Anyone who has had the great privilege (or as he might say the misfortune) to enjoy (or endure) a tasting with Alessandro – based on whether you agree or disagree with his strong opinions on wine – will know that he has a highly discerning palate for ‘terroir’ driven wines which offer complexity and unctuousness to the palate. So, on a recent trip he took to visit California, Santa Barbara specifically, I was tasked with a seemingly, but not so, easy request…
‘I want to taste some good California wine!’
For starters, how does one define a ‘good’ California wine? Wouldn’t a ‘good’ California wine be one that actually expresses the flavors of California (and no, I’m not saying that it should taste like Rombauer). Or is it a wine that tastes nothing like California but more closely resembles a Burgundy or Bordeaux? Really for that matter, how would you define the flavors of ‘California’ wine? Oaky and fruity quite often right? Well, oak comes from barrels, not from anything California gives it. Quite often it’s warm here, so grapes ripen easily and fully producing fruit and alcohol bombs, but is this what we’re going to cling to as our flavor…none of which are an expression of the actual land?
Of course ‘good’ lies in the buds of the beholder, so I’m not speaking of it from solely a subjective taste perspective but more from a aesthetic or cultural perspective. To me the idea of a ‘good’ California wine would be when we find our story, our tradition, and do it in a way that is as natural as possible to give rise to the flavor of our land so that we can actually taste the soul and soil of California, not just barrels and chemicals. And more than that, if we try to imitate another region, say Burgundy or Bordeaux, we’ll always fall short because we will never be Burgundy or Bordeaux – not from the perspective of location, terroir, soil, economics, history – we are California.
Mission accepted, as one producer immediately comes to mind, and it was up to Lompoc to talk rocks with Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman of Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote.
Clones, oak and fermentation – the 3 common pillars when discussing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California. The story gets old fast – 667, 777, new French vs. neutral oak, malolactic – when the reality is that many of the wines all taste more or less the same. When we hopped in the car with Rajat Parr to head a few miles from their Lompoc winery to the Domaine, there would be nothing to be said about this. Raj’s demeanor immediately impresses though his extensive knowledgable, and passionate, honest, and sincere approach. Nothing to market, just a story to share about why he chose a specific block of vineyards on the Western edge of the Santa Rita Hills AVA.
Nowhere in California will you find this diverse and unique ‘terroir’ in such a close proximity. Here 7 miles from the Pacific, 16 hectares (40 acres) of vines, planted to 6 vineyards on an 25 million year old ancient diatomaceous and silex seabed, with soils varying from iron-rich clay to schist and shale, bring 6 completely unique wines. Raj will even tell you that a specific spot under an oak tree produces a completely unique structure in comparison to the rest of that vineyard, which has made up the majority of the ‘La Cote’ bottling. The story here wasn’t clones, fermentation and barrels. It was soil, rocks, weather and wind aka ‘terroir’.
Vineyard selection is the backbone of their wines, and where Raj invested most of his time before founding Sandhi in 2010. Sites were specifically chosen for their ability to give marked acidity and finesse to their wines. Vineyard and cellar techniques are biodynamic, organic, and as minimally invasive as possible without excessive extraction or alcohol. Even sulpher is completely avoided until bottling (where still quite low amounts are added – less than 30ppm). They are not just following the herd to make another high alcohol, fruit bomb to appease the masses whose palates largely have been culturally determined by decades of massive Napa Cabernets and Russian River Pinots appearing on Top 100 lists. Their pursuit is balance.
Sashi and Raj are making wine that they would like to drink. Sure, it’s Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) and you could call it more ‘Burgundian’ in style for its finesse, minerality and balance. If we are going to say anything about clones, it should be noted that they chose California clones more suited for their conditions rather than Dijon clones. I didn’t get from them that they are trying to imitate Burgundy in the way many other producers pitch their wine making style (which I never find even remotely to be a good imitation).
Any fine wine lover naturally will take inspiration from one of the most important wine regions of the world. But while Burgundy may be their road map along the way, their end result is truly their own – 6 diverse wines considering proximity, expressing the flavor and structure profile of that particular parcel, with minimal intervention in the vineyard and cellar, made to please their palates…what more can you ask for in a wine.
They opened up a bottle of their 2009 Sandhi Chardonnay, the first year they bottled that label, just to show the progress they are making in the cellar and vineyards and it was quite impressive to see how the wines have improved in a really short time as the vines dig deeper and practices are improved. One thing Sashi pointed out as well that gives them a little edge on Burgundy, as even some of Burgundy is struggling with production, is that they are able to be more flexible with experimentation since they are not paralyzed by long-standing winemaking traditions and this may ultimately limit them. California doesn’t have 2,000 years of wine making tradition to draw from – Sashi has 20 years and California a few more decades – which makes this even more impressive. Lompoc, and more specifically the hill of Siren’s Call to Memorius, is officially on the map of the wine world. We both left after 20 barrel samplings with a fresh outlook on California wines. Mission accomplished.
Don’t buy a bottle and compare it to a Maconnais or Montrachet. Buy a bottle and enjoy it as what it is – (really) “good’ California wine.
For anyone in Santa Barbara who needs a compass of where to go for quality and interesting wine, here are some other notable producers and wines we were pleasantly surprised by along the way of our ‘Sideways’ wine tour
– Whitcraft (1998 Lagrein)
– The Hilt (2014 Pinot Noir)
– Au Bon Climat (2014 Pinot Noir)
– Jonata (2006 Petit Verdot)
And being a Santa Barbara resident for years, you can always send me an email for any recommendations if you’re going to the area – firstname.lastname@example.org,