Notes, stories and fun mishaps around winemaking.
Although it's balmy here compared to the low temperatures on the East Coast and in the Midwest, it's still chilly at night. This week we’re looking at nightly temperatures in the mid 40's, but we've had our share of icy mornings. Whilst the vines sleep, the vineyard is still bustling with the activities of winter.
The pruning of heartier varieties: Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Syrah, takes place at this time of year. They get first dibs with the pruning shears because they are less sensitive to fluctuations in the weather at time of flowering here in Happy Canyon. These varieties tend to deliver a balanced crop more consistently. In contrast to these reliable grapes, our capricious French beauty, Merlot, and our impetuous Italian, Sangiovese, are more likely to either produce big crops or barely deliver. Pruning is delayed for these and other Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon to avoid exposure to inclement weather during flowering. Pruning may occur as late as March for these more vulnerable globes.
Different varieties are subject to different pruning techniques, some of which have existed for millennia. For example, the Sauvignon Blanc blocks are cane-pruned, followed by cane tying...all by hand. To observe the vineyard crew tying canes, click here or on the video below. Some left-over canes can be used as starts for self-rooting grapes. Select canes are properly cared for, then shipped off to other vineyards for storage and planting.
Alternatively, some varieties, such as Cabernet Franc, are spur-pruned and cordon trained. Size of grape clusters, position in the vineyard, irrigation and nutrition of the vines, target yield, and wind vulnerability are some of the contributing factors to the selection of pruning technique.
It may be winter, and the vines might be dormant, but vineyard workers are awake and bustling with winter activities in preparation for the 2014 vintage.
Shhh…the vines are asleep now. After their crimson and burnt umber leaves fall to the ground, grape vines hunker down for a long winter’s rest just like bears and groundhogs. Rather than calling it hibernation, we refer to it as dormancy and they quite literally go to sleep. Tests have been conducted to confirm that the vines experience very low metabolic activity during this time.
As they drop into blissful slumber, they're tucked in with cover crops. Legumes are used in the majority of the vineyard, and in a few select areas, straight barley is substituted. Cover crops are planted for a number of reasons, but the two most important are to enrich the soil and to build water-holding capacity. An ancillary benefit of the improved water-holding capacity is that it decreases the amount of water needed in the vineyard on the whole. This saves money and more importantly here in California wine country, it conserves an extremely valuable natural resource - water.
While they’re sleeping, they’ll be treated to a haircut. Although some vineyards are pruned shortly after harvest in late autumn, in Happy Canyon, we opt to prune in the January/February/March time frame. This is driven by vineyard management philosophy, as well as the variety of each block. Each block is pruned at the optimal time for that particular variety and position in the vineyard. But pruning will be the subject of another post…until then, sleep tight!
Are you cringing at the thought of that one relative or friend showing up on your doorstep for Christmas dinner? You know the one. As he presents you with his bottle of wine, you swear that for one lightning moment he morphed into Gollum? As he reluctantly eases Precious into your hands, you are suddenly seized with anxiety about how to properly dispense of such a coveted gift. Not wanting to reveal any ignorance on the lore of Precious nor what to do with him, you thank Gollum profusely and carry Precious into the kitchen.
Now what? Mordor lies just ahead on your dining room table. If you don't deliver Precious to its proper place, all will be lost, and Gollum will haunt your dreams at least until next Christmas.
What is decanting? Dictionary.com defines it as
1) To pour (wine or other liquid) gently so as not to disturb the sediment.
2) To pour (a liquid) from one container to another.
But why do it? After all, Precious seems perfectly content inside its well-formed bottle. The primary reason to decant wine is to remove sediment . Rather than pour a beautiful glass of wine accompanied with unsavory sediment into your glass, sommeliers may decant the bottle for you. By pouring slowly, particularly with older, fragile wines (and often times with a candle underneath the bottle to illuminate the sediment as it approaches the neck), the sediment will become trapped prior to reaching the neck of the bottle, signaling that it's time to stop pouring. In addition, the exposure to oxygen has the added benefit of taming tannins in younger bold red wines, and allowing them to 'open up.' And finally, the color of wine is a rich, sensual addition to any dining table.
So is decanting really necessary if the wine isn't 20-25 years old? It's really a matter of personal choice and palate. There are those who argue that when you decant, you actually lose some of the aromatics of the wine...that if you choose to decant you should do it just prior to serving. This can be impractical, however, for the hostess who is also trying to serve her lovely filet and the rest of her meal nice and hot. And, as previously noted, there are those who feel strongly that a splashing pour into a decanter (for maximum contact with oxygen) is tres importante for mellowing tannins in bold young reds. In our experience here in the Santa Ynez Valley, we often have the pleasure of casually dining with winemakers and long-time industry folks...and it is infrequent that they bother to decant their own wines or special bottles that they bring to share.
So experiment with your own palate, and feel confident about which path to Orodruin you choose. The enjoyment of one of Earth's oldest gifts is a journey. And although you'll be tempted to give Gollum a little poke with Sting as he lurks about the kitchen, gently ask him if he would like you to decant Precious and when he would like you to do so. He'll appreciate it, and now you're armed with enough knowledge to win the decanting riddle game.
If you're like us, you have a few friends and family members who are particularly challenging to shop for come holiday time.
You know they'll actually use it!
Have some additions as to why you think wine might just be the perfect gift? Bring 'em! Comment below...
Our (2) Bottle Gift Box makes a tasteful gift for the wine lover during the holidays. The 2010 Cimarone Le Clos Secret is our premium Bordeaux-style blend crafted exclusively from Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara fruit. We've been so pleased with the quality of the Cabernet coming out of Three Creek Vineyard, that we decided to make a Cabernet Sauvignon varietal wine, our 2011 Cimarone Cabernet Sauvignon, which will be nestled right beside the Le Clos Secret in an elegant maroon gift box.
Our (3) Bottle Gift Box is ideal for highly regarded clients, colleagues, and customers as well. It's the same as the (2) Bottle Gift Box above, but we've included our 2009 Cabernet Franc varietal wine as well. All three of these pedigreed wines will pair beautifully with a lovely holiday roasted tenderloin...
Gift Cards: Purchase our online Gift Card and let the lucky recipient select his or her favorite wines. Our Gift Cards are delivered digitally only. The recipient will be sent a Gift Card code via our Gift Card email, which he or she will use at checkout on our website when they redeem the Gift Card. Please be sure to enter the recipient's email address in the "Shipping Information" section when you checkout.
One Year Cellar Club Memberships: Save approximately 15% off our normal generous club discounts when you pre-pay for a one year membership in one of our Cellar Clubs. Select from our three bottle/shipment club (Cimarone 3) or our six bottle/shipment club (Cimarone 6); you may also select a REDS-only club. Check out our Cellar Clubs by clicking here.
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
From TO AUTUMN, by John Keats
Harvest is an exciting time to be in Santa Ynez wine country. Eerie lights pierce the dark morning hours, following pickers as they move amongst the vines. Morning school routes are slowed by tractors and trucks carrying pallets of grapes as they transfer the cold fruit to eager winemakers.
Harvest is also a time of great anxiety. An entire year's worth of farming comes down to a handful of weeks. Will the fruit hit its magic numbers before rain or frost sets in? White wine varieties, such as our Sauvignon Blanc, are harvested earlier than the reds (typically in August), so they are less susceptible to the weather changes of autumn. But our lusty reds need more hang time on the vines to reach their optimal ripeness.
Many factors go into the 'when to pick' decision, so we'll just point out a few of the primary players. Perhaps the most important is degrees Brix. No, it's not a clever way of spelling those things that line your patio. Brix is named after Adolf Brix, one of the scientists who helped develop the Brix scale. Put in simple terms, Brix is a scale of measuring total dissolved compounds in grape juice, and therefore its approximate concentration of grape sugars*. Why do we care? The sugars translate to alcohol content and sweetness in the wine.
But...the sugar-acid ratio needs to be just right as well. Acidity contributes to the freshness and fruitiness of the wine, as well as to its color. High acidity can result in an overtly tart wine, while excessively low acidity can cause the wine to be boring and flat. The goal is a balanced wine. Acids are typically measured in pH and TA (titratable acid). As the grapes ripen, sugar levels increase, and acid levels fall. Picking at night and in the wee morning hours keeps the fruit nice and cold which stabilizes the sugar levels, and optimizes the acid levels. This practice helps to ensure a more predictable outcome in the fermentation process.
And finally, we have the time-tested contributor to the assessment process: a seasoned winemaker. The winemaker, in our case, the fabulous Andrew Murray, will do a physiological assessment for ripeness. He will feel the grapes in his hand, observe their color, and chew several of them. Chew? Yes, chew. Wine grapes have seeds. Andrew will crunch the seeds as well; they impart tannins into the wine. If you’re trying to understand the role tannins play in the taste of wine, think about a strong cup of black tea – it’s that similar bitterness. Balancing tannins is a tricky business, and it is almost entirely a matter of winemaking experience, not science. Andrew will also be considering the fruit’s flavor. Have the grapes developed adequate flavor to create a beautiful bottle of wine?
So we take all of the above information into consideration, and day-by-day plot the harvest. But we’ve left out perhaps the most important element…the elements themselves. Good old Mother Nature sometimes has a wicked sense of humor. Just when the harvest looks perfect, she’ll throw in an early fall frost or heavy rain. In 2013, we’ve had very low rain fall, and a hot summer, yielding an early harvest. It’s looking like rain this week (= potential mildew, and grapes absorbing moisture which can throw off the sugar-acid ratios), so more grapes will be harvested in advance of the impending rain…game on…And that’s life in the country.
* - From Jancis Robinson's, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 2006, Oxford University Press, Oxford
A question recently came up in our Los Olivos tasting room that reminded us that like anything else, learning about wine is a process. As we prattle on about our wine’s taste profile, and the unique terroir of Happy Canyon where our fruit grows, we sometimes forget that our speech is laced with jargon. Just as one cannot expect a non-laser person to know the differences between a CO2 laser and an Nd:YAG laser, or a non-philosophical person to know the basic tenets of perspectivism and eternal recurrence, one cannot assume that people who are new to wine automatically know its history and details.
The question that precipitated this thought was What do people mean when they refer to a Burgundian wine? And while this particular question has many layers of answers: from winemaking style to grape ripeness and flavor profile, we’re going to start more simply with wine regions. We’d like to share some Wine 101 basics with you, and ensure that rather than making wine pretentious, we make it fun. Please let us know if there’s a particular subject that you would like us to address!
The vine varieties in Santa Barbara wine country derive predominately from three French wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone valley. Each of these regions produce red and white wines. Why these grape varieties? The decision of which grape varieties to plant in a particular vineyard comes down to the soil composition, drainage, temperatures, wind, and exposure to sunlight...combined, often referred to as terroir. A vineyard site that's optimal for Pinot Noir is likely not optimal for Cabernet Sauvignon.
We’ll start with Bordeaux, because it is near and dear to our hearts - Cimarone’s wines are chiefly crafted from Bordeaux grape varieties. Bordeaux is located in the southwestern portion of France and some of the world’s most highly acclaimed wines come from that region. What are the vine varieties of Bordeaux? For the reds we have: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere; for the whites we have: Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. When people refer to a red Bordeaux blend or a red Bordeaux-style blend (the French get touchy when we drop the word ‘style’), we’re talking about red wines that are blended from several of the aforementioned grape varieties. A typical red Bordeaux-style blend includes some or all of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, and possibly Malbec or Carmenere.*
Burgundy (Borgogne in French) is located in the eastern portion of France, and unlike Bordeaux, it is intensely focused on only two grape varieties: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white). It does include the lesser red, Gamay and the lesser white, Aligote, but here in Santa Barbara wine country as in Burgundy, the focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The white grape variety Pinot Gris (also called Malvoisie, and Pinot Grigio in Italy) is associated with Burgundy, but is more predominant in Alsace. So if you’re at a dinner party and someone offers you a white Burgundy, and you’re a Chardonnay lover, by all means answer ‘yes’!
The Rhone valley lies in southeastern France, with the Rhone river running down its center. Famed for its Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne, the northern Rhone is notable for its steep slopes, which force vines to work hard to produce their fruit. The red grape varieties of Grenache (called Garnacha in Spain and South America), Carignan, Censault, and Mourvedre, and the white grape variety Ugni Blanc are found in the southern Rhone. Here in Santa Barbara County, we see Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache, and Mourvedre more than the other Rhone varieties. We craft both a straight varietal Syrah in our 3CV label and our reserve version in our Cimarone label. We also add a splash of Syrah in our 3CV BANK (predominantly a Bordeaux-style blend), and our Cilla's Blend is chiefly Syrah, with Bordeaux varieties smoothing out the edges.
Of course we have many other grape varieties in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez wine country (we’re pretty partial to the Italian Sangiovese grape as well), but we thought we would start with the more predominant ones first, and the associated regions from which they originally came.
* - From Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine…An excellent tome to have on any wine lover’s shelf.
French wine region graphic from: http://www.bonjourlafrance.com/french-food/french-wine/images/french_wine_regions.jpg
A barn-burner article was published recently regarding wine tasting. Perhaps the more appropriate phrase is wine judging. This is tricky topic for wineries.
A great score from one of the major critics almost definitely translates to increased sales, particularly if a large portion of the winery’s inventory is sold through distributors. For the harried wine-lover who has little time to kibitz in an independent wine shop, a high scoring wine found at a Big Box store offers purchase security when making an otherwise uninformed wine selection. It’s the if the guy or gal who tastes wine for a living thinks it’s good, it probably is mentality...and typically that's a pretty reliable purchase philosophy.
As one might surmise, a poor score will likely precipitate the opposite reaction: 1) the big stores might not carry the wine; 2) the distributors may pay less attention to the brand; 3) the consumer looking at several scored wines will likely select the wine with the higher score within his/her price range .
Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? Not according to Robert Hodgson. In an article from the UK’s Guardian, we learn that Mr. Hodgson, a California vintner, has been running a little test since 2005. Turns out Mr. Hodgson, make that Professor Hodgson, came up with some pretty interesting data from his study of the California State Fair Wine Competition. The net result? Only "...about 10 percent of the judges were able to replicate their score within a single medal group. Another 10 percent, on occasion, scored the same wine Bronze to Gold." And significantly, "...a typical judge's scores varied by plus or minus four points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94." The variation in score can be the difference between a sold out wine, and a wine that lingers on the shelf…and it’s the SAME wine!
But hold the phone. A study conducted by Penn State and Brock University, showed that some people DO have a better sense of taste than others. "What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different," says John Hayes of Penn State. Another argued that it may not be nature as much as nurture. Perhaps experiencing a broad array of wines allows the critic to hone his/her skills to develop a more differentiating palate. Makes sense. If you're a seasoned tennis player, you might feel the difference in the tension of tennis strings, but if you're just starting out, it's the last thing you'll notice. But if the average consumer is not in the ‘supertaster’ gene pool, and doesn’t regularly sample myriad wines, where does that leave us?
We say, drink what you like. Don't let the potentially pretentious side of wine get in the way of enjoying a variety of wines. Are we delighted when one of our wines receives a high score? You bet. And you may find over time that you share a similar palate with a particular critic. This may be helpful when seeking out new wines. But in general, we feel that wineries that are dedicated to small lot, handcrafted wines tend to place greater emphasis on quality vs. quantity. Add a talented winemaker, and carefully farmed fruit planted in targeted terroirs, and whether you have a highly trained palate, or you're new to the world of wine, you'll likely be pleased with your purchase.
Also posted here: http://santaynezwinecountry.com/blog/
It's National Flag Day, so we thought we would take this opportunity to introduce you to our iconic Los Olivos flagpole. For those of you who have already visited our little stagecoach/railroad stop of a town, you know just what we're talking about: you can't miss it.
The Los Olivos flagpole is centered at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Alamo Pintado Avenue and represents the center of town. Erected in April 1918 as a memorial to those brave souls killed in World War I, it also serves as a means of giving directions for us locals. For example, when people ask how to get to Michael Jackson's famed Neverland ranch (and they always ask), we say, "From the flagpole in Los Olivos, drive north about five miles...it's on your left."
It also sets the tone for solemn times. When the flag is flying at half-mast, such as during tragic events like the Newton School shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing, we are alerted to the collective suffering of our nation. Even though we have our 24-hour news cycles, and our always-connected Internet, the flagpole somehow pulls our little community together in a way that modern media does not.
And on a lighter note, we'd like to answer the age-old question, how does one turn at the Los Olivos flagpole? As locals, we can always spot tourists stricken with that look of panic at the four-way stop. Their eyes dart madly about wondering whether they should go around the flagpole to turn, or turn in front of it. Inevitably, they creep into the intersection and go around the flagpole with the wide eyes of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation. So what is the local rule? ALWAYS turn INSIDE the flagpole!*
Cheers to National Flag Day!
* - We do not know what the law reads on this, but we can tell you that this is how Santa Ynez Valley locals do it.
Springtime in Santa Barbara wine country is a feast of burgeoning flora and fauna: mares sternly guard their shy foals; baby squirrels dart across open areas dodging airborne assaults; and if one looks carefully, baby rabbits can be spied nervously breathing in the shrubbery shade. The quail population seems to have exploded in the Santa Ynez Valley. Mother and father frantically lead their dozen or so offspring back and forth across the blacktop. Though regal when at rest, in action, quail more closely resemble Sonny the Cocoa Puffs Cuckoo bird, than any of their more distinguished brethren.
Enough fauna, what about our fabulous flora? The grapes are coming along beautifully. We've moved from budbreak (Malbec, below) into flowering. The buds mature into shoots which unfold with leaves and inflorescences; the part of the plant that bears the flowers and eventually becomes a grape bunch.
As the weeks pass, the inflorescences elongate and the flowers begin to separate. Hermaphroditic, the grape vines are endowed with both, ahem, male and female parts, allowing for self-fertilization. It's terribly efficient really. At the beginning of flowering, the calyptra or ‘caps’ begin to fall and flowers become visible.Though hardly the riot of wildflower color that streamed down Figueroa Mountain, flowering in the vineyard is a subtle, private event.
Pollination occurs when pollen adheres to the moistened stigma. Germination ensues, the stylus is penetrated, and the ovary is fertilized. The fertilized ovaries then form seeds, with the flower walls enlarging to become the skin and pulp of the grape berry.**
During this period we are trimming the shoots to ensure that the inflorescences have just the right amount of sunlight to allow this efficient fertilization process to occur under optimal conditions...call it mood lighting...
Oh, and those opening verses were penned by a Victorian poet named Algernon Swinbourne. The poem, An Interlude, goes on to describe a tryst in the woods...we thought it most appropriate for our post!
* - Poem by Algernon Swinbourne. An Interlude. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/an-interlude/
** - Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006, page 276.
Only a short 40 minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara, aka America's Riviera, the Santa Ynez Valley boasts award-winning wines crafted in the style of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone Valley. While there is a wide variety of wineries and tasting rooms to visit, we are often asked about other activities here in our little slice of paradise. After all, one can't wine taste ALL day AND night!
If you love the active life, you'll find an athletic Mecca that is well worth the pilgrimage. There's a reason the likes of Lance Armstrong, Tejay van Garderen, and Taylor Phinney have trained in the Santa Ynez Valley over the years. Grueling climbs on quiet roads with infinite blue skies overhead beckon cyclists like the Sirens of Greek mythology. The Figueroa Mountain loop is not for the novice rider, but like a clever mariner, a skilled cyclist can successfully navigate around its challenges. The Amgen Tour of California frequently incorporates the Santa Ynez Valley into its route. Former Olympic cyclist Chris Carmichael has established a training camp here, and Trek Travel runs multiple bike tours in the area. Several local companies offer day packages as well; check out Wine Country Cycling Tours for starters, and Dr. J's Bicycle Shop for daily rentals.
If mountain biking is your mode of exercise, check out The Dirt Club located on Zaca Station Road. With glorious views and miles of trails, there’s something for every level of rider.
Hiking opportunities range from a modest walk to the Nojoqui Falls, to more challenging hikes up Grass Mountain (shown below from the summit), Knapp’s Castle, or Gaviota Peak. A fit hiker can start early, and be up and back in time for afternoon wine tasting. Click here for a link to some local hikes. It's wise to carry plenty of water and be wary of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
Fine wine tends to pique the interest of renowned chefs, and we are fortunate to be attracting more and more culinary artists. Featured in Food and Wine and Wine Spectator, do not miss Chef Budi Kazali of The Ballard Inn’s lamb or fish dishes. His Hamachi sashimi appetizer is a local favorite. Brother’s Jeff and Matt Nichols, formerly of Spago’s and other Los Angeles and Paris restaurants, have converted the historic Sides Hardware and Shoes building into a relaxed restaurant with a farm-to-table philosophy that translates to delicious food. On a given day you’ll see local winemakers, captains of industry, or maybe even rocker David Crosby settling in for signature breakfast beignets, lunchtime fish tacos, or a supper of Scottish salmon. The newest kids on the block are the Santa Ynez Kitchen in Santa Ynez (from veteran Toscana restaurateurs Mike and Kathie Gordon), which has already drawn glowing reviews from locals, and soon to open The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern featuring Nashville Chef Robbie Wilson.
Other local favorites: Grappolo, Root 246, Dos Carlito's, Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe, Petro's, Paula's Pancakes (breakfast), Longhorn (breakfast)
You’ll find miniature horses and miniature donkeys lining the Alamo Pintado corridor, the ostrich farm that was featured in Sideways, gorgeous fields of lavender on Roblar Road, just-picked apples at Apple Lane Farm, olive oil tasting at Global Gardens in Los Olivos, eclectic jewelry at Waxing Poetic, and not-to-be-missed Danish bakeries such as The Solvang Bakery in Solvang. Grab some pastries or a to-go lunch at Panino's and enjoy a weekend picnic on the historic Ballard School grounds. And finally, when you’ve sated your wine tasting palate, check out the newly opened Barrel Works at the Firestone-Walker Taproom in Buellton, and sample some award-winning local brews (along with great food).
While we hope you come in and taste our luscious Bordeaux-style wines in our Los Olivos tasting room, we also encourage you to take advantage of all the valley has to offer. Above all, we hope you enjoy visiting our glorious Santa Ynez Valley!