Cherry picking in Santa Barbara

The annual ritual of tasting the Santa Barbara County wine futures took place recently at The Wine Cask. Many of the white wines have been released and are in the marketplace around the country. Quite a few of the reds will show up this month (many released June 1, 2003) and continue throughout the rest of the year.

At the beginning of every year, Doug Margerum, proprietor of The Wine Cask, pays tasting visits to the wineries in the county; he then cherry-picks the wines and barrel samples to be showcased at his annual tasting. Cherry picking Margerum's own list (over 100 wines), I whittled my faves to the ones noted below; to me, these are the best of the best.

Au Bon Climat: Jim Clendenen's best work is a testament to the fact that specific vineyards do make a difference. The 2001 Pinot Noir from the Sanford and Benedict vineyard is still very young, but displays dark berry and briary flavors that are deeper than most Pinots. The 2001 Pinot from Rosemary's has the typical sweet cherry fruit nose, then shows great concentration and texture on the palate. Both the 2001 Knox Alexander and Isabelle Pinots will reward cellaring but bargain hunters should focus on the 2001 La Bauge Au-dessus, laden with ripe fruit flavors and ready to go right now.

Babcock: From one of the coolest vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, the 2002 Pinot from Cargasacchi vineyard is a big, full bodied, fruit bomb of a wine but then weighs in with all sorts of interesting nuances so it becomes of a voyage of discovery. The 2001 Black Label Syrah has lots of intense blackberry fruit, surrounded by brown spices and hints of black pepper; a stunning wine and very palate friendly.

Beckmen: Their 2002 Grenache is a great follow-up to last year: juicy raspberry and pomegranate flavors with cracked pepper are dark and brooding. The 2002 Mourvedre is incredibly aromatic with raspberry, aged beef and leather along with plenty of spice; is this the best Mourvedre on the planet? And Syrah doesn't get any better than their 2002 version, teeth staining stuff that delivers up a panoply of aromas and flavors that are intense yet balanced.

Bonaccorsi: Master of Wine and ex-Spago sommelier Michael Bonaccorsi hits it out of the park with these vineyard designated releases. The 2002 Melville Pinot has sweet mouth filling fruit, primarily dark plum and raspberry, along with wood spice. The 2002 Pinot from the new Fiddlestix vineyard is strikingly different: layer upon layer of sweet fruit is mixed with exotic elements like salt port, tree bark and mouth watering acidity. His 2002 Syrah from Bien Nacido is dark and rich with berry fruit combined with black pepper and a layer of vanilla.

Brander: The 2002 Sauvignon Au Naturel is as good as ever, but there is nothing like the 2002 Sauvignon Gris. It's very Alsatian, with a white peach nose, great petulant but fat citrus/melon flavors, finishing with a fine dusky, almost nutty nuance. The 2001 Syrah, under the Domaine Santa Barbara label has cooked/candied dark berry fruit with toasty vanilla but also boasts an elegance not often seen. Finally, do not miss the Brander 2000 Cabernet reserve, possibly one of the best cabs ever from Santa Barbara.

Carina: David and Helen Hardee partnered with winemaker Joey Tensley on this new label. The 2002 Colson Canyon Syrah has a touch of Viognier which gives the aromatics a great lift; plenty of florals in the mouth along with a dense mouthful of dark fruit. The 2001 Thompson Syrah has a lot of things going on: fruit, earthiness, smoke and wood spice, deserving time in the bottle to show its complexity.

Cold Heaven: Peach, honeysuckle and mixed florals are the hallmark of the 2002 Le Bon Climat from this Viognier specialist. Rarer is the 2002 version from Sanford and Benedict, which acts more like old world Condrieu.

Costa de Oro: World class Pinot here in Gary Burk's 2001 reserve: sweet Santa Maria berry fruit is rich and lengthy on the palate with an unstoppable finish. Under the "Duo" label (a collaboration with wife Teresa) is a grapefruit, kiwi and lanolin infused 2002 Sauvignon Blanc that captures the varietal essence. The 2002 Duo Syrah has a great floral aromatics on the nose and very pretty, precise fruit flavors on the palate.

Curtis: No doubt about it, the 2002 Roussanne is world class stuff, heady with peaches and hazelnuts, as well as rich and lengthy to the max. The 2001 Mourvedre is boisterous and big boned with dark black, inky fruits, classic meaty/beefy overtones and plenty of spicy high notes.

Drew: Ex-Babcock protege, Jason Drew, is making superb red wines under his own family label. The 2002 Rodney's and Larner Syrah has wild berry, red plum and black cherry fruit that exudes a smoky richness. On the other hand, the 2002 Alisos Syrah has more of a juicy and fresh fruity nose and palate, but it does not want for complexity, with its hints of white pepper, tobacco and dark chocolate. Also, don't miss the black cherried 2002 Cabernet Franc.

Foxen: The Foxen boys' 2001 Sangiovese is big boned and voluptuous but well structured enough to drink now or later. The 2001 Cuvee Jean Marie, a Rhone blend, is rich with dark cherry and black fruits as well as vanilla and traces of black pepper and leather. The 2001 Cabernet Franc, however, is the real mind blower, so dark and intense with fruit and spice that it transcends its varietal label and simply becomes great red wine.

Hitching Post: The 2001 Bien Nacido Pinot has jammy, sweet fruit that comes on strong but is in the smooth and elegant zone right now. The Highliner Pinot is always their best effort; the 2001 is hugely aromatic with deliciously sweet cherry and red berry flavors but plenty of guts for aging. Very extracted is the 2001 Syrah, with black currants and blueberries, but showing good balance to pair with food.

Jaffurs: The aromas on the 2002 Stolpman Syrah jump out of the glass and the flavors show the purity of blueberry and dark fruit with a meaty and mineral character that's hard to find. The 2002 Melville Syrah is awesome with dark fruit, plum and blackberry as well as an intesity that just won't quit.

Kenneth-Crawford: The 2002 blended Syrah has a complex nose of floral, spice and bright fruit, while the flavors are supple and tasty. The 2002 Lafond Syrah has the dark color, the dark fruit flavors, the inherent spiciness coupled with the massive waves of flavor that makes for a massive, age worthy Syrah.

Kunin: I could give you the peach and apricot descriptors for the 2002 Viognier, but take my word for it, this is one of the most beautifully balanced, elegant Viogniers around. The 2002 Syrah from Paradise Road is real find, rich with concentrated flavors of dark berrires, licorice and and black tar. Kunin also makes the Westerly Roussanne/Viognier blend which is outstanding for its fruit concentration and length.

Longoria: The 2001 Mt. Carmel Pinot is a big well fruited wine with ripe plum and black fruit flavors and a smooth finish. Nothing short of world class is the 2001 Fe Ciego Pinot; very Burgundian, it has intense blueberry and cream aromatics and then silky fruit flavors as well as a pleasant earthiness plus an elegant structure.

Margerum: Zingy gooseberry, grapefruit and mineral are the characteristics of the 2002 Sauvignon Blanc; all mouth watering fruit and great, food friendly acidity. The 2002 Alondra Syrah is incredibly ripe with densely concentrated dark plum flavors though it gets a floral lift from an addition of white grapes. The 2002 M5 is the real crowd pleaser, with its huge nose of vanilla and juicy fruit. This exotic Rhone blend has it all: spice, pepper, and leather mixed with outrageously tasty red/black fruits. Wow!

Melville: The 2002 Clone 76 Chardonnay is as close to world class Chablis, all steely and racy flavors, as it gets here. The 2002 Terraces Pinot has beautiful blue/black/plum flavors that are so pretty but so weighty it's almost like a fruit conserve. The Carrie's Block Pinot is big with a core of dark fruit flavors and, while full throttled, it still possesses elegance and breed.

Andrew Murray: The 2001 Melville Syrah is just immense with so much fruit intensity and supporting spice that it's mind blowing. The 2001 South Slope Syrah is more brooding with dark currant, framboise like flavors while also showing signs of butterscotch, clove, pepper and soy sauce!

Ojai: The 2001 Bien Nacido Pinot is beautifully complex and well balanced but very supple right now. Every Syrah, from the 2001 Vogelzang and 2001 Roll Ranch to the 2000 Roll Ranch/Bien Nacido blend, are incredibly with dark fruit and spicy underpinnings. But the Vogelzang is my fave: so dark and intense with exotic fruit and spice that there's nothing like it.

Qupé: Syrah is king here and the 2001 Alisos is alive with ripe fruit, cracked white pepper, vanilla, wood spice and toast. The 2001 Bien Nacido Hillside is laden with sweet black/blue fruits, good oak and gentle tannins, though typically it needs some bottle age. The 2001 20th Anniversary Syrah has plenty of black fruit with pepper and spices, a great mouthfeel, and an extremely long finish. Another wow!

Sanford: Dark cherry/strawberry aromatics give way to an intense core of full bodied fruit sweetness in the 2001 Sanford and Benedict Pinot. A beauty from the get go, the key is it's great structure for aging. The 2001 La Rinconada Pinot is more backward at this point but the cherry/berry fruit, nervous with acidity, is showing through now and will eventually surpass the 2000 version.

Sea Smoke: Winemaker Kris Curran's 2001 Botella Pinot serves up a dark fruit and earthy nose, though it becomes more subtle in the mouth, showing restrained, elegant and satisfying flavors. The 2001 Southing Pinot is more fruit forward with a bright nose but darker fruit on the palate.Well focused with a subtle spice box component, it will reward cellaring.

Stolpman: A great grower has become a great wine producer! The 2001 Syrah shows ripe blackberry and plum fruit with great intensity and depth; this is an incredibly aggressively flavored Syrah with a rounded mouth feel. The 2001 Syrah/Sangiovese blend is nothing short of inspired; the flavors are surprisingly complimentary as they reach crictical mass at mid palate and, combined with a vanilla lift, they echo multiple flavors on the finish. The 2001 Angeli is a Super Tuscan/Bordeaux proprietary style blend that works together symbiotically with cherries and red berries encapsulated in the very mellow but together flavors

Tensley: If you want to know what the future of Santa Barbara wines could be like, taste Joey Tensley's stuff. The 2002 Purisma Syrah is deep, dark extracted stuff, way off the deep end, with blackberry, pepper, licorice and mushroom flavors that are more complex than you ever imagined. The 2002 Colson Canyon Syrah has multiple levels of aromas and flavors, so much so that you will be both confused and delighted to discover that someone has pushed the envelope of syrah to another level.

June 13, 2003

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