Being a pioneer sounds exciting and adventuresome. Put your name in a sentence that describes you as a pioneer and you’ll probably feel pretty good about yourself. Fearless. Visionary. Leader. Creator.
But being a pioneer also means that you’ve probably stubbed your toe or bumped your head along the way. For all the glamour the word pioneer evokes, most pioneers have more than their share of setbacks and disappointments.
Still, these experiences are vital. In a youthful, rapidly changing wine world, plenty of vintners–young and old alike–are genuine trailblazers, and while they may not realize it, they’re leading the way for future generations. It’s hard for a thirtysomething winemaker to think of himself or herself as being the Robert Mondavi of their territory.
Yesterday, as I started tasting the Santa Barbara wine futures, I thought about how important it is to have a region's best wines, including the pioneers, in all the top tastings. For without the best wines, it’s harder to measure quality or progress, or even to compare vintages—especially in a young winegrowing area, as there’s a steep learning curve with grapegrowing and winemaking.
When critics taste Bordeaux futures, for example, they taste all the wines—and once they do that, they have a pretty good read on the vintage quality. Seeing the whole field is important.
In my situation, where only a few Santa Barbara wines are being sold as futures, many of the region’s top wineries that are selling futures didn’t want their young wines reviewed. The specific reasons don’t matter, whether their wines aren’t ready to show now or they’re concerned that a less-than-glowing review will hurt their wine’s chances of success in the marketplace.
One example: There were no Sea Smoke Pinot Noirs yesterday. In the past few barrel tastings, this winery has been a dominant presence, typically offering three great Pinot barrel samples, which ended up being just as great once they were finished, bottled wines. A few other top Pinots were missing from the tasting, which made the group as a whole less exciting than it might have been.
I’m not sure why Sea Smoke, whose winemaker, Kris Curran, left recently, didn’t participate. Since it’s a barrel tasting, the reason why matters less than making sure Sea Smoke is in the tasting of the finished wines (and it will be), because it is an important part of Santa Barbara's wine scene and one of its "grand cru" properties.