Santa Barbara ’09: day one (the Ojai Valley and the Municipal Party)

By Jesse on May 18, 2009

One criticism that has sometimes been levied at the LA Winos (most frequently from within our own ranks) is that we don’t get out of town nearly enough… a fair criticism if I’ve ever heard one.  So when illustrious Santa Barbara winemaker Dave Potter told us he was holding a release party for his ’08 vintage, we were on it like white on wine.  The trip also offered us the opportunity to arrange visits to a handful of wineries and tasting rooms that have been on our radar for a while, and it wasn’t long before the casual weekend in wine country soon ballooned into a boozy journey of epic proportions.

We didn’t have to be in Santa Barbara till 8pm, so we took an afternoon detour through the beautiful Ojai Valley, where we made two stops: Old Creek Ranch Winery, home to Mike Meagher and the Vino V label, followed by the Casa Barranca tasting room in downtown Ojai.

The country road leading to Old Creek Ranch is a narrow, windy little affair, and it’s bisected by a shallow stream you have to ford, Oregon Trail-style.  Perched on the side of a sun-bathed hillside, Old Creek Ranch Winery has been producing wine since 1981, and winemaker Mike Meagher joined the team in 2007 after a tenure at Adam Tolmach’s Ojai Vineyards.  Besides handling all of the Old Creek Ranch wines, Mike also produces his own label, Vino V, on the property.  He sources grapes for the Vino V line from growers he met during his time at Ojai Vineyards — growers who, as he explained it, “are responsive to winemakers who give a shit.”

A long country road leads you in; the winery awaits; an authoritative sign instructs us to go no further

Mike started us off with barrel samples of a few of his upcoming vintages.  First up was the 2008 Vino V Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley), which he plans to release next spring.  The majority of the juice is being aged in stainless steel, with the remainder aging in a neutral oak barrel.  Mike gave us a taste of the stainless portion first: apple, lime and butterscotch on the nose were followed by a round, smooth palate offering a touch of appley crispness.  Next, we tasted some juice out of the six-year-old neutral barrel: the oak was apparent on the nose, but no butter action, since Mike chose not to employ malolactic fermentation.  The palate was a bit bigger and broader than the stainless sample, with a caramel note coming through strongly.  It’s pretty wild to get to taste the “ingredients,” as it were, of what seems like it’ll eventually be a really impressive Chardonnay.

Next up was a barrel sample of the 2007 Vino V “Whitehawk Vineyard” Syrah (Santa Barbara County), of which 50 cases will be made.  The nose was brambly, with notes of ripe blackberry jam.  Jason picked up a touch of cedar, Noah thought he smelled eucalyptus, and Mike observed some blueberry.  The palate was light, with some bitter chocolate and a good amount of acid, along with the requisite dose of ground pepper.  Jason pointed out that it wasn’t hugely fruity, and said it’s “not a typical Santa Barbara Syrah,” to which Mike replied, “thank you.”  His goal, as he explained it, is to find that balance between the “savoriness” and the “juciness” of the Syrah grape.

Mike pours us some Chardonnay; and then draws some Syrah from the barrel; this is a great place to hang out

We headed outside to a picnic table, where Mike poured us two of his current vintages.  First up was the 2005 Vino V “Solomon Hills Vineyard” Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley), featuring a big raspberry nose with a playful little dash of fresh grass clippings.  Mike explained that he tends to harvest his grapes on the earlier side, “to preserve the ripeness and to keep the alcohol low,” leading to that characteristic freshness.  On the palate, the Pinot proved extremely smooth, featuring tart cherry notes and even a hint of strawberry Twizzlers.  A big winner.

Mike followed the Pinot with his proprietary blend, the 2005 Vino V “Confundido” Red Wine (Santa Barbara County), an unusual mash-up of 80% Syrah and 20% Pinot Noir.  Despite the strength and depth of his Syrahs that we’d tasted, the Pinot managed to hold its own on the nose, contributing big blueberry notes to the “blueberry and spice” essence that we picked up — “like blueberry jam on burnt toast,” according to Jason.  The palate was extremely well-received; ripe and fresh, it allowed the fruit notes of both grapes to express themselves nicely.  Mike explained that he was offered a section of the Davis II clone of Syrah, which he calls a “richer, clunkier clone” than the one he uses for his 100% Syrah bottlings, so he added the Pinot for its acidity and red fruit content.  It seemed like a bold experiment, but had clearly been a successful one.

Mike gauges our reactions; Jason gets some light in the glass; yes thank you, I’ll have some more

Finally, Mike took us back into Old Creek’s barrel room to try some of his wines currently in production for that label.  Our first taste was the 2008 Old Creek Viognier (Santa Ynez Valley), which was still cloudy in the glass.  Mike stirs the juice every two weeks, he said, which “kicks up the lees” — the spent yeast and other particles that settle to the bottom of the barrel.  The nose was like Viognier squared: big bright tropical fruit, along with a healthy dose of dandelions.  The palate offered up some biscuits with honey, along with a distinct yeasty component, which Mike said would be much less pronounced once the wine was filtered and bottled.

Next, we tried some 2008 Old Creek Chardonnay (Santa Rita Hills) out of the barrel.  The nose, we all agreed, was straight-up microwave popcorn.  “It’s definitely still a little raw,” said Mike, and explained that he would put two of the eight barrels through malolactic fermentation to take that edge off.  The palate was light and expressive: orange, lime, and bready notes bounced around the glass like emphatic puppies, and promised good things for the wine to come once they settle down a bit.

The Viognier was a cloudy little number; labels for the Sangiovese; sorry Vanessa, that’s just what happens when you drink too fast

We wrapped things up with a barrel sample of the 2008 Old Creek Sangiovese (Santa Barbara County).  The nose was inky, offering a touch of un-ground peppercorns; Jason thought be picked up some milk chocolate.  The palate was big, with ripe dark berries, some mulch notes, and a lot of tartness.  Noah likened it to the “pit” area of a really ripe plum — juicy, but still tart.  The finish was clean, with some acid and cranberry notes.  We made a vow to head back up and taste this and the other ’08 Oak Creek bottles once they’re released.

The wines from Mike’s Vino V label can be found on the lists of some of LA’s best restaurants, Campanile and Spago among them, and bottles from both labels can be purchased on their respective websites.  However, a trip up to Old Creek is the preferred way to go.  Less than an eighty-minute drive from Hollywood, this bucolic little winery offers a great tasting experience and a nice little escape from the smoggy confines of the LA basin.

Vanessa found something she likes; tasting wine is exhausting; enjoying the day

Once you’re done at Old Creek, it’s only a short drive up the road to downtown Ojai, a fact that was not lost on the Young Winos as we headed north.  Mike had recommended a stop at the Casa Barranca tasting room, and the good people there had generously invited the Winos to come taste the current lineup.

According to Ryan, our stalwart barkeep for the afternoon, Casa Barranca was the first certified organic winery in the Santa Barbara region.  He started us off on the 2008 Casa Barranca “Laetitia Vineyard” Chardonnay (Arroyo Grande Valley), one of several “vegan” wines in the C.B. lineup, a designation that means no egg whites or other animal products were used in the wine’s production.  The nose was bright and floral — Ryan pointed out that this Chardonnay actually includes 20% Viognier, which explained the florality.  The palate was big and impressive, with healthy oak and a touch of acidity.  Jason picked up some mesquite notes, and posited that this Chard would pair nicely with a pulled pork type of deal… which would possibly make it slightly less vegan.

Next, we tried the 2007 Casa Barranca “La Encantada Vineyard” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills), featuring a great dark nose that I noted smelled “a little rooty,” which I love.  Red fruit components were balanced by earthy notes, like forest floor and wet leaves.  The palate followed suit; earthy and ripe, it featured tingly acidity and even some intriguing red gumball action on the finish.

Jordan likes him some Chardonnay; Ryan guides us through the lineup; Vanessa and Andrea kept finding nooks to inhabit

With a makeup of 72% Syrah, 16% Mourvedre and 12% Grenache, the 2006 Casa Barranca “Bungalow Red” (Santa Barbara County) represents the label’s foray into the world of Rhone blends.  The nose was appropriately spicy and surprisingly creamy, with some smoky campfire and roasted meats throwing their hats into the ring.  The palate was nicely balanced, with a good dose of spice and gaminess riding the medium body.  A touch of heat was picked up by a couple of tasters, but all agreed there was enough big fruit present to balance things out.  Several of us thought it wise to make the $25 investment to bring this bottle home for future tasting.

We finished with the big boy, the 2006 Casa Barranca Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Coast), featuring those dark and earthy Cabernet notes all over the bouquet, but also throwing in some cherry for good measure.  The palate really hit that “Central Coast” Cabernet style — unripe blueberry, smoke and peat, a touch of acid, and some strong tannins towards the end.  The finish featured black licorice, and stuck around until just the perfect time… like that guy who knows just the right moment to leave a party, immediately before it starts to dwindle.  At $20, this was another big winner.

Wine is serious business; plenty of options; everything looks better through a wine glass

The Casa Barranca tasting room is another great destination for LA wine lovers, and downtown Ojai features all of the Sideways charm of a Los Olivos or a Solvang without the extra hour of driving.  Its proximity makes it a perfect day trip… but we naturally recommend that you go Winos-style, and swing by Old Creek and Casa Barranca on your way up to a night of parties, pizza and Pale Pink in good ol’ Santa Barbara.

We’ve never before heard of a “release party” for a new vintage of wine, but we’d expect no less of Dave Potter, that unpredictable maverick of the Santa Barbara wine scene.  We rolled about twelve Winos deep that night, and we like to think we carved out quite a presence in that downtown Santa Barbara loft full of vinorati and other local luminaries.  As anticipated, though, the real star of the evening was Dave’s lineup of always-impressive wines.

I can’t speak for any of my hedonistic counterparts, but I managed to keep my wine cap on and taste the bottles in order.  First up for me was the 2008 Municipal Winemakers Bright White (Santa Barbara County), Dave’s flagship dry Riesling, with a classic nose of lime, apricots, and a touch of grassiness; Jordan also picked up a smattering of white rose petals.  On the palate, the dry character of the wine really came through, alone with big acid, citrus, and even some saline character.  The flavors, which started out with lemon and lime notes, soon ventured into mojito territory.  Slightly sweeter than the 2007 (but only very slightly), the wine was a big hit with the assemblage.  (Someone wrote the word “dildo” in my notebook, but I think it was meant as a juvenile prank — or perhaps a come-on? — and not an actual tasting note.)

Next on the list was the 2008 Municipal Winemakers Pale Pink Rosé (Santa Barbara County), featuring a muted nose of guava and strawberries.  Jessica picked up some grassy notes, and Nick even got a hint of Tobasco sauce.  On the palate, the Grenache and Cinsaut both showed themselves really nicely: red fruit and spice were integrated in light, acid-driven fashion.  Jessica called it “nectar with an acid touch,” and pointed out notes of peach, strawberry and hibiscus.  Always one of Dave’s most refreshing wines, the Pale Pink is a perfect sidearm for any impassioned party conversation.

The party beckons; Pale Pink is always a hit; Jordan approves

The newest addition to the Municipal lineup is the 2008 Municipal Winemakers Sweetie (Santa Barbara County).  This Riesling was made from the same grapes as the Bright White, but fermentation was stopped early to leave the wine with lower alcohol and higher residual sugar.  Nevertheless, this was no cloying California syrup-bath — on the contrary, it was distinctive and full of character.  The nose was green and herbaceous, with hints of pesto, along with dried apricots, tropical fruit, and some kind of “baked goods” deal.  The palate was delicate, nectary and sweet, with a touch of spice and a good healthy hint of that lime action from the Bright White.  Sweetie’s a great new addition to the Municipal family.

Dave had been gifted some fake mustaches, and these began to work their way though the party, many winding up on the faces of the Young Winos to generally mixed aesthetic results.  Soon after, Jessica commandeered my notebook to interview Dave.  Here’s my best effort at transcription of her flamboyant, looping scrawl:

JShark: what’s your favorite wine?
Dave: initial answer, can’t choose.  Right now, I’m loving the Pale Pink.
JShark: if you were on a desert island, which would you take with you?
Dave: it depends on the climate of the island.  If it were a desert island, I’d take the dry Riesling.
JShark: okay what if it were temperate
Dave: if it were a Mediterranean island, I’d take the Bright Red, and if it were colder, I’d take the Dark Red.

(Then, in the side column, it says “naked dwarves” in the same handwriting.)

Noah meets up with Larry Schaffer of Tercero; Jessica monopolizes Dave Potter; oh mustaches, why must ye?

Moving on to the reds, I snagged a sample of the 2007 Municipal Winemakers Bright Red (Santa Barbara County), Dave’s Rhone-style blend, featuring red fruit and brambles on the nose.  The palate was robust and big on structure: great acid and tannins, with notes of dried berries and well-seasoned kindling, and even some “espresso bean,” according to Mary.  “This is a wine to subsist on in the wild,” I wrote in my notes (particularly, so I’ve heard, if that wild is a Mediterranean island).

Finally, it was time for the heavy hitter of the bunch, the 2007 Municipal Winemakers Dark Red (Santa Barbara County), a rich blend of Syrah and Cabernet.  The nose was earthy, and smelled “like a winner” according to Jordan, who picked up some dark chocolate-covered raspberries.  Not much spice, I noted, just dark berry opulence.  The palate did not disappoint: as big on structure as the Bright Red had been, this wine featured notes of leather, tobacco, and baking chocolate.  “It’s like when you sneak the baking chocolate as a kid, and it takes you by surprise,” said Katie.  Nick loved the depth of it, and thought it had even more fruit than the Bright Red.  Food pairings were recommended in the tasting notes, and all of the foods suggested were available on the buffet; I found the Dark Red and Stilton pairing to be particularly mind-blowing.

An awesome buffet; Jessica gets in the mustache zone; you know the party’s over when someone topples a glass of Bright Red on my favorite shirt

Following an unfortunate incident in which the contents of my glass decided they’d be better displayed splattered across my lucky baseball shirt, it was time to amble back to the motel and get a good night’s sleep.  We made it to the motel, but stayed only long enough for me to change before galavanting off into the night and joining the hoards of UCSB students hitting up Mad Dog’s on State Street, followed by some overpriced and unimpressive pizza (which, to its credit, may have helped with the process of sobering up).  Eventually, we stumbled back to the room and fell into a collective boozy slumber, with visions of Los Olivos dancing in our heads.

“Mad Dog’s” seemed like a great idea at the time; what happens in Santa Barbara stays in Santa Barbara winds up on this website; I may have had a bit much to drink that day

Stay tuned for day two: adventures in Los Olivos, and a behind-the-scenes tour of Fess Parker!

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005

1 Comment

  1. Great wines, great people, great event . . . . Dave knows how to do it right!


    Comment by larry schaffer — May 19, 2009 @ 7:16 am

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