Thursday, July 28, 2011

Exploring the Pinot Noir (and more) of Santa Ynez, Buellton and Lompoc

One of my favorite ways to explore California Wine Countries is to travel down the coast on Highway 101, stopping along the way to visit wineries in Monterey, Paso Robles and the Santa Barbara County.

I hadn’t been to the Santa Barbara area since August of 2009 when, after visiting wineries in Temecula, I headed up the coast on my way back to the San Francisco Bay Area and visited a number of wineries in Los Olivos. [1]

So, last weekend I decided to take a another trip down south and visit wineries in Santa Ynez, Buellton and Lompoc in the south end of the Santa Barbara County Wine Country. Then on my return trip visit a couple wineries on the east side of Paso Robles.

I took an early start from the San Francisco Bay Area, leaving at 7 a.m. with hopes of avoiding the commuter traffic on Friday morning through San Jose and the Silicon Valley. It was a little slow here and there, but not too bad.

As I passed through the ocean of vineyards in the southern Monterey valley I drove through a heavy fog bank and hoped that I’d see some sunshine by the time I reached my destination. A little further down the road and Paso Robles looked much the same but then just as I arrived in Santa Maria in the northern Santa Barbara County, the fog lifted and the sun revealed that it was going to be a beautiful day with average temperatures in the mid to high 70’s – a perfect summer day for California Wine Tasting Adventures!

Which brings a question to my mind… if all you are ever doing is tasting wine from a local wine shop or grocery but you never actually venture out to see, smell, and feel the land from which it comes can you truly understand the wine which is a reflection of its terroir (temperature fluctuations, soil types, climate etc.)?

And if a wine is also the work of art of the winemaker, can you truly understand a wine without also knowing at least a little something about their philosophy of wine, their history, their background and personality? Here is where not only visiting the land from which the wine comes form, but also either meeting the winemaker or reading something about him can have an impact on your understanding of the wine.

This is why I find that my greatest education in wine comes not from all the books I have read, videos I’ve watched or classes that I have taken but from getting out there and exploring the wine country.

Gainey Vineyard - Santa Ynez

Although I was planning on visiting wineries a little further south, it was still a little early when I arrived (10 a.m.) so I decided to exit the freeway and revisit the back roads of Los Olivos (passed Firestone, Fess Parker and Curtis) to see if anything had changed over the past couple years. I then drove south to Santa Ynez and headed west back towards the freeway and made my first stop at a winery - Gainey Vineyard.

After roaming around the vineyards snapping a few shots with my camera, I headed into the tasting room with my spit cup in hand in order to avoid getting tanked. In all my trips to the wine country since the late 1990’s I have never seen anyone do is and it makes me wonder about people who don’t use a designated driver or higher a limousine. But then, if you are getting impaired do you really perceive the wines accurately?

Gainey has two wine tasting flights and as always I chose to do the “Reserve Tasting Menu” for which they charge $20. The best way to understand a winery, you need to taste their best!

The first five wines all come from the Gainey Vineyard.

My first wine of the day was the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, which has a distinctive California style to it as well as a classical profile of lemon grass, grapefruit, and a chalky minerality it also has a full creamy mouth feel. It is that last note that lets you know that this isn’t from New Zealand! A nice wine for $19 but I recently a bunch in Lake County that I thought were on part or better and yet cost $5 - $7 less.

The second pour was the 2008 Limited Selection Chardonnay. It was fermented 57% in the barrel and 43% tank with only 60% malolactic. On the nose a bit smoky on the nose with butterscotch overtones, followed by red apples and pears with full-bodied and creamy feel but not overly buttery and well balanced. A nice Chard but for $38 but there are many like it on the market for under $20.

My next wine was the 2008 Limited Selection Pinot Noir. This is a HUGE Pinot, with layers of root beer, cherry, cinnamon stick on the nose and palate, silky tannins and a prolonged spicy finish. A nice wine that retails for $48. Unfortunately they only sell this wine to club members as the tasting menu states:


So not only do you have to be a club member to buy this wine, it is only for GAINEY and not their EVAN’S Ranch members. If this was not the case, I probably would have bought one!

I do so much wine country traveling and I am constantly looking for something new so I don’t lock myself in to any wine clubs. If you want to drink the same brand of wines all the time and want to save some money and enjoy various other club benefits (invitations to special events, special offers, free tastings etc.) that is fine, but I have no need or desire to join a club.

My fourth wine was the 2008 Limited Selection Merlot. Yes, despite the protest of Miles in the movie Sideways, they do make Merlot in Santa Barbara County! On the nose and palate I picked up dark cherries, ripe plum, milk chocolate, and some black olive and licorice on the finish. A fine wine but a bit steep at $38 a bottle.

My fifth and final wine form the Gainey Vineyard was the 2007 Limited Selection Syrah. A robust wine with intense blueberries, blackberries, violets, cola and a hint of black pepper on the finish. Nice, but insane at $42 a bottle. There are SO many wines like this in the $20-$30 range I can’t see even paying the Club Member price of $33.60.

After using the 2010 Riesling as a glass and palate cleanser (very floral with orange blossom and honeydew but lacking any crispness) we then switched to a lineup of Evan’s Ranch reserve wines that are only made available to club members as the tasting menu states in upper case letters:


I’ve heard of using exclusivity as a market tool but this is ridiculous! Of the 8 wines I tasted, there were only 4 that were available to purchase – NOT wise marketing.

My first “not available for purchase” wine was the 2008 La Marina Chardonnay. This is fruiter and a hint sweeter than the 2008 Limited Selection Chardonnay with red apple, dried pineapple, and honeydew melon on the nose and palate and it sells for $40 retail but $32 to club members.

Here is a question for you… how can they have a retail price if they ONLY sell it to club members?

My second “not available for purchase” wine was the 2009 Las Brisas Pinot Noir. This is a gigantic Pinot with a nose full of raspberry jam, sarsaparilla, and some black pepper on the end. It sells for $52 retail (to those who can’t buy it) and $41.60 to the club members. In would have bought one if they didn’t require me to join their #@%& Club!

My last “not available for purchase” wine was the 2008 Las Brisas Syrah which is very earthly and rich with blackberry, cola and pepper. Even if they would sell it to me I would have said “pass” at $48 a bottle.

Overall, Gainey has some nice wines but I think they need to change their marketing strategy - lower their prices by at least 15% and make all of their wines available to all of their customers and use the club membership to provide other benefits other than exclusive ability purchase the Evan’s Ranch Wines.

To visit or for more information you can contact them at:

Gainey Vineyard
3950 East Highway 246
Santa Ynez, CA 93460

Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards - Buellton

I then headed further west to Buellton to visit Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards that I have been eager to check out for quite some time. Alma Rosa was founded by Richard Sanford in 2005 after he and his wife Thekla produced premium wines for 27 years at Sanford Winery. Due to “differences in business philosophy” they broke from their business partners, the Terlato Family, which led to a separation from their namesake winery in 2005.

The current winemaker of Alma Rosa is Christian Roguenant who has a very impressive winemaking résumé. In 1982 he received a degree in Oenology from the University of Dijon. The following year he received certificate of Marketing for Wine and Spirits from the University of Dijon. In 1984 he completed marketing research for the Institution of National Research Agronomical and the Champagne industry and became a consultant to Deutz & Gelderman in Breisach am Rhine, Germany as well as 4 years of consultant work for Navarro Coreas, Mendoza, Argentina, 2 years of consulting to Delas Winery in the Northern Rhone. In 1986 he joined the Beringer senior winemaking team and in 1986 moved to California to become winemaker at Maison Deutz Winery in Arroyo Grande until 1995. He in 1987 he served as a consultant to Daesun Winery in South Korea for the creation of the official sparkling wine of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and from 1988-1997 he was a consultant to Montana Wines/Brancott Winery in New Zealand and from 1995-1999 he was the winemaker and President of Laetitia Winery, Arroyo Grande, CA. Then in 1999 he was hired as full time winemaker at Baileyana where completed the design and creation of their winery and custom crush facility. Finally, from 1995 to today he currently serves as a consultant to a number of California wineries including Alma Rosa, Blackjack, Rosenthal, Carpe Diem, Hames Valley Vineyard, and the Chalone Foundation. [2]

So, now when you taste the Pinot Noirs at Alma Rosa you know why they are so impressive!

If you have seen the movie Sideways, then you have had a glimpse of Alma Rosa Winery as they make a cameo appearance. In fact, the long grey haired and bearded server Chris Burroughs who interacts with the characters Miles and Jack was there when I visited.

Now, here is where it can get a little confusing….

In the movie Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards is called “Sanford” AND Alma Rosa winery is owned by the Richard Sanford, who founded Sanford Winery in 1981 which is now owned by the Terlato Family and is a little further west in Lompoc. The founder of Alma Rosa no longer owns the winery with his name sake. So, if you visit Alma Rosa you are visiting the “Sanford” in the movie Side Ways. Yet, if you check out many supposed “Sideways” wine tours, they will take you not to where the movie was filmed but to the winery that bears the name!

Alma Rosa Winery is way out in the boonies, off the beaten path at the end of a long dirt and gravel road perched at the bottom of the hills. The tasting room is an old milking shed that was built in the late 1800’s and has no modern temperature control conveniences (air conditioning or heating) other than a small free standing fan. So, if you are planning on visiting keep that in mind. There is also a quaint little seating area on the front porch and across the dirt path a couple picnic tables tucked away in the woods which would undoubtedly provide cool shade on a hot summer day. Fortunately for me when I arrived it was only in the mid to high 70’s.

Alma Rosa has over 100 acres of certified organic vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, and they focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, as well as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir - Vin Gris (a dry rosé). For a modest fee of $15 (refunded if you buy a case) I tasted five absolutely spectacular Pinot Noirs, each getting a little bigger that the previous wine as I went along.

My first wine was the 2008 Pinot Noir – Clone 115 – La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills. The lightest in the line-up, an elegant wine displaying cranberry, clove, cinnamon and a long finish. This wine sells for $43 a bottle.

The second pour was the 2008 Pinot Noir – Sta. Rita Hills. This wine has a lot of finesse as it exudes bright raspberries and cherries on the nose followed by a hint of spice, well balanced and great acidity. A really nice Pinot for only $32.

My third wine was a previous vintage of the last one, the 2007 Pinot Noir – Sta. Rita Hills. This wine is brighter and more vibrant displaying dried roses, cola and cherries. It also sells for $32 a bottle.

My fourth wine was my favorite in the lineup, the 2008 Pinot Noir – La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills. The wine has a similar flavor profile to the previous wines but it is fresher and has brighter fruit, is more concentrated and focused followed by a lush full mouth feel. This wine sells for $43 a bottle and I brought two of them home!

My final wine was the 2009 Pinot Noir – Clone 667 – La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills. This wine is similar to the previous wine but is less intense on the nose and has a hint more earthiness to it. It also sells for $43 a bottle.

If you are a big a Pinot Noir fan as I am, Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards is a “must visit” winery and after tasting their wines I’m not sure which is best – the Russian River Pinots or Santa Barbara as I would put these up against any of the ones I recently tasted over the Fourth of July weekend.

To visit or for more information you can contact them at:

Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards
7250 Santa Rosa Road,
Buellton CA 93427
Telephone: 1- 805-688-9090

Sanford Winery and Vineyards – Lompoc

For my final stop for the day I headed further west, through the canyon to Sanford Winery and Vineyards. It was founded by Richard Sanford but today it is now predominantly owned by Anthony Terlato and his sons Bill and John Terlato.

In 1971 Richard Sanford recognized the great potential that the Santa Rita Hills (usually abbreviated “Sta. Rita Hills”) has for producing great cool climate wines as it has a climate and soil conditions to Burgundy so he planted the area’s first Pinot Noir in its Sanford and Benedict vineyard.

“Sta. Rita Hills is a relatively small appellation of approximately 100 square miles. Intersected by the Santa Ynez River, the cool climate appellation is located between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, California. The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance includes both vineyards located within the geographical boundaries of the appellation, and those who craft wines from grapes grown here.[3]

In California most hill ridges and mountain ranges run north to south. However, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA lies within an east-west mountain valley that runs from the vineyards to the Pacific Ocean. This creates a channel for early cool morning fog and then by mid-morning heat from the mountains raises the temperatures and dissipates the fog, then in the afternoon a cooling breeze blows inland from the Pacific. This temperature fluctuation creates the cool by night, warm by day climate contrast. Add to this low summer rainfall and you have a cool growing season that lasts 30 - 45 days longer than most other California grape-growing regions and that Santa Rita’s soils are light and well draining and you have the perfect climate for producing quality Burgundian wines. Sanford Winery’s estate vineyards - Rancho La Rinconada, Sanford and Benedict – are within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and all of their Pinots come from these vineyards.

Since February 2006 the winemaker and general manager for Sanford Winery has been Steve Fennell. After studying enology at the University of California Davis, he served as an assistant winemaker at Trefethen Vineyards in Napa California, then in 1999 he worked was at Voss Vineyards as head winemaker. Fennell works under Doug Fletcher, Vice President of Winemaking of Terlato Wine Group, who oversees the family-owned Chimney Rock, Rutherford Hill which are on the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley, as well as Alderbrook and Terlato Vineyards wineries in Healdsburg California.

After touring the vineyards I ventured into the tasting room which charges a nominal tasting fee of $15 for the “Winemaker’s Flight” which is refunded with purchase of $60 or more.

My first pour was the 2010 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc . This wine is very zesty! A dry crisp wine with grapefruit, orange peel, passion fruit a little chalky minerality. A nice wine for $18.

My second wine as the 2009 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay. Made from their two estate vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, La Rinconada and Sanford & Benedict. Fermented in 20% new French oak with 100% malolactic this is a well balanced wine that isn’t too oaky or buttery, with citrus, pear, green apple, and lychee nut. A nice wine for $28 there are many on the market these days that are very similar in quality for $15 - $20 a bottle.

My third wine was the 2007 STA. Rita Hills La Riconada Vineyard Chardonnay. A little darker that the previous Cahrd, more golden, this full bodied wine was barrel aged on the lees. It exudes melon, lemon drop candy, with a hint of herbs and a creamy vanilla finish with a nutty return after about 30 seconds after spitting (or swallowing). Definitely a step up from the previous wine! It normally sells for $38 a bottle but it is currently on sale at $25 from their web site.

My fourth pour was the 2007 STA. Rita Hills La Entrada Chardonnay. This is similar to the previous wine but a more full wine in mouth feel, more minerality and has great acidity. Defintely my favorite amongst the Chards but a bit steep at $45.

My next wine as the 2009 STA. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – Vin Gris (Rosé). This wine has some standard rosé  characteristics such as watermelon, cranberry, strawberry, and pomegranate, a little clove and a surprising creamy mouth feel. A nice wine for $18 a bottle.

My sixth wine was the STA. Rita Hills 2008 Pinot Noir.  While this wine has some standard Pinot Noir characteristics, personally after visiting Alma Rosa I thought this wine as kind of “blah” - WAY over priced for $40.

My next wine, however, was a different story!

The 2008 STA. Rita Hills La Riconada Vineyard Pinot Noir is exactly the kind of Pinot I was looking for and it would be an interesting competition to do a blind tasting up against one of Alma Rosa’s Pinots. It has a BIG intense nose of raspberry jam, black cherry, cola with a full mouth feel and a long finish. A bit steep at $54 a bottle, but I brought one home.

My eighth wine as the STA. Rita Hills 2008 Domino Del Falcon Pinot Noir. A more earthy Pinot, with a big mouth feel, soft tannins and a slight herbal finish. I really loved this wine but at $75 a bottle I’ll say “pass.”

Although I was spitting my wine in a cup and so my head was clear, by this time I could definitely tell that my palate was becoming fatigued. After a while, even if you drink water, it is difficult to clear the previous wine out of your nose and off your tongue! Having said that, I pressed on for one more Pinot…

My final wine was the 2007 STA. Rita Hills Vista Al Rio Pinot Noir. A big full bodied wine which although the alcohol seems a bit high (14.8%) it is well balanced and ahs great structure. It is jammier with loads of black cherries, blueberries and red plums with a really nice cinnamon and light pepper and clove finish. Again, I really loved this wine but at $75 a bottle I’ll say “pass.

To see more pictures of Sanford Vineyards and Winery, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information you can contact them at:

Sanford Winery
5010 Santa Rosa Road
Lompoc, CA 93436
Telephone: 1-800-426-9463

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