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
Farmer turned viticulturist turned winemaker, Steve Matthiasson is one of the leading figures in the wave following Robert Parker’s era of high-octane wines. In 2013, Jon Bonné cannoned Matthiasson and his peers as the New California, the next generation of winemakers focused on balance and terroir. If there's anywhere to begin the exploration of New California, Steve Matthiasson is a good place to start!
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Matthiasson Phoenix Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Last August, I wrote a story for Wine & Spirits Magazine on California winemakers farming white varieties for skin contact wines. Steve’s affinity for Ribolla Gialla and other Italian varieties was at the forefront of that story, and he talked about growing Cabernet Sauvignon in comparison. While Steve allows Ribolla Gialla full sun exposure, he’s more protective of his Cabernet, keeping the vines in balance with minimal leafing, so the fruit is sheltered from Napa's Mediterranean climate. He’s also drawn to cooler sites with rocky soils for the freshness and structure they provide.
2017 was a big year for the Matthiassons. After 14 years of making wine in other wineries, they purchased a property from an elderly couple who could no longer keep up with the day-to-day tasks of farming and winemaking. With it, the Matthiassons inherited a winery and a 1982-planted parcel of old heritage field selections of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, which has since been converted to organic farming.
The Phoenix Vineyard sits on a steep hillside above the Matthiasson winery. While most of the Napa Valley consists of volcanic soils, Phoenix Vineyard is situated on a ridge of ancient marine shale soils. Steve says it's the rock content and sea minerals here that especially attribute to the wine's aromatic, high-toned red fruits, what's intertwined with the supple tannins and structure I look for in Napa Cabernet. The wine does take some time to unwind, really blossoming on day two, so this would definitely benefit from decanting.
Napa faced dire wildfires in 2017. However, the Phoenix Vineyard ripened quickly that vintage, and the fruit was harvested and finished fermentation by the time the fires struck in October. The fruit was fermented in small, open-top tanks and punched down by hand one to three times per day depending on taste. Like all of the Matthiasson Cabs featured below, elevage was for 20 months. Only 98 cases produced!
Cooler climate Santa Barbara has more and more become an obsession of mine. I find myself constantly reaching to drink wines from these rocky sites and marginal climates. The name most integral to this array of labels is Sashi Moorman. Although his Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay are among my favorites, it's his oldest home label, Piedrasassi, that offers the most downright delicious and complex reflection of Syrah.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Piedrasassi Bien Nacido Vineyard and Rim Rock Vineyard Syrah.
Piedrasassi harnesses savory, bright, and superior aromatics while never shying away from the innate luscious qualities that California instills in the grape. Sashi follows a surgical-like protocol to vinify and age as naturally as possible, excluding sulfur at fermentation and only utilizing native yeasts.
Whole cluster inclusion and aging in larger 500-liter barrels ensure the lively, crushed rock virtues that make Northern Rhone Syrah so unique aren't lost here in Santa Barbara. When I pour Syrah I'm always open to new discoveries, but for some things, I'm just not game. Candied fruit and milk chocolate tones that mar much of the California Syrah I taste is just a non-starter. What I love about Piedrasassi is each wine, regardless of price point, nails the roasted meat, violet, and black pepper trifecta I crave.
Sashi's single vineyard-designate bottlings from Bien Nacido and Rim Rock are examples of how Syrah can continually develop in the bottle over many years.