Magazine article Sunset

Wild and Wise in Santa Barbara

Magazine article Sunset

Wild and Wise in Santa Barbara

Article excerpt

Paris, circa 1920. Though no one knew precisely why, the most avantgarde artists and writers in the world gathered here. It was a magical and almost mystical time. Paris had become a mecca for mavericks.

Santa Barbara County, the present. The same thing is happening - but this time the draw is wine. Seemingly inexplicably, dozens of America's most wild and imaginative winemakers have gravitated here. If Steven Spielberg were a winemaker, you can bet he'd be making wine in Santa Barbara County.

Does all of this creativity affect the actual taste of the wines? I think it does. Santa Barbara County wines are sassy, daring, a little reckless and unpredictable. Miss Manners probably wouldn't like them.

Not that any winemaker in the county would care. These are the sort of men and women for whom the phrase conventional wisdom is an oxymoron. More often than not, winemaking here means shooting from the hip.

What's amazing about this to me is that it works. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara County, I could not believe the sheer number of fantastic wines I found. Bottle after bottle (I tried some 200 wines) turned up one great surprise after another.

But before I tell you about them, a word about the unique and spectacular geography that helps make these extraordinary wines possible.

Santa Barbara County, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, comprises two main valleys - the Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez. These valleys in turn are made up of undulating hills, deep canyons, and windswept mesas.

Most important, both run east to west, opening with total vulnerability right onto the Pacific. You can actually taste the ocean in the air.

Why does this matter? Because the proximity to the sea means that both the soil and the climate are uniquely suited to producing wine. (Bordeaux, for example, would not be Bordeaux were it not for the influence of the nearby Atlantic Ocean.) Cold air sweeps off the sea and barrels down the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys as though they were wind tunnels.

Much to the thrill of the vines. Certain vines, anyway - notably Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Syrah. These grapes not only thrive in coolness but virtually require it if they are to be made into elegant wines.

Elegance. That's the other thing. The best wines from these valleys exude elegance. No muddled flavors, no overwrought bodies, no components sticking out like sore thumbs. They exist in Zen-like refinement. …

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