Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Foxen Wine Trail


Miles Traveled: approx. 1950
Wines Tasted: 154
Winemakers/Growers Interviewed: 9
Soundtrack Selections: Beck--Sea Change; William Orbit, a Selection of Seventies Roots Punk

I'm currently wrestling with Blogger, which refuses to upload all my fabulous pics, including what is the best Vineyard Dog Pic I have so far. 'Tis a pitfall of blogging, I'm afraid. So for more beautiful Santa Maria Valley photo satisfaction, please check out the Flickr Badge over on the right.

Two things convinced me to spend some time in the Santa Barbara area, and neither had a damn thing to do with what one can only refer to in the company of locals as that movie. One: my love of Syrah and all things Rhone-like, and two: the photograph of the gorgeous valley in The World Atlas of Wine. While planning this trip, I'd stare at that picture and sigh...ah, such high, rounded verdency, dotted with moo-cows, framing a valley full of grapes.

Oh, but there's way more than grapevines here (and they're dormant, anyhoo). The Santa Maria Valley is busting at the seams with strawberries, spinach, lettuce, kale, and broccoli. Makes you want to take a bottle of olive oil and a flying leap. A lot of my friends asked me why I didn't wait until the fall to take this trip, when the vines would be loaded down with fruit. Fact of the matter is: this is the best time of year to try to talk to wine growers and vintners who will be up to their sunhats in work when the grapes are photogenic.

Every Spring, the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail holds an open house called 'Wildflowers and Wine', for which you can purchase a passport rather than paying for tastings at each winery. My hosts for this tour were the Santa Barbara Wineguy and his gardener wife, who know just about everything there is to know about the area (Did you know, for instance, that the legend of Zorro is based on a bandit who once raided stagecoaches in the Santa Maria Valley? This guy did. If you need any skinny on the area wineries, btw, he's your man).

Chardonnay's the Queen here. Chard vines are the first to budbreak, and they stretch out for mile after rolling mile, crowned with their new little light green leaves. Most of Kendall Jackson's Chard comes from this area, as well as just about anyone in the state who doesn't grow their own.
In Los Alamos, a tourist standing next to me said this, as though defending himself against the world: "I'm sorry, but I love the malo thing, the butter. And I love the oak. If I wanted fruity, I'd drink something else." The proclamation reminded me of my own prejudice against fat, buttery Chardonnays, and also how the style is slowly fading in favor of leaner, more tropical styles. Most of the Chardonnays I tried fell into what I interpreted as the former category, usually baby's-butt soft treefruit and all the malolactic buttery love you could want. I realized I'm not the best person to offer an opinion about the area's Chards, so I'll stick to what I can interpret best.

To Chard's Queen is Pinot Noir's King, and while most were riper than I like, I didn't try one I'd kick out of my glass. I have my faves listed below.

Next favorites are Syrah and Viognier. Nearly all the wines I tried were vinted to be lushly fruited and showed prominent oak characteristics. Not a huge surprise, I know. This is the style people here prefer, drinkers and vintners alike, so I tuned my palate accordingly. Even so, I found myself most impressed with those that had finesse rather than intense extraction of fruit, and well-integrated oak. I shall take a moment now to geek out and lay down my list o' faves:

2004 Foxen Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley--fresh and aromatic with long, sensuous notes of flowers, tea and crushed berries.

2004 Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley--fruit forward with cola nut, smoky tea and flowers, plenty of structure to hold it up.

2003 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmody McKnight Vineyard, Paso Robles--the first Cab I'd tasted all trip that didn't reek of bell peppers. Fruity but elegant, with well-integrated oak in a medium-long, supple finish.

2003 Longoria 'Evidence' Bordeaux Blend (57% Cab Franc, 22% Merlot, 21% Cab Sauv)--Full bodied without loading up the front palate with phat fruit before the nuances have a chance to show, and true to the style.

2003 Palmina Bianca, Central Coast (35% Traminer, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Tocai Friulano, 15% Malvasia Bianca, {gasp} 5% Pinot Grigio)--Still just a tad too fruity for my taste, but really sensational aromatics. A lovely, crisp white with big grapefruit and white blossom goodness.

2000 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo and 2002 Petit Verdot---Morgan Clendenen's label is Cold Heaven, but this label is the one she's using to help fund her daughters' college fund. She's mostly known for her lush Viognier, which is too oaky for me. These two darlings, however, are more my style: elegant and aromatic with a nice tannin how-do-you-do on the back palate. Yum.

More to come; gotta break it up in chunks. I had a great conversation with Kenneth Volk, whose wines I thought were among the yummiest in the area. Back in a flash.



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