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Food & Dining // Vino Sense
Roberto Viernes

Falling In Love With Santa Barbara Wines

Bien Nacido Vineyard is the most revered in Santa Maria Valley. Photo from Roberto Viernes

This is the second in a two-part series on the wines of Santa Barbara County.

Rather than giving generalizations into the styles of the wines or hallmarks of the Santa Barbara regions, as is often human nature to do, I would rather focus on the wines that gave me great joy to experience. One can often overlook the exceptional when trying to provide neat little rows of similarity and relationships to create an “easy” impression of understanding.

But it is the uniqueness of each wine that keeps the thrill alive for me.

My first visit was to Samsara, a tiny Pinot Noir and Syrah specialist made by Chad Melville. The 2011s are still in barrel, but I gush over his 2011 Turner Vineyard Syrah. It reminds me a lot of great Cornas, with tons of black fruit melded with olives, earth and savory notes. It has plenty of structure and finishes like a train on blackberries and herbs.

We then visit Melville Vineyards. Going on 17 years, the team of Chad Melville and Greg Brewer really has something special here. We were treated to some cellar treasures. The 2002 Melville Inox Chardonnay is absolutely stunning! If you are lucky to have some or can find some, you have a true gem. It still is wonderfully youthful with amazing fruit, grace and balance. There is something “complete” about it that you must taste to understand. It is possibly one of the top five California Chardonnays I have tasted all year. The 2012 version is of the same ilk and will also repay time in the cellar.

A bottle of 2003 Melville Terraces Pinot Noir is another fabulous wine. Perfectly ripe fruit, sexy, sultry texture and a real chubby, plump flavor profile lead to pure enjoyment. And let this serve as a notice that the 2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir is going to be one of the best they have made. Look out for it.

The next day we pop up to Santa Maria to go see my friends at Au Bon Climat and Qupe Winery way back in the valley. Again we taste from barrel. Two component barrels of the 2012 Au Bon Climat Knox Alexander take me for a loop. They are so beautifully aromatic with balance and texture already for a barrel sample. I am so looking forward to drinking this once it is bottled. On the Qupe side the 2011 “X Block” Syrah is more than a standout. There is everything one wants in Syrah and nothing out of place. It is decadently rich but not overripe. It reminds me of really, really good Hermitage, and that is saying a lot. From there we go to Brewer-Clifton.

Its 2010 Santa Rita Hill Chardonnay speaks of minerality, salinity and intensity. Beautiful citrus and floral notes lead to a lengthy finish. It is round but not heavy, and holds its alcohol well, highly recommended. A library bottle of the 2007 Brewer-Clifton Kimberly’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is gorgeous. It boasts tons of perfectly ripe fruit even after five years and a plush, velvety palate feel that is very hard to find and which I crave so much.

We then switch gears with Palmina Winery and its illustrious stable of Italian varietal wines. Let me preface this with the fact that I think Steve and Chrystal Clifton at Palmina make the best Italian varietal wines this side of Italy. Their 2012 Pinot Grigio would make many a Friulian winemaker cry. It is so beautifully well-portioned and aromatically inviting. The 2011 Palmina Dolcetto is simply a joy to drink. The crushed plum and black raspberry fruit in it make it gulpable. And its soft tannins make it even more versatile with food. The Cliftons also make a wine called Undici, which is 100 percent Sangiovese mainly from the Honea vineyard. This night we had a magnum of the 2009 vintage that was redolent of freshly crushed cherries, rose petals and sandalwood spices. It coats the palate with intense flavors and fills your aroma glands with potpourri.

Day three began with a bang at Tyler Winery. The wines here are made by the prodigy winemaker Justin Willett. At only 24 he has had a meteoric rise to the top of the quality ladder in the region. There are no slouches in this stable of 2011s, but if I had to pick just two to walk away with, they would be the Bien Nacido “W Block” Chardonnay and Sanford and Benedict “Old Vine” Pinot Noir. The “W Block’”Chardonnay is a rock-star wine with beautiful honeyed, sappy fruit character and a seamless flavor profile. It seems placid in the mouth as it touches every taste bud. It has an energy and tension that resonates on the finish. The Pinot Noir is all sex appeal. Made from vines planted in 1971, it has a breadth of flavor that makes other Pinot Noirs blush. It also happens to remind me of Musigny Grand Cru, for whatever that’s worth. Willett also plays with Loire Valley varieties under his label called “Lieu Dit.” His 2012 Sauvignon Blanc comes from Happy Canyon and is a real show-stopper. Citrus notes and flowers abound with racy zestiness all over. I would never guess this came from California in a blind tasting – pure and delicious.

Our last stop was Bien Nacido Vineyard, the most revered vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and one from which almost 50 different wineries purchase or lease fruit. They now make their own wines under the Bien Nacido Vineyards Winery label. The 2009 Pinot Noir reminds me of a bowl of berries and cinnamon. It has beautifully lifted floral notes and black cherries galore.

The Miller family owns the Bien Nacido Vineyard and also owns the Solomon Hills Vineyard, which is located a couple of miles closer to the Pacific Ocean. The 2009 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir shows even more ripeness and has a rounder, thicker texture, but does not cross the limit to heaviness. It is showier and perhaps a touch more vibrant in a different style, but I highly recommend them both. They also make another label called J. Wilkes from other vineyards in Santa Maria at a more attractive price point, and I really enjoyed the 2010 Pinot Noir. It is a value and not only stands up to many Pinot Noirs with higher price tags, but puts them to shame with pure and powerful fruit and the flavors and structure to satisfy.

If anyone would have accused me of not being a fan of the Santa Barbara wine scene before this visit, you can abandon the thought now.

This area is without question home to some of the best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah in the country.

And yet the area is still relatively young, with vines being planted in earnest only in the early 1970s. It is continuing to growing, winemakers constantly learning and getting even better. If you have not been, you should go and get your shoes a little dirty.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email rviernes@southernwine.com or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.

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