Los Olivos for Grownups: Alta Maria Vineyards

Alta Maria Vineyards tasting room in Los Olivos, CA

Alta Maria wines (along with Native 9 wines and Autonom wines) have been around for almost a decade, but now that they’ve opened a tasting room along the main drag in Los Olivos – the tasting room town of Santa Barbara wine county – I’m even more inclined to make a run through town.

Alta Maria Vineyards tasting room in Los Olivos, CA

In a typical weekend rush of tourists from Orange & LA counties plus Santa Barbara wine tour companies, the Alta Maria Vineyards tasting room is a lovely and cool respite from any wine-tasting-bachelortte-or-birthday-partying on the street. It’s sophisticated and down-to-earth. It’s western and classy. It’s minimalist and Pottery Barn.

Alta Maria Vineyards Chardonnay & Pinot Noir in Los Olivos, CA

The wine on the tasting list also demonstrates such duality. In addition to the Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Alta Maria is known for, they have a unique Sauvignon Blanc and solid Cabernet Sauvignon on the list, just created for the tasting room. The Chardonnay is half oak-fermented and half stainless steel to give us a lemon cream tart with lots of acidity. And the Alta Maria Pinot Noir is a perfect blend of fruit, wood and earth, a basic Pinot Noir that’s a steal at $28 a bottle.

Autnom Syrah & Native 9 Pinot Noir in Los Olivos, CA

But the list has more. Viticulturist James Ontiveros is pouring his baby here: Native 9 Pinot Noir. And this is the only place you can taste the 2009 Pinot Noir. This wine is from a vineyard on his multi-generational family’s property in Santa Maria valley, where he grows 8 different clones and blends different concoctions each year to create a fuller, exotic Pinot Noir.

And the winemaker of the duo, Paul Wilkins, got his love for Rhone varietals working for John Alban of Alban Vineyards. His Autonom SM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) is almost sold out because if its nose of bacon fat and pie crust (this sounds like heaven in a glass) and perfect balance, and his Autonom Syrah is a blend of cold-climate fruit and warm-climate fruit that manages to be vegetal, fruity and spicy.

Grown-up heaven.

Chardonnay Symposium 2011

Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria California

Chardonnay is the world’s white wine darling. And at Santa Maria Valley’s recent Chardonnay Symposium, we learned she is also one of the most debated. Whether you love an oaky + buttery one, a stainless steel + flinty one, or prefer to never drink the stuff, it’s definitely a wine that makes for a heated discussion.

Burgundian white is usually considered the pinnacle of a well-made Chardonnay. Although the California style has typically meant more: more fruit, more oak, and more butter. Jay McInerney compared this old California classic style to another California classic, Pamela Anderson. In his view, this type of Chardonnay is more about silicone enhancements to try and please the sweet American palate than about a true representation of the grape. He later wrote about a new style of Chardonnay coming out of California, one being passionately followed by winemakers Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton.

Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton pouring Chardonnay

This new style, described as zingy, nervous and fresh, attempts to let the varietal stand out on its own, without a lot of manipulation in the winery, over-malolactic-ization or years of cradling in the bosom of new French oak. This is the style, according to Brewer, that lets Chardonnay shine – although he does wave a white flag for Chardonnay (c’est trés charmant).

Deovlet Chardonnay

And the Chardonnay was shining, along with the sun, on newcomer Ryan Deovlet of Deovlet Wines, who poured his first release of 2009 Solomon Hills Chardonnay.

Flying Goat Blanc de Blanc sparkling - Goat Bubbles

Another Santa Barbara county favorite is Flying Goat Blanc de Blanc, the only sparkling wine made entirely locally and known in these parts as Goat Bubbles, a great palate refresher for all that Chard!

Foxen Chardonnay

Also, don’t miss Foxen’s Steel Cut Chardonnay, which is soon to be released, for that unoaked new California Chardonnay experience.

Some more notable Chardonnays at the Symposium:

I like my Chardonnay oaked, unoaked, from California and from Burgundy, but what I like best is how Chardonnay is not-so-quietly evolving, while also staying tried and true.

Well done darling.

Chardonnay Symposium

Sisters, Grapes & Cowboys: Tres Hermanas Winery

Tres Hermanas Winery Barn

Tres Hermanas Winery Barn

There are several clues at Tres Hermanas Winery in California’s Santa Maria Valley that you are among cattle ranchers: the big red barn next to the tasting room (used by the Teixeira family’s ranching forefathers), the miles of ranch land and small herds of animals surrounding the winery, and the mechanical horse proudly displayed in the tasting room (and yes, customers can still ride this horse).

But what you really want to do is taste the wines. There are around 20 small-lot production wines for sale, with 6 on the current tasting sheet. If you get one of the family members behind the bar – it’s not hard to do…Paulette Teixeira, her sister Beverly and her daughters Stacey, Tracey and Marcey (the three sisters) frequently work in the winery – or even better, the wine maker Mark Horvath, ask if anything else is open for tasting.

You won’t be disappointed. Every wine on the sheet is unique, interesting, well-made and highly enjoyable. Exceptional even, especially the 2007 Roussanne – a white Rhone varietal that has been gaining popularity, some of which Luke made with wild yeast – and the 2007 Refosco, a grape native to northern Italy, Croatia and Slovenia and hardly made in California, or in the US at all. Deeper and more complex than a Sangiovese but lighter and easier-to-go-down than a Cab or Syrah, this Refosco is a real find here in Santa Barbara wine country. All these wines are gems.

Tres Hermanas Barrels

Tres Hermanas Barrels

Mark is intent on doing something different, something new, while retaining all the heritage and traditions of old world wine making. And it shows. Ask for a tour of the winery and vineyards and you’re in for a real treat: learning about terroir, trellising, bud break and shatter, seeing wines in various stages of cold fermentation and aging, and visiting horses, cows and sheep.

In fact, this is still the headquarters for the family cattle operation and if you happen to be enjoying this countryside along Foxen Canyon road on an early spring morning, you could witness a Cattle Branding right here in front of the barn. Cattle will fill the hills with their plaintive moos while young calves are herded into groups, then roped and branded one by one with the JT cattle brand by a host of neighborly ranch hands.

This is cowboy wine country.