Tasting Tomorrow: Les Marchands’ Wine Futures Experience Continues Online

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/24/14)

I have tasted the future of Santa Barbara wine, and the future tastes good.

This past Saturday’s Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting at Les Marchands was a buzzing outdoor fete that liaised ready-to-buy-now consumers with yet-to-be-released wines.  It was, above all, a lesson on how to taste wines young; guests sipped barrel samples from Santa Barbara’s 2012 and 2013 vintages, mainly, while discussing with the women and men who made them how their wines are likely to evolve.  It was also win-win retailing; consumers enjoyed 20% savings while winemakers secured cash flow many months before their wines hit store shelves.

If you missed it, not to worry.  The owners at the popular Funk Zone wine bar and shop are making the catalog available for purchase through the end of May.  “The online campaign is afoot,” co-owner and Master Sommelier Brian McClintic tells me.  Tasting and discussing the wines in person is a major plus, of course.  But if you weren’t there, the catalog’s detailed notes and anecdotes – the product of numerous visits to vineyards and wineries by McClintic and his business partner, Eric Railsback – are a thorough, entertaining guide.  Download it by visiting www.lesmarchandswine.com.

These are my own favorite takeaways.

Stephanie Varner pours Alta Maria and Native9
Alta Maria and Native9: the effervescent Stephanie Varner, manager at Alta Maria's Los Olivos tasting room, poured wines from these two wonderful projects by viticulturalist James Ontiveros and winemaker Paul Wilkins.  The 2013 Alta Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($13) is currently being aged in stainless steel and is brilliant and crisp; this awesome value will be bottled in August. The 2013 Native9 Pinot Noir ($48) won’t be bottled until 2015 – it’s being aged in 30% new French oak barrels for 23 months – but is already a plush wine with rich flavors that never end.

Kunin and The Valley Project: Seth Kunin’s 2012 Larner Vineyard Syrah ($32) was one of this tasting’s great finds for me; this wonderfully integrated wine (even now) displayed rich aromas, a supple mouth feel and delicious blackberry and blueberry flavors.  He also poured a 2011 “Block 19” Chardonnay ($34) from a newly-named effort, The Valley Project; as he poured this layered Los Alamos-sourced wine, he told me, “I bottle early to trap in the terroir, and that makes for good bottle aging.”

Winemaker Chuck Carlson
Carlson: This was my first chance to taste a very personal project from Chuck Carlson, the talented guy who recently left Curtis Winery, which he shepherded for 25 years.  His Carlson wines are deliciously refined, like his 2013 Blanc “Trois Fleurs” ($19), a refreshing gewürztraminer-based white blend with a tropical nose, bright flavors and dry finish.  The 2013 Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir ($33) displays a flowery nose and a mouth feel that shows off both richness and finesse.
Winemaker Dave Potter

Municipal Winemakers and Goodland: Dave Potter just needed two reds to draw a steady crowd.  His 2013 Municipal Fox Family Vineyard Grenache ($33) is a juicy, bright, fresh red wine – “Super popping,” Potter described it; the balance of fruit and spice is totally on point.  The 2012 Happy Canyon Red ($36) is a joint project by four winemakers, including Potter and Jonata’s Matt Dees, who brought his “tannin management skills,” according to Potter, to help craft a supple, silky, textured wine.  Only about 50 cases of each of these wines were made.

Winemaker Drake Whitcraft

Whitcraft and Mes Amis: Drake Whitcraft’s hands-off and honest approach to winemaking leads to beautiful wines each year, including the heavyweight 2013 vintage.  He poured two pinots side by side: the Pence Vineyard pinot noir ($60), grown in limestone soils just outside Sta. Rita Hills, has a rhubarb nose and luscious texture while the Kick-On Ranch pinot ($45), grown on far sandier earth in Los Alamos, is leaner and racier.  Whitcraft also showcased one of the best white wines of the day – a 2013 Alabrino ($21) on the Mes Ami label; this joint project with Jaffurs’ Matt Brady, was quintessential sipping on a sunny spring afternoon, with animated fruit flavors and a crisp mouth feel.
Winemaker Joshua Klapper
La Fenetre: The energy was high at Joshua Klapper’s table, where the droll winemaker poured a handful of wonderful wines.  His 2013 A Coté Rosé ($12) is pink wine at its finest, downright pretty to gaze at and brimming with fresh berry flavors.  The 2013 A Coté Pinot Noir ($18) is Klapper’s concerted effort to produce “a really well made but inexpensive pinot noir,” he told me; minimal oak aging has led to a light, delicate wine with bouncy fruit flavors.

Ojai Vineyard: assistant winemaker Fabien Castel was on hand to showcase one of the afternoon’s very best white wines, the 2012 Puerta Del Mar Chardonnay ($28), sourced just west of Sta. Rita Hills, with minerality and vibrancy that makes it an ideal match for sunshine-inspired fare.

Brian McClintic sips as winemaker Blake Sillix pours
Sillix: This was a totally new find for me.  Blake Sillix launched his label in 2010, after stints at Beckmen and Tyler wineries, and with a focus on Rhone wines.  His approach to the 2012 Sillix Grenache ($32) is totally refreshing: very light, lively mouth feel with rich red fruit flavors and a subtly spicy edge.  Sourced from Camp 4 Vineyard, only 75 cases of this wine were made.

Cebada: this very personal project by horticulturalist Sandra Newman includes about 5.5 acres of grapes on her Route 246 property near Lompoc.  And in 2013, she made the wines, herself.  The 2013 Estate Chardonnay ($39), which will be bottle sometime after August “depending on how it’s drinking,” she mentions, features brilliant acid and a mouth feel that is very much alive, as well as a neat peppery edge.  Newman also grows blueberries and green tea on her land.
Winemaker Ernst Storm, left
Storm: Ernst Storm’s winemaking hinges on the vineyards he sources.  “Each site has its own personality” he tells me as he pours, “so you have to find the right vineyard that’ll give you the right balance.”  The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) is a remarkable value for the way it captures the essence of the Santa Ynez Valley; it sources from four vineyards, stretching from Happy Canyon in the east to Curtis Vineyard to the west and delivers tropical, grassy notes, a delicious pungency and textured succulence that, simply, makes me sad not to have some in my glass right now.  The John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir ($36), which saw whole cluster fermentation, exhibits a rich nose, dark berry flavors and a wonderfully lithe mouth feel; these 175 cases will go fast.
Keep in mind: some of these wines see such small production, they’ll only be available for purchase until they sell out.  And mark your calendars: Les Marchands’ next Futures tasting will take place sometime after tax season, 2015.  See you there!


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