April 2007 Archives

by Robert P. Farmer

Though I know it places me among a small minority for thinking this way, I consider it ironic that the popularity of the film, Sideways, based on the Alexander Payne book, was used so heavily to leverage the popularity of Santa Barbara. I think it's ironic because, while the movies beautifully shows off the landscape and is chock full of cameo appearances by great vineyards and restaurants — giving locals a thrill, no doubt — the movie tells the story of the private downward spirals of two longtime friends whose only real solace is found in the copious (and ostentatious) consumption of fine wines.

As with most tales of personal debauchery, there are several good laughs along the way. But the story is more a cautionary tale than a celebration of wine country, and therein lays, in my opinion, the irony. Still, I suppose the Santa Barbara region is right to take advantage of its newfound stardom, and nobody can blame the folks in the area for making the most of it. It's also highly likely that most visitors to Santa Barbara wine country have a much different (and certainly much better) experience than that of the characters in the movie. I must admit as well, it's also fun to visit the locations used in the movie, because they did manage to incorporate some of the area's best places as their natural backdrops. So my encouragement to those who trek to Santa Barbara for a wine country experience is to understand that the region is anything but sideways – it stands firmly upright as a wine-producing province and as a destination for soaking up the good life.

Once upon a time not long ago, Santa Barbara County was home to just a scattering of upstart wineries. Today, the County has more than 21,000 vineyard-planted acres, grown and tended by dozens of wineries. Many maintain small-batch production and several are family-owned- and-operated. The wineries are primarily situated in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, about 35 miles north of Santa Barbara. Rich with history and shot-through with breathtaking coastal scenery, the area's AVAs produce, of course, remarkable Pinot Noirs (as fans of the movie are now well aware), but also excellent chardonnays and cabernets. There are more varietals on offer from Santa Barbara in smaller quantities, including merlot (yes, merlot!), and select malbecs and viogniers.

In spite of the spike in interest around and visitors to Santa Barbara County wine country since the movie, the region has managed to retain its mellow, unpretentious appeal. The relaxed pace and easy-going charm actually translated well on screen, and visitors can easily take advantage of it with a well-planned weekend. Whether exploring the quaint Danish-transplant town of Solvang or discovering one of the many great restaurants in the valley towns, the intrepid traveler will find Santa Barbara County every bit as appealing as California's more famous wine country to the north—and you need not careening toward intrapersonal oblivion to enjoy it.

The region's four main towns— Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Ballard — each have a distinct character. Also worthy of attention is the town of Buellton to the north. Solvang is self-described as the Danish Capital of American, founded by Danish Americans in 1910 and established as an ethnic colony with architecture and culture to match. As serious-minded as its beginnings were, the charm of Solvang is undeniably kitschy, with more souvenir shops than should possibly fit into one town and buildings that look like they're from the Disneyland back lot. There are a handful of interesting museums in Solvang, including the Solvang Motorcycle Museum and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. Don't miss the Presidio Winery Tasting Room (1539 Mission Drive, 805-740-9463), where the staff are typically friendly and eager to expound upon the history and state of the regional wine industry. Also in town is the surprisingly urbane Cabana Tasting Room & Wine Bar (1539 Mission Dr. 805-686-9126), offering a great collection of wines by the glass from local vintners.

In Los Olivos, the small town atmosphere gives way to chic assortment of shops, galleries, and restaurants. There are more than a dozen wine tasting rooms here, too, including outlets by Andrew Murray Vineyards, Daniel Gehrs Wines, and Los Olivos Vintners.

Los Olivos is a good starting point to explore two of Santa Barbara County's major wine trails: the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail and the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Trail. Stop by the popular Los Olivos Grocery and grab picnic supplies — excellent pannini-style sandwiches, cheeses, meats, etc. — before heading out.

There are several great option for overnight stays in the area, including Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos (2860 Grand Ave, 805-688-7788; www.fessparker.com), the Wine Valley Inn & Cottages in Solvang (1564 Copenhagen Dr., 805-688-2111; www.winevalleyinn.com), and for something completely unique, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang (1054 Alisal Rd, 805-688-6411; www.alisal.com), where you can ride horses, play golf, go fly-fishing, and other activities not wine-related.

Of course, whether you decide to pick up a “Sideways” map to make sure you see all the places on screen in the film is entirely up to you. It's worth noting, though, that many locals are less than enthusiastic about making the connection. Because, like me, they have long understood that Santa Barbara County has much more to offer than a beautiful destination for letting your life go sideways.

Lifestyles of the Rich & Richer

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by Erika Lenkert

It doesn't take access to local tax accountant records to know that there are a lot of wealthy people in Northern California Wine Country. A quick glance at the chateaux and villas tucked into the hillsides and the acres of property in between them are pretty good indications that there aren't a lot food stamps being cashed in at the local grocers. But some of the outrageously luxurious and expensive new programs offered by wine country businesses have me pondering just how rich the area's visitors are—especially when a weekend of participation for some wine country stints could cover my mortgage for more three years. If you want to know how the other half of the other half lives, consider the following tours and attractions.

A Thomas Keller Birthday Party
Have a measly extra $60,000 on hand? Great! Then you can gather six couples and throw your significant other, parent, friend, or self the ultimate food and wine birthday party in conjunction with Napa Valley's ultraexclusive Poetry Inn. The stunning and very intimate Stags Leap District hillside hideaway has teamed up with chef Thomas Keller to offer an all-Keller-all-the-time weekend, which includes dinner at one of the famed chef's two casual Yountville restaurants (Bouchon or Ad Hoc), a sexy picnic packed by his delicious Bouchon Bakery, and accommodations and a seven-course wine-paired Keller-directed birthday dinner at Poetry Inn. Tack on 30 bottles of the sold-out $120 Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon from Cliff Lede Vineyards, a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux wine from the honoree's birth year, and limousine transportation. Sound like a deal? Call Poetry Inn to book your bash (707-944-0646).

VIP Wine Tour with Karen MacNeil
Healdsburg's luxury leader Les Mars Hotel ups the luxury wine tasting ante with a completely custom one- or two-day Sonoma County excursion led by wine educator and The Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil. A true red-rope grape escape, the package includes the opportunity to visit wineries usually closed to the public, tastes of rare and coveted wines, and tutelage on wine topics of choice. Accommodations for a group of two to eight participants are not included in the fee, which starts at $7,500 for a basic one-day adventure.
Should you have 10 grand to burn, call the hotel to find out details (877-431-1700).

Hands-On Harvest
Believe it or not travelers whose love for wine runs as deep as their pockets actually pay a premium to do harvest grunt work. Sure grape-picking teams may scratch their heads at the notion of volunteering for backbreaking work in the hot, dusty fields. But anyone who enrolls in Sonoma County Grape Camp, held this year on September 24 to 26, will find that the fruits of an hour or two of labor outweighs the sacrifice. The three-day extravaganza allows participants to learn the details behind harvest and fine winemaking, pluck grapes off of the vines, blend their own juice, and get schooled on the art of food and wine pairing by award-winning chef and author John Ash. Added perks include a visit to the region's revered Redwood Hill Farm, vineyard dinner by chef Mark Stark of Willi's Wine Bar, paella party on the banks of the Russian River, and accommodations at the Vintner's Inn. What does it cost to be prime for the picking? $15,000 per couple.
(707-522-5860, www.sonomagrapecamp.com)

The Monterey Way - Great Grapes, hold the Wrath

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by Robert P. Farmer

John Steinbeck wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939 and in so doing solidified the Monterey region's place in the canon of American literature. But in spite of the gloomy outlook of the novel's protagonists and the commentary on the changes in the agricultural landscape and those who work in it, the novel at least hinted at a part of the prosperity on the horizon.

Today that prosperity can indeed be found in Monterey in the form of grapes. The Monterey Wine Country is an industry rooted in history but with an eye toward the future. Marked by unique terrior and playful microclimates, the countryside produces wines as varied and interesting as its beautiful landscape.

by Robert P. Farmer

And now, if you’ll indulge me, a word about cabernet. If there is hierarchy among wines—and there is—Cabernet wears the crown. Here’s why.

The reasons for its monarchy are myriad, and as with kingdoms, not always clear or universally accepted. But what is clear is that the Cabernet supremacy is seldom disputed. So how did Cabernet achieve its eminence? For starters, popularity. It continues to be, in spite of the trendiness of other grapes, my favorite varietal. As it was for me, Cabernet is often the wine drinker's initiation varietal. Its name recognition, availability and approachability make it a secure jumping-off spot for the beginner. Cabernet's muscle reminds you that you’re drinking something. Good Cabernet provides bold flavor and straight-ahead definition that can be reassuring to an uncertain palate. Mention Cabernet Sauvignon to any wine-drinking novice and you'll get a nod of recognition. Say "primativo," you might get a blank stare. From here, the drinker can begin to discern the subtleties that accompany the countless other grapes of emerging popularity—even primativo.

This isn't to suggest that Cabernet lacks subtlety. On the contrary, it possesses a kaleidoscope of character, ranging from big and tannic to smooth and fruity. It can be lumbering and brutish or rangy and nimble. There are as many Cabernet styles as there are taste buds. It all depends on who's making it, which brings us to the next reason for Cabernet's preeminence: versatility.

In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon rules the roost. The climate is so well suited to growing the grape that virtually every winery here either produces a version of Cabernet Sauvignon currently, or has produced one at some time in its history. The grapes bathe in the warm afternoon summer sunshine. But just before they get too hot and shrivel, a bracing afternoon breeze cools their jets. The result is fruit with remarkable balance and structure; an ideal canvas for the adventurous winemaker—whose numbers are strong in these parts.

The fruit gives itself to the winemaking shaper. The grapes can lend themselves to phenomenal balance, no matter how big you're making it. It's not just about high tannins. It's also about balance. Cabernet grapes can handle more tannins and still remain balanced. They can also produce many complex flavors.

Originating in the Medoc region of France, Cabernet was introduced in California in the late 1880's. It has proven a durable fruit, adapting well to various climates. But it does particularly well in the Napa Valley. This region has been likened to Bordeaux, France, where for centuries red wines have been created with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. These are the same grapes is used in America' Cabs, which has become the default answer to Bordeaux. Cabernet of course is also grown the world over. Fine cabs have come from the reaches of South America, Australia, and Lebanon. They also come from as close as Oregon and Virginia.

But in Napa, the king reigns. Cabernet grapes interpret the Napa climate very well, concentrating its flavor in small berries with thick skin. And although winemakers interpret it in many variations, Cabernet is typically a medium to full-bodied wine. It is densely colored and full with rich berry flavors—often cherry, plum, black currant. Pure cabs tend to have larger tannins. Traditionally aged in oak, the barrels often impart their presence on the wine and Cabernets are typically the oakiest varietal. However, these days winemakers are aging wines in stainless steel as often as wood.

Whatever the aging process, age is a friend to Cabernet. Its quality goes up as it lies down. Especially with higher-end cabs, which tend to have high fruit concentration—they age well because they will hold their fruit longer. And while top-end cabs tend to be 100 percent fruit, Cabernet's supremacy also comes from its ability to blend well with other grapes. Many great cabs are mixed partially with Merlot, for instance, resulting in a softer, subtler wines but wines that do not surrender their quintessential cabernet character.

There are many widely available full cabernets from the Napa Valley. But more recently when people talk about 100-percent cabs they are talking about the phenomenon of cult wines—extremely high-end wines, hand-crafted in small lots, often in a facility no more glamorous than the winemaker's garage. The wines sell for astronomical prices and are coveted, auctioned, and gossiped about around the globe. Bearing names like Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars and Grace Family Vineyard, cult wines have taken cabernet making to gorgeous extremes. As testament to the power and ascendancy of the varietal, these wines are almost always cabs. Thankfully, Cabernet fans needn't feel compelled to sell the house to buy a bottle or wait ten years to open one. Napa Valley wineries have been creating impressive cabernets and selling them at reasonable prices for decades—many immediately drinkable.

My recommendation? Drink it now.