Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
It may not bask in the fame accorded Napa, be blessed with the breadth of Sonoma, or garner the current buzz of its northern neighbor, Paso Robles, but Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley appellation is turning out some of California’s best wines.Especially for those who love Syrah.I recently was reminded of this when I sampled a Santa Ynez Valley 2006 Zaca Mesa Estate Syrah. At $22 a bottle, the wine was simultaneously big enough to complement the charred-to-a-crisp crust of my wood-fired rib-eye, and subtle enough to register with the juicy red, rare, 125-degree interior of the same. It was a sublime combination and the pairing of that steak and that wine is one that I plan to duplicate in the not-too-distant future.The provenance of my Estate Syrah goes back to the early 1970s, when a group of friends pooled resources to buy land on a plateau in a fertile valley north of Santa Barbara. They dubbed their holdings Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyard, and were part of a pioneering wine movement in the region that included Richard Sanford of Sanford and Benedict, and Leonard Firestone of Firestone Vineyards, among others. All were discovering that the rich soils and the unique growing conditions of this area, 30 miles or so from the sea but marked by intense summer temperatures, could produce special wines.The topography of the California coast is marked by mountain ranges, largely running north and south. But this valley is different. Here there is a confluence of hills and mountain ranges that actually angle from the sea, in a west-to-east direction. This quirky confluence of the coastal ranges basically forms a funnel, allowing cool breezes and fog from the Pacific Ocean to be sucked into the super heated interior valley during the prime summer months of the growing season. The combination of hot days and cool nights make the plateau where Zaca Mesa is located perfect for the Rhne grape varietals that are their specialty.”Too hot for Pinot and too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon” is how Brook Williams, president of Zaca Mesa, explains why the winery became focused on the Rhne grapes that are their sweet spot. Though they are just under four decades into the grape growing history of the 200-plus acres of land that now comprise Zaca Mesa’s vineyards, lessons have been learned. “You think about someone like Antinori,” said Williams, referring to the Tuscan winery that has been under vines for 600 years. “They know what grows well and where. They plant Sangiovese because it works. Forty years ago everyone here was just experimenting, planting grapes and seeing what worked.”Over the past 40 years at Zaca Mesa, different grapes have been planted and discarded, a winery building has been erected, and the original partnership has consolidated under the ownership of the Cushman family, some of the original friends. Currently the winery is in the midst of replanting vast blocks of the original vineyards to the varietals and clones that have proven successful. Through it all, Zaca Mesa has become highly regarded for making great wines that reflect the terroir and special topography of the Santa Ynez Valley as well as the character of the grapes they grow. Aside from an aromatic Viognier, a rich Roussanne and a Chardonnay (the only non-Rhne varietal Zaca Mesa makes), the winery is especially praised for four distinct Syrahs. Begin with the Estate Syrah wine that went so well with my steak, move up to an Estate Reserve that sells for $42 a bottle and, at the top of the line, a Black Bear Syrah ($62) which is the product of a small, four-acre vineyard planted in 1978. Williams believes the Black Bear vines to be the oldest Syrah vines on the Central Coast. The fourth wine, an Eight Barrel Syrah sold only at the winery, is unique in that it features a blend of wines aged in eight different wine barrels from eight different coopers. Zaca Mesa takes pride in producing only Estate wines, meaning that they grow all of their own fruit on vineyards that they own. All of their vineyards are handpicked and they are dedicated to sustainable winemaking and labor practices. In short, if you have not sampled Zaca Mesa’s wines, take note, and keep an eye out for these gems from the Santa Ynez Valley. Especially if you’re looking for something to drink with a rib-eye.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.