As cliche as it might sound, the Key to Wine Country event really did unlock some new tasting room doors…I think that sounds better than, I got keyed at Key to Wine Country, not sure if that even makes sense. Regardless the “keys” thing is put on by the Santa Barbara Vintners Association. You pay $100 for your ticket and there is a bevy (and a few bevvies for that matter) of different tasting rooms to visit, throughout Santa Barbara County. Admittedly, this is one of the more creative winery experiences I’ve come across. Definitely, more interesting than those big room and table affairs.
You’ll need a map of the county as all sorts of winery folk get involved. Some have food or chocolate with wine parings, others do vineyard walks, the best by far are the intimate winemaker chats (you have to RSVP as spaces are limited) where they taste you through their decision making steps, from grape to bottle….I fancied the El Paseo experience. A tour of all six tasting rooms in the maze-like corridors of El Paseo, in downtown SB.
El Paseo is located just above De La Guerra and between State and Anacapa. Doug Margerum’s tasting room has been here the longest, about four years or so, next to his Wine Cask restaurant. Doug talked one of SB’s most famous winemaker’s, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat fame, to open next door. You can find ABC wines to purchase, dating back decades. There’s also Grassini out of Happy Canyon AVA. And two other spots Happy Canyon Vineyard and Jamie Slone, whom I imagine also opened tasting rooms under Doug’s suggestion….and why not, he makes both of their wine (totally different styles too!).
This whole winery wonderland is really the brainchild of Doug Margerum, and I must applaud him as it has really propelled, actually started, the whole State Street wine scene. It truly is a handful of the best Santa Barbara has to offer. As for the wines I tried here are my three favorites:
Top accolades go to Au Bon Climat. Their tasting list is true to the winery’s Burgundy roots, but there’s all sorts of stuff to try. The bog standard Santa Barbara County Chardonnay for instance, which is used by MWs in London to teach classic Chardonnay. There’s everything from Aligote to Riesling to purchase, but my fav wine of the day in fact was a Chardonnay from ABC.
2009 Au Bon Climat “Compelling” Nuits-Blanches au Bouge, Santa Maria County – A tight lemony and raw apricot little number, when you talk about tension in wine make sure you try this. Has years to go, but if you’re into crisp and fresh it’s ready now – $35 (There’s also a ’98 Nibiollo that was insanely good and a steal at $35)
Margerum actually has two tasting rooms. His regular one with an entrance on Anacapa, then MWC 32 a few steps into El Paseo, where they pour older vintages and reserve wines. It was at his Anacapa room that I found my fav though.
2011 Margerum Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County – Margerum is all about Rhone varietals and this Syrah does not disaapoint in the slightest. I reckon it has quite a few more years (about 10), but you can have it now, no problem. It is a very, very approachable wine. With a hint of peppercorn spice and fresh juicy blueberries – $40
Margerum’s straight Grenache was also very good.
Four years back, Grassini’s Bordeaux inspired wines were the first I tried out of the Happy Canyon AVA, I really liked them. There was a turn of events and Justin Willit of Tyler fame (and also partner to Mandy Grassini) made the previous vintage and his wines were being poured. I’ve been looking forward to trying Willit’s Bordeaux style, his own label is very much about Pinot and Chardonnay and above all that restraint…it was interesting to see him venture to the dark side of the noble grapes. The Sauv Blanc was particularly fresh, the grapes were picked at the very dawn of harvest, beginning of August and probably very low in potential alcohol. The two Bordeaux blends were also quite fresh it was however a single varietal wine that I really enjoyed.
2011 Grassini Petit Verdot, Happy Canyon AVA – not a grape you see very often, if at all, by itself. Petit Verdot is usually used to add back bone or rather mid-bone to the mid-palate of Cab and Merlot. Grassini PV is what I like to call a crunchy wine. It tastes as if your biting in to handful of juicy ripe blackberries, super concentrated fruit. There’s some musky like leather and grippy tannin. Like it’s palate the price too is a hefty $95, steep but a very good wine.
A great thing to note at Grassini’s tasting room, they pour all their high-end wines with a coravin, my first time seeing it in use….totally impressed!
Look out for the Keys to SBC next year. Thanks to Morgen and Taylor over at the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association for sending the tickets. Find out about future SBCVA events on their website — www.sbcountywines.com