Raves & rants: Santa Barbara County wine country, Day 1
After more than three days of personal sacrifice for the sake of the grape, we arrived back in San Diego with a bounty of wine bottles from our trip to Santa Barbara County. We went to 24 wineries and also made it to 5 craft breweries. It wasn’t possible to taste at every place I wanted to or even planned to, but we visited an immense collection of wine tasting rooms spread out all over SB County and took home some real gems. Here’s my take; I’m sure Terry (the studious note-taker) will have more to add. If you’re headed up for a wine trip of your own at any time, we hope to be a go-to source of helpful hints!
SANTA BARBARA WINERY – This is an old stand-by, an urban winery with deep roots in the county’s wine industry. We arrived right as they opened at 10 AM. I’ll say it again–this a great place for discovering new wines and picking up some great values. They were having a problem with their electricity when we went in, so we were tasting in the dark and the staff was happy to offer tastings of other bottles that were not on their tasting list (all you have to do is ask questions). We tried eight to ten different wines, including a 2009 semi-sweet Riesling that my wife brought home. They make a dry Orange Muscat which was quite good, although I didn’t buy it. I really liked their Grenache/Syrah blend as well. I ended up buying their ZCS (70% Zinfandel, 21% Carignane, 9% Sangiovese–although the percentages of each varietal do vary from year to year)…hey, it’s only $13 and a good wine you can break out with dinner on any given night without feeling guilty. I also brought home their 2008 Lagrein from Joughin Vineyard, which set me back $30 but I don’t think I have ever had a Lagrein before and it was an intriguing buy. According to Wikipedia, “outside Italy’s South Tyrol region [in Northern Italy], the variety is rare to the point of obscurity.” Santa Barbara Winery’s Lagrein was very dark and inky–almost black in color–and had a bold and peppery finish. (We would come across more Lagrein the next day at Mosby). http://sbwinery.com/
GAINEY WINERY – First stop after arriving in Santa Ynez Valley from the city. We were whisked into a barrel room in the back for our tastings. Gainey makes some good wines, and they have an impressive estate with some great views, but they charge way too much for their tastings, and way too much for their bottles. In fact, several of the better wines we tried are only available for sale to wine club members. I think of this place as a kind of old-school winery that is coasting on its legacy and has blinders on when it comes to being competitive with all the new school winemakers in the area. Maybe it was worth the short visit, but this wouldn’t be on my list of stops on a future trip. We brought home a freakin’ magnet for the fridge. http://www.gaineyvineyard.com/
BRIDLEWOOD WINERY – Another big winery on a gorgeous estate in the east part of Santa Ynez Valley. I wasn’t expecting to be all that impressed here, but I was pleasantly surprised. The wines we tried are not the same mass bottlings with the Bridlewood label that you see at Ralph’s. We tried their classic tasting which included a really nice Pinot Noir (was it Monterey County fruit?) that I was tempted to bring home. Alas, we left empty-handed as I knew we were going to visit some prime Pinot country the next day. But I would recommend this winery for a visit. http://www.bridlewoodwinery.com/
We had lunch at the LOS OLIVOS WINE MERCHANT & CAFE in Los Olivos, which was recently recognized by some sommelier publication for having one of the best restaurant wine lists in the country. This is the place in Sideways where Miles is deadset against having any f**kin’ Merlot. Well, we sided with Miles in ordering a Pinot Noir to share with our meal. I picked a Melville off the list, knowing that Melville makes some of the best Pinots in the county but wasn’t going to fit into our itinerary….when our server informed us that they were completely out of the Melville, they offered us a Pinot by Ampelos (also of the Santa Rita Hills AVA) at their retail store price, without the usual restaurant markup and corkage. I believe we all loved this wine, which had a beautiful garnet color and a lot of cherries on the nose. A noble exemplification of what kinds of Pinot Noir you are likely to taste coming out of the Santa Rita Hills. The service was attentive and I think we can all agree the food was probably the best we had during our trip. I had the mushroom ravioli, a perfect match with the wine. If you are in Los Olivos, you had better make a reservation and not miss out on this place! This is also a go-to place if you just want to buy wine, check ’em out online. http://www.losolivoscafe.com/
BECKMEN – This was a disappointment. I went in expecting to be overwhelmed with some awesome Rhone varietals and with an interest in possibly joining their wine club. The tasting fees here were among the more expensive among the 24 winery tasting rooms that we visited, yet their pourings were metrically measured and too miniscule to share or even get much of a sense of the wine. I guess the tasting room staff are instructed to only pour that exact amount of wine and then step back from the bar while you look at the 4 or 5 drops worth in your glass. We weren’t there to get drunk, but if you’re going to charge us $15 at least pour enough that we can share a tasting flight. No offers of extra tastes or anything not included on the tasting list. They make some pretty good stuff here, if you don’t mind parting with $48 for a Syrah or $52 for a single-block Grenache. Ouch! Wines for the top 1%. (Note: I’m known to drop up to $50 on occasion when I covet a particular wine, and then I usually feel like a fool parted from his money when I realize I have better wines in my collection that cost less). The prices, service, and Scrooge-like pourings were a turnoff. http://www.beckmenvineyards.com
RIDEAU – They had some good wines here, and most of them were fairly priced, although I’m not so sure about the $42 my wife dropped for their reserve Viognier! I really liked their “Lagniappe” blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache. http://www.rideauvineyard.com
SEVTAP – We visited this tasting room in Solvang, just a half-block away from where we were staying. Arturo Sevtap, the owner/proprietor/winemaker, was on hand to pour wines and he’s really making an effort to provide some low-key nightlife in a touristy town where everything else curiously shuts down at 6 pm. The Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were from grapes harvested from the Happy Canyon at the extreme east end of the valley, and seemed to have an odd aftertaste to me….but again, this is after a full day of wrecking my palate. Recommend for the chill vibe and live music (however contrived); not sold on the wine here (although one guy we met from Temecula–of all places–swears it’s his favorite winery).