Hitch a ride

beckmen & treeTastes of the Valleys – Most of the wine bars along Solvang’s main drag are rollicking in what otherwise appears to be a slow time of year, spitting out wandering clots of weaving wine tourists to – one hopes – the safety of hotel rooms rather than automobiles. But this one, a cozy basement with a few tables and a short bar, is empty when I arrive. Just me and the proprietress.

I’m here because this particular bar is specifically noted as a place to taste Arcadian and Au Bon Climat wines, which aren’t the easiest to find opened elsewhere in the area. Only the latter is actually available amongst today’s selections, but after a long day of tasting and with plenty of pinot in my post-sunset future, it doesn’t really matter.

Au Bon Climat 2007 Pinot Noir Los Alamos (Santa Maria Valley) – There is a particular quality of pinot noir that, in New Zealand, I’ve used – with some success – to guess at Central Otago (specifically Bannockburn/Cromwell) sourcing: blood orange, plum, and beet. But it occasionally shows up elsewhere, there and abroad, and here’s an example. If I hadn’t seen the label, I’d probably once again guess Central Otago, except that there’s a little more sophistication and delineation to the fruit (a consequence, perhaps, of New Zealand’s generally young vines and still-limited clonal palette). It’s really quite a gorgeous wine, overall, and as it finishes a graphite-like minerality…very unusual in pinot noir…starts to rear its particulate head. This is still very young, and yet there are already mature-tasting elements within, so as to its actual future prospects I wouldn’t dare venture a guess. (11/11)

Babcock 2009 Pinot Noir “Rita’s Earth” (Santa Rita Hills) – 13.6%, but tastes much, much bigger…a good lesson in how fruit intensity and extractive winemaking can fool the palate into thinking that excess body is alcohol-derived (which, to be sure, it often is). Purple, black, swollen…this is like drinking a bruise. (11/11)


beckmen roadHitching Post II – I have no idea what things were like in the immediate post-Sideways era, and I’m sure the relentless waves of tourists have made it difficult to retain a true neighborhood feel here, but the reputation of this restaurant as a place where locals do indeed still go is merited. I recognize a few winemakers here and there, though I suppose the biggest celebrity is the one who enters just in front of me, patiently awaiting his usual table: David Crosby. Nice to see he’s putting his new liver through its paces.

The food? No misteak. (Sorry.) Really, though: it’s beef or bust for the most part, though on my night they do some nice things with chanterelles and artichokes (not together). Basically, if it can be done in a single pan or over a fire, it’s probably worth ordering; otherwise, exercise caution. As for the steak on which one facestuffs here, it’s cooked with confidence and skill exactly as I’d have wished it. I could, I suppose, quibble with prices that seem a bit lavish, but then again it is a steakhouse, and is also as much a site on the tourist map as an actual restaurant these days. Best, I think, to just assume that the premium is for the experience rather than just the food.

And as for the experience…my waitress is worth any premium they wish to charge. For every quip she has a comeback, for every challenge a hilarious, smart-assed reply that would split my sides had the giant piles of meat not already accomplished same. Stories of tossing drunks in the back of her pickup abound. I’d have been pleased with the meal in any case, but she’s responsible for its elevation to pure joy.

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2008 Pinot Noir “Hometown” (Santa Barbara County) – Squared-off, blocky pinot noir in a varietal straightjacket. That’s neither criticism nor praise, exactly, but this wine tastes like someone averaged out all the pinot noir from “here,” left out most of the adjustments and/or trappings, and just presented the results as wine. (11/11)

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2001 Pinot Noir Julia’s (Santa Maria Valley) – Dusty morels and more intense, freshly-plucked porcini bind with pie fruit (that is to say: there’s an oven-warmed quality to it). This is fully knit and, I’d say, fully mature, even though I don’t expect it to fall apart immediately. A lack of full expression is, I think, inherent to the wine rather than to any artifact of age or storage; while I welcome the fact that the wine wasn’t pushed towards the caricature that afflicts so many of its neighbors, it also tastes as if it wasn’t pushed to the fullest expression of its own inherency, which is something I’d identify as somewhat of a house style at Hartley Ostini. In a way it’s a good thing, considering the alternatives, but one could also wish for just a bit more. (11/11)

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2006 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley) – Bruising. Only a vague sense of restraint (or fear) separates this from the punishing perils of Pinot Port. The alcohol isn’t too unrestrained given the overall burl of the wine, but the fruit is dark and somewhat gelatinous, the structure an almost cartoonish 100-pound falling weight, and the body the kind one fears is only achievable via the sort of secretive modern science for which athletes must pee in cups. Not that I think that’s what they’ve done here. But I do think this is a wine for people who usually find Hartley Ostini pinots overly transparent, and I am not one of those people. (11/11)

Disclaimer: the last wine is an off-menu selection offered by the hostess and poured by the glass for the entire table, but for which we are not charged.

An inferno in the darkness

Concurrence and dissent. Identification and iconoclasm. On the one hand, but then again on the other. Is it true that, as Jeremy Parzen suggests, that “the English-language dialectic on Natural wine is misguided”?

No. And yes.

The natural wine conversation goes in cycles…for, against, for, against…and while I don’t expect this to change anytime soon, we’ve now moved into a more tiresome phase in which the subject is less natural wine and more how we talk about natural wine, or (worse) who talks about natural wine. On wine fora, we used to call this “talking about talking about wine.” It was considered the final stage of the entropic dissolution of any once-useful topic then, and it should be now.

(And yes, I’ve done my part to speed the decay.)

But when even the Solomon-like (Parzen’s characterization, which I think applicable) Eric Asimov is drawn into the debate, the heat-death of the natural wine universe is surely nigh. Must everyone now weigh in with an opinion on this issue? Scold and counter-scold?

Yet here I am doing just that. Again. I guess I can’t resist a good gathering, especially when there’s wine involved.

I must, with some regret, dissent with my friend Jeremy’s geographic characterization of the natural wine conversation. Ask Michel Bettane about natural wine. Get Pierre Trimbach and Jean-Pierre Frick in a room together (you might want to remove objects both blunt and sharp, first). Gather la famiglia Zanusso, Aleš Kristančič, and a regional industrialist of one’s choice at a lunch table, prime the conversation with a few bottles of friulano or rebula, and watch the radicchio fly in all directions. Or ask around in Germany, where you’ll likely be met by a formalized Teutonic variation on “why the hell would anyone want to do that?”

Nonetheless, there have been points scored on all sides. There actually is a fair bit of rhetorical nonsense flung from the catapults, the debris from which has damaged the entire conversation. To Asimov’s point that the relative scarcity of natural wine makes the volume and tenor of the response nonsensically hyperbolic…well, I’ve been saying that all along, so obviously I agree. In an ideal world, both the heat and quantity of argument regarding natural wine would instead be turned against the true industrialists, the chemical stews that litter supermarkets, and…if we must talk about talking about wine…the critics that unquestioningly support them.

Here’s where the pro-natural “side” (I dislike that term) has a point or two: the pushback against natural wine is, in the majority, commercially motivated. That the lawyerly (I adore Asimov’s term) need to pin naturalistas down to specific statements of practice so that they can then be battered into caricature is not born of a lifelong adoration for purity of principle. And if someone claims otherwise, and that person is in the wine business, I ask them to first offer fully-described and rigidly-bounded definitions of “ripe” and “balanced”…words I’m fairly certain they have not eschewed in their discourse. Then get back to me regarding the definitional haziness of “natural.”


No, it’s because natural wines aren’t cutting into Constellation Brands’ profits. They’re instead making a scalpel-sized incision – and really, no more than that – into the market share of wineries who sell not by capturing shelf space, but by capturing imagination. Their market is the person who might pick up a bottle of Inoculated Yeast Family Vineyards Syrah, but is instead talked into trying the Sans Soufre Père & Fils Saint-Joseph. Case-purchasers of animal-label shiraz are interested in neither.

But is this a legitimate fear? I doubt it. First of all, the actual supply of natural wines is miniscule at best, anecdotal at worst, and verging on mythical if one doesn’t live in a very small number of places with the market to support such oenological ephemerae. Second, just by their, uh, nature, natural wines aren’t going to appeal to everyone; the (over-hyped) accusations of biological and/or organoleptic eccentricity are not without merit. And third, natural wines aren’t, even at the extent of imagination, damaging the reputation or the commercial desirability of the most sought-after wines.

In other words, if you’re worried about sales, or worried about having to answer a few hard questions about how you make wine from a few interested consumers, there’s an easy solution: make better wine. Then you don’t need to care. Or, more charitably, you can let your wines speak for themselves.

On the other hand, there is an unpleasant level of religiosity to some of the pro-natural text. Finding winemakers who are so devout that they will spout scientific nonsense, call their neighbors’ wines “poison” not because of excess chemicals in the vineyard but because of minor differences of opinion in cellar practice…or worse…isn’t all that hard. (Nor is finding a neighbor that will call said high priest of naturalism an idiot, which I’m fairly sure doesn’t help smooth over the antagonism.)

Amongst the commentariat the failings are a little different, though the above issues are hardly unknown. One of the key skills any specialist writer has to develop – the earlier the better, but it takes all of us a while – is a healthy skepticism regarding cause and effect. There are many paths to quality wine, and none has unassailable historical or chemical legitimacy. Far too many writers on the subject of natural wine repeat and enhance the aforementioned scientific nonsense and religious doctrine, though whether it’s because they’re members of the sect or because they don’t know how to adjudicate the claims I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, as the effect is the same. Writing “this is what winemaker X does” is an essential contribution to a conversation. Writing “this is what winemaker X does, and this is the best way to make wine and express terroir” is a matter of opinion on which people can disagree. On the other hand, writing “this is what winemaker X does, because what winemaker Y does has the following deleterious effects” requires that the writer have their facts straight regarding both the winemakers and the science. Which, unfortunately, is not the case as often as it should be. If one is going to be an advocate, one must secure the lectern to its foundation.

Another key skill for the writer is a healthy skepticism for the easy conflation of palate and practice. I am frequently dismayed at the narrow universe of consumption practiced by some of the most strident advocates for natural wine. (To be sure, a similarly-limited worldview is responsible for the major failings of nearly all wine writers…certainly including myself…but they’re not the subject of this essay.) One may certainly prefer natural wines for reasons ranging from philosophical to aesthetic. But when you’ve worked yourself into a position where you cannot understand, explain, or even acknowledge the affection for paradigmatic wines, when you must deride them for what they are or how they’re made without reference to how they actually taste, you have lost yourself in doctrine and have stopped thinking. Obviously, no one need like a given wine, or even restrain their criticism of a wine that they don’t like, no matter how acclaimed it is. But people with the most strongly-held and virulently-expressed opinions too often crawl inside their own worldviews, at which point they can no longer see outside them.

The rising volume of this wearying debate is why I have long advocated for a dissolution of divisions. There is a market for natural wines, and there is a market for everything else, and rarely do the twain meet. But why not? The context of natural wine is not other natural wines, it is wine. All wine. Natural, no matter how fuzzy the definition, means nothing without its counterpoint, and cannot be understood without a complete view of the spectrum on which it resides. And this is as true for the advocacy (or criticism) thereof as it is for the wines themselves.

More fundamentally, most people do not drink doctrine, they drink wine. As they should. One may be an enthusiastic advocate for natural wines as both a movement and a commercial product while still, in the majority, consuming wines that reside outside that movement. The failure to engage with this reality is an error endlessly repeated on all sides, though with more stridency from the natural wine commentariat, and it represents a lost opportunity. One cannot engage in a conversation about natural wines, especially the essential aesthetic one, if those wines will not leave the comforting embrace of their congregation, and that congregation will not leave the thick stone walls of its church.

But the ultimate failure, most certainly not restricted to the English contribution thereto, is that we talk far too much about right and wrong, about good and bad. We are strangely compelled to assign value, after which ranking and dismissal is all too easy. Instead, we should be talking about how, and we should be talking about why, and we should pause after each challenge to allow the universe of answers their space.

On the other hand, maybe the best solution of all is to stop talking. Because what advocate can make a better case for a wine than the wine itself? A wine, like all wines, of clarity and contradiction, but lacking the destructive human impulse to be right. That does not debate or criticize, but instead makes a simple claim: “here I am. Everything that I want to say is contained within in this bottle. The rest of the story is up to you.”

Are we not men? We are Beckmen!

harvest at beckmenBeckmen – It’s November 17th, and newly-harvested grapes are awaiting their crush.

November 17th.

Pushing blackened opinions about Californians and “ripeness” aside – and Beckmen is hardly considered a prime offender in this regard – I proceed to the last tasting of what’s been a relatively full day on the tourist (rather than wine pro) schedule. It’s nice, at least, to be at an actual winery surrounded by actual vines, rather than in a purpose-built tasting room in a cold warehouse or over-quainted village center.

As closing time approaches, I’m forced to race through the wines. I certainly don’t blame them for wanting to go home (or more likely, in this case, go help with the grapes), but it does make for much shorter encounters – and thus, notes – than I’d prefer.

Beckmen 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley) – Ripe and green, heavy on the gooseberries. Solid.

Beckmen 2007 Roussanne Purisma Mountain (Santa Ynez Valley) – Rich and smooth. Spiced nuts. This wine reeks of confidence.

Beckmen 2010 Grenache Rosé Purisma Mountain (Santa Ynez Valley) – Very fruity. A bit of a bomblet, really. A raspberry neutron bomblet.

Beckmen 2009 “Le Bec Blanc” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Roussanne, marsanne, grenache blanc. Faded grass. Exceedingly simple-minded.

Beckmen 2008 Grenache Purisma Mountain (Santa Ynez Valley) – Spiced bubblegum. A strongly fruit-dominated wine – hello, grenache – that carries right through a fairly long finish. It’s one-note, but it’s a pleasant note.

Beckmen 2009 “Barrel Select Cuvée” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Wonderfully pure fruit. With meat. And tannin. The brevity of what precedes understates the quality: this is a very good, albeit forward, wine.

Beckmen 2009 “Estate” Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley) – Juice. Very acidic (in a good way), but this is more like syrah-ade than it is a wine. I don’t mind, really, but it’s…eclectic.

Beckmen 2008 Syrah Purisma Mountain (Santa Ynez Valley) – Big shoulders carrying heavy tannin, and bending a bit under the weight. A touch weedy. The peppery finish is pleasant, but everything isn’t in sync here.

Beckmen 2008 Syrah Purisma Mountain Block 6 (Santa Ynez Valley) – Dark, sweaty, and dense. Tarred, but definitely not feathered. The finish is distressingly reminiscent of paper turning to ashes.

Beckmen 2008 Syrah Purisma Mountain “Clone #1” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Big, round raspberries. Other than that, it just sort of sits there. I’d think more of this wine if I didn’t know its price.

Highs & lows

pelicanAlta Maria – A pure drop-in, at a winery (it might be slightly more correct to call this a project) of which I’ve never heard after the beyond-enthusiastic recommendation of the behind-the-counter guy at Qupé.

Unfortunately, his description does not fully, or in fact even partially, conform to what I taste. The wines aren’t bad at all, for the most part, but there’s nothing particularly special about most of them either. Euphemasia quickly sets in, and by the end there’s also a sort of strange fascination…like being tied to a chair while watching a Michael Bay film.

Alta Maria 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley) – Grapes. This tastes like grapes. Mixed apples, crisp enough but softening residual sugar (not, analytically, much at all…yet it’s quite detectable), and grapes.

Alta Maria 2009 Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley) – Green fig, ripe tangerine. Good acidity and a deft use of wood. Long and solid.

Alta Maria 2009 Pinot Noir Rancho Ontiveros (Santa Maria Valley) – Blood orange and plum. Medium-bodied. Central Otago-ish. I like it, but it’s a bit of a stumbler.

Native9 2009 Pinot Noir Rancho Ontiveros (Santa Maria Valley) – Big and leathery, with just about the darkest fruit one can extract from pinot noir. Very long, with steady and impenetrable density throughout. This is massive, but it’s also a very good wine.

Native9 2008 Pinot Noir Rancho Ontiveros (Santa Maria Valley) – Liquorous cough syrup heavy on the menthol, plus massive tannin that hasn’t quite escaped its green stage.

Alta Maria 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Ynez Valley) – Were this from a more recent vintage, the appellation would apparently be Happy Canyon. A mix of ripe and green tannin…and if the first thing I write about a wine is a description of its tannin, one can assume they’re prominent…chocolate, and cloves. Note, also, that I haven’t actually mentioned anything in the fruit realm; between tannin and barrel, there’s not much else to this.

Autonom 2008 “Rhône Cuvée” (California) – The winery web site’s description of this wine:

A subtle Violettes de Toulouse aroma is captive to a prominent Chambord and white pepper presences which makes this wine appear like a beast. On the palate, however, the Grenache and Mourvedre expand the richness of the Syrah to create salivating flavors of strawberries, pomegranate and cranberry relish which all transition into a brandied char which gives lift and added dimensions to the finish.

While I suppose I can’t top that (and why would I try? it sounds disgusting, like someone let an arsonist loose in a speakeasy), I also can’t endorse it. Can I? My notes speak of chocolate, booze, chocolate, spice, chocolate, blueberry and blackberry syrups, chocolate, jam, chocolate, makeup, and chocolate. So, actually, maybe I’d prefer their version.

Autonom 2008 “Law of Proportions” Syrah (California) – Smells like breakfast: bacon, blackberry syrup, brioche. Pretty good acidity (hmmmm), spice, and berry skin tannin in pulsing waves. An assault rifle of a wine.

Do not go gentle into that good Nacido

santa barbara mission urnQupé/Verdad/Ethan – Old reliable and the interlopers. No, not really. But as venerable as the Qupé name is, ’round these parts, the two relatives – for that’s what the other wineries are: labels belonging to scions and shoots of Qupé’s Lindquist family – create a somewhat jumbled picture when viewed (or tasted) together. Stylistic threads are hard to untangle.

Plus, there’s a lot of wine being made here. I don’t even scratch the surface, despite a fairly broad tasting, and as the genesis seesaws between the Rhône and various parts of Spain, I leave less sure of what I’ve experienced than I was before I entered. But this is why one tastes, right?

Verdad 2010 Grenache Rosé Sawyer Lindquist (Edna Valley) – Raspberry bubblegum. Texturally rich (aided by the strong impression of sweetness) with decent acidity. Not bad, not great.

Qupé 2010 “Bien Nacido Cuvée” (Santa Maria Valley) – Viognier and chardonnay, the former deliberately picked ripe and the latter deliberately picked underripe. I understand why they do this, even absent their explanation, but to my palate they’re still not getting what they appear to want. Peach blossom and the typically lurid flower-based soap aromas to which viognier is so susceptible and into which it is so easily pushed. Dense and sticky. The acidity comes through on the finish, but by then it’s a bit too late. Whatever trick they wish to use to re-introduce acidity into a blowsy, lurid viognier, they’re going to have to find a way to get it better-integrated with the wine at a far earlier stage.

Verdad 2010 Albariño Sawyer Lindquist (Edna Valley) – Big, sticky almonds with spice and preserved lemon. A bit of almond skin as counterpoint. Very bronzed…almost ambered, in fact…with a heavy, beeswax-textured finish. Good acidity. This is quite credible.

Qupé 2009 “Los Olivos Cuvée” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Syrah, mourvèdre, grenache. Sweat, bubblegum, peppered mushroom. Thanks, varities, for each contributing something. Fairly deft, with good balance. Marred by green-tinged tannin.

Verdad 2009 Graciano Ibarra-Young (Santa Ynez Valley) – Burnt aromas, tutti-frutti flavors. Are we sure this is graciano? Because it tastes like Purple Nurple (the drink, not the bullying technique). Finishes short and bitter, and ultimately that’s kind of a blessing.

Ethan 2009 Syrah Sawyer Lindquist (Edna Valley) – Black pepper and coal (in rock, rather than its usual dust, form). And then things get ugly: well-toasted spices heavy on clove, spiced cherry pie, and all the sickly trappings of modernity. There are wines (though few syrahs) that can take this sort of theatrical makeup, but this isn’t one of them.

Qupé 2007 Syrah Alisos (Santa Barbara County) – Luscious. Blackberry smoke, morel, earth. Gorgeous and very elegant. This is how to do a modern-leaning syrah while not losing one’s soul in the process.

Qupé 2008 Syrah Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley) – Rich mixed fruit, crushed black and blue berries, soft coal dust, some lingering toast, and a persistent touch of finishing oxidation. I inquire, but the bottle hasn’t been open long; perhaps the damage existed before uncorking. In any case, I don’t think this is fully intact.

Qupé 2007 Syrah Bien Nacido Hillside Estate (Santa Maria Valley) – Ripe. Blackness of both the berried and peppered varieties. Lots of tannin. This is not only made for the long haul, it’s already holding a non-refundable ticket.

Petered out

santa barbara mission baptismal fontPetros – Silence. Dark, anything-but-decrepit silence. Such a change from the Lazy Ox

I’d assumed that lunch in the midst of heavy-duty wine tasting would be some sort of California cuisine accompanied by a glass or two of local wine. I didn’t expect ambitious Greek food in an elegant setting. And I certainly didn’t expect to be dining in what I now find, poking about the internet, is a Fess Parker establishment. Will I ever live it down?

But what’s more baffling is the utter lack of patronage. I mean, sure, it’s neither cheap, quick, nor casual, and I suspect all three are what many wine country tourists are after. But there is only one other table occupied during my lunch, and its occupants…well, let’s just say that as they sit in utter silence, gnawing the decaying threads of a meal, it’s possible that after ninety-plus years (each) they’ve run out of things to say.

I hope, at least, that they enjoyed lunch. Because the food here is really very good. Greek cuisine has not, as a rule, scaled well in the…pardon me…pantheon of borrowed European cuisines. It does not take to fancifying or airs, and while I don’t know if that’s the fault of the practitioners or the cuisine itself, I rather suspect the bulk of the blame lies with the source material. As with certain regional Italian cuisines (though not all of them), Greek dishes really seem to prefer to be left to their own relatively simple devices. At which point the entirety of one’s success with the cuisine comes down to shopping and basic cooking techniques. Both are done well here.

I’ve no complaints about the service either, though I suppose it’s not hard to manage a nearly-empty dining room. As for the wine list, it’s neatly balanced between the local and the non-formulaic Grecian. Someone has put some work into this list, some curation to help ease these unfamiliar wines onto diners’ tables. Of course, I can’t quite resist either temptation…

Brander 2009 Sauvignon Blanc “au Naturel” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Green, biting sauvignon blanc with some razors thrown in for structural intensity. Yet surprisingly expansive, for all that cutting and slashing. Good? Hmmm… (11/11)

Monemvasia 2009 Peloponnese Moschofilero (Greece) – Light and insubstantial, offering a wan gesture in the direction of flowers and white sand. Is this a contextual effect from drinking it amidst a bevy of blowsy California wines? Perhaps in part, but there’s still just not much to it. (11/11)

Livin’ on Blues power

jesus & maryLongoria – Many years ago, Rick Longoria brought a few of his wines to a tasting in Boston. I remember being extremely impressed, across the board. The Blues Cuvée label I remember well was for the 2000 vintage, so I’d guess it was shortly after that. In any case, I remember the wines, and specifically the pinot noirs, as being exemplars of the counter-argument to what became the region’s dominant identity: that restraint was an available choice, rather than a rejection of the demands of the terroir. By now, just about any interested party knows the names of the ripeness-seeking and the names of the alternatives, but back then it was a little less clear to those of us who didn’t live in the region.

The demands of the market were a different story, of course, and eventually my local availability dried up and the wines existed only in memory (and in the few bottles still resting in my cellar). A very fond one, though.

Longoria 2010 Pinot Grigio (Santa Barbara County) – Herbed green apple, crisp and clean. Very, very clean. There’s as much light in this wine as there is fruit. (11/11)

Longoria 2009 Pinot Noir Rancho Santa Rosa (Santa Rita Hills) – 13.4%. Rough and rustic, definitely unpolished; a wine more about potential than form. The balance and material (quantitatively) seem to be there, but it’s all a jumble at the moment. (11/11)

Longoria 2008 Pinot Noir Fe Ciega (Santa Rita Hills) – 14.2% Earthen, blossoming into a more expressive form of earthfruit (morel and cèpe, that is). Supple, complex, and decidedly Old World in inspiration. I adore this wine.(11/11)

Longoria 2008 Tempranillo Clover Creek (Santa Ynez Valley) – 15%. Huge black fruit, round and polished. Wonderful, but it’s a decadent sort of wonder; those in search of restraint will find only a modicum here, though there are certainly much bigger tempranillos being produced elsewhere in the area. (11/11)

Longoria 2009 “Blues Cuvée”(Santa Barbara County) – 13.7%, a blend of cabernet franc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec (according to the web site; in the tasting room I’m told something quite different involving tempranillo). After a decade between tastes of this cuvée, it’s interesting to come back to what I thought I knew, filtered through all the intervening experiences into the context of what I know now. The wine’s just as good. No, actually, it’s better. Herbs, blueberries, terrific acidity, and fetish vinyl tannin stretched but not strained by the fruit. Excellent balance for such a big wine. Very impressive. (11/11)

Longoria 2008 Syrah Alisos (Santa Barbara County) – 15.2%. Somewhat reduced, which makes it difficult to taste. But there’s muscularity to the blackberry-dominated fruit that powers through the difficulty. Smokes up a bit at the end. This might be excellent, but I’d need a less reduced sample to know more. (11/11)

Longoria 2009 Syrah “Vino Dulce” (Santa Ynez Valley) – 375 ml, 18%. Moderate volatile acidity, blueberry, blackberry. Sweet, fruity fun. (11/11)

In the Ghetto

brother juniperPalmina – I’ve watched what this winery has done over the years with a certain interest, because a bottle here and there has been worth the attention (rarely the same one, year to year), but also with a certain hesitance (for reasons spelled out here). Nonetheless, if one is at the semi-infamous “Lompoc Ghetto,” passing on Palmina seems like an extremely arbitrary snub when there’s very likely to be something worthwhile within. So why not?

Palmina 2007 Nebbiolo (Santa Barbara County) – Floral, with moderately solid tannin and surprisingly juicy fruit (cherry and blackberry, mostly); it’s as if the wine dips and weaves between what one expects from the grape and what one expects from the place. The texture is creamy at first, but as the primary aromatics fade just about all that’s left is corpulence. Not bad, but not particularly good either. (11/11)

Palmina 2006 Nebbiolo Stolpman (Santa Ynez Valley) – Mocha and blueberry confections with a solid wall of dusty tannin. Really, though, its inability to get one foot out of the dessert tray is its undoing.  A shame, too, as I’ve liked this wine a great deal in the past. (11/11)

Palmina 2006 Nebbiolo Sisquoc (Santa Maria Valley) – Freshly-crushed fruit, dark and forward, buried under a shower of funereal black lilies. Earthy and a bit bitter. Despite the forward fruit, there’s a persistent inner herbality and won’t – and shouldn’t – go away. It’s a little strange (OK, a lot strange), but I really kind of like it. At the very least, nebbiolo appears to be attempting to make some sort of contribution here. (11/11)

Palmina 2006 Nebbiolo Honea (Santa Ynez Valley) – Soft tannin and elastic juice, with layers of lacticity. Dead-ish; it’s still very present, but there’s no form or content to the presence. Completely uninteresting. (11/11)

A lineup of wines that, it seems to me, say an awful lot about Palmina, a reasonable bit about their sites, and really almost nothing about why nebbiolo rather than, say, agiorgitiko needs to be used here.

Counting sleep

santa barbara missionBallard Inn – Wine countries (by which I don’t mean countries that make wine) have their centers of gravity. Ideally more than one. And so it is that anyone visiting the scattered clusters of vineyards more or less near Santa Maria will probably choose from one of the most obvious basing options. Solvang’s nearly parodic Scandinavian revival, full of hotels both sleek and silly, yet dotted with wine bars, restaurants, and all the temptations of trinketdom? The artificial yet eminently sensible tasting room huddlings of Los Olivos? Or why not the lovely, albeit lengthy, drive in from Santa Barbara’s lavish luxury?

Hey…how about a innocuous little hamlet with no wineries at all, and what seems like one church per resident? Probably not. And yet, querying long-time locals, that’s exactly where I’m directed, over and over.

One comes to the Ballard Inn for several reasons, among them its tranquil isolation. Of course, there’s a major utility project going on right out front, and though attempts are made to mitigate the din it does shatter the promised tranquility somewhat. But a proper inn it is, with all the charming periodicity one could want, and some very comfortable rooms. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the inn ever since, several years ago, they’d volunteered a full refund despite a very last-second cancellation due to a family emergency. I vowed I’d return one day.

The natives, though, don’t just name the inn for its lodging. Nice rooms can be had elsewhere in the valleys. The primary focus is on the restaurant, said by more than a few to be offering the best cooking in the area. Well, let’s hope.

Before dinner, there are communal libations, a fine tradition to which much attention is rarely paid anymore.

Kalyra 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley) – Sauvignon-by-numbers. A little too big for its own good, but perfectly decent. (11/11)

Firestone 2009 Riesling (Central Coast) – Yep, tastes like riesling. Off-dry riesling. Not really much more to say about it, aside from the somewhat chemical turn it takes as it lingers. (11/11)

Carina Cellars 2007 Syrah (Santa Barbara County) – Identifiably pinot noir syrah, with smoke and dark berries. There are flecks of char and dark chocolate shavings, though, and in the end it doesn’t really amount to much. (11/11)

Though the cocktail hour is on the early side, most of the inn’s other residents proceed more or less immediately to dinner; not all of them have the excuse of belonging to the super-senior set, either. As a result, I’m the last one in and, inevitably, the last one out. At the entirely indecent hour of 9 p.m. Well, at least there’ll be plenty of opportunity to sleep.

As for dinner itself, it’s all that’s been promised. Nothing cantankerous, but with a surprising nose-to-tail element creeping onto the menu, everything cooked well and served knowledgably. That includes the wine list, which is a little on the pricey side but does fine work with the local fermenteds…any alternative to which I couldn’t possibly consider while in the area.

Calzada Ridge 2010 Viognier (Santa Ynez Valley) – This is entirely nice, with fresh, flowery fruit. Not much of a finish. (11/11)

Arcadian 2006 Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow (Santa Maria Highlands) – With the caveat that I rarely have much good to say about New World chardonnay unless it comes from Kalin, Rhys, or Varner/Neely, and with the corollary caveat that this is very much a New World chardonnay, there’s a lot here to like: the peachy fruit, thick and rich with roundness and polish, is fulsome enough to resist the minor trappings of caramel dip and buttery drizzle to which this grape is so often treated. Moreover, there’s acidity, and it’s well-integrated. It’s big – very big – and though I think the wine will develop and mature in a mostly pleasant way, I think that size will loom the greater as time passes. (11/11)

Arcadian 2006 Pinot Noir “Jill’s Cuvée” (Santa Maria Valley) – Starts pianissimo, with just a few little bursts of ripe, reddish fruit. These develop into a theme, then a theme with variations, as decorative contrapuntal nut shavings and wet soil aromas enter the work. What starts in subtlety ends in restrained lushness, full-fruited but with elegance that does not diminish even as a piercing trill of acidity rings and echoes long into the coda. There is still an air of rehearsal to this wine, and more work and refinement yet to come, and it will probably never be the most complex of works. But appealing? Oh, yes. You’ll find yourself humming the melody the following day. (11/11)

Gehrs 2008 “Fireside” Port (Amador County) – A very simple idea of port, sweet with dried berries and a late-palate burn of alcohol, but bringing little else to the concept beside the name and the fundamentals of technique. (11/11)

Breakfast the next morning is just as delicious. The following morning, however, is a bit of a disaster; despite arriving nearly fifteen minutes before the close of breakfast, they claim that it’s too late (as if I don’t own a time-telling device), then offer a decidedly uninventive fib that they’d done a head count and determined that everyone had already been served. Since there aren’t more than a dozen guests in the entire inn, that seems a dim view to take of their skill with arithmetic, but…well, rather than argue, I just take my coffee and leftover fruit and go. It does certain damage to my otherwise rosy view of the inn, however, and despite a complaint at checkout they don’t seem particularly apologetic. So while I would still recommend the place, I’d also recommend being on the very early side for breakfast. Or maybe buy the staff an abacus.

Butcher, writer, winemaker

Never watch sausage being made.

That few want to know what goes into sausage is, I suppose, taken for granted by those who don’t. But most food-enthusiasts absolutely do want to know…not just what’s in the sausage, but how it’s made. There would be dismay over poor ingredients, yes, but as much or more from watching good raw material mauled into something unrecognizable via sloppy practice or an excess of adulteration. Who wants to pay the premium for a wild boar sausage if it’s indistinguishable from plain pork? What’s the purpose of using a top-notch source of veal and then studding it with stale dried herbs?

(…transitions are for amateurs….)

The Lord of the Rings was, and is, an important book to me. The first time I read it, I was a little too young to follow more than the frontline narrative, and I suspect that’s part of why regular and enjoyable re-readings continue to this day: each time, I find something I’d glossed in the past. Such understanding has, admittedly, been greatly aided by also owning and reading the vast library of revisioning and background material that has gradually been made available by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Watching this particular sausage being made led to greater admiration for the result.

When the news first broke, years ago, of a live-action filmic version – I’d seen the fascinatingly muddled animated hack job back in the day – I felt the same mixed emotions as most long-time Tolkien fans. Emotions which were mostly borne out by the results, as the films alternated between painstaking recapturing and inexplicable revisionism. On balance, though, and with innumerable complaints small and large to the side, I was pleased with the results. It wasn’t always The Lord of the Rings, no, but it was a pretty good cover version.

As a fan and completist, it was only natural that I had to own the extended-cut DVDs when they came out, in all their lingering and bonus-materialed glory. But my fellow fanatics who’d sat down with them before I had offered a warning: don’t listen to the writers’ commentary tracks.

Perhaps inevitably, I failed to follow their advice. I wanted another trip to the sausage factory. And anyway, I’d already seen the results, hadn’t I? What they’d gotten right and what they’d gotten so spectacularly wrong? How much worse could it be? Well, I suppose I should have listened. Few of the perturbations to the original text were as infuriating as listening to how they came about, explanations which the writers were extremely eager to provide in detail.

Changes necessitated by a shift in media – book to film – didn’t bother me that much. The book, as written and without a word or scene altered, isn’t filmable. I’d understood going in that there would be shortcuts and additions made to pump up the action, to sharpen conflicts, to elevate emotional climaxes, and so forth. I didn’t even mind a little bit of alteration to better suit modern norms (which, I knew even before the movies were filmed, would mean bigger and better roles for women than are evident in the book, though much of this material could be mined from appendices and supplementary texts).

What set my teeth a-grating was how changes always begat more changes to “make up for” a now-insensible narrative that only existed because of the original changes. How disbelief in a character’s motivations (as written) wrought small changes early in the story, then required massive, deformative changes later in the story. How caricature-like inventions were defended as logical inevitabilities when the original alterations that required this logic weren’t necessary in the first place. Worse were the number of times regret was expressed at one of these later, cumulative alterations; as the filming progressed, the sense of closer fidelity to the text had frequently been seen and attempted, but was often rendered impossible by earlier, committed-to-film alterations. Thus requiring even more severe changes to return a story or character back to some vaguely-recognizable place.

(…transitions are still for amateurs…)

Which, of course, brings me to wine.

One of the more aggravating dances in the natural wine debate is the one over the word “intervention.” The standard comeback – “isn’t all wine a product of intervention?” – is true, trite, and deliberately obfuscatory. The latter because, as I’ve written at numbing length elsewhere, the debate isn’t a Manichaean choice between asceticism and the kitchen sink, but rather the purpose and degree of intervention.

Intervention springs from two sources: the urge to intervene, and other interventions. The former is something I’ve written about a lot, and so I’ll just summarize the argument here: there are those who prefer to not intervene unless complete failure is the alternative, there are those for whom intervention is an essential and inevitable tool, and there’s a vast spectrum of practice in between those extremes. But the important difference between those endpoints is real, and not dismissable by dull-witted clichés like “all wine is intervention.” The latter (“other interventions”) provides the foundation for many debates between the divergent camps. But it’s a foundation oft-unspoken, even oft-unrecognized. And it’s worth, amidst all this talk of sausages and epic fantasy, a closer look.

Everyone has different ideas of what constitutes balance in a wine. Everyone has their own ideals of taste. And there is no settling a debate that hinges on trying to find the “correct” expression of a wine (though that doesn’t mean the debate isn’t worth airing; there’s always much to learn). Thus, any examination of this idea will rest on personal preferences, and so here are mine. Others will begin with different assumptions:

  • One grape should not taste like another. The differences between grapes should be expressed rather than obscured. If this is not an important goal, then why use anything other than the cheapest, easiest-to-grow grape that can be wrestled into the desired frame?
  • One site or place, if identified, should not taste like another. The organoleptic differences collated and defined as terroir should be allowed expression. If this is not an important goal, then site designation should be abandoned as deliberately misleading marketing chicanery, and the cheapest serviceable blend should be found from wherever on the globe can supply such a thing.
  • The more interventions required in the vineyard, cellar, and bottling line to achieve the winemaker’s goals, the less suited the grape and site are for that winemaker’s purposes. It is then worth asking, if said winemaker continues to work with the same grape and site, why he or she does so. Because the inherent qualities of either are clearly not important.

And so, an example: a grape, famous elsewhere and with a historical reputation for quality, planted in a new place. Most years, it’s a struggle to get the grape to the ripeness that the winemaker seeks. Sugars aren’t high enough, acids are too high and of the wrong type, flavors are undeveloped. There exist many ways to encourage the various sorts of ripeness by manipulating the vine, and these methods have been employed with marginal improvement. Thus, the vaster array of winemaking manipulations have been employed – acid adjustments, targeted yeasts and nourishment for those yeasts, enzymatic treatments, chaptalization, and so forth…which doesn’t exclude the possibility of harsher interventions or flavor additions (of which time in new oak barrels would be the most common) from time to time.

The palatability of the result isn’t what concerns us in this thought experiment. Instead, questions of intent and identity are. Does this wine actually express anything of the grape from which it’s made? Even if the various techniques employed create a simulacrum of that character, I’d argue that it doesn’t. It’s no longer the grape, it’s a cover version thereof. An artist’s rendering.

So how about the site? Though a lot of attempts have been made to obliterate the site’s character, ultimately it’s unscrubbable from the finished wine because it’s that site’s interaction with the grape, filtered through the winemaker’s intent, that necessitates the cornucopia of interventions in the first place. That said, whatever the site may provide to the wine is no longer perceptually evident, so whether it exists in the finished wine or not is a purely theoretical question.

To summarize: it is, technically, a wine of its site. But there’s none of its site in it. And it is, technically, a wine of its grape and even has its grape in it, but no effort has been spared to hide this fact from the drinker. In other words, it’s a wine of neither grape nor site, but of intervention. Or more precisely, a wine of pure intent. And if intent could be fermented and bottled, rather than dealing with recalcitrant grapevines and laborious cellar machinations, I think everyone involved would choose to do so.

This question could be pursued down interesting philosophical lines for a while, but I’m more interested in the mechanistic ones, and to that end I’d say that one or more of three things are “wrong” – by which I mean inefficiently or mistakenly utilized – with this hypothetical product (which is, as we all know, far from hypothetical). One is that the grape is wrong for the site and intent. Two is that the site is wrong for the grape and intent. And the third is that the intent itself is misguided, a contention which can but does not necessarily depend on the other two: given the intent, the materials are unsuitable…a contention demonstrated by the number of tools necessary to manifest said intent.

It is this third possibility with which the philosophy of natural wine, of the rejection of intervention, is based. A true interventional minimalist would do nothing to these grapes before or after they entered the cellar, other than what’s necessary to transport grapes from vine to winery and to turn those grapes into wine, and the result would be what it would be. For better or worse. They might accept this, or they might find the result undrinkable (though given the biological eccentricities of some natural wines one never knows). But the solution would not be to find out which additional interventions would be required to wrest palatability from the source material, it would be to find better source material. A more suitable combination of grape and place from which a wine not demanding such interventions could be produced.

The non-interventionist tries to, as little as possible, consider the question “what do I want?” The important question is “what do I have?” Restricting one’s interest to the second question, one is not overly confronted with the interventionist’s constant companion, “how do I get there?” To grapple with intent is to have already lost the premise, for the “intent” is to avoid applying intention.

A few years ago, a studio and its employees made something they called The Lord of the Rings. From a legalistic standpoint, it actually was The Lord of the Rings because they’d paid the proper people for the rights to the source material. And at many, many points, they achieved a transparent expression of that material; different, yes, as a wine is different from a grape, but an obvious filmic representation of the story as it is known.

But at other points, they didn’t want to make The Lord of the Rings. They wanted to make a different movie, one more in line with their personal preferences or the alleged demands of the marketplace. And so they added, they deleted, and they changed. All things that any filmmaker does. Except that they had to make their not-The Lord of the Rings movie – their collection of personal intentions – saleable as The Lord of the Rings, which meant that they had to stitch the divergent threads of film back together. Sometimes this worked, but mostly it led to the most bothersome and inexplicable adulterations, necessitated less by the original text or the writers’ intentions, but by the need to integrate the two. Not only did such alterations rarely make sense, but the heavy makeup required to hide them usually showed despite the effort. Change “usually” to “always,” and that was the effect of listening to the writers’ commentary tracks. Which I continue to regret.

The seams and makeup of interventionist wine are more opaque to those not already macerating in the debate, just as changes to a movie are non-obvious to anyone not familiar with the book on which it’s based. But they’re there, easier to taste once you know of their existence, and un-ignorable – not, by the way, the same thing as organoleptically obvious – once you’ve been walked through a specific wine’s sausage-making adolescence. At which point one begins to think about not just results, but process and intent. They are related questions, but they are not the same questions. This is how interventionism itself can be, and is, separable from a debate about the effects of an intervention.

Again, this is something that dedicated interventionists claim to not understand. Isn’t the only thing that matters how the wine tastes? Whether it’s good or not?

When the context is only that sort of gut-level, purely subjective consideration, then yes it is. But that’s a really limited way to view wine. I don’t mean that it’s bad, or wrong, to live contentedly within that limitation, but rather to insist that it’s equally valid to view wine through other lenses. One may, with justification, find certain (or most, or all) interventions philosophically distasteful simply because they are alterations to the original text, regardless of the palatability of the finished product. The inevitable corollary is that it’s perfectly reasonable to like a wine less (or more) once one knows how it’s made. Practice matters. Fidelity matters. Intent matters. Not to everyone, and not to the same extent, but that’s not a refutation of the concept. It’s yet another in a series of personal choices.

I can, and do, enjoy The Lord of the Rings as a movie. I can struggle with it as a work of translated art. I can dislike it as a dull-witted misreading of the source material. I can adore the faithfulness of the art design and the brilliance of the effects while decrying the faithlessness of the script. And I can have those feelings enhanced, damaged, or changed when the curtain is pulled back and the sausage factory is revealed in all its abattoirial detail. I don’t have to choose just one way to respond to the films, especially the most reactionary and simplistic – are they good or bad? – and I don’t have to respond to wines that way either.

Those who care about sausage…or film, or wine…do sometimes want, even need, to know how it’s made.