Forty years ago, the three intrepid astronauts on board the Apollo 11 mission (allegedly) went to the moon. Upon their return, the were put into containment for a few days in order to kill the moon germs, after which they were quickly shuttled to an impressive reception at the era’s grandest and most futuristic hotel, the Century Plaza. It seems particularly appropriate, then, that when the ’09 Santa Barbara Futures event needed a location, the future-themed Century Plaza got the nod.
Last year, the Winos had to suffer the indignity of traveling all the way up to Santa Barbara for the futures event. This year, the event came to us, making its home in the enclosed courtyard in front of the Century Plaza. The hotel looked great, and it’s a bit shocking to think that the venerable structure is currently at the center of a struggle over its own existence. More on that towards the end of this piece; first, there’s some wine to talk about.
Like any good tasting of Santa Barbara producers, the Futures event featured a healthy diversity of innovative newcomers and well-established big names. Certainly one of the biggest names in the Santa Barbara scene is Fred Brander, who was there pouring two of the Sauvignon Blancs that have made his eponymous label a must-taste for any true Sauv-o-phile. The 2008 Brander “Au Natural” Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley), produced with no oak and no malolactic fermentation, offered up a playful, herbal nose. I picked up notes of fresh chives and perfume (specifically, this one particular Calvin Klein scent that a former girlfriend of mine used to wear). The palate was soft and smooth (a bit like that former girlfriend’s skin… ok, sorry, I’m being creepy), and the nice textured herbalness really came through. Next I tried the 2008 Brander “Purisma Mountain” Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley), also done in 100% stainless steel. The palate, I thought, was sharper and more acidic than the former bottle, boasting some lemony herbs on the tongue and some lime on the finish. “This is the food Brander,” I wrote, “while the former I’d drink by itself.”
The classic Rhône varietals were well-represented at the event, a fact that proved as true on the white side as on the red. The 2008 Jaffurs Grenache Blanc (Santa Barbara County) offered up a nose of coffee cake spices — brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg — along with some dried apricot. The palate, which felt both round and crisp simultaneously, served up teeth-coating notes of ripe peach. The 2007 Qupé “Bien Nacido Hillside Estate” Roussanne (Santa Maria Valley) featured a nose of creme brulee, a little lanolin, and even some twigs and firewood. On the pal, it played an “orange Bavarian cream” kind of note (that stuff is delicious), with overtones of custard, mandarin orange, and even lime.
Seth Kunin poured me a glass of his 2008 Kunin Wines “Stolpman” Viognier (Santa Ynez Valley), and the nose of blueberry muffins and streusel made me want breakfast. The palate served up big citrus notes, and the acidic key lime finish went on forever. “This is tasting really big and in-your-face today,” he told me, “but I think it can afford to calm down a little.” Although the wine is already in bottle, he won’t be releasing it until the end of this year or early ’10.
Another winning Viognier was the 2008 Blair Fox “Rodney’s Vineyard” Viognier (Santa Barbara County), which Blair ferments in old French oak and ages on the lees. No oak influence was discernible to me on the nose — the bouquet ran bright and clean, while the palate boasted lively tropical fruit and tangerine notes. And over at the Beckman table, I snagged a pull of a Rhône-styled blend, the 2008 Beckman “Cuvée Le Bec Blanc” (Santa Ynez Valley), a mix of Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenacne Blanc. The creamy, perfumed nose led me into a round, woody palate. The wine is aged in three-year-old French barrels, which seem to have really brought out that classic Roussanne / Marsanne texture. Big and rich, the wine offered up enough acidity on the finish to make it an ideal food wine for the drinker who doesn’t want to sacrifice body on the palate.
Larry Schaeffer of Tercero is always more than generous in the lineups he pours at these events (for recent notes on several of Larry’s whites, check out our write-up of the Mutineer Magazine launch party). I transitioned into red country with a stop at the Tercero table to try the 2008 Tercero Rosé (Santa Barbara County), which is a Grenache-dominated southern Rhône number. Boasting the refreshing dryness of its French cousins, this rosé also served up healthy portions of ripe red berry flavor, as if to make sure you don’t forget that it was grown under the California sun. The 2007 Tercero “Camp 4” Grenache (Santa Ynez Valley) started out with a medicinal hint on the nose that quickly dissolved into a rich milk chocolate. The palate was soft and tender, prompting me to denote it “a playful little pincushion of a wine, featuring mouth-coating red currant and raspberry ladyfinger cookies.” The 2007 Tercero “Watch Hill” Grenache (Santa Barbara County) went a different direction, skewing much more heavily into the earthy/woodsy arena than the Camp 4 had. “It’s a cooler climate, so it’s not going to give you that big strawberry and raspberry nose,” explained Larry. “But the palate is deep.”
As one might fairly expect at a tasting of wines from Sideways country, the illustrious Pinot Noir grape made several notable appearances that afternoon — several on the austere side, and several others on the fruit-bomby. Aspiring to the former style was the 2008 Carr “The Yard” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills), which offered a Burgundian-themed nose of kindling and cloves. The palate followed suit, serving up a textured blend of raspberry jam, tree bark, and earth. “We don’t like to go too rich and juicy on the Pinots,” said Ryan Carr. “We have a Syrah and a Cabernet Franc for that.” To drive the point home, Ryan poured me a glass of the 2008 Carr “Kessler-Haak” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills). The nose, I noted, was replete with “pine cones… and that brown soap that girls use to exfoliate.” The palate was tremendously woodsy: “barky and earthy and brambly,” according to my notes. “…just great.” Not everyone wants their Pinot to taste like a camping trip smells, however, and for them there was the 2008 Lea Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills), which offered up a rich and plummy nose with hints of grape soda. The palate was dark, luscious and rich, with some powdery tannins making their voices heard.
As worthy as the Pinots were, I couldn’t help but gravitate towards those lush-looking Syrahs. I started things off nicely with the 2008 Tensley “Tierra Alta” Syrah (Santa Barbara County), which offered up a beguiling nose of dried leaves and olives; Jason called it “composty.” Neither descriptor readied us for the palate, however, which was big and fruity, serving up dollops of red licorice and hints of spice towards the end. Very much a barrel sample, this was the kind of wine you can’t wait to taste in its finished version. Over at the Blair Fox table, the man himself poured us each a sample of the 2007 Blair Fox “Thompson Vineyard” Syrah (Santa Barbara County). The nose was earthy and a bit funky; Blair pointed out that with two more months in the barrel, and then a year in the bottle, the wine will have plenty of time to get to know itself a little better. The palate, however, seemed to be rarin’ to go: big tannic structure enclosed flavors of bitter dark chocolate and charcuterie. “I really try to build these wines to age,” Blair said. “I want to come back in ten or twelve years and still be able to enjoy them.”
Just call it the “supergroup” of wines: the 2007 Thread (Santa Barbara County), a 50/50 combo of Grenache and Syrah, is a joint-production of some of our favorite Santa Barbara winemakers, each of whom contributed grapes to the final mix. The Grenache was courtesy of Larry Schaffer (Camp 4 Vineyard) and Kaena’s Mikael Sigouin (Larner Vineyard). On the Syrah side, grapes came by way of Blair Fox (Paradise Road Vineyard) and Wino extrodinaire Dave Potter of Municipal (Tierra Alta Vineyard). The wine peacocked a nice bright purple hue in the glass, and offered up a nose of whole wheat toast, black licorice, ripe plums, and a touch of smoke. On the palate, the Thread served up some great raspberry and blackberry jam action, along with a tremendously chewy, velvety texture, all contributing to an overall chocolate truffle character. “It’s warm and fuzzy,” I said out loud. “It’s like getting back in the warm blankets just two minutes after you got out of them.” (Dave, to his credit, smiled good-naturedly; by now he’s used to hearing his wine being described in bizarre terms whenever there are Young Winos about.)
I wrapped up my afternoon with a jaunt by the venerable Hitching Post table, one of the few establishments that was mercifully still pouring past the 5pm cutoff. Somehow, I managed to snag the last drops of the 2007 Hitching Post “Perfect Set” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills), all of the fruit of which hails from the Fiddlestix Vineyard. The nose was plush and “purple-ish,” flashing notes of smoldering campfire and fresh mushrooms. Soft and delicate on the palate, this clean-textured beauty lured me in with its delicate notes of candied red fruit, and then released an earthy, spicy postscript on the finish; overall, a nice little flavor journey. It was a tough act to follow, but I hoped the 2007 Hitching Post “Four Top” (Santa Barbara County) might be up to the task. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Valdiguie and Syrah, this little firebrand offered up some spicy black licorice notes on the bouquet, along with the slightest hint of green pepper. The palate was rich and earthy, boasting terrific bitterroot notes, along with some ground black pepper and mouth-coating potting soil action. This was the very type of oddball blend that tastes so very rewarding when it turns out to be delicious.
After the tasting, several of the Winos met up with Blair and Dave for a drink in the hotel’s lobby, which still retained much of the modernist grandeur that would’ve greeted guests upon its opening in the late-sixties. The 19-story mid-century-modern structure was designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who would go on to design the Twin Towers), and was referred to by the LA Times as “Los Angeles’ space-age Century City complex” when it opened. Playing host to the aforementioned astronauts as well as numerous Presidents and politicians (apparently Reagan had his own private suite on hold, dubbed the “White House West”), the hotel has lost its cache in recent years, and no longer commands the respect it once did. As a result, its new owners apparently plan to demolish the hotel and replace it with a $2-billion complex that includes two 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel. But please, don’t believe me; just watch this snazzy video:
The Los Angeles Conservancy, determined to stop the wrecking balls from swinging, has enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which recently put the 726-room Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on its annual list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. To learn more about the proposed demolition and what the Trust is doing to halt it, visit their website here.
The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.