Ken Volk walks among us (and that's a good thing!)

Anyone who's followed the Central Coast wine scene over the last 25 years knows who Ken Volk is. He founded Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles way back in 1981 and, over the years, produced many good wines. But even more than that, he was a cheerleader, an advocate for Paso Robles and Central Coast wines. He is one of the reasons Paso is on the map in wine lists from coast to coast, as well as the wine tourist destination it is today. Mr.Volk is very passionate about what he does, which is why we are lucky to have him join us in Santa Barbara County.

You see, in 2003, he sold Wild Horse to Jim Beam Wine Estates (a group that includes Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma County) and then decided to "get back to basics" and set about refurbishing the original and abandoned Byron Winery on Tepesquet Road in Santa Maria (coincidentally, just down the road from the new Byron Winery). He downsized his production to about 16,000 cases a year, primarily devoted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (70%), with the balance consisting of Bordeaux and orphan varietals. I tasted through the current releases from the new Kenneth Volk Vineyards label and am excited about his prospects.

Chardonnay, Santa Maria Cuvee 2005: Pineapple, citrus and spice aromatics right out of the gate are so immediately inviting. Digging in, the flavors follow the nose with more of a lemon drop sensibility laced with brown baking spices, though the pineapple is still present. This Chard is the epitome of balance: not overripe with fruit nor overdone on the oak side either. With its refreshing acidity and resonance of flavors on the finish, this is flat-out wonderful stuff. Just released, there's plenty to go around. The kicker: it's only $18. It's hard to find a really good Chard at this price, much less one that says "Santa Maria" on the label. Best buy!

Chardonnay, Sierra Madre Vineyard 2005: Scheduled for a March release, this Chard is all buttercream and spice on the nose, which foretells the richness to come on the palate. Very ripe tropical fruit comes through in spades, though it's not overwhelming and is buttressed by the rich buttercream; a bit of pear and green apple sneaks into the mix too. It's a great big mouthful of Chardonnay by any standards. Full-bodied? Yes, but the appropriate balance of all the elements is key to the total package.

Chardonnay, Sierra Madre Vineyard 2004: Intense nose of tropical fruit, pineapple, apple, ripe pear and baking spices. Mouth filling with flavors of citrus, pear, honey and that sensation of well spiced, baked apple pie. Showing lively acidity with a big lift on mid palate, embodied by a rich, creamy texture, this Chard is well structured for service with food. It also underscores how fleshed out the wine has become and how pleasing it is to the senses with some aging time in the bottle.

Chardonnay, Bien Nacido Vineyard, U Block 2004: Green pippin apple, ripe pear and toasted cereal grains on the nose in this unique, single vineyard, single block offering. Sweet green-apple fruit with wet-stone minerality as its partner is apparent but not overpowering. A sweet spot of fruit forms on mid-palate but is complemented by flinty minerality, really expressing the terroir of the vineyard block. Oh, did I mention, it's elegant and almost understated in a way; the same way it would pair with sushi or simply grilled fish.

Malvasia Bianca, San Bernarbe Vineyard, Monterey 2005: Mr. Volk has long championed "orphan grapes" like Malvasia Bianca. If you talk dry, but really like something a little sweeter, this is your ticket. Apricot, peach and stone fruits on the beautiful nose, as well as florals and spices. "Aromatherapy with a libation" is how Mr. Volk describes this potion. Flavors follow the aromatics with the addition of tropical white flowers and lychee fruit. A fine aperitif to whet the palate on a hot day or a stand out paired with Chinese or Thai cuisine.

Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2004: A blend of different Santa Maria vineyards, this Pinot has plenty of blue and black fruits, as well as strawberry, cherry and Asian spices; included in the mix and very typical (of Santa Maria) are the complex factors of hummus, forest floor and even cola nut. This entry level Pinot is accessible right now and very easy to enjoy, with its sweet and lovely fruit modulated with spices, though you can find complexity if you go looking for it.

Pinot Noir, Sierra Madre Vineyard 2004: From the Pommard clone of Pinot Noir, this offering is seriously extracted with deep, dark plum and ripe berry aromatics. On the palate, lavender, violets and forest-floor flavors combine with damson plum, strawberry and dark cherry fruit. Dark and delicious, it is still very balanced, getting an extra flavor boost from its earthy loam background mixed with wood spice. Silky and supple with a great, lengthy finish.

Pinot Noir, Garey Vineyard 2004: This is the dark star Pinot of the line-up, with nearly an inky black color and dark berry fruits and lead pencil on the nose. A huge wine, big and bouncy in the mouth. Dark plum and cherry flavors are stuffed into a rich monster package. Taking nearly six months to complete fermentation in new French oak, this may be atypical of Pinot Noir, but the whole lollapalooza just beats on the part of your brain that registers pleasure. Robert Parker, in his newsletter, described this wine in glowing terms and then rated it an 85! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, this is a mind-blowing, extreme makeover edition of Pinot Noir.

Mourvedre, Lime Kiln Valley, San Benito County 2003: Through his long time connections, Mr. Volk has access to one of oldest Mourvèdre vineyards in California, not far from the famous Calera Winery. A workhorse grape of the Rhone in France, Mourvèdre does well on its own here with flavors of blackberry, licorice and anise. It's big-bodied, once again, but so well balanced. The dark fruit and plum flavors are appealing, but a river of minerality and earthiness is woven through the proceedings. This is the sleeper of the line-up that's very juicy, jumpy and attractive with the wonderful dollop of dark fruit in the middle.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmody McKnight Vineyard, Paso Robles 2003: I know, we would all like a good Cab from this area. Here's one that, given the vintage, is now soft in the mouth, moderately bodied and is showing finely honed berry and cassis flavors. With a couple years in the bottle already, it's easy to drink with yielding tannins and a lingering finish. Showing great elemental Cab flavors now (throw another tri-tip on the barbie!), it still has plenty of life left to age well for another five years.

February 4, 2007

Back to the Schaefer on Wine Index