Riding High: Rhone Tasting Showcases Some of Santa Barbara’s Best Wines

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/29/18

The Rhone Rangers rode into Santa Barbara this week, and they came to impress.
 
The nonprofit group is on a mission to promote the diverse swath of grapes that are native to France’s Rhone region. Indeed, more than 20 grape varieties fall under its promotional umbrella, including reds like syrah and grenache and whites like viognier and roussanne. In the marketplace, these varieties are often in the shadows of industry darlings like pinot noir and cabernet. For those who’ve discovered these wines, however, and for the men and women who make them, they deliver the kind of complexity, food-friendliness and value that are downright remarkable.
 
The Rhone Rangers’ Santa Barbara chapter includes some of our favorite local labels, like Fess Parker, Margerum and Qupe. These producers have figured out that Santa Barbara County offers various special spots where Rhone grapes flourish. And the wines they produce consistently stand out as some of the region’s finest.
 
The latest tasting by this Santa Barbara team took place this past Tuesday – a trade and consumer event at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in the Funk Zone that was intimate in its vibe and impressive in its scope. These three wines were real standouts for me.
 
Me and winemaker Larry Schaffer
tercero 2016 Cinsault
Winemaker Larry Schaffer, easily the lead cheerleader of the Santa Barbara Rhone Rangers cavalry, launched his tercero label in 2006, though he’ll tell you it’s really become a personal tour de force in the last five years. Since then, the man who likes to serve whites at near room temperature (“Otherwise, the aromatics go dead,” he says), and who foot-stomps all his reds, has been blending personal knack with inquisitive experimentation to create a consistently fascinating portfolio of wines. The ’16 Cinsault delivers: subtle jamminess, hints of tea leaf, brightness, freshness. And its low alcohol – around 11% -- may make this the ultimate summer red. “My MTV unplugged wine,” is how Schaffer describes it. “Or, the kid in the corner with the ukulele, unplugged.” Very much present, but in a refreshingly unassuming way. The tercero Verbiage Blanc (a blend of roussanne, viognier and grenache blanc) was awesome. And the just-bottled 2017 Mourvedre Rosé, with aromatics that pop, reminded me that these soft-hued wines can, indeed, be textured and complex.
 
Lisa Morgan showed off the Kita wines
Kita 2014 Spe’y
“This is just a really good food wine,” Kita winery rep Lisa Morgan told me as she poured this wonderful blend of grenache, syrah and carignane. And she was right: this inky, medium-bodied wine delivers ripe berries and earthiness on the nose and mix of spice and floral notes on the palate, and the finish is surprisingly fresh. Winemaker Tara Gomez, a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, sources most all her fruit from the tribe’s Camp 4 Vineyard, where soil and weather combine for optimum growing conditions for Rhone grapes. Spe’y is the Samala word for “flower.” Kita production remains at just about 1500 cases a year, and its brand new Lompoc tasting room should start welcoming tasters later this year.
 
Zaca Mesa 2012 Mesa Reserve Syrah
This trailblazing winery is riding high this year, as Zaca Mesa celebrates 45 years. In a young wine region like Santa Barbara, that’s a milestone. The 2012 Mesa Reserve may have been the best syrah of the day: beautifully structured, dense yet lithe, and bursting with flavors of dark berries, chocolate and sweet earth. What I wrote in my notes: “Wow!” Winemaker Kristin Bryden, who’s been with Zaca for seven years, described it as a snapshot of the vineyard’s younger syrah blocks and “a blend of our very best barrels.” In the mood for a super syrah? This is it. The Estralla Syrah, which includes fruit from Zaca’s 1978 Black Bear Block (the first syrah vines ever planted in Santa Barbara County) was also a standout. Zaca’s whites – viognier and roussanne – and its Z Gris rosé are sure to be summertime sellouts.
 
Visit the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Rhone Rangers on Facebook. And, for more information on the Rhone Rangers and its member wineries throughout the country, check out rhonerangers.org.
 
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