.
Then we headed to Brewer Clifton, where we were hosted by the super Zen-ish and very thoughtful Greg Brewer. He has a lovely facility in Lompoc, where he makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines are beautiful and distinctive, and I was surprised by them. Greg isn’t an IPOB person, and so naturally – when I saw alcohol levels pushing, and in some cases exceeding 15% – I thought I might hate the wines. But the Chardonnays have this almost saline quality, and a real beauty to them. And the Pinot Noirs are silky and fine, with lovely detail. Greg has done something wonderful in managing to balance ripeness and elegance, and his use of whole cluster (almost exclusively) and 40 day cuvaison may be helping here. The whites don’t do malolactic fermentation, which helps keep them fresh.
He also opened a couple of older bottles, including a 1997 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay, which had developed beautifully. This was very early on in Brewer Clifton history, so this was quite special – there are only a few bottles left.
Then we were off to the nearby Domaine de la Cote winery in the Lompoc wine ghetto, for a presentation of Santa Barbara County wines hosted by Michael Larner and Sashi Moorman. This was a very interesting session, looking at the unusual geology of the area and the climatic factors, leading to a tasting of some wines to illustrate these points.
Finally, we finished at Sanford Winery, where we were hosted by winemaker Steve Fennell. This is where it all started in the region, back in 1971 when Richard Sanford planted the Sanford and Benedict vineyard. He began by planting Cabernet and Riesling here, which was a bit daft, but the next year planted some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These blocks, on their own roots, still exist. We got to wander this historic vineyard in the evening light.
The Sanford wines are pretty good, especially the lean, taut Chardonnays. I like the Pinots, too, and I was impressed by their first sparkling wine, a 2013. This is a region that could excel with sparkling wine, I reckon.