Californian wine trip part 2: Los Olivos, Solvang and St Barbara wine country

After a few days soaking up the sun in SoCal I headed up to the Santa Barbara region to catch up with my friends Sam and Cath from 1000 corks – an excellent US wine search engine BTW – and together we headed up to Los Olivos. You can read Sam’s recount of our day out in the 1000 corks Los Olivos blog post

After the film Sideways, Los Olivos instantly became a major wine tourist destination. It was interesting to find out that the locals are in two minds about the tourist hype the movie created… Sure it is great to be able to sell most of your wine through your cellar door – but at the same time a lot of the producers I spoke to told me Los Olivos is actually more suited to Rhone varieties – whilst obviously Sideways is all about Pinot Noir… After 2 days of tasting my way around the region I can but agree with them – the Rhone varieties are king around here!

Blair Fox Winery

The sign that first caught my eye and made me want to visit this winery first:-)

The first winery we visited was Blair Fox Cellars, a small boutique winery producing some excellent Rhone varietals. Blair spend some time in the Northern Rhone and got truly inspired by the wines from Côte-Rôtie, Condrieux and L’Hermitage. He continued to work in Santa Barbara and overseas (Hasselgrove, Mclarenvale) for a while before he decided to make small parcels of Rhone varietal wines under his own name. For these wines he sources the fruit from Santa Barbara’s premium vineyards. I was totally blown away by the wines and they were definitely some of the best I tasted in California and would like to share my favourites here below;

2008 Blair Fox Viognier – 103 cases produced: a lovely Viognier in a Condrieux style; Full bodied, concentrated flavours of peach, apricot and honey suckle and a medium + finish
2005 Blair Fox Paradise Road Vineyard Syrah: Interesting Syrah with good tanins, with flavours of blackberry, fig and a little black tea, a little salty minerality and a medium + finish
2006 Blair Fox Purisma Mountain Vineyard Syrah: Another great wine produced from biodynamically grown grapes. Integrated flavours of black cherry, blackberry and a little black currant, some white pepper, velvet tannins and a medium + smokey finish
2007 Blair Fox Thomson Vineyard Syrah – 96 cases produced: Concentrated flavours of black cherry and mulberry, a little saltiness, and hints of cloves and cinnamon, great acidity and grippy tannins and a long finish – this wine will probably become quite velvety with a little bottle age. I loved it!

We visited a few other wineries that day but nothing really stood out until we walked into the Qupé, Verdad and Ethan tasting room around 4.45 pm -for a last tasting of the day.

Qupé, Verdad and Ethan tasting room - absolutely stunning wines!

Qupé wines had been recommended to me by my roving Sommelier buddy Robert Giorgione so I did have great expectations which often can be dangerous. I am however very happy to say that the wines really over delivered:-) I also thoroughly enjoyed the excellent service and background information provided by my fellow sommelier Robert Wyngard – the tasting room manager at Qupé, Verdad and Ethan.

Qupé winery is owned by Bob Lindquist – one of Santa Barbara County’s Syrah pioneers. He made his first Syrah in 1982 at Zaca Mesa with grapes from Paso Robles, and has gone from strength to strength ever since. All of the Qupé wines I tasted were wonderfully balanced, and awesome expressions of Syrah. Bob’s wife Louisa Sawyer makes wines from Spanish varieties grown in the family’s biodynamic Edna Valley Vineyard and his oldest son Ethan produces a very small parcel of high end wines under the Ethan label. Below some tasting notes of my favourite Qupé, Ethan and Verdad wines:

2010 Verdad Rosé – 700 cases produced: A Grenache Rose from biodynamical fruit from the Demeter Vineyard in Edna Valley, 100% wild yeast fermentation in stainless steel.
Dry, crisp medium bodied rosé with flavours of strawberry and raspberry and a medium + finish.

2009 Ethan Grenache Blanc – 125 cases produced: wine made from grapes grown on the eastern side of the Santa Ynez Valley. The wine was barrel fermented in a cold room, and then barrel aged for another 10 months before bottling – all oak used was neutral oak.
Dry, creamy and very rounded and well balanced Grenache Blanc, with medium+ flavours of peach, nectarine and tangelo and a lingering finish.
I was very impressed with this wine and it was without doubt the best Grenache Blanc I have ever tasted.

2007 Qupé Syrah Purisima Mt Vineyard -142 cases produced: wine produced from biodynamic fruit. Floral Syrah, with hints of Lilac and Wisteria, flavours of ripe raspberry and blackberry and allspice, good tannins and a medium+ finish.

2005 Qupé Syrah Bien Nacido Hillside Estate -940 cases produced: Rich and full bodied wine with grippy tannins and plenty of acidity, flavours of black plums, sweet liquorice and a hint of mint in the long lifted finish. Whilst pleasant to drink now, I feel this wine would become silky and velvety with a few more years of bottle age.

My second day in Santa Barbara wine country I visited the cute little town of Solvang – a copy of a traditional Danish town in search for some outstanding Pinot Noir. I had heard a lot of good things about Jim Clendenen Au Bon Climat wines and went to the Tastes of the Valleys to try them. Tastes of the Valleys is a cute little wine bar on the main street of Solvang – they sell flights, glasses and bottles of wine as well as cheese platters, and even have an off licence so guests can purchase the wine they have just tasted/drunk and take it home.
I tried the following Pinots:

2008 Au Bon Climat Isabelle Pinot Noir: A voluptuous Pinot Noir, with medium+ tannin and acid and good mouth feel, flavours of sour cherry, some earthy stalky notes, and a long spicy finish.

2007 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (Los Alamos Vineyard): Ripe raspberry, strawberry and sweet cherry flavours, a hint of clove and sweet spice, medium + tannin, acidity and mouth feel and a medium + finish.

I tasted a few more wines at Solvang before heading back to Los Olivos. The day before we had tried to taste the Carhartt wines however the small tasting room was chock a block so we had given this winery a miss – but all these people and the good reviews on Yelp had made me really curious and wanting to taste the Carhartt wines…

Carhartt Vineyard Tasting room

The cute and very small Carhartt Vinyard tasting room in Los Olivos

Carhartt Vineyards was born when Mike and Brook Carhartt planted 10 acres of vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1992. Brooke crafts small lots of artisanal wines from the Estate grown Merlot, Syrah, and Sangiovese and from some small parcels of high quality bought fruit for the whites and the Pinot Noir. The tasting room is cosy but tiny, it does however has a lovely wee courtyard where one can relax in the garden furniture:-) The tastings are generally conducted by Brook and Mike themselves in a friendly and jovial way. My top Carhartt wines were:
2009 Carhartt Vineyard Pinot Noir: A quintessential Pinot Noir, displaying elegant flavours of red berries, cherries and a little eartiness, medium tannin, acid and body and a hint of Eucalyptus in the finish

2009 Carhartt Vineyard Sangiovese: Very Chianti like in style, this wine is high in acid, medium in body and tannin with sour cherry flavours and a hint of all spice and a medium + finish.

2005 Carhartt Vineyard Merlot: Ok I know I was in Los Olivos but this f***ing Merlot was better than any Pinot Noir I tasted in the last 2 days:-) It was rich, with velvet tannins, great acid and good body, displaying flavours of red currant, sweet cherry and ripe strawberry, a hint of clove ad vanilla on the lingering finish. I bought a bottle and we enjoyed it that same night with dinner!

2007 Carhartt Vineyard Syrah Santa Ynez Valley: A well balanced meaty Syrah with great tannins, good acid and body and rich flavours of blackberry, a little black tea and leather resulting in a smoky finish

I thoroughly enjoyed my two days around Santa Barbara wine country and can highly recommend this region to anyone wanting to visit a more quiet Californian wine region!

About Caroline

Caroline is a certified Sommelier (by the CMS) and WSET diploma student. In order to specialize in the wines of Champagne she moved to the region and currently works as a wine consultant, wine educator and wine writer. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and writes for several international publications including Palate Press, Snooth, Wine-Searcher, Decanter and Vinogusto; further activities include teaching Champagne related courses at Reims Management School and organizing personalized tasting experiences at as well as being a regular judge at international wine competitions.
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