Back to the Futures

How do you learn more about wine? By drinking it, comparing it, talking to the winemakers and vineyard owners. My venue for extending my knowledge was the Wine Cask Wine Futures tasting where you can compare and contrast about 100 wines from similar and different grape varietals, winemaking styles, terroirs and barrel ages side-by-side before you purchase any. What makes it even better is that the wines are all from Santa Barbara county – I could increase my awareness of the characteristics that distinguish local wines from this region.

At this year’s 18th futures offering, wine samples were poured from the 2005 and 2006 vintage that will be released in the next 12 months. These wines were selected by Wendy Van Horn, Wine Cask wine director, and owner Doug Margerum, who both spent the month of January meeting with wine producers throughout Santa Barbara county and tasting their product. Their goal was to select some new wines from new winemakers as well as wines with a proven track record. Some will be ready for early consumption and others are seriously age-worthy for three, five or even 10 years.

Which wines to taste and write about is a fun decision each year. Sometimes I go by varietal and other times I seek out the newly represented wineries. This year I focused on wines from the Santa Maria Valley. From long established vineyards such as Bien Nacido to first or second production year wines such as Alta Maria, this northern part of Santa Barbara county is a premier winegrowing region. There is significant geologic diversity and pockets of meso-climates that offer winemakers a creative palette of terroir in which to grow their varietals in the most conducive conditions.

One of the highlights of the tasting came from Native 9, named for James Ontiveros’s heritage as a ninth generation Californian whose family roots in California agriculture run very deep. He started making wines from his eight-acre estate vineyard with the ’04 vintage and with the viticultural talents of Paul Wilkins (former assistant winemaker at Alban Vineyards). The 2005 Pinot Noir “Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard” (futures price $42, release price $52) is a silky, textured wine with the succulence of the ripe fruit topped with exotic spice notes – think cinnamon, mace, cardamom.

Alta Maria Vineyards was also formed by James Ontiveros, along with Paul Wilkins and Sao Anash, owner of Muse Management and a true wine expert. Alta Maria Vineyards currently sources grapes from vineyard sites throughout the Santa Maria Valley. The first release in January, the 2005 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, was highly acclaimed. I tasted the 2005 Grenache “Nielson Vineyard” ($48/$60) and was impressed with the aroma, depth and complexity of this still young wine, in addition to the ripe raspberry fruit accented with black pepper. I couldn’t help but ask for a second taste.

After tasting these two newer Santa Maria Valley offerings, I asked James what makes the region so perfect for his wines. “What Santa Maria Valley has for these varietals is the ideal combination of cooler climate, soils and long stretches without rain,” he said. “I knew that with the right clones and Paul Wilkins’s winemaking, we could produce something special.”

Bien Nacido Vineyard is one of the best-known vineyards in the Santa Maria region with a reputation as a producer of remarkable Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Syrah, Merlot and smaller plantings of Pinot Gris, Barbera, Roussanne, Nebiolo and Viognier. The wines from this vineyard represented at the “Futures” held up to their reputations. One particular standout was the Qupe 2005 Roussanne “Bien Nacido Hillside Estate” ($32/$40), grown on a steep slope that yields a mere 2.2 tons per acre. The wine is a classic Roussanne with pear, minerality, stone fruit and hazelnut and the acid to support all that flavor now and as it continues to age in the bottle for the next several years.

Dierberg Vineyard sits atop a sandy loam mesa above the Santa Maria River and the higher loam content of the soil contributes to the powerful structure of the 2005 Dierberg Pinot Noir “Steven” ($46/$60). The dark fruit aroma leads to plum and black cherry flavors with hints of sage and soft tannins that coat your tongue as the finish lingers. Another representation of these Dierberg grapes comes from Norm Yost in his Flying Goat 2006 Pinot Noir from Dierberg vineyards ($33/$40). This is a fresh Pinot with lots of fruit and the framework of supporting tannins and acid to balance the flavors beautifully.

Looking for something in white from Santa Maria Valley? Go for the Foxen Vineyard 2006 Chenin Blanc “Ernesto Wickenden Old Vines” ($19/$22). These 40-year-old vines found winemaker/co-owner Bill Wathen following the tradition of Fred Brander in taking 12% of the grapes and macerating them on their skins for that extra structure. This is a perfect food white because the touch of tannin balances and accentuates the floral and honeydew melon, and the finish of vanilla and flint cleanse the palate for your next bite of lobster.

The tasting tour of Santa Maria Valley wines finished when we sipped Joey Tensley’s 2006 Syrah “Colson Canyon Vineyard” ($30/$38). Joey says much of the intense flavor of this wine comes from his selection of grapes from the highest point in the Santa Maria Valley where cooling breezes combine with the early sunshine to give the grapes just the maturity and intensity he loves – flavors we were glad to have linger when we took our leave.

The next Futures Tasting will be Saturday, April 28 from noon to 3 pm; you should reserve your tickets now. Admission numbers are limited so you’ll have the elbowroom to raise your glass and the time to chat with the winemakers.

You can read the catalogue and order through April 30 online at www.winecask.com.