It’s hard to believe that I have been doing wines professionally for over forty years. Yup. Back in the 70’s, here in Hawaii, we had a really hard time convincing people to give “boutique” California wines a chance. Thankfully, the Paris Wine Exhibition helped change that challenge and made it somewhat easier. Subsequently, I recall the 1978 ZD Chardonnay “Santa Barbara” bottling which really caught my fancy and started the intrigue of what this more southern appellation had to offer.
Now fast forward to today, we have to really encourage guests to try Old World wines! It flip flopped somewhere along the way and for my palate, the Santa Barbara appellation is home to TWO of the finest Chardonnay vineyards in all of California.
Bien Nacido is quite a large vineyard, located in the sandy loam soils of the Santa Maria Valley. Over the years, I have really taken a liking to four of its blocks for Chardonnay— I block, J block, K block & W block. All were first planted in 1973 and on its own roots.
The Sanford & Benedict vineyard is located in the Santa Rita Hills appellation further south and the old vine parcels were planted somewhere between 1971 & 1973, again on its own roots in calcium rich clay soils with fracture shale and chert. While many other vineyard designated Chardonnays may get higher scores and more accolades, I am still steadfast in believing these two would be considered Grand Cru, if there was ever such a thing in California. And, they certainly have stood the test of time.
On this night, we will try two sets of wine, one set from each of these iconic vineyards and featuring four Top Gun winemakers. We will serve the wines BLIND just for fun! Here is your chance to see for yourself, first hand, if there is something special in the dirt. How often do opportunities like this come around?
2017 Ojai Chardonnay “Bien Nacido Vineyard” —I could honestly say, this bottling from this winemaker is one of the very best Chardonnays produced in all of California. It is certainly NOT showy, snazzy or flamboyant. In fact, because of this stylistic winemaking preference, on this night, some of the tasters noted this wine was rather simple in smell & to their taste. For me, I relish that this wine is very much about mineral character & vinosity. I also loved how seamless, well textured & well balanced it really is & how wonderfully long the finish is. Interestingly, when owner/winemaker Adam Tolmach split from his founding partnership at Au Bon Climat & started his Ojai project, he used to seemingly use at least 33% new oak when aging his Chardonnays. In comparison, this bottling comes from I block—planted in 1973 on its own roots & spends 11 months in old oak. This is a very youthful bottling, in fact, just released. Still I think this wine is superb & is yet another standout wine from a venerable winemaking master.
2015 Tyler Chardonnay “W Block-Bien Nacido Vineyard”–owner/winemaker Justin Willett has meteorically risen to the top echelon of the Californian wine scene. His wines are precise, wonderfully transparent, seamless & remarkably textured & balanced. Along the way, the Tyler fast momentum was further fueled by his ability to get better & better grapes from such iconic regional vineyards such as “Sanford & Benedict” & W Block Chardonnay, Q Block & N Block Pinot Noir from the Bien Nacido vineyard. While many others have waited in a long line, & for a long time, Willett somehow rose through the ranks & now gets such top drawer grapes. His parcel in W block, was planted in 1973 & on its own roots. This parcel uniquely is on a dried up riverbed, more rock/shale than sandy loam & I have been an avid fan for quite sometime. This was a standout & one of the real favorites of this group. The wine is aged for 10 months in oak, 18% new oak.
2016 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard” –I have been a HUGE fan of the wines from Au Bon Climat since way back when. Their wines have always been thankfully done with Old World sensibilities & the resulting wines showcase elegance, minerality, superb texture & balance. For me, the crown jewel of their portfolio is their Sanford & Benedict bottling–typically with Chardonnay & sometimes with Pinot Noir. Over the years, winemaker/owner Jim Clendenen would get grapes from different parcels from the vineyard as politics seemed to always affect who gets what in different vintages. Still, while this is truly one of the most revered single vineyards, I would also say that Au Bon Climat produces the most stirring & memorable of what this site wants to say. His current parcel is old vine—planted in 1971/73 on its own roots. The wine is aged in barrel for 18 months in oak, 80% of which is new. While 80% is a lot of brand new oak to use, this wine somehow magically does NOT seem so oaky. In fact, the Tyler (18% new oak) & the Chanin (25% new oak) seem WAY oakier!!! This is another absolutely stellar bottling!
2013 Chanin Chardonnay “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard”–winemaker/owner Gavin Chanin is another of the New Age winemaking phenoms rising in the industry & supported by quite a slew of high scores & recognition. Gavin worked for several vintages under the tutelage of winemakers Jim Adelman, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) & Bob Lindquist (Qupe). Because their joint winemaking facility is located in the Bien Nacido vineyard itself, Gavin would understand which of that vineyard parcels of their home turf have something interesting to say. It’s then no surprised he worked diligently to get some grapes from the old vines of the iconic W Block to work with. In addition, because of Au Bon Climat’s “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard” (& the “Los Alamos Vineyard”)bottling, Chanin would also have gained a lot of insight into these vineyards as well. The 2013 comes from the old vines—planted in 1971/73 on its own roots & is aged for 15 months in oak, 25% new. The Chanin rendition seems much more apparently oaky & forward than that from Au Bon Climat right upon release. Given this particular wine is now 6 years old & therefore has had time to harmonize & round out, the wine has acquired some grandeur & swag, since we last had it. Still, very masculine & quite showy in style with slight tannins in the finished, it has come a long ways & one just has to be patient to see how it will evolve to. Some of the tasters really loved this wine!