Carl Kanowsky: Wine tasting in California

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Do you have friends like these: “California is soooo expensive, and you get taxed every time you turn around. Beside that, you’ve got those wacky politicians who have lost touch with reality. I’m leaving here as soon as I can.”

Well, a few months ago, Terry and I took a weekend trip that convinced us we are never leaving the Golden State.

We drove up the coast toward Los Olivos. Countless movies have showcased that vista of the Pacific along Highway 101 from Ventura to Carpinteria. Over the Christmas holidays, we had visitors from London, Germany and Italy. And, they all clamored for that same excursion. You can’t get that anywhere else in the world.

Our first stop at Rideau (the subject of my last column) highlighted how in less than two hours you can leave one of the largest cities in the world and journey to rural, idyllic destinations.

From Rideau, we went to the small town of Los Olivos to visit the tasting room for Stolpman Vineyards. Founded years ago by Tom Stolpman and now run by his son, Peter, Stolpman Vineyards is 220 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley. I don’t need to describe how gorgeous all of this is — just watch the movie “Sideways” while Miles and Jack explore the rolling, vine-dense hills.

Sandra Miro, the tasting room manager for Stolpman, warmly greeted us and got us right to drinking. She served three wines: a 2017 Roussanne; 2016 La Croce (a blend of sangiovese and syrah); and 2017 Combe (a chenin blanc project between Stolpman and Rajat Parr).

The La Croce may be a bit immature. An intriguing bouquet and very approachable, but still tannic and hasn’t come into its own, yet. The roussanne is a must-buy at the member’s price of $24. Aged in all new French oak, the fruit on the vine is hand-riddled to assure even sun exposure before harvest. A little chardonnay is added to provide acidic balance. It’s a bright wine, with a tropical and lily flower nose. Delicious, the tropical fruit flavor lasts. Not many folks in California are growing chenin blanc any more. It’s all about chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. But that didn’t deter Stolpman or Parr.

Rajat, according to Wikipedia, “is an Indian-American sommelier turned winemaker, who oversaw the wine program of the Michael Mina restaurant group before starting his own wineries in Oregon and the Central Coast of California.” He makes extraordinary chardonnay under his Sandhi label.
Parr convinced Stolpman to take a significant journey on the wild side of wine production. In 2010, they began planting some quite esoteric varietals: trousseau (a red grape), trousseau pet’nat (another red), poulsard (a French red), savignin (a white with green-skinned berries), mondeuse (another French red). I have yet to try any of these.

Added to this mixture of obscure grapes (at least for California wine drinkers), they also planted 1.5 acres of chenin blanc. Harvested in batches in September 2017, the wine is fermented in stainless steel and then aged in massive neutral French oak puncheons (oak barrels about twice the size of the typical wine barrel) for nine months.

Parr and Stolpman have a winner with this. Great fruit, with notes of grapefruit and slate, it’s reminiscent of the finer chenins from South Africa. We’ll have to see if this finds an audience. At $42 per bottle, I expect some price resistance but given the combined reputations of Stolpman and Parr, they will likely find eager customers of the 2,200 bottles produced.

Congratulations to both of them for taking such a risk. It’s from pioneers like them that California wine has gained world acclaim. And, it’s another reason I won’t be moving from here any time soon.

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.

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