My first “wine mentor” taught me a valuable lesson: no matter how you might analyze it, no matter what you might smell or taste or think about when you drink it, the reality of wine is that we’re talking about fermented grapes here. Period. That is it. That is all.
Of course that’s not it. Unless you’re a literalist.
Still, I always keep his advice in mind. Because, when you get into the minutiae of aging processes and terroire, wine maker’s and enthusiasts will have their own opinions – conflicting ideas over which winemaking processes will yield the best results are endless. These opinions matter though, and to know which opinions are better informed than others takes a lot of study and a lot of experience.
The thing that never changes is that you are working with and manipulating one ingredient: a grape.
I have a great palate. I’m not saying this to boast. I have proven my skills to well trained chefs and sommeliers by listing off components of a particular dish, the characteristics of a wine, or deriving delicious wine/food pairings. And I might as well give up a certain piece of information that my friends know – I have no sense of smell. None. I was born without it. I’ve never had it and I suspect I never will.
However, without a sense of smell, I think I have an advantage, because my taste buds try to compensate, and hence, I taste very vividly. How I do wish I could smell the subtleties of aroma that wine drinkers get to experience though!
For my money, blind taste tests are so much more important than bottle labels if you’re an amateur wine lover. 13 years ago I lived in Sonoma County and worked with my brother for a little wine marketing firm. We’d get so much wine for free in those days. Because we had so much of it, and because I had no confidence as a wine connoisseur, I would devise blind tests for myself and then note what I liked and what I didn’t like about certain wines, and describe what I thought would eat well with a certain wine.
My research led me to a conclusion — taste has to matter 100% of the time to the true wine lover. The label on a bottle tells you the name of who made the wine, and nothing more…and so it shouldn’t matter very much at all… (unless you’re a wine maker… when obviously both taste and label should very much matter.)
Earlier this week, Hope and I met up with some friends in Lompoc, a sleepy town outside of Santa Barbara, in the Santa Rita Hills. The purpose of our trip was 2-fold: drink some of the latest offerings from a region that offers truly amazing wines, and to look at a restaurant space in Lompoc, to try to get a handle on if this town was a place where Hope and I could live, work, and breathe.
(A special shout out to Matt and Linda for such amazing hospitality again!!)
Lompoc, for us, is likely to remain a place to visit, but not to live. I’m an LA guy of 11 years, and Hope is an NYC girl. While the price on the rent was not too damn high, everything else was – the risk was too damn high, the buildout costs were too damn high, and the required check average was too damn high. It was not the opportunity for us.
The wine, on the other hand, was particularly amazing. Every tasting we had was outstanding. Maybe the best wine tasting trip I’ve ever had, from a wine quality perspective anyway. And I left knowing something that I’d suspected for the last few months: wine enthusiasts are going to look back at the 2012 vintage of red varietals from the Santa Rita Hills and I think, declare it a classic. In particular, both the Pinot Noir and Syrah I’ve tried from this vintage and region are shaping up to be absolutely phenomenal. The white varietals from 2012 are also showing great structure and depth.
We first went tasting at the “wine ghetto” in Lompoc, which is an industrial building complex that holds several local wine maker’s tasting rooms. First we tried La Montagne – my favorites were their Rose and Pinot Noir, and we came home with a bottle of each. Next came a really wonderful experience, at a place locals call DSP, which is short for de su propia (of it’s own) la cosecha (harvest.) I love the wines these guys make, so much so that a wine club membership was purchased, and we came home with an amazing Roussanne, a Viognier that was sourced from Ballard Canyon (side note: this area is recently AVA recognized for well known Rhone varietals – Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Cotes du Rhone – and soon all bottles sourced from Ballard Canyon will have a cartouche designating Ballard Canyon specifically) and a red blend sourced from Stolpman. Tremendous heart was put into these wines. It shines through.
From there, we left the wine ghetto for F Street and it was on to Transcendence (best offerings: Syrah and GSM), Brewer-Clifton (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), and Scott Cellars (Sangiovese) all nicely crafted wines in tasting rooms that had incredibly helpful and friendly people pouring for us.
The next day, we journeyed out to the wine making facility of D’Alfonso-Curran. This was the best tasting I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the entire world. If you are ever in the area, go tasting here. But make sure you call to make a reservation as they accept guests, but are not open to the public.
(A special shout out goes to Noe who poured for us on a Monday!!!)
Every single varietal was spot on: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah… to say that Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran know how to craft great wine is an understatement. I’d put any of their varietals against anyone else’s. Quite simply, I think their wines are a testament that wine makers are great artists and great scientists at the same time. They take their time before releasing any bottles, waiting until the bottle is absolutely ready before putting it out to market.
I hope to be sharing their wines for many years to come, because the art of their wine is most definitely a science.