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A Region's Wine Stars Define Its Quality

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 26, 2008 1:03pm ET

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.

Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  March 26, 2008 3:36pm ET
James,Sea Smoke has also not posted any winemakers tasting notes for their 06 offerings. Is that unusual for them?When can we expext to see your results for the Santa Barbara tastings?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  March 26, 2008 4:05pm ET
I agree - it would be nice to have all the Santa Barbara County wines tasted side by side. The problem is that The Wine Cask event isn't just a tasting - it's an event which sells futures. That means that the wineries have to commit a reasonable amount of wine to The Wine Cask to sell... and sometimes we don't have the inventory to support the event. I know Sea Smoke's production was down a little in 2006, and down a lot in 2007. My guess is they passed this year because they simply didn't have enough wine.

I think most wineries would love the opportunity to have barrel samples reviewed. It would provide consumers a good general idea of what to expect from upcoming releases. Granted nothing absolute, since we all know things can happen before the wine gets to bottle (good or bad).

Is it time to disassociate barrel tastings from commercial events? That would allow for a more complete overview... but could also make the workload exponentially harder. Is this a case of "be careful what you wish for"? :)
Robert Boyle
California —  March 26, 2008 9:49pm ET
I guess a lot of people will be flying blind on Sea Smoke this year. Their mailing list purchases are well underway, but we don't get the wine until May. They don't exactly have a tasting room. We were expecting to see some reviews or hoping to taste some 2006 pre-release. No Wine Cask offer. No sample to WS. No vintner's notes. Hmmm. Hopefully they are just concentrating their energy on making good wine.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 27, 2008 1:31am ET
Thanks as usual for the post, and I think it is spot on target. In order to truly assess a region, you have to try to take in as many examples of that region, including those that have blazed the path for all the newbies to be able to exist.

From what I understand, there are quite a few wineries that no longer participate in Wine Cask Futures that have in the past, for one reason or another. Others not there this year but that have been in the past besides Sea Smoke include Andrew Murray, Badge, Ampelos . . .

But getting back to the original premise - I'm certain you will do a comprehensive tasting of the region's 2006 offerings on the pinot and chardonnay side and 2005 and 2006 on rhone reds and whites, for instance, to truly assess the potential for the area.

For now, though, it will be fun to get a glimpse of what the area has to offer from a multitude of perspectives - from 'tried and true' names like Longoria, Jaffurs, Foxen, and Beckmen to newer ventures such as Blair Fox, Kaena, Municipal Winemakers and tercero wines (full disclosure - this is my label).

Keep up the great work, have fun tasting, and we'll all be looking forward to your soon-to-be-released notes! Cheers!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  March 27, 2008 9:41pm ET
Thanks for the tasting notes James! Since Jaffur's Syrah was a final score I decided to place an order (6 bottles and all) with the Wine Cask. Still hurts, but your tasting notes moved me to action on that one!
James Salvito
Santa Barbara —  March 29, 2008 9:30pm ET
I attended today's wine futures event in Santa Barbara. Specific comments pertaining to that event are in a comment on that thread.

Regarding this topic, I had discussions with several of the local winemakers about the difference between tasting barrel samples vs. in bottle but not released vs. post-release wines. A change from previous events is that some are now not tasting barrel samples as they have in the past since they feel the bottle samples are more representative of the final wines.

Tom Beckmen was one that was offering tastings of his barrel samples and referred to them as "raw and bruised" (although both Beckmen wines were excellent). A few other barrel samples I tasted were still undergoing fermentation and had a high RS content.

It seems that it definitely takes some palette-training to interpret what the final product might be, but the astute taster can certainly identify if the core structure, fruit, tannins and other components are present when tasting barrel samples.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 31, 2008 1:36pm ET

I think one other comment that has to be made on the subject is that winemakers are getting a better handle on how best to 'show' young barrel samples . . . It is possible to 'progress' these samples by macro-aerating them . . .

Just my $.02 . . .

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