Travel, Etc. --> Central Coast II
Sideways Country 2008, Part II
A Rhône Ranger and Rioja meets Rhône
Our first winery visit of the trip was with Steve Beckmen of Beckmen vineyards. Steve and his father, Tom, founded Beckmen vineyards back in 1994, buying 40 acres near Los Olivos with an existing winery. Two years later they purchased 365 acres on one of the high spots overlooking the Santa Ynez Valley, named it Purisima Mountain Vineyard, and began to plant it with primarily Rhône varietals. Today, the Purisma vineyards produce some of Santa Ynez's most acclaimed Syrah and Grenache.
We met Steve in his tasting room on a Monday afternoon and tasted through his entire portfolio The "Sideways" effect was in play here, too... we were in the tasting room for over an hour mid afternoon on a Monday. There was a steady stream of hip looking 20 and 30 somethings passing through with never less than four at the bar the entire time we were there. And, the Beckmen tasting room is not exactly on the highway... the same thing we saw in Los Olivos, lots of tasting tourists.
Steve says that the tourism growth in the region has been pretty steady over the last 15 years, but after Sideways, there was a big boom that peaked a year or so after the movie, but has maintained the higher level ever since. He said that there is no doubt that the movie opened up the region on a local and national basis and made people realize that there is more wine country in California than just Napa.
I can't say enough good things about Steve's wines. He produces about 15,000 cases a year of rich, ripe, highly extracted examples of what Rhône grapes like Syrah, Grenache and Marsanne can produce.
The hillside vineyards of Purisma take great advantage of the unique maritime climate of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Santa Ynez Valley runs east to west channeling the ocean fog and cool air deep inland. Standing on the top of the Purisma vineyard, you really feel the winds from the west that blow 20 to 25 miles per hour most of the time, pushing cooler air into the valley. One hundred degree days and sixty degree nights are pretty common here...just the thing for grapes born of the Rhône valley in France where the Mistral winds channel the influence of Mediterranean Sea all the way up the valley. And what a view!
Steve converted to farming 100 percent biodynamically, a method of organic farming that balances the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a closed, self nourishing system. As he told me about the practice, all I could think is where do you find that much manure....
Biodynamics should be the topic of an entire article here but I have never tackled it because while some of it sounds a little goofy (read about it in Wikipedia), serious people like Steve, who make great wine, keep telling me it works. He also made a good point by explaining that that there is no money chasing biodynamic research. All the research is being done by the people who want to sell him chemicals. If the proof that it works is in the bottle, after tasting his recent wines, it must be working real well....
When I got back I emailed Steve a couple of questions about biodynamics, here is what he had to say.
My question: "I really do want to write a little bit about the biodynamics. Most of what I read about it makes it sound pretty mystical. This is a quote from Wikipedia that most people would find pretty hard to take seriously....
"Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled by the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, then lightly spray with the clear urine of a sterile cow (the urine should be exposed to the full moon for six hours), this is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile."
Steve's answer: "There is some mysticism involved in biodynamic farming, and you take a bit of a leap of faith. You grasp that there are some things that we just do not fully understand.
“The fact of the matter is that the practice works, and works well. There are so many advantages to farming this way, it gives the farmer a different approach to problems. Instead of just fixing our problems artificially, we can actually work towards a solution. We have had success with pest and weed control by burning the pest whether a gopher, leafhopper or weed, surprising success, but we spray with water not urine.
“So yes, we take a practical approach, and the system works within that approach. The important part of the description above is not the cow urine, but since it is strange, people would focus on it. The reality is that we are speaking to the pests, sending them a message that they are not wanted on our crops and in our fields.
“The pest takes the message, I have seen it work repeatedly within the larger framework of a biodynamic farm. It probably would not work as well if people did not practice a full biodynamic program, and probably should not even be tried. We could go on forever on the subject, if you need more info just let me know.”
Unfortunately, Beckmen wines are not well distributed in Indiana...a situation we are going to try to change over the next few months. So, look for some of his Purisma Vineyard wines later this fall. In the meantime, we have his entry level Cuvée Le Bec Red Blend in stock at $18... really good juice.
Beckmen Cuvée Le Bec 2006 Santa Ynez Valley, California $18
What the Wine Critics Thought - Wine Advocate 88 Points An excellent source of high quality as well as value-priced Rhône Rangers, Beckmen produces one of the wine world's finest bargains, the Cuvée Le Bec, a blend of Rhône varietals. The 2006 consists of 50 percent Grenache, 28 percent Syrah, 15 percent Mourvèdre and 7 percent Counoise. It is medium-bodied and soft with plenty of pepper, sweet cherry, herb, and spice characteristics. An ideal bistro red, it is a delicious, personality-filled, bargain-priced effort to enjoy over the next 1-2 years.
2670 Ontiveros Road
Los Olivos, CA
The Rhône Meets Rioja
Qupe and Verdad Wineries
Twenty miles to the northwest, in the middle of the Santa Maria Valley (think "dusty middle of nowhere") is the winery facility belonging to Bob & Louisa Sawyer and Jim Clendenen who makes his Au Bon Climat wines there. No public tours at this facility...this is a serious winery. Their wines are offered at tasting rooms in Solvang and Los Olivos.
Bob is one of the pioneers of Rhône varietals working at Zaca Mesa in the seventies and founding Qupe in 1982, the stone age of Central Coast wine history. He has been producing Syrah, Grenache, Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier along with Chardonnay ever since. In 1997 he married Louisa, whose passion is for Spanish varietals. She has added Tempranillo and Albarino to the mix with a new label called Verdad. I have always admired the California people who buck the odds, eschewing the holy trinity of Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot to embrace varietals that have never been widely grown. Bob and Louisa Sawyer are those kind of people, pursuing their love of Rhône and Spanish varietals in spite of the fact that Pinot Noir and Cabernet fetch a much higher price.
We spent over an hour in the winery barrel tasting with Louisa and their sales manager, Rob Frye. And there were plenty of barrels to taste from... tasting wine, unblended from the barrel really helps you understand the process. Louisa drew samples from three barrels of her 2007 Tempranillo, one in French oak, one in American oak and a third in a larger Hungarian oak barrel. The differences were amazing. The French oak was aggressive with light vanilla and heavy smoky notes. The American oak was mellower with strong vanilla notes and the Hungarian was the softest of all, with very subtle flavors. Creating a quick, sloppy blend of the three produced a mellow wine that smoothed out the strong flavors that the single barrels had produced.
The mobile bottling line was cranking out Bob's 2006 Syrah while we tasted, and rattling loudly in the background, while we dodged forklifts dropping 56 case pallets of finished wine between the barrel stacks. Then at noon, all the noise stopped and we were able to join in what we thought was a great daily winery tradition more reminiscent of rural France than California, a communal lunch for all workers. Two long tables were set for over twenty people including their staff, the men running the mobile bottling line, Bob and Louisa and us.
They take turns cooking and that day the winery manager had spent the morning grilling chicken thighs, making piles of fresh cut melon and prosciutto, penne with marinara, salad, French bread and plenty of open bottles of Qupe and Verdad wines. A great end to a very educational visit. Following are the wines we currently have in stock from Bob and Louisa.
Verdad Tempranillo 2005 Santa Barbara County, California $15
A Wine Guy Selection - What We Thought: Made from 67 percent Tempranillo blended with 17 percent Syrah and 16 percent Grenache this may be a perfect expression of what a California Tempranillo can be. No dusty tannins or leathery fruit here... we're not in Rioja anymore! It greets you with a spicy, red raspberry nose and moves to a full-bodied palate of more ripe red raspberry along with black cherries and hints of spice. Smooth and supple with remarkably soft tannins I think this is about as user friendly as Tempranillo gets.
Verdad Grenache Mourvèdre Rose 2006 Santa Ynez Valley, California $10
A Wine Guy Selection - What We Thought: Louisa Sawyer, wife of Qupe winemaker, only makes 300 cases of this lovely strawberry scented Rose. This clean, dry wine simply explodes with bright flavors of strawberry and and red cherries. Try this with grilled Tuna, we did....
Verdad Albarino 2006 Santa Ynez Valley, California $15
A Wine Guy Selection - What We Thought: Bright and crisp with a fruity, medium-bodied palate filled with flavors of citrus and tropical fruits that manages to be smooth and supple without giving up its crisp edge of acidity. This is a great California take on Spain’s great white grape.
Qupe Bien Nacido Syrah 2005 Santa Maria Valley, California $27
What the Wine Critics Thought - Wine Advocate 90 Points
From the renowned Bien Nacido Vineyard, the 2005 Syrah exhibits a dense ruby/purple color as well as aromas of black olives, crushed rocks, and flowers. It reveals some austerity and leanness, but the sweetness of the fruit, structured, well-delineated mouthfeel, and substantial concentration and minerality are characteristic of an outstanding wine that should drink beautifully for a decade or more.
Taste their wines at:
2445 Alamo Pintado
Los Olivos, CA 93441
Taste of the Valleys
1672 Mission Drive
Solvang, CA 93463
Visit their website at:
September 24, 2008