It’s been six months since I unlocked the key to wine country in Santa Barbara. Last time it was summer and the vines were in full bloom, the grapes were almost ripe and ready to pick and we spent time wandering in the vineyards and tasting barrel samples of wine. But, six months later, the grapes have been picked, the vines are bare and the leaves are all golden colors. While the sun was still shining, it is winter, at least by California standards, and a chill was in the air.
I drove up the coast for the weekend for the second Key to Wine Country, organized by the Santa Barbara Vintners. This time the key unlocked new experiences that ranged from being introduced to interesting new wineries to food and wine pairings to blending seminars.
Getting To Know New Wineries
I had previously met winemaker Joey Gummere but had not been to his winery or tasted through his wines yet. So, with my Key, I headed to his winery/tasting room in Lompoc (just a few blocks away from the Lompoc Wine Ghetto). Gummere was behind the bar when I got there and told me the story behind Transcendence. Having made wine in the area since 1997, Gummere and his wife started Transcendence with a sense of purpose. Their first vintage in 2006 was made to bring joy to a friend who was ill at the time. Since then, Joey continues to make small lot wines and donate a minimum of 10% of their direct sales to several non-profit organizations.
After tastes of the crisp 2013 Zotovich Chardonnay and the bright, fruity 2013 “F Street” Pinot Noir, I got to taste the first release 2013 Purisima Pinot Noir. Made from the best selection of fruit from the La Encantada Vineyard, this wine is elegant and bright. It was a very special treat to be the first to taste this. Transcendence wines make an impact on people’s lives both through the pure enjoyment of drinking the wine but also through supporting the community.
Cebada Vineyard: Vineyard and Blueberry Farm Tour
I had never heard of Cebada Vineyard but was intrigued by the Vineyard AND Blueberry Farm Tour. Located on 100 acres, just outside the limits of the Sta Rita Hills AVA, owner Sandra Newman has built her dream. With an education in Plant Science and a specialty as an Ornamental Horticulturist, Newman moved from the East Coast. Unable to find work in her field, she created an electronic filing system which afforded her the opportunity to pursue her dream. In 2003, she planted blueberries because they never go dormant. Today she has six acres planted and grows 100,000 pounds of organic blueberries that are sold under her company Forbidden Fruit Orchards.
While she also grows avocados and kiwis, among other agriculture, she decided to plant grapes and began making wine in 2011. With two and a half acres of Chardonnay and five acres of Pinot Noir planted, Newman does all of the farming herself, along with staff she has trained. What makes her vineyards interesting is that she uses mulch, not cover crops, which holds water better and adds more nutrients to the soil.
Newman is a wonder woman who is doing it all. She currently makes 850-900 cases of Pinot Noir and 200 cases of Chardonnay and soon will have sparkling wine. Because Cebada is such a new winery, we were able to taste and compare the two vintages she has made so far. The 2011 Chardonnay is creamy and rich, with acidity on the front palate and subtle oak on the finish compared to the 2012 Chardonnay, which had a fruitier nose and was less acidic. The 2011 Pinot Noir has notes of cherry and cranberry compared to the 2012 Pinot Noir with bigger fruit notes of dark cherry and raspberry.
And, the real treat of the day was the 2011 Forbidden Fruit Libation. Here she ferments the blueberries dry (no residual sugar), adds brandy and a secret sweet recipe. The result is a rich dessert wine with 16% alcohol that has great acidity and makes your mouth water. It’s perfect with dark chocolate or maybe over ice cream.
Fiddlehead Cellars: Sit-Down Blending Seminar
At Fiddlehead, participants got to play winemaker for a day and get a sense of what goes into making what ends up in the bottle. Fiddlehead’s Mikey Szymczak led the group and explained that the type of oak used will influence the wine from enhancing the body to imparting nuances to increasing tannins and flavors. After tasting through four barrel samples and noting the difference of each wine, which was made up of different clones of Pinot Noir and in barrels from different coopers– it was up to us to make what we thought would be the perfect blend.
In teams of five, we each selected different percentages of each wine and measured them out. As a group, we tasted each person’s blend and agreed which was the favorite. We then submitted our final blend to be blind tasted along with the four other team blends. And, our blend tied for first place. Perhaps we have a calling to be winemakers but in fact, we learned how difficult it is to make that perfect blend. You have to think about the wine’s balance but also its aging potential. And, it can be a few percentage points that will make all the difference.
Food and Wine Pairing
Presqu’ile Winery: Food and Wine Pairing Experience with Winemaker Dieter Cronje and Chef Robbie Wilson of Mattei’s Tavern
Wine is meant to be enjoyed with food and at Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria, they do this as part of their winery tour. But, for the Key to Wine Country weekend, Chef Robbie Wilson of Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos created a new menu featuring fresh local ingredients. As both he and Winemaker Dieter Cronje expressed, wine you like should be paired with food you like. Chef Wilson was looking for more of a comfort element in the pairing and he achieved great synergy with the wines.
- 2012 Steiner Creek Chardonnay paired with Gnocchi A La Parisienne (masa, buttered popcorn bisque, old bay, bacon)
- 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Pinot Noir paired with Charred Heirloom Carrots (sumac, avocado, crunch seeds, labne)
- 2012 Rim Rock Vineyard Pinot Noir paired with Dry Aged Beef Tartare (BBQ potato chips, smoked egg vinaigrette)
Cambria Estate Vineyards & Winery Vertical Flight Paired with Chocolate
I love Pinot Noir and I love chocolate but, to be honest, I had not thought of pairing chocolate and Pinot together until now. Three different artisanal chocolate truffles were paired with a vertical flight of Pinot Noir. Just like with food pairing, it was possible to find harmony:
- 2010 Bench Break Pinot Noir: The richness of the dark, orange and ginger truffle cut through the ripe wine.
- 2011 Bench Break Pinot Noir: The creamy milk chocolate, star anise and thyme truffle married well with the bright fruit wine.
- 2012 Bench Break Pinot Noir: The dark chocolate pomegranate truffle added acidity to the bright Pinot that has notes of mocha, earth and dark red fruit, creating a mouthwatering sensation.
As the Key to Wine Country unlocks more experiences, I learned more and more about the hard work that goes into making wine and the versatility in enjoying it