Dispatch: Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County Is About More Than Just Pinot

Sure, Sideways put Santa Barbara County on the map - and in a way it probably wasn't really ready for.  It also put Pinot Noir on a pedestal in a way it has yet to come down from.  Having enjoyed many different Pinots from the heralded appellations of Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley within Santa Barbara County, the limelight is mostly deserved.  There is some flat out incredible Pinot Noir being made here (Foley, Sanford, Melville, Bonaccorsi...the list is long.)  And given the prices people are willing to pay for Pinot these days, well, everyone is making at least some of it here.

But if Pinot Noir attracts much of the attention in this area, then Rhone varieties generate much of the passion - at least for those in the know.  Underappreciated and undervalued, less familiar varieties like Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier make brilliant, complex whites that boggle the mind and dazzle the heart.  Similarly, less popular red varieties - Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache - emulate the French traditions of the southern Rhone valley while maintaining an identity true to their provenance. Powerful, complex, and incredibly satisfying, red Rhone varieties in Santa Barbara County seem to thrive in the Santa Ynez Valley and Los Alamos Valley.

If you're looking to mix it up a little in your wine consumption, this is a terrific place to make some new discoveries.  No, none of the winemakers in Santa Barbara County are giving any of their wines away, but dollar-for-dollar and pound-for-pound, less popular varieties like the aforementioned represent some of the greatest QPR sources in all of California.

It had been about five years since my last visit to Santa Barbara County and for all that you'd expect to change in that time, much remains the same.  It is still jaw-droppingly gorgeous terrain - dry, brown hills studded by Pacific Oak, horses and cattle grazing around every other corner, and sweeping, rolling, picture-perfect vineyards.  The people are hard-working and friendly (even in the midst of long harvest days/nights), the food is outstanding (especially at casual joints like the El Rancho market), and as chic as towns like Los Olivos are, there's substance and authenticity to be found nearby in places like Los Alamos.
Since we were just passing through, we stopped at only one winery for a picnic lunch: Andrew Murray Vineyards where we caught up with the man himself as he was doing punch-downs on just-picked Pinot and Syrah lots.  I've long been a fan of Andrew's wines and tasting through his current releases only reaffirmed long held opinions. Though his wines did not escape the challenges 2011 threw at vineyards all across California, the consistency of style and quality here are remarkable. 

Let's wrap this dispatch with a review of two contrasting wines which merit any savvy drinker's pursuit: the RGB and Terra Bella Syrah.

2012 Andrew Murray Vineyards RGB  Santa Ynez Valley $25
Brilliant and dazzling. A blend of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, there's so much going on in this wine, it distracts from conversation.  Is it possible that the fruit in this wine is at once electric and gentle?  Indeed it is.  The Roussanne adds character and depth without dragging this light footed beauty down while the Grenache Blanc provides the pure fruit and intoxicating aromatics without heat or overpowering acids.  Soft and bearing some creaminess, it's a combination that works better than a creamsicle.  If you don't believe that white wines can convey profundity the way reds do, then put your hands on a bottle of this and you will see the light. 

2011 Andrew Murray Vineyards Syrah Terra Bella Vineyard $36
How is it that the 2011 vintage, very apparently a weak vintage, sold out?  Because AMV's customers are no dummies - they know what to subscribe to.  Loyalty is a two way street and this bottling has rewarded enough in both directions to make it worth returning to year after year.  The Terra Bella bottling has been my personal favorite wine - price no object - two out of the last four years.  The 2011 is less voluptuous than it has been is prior years (no surprise).  And as with the 2009 vintage of Terra Bella, this vintage needs another year or so in bottle to evolve.  But the laser focused fruit is there, framed by lean acidity and expressive floral aromatics.  This is a wine to keep an eye on.