Tuesday, February 20, 2024

WOPN 2024's Seriously Sapient, Sanguine Seminars

So this is my 40th post over the years about World of Pinot Noir, which means two things. 1) It's an incredible weekend of wine and food and fun and excess and Bacara and friends both old and new, and I'd hate to miss it. 2) It's getting harder and harder to come up with a new way to craft a story. Heck, I did one post as a fake Larry King column back in 2020 even before I had any excuse that two turns through the Covid dumbening had softened my cerebral cortex.

Still, more than 200 producers of Pinot Noir. It's a lesson in range of expression, in expression of terroir, in oak's mighty force in aging. It's terms de- and re-associating: for just one example take Old World versus New World, which now means style and not geography (and time in the sense everything old becomes new again). 

It's easy to (try to) focus on just the Grand Tastings, a massive ballroom floor a-crawl with almost too many folks thirsty for Burgundy (and hoping for some surprises under the table, or even up top--sparkling and Chardonnay, and sometimes a smuggled in Grenache or Syrah, yes, a lone Rhone). You sort of can't go wrong beyond trying to do everything. So pick whatever organizational plan you like, whether by location or clone (you will hear so much talk of clones you'll worry you're in a sci-fi movie), or only taste from wineries that start with S and T--that would be 27 stops, and most places at least pour 2 wines. That's an afternoon, easy.

But since you've still got some time to book as the event is February 29-March 2, I'm here to suggest you might want to attend one of the four seminars that happen Friday and Saturday mornings, too. Alas, the "Bubbles and Bites" session is already sold out, as how could you not want to start off your Saturday sparkling, but there are still three other options well worth considering. You sit, you listen, you laugh, you sip. You often get to take part in room polls or get to lob questions at the knowledgeable. So, yes, you will learn and be entertained. How noble.

Friday morning offers the provocatively titled seminar "The New 'Grand Cru' of California." Just think about the inescapable meme, "If your ___ is not from the ___ region of France, it's just sparkling ____" to consider how dogmatic the French are about what kind of wine earns what label. Grand Cru signifies the very very very best growing (cru) sites, i.e. where the best wine should come from. So taking that term and slapping it on California could be fighting words, or at the least, fighting over words. You have to attend to see. As WOPN's site puts it: "Led by David Glancy, Master Sommelier and Founder of the San Francisco Wine School, the seminar will showcase Pinot Noir vineyards from the Santa Maria Valley to Russian River Valley to Anderson Valley, and more. Guests will walk away with a deep understanding of the rich history of farming philosophies, winemaking approaches, and how California vineyards became known for Pinot Noir." 

For a more global perspective, the other Friday morning seminar is "The Legacy Generational Library Tasting--Know Your Winemaker." Moderator Ray Isle, author of the forthcoming book The World in a Wineglass: The Insider's Guide to Artisanal, Sustainable, Extraordinary Wines to Drink Now and the Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine Magazine, will celebrate the world’s top family-run wineries whose legacy of sustainability and innovation has helped produce some of the most exceptional Pinot Noirs in recent history. And hope to sell some of his books, no doubt. (We can't pretend there isn't a commercial function at these events, can we?) 

Then the still available Saturday event is an opportunity to hone your blind-tasting skills. (I hope yours are stronger than mine from 9:30-11:30 am.) At "Global Wine Conversations: A World of Pinot Noir," (see what they did there?) guests will blind taste 10 wines that epitomize the marquee AVAs from Burgundy, Australia, Oregon, and California. Wine Expert Julia Coney and Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein will let people just like you and me, folks without the slightest of somm degrees, discover what it's like to puzzle through questions of typicity. How does one mentally map the growing regions of the world on one's tongue? Here's your chance to find out.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Introducing Sparks*

James Sparks excitement. James Sparks great wine talk. And now James Sparks scrumptious sparkling wine.

But I guess for some of you I need to back-up. Let me introduce you to Kings Carey, another tiny winery that could and can in Santa Barbara County. It's pretty much all James Sparks, with tasting and marketing assistance from his wife Anna Ferguson-Sparks, and that's how you get the winery's unusual name: the couples' hometowns were (respectively) Carey, Idaho and Kings Point, New York. Sparks is better known as the winemaker for SB stalwart Liquid Farm, crafting some of our county's best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus an annual killer rosé of Mourvèdre. (More on rosé in a bit.)

As with many winemakers working for someone else, Sparks also wanted to follow his own muse too. Hence, Kings Carey, producing a tiny 600-1200 cases a harvest, almost always single vineyard, single varietal. It can get tricky, as Sparks has no vineyards of his own, and he's also meticulous about what grapes he chooses to work with. He insists on organic fruit--as he puts it, "organic is proactive, not reactive"--and that means from year to year what he gets to make might change. But whatever he makes, you will want to drink, promise.

Even better, you can taste at his small winemaking facility that just celebrated its first year in a spot just past the Welcome to Solvang sign (after you leave the town going west) on the 246. Yes, he's the tasting room person, too (most of the time), so you need to book ahead, but it's worth checking out the spot that was a motel in the 1970s (one room in the space was clearly a large shower at some point, and perhaps a chilling room in Kings Carey's future) and most recently where Broken Clock Vinegar Works did something very different with grapes. 

What Sparks does is minimal, and that's why his wines tend to sing of site and varietal. It's fun to be able to side-by-side his two Chardonnays, a 2021 MarFarm from SLO with bright lemon curd loveliness and creaminess, alongside a 2021 from Spear (he's got a soft spot for this vineyard and who could blame him?) in the Sta. Rita Hills, a bit richer than the wine from a bit further north (more heat?) even if made with no new oak. Another difference between the two Chardonnays--the Edna Valley had some residual sugar, so Sparks filtered that out. So he will intervene when he has to. But that's always up to what each wine and vintage suggests he needs to do to let it shine.

Sparks particularly has an affinity for Grenache. His talent is to let the grape sing tenor without merely burying its brightness in dark berry baritone. Take the 2021 To Market Grenache he's pouring right now. At 12.5% ABV it's up to you how and when you hope to love it--give it a quick chill, and it's your warm weather red if you don't want to rosé; serve it cellar temp, and it's a versatile red for apps and cheese or weightier fish or lighter meats. 

And I promised to discuss rosé, didn't I. The Liquid Farm each year is one of our county's standouts, made from Mourvèdre, walking the knife edge of lean and fleshy to the point you keep drinking it trying to decide. That kind of balance isn't easy. But Sparks replicates it with a different but equally pleasing rosé for Kings Carey, made from Grenache, 4-hours skin contact, foot stomped, aged on the lees for 6 months in neutral 400L barrels. So steely and bright it asks where the heck the sun is, and why aren't you out in it and imbibing this delight? 

While I won't walk you through the full lineup--there's equally enticing and lively Syrah and Semillon too--Sparks' most exciting current project is sparkling. To create bubbly in small production is truly a labor of love, as you're not making enough to buy machines to riddle your bottles for you, to point out just one labor-intensive process. While his blanc de noir is still in production--méthode champenoise wine is sort of like trying to make aged bourbon, as it's going to be a many year investment until you release round one--he has released a 2021 Kings Carey Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé from Spear Vineyard. (See, great grape source is back again.) Of course, it's been a ten-year thought process, he insists, to get to making bubbly. All that thought shows in the glass, that breadiness you want without any heft, that lift from the effervescence, and then the sweet/sour fruit tumbling like a coin that will land the way you placed your bet, every time. If this is just the "simpler" first effort, it's hard to imagine how terrific that blanc de noir will be upon release. 

Then again, Kings Carey was meant as the place where Sparks could play. You'll know that as soon as you glimpse one of the bottles, all sporting busy for a wine label art from Philadelphia-based Hawk Krall. Sparks admits to his love 1960s and '70s art with a Vegas neon feel, hence the art choice that's as bold as his wines are refined. Kings Carey teaches us about a perfect balance we never even imagined existed.

* And, yes, instead of making it clear this post is about a talented winemaker, I had to make a reference to an album title from 1977. Sorry, James! At least Sparks are having a moment again, now.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Garagiste Turns 10


Forget tiny libraries, we are here to praise tiny wineries. For February 10th was the (somehow already) 10th Annual Garagiste Wine Festival, Southern Exposure, held as usual at the Solvang Veterans' Memorial Hall. The conceit--as with bands, winemakers often kick off their careers in their garages before venturing out into rental warehouse space somewhere (often in the wilds of Lompoc or Paso Robles, say). The biggest (and that term really means little here) producer at this year's event crafts 1800 cases per vintage. For comparison, Trinchero Family Estates, which admittedly is 50 global brands under one so-called "family," produced 20 million cases of wine in 2020. Places pouring at Garagiste wouldn't even add up to the angel's share at Trinchero.

So, that means Garagiste is a place to drink deep of inspiration, experimentation, passion, play, and sure, some perspiration (not as a wine additive, promise). You can taste every varietal from Albariño to Zinfandel, with all sorts of grapes and blends in-between. You'll have the father-son team at Boutz Cellars pouring you barrel samples of their Assyrtiko, proud of the wine and their Greek heritage. Think of the wine as a Santorini retsina-resonant answer to Albariño. And that's just a bonus blast next to pours like a 2022 100% Syrah not even labeled yet, but nailing westside Paso's penchant for brooding, roasted meat notes. (Overall, Paso wineries seemed to outnumber those from Santa Barbara County this year, tbh.)

Having had the good fortune to attend many a Garagiste Festival, what also strikes me is there are new finds every year. One such find this time was Fuil, pronounced as you might think, no fooling (it comes from the Gaelic, meaning blood, kindred, nature). Winemaker Matt Espiro Jaeger is also an actor, and in a recent interview described his life: "I was literally leaving right after bows for Oedipus at the Getty Villa around 10 pm, driving 2.5 hours north to drop off my empty pick bins, napping for 2-3 hours, picking up my grapes, driving back to Camarillo, crushing and processing the grapes, driving back to LA, taking a nap, then heading back the theatre." Didn't get to see him the Sophocles so can't judge his acting, but the wines are certainly worth that hectic schedule. Worth a second sip was his 2021 Ballard Canyon Syrah, from the esteemed Kimsey Vineyard, a lighter style of that varietal that reminded of the ethereal versions of Grenache you get from A Tribute to Grace.

Or take Entity of Delight and winemaker Crosby Swinchatt (a delightful name that sounds like a Lemony Snickett invention, no?). For a young man he's had some peripatetic career, from New Zealand to Oregon to Sea Smoke to Lo-Fi right here in Santa Barbara County. He favors natural wine, so you can enjoy a fascinating 2022 Mourvèdre from the Kaerskov Vineyard in the Los Olivos District AVA (supposedly the only Danish owned and operated vineyard within the Danish city of Solvang, so now you can win that bar bet). At 12% ABV it's far from a brooding Rhone-monster, but it still pleases with leather, wild strawberry, and even some blood orange notes.

"Old" timers also pleased, too. Montemar nails varietal specificity as well as anyone, and then lets their wine bottle age to develop into its fullness. It's hard to beat their wild and fulfilling 2016 Bentrock Pinot Noir, especially at $52 a bottle. Tomi only makes 250 cases per vintage but that's split over 12 different wines on their website, 8 poured at Garagiste. Everything from a 2020 Barbera that practically ordered a plate of pasta and gravy for you to a 2020 Ambient Light Reserve Albarino aged in acacia oak--the floral on floral really works.

And then there's tercero and Larry Schaffer, Santa Barbara's mad scientist of wines. The amount of wines Schaffer makes puts even Tomi to shame--he can't stop experimenting. But that sort of makes him the poster boy for Garagiste--the point is to make wine because it's fun and you hope to try new things and please new drinkers, or reinvigorate the palates of more experienced drinkers. So while he's still nailing down his second vintage of Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc, or sharing a 2016 Roussanne (very dry, but he suggest pairing it with a dessert like a Basque cheesecake), he's also got a non-vintage red bland that's all freshness and cranberry and juicy goodness, a blend of Carignane, Cinsault and Counoise just waiting for warmer weather and your favorite afternoon spot in the sun. That blend's awfully apt name? Curiosity #1.

Which could be the theme for Garagiste, after all.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Santa Barbara Has a Feast of Valentine’s Day Delights


Here's the intro for the roundup of many of Santa Barbara's Valentine's Day events 2024. Guess what--lots of food!

We lucked out when Chaucer decided to make a romantic thing of St. Valentine’s Day back in the 1300s. Other saints celebrated around Feb 14th include Scholastica, Austrebertha, Eulalia, and Eormenhild, so let’s thank the saints that our local establishments are offering a plethora of ways to celebrate, many centering around decadent feasts with optional wine add-ons. Here’s a quick guide to some of what S.B. has to offer.

Care to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

A Review of "The Glutton" by A.K. Blakemore


How unreasonable, the Age of Reason, especially for an illiterate—if wildly, imaginatively thoughtful—peasant. A.K. Blakemore’s new novel The Glutton might be based on a wisp of a fantastical, 18th-century real person, but widens into a shocking fairy tale as vivid as a Breughel or Bosch. 

 Here’s how the book’s beyond an anti-hero protagonist introduces himself, “The Great Tarare. The Glutton of Lyon. The Hercules of the Gullet. The Bottomless Man. The Beast.” Indeed, as Tarare relates his life of woe-on-the-go to his hospital nurse Sister Perpetué, we learn of his hardscrabble upbringing not shy of maternal care, a shocking, near-death beating keyed to a betrayal after his first kiss, and a life with a band of con men, courtesans, and schemers who have no problem using his disgusting hunger as the main act of their traveling sideshow.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Friday, February 2, 2024

A Review of "This Bird Has Flown" by Susanna Hoffs


If you have ever wondered what life’s like for a one-hit wonder, Susanna Hoffs’ debut novel This Bird Has Flown is for you. The book’s 33-year-old protagonist Jane Start had one big record a decade ago, a cover of a lesser known tune by a mercurial, brilliant superstar the book invents, Jonesy. Jonesy comes off as part Bowie—who, you might recall, was born David Jones—and part Prince—who happened to pen one of Hoffs’ band The Bangles’ biggest hits, “Manic Monday.” It’s the kind of book where you keep getting to play with rock history nuggets like that as fun Easter eggs, though perhaps none of them top, “Tours with siblings. That has to be fraught.” (Sorry, former Banglemates Vicki and Debbi Peterson!)

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.