Tasting the Barrels

Some time ago, we took a class at the Joseph Phelps winery in St. Helena on the subject of cooperage, the making of wine barrels.  We learned that the source and treatment of the oak makes a distinct difference in the taste of the wines matured in them.  Then, on a visit to Paso Robles we got a graduate course.

The location was the Écluse winery (www.eclusewines.com), on a hill on the west side of town.  Écluse is the French word for the locks that accommodate slopes in canals, opening and closing to allow boats to pass at different levels.  The owners are Steve and Pam Lock, hence the name of the winery.  We had heard about their Rhone varietals and asked for an appointment to come visit.  Like many wineries in Paso Robles, Écluse is only open for the public on weekends.  As we were in the area Monday through Thursday, a special appointment was de rigeur (more French).

We pulled into a gravel lot in front of a barn-like structure and were greeted by Steve Lock himself.  Inside the barn were racks of barrels full of maturing wine and a small bar area with some boards stretched between a few barrels and wine bottles resting on them.  This was wine tasting like it used to be, Napa in the ‘70s!  We explained to Steve that our interest was in the Rhone grapes and he was happy to oblige us.  Then he explained that Écluse is as well known for its Cabernet Sauvignons as its Rhones.  Would we like to try some?

Steve Lock serving in the barrel room.  Photo courtesy of Yelp

We guess we must have given Steve an idea that we were really interested in wine because he then involved us in a fascinating experiment.  He had juice from the same vintage of his Cabernet Sauvignons aging in new French, American and Hungarian barrels.  The French barrels have the finest grain, imparting a mellow, oaky flavor.  The Americans have the widest grain, giving the wines a distinct top note.  The Hungarians are in-between and project a creaminess to the wines.  Steve took a wine thief and poured some of each, one at a time, into three different glasses.  We sipped each and had never understood the impact of the cooperage on the taste of wine as much as we did that day.

A wine thief in use.  Photo courtesy the Weekly Grape.

Then we got to play assistant winemaker.  Steve gave us each another glass and encouraged us to blend some of the wine that we still had from the three barrels.  We have no memory of what we made that day, but we are quite certain that it wasn’t as good as what came out of the bottle we received a few years later, since we joined the Écluse wine club that day.

Sanford Winery & Vineyards

Sanford Winery (http://www.sanfordwinery.com/) makes Burgundian wines – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – in Santa Barbara County’s famed Santa Rita Hills.  Sanford has a tasting room in the Santa Rita Hills that we haven’t visited and also one in the city of Santa Barbara, which we have.  Sanford is a Terlato property, the same as Chimney Rock in the Napa Valley.  That fact alone is evidence of high quality wines and knowledgeable servers.  Santa Barbara’s wine tasting scene is a bit schizophrenic, with a wild party atmosphere in the so-called Funk Zone downtown near the ocean and more refined tasting rooms uptown in or near the classy shopping district on State Street.  Needless to say, Sanford is uptown.

Some in-town tasting rooms are strictly commercial.  Others project a feeling of being in a nice club room.  Still others try to incorporate the atmosphere of the town they are in into the tasting room.  Sanford is a bar, a very classy bar to be sure, but all the same, a bar.  It has a polished wooden floor, some large and small tables and a bar with some high stools.  There’s no standing tastings at Sanford.

Photo courtesy of Winery Explorers (http://wineryexplorers.com/)

It’s in a shopping center.  Again, it’s an up-scale shopping center with restaurants and shops full of beautiful things, but it’s a shopping center and it affects the wine tasting experience at Sanford.  The wines, which are first-rate, become another expensive luxury item.  Okay, all wine is an expensive luxury, but it doesn’t need to feel that way.  So when you visit Sanford, and we hope you do, keep the door at your back.

Photo courtesy of Sanford Winery

What you will get when you go to Sanford is, in ascending order, a lesson in their wines, their Sanford & Benedict vineyard and winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.  All of this is accompanied by quite a broad range of wines for you to sample.  Some of the wines Sanford produces are breathtakingly expensive; in all likelihood you won’t get a chance to taste those.  But the ones that are available to taste give an excellent perspective of what the Santa Rita Hills is capable of and what American Pinot Noirs ought to be.

In some ways, the best part of tasting in Sanford’s Santa Barbara location is that you get to sip these wines without the necessity of an hour or more of driving to Lompoc, where Sanford is based.  In fact, that case could be made for tasting wines in the city of Santa Barbara rather than trying to take in all the wineries in the rather vast county of Santa Barbara.  Many other top-end wineries have realized that and have opened tasting rooms in-town.

The wine-tasting experience at Sanford Santa Barbara is a bit unusual but definitely worthwhile.  The same may be said of visiting Santa Barbara itself, to be addressed in a future Places to Visit article.

Amador County

There are other wines to drink in California’s Amador County, but the main reason to go wine tasting in this part of Wine Country is to try the Zinfandels they’re famous for.  There are wineries all over the county, but the greatest concentration of them is in and around the town of Plymouth, mostly on or just off Shenandoah Road, also known as the Shenandoah Valley, about 50 miles east of Sacramento.

There is also a fair number of wineries about a half hour north of Plymouth in another town called Placerville.  We haven’t visited there yet so offer no opinions in this article.  If you have  several days, by all means try locations other than Plymouth, but we recommend against doing a lot of tasting in one place and then driving for some time to another. You mostly drive on small roads.  Keep it easy and keep it safe.

While many of the wineries have built glass and steel tasting rooms, none of them come close to palatial.  Many wineries, including some of the more popular ones, are located in wooden buildings.  They are hardly sheds, but they do project a rustic ambiance that, overall, describes Amador County.  There are a lot of ranches around the county.  You definitely know you’re in the country when you visit there.

Photo courtesy of Helwig Winery

One  feature of Amador county wineries is that many of them have restaurants.  Among them are Villa Toscana and Renwood.  You’d better look for them if you want something to eat because once you’re down the road in the Shenandoah Road it’s a bit of a drive back into town, and event then there aren’t many places to eat.

Photo courtesy of Renwood Winery

With the restaurants in the wineries, the wine tasting experience is different. You feel more like being in a bar and grill than in a tasting room.  At one place we saw people sitting on bar stools ordering plates of cheese and charcuterie, in another one just besides the tasting room was the restaurant.  Lucie felt that it was more commercial and that people living around the area go there to party. They seem to consider the wineries like their local bars which takes something away from wine tasting experience.

You’re not quite in the mountains in Amador County but you certainly are in the foothills of the Sierras.  Thus there are quite a few wonderful views to be had on a pretty day.  We’ve also had the experience of being there on a rainy, foggy day and you do feel a bit closed in.

Among the wineries to consider when you drive out to Amador County (and you will drive as there are no commercial airports closer than Sacramento, forty miles away) are Renwood, Helwig and Turley.  Renwood is the biggest, most commercial winery in the region and its Zinfandels are widely available.  Helwig has a rather large tasting room, made of wood and offers excellent views.  Turley is interesting because it’s the northern outlet of the same label in Paso Robles.  We are familiar with the Central Coast winery and often buy their wines but we found virtually an entirely different selection in Amador County.

Turley winery in Amador County

There’s always a reason to go for a tasting trip anywhere in Wine Country.  There are some first-rate wines to be experienced in Amador County and if you are a Zinfandel fan you’ll find much that will interest you and a few wines that you will find exciting.  Wine tasting in Amador County is certainly is more than “a pleasant day in the countryside” destination.

The Other California

For most travelers to California who are seeking wine tasting adventures, the most obvious destinations are Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which we have dubbed Napa/Noma.  More than 90% of the wineries we have visited in that state have been in those locations.  And why not?  The wine is world-renowned; the scenery is ravishing; and they are close to San Francisco, a frequent business destination.  However, there are other areas of the state that produce wine, some of it of excellent quality.

In this and subsequent issues, we will use the Places to Visit column to introduce some of these grape-growing areas.  In a previous edition, we did highlight the Temecula Valley near San Diego which, in our opinion, has more to offer as a pleasant day in the vineyards than an occasion to sample great wines.  In this and future issues of Power Tasting, we’ll discuss Amador County, Santa Clara Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Maria County and Santa Barbara County.  It will be an irregular series, because we still want to write about other locations in Wine Country.

Here are a few things to consider if you want to visit the “Other California”:

  • Be prepared to drive.  Most of us don’t live near to any of these destinations and most visitors don’t often visit far from the major urban areas.  And even if you do live near one of them, you’re pretty far from all the others.   All the normal rules of safe wine tasting apply: Know your limit and don’t even get close to it.  Sip, don’t drink and use the pour bucket.  Put some food in your stomach.  Space out your winery visits.  These points cannot be stressed enough.
  • Do some homework before you go.  It’s likely that many, if not most of the wineries in any given area are unknown to you.  So get on your favorite search engine and look for “best wineries” in the area you’ll be visiting.  This is no guarantee as some sites contain nothing but self-promotion.  But if you see an article in one of the local newspapers, there’s a higher likelihood of getting some unbiased information.
  • Don’t expect too much.  There’s a reason why Napa Valley and Sonoma County are so well known: many wineries there make a lot of really excellent wine.  You can find some excellent wine in other areas as well, just not in the same profusion.  In any Napa AVA, you’ll find many superlative wineries, a few that are okay but not great and very few, if any, that are awful.  In some of the other areas of the state, there may be a few great ones, a lot of okay ones and quite a few really poor ones.
  • Keep an open mind.  Even if you’re not crazy about too many wines you taste, you still can have a pleasant day in a region that may be new to you.  At any given winery, you may have to sip and pour quite a few samples until you find a particular wine  that appeals to you.  Think of it this way: you might discover an unknown gem amongst the dross.  It’s worth it to keep searching.
  • Focus on what that region does best.  Every region has a reputation for certain grapes.  For example, Amador County is known for Zinfandel and Santa Barbara is famous for its Pinot Noirs.  So go ahead and sip a Merlot or a Sauvignon Blanc, but keep your taste buds alert save your alcohol content for what they do best.

Perhaps the best way to summarize our advice concerning the Other California is to approach each region with a sense of adventure.  The worst that can happen is you’ll be able to avoid certain wine regions on restaurants lists.  The best might be the thrill of an unexpected discovery.