Kunin Wines

From a wine tasting perspective, Santa Barbara has a split personality.  Uptown is all elegant hotels, fine restaurants and well-appointed tasting rooms.  Downtown, near the Pacific Ocean, is what they call the Funk Zone, which is all, well, funk.  This is not to say that there isn’t good wine to be had in the Funk Zone, just that the overall ambiance is not quite like anywhere else we have ever seen in Wine Country.

The Kunin tasting room in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.  Photo courtesy of hotelcalifornian.com.

Right in the middle of the Funk Zone is Kunin Wines, which has identity crisis of its own.  Not a crisis, really; Kunin seems to be quite comfortable with its identity.  But it’s a little different than other Santa Barbara wineries.  For one thing, perhaps the most important, there’s the wine.  Santa Barbara is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country.  Kunin primarily makes Rhône-style wines from grapes as diverse as Grenache (red and white), Syrah, Viognier, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Roussanne and Counoise.  That’s quite a selection for an American-owned winery in southern California.

A quiet time at the bar at the Kunin tasting room.  Photo courtesy of Keepin’ It Kind.

We’ve found that the servers are quite liberal with offering a variety of tastes if you show genuine interest, not just a desire for alcohol.  But then there’s the matter of Kunin’s identity crisis.  Up until around the lunch hour, visitors can sit at the bar, taste, discuss and enjoy in a thoughtful and unhurried manner.  But once the afternoon arrives, so do the partiers.  And we do mean PAR-TEE.

The tasting room is in a building of no particular architectural interest.  But there’s a long front porch, a wide-open door and a large rectangular bar.   Just perfect for wine tasting near the beach.  And so later in the day it becomes packed – bar, porch and street front and the crowd didn’t seem to be involved in a conversation on the relative merits of real Rhône wines and California varietals.

Now we have nothing against parties.  Who doesn’t like a good party?  It’s just that when we drink wine at a party, we expect it to be cold, wet and alcoholic, nothing more.  But Kunin makes serious wine and it’s a shame not to enjoy it on its own terms.  Don’t misunderstand; these are California Rhône-style wines, not imitation anything.  They cannot be confused with wine made in the south of France, nor should they be.

For example, Kunin makes two wines they call Pape Star and Pape Star Blonde.  They’re meant to be a “versatile take on France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape”.  A take, perhaps, but hardly to be confused with the real thing.  From our point of view, they would be better off calling these wines simply California Rhône Blends, both red and white.  Drinkers should appreciate them for what they are, not what they aren’t.

We were several decades older than any other people in the tasting room and so maybe younger people will experience Kunin differently than we did.  Whatever your age, Kunin is worth a visit.

California’s Central Coast

It is meaningful to say that you are visiting a specific area of Wine Country.  You don’t say, “We’re going to France for wine tasting”.  It’s too big and too varied, so you might say Bordeaux or Burgundy.  California is very large and varied as well, so you say Napa Valley or Sonoma County.  But if you say that you’re going wine tasting in California’s Central Coast, you’re covering an area so vast that it’s hard to say anything meaningful at all.

It’s more than 300 miles from Santa Barbara to Alameda County, the southern and northern extremes of the Central Coast.  Some AVAs are well established; they’ve been making wine in and around Santa Barbara since the days of the Spanish colonization.  Other areas have only recently realized that excellent wine can be made from grapes grown on their soil.  For instance, there have only been vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands since the 1970’s.  So let’s take an abbreviated tour up the coast.

  • Santa Barbara is a delightful little city, with many excellent hotels and restaurants. There’s no wine grown inside the city limits, of course, but many excellent wineries have tasting rooms there.  Many of the wines come from the nearby Santa Rita Hills.  Pinot Noir is THE grape of this area. (Chardonnay is grown everywhere on the Central Coast.)  We’ve been particularly impressed with Sanford and Au Bon Climat.

The Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley is renowned for its Pinot Noirs.  Photo courtesy of the Santa maria estate.

  • A little further north is what we consider to be the heart of the Central Coast, around Los Olivos and Santa Maria. These were relatively quiet little backwaters until they were popularized by the movie Sideways.  Even so, until recently they were rather bucolic but have recently become somewhat more “Napa-fied”, to coin a phrase.  Still, there are many excellent wineries to visit and wines to sample.  Favorites of ours are Foxen and Beckman.  Pinot Noir and Syrah are the leading grapes.
  • The San Luis Obispo region is coming on quickly, both in terms of the quality of the wines and its popularity for visitors. But SLO is not close to any of California’s major population centers.  For example, it’s four hours drive from San Francisco; the problem with hidden treasures is that they’re hidden.  We’ve enjoyed wines from Alban and Laetitia.  Pinot Noir is strong here but Rhône style wines are really the San Luis Obispo success story.

Downtown Paso Robles has become quite trendy.  Photo courtesy of pasoroblesdownton.org.

  • Paso Robles is far enough from San Francisco to be far and close enough for a visit to be feasible. The west side of Route 101 is known for very large commercial wineries.  The east side is hillier and home to many artisanal winemakers.  Tablas Creek (our favorite) introduced Rhône grapes to the region, but Paso Robles is still known for powerful Zinfandels.
  • There are some wineries to visit in the Santa Lucia Highlands, but most of the tasting is in Monterey. Look for robust Pinot Noirs here, such as Hahn or Pisani.  The beauty of the overall scenery around Monterey is world famous.
  • Finally, in the area around Silicon Valley you’ll find quite a few wineries, but not as many that earn top marks. What was once fruit trees, ranches and vineyards is now mostly office buildings where the world’s technology is invented.  Nonetheless, we were delighted to discover the Pinot Noirs of Testarossa in this area.

Pinot Noir Tasting

Our experience with Pinot Noir has been rather strange.  For a long time, we just didn’t care for wines made from this grape.  Too thin.  Too acid.  Too pricy.  We would continue tasting Pinot Noirs in our travels but we never got that kick that lovers of Burgundy wines have written and talked about.  Then on one wine tasting trip about a decade ago, the light bulb came on.

Pinot Noir grapes.  Photo courtesy of LaCrema winery.

We were in the Carneros region of Napa Valley at the Etude winery.  They’re equally well-known for their Cabernet Sauvignons as for their Pinot Noirs, so it was our intent to savor the big California boomers.  Since Pinot Noir was included in the tasting, why not try it?  That was the moment that changed everything; we became club members from that moment and still are.

On that trip and since then, we have been all over Carneros and have found many other wineries specializing in Pinot Noir.  Saintsbury and Domaine Carneros (yes, the same maker of California sparkling) are particular favorites.  But we have expanded our horizons.  We were dining at the late, lamented Hurley’s restaurant in Yountville and they had a weekly special wine from a place we’d never heard of, Santa Lucia Highlands.  Another aha moment and we’ve been buying wines from there ever since.

We’ve enjoyed Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills near Santa Barbara, from Russian River and Sebastopol in Sonoma County, and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  We enjoyed them in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or quite a while ago, but then seemingly lost our taste for them (and regained it, too).  To this day, we prefer California Pinot Noirs to the originals from France.  That may have something to do with the astronomical prices for grand cru Burgundies.

So were we wrong in the days when Pinot Noir didn’t appeal to us?  Not really, but did our taste change or did the wines?  To this day, we find some very well-regarded wines from Russian River and Green Valley in Sonoma County to be thin, acid and overpriced, just as we did in the past.  As you can read in our opening statement on Power Tasting’s front page, tasters need to know what they like.  That implies that we need to know what we don’t like, as well.

In general, we go for more robust Pinot Noirs, so some wine educators have told us that we want wines made for Bordeaux drinkers.  There’s probably a little truth in that, but we think it misses the point.  There are Cabernet Sauvignons that we don’t care for (and Syrahs, and Chardonnays, and Tempranillos and, and, and…) and many others that we love.  We always appreciate well-made wines that respect the nature of the grapes and reflect the hand of capable winemakers.

We don’t want a Pinot Noir that’s like a Cabernet Sauvignon.  We like Pinot Noirs that show the complexity of the grape, with subtle aromas and some deep notes that accompany the overall roundness that Pinot Noir can achieve.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Winery Tours, Part 2: for Experienced Tasters

Several years ago, we wrote about winery tours from the perspective of those who had never taken one before.  For anyone with even the least interest in wine, a tour can be very educational.  There’s really nothing like seeing the process, especially if you can visit Wine Country during the crush.  It really does show you how difficult the winemaking really is.  And in many cases, a tour is a prerequisite for tasting the wines.

Seeing the grapes for Amarone drying at Quintarelli in Valpolicella,  Italy.

But what if you have some experience in wine tasting?  Maybe you have taken numerous tours in the past, so why take another one?  There are a number of good reasons, even if you think you’ve seen it all.

  • You haven’t seen it all. We don’t want to get into the argument about the winemaker’s skill vs. terroir, but surely the way a wine is made has some impact on how it tastes.  Otherwise, they’d all taste pretty much the same.  At any winery, they have a particular way that they harvest (or instruct vineyard owners to harvest), clean the grapes, press them, vinify the juice, blend different varietals, age the wine and bottle it.  If you have been on tours before, you’ll recognize the differences at one winery versus the others you’ve seen.
  • You may be with a less experienced taster. Taking a tour with a friend gives you the opportunity to add your own point of view that the tour guide may not have.  Careful not to be a wine snob, though.

The barrel room at Groth in Napa Valley.

  • Refreshers aren’t a bad idea. Yes, you’ve taken tours, but when was the last one?  It’s not that things have changed all that much (although there have been technical advances) but it’s a good idea to keep yourself up to date.
  • A tour can give you an idea of the quality of the wines. For example, some wineries are sparklingly clean, others less so.  A winery that cares enough to hire and train knowledgeable tour guides is probably more concerned about the tiny details of making wine.  If your guide can’t answer your questions, this will tell you something about management’s perspectives on their customers.  So pay attention to the details.
  • Tours can be fun. Some wineries’ tours are little more than exercises in industrial engineering and about as accessible to the general public.  But we’ve been on others that take you into the vineyards to show you where the grapes you’ve tasted came from.  Quite a few these days combine the tour with the tasting and have bottles stashed in the vineyards or in the barrel room, so you’re tasting as you’re learning.  Quite a deal!

The underlying answer is that there’s always something new to learn.  You don’t have to tour every winery you visit.  For one thing, that can be expensive and repetitive.  But taking a tour every now and again is good for brain as well as your palate.