I admit I was excited with the notion of having to write the third (and final) instalment of my three-part story arc on our recent wine adventures in the USA featuring Santa Barbara.
A little backstory: When I first started studying wine through the WSET program, the idea of geography in relation to wine really interested me.
After getting my certificate and further immersing myself in wine movies and literature (#nerd), I decided to come up with a “list of wine places to go to before I die”. I managed to narrow it down to a list of 10, but my top 3 included (in no particular order) Burgundy, Concha Y Toro in Chile, and Santa Barbara California.
As followers of the blog would probably notice, at this point, I’ve already ticked two out of the three… So one could imagine how ecstatic I was when I found out I was actually going to Santa Barbara in October (of course, not because of the happiest of circumstances).
That said, what drew me to the area?
Was it because of what I knew of the place? Not really, even my WSET textbook mentioned the region being famous because of the film Sideways (a must-see for indie movie loving winos).
So… Was it because of the film? Not entirely (though I admit I wanted to embark on a similar search for the holy grail of Pinot Noir as the lead character did).
Funnily, what drew me to the region was one of my wine idols, Oz Clarke. I may have mentioned in a previous entry that one of my favourite wine documentary shows includes the adventures of Oz Clarke and James May.
I loved the first episode of the American leg because it showcased Santa Barbara in all its glory: Irreverent winemakers using borderline rebellious (but always revolutionary) methods to make beautiful Pinot Noir (they featured what they called “ghetto” winemakers from Lompoc, and Au Bon Climat).
Normally, the words “rebel” and “ghetto” are some of the farthest things that come to mind from the finicky grape that is forever associated with some of the most expensive wines of France (bonjour, Romanée Conti), so it’s easy to understand why I was intrigued.
These thoughts in my head, I decided to see for myself if these people are as radical as I’ve heard.
First stop, Dierberg.
Okay, I’m not being completely truthful… I should say it was our first half a stop, as we got ourselves lost on the way there. The GPS didn’t mention the winery having three properties: One in Santa Maria Valley AVA, one in Happy Canyon AVA (where we were supposed to end up), and another in Sta. Rita Hills AVA (where we ended up).
After the embarrassment and confusion (I was told that the winemaker was waiting for us and that, unfortunately, Happy Canyon was a bit of a drive away and that he couldn’t wait for me anymore, eek!), we were nonetheless entertained by the lovely people of the tasting room.
Dierberg is an interesting family estate in that they have properties in key areas of Santa Barbara, allowing them to showcase a diversity of style. It also allows them to illustrate classic expressions of each region: Santa Maria tends to produce restrained styles owing to their colder climate (because of the proximity of the water and fog, which is why they could concentrate on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and potentially Riesling), Sta. Rita Hills (whose name was largely protested by the Chilean winemakers of Viña Santa Rita) produces leaner styled wines because of the warmer climates (it is sheltered from the fog by the elevation), and the warmer climate in Happy Valley allows them to diversify by making wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, (a fuller style of) Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I ended up being partial to the Santa Maria Pinot Noir (because of the earthiness and restraint) and the Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc (my new official go-to Sauvignon Blanc after my love affair with Marlborough, Sancerre, and Casablanca).
Our second stop (we got it right this time!) was Cambria. I’ve written about the winery before, but I have to admit that the article showed an overview of the winery.
What I didn’t know was that they have made so much progress in manipulating clone wines that it was such an amazing learning experience for me.
By definition, clone (in viticulture) is “a single vine or a population of vines derived by vegetative propagation from cuttings or buds from a single ‘mother vine’ by deliberate clonal selection.” The names are, personally, pretty systematic… And honestly annoying. I mean, one has to remember that a certain number means it’s a clone of a specific region (clone 115 is a virus-free clone from Burgundy, clone 5 is Pommard, each one reflects a different style… I’m internally screaming just trying to process the information).
Fortunately, Nate Axline (Tasting Room Manager of Cambria) was there to help me decode the clone code (after I bent the ear off the poor lady behind the counter with my endless technical questions… Eek!), using their well curated selection of Pinot Noir clones that they don’t sell outside the cellar (because of limited quantities).
There was the “Class and Elegance” Clone 115 (Dijon), a famous clone reminiscent of the old world style. There was the “Complexity in a Glass” Clone 2A (Pommard) with its red fruit characteristics with vanilla spice. There was the powerful “Pinot with a Grip” Clone 23, which, after an exhaustive search, I couldn’t find outside of Cambria (I am welcome to be wrong if someone finds another winemaker producing Pinot with the clone 😉 ). My personal favourite, however, was “The Everything Pinot” Clone 4 (Pommard), because I was never at such a loss for words in describing a wine in my entire wine career. It was a Pinot that had red fruit notes, and cinnamon notes, and hints of vanilla, and pomegranates… All at the same time. My mind was completely blown.
After all is said and done, one might ask… Was it worth the trip? Was it worth putting Santa Barbara on my bucket list?
My answer is a wholehearted YES.
Although, I think I might go into a Pinot Noir phase for a while, so… Cheers!
A very, very special thanks to Ms. Katherine Yao-Santos of Happy Living Philippines for helping me fulfil one of my “wine bucket list” dreams. I am forever grateful. 🙂