Back in 2013 and 2014, a dear friend and I were curious about the world of blogging and created a blog entitled ‘An Edible Quest’. We set about writing stories that focused on foodie adventures that we, for the most part, independently enjoyed with our families. We each had great fun tasting, trying and traveling around as we broadened our horizons looking for ‘blog fodder’. We quickly found ourselves with a healthy band of loyal readers and could confidently consider the blogging experiment a sweet success.
Over time, though, we came to realize just how much time and effort goes into maintaining a healthy blog and, since we were only doing it as a big learning experience, we mutually came to the conclusion that we needed to set it aside.
Fast forward to today and I find myself back at it with ‘CatTail Tales’. Despite the work involved, I find that I enjoy the impetus to keep questing and researching that the blog provides. Also, the things I learn from those of you who like and comment are just fascinating. It makes the world such a small place!
Thanks to a piece of advice I garnered from The Drunken Cyclist back in my Edible Quest days, I took a few days to drive downstate and participate in the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2014. I am a definitely a fan of good wine but I am by no means a wine aficionado. I have had no training in the field other than hanging around a few folks who do know wine and learning from them. But Jeff assured me that I would learn a lot from the experience and he was totally on target. I learned about blogging. I learned about wine. I learned about the industry. I made some connections. It was a grand 48-hour adventure.
Today, as I was doing a little file maintenance on my computer, I came across a story I wrote about one of the events at that conference and decided to see what has changed since then. To the original story…
We entered the conference room to find a sea of round tables with each place set with a wine list and four glasses containing the first four of seven samples. After finding a seat towards the front and in the center, I waited in anticipation for the start of the session. Gradually the panel and the attendees took their places and the session was ready to begin.
Patrick Comiskey, wine critic and senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine,was the moderator for the session. He started by reading what I can only assume to be an article of his about ‘syrah country’. He opened with a bit of background about the tribulations of syrah in the States. He recounted the opening of Eric Asimov’s article in the New York Times that began with the joke, “What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.” It seems for some time that syrah has been the Rodney Dangerfield of the wine world – not getting any respect.
Patrick then went on to extol the many merits of quality syrah and explained that the newest AVA (approved in October, 2013) in the United States is the quintessential growing region for the syrah grape. A warm spot in a cool space with very limey and sandy soil, Ballard Canyon AVA has the perfect conditions for growing this Rhone varietal in California.
We learned of the three-year effort that a group of area wine makers undertook to gather data, compile and file it with the US Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), do the name search to make sure there wasn’t another Ballard Canyon wine region somewhere else in the world and complete the process of establishing a new AVA. Clearly this was a labor of love and hard work; not something that came easily and not something that could be accomplished by one winemaker alone. To quote Patrick, “A regional identity requires a quorum” and that is exactly who was in this room for this session – the panel of Ballard Canyon wine makers who put forth the blood, sweat and tears to put Ballard Canyon AVA on the wine map.
Seated from left to right in the photo below are Ruben Solorzano of Kimsey Vineyard (the grape whisperer as one of his peers described him), Steve Beckman of Beckman Vineyards, Pete Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards, Steve Gerbac of Rusack, Hilarie Clarke of Harrison Clarke Wine (hidden behind a conference attendee), Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard and Winery, Matt Dees of Jonata and Keith Saarloos of Saarloos & Sons.
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, we had the opportunity to taste and compare a syrah from each of these wine makers. It was quite interesting to contrast the different scents, flavors and colors that came from the same varietal in the hands of each of these different wine makers.
The following were the seven wines available to taste that day:
Kimsey Syrah 2012 – $60 – This was the initial bottling from the property and was the first time it was being tasted as it was pre-release. Clearly, it was young but you could taste the potential there if this vintage was given some time. Also, this was the only wine being offered that wasn’t 100% syrah; this one was 95% syrah and 5% viognier.
Beckmen La Purisma Mountain Syrah 2012 – $32 – “A velvety beginning of berries and mocha merges into concentrated flavors of rich black pepper and earthy spice, finishing with a wonderful combination of integrates acidity and tannins”, as it claimed on the tasting sheet. This was one of my favorites but I am a sucker for a little pepper in my wine.
Stolpman Vineyards Originals Syrah 2012 – $42 – This wine was rich and smooth coming from the oldest ‘original’ syrah plantings on the vineyard from 18 to 20 years ago.
Rusack Syrah Reserve 2012 – $36 – Located at the epicenter of the Ballard Canyon AVA, Rusack is currently the only winery with a tasting room open to the public.
Harrison Clarke Cuvee Charlotte Syrah 2010 – $55 – To my palate, this was the sweetest of the syrahs we would taste this day.
Larner Estate Syrah 2010 – $38 – This was another personal favorite. “Seven different clonal lots were fermented individually” before being blended into this lovely offering.
Jonata Sangre de Jonata Syrah 2010 – $125 – The tasting notes told me this wine ” flows across the palate with incredible energy and unmatched power.” The winemaker mentioned that he had once been told he would be better off growing asparagus than syrah grapes on his property. I am a huge fan of asparagus but, after tasting the Sangre, I am glad he decided to move ahead with grapes!
Fortunately for Keith Saarloos but not for us, his syrah was completely sold out so there was nothing left for sampling from Saarloos & Sons. I can only imagine how good it must have been!
It was an exciting experience for me to participate in this somewhat historical moment of first taste for the new Ballard Canyon AVA. In fact, this was as exciting of an event for the wine makers as it was for us. This was only the second time they were getting to taste each other’s syrahs as a group; the first time being in 2010 when they had a collection of sommeliers on site for the tasting that accompanied their filing for AVA status with the TTB. I can only assume that the group of sommeliers had been equally impressed with the offerings of syrah from Ballard Canyon as we now have this new AVA to prove it.
Next time you are in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, California, take the time to drive through the beautiful Ballard Canyon. The lovely views in the vineyards are only surpassed by the great syrahs that are beginning to come from this region. Look out wine world. The tasting rooms aren’t yet built but soon there will be some new kids on the block!
To update you since 2014:
- Ballard Canyon AVA is no longer the most recent addition to the list. The TTB has approved and added more wine regions in the past two years. But the Ballard Canyon wineries are maturing as a wine visiting region. Most of the wineries we tasted in 2014 now have their own tasting rooms on site.
- Patrick Comiskey has a new book out if you are interested.
- The Drunken Cyclist has moved with his family from Pennsylvania to Texas but he is still writing regularly, continues to be a great source of wine information and is guaranteed to be an entertaining read.
- The Wine Bloggers Conference continues to go strong. They will find themselves in Santa Rosa, CA in 2017. Perhaps, being so close, I need to go join in the fun again next November.