Monday, January 28, 2013

STARS Of Santa Barbara Wine Luncheon 2013


The tenth annual STARS of Santa Barbara event brought the Santa Barbara wine country to Beverly Hills for a show I was pleased to cover.  Look for my notes on all the wines I tasted at the event, coming Friday on Now And Zin Wine.

As a prelude to the event - staged by Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine organization - I had the good fortune of an invitation to a luncheon which featured eight wines produced by wineries represented at the meal.

The Guests

Mr. Blackburn hosted the affair at the Peninsula Hotel.  I was honored to be at the table with some notable wine industry folks and media people.  Karen Steinwachs (Buttonwood Winery,) Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench Winery,) Kenneth Volk (Kenneth Volk Winery) and Tim Snider (Fess Parker Winery) were there from the production end.  Sommeliers Dana Farner (CUT) and Jeffrey Stivers (N-Naka) joined Bottlerock co-owner Fred Hakim from the retail end.  The press side of the table was filled by Corie Brown (ZesterDaily.com,) Eve Bushman (EveWine101.com,) Arianna Armstrong (PalatePress.com,) Barbara Hansen (TableConversation.com,) Tom Leykis (The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis,) Gary Zabransky (Tom’s producer,) Jonathan Cristaldi (TimeOut.com/los-angeles,) and myself. Michelle McCue (McCue Communications) was the sole public relations specialist.

The Menu

Simple and delicious:

Mixed baby lettuces with toasted walnut goat cheese and sweet red onion vinaigrette.
Chicken breast with mascarpone polenta, tomatoes, sweet corn and chicken jus.
Beef tenderloin with potato purée, Bloomsdale spinach, asparagus and red wine.
Assorted breads with sweet butter.
Cheese plate.

The Conversation

Dana Farner commented that she oversees the wine at a steakhouse in Beverly Hills, but it was still surprising that she sells 93% red and only 7% white wines.  She related the story of a male customer - at a table of men - who asked her, “Would you still respect is if we started with white wine?"  The consensus answer around our table was, "probably more."

Jeffrey Stivers of N-Naka said his experience is almost the opposite of Farner's - he moves mostly white wines, due to the restaurant’s Japanese cuisine.

Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs (right, with Kenneth Volk) got a discussion started on politics.  She observed that “the US government does nothing to help people who make alcoholic beverages, while other governments around the world help their winemakers.”  The wine industry folks were in favor of a little help from Washington, if only to make it easier to put a label on a bottle.  She figures, “"If we all drank more wine, we'd have world peace."  Couldn’t like it more.

Steinwachs also commented that “80% of grapes grown in Santa Barbara County go to wineries not located in Santa Barbara County.”  The fruit, she notes, is of such high quality that everyone wants to use it.  And, seemingly, they do.

Kenneth Volk held court for several topics, but he naturally elaborated at length on the grapes he loves.  Volk is a very well-educated man - Cal Poly SLO - and if you ever want to learn something about wine, find him and stand next to him for a while.  He’s a walking class credit in oenology.  He pointed out that someone once said “Ken never met a grape he didn’t like,” then admitted that he likes some grapes better than others.  He did five delightful minutes on what constitutes a heritage variety before someone grabbed the wheel and drove the show onward.

The Wines

The luncheon featured an eight-sample tasting of wines by producers who were present at at the meal.  Prices given are suggested retail.

1)  Buttonwood Zingy 2012 Sauvignon Blanc  $20
Steinwachs told us this one was bottled just two days before.  It’s actually Sauvignon Musquée, and just under 300 cases were made.  "We're probably known more for our peaches than our wine," she said, with an aside about the Buttonwood "Peach Nazi" who oversees their stone fruit.  Seems nobody can get a sample from him.  The wine is very aromatic, with peaches and chewing gum on the nose.  Stivers pinned it down, calling it a Juicy Fruit note, and I'll be darned if he wasn't right.  There’s a green edge to the tropical fruit on the palate. Great acidity made it a natural pairing with the salad.

2)  Epiphany Grenache Blanc 2011  $25
Tim Snider (left) said the Epiphany brand was started as an outlet for (Fess Parker winemaker) Eli Parker's desire to do artisanal wines.  Fermented in 80% steel and 20% old French oak, from gravelly loam, the wine displays an aromatic nose - savory and nutty with a hint of band aid.  Light in the mouth, savory fruit and minerals are joined by a nice acidity.  Bright and fresh.

3)  Kenneth Volk Albariño 2011  $24
Albariño grapes from the Riverbench Vineyard were the first of that variety grown in the Santa Maria Valley, according to Volk.  The nose is very aromatic with fruity flowers, while the palate shows a beautiful acidity and savory, nutty fruit.  Volk is drawn to unconventional grape varieties like a moth to a porch light.  He revealed that he is making a Touriga Nacional, dry, among a boatload of other "forgotten grapes."

4)  Riverbench Chardonnay 2010   $26
Fermented in the barrel, with 11 months of oak aging, This Chardonnay is made from clones 4 and 15, if you're scoring at home.  The nose is full and sweet, and there’s plenty of oak on the palate, too. Flavors of baked apples ride on a nice acidity, but it’s still creamy in the mouth.

5)  Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir 2009  $30.
A blend of grapes from three vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, this one has a beautiful floral nose with minerals and cola poking forward, and fabulous acidity.  Commenting on the notion of whole-cluster pressing, Volk said, "I don't like stemminess."

6)  Riverbench Pinot Noir Mesa 2010  $48.
This wine is darker on nose and palate than the Volk Pinot.  Winemaker Clarissa Nagy said "I think it's the clay, but it may be the age of the vines."  Lovely black velvet on the palate, great with feta cheese.

7)  Buttonwood Cabernet Franc 2009  $26.
Steinwachs calls Cabernet Franc "The Pinot Noir of the Bordeaux family.  It's the fussiest, most finicky grape to grow, and once it's in the winery, it's even more demanding."  Blackburn cited the old-world style of this Santa Ynez Valley wine,  showing a floral, cherry candy nose and black cherry’s dark side on the palate.  Nice acidity.

8)  Epiphany Revelation 2009  $40
A Rhone blend drawn from Santa Barbara County vineyards, Snider says this is Epiphany’s most popular wine.  The Grenache/Syrah mix spent nearly two years in oak.  The nose has big black cherry fruit with a brambly feel.  In the mouth, fabulous acid and great, big flavors of cherry, black tea and minerals.  With all that at work, it still has a creamy mouthfeel.

Snider talked about the resurgence of Syrah.  When he said "Syrah is growing in the northeast," all the media types went for their notebooks.  Eve Bushman (right) went for the social media.  Snider quickly clarified that it was Fess Parker’s sales of Syrah that are growing in the northeast.  Relief all around.


After the luncheon, we headed into the banquet room to taste more of Santa Barbara’s bounty.