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).
LOS OLIVOS & FOXEN CANYON WINE TRAIL
Day 3 of the Vines & Steins end-of-the-year tasting trip will take us out to the northern stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley, to the small wine-centric town of Los Olivos and out along the Foxen Canyon wine trail in the direction of Santa Maria.
I first visited Los Olivos back in ’97….I remember going to the Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium and meeting Bob Senn, who poured me several wines on my first very first tasting venture, including some Qupè Marsanne, of which I ended up bringing home a couple of 375 ml bottles. Qupè didn’t have their own tasting room in those days, and Bob’s job was to highlight and promote the area’s best producers. Bob Senn is no longer with us, and the Wine & Spirits Emporium is no more, but Qupè now has their own tasting room open in Los Olivos!
Qupè is hands-down one of the best wineries on the Central Coast, period. Proprietor Bob Lindquist was one of the original “Rhone Rangers” who eschewed the usual Cabernet/Chardonnay plantings that had (and still are) done to death in this state. If you like some variety among your varietals, and enjoy a California Syrah or Viognier, then you owe a little gratitude to folks like Bob Lindquist and other Rhone Rangers who bucked the prevailing wisdom and planted grape types from France’s Rhone River Valley. In fact, Qupè was the first commercial producer of Marsanne in all of California, if not the entire country. I’m a longtime fan of this winery, and looking forward to being able to visit their tasting room. If Bob Lindquist is anywhere on hand, he had better sign my bottles!
VERDAD & ETHAN WINES
Keeping it all in the family, Verdad is the winery of Bob Lindquist’s wife Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, and specializes in Spanish varietals like Tempranillo and Albarino, both of which I am partial to–Albarino would run a tight race with Marsanne for the title of white wine that I like that hardly any California wineries are making. Their son Ethan has just gotten into the wine business with his own namesake winery, and it appears they are doing tastings in the same building.
CONSILIENCE – I have a 2-for-1 tasting offer for this small family-owned winery. They make several Rhone varietal wines like Syrah and Grenache, plus a Pinot Gris and a Zinfandel, and they have a sister winery next door (TRE ANELLI) offers Spanish and Italian varietals.
From Los Olivos, we are going to hit the road and visit several of the best wineries located along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.
Their website doesn’t mention it anywhere in the history of their winery, but I could swear I first visited Curtis at a location along Alamo Pintado Road between Solvang and Los Olivos, and I know that I purchased a dry Orange Muscat (aforementioned in the post about Mosby) from them. (Possibly the current location of Lincourt?) Shortly after, Curtis relocated to Foxen Canyon under the ownership of the Firestone family (Firestone Vineyard & Winery being one of the early upstart wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley). Just like Richard Sanford did, the Firestones have sold off their namesake winery but have retained ownership of Curtis, which has been putting out great Rhone varietals under the expertise of winemaker Chuck Carlson for years. I used to be in their wine club about ten or eleven years ago, and it was all good stuff!
ZACA MESA – Zaca Mesa is the original Rhone Ranger winery. They were planting Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre back in the 1970s and this is where Bob Lindquist started out before he venture out with Qupe in the ’80s. Good stuff, epic Central Coast winery. ‘Nuff said.
RIVER BENCH – Now we are really getting out of the shadow of Los Olivos and coming into the Santa Maria area. This is one of the older wineries in this area, and with the influence of cooler breezes and fog coming in from the Pacific, we’re back to cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—which is all that they do here at Riverbench.
CAMBRIA – Their Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is my wife’s favorite. We’ve never been here, so hope to taste some good things and bring home something you can’t find in the local markets.
This post has been a long time coming….partially because I made some changes to the itinerary and partially because I’ve just been busy lately. But the trip is upon us….Day 2 brings us to the Sta. Rita Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area), which is more of a sub-AVA located within the western portion of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Sta. Rita Hills (the “Santa” got abbreviated to “Sta.” on the wine labels a few years back out of a settlement with some growers from Chile over use of the name) is Pinot Noir country, made famous in Sideways, with Miles (Paul Giamatti) even explaining in the movie dialogue about how the fog rolls in here from the Pacific Ocean, making for cool mornings and ideal growing conditions for this finicky grape. There’s also quite a bit of Chardonnay and some cool-climate Syrah here also…but Pinot is king, and the winemakers out here know that…hence the ever-upward movement of the list prices for bottles.
Our day begins just outside of Buellton, where we will be heading in a westerly direction through the Santa Rita Hills, stopping by at select winery tasting rooms, before we finally make our way to the promised land of Central Coast Pinot Noir…the Lompoc Wine Ghetto!
Here is where we will plan to go:
MOSBY WINERY – The first winery on the west side of Highway 101, this is where Bill Mosby has been crafting Italian varietal wines (often called Cal-Ital) for years. We will be checking out his Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Primativo wines and sure to bring back a bottle or so since Mosby has very friendly prices! I’m interested to check out a dry Orange Muscat listed on the winery page. I once had a dry Orange Muscat (put out from Curtis, I think this was before they relocated and began to focus on just Rhone varietal) but have never found one since. Muscat is mostly known as a dessert wine, and I just don’t go for the sweet wines. If this is truly a dry (non-sweet) and delicious Orange Muscat, this is coming home to the wine fridge, to be uncorked on a random summer afternoon out on the patio.
ALMA ROSA – This one almost missed my attention! I was noticing that Sanford Winery on Santa Rosa Road had been sold, and the new owners built a new and opulent tasting room whose map location just didn’t jive with my memory of where I’d gone before on previous visits to Sanford. Turns out, Richard Sanford didn’t just sell his landmark namesake winery…he kept the original parcel with the old countryish tasting room and that is now the tasting room for his new winery, Alma Rosa. Whatever label is put on the bottles, Richard Sanford is the O.G. (if you will) of Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. This stop is a must stop!
SANFORD WINERY –
The aforementioned birthplace of Santa Rita Hills Pinot, Sanford Winery was sold to the Terlato Family in 2005, a fact I was not aware of when I last visited the old tasting room (now Alma Rosa) in 2007. I used to be in the Sanford wine club almost 7 years ago…I’ve had a lot of good juice bottled under the Sanford label, and curious to see how the new owners and winemakers are doing. They still source their fruit from the Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada Vineyards, both planted with selected clones of the Pinot Noir grape, and some Chardonnay.
Lunch in Lompoc, CA. – Sissy’s Uptown Cafe?
LOMPOC WINE GHETTO
The Lompoc Wine Ghetto is bunch of rented warehouse and industrial buildings where some of the region’s best winemakers have set up shop. There are no estate vineyards or million-dollar tasting rooms here….it’s just an asphalt jungle of ghetto-fabulous wineries and their storefront tasting rooms. We’ll try to hit at least these 4 tasting rooms before they all close at 5 pm:
FLYING GOAT CELLARS – I’ve heard of this winery and seen their colorfully-labeled bottles in stores before. They make a lot of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from the best vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, several priced over $40. Gotta exercise wallet restraint!
PALMINA WINES – Breaking up some of the Pinot-monotony, here is another winery specializing in Italian varietals, grapes mostly grown in the eastern section of the Santa Ynez Valley and in the Santa Maria Valley. I got a hook-up for 2-for-1 tastings at this place, and will be sure to check out their Barbera, Dolcetto, Savoia, and Pinot Grigio.
TASTE OF STA. RITA HILLS – This is not a winery, but a tasting room featuring wines from several area wineries that don’t have a tasting room or are only able to accommodate visitors by appointment. My brother-in-law Terry (who is going on the trip) brought over a bottle of Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir for Christmas Eve, which was my favorite wine of the evening. After figuring we wouldn’t be able to visit Brewer-Clifton because they are closed on Thursdays, I’m now happy to discover that their wines are featured here at Taste Of Sta. Rita Hills.
Other featured wineries include Moretti, Clos Pepe, Diatom, El Rey, Gypsy Canyon, Huber, Ken Brown, Sea Smoke, Seagrape, and Thorne. This tasting room should promise to be interesting and may occupy a greater part of our afternoon in the Ghetto.
ZOTOVICH CELLARS – This is a small, family-owned winery that produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Viognier from grapes locally grown on their Sta. Rita Hills estate vineyard. I’ve read some good reviews on their wines, and since they are such a small-production winery, a bottle of Zotovich should make for a rare pleasure.
That will probably wrap up our afternoon at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. We’ll head back to Solvang via SR-246, the highway route that would have afforded us visits at Dierberg/Star Lane, Melville, and Babcock if we had gone that way in the morning instead of taking Santa Rosa Road. Oh well…..decisions!!!
I’m proud to say I was an “early adopter” of Firestone Walker beer back within their first year of opening their doors, discovering their brewery in Buellton during some of my first wine trips. Their Double Barrel Ale was one of my favorite craft beers in the late ’90s. They’ve moved their main brewery to Paso Robles, but this original location in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley remains open. Woodfired pizza and British style ales.
As is becoming the annual tradition here at Vines & Steins, I am planning another late December wine tasting trip. Last year it was Sonoma County with an emphasis on Russian River Valley, this time we’re headed to the wine regions of Santa Barbara county.
Santa Barbara County is where I got started with my wine tasting adventures, during a Central Coast trip back in 1997. Sure, I had wine before, but this was getting out into the countryside and opening up my palette to a wider variety of wines and learning about the varietals, the climate, and the winemaking process. Right away I was a big fan of the “Rhone rangers”–Central coast winemakers who were eschewing the usual Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in favor of grape varietals from the Rhone River valley of France: Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne. Perhaps you’ve had some of these wines…Syrah and Viognier have grown in popularity such that they are among the most common grapes being grown throughout the state nowadays.
Later, I became more of a Pinot Noir enthusiast, or Pinotphile….(see Sideways). The Santa Rita Hills AVA of Santa Barbara County was made famous in that movie for its cool climate favorable to growing this finicky thin-skinned grape, that when done well….is an indulgence of pure sensuality. Either that, or you will lose your inhibitions about opening your wallet to buy more Pinot for prices you’d probably never spend elsewhere.
So here’s the itinerary SO FAR….I’m a meticulous planner and trying to get in as many good tasting rooms each day as humanly possible! If any of my readers have recommendations or comments, please chime in!
DAY 1: SANTA BARBARA/Lower SANTA YNEZ VALLEY
Early morning drive up from San Diego
Breakfast in Santa Barbara
SANTA BARBARA WINERY – this is one of the older wineries in the county, and a good starting point for any SB County tasting. They’re located in downtown Santa Barbara, under the same ownership as LaFond Winery (located further up to the northwest in the Santa Rita Hills). Not too expensive if you find something you like; they make some really good red blends.
GAINEY VINEYARD – Located right after you get into the valley. One of the bigger wineries. I think I may have been here once before, but I can’t really remember.
BRIDLEWOOD WINERY – Also fairly big. We’re gonna score some free tastings and the place is supposed to be really nice, so why not check it out? I just picked up one of one of their cabs from Ralph’s (30% off six more wines, that’s another post!) so I’ll get a little advance taste.
Lunch – I’m thinking the LOS OLIVOS CAFE, the one where they go to dinner in Sideways. And no, I’m not having any stinking Merlot!
BECKMEN – I’ve heard good things about this winery, looking forward to trying their Rhone varietals. This might be the place where I start a new wine club membership!
RIDEAU – Located just off Alamo Pintado Road on the way back down to Solvang from Los Olivos…I think I have missed this one in years past. I’ve heard good things, gotta check ’em out.
BUTTONWOOD – Now here is one that I’ve been to plenty of times. Their all-around wine portfolio is not too impressive, but I do like their Marsanne and they are one of the few wineries to make a Marsanne. Since their wine tasting fee is (unhappily) non-refundable with purchase, this might just be a pit-stop to pick up a bottle of Marsanne (which might be a moot point if I will have just picked up some nice Marsanne from Beckmen!) Note to Buttonwood: Make your tasting experience more friendly to my limited time and budget, and I’ll spend more time at your place!
In Solvang – check in at our hotel, hit one or two of the in-town tasting rooms that stay open past 5 PM. Probably CARIVINTAS or SEV TAP.
Here are a few good web sites that I have used for exploring Santa Barbara wine country and deciding on an itinerary:
Wine Questers – one of my all-time faves! Used this one for mapping out the Russian River Valley trip last year. It’s very comprehensive, with searchable indexes and regional maps dotted with wineries. They also make a so-so iPhone app that will set you back a few bucks, but consider it an investment toward their improved future app!
Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association – very good, they also have a free iPhone app!
Stay tuned for my next posting: DAY 2: SANTA RITA HILLS & LOMPOC WINE GHETTO!!!
Now dig this.
This Friday Stone Brewing Company puts out their 11.11.11 Vertical Epic Ale, I believe this would be the eleventh in a series of twelve specialty beers, starting with 01.01.01, 02.02.02, etc. I plan to have a mouthful of this beer on 11.11.11 sometime around 11:11 (AM or PM to be determined).
It’s a Veterans Day holiday for many of us, and since it is still San Diego Beer Week, there will be not one but several places around San Diego unveiling this special ale along with a tap line full of Stone beers!
Check it all out here:
And on Saturday, Nov. 12th, Vines & Steins will be representing at the Green Flash 9th Anniversary Celebration at their new brewing facility in Mira Mesa. $40 gets you ten tastes, a collectible glass, and a t-shirt.
Info & a direct link to tickets here:
After letting this blog go lazy for too long, I’m back! San Diego Beer Week just kicked off, running ten days (yeah, some week!) from Nov. 4th through Nov. 13th. Today is a beautiful post-rainy day outside, and the San Diego Brewers Guild Festival at Liberty Station is on the agenda!
This year it’s a collaboration with FM 94/9’s anniversary bash, with Matthew Sweet headlining the main stage that also features Telekinesis and Stone Foxes. Good beer, good music….that’sawhatIlikey. All 35 members of the San Diego Brewers Guild will be pouring, and the tastes are unlimited!
There’s no way I could provide a comprehensive guide to all of the San Diego Beer Week events. For that, go to their website and also check out West Coaster and Peter Rowe’s “Brewery Rowe” column in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Here’s to a week of fun and discovery! San Diego beer rules….join the revolution of good taste, and support your local breweries!
For all the talk about San Diego beer festivals and the mega-event that went bust, this is the one beer event this summer you can count on! I’m talking about Stone Brewing Co.’s 15th Anniversary Celebration. Yes, today’s 21-year olds were probably entering the 1st grade when Stone got off the ground and started making San Diego County famous for hop-monsters like Arrogant Bastard Ale and Ruination IPA. Stone’s flagship IPA has been one of my top favorites for years now, and their really isn’t anything this brewery puts out that could be considered mediocre or catering to the lowest common denominator for the sake of easy sales. Nope, they did it their way….and they won! Stone is now expanding in all directions: a new tasting room & bottle shop in the South Park neighborhood, taking over the operations of an organic produce farm, a new brewery and bistro in Liberty Station on the way, expansion of their Escondido brewing facilities, a planned hotel across the way for dizzy-headed beer tourists to stay at, and looking at a move into continental Europe of all places (whew…!!!) I’m tempted to say that Stone will soon be the largest craft brewer on the West Coast, and if I end up being wrong on that in the short term the margin of error will forgive me.
So anyway….on with the Stone 15th Anniversary Celebration! As in recent years, it’s being held on the campus of Cal State Univ. San Marcos. There’s two 3-hour sessions on Saturday, August 20th (11 AM – 2 PM, and 3 – 6 PM) for which tickets are still surprisingly available, and will set you back 40 bones plus a small service fee. For that, you get a commemorative tasting glass (which you can sell to me later if you don’t care!), 10 samples of beer (from not just Stone but a whole slew of over 40 guest breweries), free home-brewed sodas, samples of Mike’s beer cheese, and an all-around good time. But for my investment in this historic occasion, I’m dropping the $75+ for the Friday night brewers’ reception, which gets you all of the above but with unlimited tastings, a chance to meet and greet with the brewers, and complimentary gourmet fare from some of San Diego’s top foodie joints. Again—tickets are magically still available, but if you’re even remotely interested you had better get onto Stone’s website immediately and purchase will-call tix. And get one for your designated driver, too–they’ll thank you later.
Drop me a line if you’ll be going to this event. I’ll have some pictures and write-up to follow. If you can’t make it, pour yourself a hop-monster of a beer this weekend and do a little meditation and appreciation for the pioneering efforts of those who refused to sell out with fizzy yellow beer. Kind of a pre-Thanksgiving exercise, if you will.
I may be a half-assed lacto-vegetarian who can’t lay off the pizza and Mexican food, but I certainly can appreciate some real vegan food when it’s made available in a fine atmosphere. And I can’t think of a finer atmosphere than the Blind Lady Ale House, which is hosting the 2nd semi-regular vegan beer night by LoveLikeBeer. They’ll have some tasty gourmet vegan preparations paired with craft beers. You don’t have to buy all the pairings, it’s sort of a la carte. And no charge to get in. This Tuesday, July 26, from 5 pm to 10 pm. Get there early for seating and a chance to get a limited edition LoveLikeBeer glass. If you get there before me, tell ’em you’re holding a few seats for the Vines & Steins posse (ha!!!)
For those who can’t bear to engage in healthy dining that doesn’t conform to the SAD (Standard American Diet), they’ll have the rest of the menu available as well. But the beer pairings are only with the vegan dishes.
With the cancellation of America’s Finest Beer Festival, we at Vines & Steins have decided upon a low-key Saturday evening to sample a few of the beers and wines over at K’nB Cellars. This is one of my favorite new places to hang out for some tastings, and their attached retail store is real go-to place for that beer you can’t seem to find anywhere. They’ve also got a pretty big wine selection and may be the only place in San Diego that is selling Rogue’s liquors (whiskey, rum & gin)…that’s Rogue as in Rogue Ales, with all those cleverly titled painted 22 oz. bottles you see in the stores.
Head on over and look for Richard in the Russian River Brewing Damnation shirt. We’ll be hanging out on the patio with a few cold ones, sometime after 8 pm.
K’nB Cellars is located at 6380 Del Cerro Blvd, San Diego, CA 92120
From Interstate 8, exit College Blvd. NORTH (opposite SDSU) and then turn right at Del Cerro Blvd. It’s in the shopping center with Windmill Farms natural foods grocery store.