After a quick lunch at El Palmar restaurant in Lompoc (highly recommended by several winemakers), we jumped in our cars & headed back north to the Santa Maria Valley. I just wanted to make sure the Hawaii gang had a chance to see first hand & walk the iconic Bien Nacido Vineyard.
We met long time Au Bon Climat associate winemaker Jim Adelman at their winemaking facility, which is located in the Bien Nacido vineyard. (By the way, I was happy to hear that Frank Ostini & Gray Hartley of Hitching Post have moved their winemaking operation back to this winemaking facility). Who better to show us? I believe this can give a very & different perspective on the hows & whys of a wine, especially if you do so with the right kind of winemaker.
After tasting a few wines just to whet the palate (note: their wines truly are some of the very finest out of California AND the winemaking has never been better. They are in the zone!), we jumped in the cars & headed to different parts of this nearly 900 acre vineyard.
The first stop was the iconic K Block, which has been the source to Au Bon Climat’s Bien Nacido Chardonnay for decades. The vines were planted in 1973 & are still on their own roots. The resulting wine has mesmerizing minerality & dazzling dynamics in its youth with incredible, though seemingly effortlessly focused intensity, concentration & vivid, riveting acidity. I am not sure how many people really understand what an outstanding a wine this bottling typically is, especially since it is frequently only rated 88 to 92 points by the wine media. I would however say to that, we had a bottle of the 1991 BLIND recently & most of the tasters thought it to be French white Burgundy of Cru quality. While many Californian wines may age, this one definitely gets better with age & is truly worth the wait. (I should mention here that the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from the Sanford Benedict vineyard is also one of the very top Chardonnays out of California too & well worth seeking out!)
We jumped back in the car to check out the world renown Q & N Pinot Noir Blocks (mostly planted in 1973 & own rooted; although the inter-row plantings were planted in the mid 90’s with Dijon clones). Slightly & gradually ascending from the floor vineyards reminiscent to the Crus of Burgundy, there is a VERY long waiting list of winemakers who can only up to this point dream of getting grapes from these two parcels. I was absolutely shocked to see that roughly 5 acres of each parcel had been uprooted & now lay fallow. What? How can this be? My questions were answered when seeing the large amounts of red/orange colored vine leaves, caused by the malady known as Red Blotch, spreading in the blocks below. Sadly, in the next few years these 2 truly historic, iconic parcels & its old, own rooted, noteworthy vines, will all have to be replanted. I was totally shocked at this thought & greatly saddened. I have had many REALLY terrific wines from these old vines & I felt like I was saying goodbye to them for the last time. Tragic to say the least. (sorry, my pictures for these didn’t turn out so good).
Lying right above Q & N Blocks across the dirt vineyard road is Block 2, a parcel planted for Au Bon Climat in the mid-1990’s. Slightly more elevated & more naked to the coastal winds, this parcel has a bunch of different Pinot vines planted, including a small amount of Pinot Meunier. The wines I have tasted from Au Bon Climat using these grapes are also very intriguing & even more beguiling than those from Q & N Block, though certainly not as rich & vinous. With the fading of N & Q, however, I am sure there will be a long waiting list for these grapes too.
Off in the distance, we could see W Block, another one of the very noteworthy vineyard sources of California for Chardonnay. In fact, many more winemakers today are clamoring for this fruit over all of the others to produce Chardonnay. The vines were also planted in 1973 on its own roots, in soils that once was a river bed–therefore much more gravelly/shale than the sandy loam commonly found in the other renown Chardonnay parcels of Bien Nacido.
We then took a trek to the newer (late 90’s early to mid 2000’s) plantings on top of the hill–most notably X & Z Blocks, the Nebbiolo block & Block 11. This is a really different grape growing zone & it normally shows in the quality of the fruit they bear. Quite dramatic to say the least. Tasting the ripening grapes was a terrific learning opportunity, especially in contrast to what we tasted up in Paso Robles.
In ALL cases, the ambient temperatures were MUCH cooler (higher 70’s to mid 80’s, not considering the wind chill factor) during the day than what we experienced anywhere else during this trip. Coupled with the various soils, this made for a lot of insight into what can be in the wines.
Before driving back to our hotel in Buellton (45 minutes south), on the way out & back to catch the highway, I just had to show the Hawaii gang, the Gold Coast Vineyard, a 5 minute drive from Bien Nacido & closer to the ocean. (one can clearly see Bien Nacido Vineyard in the distance in the picture to the right). This is the home vineyard for the Costa de Oro wines AND the CF Pinot Noir. The soils are also quite sandy loam there. The main core of vines (old California heritage clone 4 for Chardonnay & the Martini heritage vine for Pinot Noir), were planted in 1989, 90 & 91. Located up on a mesa, the vines get continually pounded by the cool ocean winds which, along with the more meager soils, greatly affects the vigor of the vines. I really love how transparent, elegant, well textured, pretty AND personal the resulting wines can be. I also wanted to reiterate what truly remarkable values they are given their reasonable pricing.
We then made a dinner stop at Industrial Eats in Buellton, a restaurant highly recommended to us by many people.
After dinner, since it was still light outside, I took the gang for a drive to see the other side of the Santa Rita Hills “horseshoe configuration”, which included driving by Melville, Babcock, Clos Pepe, Huber, Hapgood (we had seen wine renown winemaker Greg Brewer earlier as we were leaving lunch. Wish we had the time to stop by for a quick taste.), Zotovich, Ampelos & Hilliard Bruce in the distance. We stopped a couple of times, so everyone could see the soils & feel the gusting wind, both integral influences to the vine of this area.
We then took a drive out so everyone could see Happy Canyon farther east just to get a feel of that region too.
The next morning, as we headed down to LA, we made one last stop down in Ojai, home to winemaking maestro Adam Tolmach & his Ojai wines. Here was a chance for all to spend some time listening to one of the legendary wine “yodas” of all time, while tasting some of his wines out of barrel. Adam was one of the 2 founding winemakers/owners of Au Bon Climat, whom both Gary Burk of Costa de Oro & Jim Adelman worked for, along with equally legendary Jim Clendenen. When they decided to split up, Clendenen kept Au Bon Climat & Tolmach concentrated on his Ojai label. How often does one get to talk story with an icon like this? Plus, to view our Santa Barbara trip from another perspective, we tasted a bunch of barrel samples, including wines from the Puerta del Mar AND various blocks of Bien Nacido, Adam has been working with since the early to mid 1990’s–I Block for Chardonnay (planted in 1973 & own rooted); Q Block for Pinot Noir (also planted in 1973 & own rooted) & the Syrah from Z Block (planted in the mid 90’s) up on the top of the hill, which we had walked & tasted the grapes off the vine. Amazing wines!!!!!!! I really would say it was very clear to me that Adam Tolmach is making better wines than ever before AND they are still some of the very best out of California . Kudos young man & thank you! Also much mahalo to Fabien Castel too!