One of the few things than can possibly improve a Friday evening spent enjoying some outstanding Santa Barbara wines at Leah’s place is when the winemakers themselves actually stop by to drink with you. In what felt like the Young Winos version of the Wonka Golden Ticket experience (albeit with fewer accidental deaths), we were recently joined by Tim Grubb and PJ Miele of Departure Wine Company, a four-year-old Santa Barbara label specializing in Rhone varietals.
Tim and PJ brought with them not only seven excellent wines for us to explore, but also a wealth of insight and and rich observations on the winemaking process, challenges faced by a young label, and the journey of the grape from vine to glass. In what we hope will soon become a regular feature on this website, Departure set a lofty standard in the first-ever Young Winos’ Winemakers Tasting.
After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Tim and PJ — along with PJ’s younger brother Jason — caught the wine bug. Following a stop at nascent S.B. big boy Tensley, the guys set up Departure in 2004 and have been increasing production every year since. First up in our tasting was the 2007 Departure “Whitehawk Vineyard” Viognier (Santa Barbara County), done in a 50/50 combination of neutral oak and steel. The nose was big, with a lot of dried apricot and vanilla notes raging around. I got some serious blueberry muffin action as well.
Response to the palate was enthusiastic. Jason called it “very interesting,” and “not simple like a lot of California Viogniers are.” Some great peach flavors were tempered by crisp acidity and some cheeky spice. “The neutral oak,” explained winemaker Tim, “helps bring out the big tropical flavors while maintaining the acidity.” White-wine skeptic Andrew found himself charmed by this one: “for being so high-acid, it’s not biting at all.” I admittedly found the finish a little tighter than I’d hoped; that crispy spice overstayed its welcome and stifled the fruit. That said, a great palate, and well worth the $22 toll, especially for you Viognier fans on the lookout for a clean, balanced expression of the grape.
For their 2006 Departure “Silacci Vineyard” Pinot Noir (Central Coast), Tim and PJ looked outside of Santa Barbara County for an opportunity to source fruit. “Good Pinot grapes are really hard to come by since the whole Sideways thing,” explained PJ — but Silacci Vineyard in Monterey County proved just the source they were looking for. Upon pouring, the Winos were immediately taken aback by the opaque character of the wine; the Departure Pinot is completely unfiltered, which resulted in a cloudy appearance. PJ explained their decision: “we looked at wine being forced through 40 pieces of sterile white paper, and we saw what got filtered out, and it’s all this deep purple, and we thought, hey, that used to be in our wine. What are we losing?”
The nose was red currant and cranberry; Leah picked up some cigar smoke. The palate was round and almost syrupy, yet still featured a distinct acidity that Andrew appreciated. I pointed out an uncanny viscosity that was intriguing me, an almost chewy candied character, all without the wine being full-bodied or sweet — Tim explained that this was a direct result of its unfiltered nature. A hugely interesting bottle, and one that will appeal to fans of all kinds of Pinots; big red berries, great acidity, a little spice throughout (Jessica suggested “mulled cider”), and, again, that remarkable candied viscosity.
Next up were three Syrahs, the first of which was the 2005 Departure “Tierra Alta Vineyard” Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley). Tim informed us that the grapes for this wine were only 80% de-stemmed, explaining that “it’s more of a French thing to do some percentage of the grapes whole-cluster,” which lends the wine some earthiness, funk, and tannins. On the nose, Leah got some serious chocolate, while Jason got pepper. To me, it was soft and baking-spicy, and it reminded me in a strange way of the oatmeal with cinnamon and cream that I used to eat as a kid during the wintertime in New York. Andrew immediately voiced his disagreement with my nostalgic reverie, and when I offered the alternate suggestion of “tulips,” which I was by that point enjoying, he summarily dismissed that as well. Jason then prefaced his next observation with “please don’t take this the wrong way,” and claimed he was getting black beans. An evocative nose indeed.
The palate didn’t disappoint: “this is a great big Syrah,” oozed Jason, our resident Syrah-phile. Jessica was keen on it as well, singing the praises of the “sour cherry” on the mid-palate. I agreed, great fruit and nice structure; cherry and raspberry up front, and then some big black pepper on the back of the tongue and the finish. A powerful expression of a classic SoCal Syrah theme.
In my notes, I had actually written “massive black pepper” in reference to the last bottle, and the reason I downgraded the “massive” to “big” was because we hadn’t yet tasted the 2006 Departure “East Meets West” Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley). This is a blend of two vineyards: 25% of the fruit is from Three Creek Vineyard in the warm eastern corner of Santa Ynez, and 75% from cool-climate Zotovitch Vineyard in the far western end.
The resulting wine had a black pepper nose for which any other word but “massive” would find itself woefully inadequate. Blackberry, black currant, and a little blueberry also raged around the nose — and Jessica opined that it “smells like a pile of rocks” — but the black pepper dominated. (To be fair, it should be noted that only three-quarters of us thought it was “black” pepper, as Jason and Leah formed a stalwart “white pepper” faction.) The palate was big and sturdy, with significant tannins and pepper throughout; I also got some charcoal and inky berry notes. “But despite the huge tannins and pepper,” Andrew observed, “it doesn’t burn your throat at all.” A really fun bottle, especially for fans of those heavy-hitter Syrahs where the pepper takes center stage… of which I happen to be one.
The final bottle on our table was Departure’s entry-level Syrah, the 2006 Departure Syrah (Santa Barbara County), a $22 blend featuring a combination of Tierra Alta and Happy Canyon fruit. The nose was a nicely-balanced presentation of raspberries, smoke, and pepper. Erik observed some clove notes, Jessica jumped on the clove train as well, and Leah thought it smelled “nutty.”
Jason applauded the cherry on the front of the mouth; this was shortly joined on the mid-pal by some big pepper, tannin and acid, which supported the fruit nicely. Jessica thought the tannins were “different than the last ones,” and Jason pointed out that they were more round and mouth-coating, a claim with which Tim agreed. I was picking up some delicious dark chocolate, even some black forest cake — overall, another distinctive and unique example, and a big winner in that entry-level spot.
The last wine having been evaluated, we were already greedily snatching up the remaining almost-empty bottles scattered around the table when Tim and PJ broke out a small, brown bottle that looked like something out of a nineteenth-century apothecary’s office. We were thrilled to learn that contained therein was a barrel sample of the 2007 Departure “Alta Mesa Vineyard” Grenache (Santa Barbara), an unreleased wine that was recently given an excellent 89-91 score by Wine Spectator at the Santa Barbara futures event. (The Winos remain pleased that their opinion matters as much to the Departure guys as James Laube’s does.)
A full, earthy nose greeted us; Andrew called it “whole-wheat bread,” and Jessica identified “a barn that has recently been cleaned… earthy but fresh, with some hay.” In what was easily the strangest bouquet juxtaposition of the day, Leah picked up olive notes while Jason got crème fraîche. Doesn’t sound like something you’d necessarily want to eat.
The wine, though, was definitely something you’d want to drink: a smooth, medium-bodied fruit devil with a unique nectar texture. Leah wasted no time in declaring it her favorite wine ever. “It’s not Juicy Juice,” she explained, “because with sweet wines, you can’t taste anything but the sweetness. On this, you can taste everything” — including, as she pointed out, some French Toast notes. Tim told us that the wine would lose some of the sweetness we were perceiving during its time in the barrel, but the fruit would ideally be just as big by the time of the wine’s release. I certainly hope so: this was a big, berry-forward knockout with lots of bing cherry, strawberry and pepper, all riding on some nice light tannins. Can’t wait to try the finished product.
Tim and PJ departed at that point, as their moniker had long led us to anticipate they would, and we hastily consumed the wine they’d been good enough to leave behind. The assembled Winos all agreed that this had been an extremely auspicious start to our Winemakers series — and would certainly be a tough act to follow.
The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005