The vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley

The vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley

Prepare to be introduced to one of the emerging hidden gems of new-world wine.  It’s inspiring when you uncover something special that is still young enough, that only few can embrace its significance and nurture its development.  I’m speaking of a region that has produced multiple top wines of the year.  I’m speaking of wine from California unknown to many wine lovers.  I’m speaking, of course, of Santa Barbara County.  If you haven’t discovered it yet, the producers in this article already have, and they have a 40-year head start with extensive knowledge and experience cultivating their terroir.  It’s worth your attention, and it’s worth our praise and recognition.

With the many wine-growing regions of California, we normally associate regions with famous varietals.  Napa Cabernet,  Sonoma Pinot Noir, and now Santa Barbara Syrah and Rhône-style wines grown in the Santa Ynez Valley.  It’s about a 2-hour drive north of Los Angeles, and can be visited in a weekend.  We are going to highlight our top 3 winery visits producing some of the world’s most overlooked, yet most tasteful Syrah and Rhône wines on the market.

Rusack Vineyards

I had an opportunity to meet with Amy Paynter, Rusack’s enologist, and a New Zealand native.  Through her knowledge and expertise, I was able to soak up the history of this vineyard, hidden in the hills of Ballard Canyon.  Their largest lots are Syrah & Sangiovese, which are grown on the very first rows of vines you see as you enter their gates.  They also grow smaller lots of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc which are used to produce everything from a Bordeaux-blend to a 100% delicious Sangiovese.  The only grapes they source from other vineyards are their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are both exceptional.  Amy took me through their barrel room, showed me their back office, crush pad, de-stemmer, and testing lab.  What I took from it was an intimate experience with a tightly knit group of passionate winemakers.

Rusack has earned a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list as recently as 2011, and continues to produce Syrah of the finest quality, distinct in it’s character with notes of creamy butterscotch, cacao, holiday spice, chewy mulberry and dark berries that fill the air with a sweet fragrance.  The aroma is inviting as you first tip the glass.  We tasted the entire line-up, and even had a few special bottles opened for us.  What really stood out was the Syrah, Ballard Canyon Reserve 2010 (93 pts, $36).  It’s a big wine built with so much elegance.  Other noteworthy wines were their Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills Reserve 2011 (91 pts$40), and the Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate 2010 (91 pts$32).  A truly exceptional visit, which tops our list of wineries to visit in the Santa Ynez Valley.  See our gallery below for the best images from our visit to Rusack Vineyards.

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Zaca Mesa Vineyards

A very special invitation to Zaca Mesa’s 40th anniversary private tasting was the basis for making the short trip north to Santa Barbara County.  What we experienced was nothing short of legendary.  After meeting winemaker Eric Mohseni, he poured us a vertical of Roussanne, his favorite varietal to produce.  It’s a white wine that drinks like a red, served at just below room temperature (50-55 deg F).  As we entered the property, we were immediately drawn to the barrel room, where 30-year Cellarmaster Agustin Robles was pouring a few older vintages of Syrah from the 90’s, and sampling the 2011 vintage straight from the barrel.  You can really tell the 2011 vintage will be special, and everyone is excited about it.  We moved to the next station where we were introduced to 3 groundbreaking wines from Zaca Mesa that put Santa Barbara on the wine map with some of the highest accolades achievable.  A double-magnum of their world-famous 1993 Syrah, the wine that landed at #6 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list of 1995, and instantly catapulted the region into an elite class and encouraged healthy competition in winemaking.  I can still taste this outstanding wine.  The finish is still lingering.  It has been served at presidential dinners, and state affairs alike.  Also poured was their 2006 Syrah, a younger wine that presented similar character and showed how these wines can be just as delicious in their youth.  After another vertical of Z Three, we made our way to the main tasting room where we toured through different Syrah blends, and exclusive winery selections.  Our favorite was the 2009 Estate Black Bear Block Syrah (94 pts$60) and a very close second was the 2009 Estate Mesa Reserve Syrah (93 pts$44).  Also worth noting are their more widely distributed Z-Three and Syrah bottlings which can both be easily found at your local Whole Foods market, and purchased on the Zaca Mesa website as well.  Each Syrah offers it’s own personality with concentrated fruit.  Common tasting notes are caramel, smoke, and rich chewy berries from a pie.

Margerum Wine Company

The Margerum tasting room is located in the heart of Santa Barbara on Anacapa Street, a block from most of the shopping and restaurant attractions on State Street.  They make excellent Rhône style wines that purge your senses and stand out among Santa Barbara County’s finest wines.  The M5 blend is a luxurious race car.  It has the best of 5 worlds – Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Counoise, and Cinsault.  Imagine a new-world Châteauneuf-du-Pape ready to drink now, that blends vibrant fruit, and rich, complex spice.  With 12 vineyards used in the blend of grapes, this wine has its footprint all over Santa Barbara County and reminds you of the very essence of the Southern Rhône, yet in a modern approachable style.  If you have the chance to visit, taste their single-vinyard Black Oak Syrah.  We also reviewed their M5 Reserve 2010 (90 pts, $38).  It’s loaded with black cherries, and packs a juicy long-lasting finish.  Vintner Doug Margerum is a huge fan and collector of famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Southern Rhône.  Once you taste his wines, you will understand where his passion originates.

Our top Rhône style selections from the Santa Barbara County

Our top Rhône style selections from the Santa Barbara County

Also worth noting was a tasting room I visited about an hour north of the Santa Ynez Valley in Pismo Beach, Sans Liege.  Winemaker, Curt Schalchlin, sources grapes from the elite growers in the Central Coast to produce “The Offering,” a wine that loads your mouth with bright chewy cherry pie.  It is rustic in its roots, with elements of French provençal wines, yet modern and artistic in its approach, with vanilla, turmeric spice and a label that has you wanting to enlarge it and frame it above your fireplace.  It’s a perfect wine for a BBQ, and can hold up to hearty meat dishes.  Decant it for a few hours, and enjoy it now or 5-10 years from now. (Sans Liege The Offering 2010: 90 pts, $28)

Pinot Noir

Also nestled in this corner of Santa Barbara is another outstanding tasting room worth visiting.  The exceptional Pinot Noir wines of Au Bon Climat, produced by Jim Clendenen, a Santa Barbara winemaking legend.  He began at Zaca Mesa, and has since crafted some of the most remarkable Pinot Noir to come out of California since launching Au Bon Climat in 1982.  Another great stop for Pinot is the Longoria tasting room in Los Olivos.  While you’re there, you can hop next door to Alta Maria and Qupé, and try some smaller production wines that are equally delicious.

Rhône in style, entrepreneurial in spirit, and family-like in character and loyalty.  Embrace the wines of Santa Barbara County –JT