A question that I am forced to ask myself from time to time – “Are some people just crazy and don’t know it?” Time and time again I am reminded that, yes, some people wake up and proceed to live in an alternate reality.
That glaring, Las Vegas-bright reminder came to me the other day when someone I “know” who actually sells wine for a living told me the following:
“I don’t think the wine industry is very lucrative anymore in California. It has become overinflated, too global, and the current economy and supply dictates lower price points for wines. I don’t think people are willing to pay these prices anymore in California. All the money in sales is in import/export”.
I tried to not respond to this lunacy as a buyer and seller of mostly California wine. I tried to put myself in this person’s floppy red clown shoes and see if perhaps they were right. Is the California wine market saturated with over-priced schlock that no one really wants? Are millions of wine drinkers across this great country planning a revolt to drink only foreign value wines? Have I been completely incorrect in my career choice?
As a former importer/exporter of Italian wines, most of which at a great value, I know that there is money to be made in the importing game; however, as a champion of the wines of the Central Coast, I became really worried that perhaps this person’s opinion on the future of domestic worthless hooch was a genius premonition of things to come. Then I took a deep breath, chuckled a bit and realized that if anywhere in the world, the Central Coast is producing some fantastic values. Now there aren’t a lot of $8 wines coming from this region, but then again the level of quality, care and precision that come from these wines are at a completely different level than a random Argentine Pinot Noir made in a guy’s garage. You get what you pay for, so I wanted to find at least 3 wines that I think (and many others) are outstanding values for what you get – all under $20 a bottle.
You don’t have to be a genius or a sophisticated billionaire wine collector to know that Sierra Madre Vineyard in Santa Maria is one of the top vineyards on the Central Coast for bright, flavorful and terroir-driven grapes. An old Mondavi property planted by Ken Brown, new owner Doug Circle has created a vineyard that is sought after by some fantastic producers including Flying Goat, La Fenetre, Au Bon Climat, Paul Lato and many more. Long story short, they produce some amazing grapes.
So when Alan Phillips decided to make a Pinot Gris, what a better place to source from than this gem of a vineyard. Alan Phillips, along with wife Rochelle, make high quality wines for price points that do not break the bank. Specifically this Northern Italian-inspired white, Fontes & Phillips Pinot Gris is not like the insipid Pinot Grigios that you find in the aisles of Vons – but a complex, yet delicate combination of fantastic fruit and incredible acidity. If ever a wine existed for summer sipping – this is it. Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same, just different in name and in style. Alan Phillips has created a style of this varietal that maintains that pop, that freshness of Trento in the Dolomites of Italy.
An amazing array of citrus fruits jump out of the glass when you first smell it – meyer lemon, key lime and a touch of white peach. Then you find a hint of wet stones, which tells you that there is going to be great minerality to this wine, a crisp, zippiness. The palate does not disappoint, as you get all that fruit and minerality that brings you to a feeling that your mouth will not stop watering. It craves Dos Carlitos Ceviche or Morro Bay Oysters. Bring a napkin, because the salivating will not stop!
Now imagine all of those flavors, all of that magic going on – for only $15 a bottle. Or for even less by the case. Only 275 cases produced!
Pinot Noir is possibly one of the most expensive varietals to grow correctly. By correctly, I mean with a delicate nature; nuance; respect. For those that are wearing a strait jacket, Pinot Noir is a wine that goes beyond that of understanding and appreciation. The Pinot Noir wave has been beat to death by wineries that have no business producing the grape just to make a quick buck. My insane “colleague” previously mentioned may look to a grape like Pinot Noir to show the glut of California wines. It is an easy argument if you aren’t paying true attention.
Enter Bryan Babcock. Bryan is a vineyard wizard. If you go to the Babcock Winery in Sta. Rita Hills, you will not hear him talk about food pairings or wine, you will hear about soil types, grape clusters and vine training. Bryan is a genius when it comes to the better production of grapes.
When you look through the catalog of Babcock wines, you will see several small production Pinot Noirs that are about the highlighting of different vineyards, soil types and expressions. These Pinots are in small production, some only 85 cases. They are not cheap. Then you come across a wine called “Rita’s Earth”, an homage to the soil of Sta. Rita Hills. You taste this wine and automatically you are transplanted to these hills on the way to the coast.
Then….you see the price. At under $20, this is perhaps the best value in Pinot Noir that exists in the world. Pinot Noir should be a feminine grape, a feminine expression of true terroir. Sometimes what you get in Pinot Noir is a seemingly attractive feminine with mangled, masculine hands that could crush a lobster (those hands are the sun-burned Syrah thrown in to bulk up a vapid, under-ripe Pinot Noir). Those Pinots are a Seinfeld nightmare.
Babcock Rita’s Earth is the true epitome of what a feminine, elegant, sexy, supple, luxurious Pinot Noir. The adjectives go on and on to describe what everyone truly wants, not Mary Ann, but Ginger!
On the nose, tons of holiday spices that lends to African Rooibos tea leaves. When you drink this “Liquid Love Letter” (thanks to Matthew Kaner) you will think that you just did something a bit naughty. The wine equivalent of Hot for Teacher. Anymore, you will just have to try it for yourself. But I kid you not – if you don’t buy this by the case to share with friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbors, enemies, friends of enemies and people you have never met before – you need to get your palate examined!
So it’s going to start getting warm out there folks. You are going to need a wine to chill down, to drink when you wake up, with burgers, and something to throw in the ice chest when you are playing a raging game of disc golf. But you’re not a fan of white wine?
Allow me to introduce you a creation by Wes Hagen and the fine folks at Clos Pepe Vineyard. Axis Mundi means the center of the world in most English translations, which is a perfect description for this wine, because once you take a sip – nothing else matters. It is also perfect for those people that are delusionally self-involved – much like Carly Simon, they probably think this wine is about them.
Axis Mundi is Santa Ynez Sangria – lots of bright, lush crushed berries and a hint of clove spice. Imagine if you were to take a bit of mulled wine, blend it with a great pinot noir – that is Axis Mundi. It is 2/3 Grenache, 1/3 Syrah, 3/3 delicious!!!
What is fascinatingly delicious about this wine, is that it actually becomes better with a bit of chill on it. Try it – seriously. A vibrancy and freshness comes out of the wine with just a bit of cool breeze all over the wine.
It is a red wine for any summer occasion –which is why it’s price point is so attractive. At only 375 case production, you better act fast, because at $180 a case, I will be sending out Christmas presents in July to all of my friends.
So….these are just 3 bottles of evidence of how Santa Barbara County answers to the detractors and individuals that poo poo the value of California wines. These 3 deliciously apt examples of great house wines are just the tip of the proverbial Titanic amount of wines from this area that are not only great for your wallet, but for your palate too.
It is a shame that these wines don’t make it across the country, but at such small production levels, it is probably a good thing that we can take advantage of these best buys right in our backyard.
When you hear someone talking trash about California wines, just pour them a glass of one of these 3 wines, tell them to put it next to their cold, cold heart and cheers to some amazing wine!