At the end of the twisting, hilly Ballard Canyon Road the words had become almost a mantra: “Harvested two and three weeks early. Water not yet a problem but…” The Rusack winery has its own well system, but the tannish-brownish Santa Rita Hills tell the story. Like the rest of California, Santa Barbara County is experiencing extreme drought.
Joe Melatti, our host at the handsome bar in the tasting room, beautifully ornamented with native pottery, told it like it is — a really very early harvest this year. Though the Ballard Canyon seems more like the Rhone Valley and the wines it produces are predominantly Rhone-style, Joe says the Zinfandel is “History in a bottle.” The Zinfandel cuttings were saved from the cuttings on Santa Cruz and Santa Catalina Islands after Prohibition, hence the history. In Ballard Canyon, they vinify Zinfandel in the style of the Old World, imparting a more feminine, nuanced style than one expects of a Zinfandel from California. The connection to Catalina Island goes back to Alison Wrigley Rusack’s childhood on that island when her family owned it, the chewing gum industry, and, of course, the Chicago Cubs, which endeared the place to me immediately.
More than half of their 17 acres are planted in Syrah, the flagship Rhone-style wine. Here the Syrah finishes with a touch of licorice and a concentration of cherry and chocolate, not unlike those of the Northern Rhone. But the Rusacks also source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the cooler Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley to produce some Burgundy-style reds and whites. Though total poroduction is only from eight to ten thousand cases, the diversity of production is impressive.
Particularly noteworthy is the extent to which the Rusack vines follow the contours of the surrounding hills, making for excellent drainage and maximum exposure to the sun. Ballard Canyon is not defined as either a cool or warm climate. From the hills, as mentioned, the grapes are Burgundian; the opposite end of the canyon is the warmest land in Santa Barbara County, where they produce some Merlot and Cabernet for a Bordeaux style red.
My first day of work ended on the redwood deck fronting the winery, basking in a late-afternoon sun sipping a refreshing Santa Maria Valley Reserve Chardonnay. Next time, I’ll remember to bring a picnic lunch.
As clocks finish chiming at midnight tonight, the 2014 Beaujolais Nouveau will be released. Those who know and care will be on hand in their favorite watering hole to be among the first to taste the fruity run-off of the first pressings of this famous wine region, whose Gamay grape was banned from Burgundy way back in the Middle Ages.
I suppose it’s possible to cheat somewhere in the world and get a sample before midnight, but that would destroy the fun. It used to be that on the evening before the third Thursday of November, the trucks and helicopters and corporate planes would begin parking in meadows and along roads around the major producers in and around Beaujeu and Villefrance-sur-Saone and Romaneche-Thorins to load up in time to start moving on the stroke of the witching hour. I suppose — and I hope — they still do, because it’s exciting to witness what resembles a military invasion in full throttle; but mostly today, the New Beaujolais is shipped well in advance to world market places under sworn oaths not to sell any of it till after midnight on the designated day.
Part of the fun wherever you are on New Beaujolais Day is knowing you are among the first to get it. Truckers have been well paid to get the stuff to Frankfurt and Paris and Geneva by dawn, and jet planes have stood by at major airports to get on the way to London and New York and Sidney.
I saw it brought by horse and carriage at daybreak to a pub in a Cotswold village where the licensing hours had been adjusted so we guests could enjoy a glass or two in the morning twilight. I have seen it sluice into the Thames by London Bridge on a small plane equipped with pontoons, and I once saw it dropped by parachute into downtown Indianapolis. Rick Hofstetter and I launched the first-ever New Beaujolais parties in rural southern Indiana some twenty-plus years ago at his Story Inn where the tradition continues.
Still, there’s nothing quite like shivering in the night air outside George Duboeuf’s immense winery to watch the take-off, then partake of the same wine that you watched head off around the world, accompanied by catchy posters, occasionally a bit bawdy, announcing l’Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivee!
But don’t store it in your cellar; it isn’t intended to age. And, though it is really tasty and juicy, take care — it is alcoholic. Above all, enjoy it, because its annual appearance is cause to celebrate.
Having just come from Firestone Winery and barely a year past visits to Chalk Hill Estate and Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma County, all of them stars in the Foley Family Wines stable, I was not surprised at the high quality of the wines in the Foley Estates Winery. The estate bearing his name was bought by Bill Foley in the 1990s and sits on soils exceptionally suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and has become known for taking advantage of those soils to produce those exceptional varietals. Don’t forget, that when Miles Raymond in “Sideways” made that pilgrimage to the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County he was in pursuit of exceptional Pinot Noir.
I was making my first-ever visit to those cool, windy Santa Rita Hills, an AVA since 2001, so my hostess — Susan Pratt — undertook to explain to me how at Foley Estates they take micro-farming very seriously, mapping soil and using aerial photography to assure complete understanding of growing conditions. Winemaker Lorna Kreutz says it’s a mixture of agriculture and artistry, something we sensed in each sip of 2012 Steel Chardonnay and 2010 Barrel Select Chardonnay, both with the complexity and overtones of white Burgundy.
As elsewhere in California this year, the harvest at Foley Estates came three weeks earlier than usual. Susan explained that it’s been getting earlier every year for some time and that the overall temperatures seem to be on the rise. As to the drought… “We are on a drip system and have no issues yet.”
Yet is a word I heard again and again in my California visits. The drought is ever present and there is no denying it. Most wineries are coping, but as indicated, “no issues yet” is repeated and reveals a certainty that issues are on the horizon.
The 2011 Pinot Noirs from the J.A. and Lazy S Ranches were so compelling that all conversation about drought and Pacific Ocean breezes came to a halt. Words such as “rich,” “feminine,” and “deep” came to mind. They had a viscous quality and a brightness of color unusual in a Pinot Noir. The focus on Burgundy-style was obvious.
With the length of those wines still on my palate as we drove back along Highway 246, I better understood the passion in Miles’s quest.OLDER POSTS »