International Wine Cellar
Focus on the Central Coast
By Josh Raynolds
My annual tour of California’s Central Coast afforded the opportunity to compare numerous 2007 reds against their 2008 siblings, and the differences were intriguing. Fans of low-octane—relatively speaking, of course; we are talking about the sunny Central Coast—bright, red fruit-driven pinot noir and spicy syrah will find plenty to like from 2008, if they stick to the top producers. And wine lovers who prize full-throttle renditions of those varieties will be even more excited by the number of choices available from the warmer 2007 vintage. The best ’07s are rich and usually open-knit, expressing themselves already but also possessing very good depth and aging potential. By the way, many of the 2007s have been in the market for over a year now, and there has been steady demand for the wines since they were released. So we are fast approaching last call for the most sought-after 2007s.
“The best thing about the 2008s is that they have clarity and show their variety and place,” Tablas Creek’s Neil Collins told me. “It’s a vintage where it really wasn’t possible for the grapes to overripen, which is always a danger in the hotter areas of Paso Robles, and that’s when the characteristics of the grapes can blur into a sameness of rich, or even roasted or overripe, dark fruits and not much else.” He added that it was necessary to harvest late in ’08, “which means that we started to run into the dangers of fall weather.” Chad Melville (Samsara) is also a fan of 2008. “Naturally low yields without overripening means concentration without weight, which is exactly the style that I’m personally after. If you want more power and darker fruit character, then 2007 is going to be up your alley.”
That said, few growers are making any great claims for their ’08s and there was all-around disappointment with the small production brought about by uneven budbreak and a number of severe early spring frosts. Sashi Moorman (Stolpman, Harrison-Clarke) told me that 2008 required more vineyard work than any that he has experienced “and for not many grapes.” In terms of the cost of production, 2008 looks to be a debacle for conscientious growers on the Central Coast: a lot of extra work to produce a smaller-than-average crop that will be a harder sell than the 2007s.
Most of the white wines I tasted this year were from 2009, and in general they are forward and very attractive; most will be drinkable upon release. The growing season went smoothly, according to Arcadian’s Joe Davis, with “a blast of heat in September, just before harvest, which helped to push up sugars but not too dramatically.” It’s too early to make a call on the ’09 reds but the pinot noir specialists that I visited are cautiously optimistic that their wines will turn out well, with bright fruit and good energy. Brian Talley told me that “the even growing season and that heat spike in September were a good recipe for chardonnay and pinot. There’s freshness and ripeness at the same time, not too much of one or the other.”
The metaphorical rain on the parade in the Central Coast is the ongoing struggle to sell syrah, especially at the higher end. Some producers even wonder if the grape can offer financial viability at any price. None of the growers I visited were getting set to graft over their syrah vines to a commercially realistic variety just yet, but they are taking a hard look at the market. They’re painfully aware that they can’t stay in the syrah business if their wines that are supposed to sell for $40 only move if they’re offered at $20 or less, which is often the case these days. Some producers are even blending the syrah juice that used to make up their top bottlings down into lower-end and even entry-level wines, which makes for some real values for consumers, at least for now. With rare exception the producers I saw this fall told me that wholesalers have been treating syrah as if it were radioactive, with some of them flat-out refusing to carry any new vintages. If they do buy current bottlings it’s almost exclusively the lower-priced versions. “Thank God for our private clients, mailing lists and people who come to visit the winery,” more than a few producers told me in September.
The Ojai Vineyard
By Josh Raynolds
Adam Tolmach, who co-founded Au Bon Climat with Jim Clendenen in 1982, reiterated that he is committed to making "wines that don't attack you." He told me that his "return to elegance, to the style of wines I was making right after I came back from working in Burgundy (along with Clendenen, at the Abbaye de Morgeot, in Chassagne-Montrachet) in the 1970s," started with the 2005 vintage. "Like a lot of people who went down the blow-your-head-off road in the late '90s I started to realize that I really, really didn't like those wines. Tolmach regularly checks in on wines from his wilderness years. He reports that while some of them have actually turned out really well, "overall they don't have the complexity and vibrancy that I find in the wines I most enjoy drinking-or in the ones I'm making now."
2009 The Ojai Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
($28) Light, greenish gold. Spicy grapefruit and green apple scents are complicated by white pepper and herbs. Lively and powerful on the attack, then relatively sweet and open in the mid-palate, offering juicy citrus and succulent herb flavors and sneaky spiciness. Finishes with solid grip and a whiplash of dense citrus fruit. Tolmach said that the crop this year was very low, which no doubt accounts for this wine's flavor intensity.
2009 The Ojai Vineyard Viognier Roll Ranch Vineyard California (half bottle)
($25) Bright straw. Melon, nectarine, mint and powdered stone on the nose. Dense, supple and juicy, with nicely harmonious acidity giving cut and shape to the rich pit fruit and candied lime flavors. This is far less exotic than a lot of New World viognier. Finishes with very good length and spicy lift. Offers a very suave blend of sappy fruit, finesse and nerviness.
2009 The Ojai Vineyard Riesling Kick On Ranch Santa Barbara County
($25) Greenish yellow. Ginger and lemon peel on the mineral-accented nose. Then pliant and juicy in the mouth, with a fresh lemony flavor dominating. Pure and racy but a bit youthfully aggressive, with solid finishing grip and a hint of botanical herbs. This could use a little air or bottle age to settle down.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley
($28) Pale greenish yellow. A wild, pungent bouquet displays scents of melon, pear skin, tangerine, botanical herbs and anise. Sappy and expansive in the mouth, offering pliant orchard and exotic fruit flavors and spicy herbal nuances. Becomes richer with air and finishes on a spicy note, with a deeper suggestion of honey.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley
($34) Bright gold. Perfumed aromas of orange peel, peach, ginger and honey, with a smoky quality. Livelier than the Bien Nacido but just as rich, with an impression of brooding power to the flavors of peach skin, bitter orange, ginger and buttered toast. Shows terrific palate presence and finishes smoky and long, with firm acidity on the gripping back end. This rich, tactile wine should age well.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay Clos Pepe Santa Rita Hills
($38) Light, bright gold. Captivating nose combines poached pear, smoky lees, minerals, honey and hazelnut, all lifted by honeysuckle and chamomile notes. Dense, sappy and vibrant, with impressive energy to its orchard fruit and mineral flavors. Finishes long and spicy, with alluring florality and spiciness.
2009 The Ojai Vineyard Rose California
($16; a blend of Roll Ranch syrah that was harvested at 22o Brix, with a bit of viognier and sauvignon blanc) Light orange. Spicy red berries and dried cherry on the nose. Firm and dry, with edgy acidity brightening deep red fruit flavors. Finishes with solid grip and a lingering note of bitter cherry. On the serious side but this is a wiry style of pink wine that will be very flexible with lighter foods.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley
($44) Vivid red. Nuanced, spice-accented nose offers red and black fruits and a whiff of licorice. Sweet and intense, with excellent focus and purity to the black raspberry and bitter cherry flavors. Shows impressive energy and finishes with building but sweet and harmonious tannins. I really like this wine's balance.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley
($44) Bright medium red. Spicy black raspberry, potpourri and Asian spices on the captivating nose. Aromatic, focused and sweet, with a firm spine of acidity adding vivacity to its pure red and dark berry preserve flavors. Impressively bright on the back end, which features a chewy impression of extract, tangy minerality and excellent length.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Presidio Vineyard Santa Barbara County
($44) Vivid ruby. A complex, spicy bouquet displays candied red fruits, rose, licorice and allspice, with a smoky overtone. Pure, energetic raspberry and cherry flavors stain the palate and pick up a deeper note of mocha with air. Powerful but graceful, with strong finishing punch and lingering smokiness. This comes in at 13.2% alcohol but doesn't lack for power.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Clos Pepe Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills
($44) Deep red. The densest and darkest in character of this set of pinots, offering ripe dark berry and cherry aromas and flavors and a hint of licorice. Becomes brighter with air, picking up peppery spice qualities and a touch of rose pastille. A bit of a tough read but there's clearly excellent material here. I'd come back to this one in a year or so.
2008 The Ojai Vineyard Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Sta. Rita Hills
($50) Bright ruby. Extremely sexy on the nose, which displays scents of red and dark berry preserves, potpourri, star anise and minerals. Lively and precise, with sweet raspberry and blackberry flavors and a strong floral quality that gains strength with air. Pure, highly aromatic and persistent, with lingering notes of red fruits and spices.
2007 The Ojai Vineyard Grenache Thompson Vineyard Santa Barbara County
($32) Deep ruby-red. Enticing aromas of raspberry, cherry pie, rose and smoky herbs. Sweet and juicy but tight, with sexy flavors of candied red fruits, spicecake and anise. Finishes with fine-grained tannins and excellent clarity. I really like this wine's vibrancy and focus.
2007 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County
($26) Inky ruby. Pungent aromas of blackberry, tobacco, black olive and licorice. This is really syrah. Round, broad and sweet, with concentrated dark berry and licorice pastille flavors enlivened by harmonious acidity. Really stains the palate on the back end, finishing broad, smoky and long, with suave tannins and a kick of black pepper.
2007 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Thompson Vineyard Santa Barbara County
($26) Opaque purple. Oak-spiced dark berry preserve and cherry on the nose, with hints of dried violet and cracked pepper adding complexity. Sweet, expansive dark fruit flavors provide impressive palate coverage and pick up floral pastille and spice notes in the mid-palate. Fruitier than the straight Santa Barbara bottling, with no rough edges and a long, sweet finish.
2006 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah White Hawk Vineyard Santa Barbara County
($38) Glass-staining purple. A wild, highly perfumed and exotic bouquet exudes candied dark berries, spicecake, potpourri and pungent herbs. Smells like a head shop crossed with a bakery. Lush and creamy in texture, with sappy red and dark fruit flavors and a strong floral undertone. Becomes spicier with aeration, picking up star anise and mace notes that carry through a long, intensely perfumed finish. This is pretty impressive right now. You might be able to seduce hot or not-so hot hippie chicks with this wine; at least you'd get to drink it if your plot failed you yet again.
2006 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley
($38) Inky violet. Ripe, smoky aromas of cassis, mocha, truffle, licorice and dark chocolate. Then broad, sweet and round, with distinctly dark flavors of blueberry, black raspberry and licorice. Finishes with chewy tannins and excellent persistence. This should age very slowly.
2006 The Ojai Vineyard Syrah Melville Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills
($44) Opaque purple. Incense, spicecake and licorice-accented dark berries on the nose. As exotic as the White Hawk bottling but smokier and more brooding, with lush blackberry and mulberry flavors and notes of candied licorice and violet. Densely packed, chewy and sweet, with a strong jolt of peppery spice on the extremely long, smoky finish. I looked for tannins but didn't find them.