(Published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on December 19, 2013)
Red is synonymous with the Christmas season, from wrapping paper to poinsettias to twinkling lights. It’s also the color of choice for the most welcome guest of the season (and his favorite reindeer’s nose). And, when it comes to wine, it’s what most of us will sip these next few weeks, as the weather cools and we sit to feasts with loved ones that are as large and diverse as they are tasty and rich.
And don’t forget: a bottle of red wine also fits – ever so effortlessly – into any stocking hung by the chimney with care.
Need help choosing just the right one? These are five special reds that have wowed me in recent weeks and that, in the spirit of the season, I happily share with you.
Carhartt 2012 Pinot Noir ($35)
Mike Carhartt tasted me through his wife Brooke’s wines during a recent family staycation in Los Olivos, and they all blew me away. Her personal style is understated: she’s kind, jovial and sweet. But she’s easily a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the wines she makes, and this pinot proves that. In a crowded field – Santa Barbara County continues to put out a lot of pinot noir – this one stands out for the way it glides across the palate with grace, elegance and velvety ease. At once soft and complex, this wine – made with fruit from Riverbench Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley – delivers bright cherry flavors, subtle spice and refined tannins. Only 535 cases of this wine were made.
Lucas & Lewellen 2009 Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon ($48)
Winemaker Megan McGrath has raised the bar on the quality of the Lucas & Lewellen wines in the last few years. This label is also one of the leaders in local cabernet sauvignon production, proving that Santa Barbara County can crank out some wonderful renditions of this heat-needy grape. Some half dozen Lucas & Lewellen cabernets are in the marketplace these days; this one, grown on the company’s proprietary Valley View Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, was aged for two years in neutral French oak and saw a very limited production of just 169 cases. It does not disappoint, with a wonderfully round, balanced mouth feel and flavors of dark berries, toast and vanilla.
Epiphany 2010 Hampton Vineyard Syrah ($35)
|Tasting the Epiphany Syrah at Bin2860 in Los Olivos|
I stumbled upon this wine while enjoying the Rhone-themed tasting of wines at the Parker family’s Bin 2860 wine shop in Los Olivos (where you can also taste a lineup of fantastic international beers). And it’s a good thing: with only 98 cases made, this limited edition wine is bound to sell out. It comes from the 10-acre Hampton Vineyard, one of the eastern-most grape plots in the Santa Ynez Valley, which regularly produces some of harvest’s earliest-ripening grapes. The result is a concentrated, full-bodied, masculine red wine that blends dark fruit and spice rack flavors. The finish is rich now and is bound to smooth out beautifully over time. Fess Parker’s son, Eli, launched this label, which is now under the direction of winemaker Blair Fox.
Cent’anni Vineyards 2009 Buoni Anni Sangiovese ($36)
My wife ordered this wine by the glass during dinner this past weekend at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos (which easily delivered one of the best meal experiences we’ve had in this area, with impeccable service and attention to detail that stretches from the every custom-trimmed room to the hands-on care you get from owners Emily Perry Wilson and Chef Robbie Wilson). I stole a few sips of this wine by Doug Margerum – as I devoured a tender short rib pot roast in a ramen broth – and loved its depth, ripeness and generous flavors of dark stone fruit and dried berries. An estate wine from Los Olivos, this is a delicious testament to the love for Tuscan wines by Cent’anni proprietors Julie and Jamie Kellner.
Murphy-Goode 2011 All In Claret ($24)But Sonoma County-based Murphy Goode has quickly become one of my favorite out-of-area producers, and this wine – a beautifully balanced blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot by winemaker David Ready, Jr. – is one of the reasons why. Opulent aromas and intense flavors of cherries and herbs – and is that a subtle streak of butterscotch in the finish? Having spent just over a year in a combo of French and American oak barrels, this Alexander Valley wine is complex, approachable and the quintessential crowd pleaser at your upcoming holiday fete.
And One More Thing…
Another great gift idea for the wine lover in your life? The California Directory of Fine Wineries, Central Coast Edition (Wine House Press, $19.95). This is the coffee table book that actually gets picked up, and often. With a focus on Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, it lists more than 150 wineries, with detailed, comprehensive profile spreads on 51 of them, which include practical information like history, wine lineups, directions and onsite amenities. The visuals in this hardcover book are beautiful, thanks to full-color photographs by Robert Holmes. And the text by Central Coast-based writers like K. Reka Badger and Cheryl Crabtree is approachable and insightful. It also features practical information for budding wine aficionados, like the etiquette of tasting wine, how barrels are made and how to read a wine label. This book is a great way to rediscover brands you know – Gainey, Cambria, Foxen, Tercero, Carr, Opolo, Justin, Tablas Creek – and stumble upon new wineries to put on your next trip to Santa Ynez, Lompoc, or Paso Robles. At this price, you may want to get the companion book, too – The California Directory of Fine Wineries, Northern Region Edition – and start planning a road trip to Mendocino, Sonoma or Napa.