“We had a 6:30AM departure from San Francisco to catch a flight to San Luis Obispo, locally known as Slo. This was our gateway to Paso Robles (just call it Pass-oh because they mangle the last word into Robils which no right-minded person wants to say). We arrived to the first hot day of the trip, and this is one of the warmest viticultural areas we were visiting. Paso is the last part of California, heading south, in which the mountains run north-south, effecting a solid barrier to the cool Pacific breezes and keeping the internal hillsides rather warm. As you go south of Paso, the coastline hangs a Ralph and the mountain ranges start running east-west, allowing the cool ocean winds to funnel into the valleys. Though near each other, you could not have more diametric weather conditions than between Paso and the Santa Barbara-area vineyards.
McPrice Myers is a solid man making solid wines. We drove straight up to his vineyard which he is very proud of and started with a 2014 Blanc de Blancs. Only 3g of dosage and if the blistering heat and dust weren’t enough, this wine ripped out any remaining mucous from my tongue. The rest of the group appreciated this wine more than I did and liked the fact that he went for such a daring style. I dare you to drink a bottle.
But the vineyard is gorgeous; at 2,000 feet above sea level, this is one of the highest vineyards of the region. Mac likes to use whole cluster fermentations and he varies the amount in his various bottlings, of which he makes many. Mac is ambitious and many times he hits the mark. I would say this was easily the best group of wines of his I’ve tasted, trading in a lot of what I found overly sweet into savory characteristics. He and his wines are maturing.
The 2016 Terres Blanches is made with 38% Viognier but it surprisingly doesn’t take over the wine. It is really a lovely white. Then we had a 2017 Clairette from tank, lively young and round. It will be blended into the 2017 Terres Blanches with the Grenache Blanc, subbing in for the Viognier. Yay! Then a 2017 Viognier, big and fat and more fat, what you would expect from this grape in this location.
To the reds. 2017 Grenache from a single vineyard raised in a concrete fermenter (he is very proud of his new toy installed just last year). Concrete is a very useful fermentation tool in these hot climes as it is good for maintaining steady temperatures. Then a 2017 Grenache from the Paper Street vineyard. This was destemmed and raised in a puncheon, high toned with cocoa notes. Over the course of a long tasting, this vineyard proved to be one of the best. The next wine, from the Shadow Canyon vineyard, was 50/50 whole cluster and was the most complete of the red Grenaches. The Syrah from Luna Mata was a monster of tannins with equal fruit. Certainly an interesting wine for blending. The 2017s will be bottled in 2019, so all of these were babies.
The 2017 Syrah from Shadow Canyon shared a lot of the characteristics of the Grenache; aromatic and full. Next was a wine he calls La Turkey (La Turque, get it?) It is Shadow Canyon Syrah co-fermented with Larner vineyard Viognier. All the wines go through malo but the acidities were good.
From bottle we tasted 2015 High on the Hog, 2016 Pound for Pound, 2016 Right Hand Man (really brilliant especially for the money) and 2016 Bull by the Horns. I found that all of these wines hit their mark, were clear expressions of Paso and their respective varieties, had very accessible fruit and structure and enough acidity to keep the wines moving along your palate. Mac is definitely on to some very interesting wines in the near future.
From McPrice we drove down to Lompoc (pronounced Lom-poke) which is in the Santa Barbara region of cool wine valleys. We had set aside the next day for our visit to Sine Qua Non. We had some time in the morning so we visited Greg Brewer of Brewer Clifton. I won’t go into the soap opera but Clifton is out and Brewer makes these wines for KJ now. Greg is a brilliant winemaker and it was very instructive to taste what he is doing. He was one of the pioneers and his bright savory style of winemaking has become more typical of the region. He has nothing but praise for another pioneer of the region, Manfred Krankl, who planted grapes in sites which everyone else said could never get ripe. Greg mentioned that only Manfred picked as late as he did, end October into November. Peter Hunken followed Manfred’s lead and also planted grapes on a forsaken hillside which is on the edge of full ripening and produces brilliant wines. These are cool, cool hillsides, which may be a bit counter-intuitive for how far south you are. Don’t forget that the Pacific Ocean runs north to south with the Japan current hitting Alaska and only then coming down the California coast. Even in July you can’t get into the water in San Francisco; it is bone-chilling.
Our visit to Sine Qua Non brought us through gorgeous rolling hills 2 hours south of Lompoc, near Ventura. Last time I was here he was planting his home vineyards and building his winery and home. It is all quite impressive and very few get to visit, though many ask. The winery reminded me of an ancient temple in modern-form. You come up to a three-story twin waterfall with exotic desert plantings surrounding a shallow pool. Elaine Krankl came running out to meet us with a big smile and hugs, then her son August, whom I had met when he and his twin brother were three. August, now 25, works at the winery, pulled in when Manfred had a bad motorcycle accident three years ago. His twin works for a monumental artist in Brooklyn (of course). We walked up to the main building and the door creaked open and Manfred slowly emerged. It was a bit dramatic for me because I hadn’t seen him since his accident, not knowing what to expect. He walks with a severe limp and needs a cane, his hair has gone completely gray but he still stands up tall and is as charming as ever.
He didn’t hesitate to take us on a tour of his vineyard, much of it planted on own-rootstock (i.e., not grafted). When Manfred planted his own vineyards, he had the chance to really let his vinous creativity run wild, planting Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Touriga Nacional, Petit Manseng, Petite Syrah and even Graciano. There may be others I missed.
Manfred does not come across as a know it all, just the opposite. He loves to experiment, which for him is more akin to playing and creating. He is essentially an artist using winemaking as his medium. Sounds corny, but he is so disarming about it that you don’t feel put off, but rather pulled in by his charm and superb taste. He tries new things and doesn’t hesitate to say when it doesn’t work: he bought concrete eggs but says he doesn’t much care for them (he uses them just for his white wines), he is also experimenting with clay amphorae and 1,000 Litre Clay Hippos which he re-designed with legs to more easily access the spout — smart.
After we tasted the Deux Grenouilles white wine (named for the Deux Chevaux car on the label), he did not have any other finished wines for us to taste out of bottle (all sold) but he was very generous with a large range of barrel samples. He makes numerous separate lots from which to build his wines (he speaks about it in the video we filmed). He numbers each lot in order that he does not know the provenance, which might bias his judgment. He forces himself to be completely honest and lets the wines create themselves with his guidance. He mentioned how he will tinker with the blend, which may take him in different directions and cause him to backtrack. Fascinating to hear. He loves having a very varied palette from which to create.
With lunch, we tasted a home-vineyard 2016 Grenache from barrel; the 2015 #6 Grenache from an old Gamba 700-litre barrel that had been blended with 25% Mourvedre, all from the Eleven Confessions Vineyard; 2016 Mourvedre from the Molly Aida vineyard that had just the most gorgeous aromatics, an amazing example of this variety; 2015 Graciano that was raised for a year in a demi-muid, it ripens very late and is noted for its high acid, his had a lovely suave texture with notes of cocoa; 2016 Touriga Nacional, a real big boy showing notes of fig and black fruits; own-rooted Syrah co-fermented with Petit Manseng filling in for the more typical Viognier component, an awesome wine that was at once aromatic and deeply fruited, lifted yet dense; a Syrah from his Eleven Confessions Vineyard co-fermented with destemmed Viognier; and a Petit Syrah raised in new oak barrels from the Third Twin Vineyard up in Los Alamos that is supposed to be a most spectacular site, according to Peter Hunken.
It is hard to describe the feeling of pride I felt to be at the table and working with such a talented person for all these years. Manfred, never shy, is rather humble in the face of the great challenge of winemaking and the extraordinary luck (his words) that he has had in life attempting to make wine, never thinking it would become his vocation (he thought he would remain a restaurateur and winemaking would be a nice hobby). He takes this humility to the winemaking process, stripping his mind/ palate naked and working with what the vineyard gives him. It is important to him to stay honest, and he succeeds, taking nothing for granted. Since not many people get to taste his wines, there is much naysaying and jealousy for his tremendous success, but when you do experience his wines, you find all the elements of greatness: proper ripeness of fruit, tension, lift, complexity and length. Terroir might be a bit of a stretch but in his wines there are certainly qualities of the cool, long ripening season of the hills north of Santa Barbara. Manfred certainly respects European terroir, as he drinks a lot of European wines and travels quite a bit, but he is rather skeptical about the notion of terroir in California. His wines are a unique expression, ultimately his expression.
We drove back to Lompoc and luckily could walk to dinner at Peter Hunken and Amy Christine’s house (Black Sheep Finds). Lompoc is a charming town of small houses that feels kind of cozy. You wouldn’t know it was an important wine center for the region with many of the best wineries located in the “Wine Ghetto” (that is literally what the sign says). They made us a wonderful vegetarian dinner and we drank well of their wines: Champagne and a magnum of 1998 Quintarelli. We were thirsty. The next morning we went to the Ghetto and visited the compact space that is Black Sheep Finds; but first we drove out to their pride, the Joy Fantastic Vineyard, which they planted from scratch in 2014. Driving up to the vineyard, you pass the Sashi Moorman/ Raj Parr vineyard for their Domaine de la Côte wines. You spot the Joy Fantastic Vineyard from quite far because it is a stunning site way up on the hill, much higher than the Côte Vineyard, which offers many advantages. Like many talented visionaries we met on this trip, they were warned not to plant up this high because “they would never get their fruit ripe.” Well they did and it did (get ripe, that is). Peter and Amy have been buying fruit up until now and still need to do so as their new vineyard comes on line, but from what we tasted, there are some very exciting wines in store from their Joy Fantastic Vineyard (Amy is a big Prince fan).
Back in the Ghetto, we tasted their 2016 Chardonnay which is just the third leaf from the JF vineyard. The aromatics were absolutely delightful; though the palate thinned out, you could sense the potential for the Chardonnay off this site.
The 2016 Holus Bolus Roussanne is from the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard; year in year out, this wine is a star. The fruit used to go to Qupe. This is a cool site for Roussanne which is perfect. The wine is made a bit backwards, fermented in wood and aged in concrete but the results are brilliant, with fresh fruit flavors and a terrific texture. We tasted the 2017 from tank and it is even richer than the 2016.
Amy and Peter Pinot Noir 2014 is a wine we have in stock but it was good to taste it again. It is a fruit forward PN that is easy to love. We then tasted the 2016 JF Pinot Noir that was bottled last August. Again one could see the amazing potential of this vineyard. More texture and complexity than the Amy and Peter.
I hate to say how much I love this wine: the Presqu’ile Vineyard Syrah. Hate to say because 2017 will be the last year they can buy fruit here. The 2016 has lovely, spicy aromatics with a definite note of black pepper that runs straight through the blackberry fruit to the finish line. Just 13.5% alcohol.
The 2016 Franc de Pied Syrah is, as is typical, more tuned up than the above. This is an own-rooted vineyard with more intensity and tension in the wine, more savory qualities. The wine just needs to relax a bit. Finally we tasted the 2016 JF Syrah, bottled last August. Again, it shows all the depth and aromatics that their home vineyard promises.
We are very fortunate to be working with Peter and Amy at the very beginning of the winemaking journey that is Black Sheep Finds. They are two extremely talented people that are doing all the right things, which will soon bear fruit. The bottlings we have are excellent, and the future wines will be even better.”