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.
New California, dubbed by Jon Bonné, has brought back an emphasis on expressing terroir through more minimal intervention and balance. While Napa Valley still has a reputation for producing bombastic wines, Di Costanzo's Cabernet Sauvignons capture everything that's so thrilling about the variety from a sensitive and thoughtful approach.
Di Costanzo's Farella Cabernet Sauvignon is dark and savory with smoke, graphite, and scorched earth notes reminiscent of the volcanic ash scattered throughout the vineyard. The wine is also super elegant and speaks to Massimo's travels throughout the world, having learned how to work with this tannic variety and tame its burly predisposition.
Coombsville is perhaps the coolest AVA within Napa, thanks to moderating influences from nearby San Pablo Bay. Before launching his label, Massimo spent years working with the Farella winery, getting intimately familiar with the nuances of this red gravel-dominant vineyard. Also, the "DI CO" Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a shale and sandstone vineyard at the foothills of Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley.
Massimo earned his degree in enology and viticulture from UC Davis in 2002. After working for wineries in Tuscany, Stellenbosch, and Mendoza, he landed at Napa's Ovid and then Screaming Eagle, working as the winemaker alongside Andy Erickson. Massimo's extensive familiarity with old-school Napa Valley greatly shapes his winemaking approach.
I met Cole Thomas at a 2019 tasting event highlighting the next wave of Santa Cruz winemakers. Coincidentally, I was in town that weekend to work on a story about four other young winemakers in the region for the San Francisco Chronicle. I've been following Cole's exciting project, Madson Wines, ever since.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are one of California's top sites for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the western side of the region having a front-row seat to the Pacific's coastal winds and morning fog. Cole says he is always looking for Chardonnay, though that's easier said than done. Most vineyards here are allotted to Pinot Noir and consist of a few acres at most, vying with the mountainous landscape, redwoods, and forest. Regardless, Madson produces compelling, spice-driven Pinot Noirs that remind me of driving through the Santa Cruz Mountains with the windows rolled down.
Cole has built his career here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After earning a degree in environmental studies at U.C. Santa Cruz, he worked in vegetable farming and landscaping before landing a job at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, where he met viticulturist Ken Swegles. They launched Madson together in 2018 and solely farm using organic and regenerative practices.
Ryan and Megan Glaab are the kind of winemakers I'm always thrilled to be introduced to. Their small-production winery has slowly grown since 2007, focusing on varieties that are more obscure in California. Their love of old-world wines, particularly those from Campania, Friuli, and Sardinia, was the catalyst for their label.
The cool and foggy Las Brisas Vineyard is an ideal home for the aromatic, late-ripening Vermentino variety. It's located on the Sonoma side of Carneros, heavily influenced by the San Pablo Bay and Petaluma Gap—an ideal place to produce racy whites. "Hers," referring to Megan's preferred style of Vermentino, is clean, bright, mineral-driven, and refreshing, calling to mind northern Sardinia and the Ligurian coast of Italy where Vermentino reigns supreme. The grapes are immediately pressed off their skins and aged in a combo of stainless steel and neutral French oak.
Ryan and Megan's goal is to make wines they want to drink, using Italy's rich history as a guiding force to show the ultimate potential that exists in California. The couple met while working harvest in Australia years. They quickly fell in love and returned to California, and each has worked at iconic wineries including Pax, Peay, Marcassin, and Sine Qua Non. These invaluable, diverse experiences gave the couple the tools needed to execute the project they had dreamed of.
“If one person stands to rewrite the trajectory of California wine—in Napa's luxurious heart, no less—it is Steve Matthiasson.” — Jon Bonné, SF Chronicle
Earlier this month, I made a long-awaited visit to Matthiasson Winery for the first time. Dubbed a leading figure of the New California Wine movement by wine writer Jon Bonné, Steve Matthiasson has been in the business for nearly three decades and is the go-to viticulturist for organic wine growing in California.
Matthiasson’s Phoenix Vineyard sits on a hillside overlooking Oak Knoll District. The temperatures here are much cooler, and this is the only part of the valley to have ancient marine shale soils. Planted in 1982, the vineyard is a mixture of old heritage Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. One of Steve’s main principles in winegrowing is balance, which directly translates into the wines: Fresh and aromatic red-berry fruit, fine-knit tannins and structure, and beautiful acidity.
Phoenix Vineyard also marked a new chapter for the Matthiassons. Steve started farming this vineyard in 2017 when the elderly owners could no longer manage it themselves. After 14 years of making wine at other wineries, Steve and his wife, Jill, purchased the property, which also included a winery. All wine production happens here on site, and the former owners were granted a lifelong home to enjoy retirement.
2017 was a devastating vintage for Napa Valley, as the region was hit hard by wildfires. Luckily, Phoenix Vineyard was harvested and finished fermentation before the wildfires struck. The fruit is fermented at low temperatures in small tanks, with punch-downs done by hand, followed by aging in 30% new French oak for 20 months.