Barbara: The Thrill of Discovery
palpable energy and the thrill of discovery accompanied my tastings in Santa
Barbara this year. Every day seemed to bring with it new wines, new projects
and plenty of the youthful energy that is the heartbeat of one of California’s
most exciting appellations.
California’s historic winemaking regions, Santa Barbara is extremely diverse,
in both its AVAs and the wines that are made here. Readers will find everything
from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to Bordeaux varieties to the full complement of
Rhone grapes. In that sense, Santa Barbara is a little universe unto itself.
Valley, and increasingly Sonoma as well, the barriers to entry are high because
fruit is expensive. But in Santa Barbara a young winemaker can get started much
more easily. Not surprisingly, Santa Barbara continues to attract top talent.
The best wines from the new generation are striking. At the same time, many of
the pioneers who established the region’s reputation are still going strong. Winemakers
like Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach and Bob Lindquist seem to be enjoying a level
of visibility they haven’t had in years. The young and the old meld together to
form the rich, textured fabric that is Santa Barbara today.
approved Ballard Canyon AVA is another step in distinguishing the diverse set
of appellations and microclimates that make up this extraordinary diverse
patchwork of vineyards. Lastly, the food scene, one of the areas in which Santa
Barbara has lagged other wine producing regions in California, appears to be
going through a very positive period with a number of exciting new additions.
there has never been a better time to explore Santa Barbara County and all of its
A landscape view of the Sta.
The 2012 Vintage – An
of the wines I tasted on my recent trip were 2012s, a largely uneventful
vintage that was a welcome sight of relief after 2010 and 2011, both of which
tested the patience and resolve of winemakers to the maximum. As I mentioned in
my recent article on the Santa Lucia
high yields were a major issue. For the sake of convenience and future
reference I will repeat some of those observations below as they apply to Santa
2011, Santa Barbara experienced a growing season full of challenges. Spring frost
was a big issue in some places, notably in the Sta. Rita Hills. Flowering took
place under difficult conditions, while the rest of the growing season was long
and cool. The worst of the rains and the rot that followed were reserved for
the North Coast, Napa Valley in particular, but growers in Santa Barbara had
their hands full. Ripeness was achieved at lower sugar levels than most
winemakers had ever seen. Marginal, cool locations near the Pacific Ocean were
especially challenged. Some vineyards never ripened at all.
year, when I was tasting through the 2011s, producers told me over and over it
was a ‘winemaker’s vintage.’ I am not so sure. In 2011, Mother Nature made a
lot of decisions. Throughout the year, growers had to be highly reactive.
Ruben’s Block, Stolpman Vineyard
were totally different in 2012. Mother Nature made no decisions. Instead,
producers had to make all the choices, and that required a whole different
skill set. Think of it as playing offense versus defense. Vines set a healthy
crop and the weather was picture perfect. After highly challenging seasons in
2010 and 2011, 2012 was a piece of cake. Growers could pick whenever they
wanted under pretty much ideal conditions. Sounds perfect, right?
not exactly. Yields were up massively in 2012, in some places double of what is
normal. After the very challenging, low-yielding 2011, my sense is that some
growers tried to compensate for that shortfall in 2012, a very dangerous and
tricky proposition. The culture of outsourced farming and a reliance on
purchased fruit works, but winemakers have to be in the vineyard all of the
time and have the ability to call the shots. Long-distance farming can also
work, but it won’t give consistently outstanding results every year, even
Checking in on a few
library wines at Sine Qua Non
yields created all sorts of logistical nightmares, as producers had to scramble
to pick all of that fruit at the optimal time, something that is next to
impossible. Then, with all of the fruit in the cellar, tank space became a problem.
Some winemakers simply did not have the room to process all of their fruit.
This is where we start to see the breakdown a bumper crop can create; fruit
that was not picked at the ideal moment and/or not processed as optimally as
possible. Guess what…all of that eventually manifests itself in the quality of
the wines. Take the example of the winery whose 2012s have more new oak than
normal. By the time the winery realized they were short on barrels the only
thing available were barriques with high toast levels. That anecdote is not at
to other regions within the Central Coast and California more broadly, Santa
Barbara fared relatively well. I saw fewer diluted, weak wines in Santa Barbara
than in other parts of the state. The loss of site specificity, which is a big
issue in other regions, is less of a problem in Santa Barbara, something that
serves to highlight just how special many of the county’s finest vineyards are.
In some of Santa Barbara’s more naturally marginal, challenging sites, the
2012s, with their inherent radiance and generosity, are absolutely gorgeous. It
is tempting to try to make broader observations of quality, but ultimately it
comes down to producer, producer, producer.
Domaine de la Côte, Sta.
A Word on 2011
hope readers will not pass up an opportunity to taste the 2011s. Yes, it was a
challenging year, but where sites weren't completely overwhelmed by the
weather, top producers made dazzling wines. The 2011s are often intense and
tightly wound because of an almost unnatural level of concentration, but now
that the wines have been in bottle for a bit, the cream is beginning to rise. Today, it is apparent that the best 2011s are truly stunning. Once again, it pays to be selective.
more background on Santa Barbara, readers may wish to revisit some of the
articles in our archive.
Central Coast: Better than Ever
California’s Central Coast
Mattei's Tavern, Los Olivos
Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, Santa Barbara