California wine on my mind: a study in two extremes…

Last week, over the course of 24 hours on the ground in Southern California (my dolce natio loco), it felt like I spanned the extremes of viticulture there.

On Tuesday evening, I tasted some of the extraordinary Santa Barbara-grown wines of Scott Sampler, a show business veteran who has been buying and bottling fruit since the 2012 vintage there under the Central Coast Group Project label.

On Wednesday afternoon, I toured vineyards in Valley Center (not far from where I grew up in San Diego) with winemaker and grape grower Chris Broomell whose family has been farming there for five generations.

Chris’ family started growing grapes, he said, in the era after the Second World War when ongoing drought made viticulture more lucrative.

Scott abandoned a robust career in entertainment to become a full-time winemaker.

Chris vinifies delicious, moreish, and highly affordable monovarietal wines for his family’s Triple B Ranches winery. I especially loved his gorgeous Vermentino.

Scott employs extended maceration times to make brilliant, jaw-droppingly beautiful expressions of Rhône Valley grape varieties that cost more than I can afford and sell out as soon as he releases them. I was blown away by his 2013 Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah blend below and its ballerino’s balance despite its muscular alcohol.

Meeting and tasting with both winemakers was an exhilarating and eye-opening experience for me. In part because they each represent distinct and powerful voices in the new wave of California winemaking and in part because they share a vision of transparency in winemaking. And by transparency, I mean clarity and sincerity of fruit in their wines.

Chris and I talked a lot about the historic disconnect between California grape growers and winemakers. California is a great place to grow fine wine grapes, he explained (and we all know this to be true), but until the current generation, Californian winemakers have focused more on their work in the cellar than in the vineyards. When he returned from a year working in vineyards and wineries in Australia early on in his career, he said, he was nonplussed by the way California winemakers interpreted the fruit delivered to their cellar doors by local farmers.

Similarly, Scott seems to belong to a growing number of California winemakers who see their role as custodians or guardians of their fruit. He works with growers who deliver superb grapes to his cellar door and like Renaissance master Pietro Bembo meticulously transcribing the idiograph Italian poems of Petrarch, he appears (at least to me) more as a protector and defender of the berries than their interpreter or manipulator.

Both winemakers have looked abroad for inspiration. And both are making delicious and — in my view — thought-provoking wines, both for their historical perspective and their wholesome deliciousness.

And both of them have me thinking big thoughts. I’ll have a lot more California on my mind this month and the months to follow. Thanks fo reading and stay tuned…

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