Day 2: Bien Nacido, J. Wilkes, and Loring Wine Company
A. Bien Nacido Vineyard.
Over the years, I’ve been able to taste dozens of wines sourced from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, primarily Pinot Noir and Syrah. If you taste wines from nearby wineries, chances are pretty good that they produce a wine made from Bien Nacido grapes (in whole or in part). Here’s just a small sampling of the wineries that use Bien Nacido fruit:
At this year’s Hospice du Rhône, I met Trey Fletcher who is the principal winemaker for the Bien Nacido label. I arranged a visit to Bien Nacido on this trip, but because Trey was away on a trip I instead got the tour and tasting from assistant winemaking Anthony Avila.
The tour of the vineyards was extremely helpful. The Bien Nacido vineyard as a whole sort of resembles a map of California—the top sections line up in a north-south direction, and the bottom sections angle from the northwest to the southeast. In reality, though, the vineyard is a complex series of sections, or blocks. The bottom blocks are on the flat bench land, and consist of the older plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The northern section of blocks are arrayed at various elevations and exposures above the bench land blocks, and include plantings of Rhone, Bordeaux, and Italian varietals. A map that shows how the different blocks are arrayed and planted can be found here:
And here is a panorama photo I took from the top of one of the ridges, to give you a sense of overall topography:
While there is tremendous variety among the different blocks, they are all affected by the overall location of Bien Nacido due east of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, the area stays relatively cool and see a decent amount of fog. The morning I drove up the 101 from Buellton, it was sunny on the 101 until a few miles south of the exit for Bien Nacido, where the fog still hadn’t burned off just before 9am.
Under the same group of wine labels is Solomon Hills Vineyard, located just east of the 101 at Clark. Unlike the more shale soils of Bien Nacido, the Solomon Hills soils are primarily sandy loam. Bien Nacido is divided up by the vineyard management staff (headed by Chris Hammel), and the winemaking staff (headed by Trey Fletcher). The vineyard management crew essentially has many buyers, or “clients,” who buy fruit from individual rows (or sections of rows) in the different blocks.
In discussing with Anthony the wines to be tasted, 2012 was a “normal” warm year, whereas 2013 was a bit cooler and the first vintage that appeared to show the effects of the drought that had already started. In a typical vintage, Bien Nacido would get about 12 inches of rain during the rainy season, but the vineyards haven’t gotten that much rain in the last five years.
- 2013 Bien Nacido Chardonnay. They use all indigenous yeasts to ferment this wine. The nose is slightly grassy, whereas the taste itself is more classic white fruits/Chardonnay. Per Anthony, it’s 100% barrel-fermented, and uses 25% new oak. While there are oak notes in this wine, they aren’t out of balance.
- 2013 Solomon Hills Chardonnay. Here you can see the differences in the sandy soil. Rather restrained in the nose, but much more citrus and mineral in the palate. Slightly higher relative acidity in the midpalate, this is a Chardonnay that really needs food.
- 2012 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir. A combination of Pinot Noir from the older vines (the bench land) and the monopole (block 40, per my notes) that was planted in the early 2000’s. An effusive, “wow” nose with lots of perfume but still elegant. Per Anthony, about 20% whole cluster. Lots of the clove/nutmeg throughout, with a slightly tart rhubarb/cranberry element. Probably needs 4-6 years, but it has a lot of potential.
- 2012 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir. A substantial contrast to the Bien Nacido Pinot Noir—a much deeper cherry flavor with savory elements. Again, just as with the Chardonnay, the midpalate acidity seems higher than in the Bien Nacido, although certainly in balance with the fruit. A more “masculine” style of Pinot Noir.
- 2012 Bien Nacido Syrah (from Block Z, per my notes). This section is co-planted with Viognier, and thus is also co-fermented with Viognier as well. But it is all picked at the same time in harvest, so the Viognier tends to be a little riper than the Syrah when picked at the same time. The nose is quite powerful and meaty, but the palate is rather elegant and balanced compared to what the nose suggests. As the wine sits on the tongue, there’s a noticeable olive/tapenade quality that emerges. A beautiful Central Coast Syrah that marries power and balance; it probably will continue to improve over the next 4-6 years. One of the top Syrahs I tasted on this trip.
B. J. Wilkes.
As most people probably know, Wes Hagen used to be the vineyard manager and winemaker for Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills. Indeed, the Clos Pepe wines developed quite a following, both for the estate wines and for the wines made by other wineries with Clos Pepe fruit.
Recently, Wes moved over to J. Wilkes to become the “brand ambassador” and winemaker, and I visited Wes in the new J. Wilkes tasting room in Los Olivos. In moving to the J. Wilkes label, Wes is moving away from estate wines and into AVA blends. The wines are intended to represent a more moderate price point, while still maintaining a high quality level. They have fairly impressive expansion goals of growing the label from a current level of 5,000 cases a year to 50,000 cases a year (!). Prior to Wes’ move to the label, it wasn’t very well-known, so Wes certainly will have to spend a tremendous amount of his time marketing the wine as well as making the wine.
- 2014 J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc Santa Maria Valley. This is the current release Pinot Blanc, which is perfumy with good acid structure; lots of apples and peaches. I tried an older 2004 Pinot Blanc, and while it’s interesting, the honeyed nose detracted from the bright fruit. For my tastes, this is a great summer wine to enjoy over the next few years, and fairly priced at $18.
- 2013 J. Wilkes Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley. Lots of bright cherry throughout, with some slight herbal/savory notes. Very bright midpalate acidity gives it quite a lift and a lot of life. A lovely wine now, and again very fairly priced at $30.
- 2013 J. Wilkes Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills. More depth and complexity than the SM Valley Pinot, for my tastes, with a more rhubarb/cranberry quality, and lots of baking spices. Excellent now, but perhaps better in 3-5 years. Again, very fairly priced at $30.
- 2013 J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc Santa Maria Valley Late Harvest. Lots of ripe apricot/nectarine, with lots of orange, botrytis and sugar/honey notes. It’s a really fun dessert wine, although I generally prefer European dessert wines due to a higher relative acidity.
C. Loring Wine Company.
Brian Loring is someone I’ve known for many years, and while he is enthusiastic about wine in general, he has some very specific views on some topics. In particular, he believes in Stelvin closures rather than cork-finished bottles. From his perspective, there’s no point making a good wine only to have it ruined by a bad cork closure. As if to prove his point, we later went out to dinner and both older bottles we brought had the cork snap or crumble before they could be completely removed.
His other perspective is that he’s not a big fan of making wines that need extended cellaring before they are ready to drink. In his view, it imposes too much of a burden on the consumer to buy a wine and then have to spend the time, effort, and resources to cellar it for many years before you can actually enjoy it.
I met Brian in his Lompoc facility after he had invited me specifically to taste barrel samples. I had previously seen him in the last month or so in the Los Angeles area where he was pouring his current release 2014’s, so he thought it would be interesting to barrel sample the 2015’s. It was fascinating to taste the barrel samples, but I’m always reluctant to post tasting notes from barrel samples. As a practical matter, you’re just catching a quick glimpse of a wine—a snapshot, if you will—and the wines often change character drastically up through bottling. Moreover, Brian bottles his Pinot Noirs both with vineyard designations and AVA’s, and so barrel X may end up in one place or another. Indeed, there can be substantial barrel variation, so the “art” of blending will be very critical.
With those caveats, the top barrels I sampled included the Parmalee Hill (from Sonoma Coast), the Rosella’s (from Santa Lucia Highlands), the Kessler-Haak (from Santa Rita Hills), and the Clos Pepe. Of those, the standout was probably the Rosella’s sample that I tasted, as it was brighter, deeper, and more complex. The Gary’s had a very interesting licorice/tarragon thing going on; hard to know how much of that will carry through to the bottled version.
The most unusual sample, hands down, was the Dornfelder from the Huber Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. Smelly the wine, one would guess a very rich/ripe port-style wine made from Zinfandel grapes. The palate, however, was completely dry, with noticeable midpalate acidity and a definite herbal quality. I have no experience with this varietal, so I have no way of saying what it’s going to turn into when bottled. But I have to admit, it’s so unusual that I really want to try it again a year or two after bottling!