Wines of California

We’ve spent the past three weeks exploring, with Bill, our intrepid guide, the history, philosophy, and wine making sensibilities of wine in California. Two more weeks to go – where we’ll get to steep in the wines of Sonoma and Napa Valley.

It’s been a fascinating journey – we began by charting the route of the Spanish missionaries as they wended their way north on horseback, up along the California coast in the late 18th century, as the Continental Army were beginning to fight for their independence against the British on the east coast. California was still part of the wild west, up for territorial grab. And as the Spanish established missionaries in what we now refer to as San Diego, San Carlos, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz etc, they also helped kick off a fledging wine industry.

Over the course of the class, we also explored the philosophy of wine making in California. We looked at the effects of Prohibition on winemaking, as well as the differences between wine making sensibilities in America vs. France. It’s no accident that the term “winemakers” was invented in the US. Whereas American winemakers take inordinate pride in crafting their wines in the laboratory, the French winemakers refer to themselves as vignerons, people who cultivate vineyards to turn into wine.

We even got a 101 course on the different types of soil prized for growing wine grapes. Or to be clear, the different combinations of soil that are best. Clay, by itself, is dismal – too high in acid, too cool, holds too much water. But pair it with limestone, a baser soil which lets water seep through more easily, you’ve a winner. Other types of soil conducive to wines: Granite/shist (granular, ie. breaks down over time; acidic rock good for acidic grapes like gamay, pinot noir – the higher acidity in the soil slows down maturation, which helps the grapes retain their acidity; holds heat); Basalt (highest in nutrients); Slate (like granite, holds water in its fissures and is like a heat amphitheater).

Favorites from Tasting #1
12 Samplings from Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, Arroyo Grande Valley, Edna Valley, Paso Robles. What a lineup – so many favorites, and at prices considered a steal compared with Sonoma and Napa!

2012 Alta Maria Vineyards Chardonnay Rosemary’s Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley ($50)
Melon-y, crisp, smooth and dry finish

2005 Talley Vineyards Chardonnay Rosemary’s Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley ($50)
Smells like smores at a campfire. “Wedding-band gold color”, as someone eloquently put it. Stewed tangerine. Honeyed but also tart

2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills $35
Metallic, cherries, oolong tea, tannins. Beautiful deep pink color. Fresh tomatoes

2012 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir Radian Vineyard Santa Rita Hills $54
Round finish, darker fruit. Beautiful long end

2012 The Ojai Vineyard Grenache/Syrah John Sebestiano Vineyard Santa Rita Hills $38
Very soft texture, more floral than fruity, rose petals

2004 Tensley Wines Syrah Colson Canyon Vineyard Santa Barbara County $35
Bah kwah (chinese bbq pork with honeyed glaze). Beautiful. Liquid silk. Ooh my

2010 Justin Vineyards & Winery Red Blend “Justification” Paso Robles $44
Cherry tomatoes. Almost chewy – thick and dark

2001 Epiphany Cellars Petite Sirah Rodyney’s Vineyard Santa Barbara County $30
Big stinky earthy nose. Gorgeous mouthfeel. Enveloping tannins – not rough, but coats your mouth. Big, dark, powerful

Favorites from Tasting #2
2012 Han Estates Pinot Noir “SLH” Santa Lucia Highlands $35
Beautiful, gorgeous, sensuous nose. Hint of metal, spice, wood. Silky tannins, with mint at the back of the palate

2010 Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Home Vineyard Livermore $50
Ketchup, dark fruit, smooth tannins, long finish

2010 Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Folkendt Vineyard Livermore $65
Nice nose; sensuous, more grounded. Smoother tannins, bigger heavier wine than the former Steven Kent. What’s interesting is that they were made in exactly the same way, differing only in clone and vineyard

2011 Michael David Petit Verdot “Inkblot” Lodi $40
BBQ potato chips. Super dark. Sweet, elegant, complex. Someone said it was like “400-pound linebackers – big but light on their feet”

Favorites from Tasting #3
Gosh. We plowed our way through 15 different wines this night. Bill originally started off with 10 wines, but found a bottle of Edmunds St John Bone-Jolly 2011 that he wanted to add to the lineup. One of the people in the class also brought along 4 bottles from Scribe Winery that they’d opened and tasted at work a couple days before (ah to work for a wine distributor!).

Fulcrum Wines Pinot Noir Anderson Valley $54
I love me a good pinot, and this was up there. 777 and 115 clones. Black cherry, leather, anise, rose. Hamburger. Perfect cool summer evening’s wine. Brought the leftovers to Rickshaw, an Indonesian Restaurant down the street, and just luxuriated in its mouthfeel.

2011 Brassfield Estate Red Blend “Eruption” Volcano Ridge Vineyard High Valley $24
Mouthful of tannins. Somewhat citrusy, but with a minty lift at the end.

2010 Terre Rouge Syrah “Les Cotes de l’Ouest” CA appellation $20
Not bad, light-ish and bright. I wanted to pair it with some blood sausage, for some odd reason.


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