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.
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.
In the pursuit of crafting wines intended as the ultimate reflection of place, we cannot help but turn to the old world for inspiration. Within California Pinot Noir we've seen so many styles garner attention, whether they be wines of elegance and structure, or dark extraction and overt ripeness. Obviously, my sensibilities have gravitated toward the former. Finding wines that fully realize the potential of this more delicate approach is rare. Justin Willet at Tyler Winery in Santa Barbara is one of the few who's found it. And it's no surprise the Santa Barbara native's intimate knowledge of place is the reason why.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Tyler Bien Nacido Vineyard N Block Pinot Noir.
American Pinot Noir built upon nuance undoubtedly means turning to the variety's birthplace of Burgundy for many answers. However, in the end, it's a connection to place here that will dictate the results. Justin Willet has a familiarity with these historic Pinot Noir vineyards in Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills like few others do. He works with some of the very oldest parcels in the region, but one stands out from the pack.
Bien Nacido is one of California's most recognized vineyards and it's their N-Block parcel that contains rare ungrafted vines planted in the early '70s. Justin began with this parcel when he first launched his winery in 2005, and today he controls all aspects of farming. Of the full range from Tyler, N Block is produced in the smallest quantity, sometimes yielding only a single barrel. As you can imagine it's always the first to sell out.
Justin's relationships with the regions' growers over many years have afforded him opportunities that few have. Aside from gaining access to the most choice parcels, he takes a hands-on approach within the vine rows, working with a very small crew who has strict instructions. Yields are kept low, but it's the flexibility to alter practices each unique growing season that really highlight Willet's familiarity with this special site.
The hallmark of the N Block is bright and lifted qualities with a reserved tension that finishes with supreme focus. The Heritage and Martini clones from the 1973-planting bring a pure and transparent character that meshes perfectly with the low-extraction and minimal oak protocol in the cellar. If Justin produces wines with Burgundian sensibilities then N Block is the special bottling that brings this comparison closer than any other.