A Tale of Two Regions

The ascent of Central Coast wines to world-class status is only about a 20-year-old concept. Napa and Sonoma made their mark a few decades before we did, though the region is catching up as winemakers continue to experiment with what varietals grow best in each distinct microclimate and terroir. A microcosm of this trend can be seen when comparing a long established vineyard in the Carneros appellation, the pride of Napa and Sonoma counties, with a relative newcomer in the Santa Ynez Valley. The similarities far outweighed the differences.

Most of California’s wine appellations have their boundaries drawn using a combination of geographical and climatic considerations. Carneros is one of a tiny handful of California appellations whose boundaries are drawn according to only climatic conditions, crossing over the geographic boundaries of Sonoma and Napa counties.

Buena Vista, established in 1857, was one of the first wineries to plant grapes in the Carneros region – back in 1969 – and it is now the largest vineyard holding in Carneros, with 1,000 acres of estate vineyards. The vineyards are on south-facing slopes for sun exposure to balance the cooling fog sweeping in from the San Pablo Bay. This results in a long growing season that has been tested on a diversity of rootstocks and Chardonnay clones. Over time, winemakers have selected the best combinations to yield grapes that ripen fully and have proper varietal flavors at lower sugar levels and higher acidity. Lower sugar means less alcohol to mask other flavors and higher acidity makes it easier to pair the wines with food.

The Buena Vista 2005 Carneros Chardonnay ($19), from Ramal Vineyard, displays crisp acids reflecting that long, moderate growing season. Fruit flavors tend to be green apple, pear and sweet Meyer lemon with texture added by notes of vanilla and spice.

Merlot grapes also benefit by the long, cooler growing season but as Merlot also likes periods of heat, it is planted on the estate’s warmer, more inland hillsides. Winemaker Jeff Stewart uses his palate to choose from the rich palette of flavors coming from vines planted in different soil types throughout the vineyard’s hillsides. He tastes through his Merlot grapes from the different vineyard sections and blends his favorites with a small amount of Cabernet Franc and Syrah. An example of this procedure is the Buena Vista 2004 Carneros Merlot ($21), whose balance and full body are bolstered by structure and complexity.

At Bridlewood Winery, a mission-style estate in the Santa Ynez Valley, vintners put similar emphasis on microclimates within an appellation. Winemaker David Hopkins’s philosophy is to “follow the flavor and not the appellation.” Much like the climate in Carneros, certain sections within the vineyard vary in temperature, wind and sun exposure to produce a variety of flavor development in the ripening grapes.

Bridlewood was a former equestrian rehabilitation facility converted to a winery. When E. & J. Gallo purchased this setting, fears abounded of a mega wine corporation smothering the Valley’s unique artisan quality. However, the owners have appeared to support Bridlewood’s locally oriented philosophy and have deferred to the winemaker’s autonomy and judgment. The winery’s offerings include these Syrahs: Blue Roan, Dusty Trails, English Pleasure and Six Gun, each with its own flavor profile.

Bridlewood’s Central Coast Syrah ($18) blends grapes from various microclimates through the Central Coast to create a layered, complex wine. By sourcing fruit from distinctive vineyards throughout the Central Coast, Hopkins is able to produce multiple flavors, aromas and textures. He also fine-tunes the wine by blending in small amounts of Petite Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne.

Once opened, this wine is fun to drink at different intervals. Taste it early and notice how intense it is. Then decant it and give it time to breathe so the subtler dark cassis, licorice and hints of mocha swirl up in the aromas. Similarly, through exposure to air, the flavors of the wine develop, beginning with cassis and dried black fruit followed by dark chocolate, vibrant fruit, spice, herbs and soft, chewy tannins. The Syrah also has a long mid-palette and lingering finish, evidence that it will continue to improve over the next two years and that it can be cellared up to five years.

It’s also a sign of the Central Coast’s burgeoning similarities with the champion wine region of Northern California. For Santa Barbara county, it is the best of times and the even better of times.