Santa Barbara County is producing some of the most thought-provoking and impressive wines in the U.S. If a sense of place is what we're after, Angela Osborne's Grenache-focused label, A Tribute to Grace, is a great place for our exploration to start.
Working closely with Angela during my time at Failla Wines, in 2011, I remember the first time she poured the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache for our crew, and the enthusiasm that followed. With partial whole cluster fermentation and minimal new oak, the wines are light on their feet and showcase all of the delicacy that Grenache is capable of but rarely achieves in California.
Angela grew up in New Zealand, and upon tasting the greatest expression of Grenache in the world, Chateau Rayas, set out to find the perfect terroir to produce a Grenache-focused label. Angela's grandmother, named Grace, was an equally forceful inspiration toward her landing in California. As terrific as these wines are, knowing the kind person crafting them makes the appeal even greater.
Syrah shows many different sides in California, but no producer in the state has a passion for the variety quite like Pax Mahle. For many years, Pax has worked with a wide range of Syrah vineyards in California bottled under his namesake label, formerly under Wind Gap. He's obsessed with tapping vineyards on the extreme to prove this grape can flourish in conditions that other winemakers thought were too marginal.
Pax's love for this variety traces back to the birthplace of Syrah. Starting in 2016, he wanted to pay tribute to Saint Joseph's Raymond Trollat, a legend of the old guard. As one would imagine, Sonoma-Hillsides is 100% whole cluster fermented. Sourcing comes from three vineyards that capture the essence of cool-climate, California Syrah: Castelli-Knight Ranch and Walker Vine Hill from Russian River Valley, and the iconic Griffin's Lair Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Through Pax's illustrious career, sites like these have best expressed the fresh, vibrant personality that Syrah is capable of.
At 12.5% alcohol, the Sonoma-Hillsides cuvée exemplifies everything thrilling about the more savory, spicy, and mineral-inflected qualities of Syrah. Pax is a benchmark for what other producers in California aspire to craft and serves as a mentor to much of the younger generation. He has a long history with Syrah, but it's this hommage to Raymond Trollat that hits the sweet spot for me more so than any other bottling.
The documentary Somm 3's release received a lot of attention, much of it landing squarely on Domaine de la Côte, stewards of the wind-battered slope of the Sta. Rita Hills within Santa Barbara County. It's here where Pacific Ocean-influenced conditions lead us to what might just be the most marginal, Burgundian conditions in California.
Domaine de la Côte walks the walk when it comes to California viticulture. These are wines with intense concentration from small yields due, in part, to the pruning regimen and also to its extremely dense planting of 4,000 to 7,000 vines per acre. The soil is diatomaceous from a 25 million-year-old seabed that defines this wind-battered slope seven miles off the Pacific.
Raj and Sashi are well-versed in Burgundy domaines and their sites like no other producers in America. Their intention from day one has been to produce wines they want to drink. A large percentage of whole clusters are used here for fermentation and extraction levels are moderate, only intended to give regal framing and backbone to the wines still characterized by purity and transparency of site.
I'm inclined to portray this extreme hill as the Côte de Nuits compared to the more Côte de Beaune traits we find in Santa Barbara's inland terrain. Like Gevrey Chambertin and Morey-Saint-Denis, the Sta. Rita Hills have darker fruit expression, deeper structure, and to be blunt, a more fascinating depth and complexity. The juxtaposition between sweet and savory spices is simply unique to this setting.
DDLC's top cuvées show a fine-ness of tannins and delicacy that belies their underlying construction, one capable of transforming slowly over time. Tasting a bottle of 2011 La Côte upon release and, then, four years later mirrored the evolutionary track I only find with Burgundian Pinot Noir. Burgundy is the backbone of our selection, and when I turn our supporters toward California, this is the first destination for top-grade, terroir-driven Pinot Noir.
Bloom's Field is a southwest parcel on the larger slope. Monterey shale serves as the foundation here, but with a topsoil of clay that is lighter in color and texture as compared to other parcels. Heritage selections of Swan, Calera, and Mount Eden make up the vine material. The most open-knit of the trio of Pinot Noirs offered.
Memorious is immediately downslope from Bloom’s Field, bending gently to the southwest with its face to the Pacific Ocean. The vines rest on a bedrock of Monterey Shale covered by alluvial deposits, the heaviest soils of the domaine. Raj and Sashi planted this one acre of Pinot Noir seedlings in 2007, with which they aim to cultivate their own genetic selection.
La Côte is the most entrancing and refined of the domaine's single vineyards. It's been a favorite of mine since first pour many years ago. It hits a sweet spot where grace and intensity converge seamlessly. Sous le Chêne is also sourced from a special parcel located at the very top of La Côte.
I met Cole Thomas of Madson Wines at a 2019 tasting event highlighting "the new wave of Santa Cruz winemakers." Coincidentally, I was in town that weekend reporting on a story for SF Chronicle about four other young winemakers in the Santa Cruz region. I've been following Madson ever since, and I strongly believe that Thomas and his business partner, Ken Swegles, who also owns and runs a viticulture consulting firm, are among the next names to look to in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Madson produces terroir-driven Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, three varieties that thrive in the cool, foggy climate here. The majority of vineyards in the region are small, a few acres at most, planted in small clearings vying with the rigid, mountainous landscape, redwoods, and forest.
Madson prioritizes leasing vineyards and overseeing its own farming instead of purchasing fruit. All of the vineyards they work with have been converted to organics, with an additional emphasis on regenerative farming. And to top it off, Swegles and his partner, Abbey Crystal, live on and farm Ascona Vineyard high up at 2,450 feet elevation. In the cellar, it’s natural and spontaneous fermentation, neutral wood, minimal racking, and just a small sulfur addition at bottling.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are considered an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir, and most of the AVA is planted to that. But Thomas says he is always looking for Chardonnay vineyards, and for our sake, I hope he finds them because these are the wines that Max and I are really excited about.
The Chardonnays featured here represent the two sides of the region (ocean vs. mountains). Toyon Vineyard is on a steep south-facing slope in the Soquel Hills; planted on sandstone soils just 400 feet above Monterey Bay, the vines nearly have a front-row seat to the Pacific’s coastal winds, morning fog, and cloud cover. And Les Enfants du Soleil comes mostly from 1960s-planted, own-rooted vines near Boulder Creek where the soil is decomposed schist. Both wines gracefully express cool-climate Chardonnay—fresh, vibrant, mineral—but Toyon has a prominent salinity component while Les Enfants du Soleil carries slightly more depth and concentration.
Both Thomas and Swegles have built their careers here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After earning a degree in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and working a number of jobs in vegetable farming and landscaping, Thomas discovered winemaking while working for local legend, Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, where he also met and worked with Swegles. Together, they launched Madson Wines in 2018.
Note: Last week, SF Chronicle Wine Critic, Esther Mobley, wrote a glowing review of Madson Wines for her "Wine of the Week" column
Today, I'm happy to offer one of our first rosé releases of the year, the 2020 Arnot-Roberts rosé of Touriga Nacional for $28 per bottle. Always a house pink of mine, year in and year out.
This is the rosé I find myself reaching for continually through all occasions and all times of the year. Based on Touriga Nacional planted at 1,400 feet in the Clear Lake AVA, this pink always follows a high wire act of melding topicality with a salty and refreshingly mineral finish.
Duncan Arnot and Nathan Roberts have long been celebrated for carving their own path in California. They've proved time after time that marginal climates once considered too severe can actually craft some of America's finest and most age-worthy wines. Between Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Falanghina, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Trousseau, and today's favorite rosé, this duo is unrivaled in how they excel across such a wide spectrum.
In the obscure Clear Lake area, Duncan and Nathan have tapped the variety most known for comprising Port. Here, on volcanic cobble, Touriga Nacional has annually been the backbone of this rosé that's seen its loyal fan-base continually expand. There's always a dizzying array of tropical fruits like guava, pomegranate, and passion fruit that meet savory orange peel with a quintessential saline snap on the finish that evokes sea breezes.
Click here to shop Arnot-Roberts wines