Judgment of Santa Barbara County: Tasting Wines with Steven Spurrier

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/3/14)

Steven Spurrier is a legend in the world of wine, having fathered the groundbreaking Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976.  That’s the blind tasting contest that had California wines outranking the French, revolutionizing the industry.  The British wine merchant would go on to become a favorite media subject, including the 2008 movie Bottle Shock, in which he was portrayed by actor Alan Rickman (though not to Mr. Spurrier’s liking, the story goes).

So when Mr. Spurrier invites you to join a panel of a half dozen wine writers to taste Santa Barbara County wines, you simply accept.

Steve Spurrier leads our tasting of 48 Santa Barbara Co. wines
Mr. Spurrier has written several books on wine and now is a consultant editor for Decanter magazine.  He came in from London to be Honorary Chair at the 2014 Cellar Classic, the annual auction of rare wines held June 28th as a fundraiser by St. Mark’s of the Valley church in Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara wine country.  Our group gathered the day before at the Clos Pepe Vineyards estate in the Sta. Rita Hills, tasked with tasting 48 local whites and reds.  The meetup was sponsored by Santa Barbara Vintners, which represents more than 100 local producers, to update Mr. Spurrier on the area’s latest releases.

“I am familiar with many of the producers here – Jim Clendenen and Richard Sanford,” he says before we begin; his tone is graceful, reserved, but authoritative.  “But I’m amazed about how many [Santa Barbara] labels I’ve not heard about before.” 
He goes on to describe the London wine market, one of the most coveted in the world, as prime for California.  “The pound is so strong right now,” he says, “and we’ve got so many new restaurants opening up that are featuring 30 or more wines by the glass.  They’re looking for something really different, not Bordeaux wines.  We’ve done Chile, done Argentina, and Australia has been hit badly.  So this is where California is really coming back.”
And then we sip.
Our scoring sheets
Our wines are arranged in flights of about six at a time, and Mr. Spurrier is using a 20-point scale to rank them.  We’re tasting blindly, meaning we know the varietal, the vintage and the region, but the labels remain a mystery until the end.
After each flight, we rank our top two favorites and share notes; there’s general consensus, and periodic disagreement.  But with four dozen wines to taste, and lunch made in a wood fire pizza oven by Industrial Eats’ Jeff Olsson looming, the pace was focused.
Mr. Spurrier reads out the blind tasting results
Suffice it to say, Santa Barbara tasted really good on this lovely summer morning.  After two flights of chardonnays, Richard Longoria’s 2012 “Cuvee Diana” came out on top, followed by Sanford’s 2011 chard.  Both come from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and showed “a sense of place,” according to Mr. Spurrier, “which is key."
In a flight of six “Other Whites,” Alma Rosa’s 2012 “La Encantada Vineyard” Pinot Blanc by Richard Sanford fared best.
Sta. Rita Hills fared very well after our three pinot noir flights, too, with the delicate richness of Bryan Babcock’s 2012 “Appellation’s Edge” putting it on top, followed by Foxen’s 2012 “John Sebastiano Vineyard” pinot.
“The pinot noir here is a real strong card,” said Mr. Spurrier.  “They’re great young, but anyone who keeps them five or 10 years will have a real pleasure in their hands.”
We tasted through a flight of “Other Reds” next, which crowned Andrew Murray’s “Esperance” blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.
Industrial Eats' Jeff Olsson prepares our post-tasting feast
We concluded with two flights of syrah, with Joey Tensley’s 2012 “Turner Vineyard” edging out the competition, followed by Andrew Murray’s 2012 “Watch Hill Vineyard.”
Mr. Spurrier’s word of advice for local syrah producers: “They can be tightened up a bit.  There’s freshness, but we shouldn’t be trying to make syrahs that are too bulky.”
But his final observations were positive and encouraging; he labeled this “one of the most homogeneous tastings” he’s ever done.
“You have a definite image here, something I didn’t realize before,” he said as we parted.  “These are wines people want to drink.”
Winemaker Rick Longoria, with a top-scoring chardonnay, pours for Mr. Spurrier
Tasters at our table included Matt Kettman from Wine Enthusiast Magazine and the Santa Barbara Independent; Patrick Comiskey from Wine & Spirits; Michael Horn from CRN Radio; and Terry and Kathy Sullivan from WineTrailTraveler.   
Mr. Spurrier is currently the subject of a film by Robert Kamen titled, aptly enough, “Judgment of Paris”; it’s currently in pre-production.


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