Growing up in Santa Barbara in a wonderful, nostalgic decade I won’t specifically identify because of its antiquity, I was going back for the first time in many years to attend my nephew’s wedding.
Having spent my youth growing up on the “American Rivera”, I consider Santa Ynez, Solvang, and Los Olivos to be part of the generic description encompassed within the mention of “Santa Barbara”, both because of their proximity and because they were all part of my childhood home base. Of course those three towns are actually up and over the Santa Ynez Mountain Range north of Santa Barbara, and are found in the rolling oak covered hills of the Santa Ynez Valley, and only a thirty to forty minute drive. Those mountains, and the Pacific Ocean, squeeze Santa Barbara into a ribbon along the coast, thus inviting the comparison, both geographic and lifestyle, to the French Cote d’Azur.
When I left Santa Barbara at the age of 22 after graduating from UC Santa Barbara, heading for USD law school in San Diego, there was not a single winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. Forty-five odd years later, there are many dozens of wineries spread around the valley, with the greatest number situated in the vicinity of the village of Los Olivos, but with many spreading out along Foxen Canyon Road towards southern Santa Maria County.
Like a number of wine producing regions of California, vines were originally planted by the Franciscan Friars in the early 1800’s, and a thriving wine industry developed in the latter part of the 19th century. The wineries were subsequently virtually wiped out by Prohibition, only to rise again in the latter part of the 20th century.
From the moment I hit town for the wedding, I took the opportunity to solicit present day local’s for their advice on tasting rooms located in a picturesque setting, possessing character, and that remained relatively small. I readily confess to a prejudice in favor of the old style tasting rooms in a barn or rustic building full of ambience, sampling the tastings over a barrel in conversation with the winery owner, who in the old days (twenty years ago), was frequently also the wine maker. Today, while varying to some extent by viticultural region, the competition amongst winery owners to build the most impressive tasting room is frequently as intense as the competition to make the best wine.
While I may occasionally visit one of the larger establishments for the architecture, design, or some other peculiarity of note, the experience for this writer is most enjoyable when I find a small, unpretentious, old style tasting room or patio, full of charm, atmosphere, and the genuine opportunity to discuss and learn about the wines, as opposed to simply tasting the offerings while reading the chart notes. To this writer, the ambience enhances the tasting experience, best enjoyed as far away as possible from the crowds who descend upon the mega-winery tasting rooms in their limos. In general a “limo sighting” is for me, motivation to skip that winery.
Among the opinions proffered were Barbieri, Samsara, Blair Fox, Tensley, Demetria, and Beckmen. When receiving the recommendation to Demetria, I knew immediately that it would be on the top of my list. Among the information imparted was that it was small with a very rural setting, and a little difficult to find. We were also advised to make a picnic of it, to best enjoy the surroundings, and that picnicking was welcomed by the winery (not always the case these days). On this occasion, the advice turned out to be knowledgeable and spot on.
Inquiring upon arrival at Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos, reception offered to secure for us the following day the reservation that was necessary in order to obtain the gate code to drive two miles through the property of the Zaca Mesa winery estate to reach Demetria. Arriving at an Italianesque Villa on top of a hill, the setting was precisely the atmosphere I am continually searching for. The second part of the equation, of course, is wine of a quality to match the ambience. We found both at Demetria.
Before introducing myself to Mark in the tasting room, we were greeted (sort of – amused by would be more accurate) Murphy, one of the resident cats, who was “sacked out” on a picnic table. Contented cats have a way of looking comfortable when lounging, but I don’t think I have ever seen one looking more comfortable than Murphy. His only movements were an occasional yawn, followed by a stretch and a rollover to the opposing aspect. Despite his lethargic persona at noon, I was subsequently assured that when night rolled around, Murphy would be found hard at work patrolling the grounds in search of fresh protein.
We were invited to select our desired seating and Mark would serve our tasting menu. As the midday sun was presenting a magnificent palate of warm summer blue, accentuated by slivers of sunlight thrusting randomly amongst the oaks inhabiting the hilltop, we happily selected an outside table under a mature oak perfectly suited to provide us with the maximum view of the surroundings.
Mark soon arrived with the 2014 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay – medium bodied, crisp citrus, with lime zest and green apple ($39.00). This was followed with the 2015 Grenache Rosé, having a delicate pink color, aromas of strawberry with floral overtones, watermelon and cranberry on the palate, and very dry ($25.00). Being old enough to remember when the rosés available in California were mostly sweet, I have been pleased to observe that as the wine makers and drinkers have both become more sophisticated, the clear trend is in favor of the drier style that predominates in France. A subtle, light rosé on the dry side is a perfect picnic lunch accompaniment on a warm summer day.
Cuvée Constantine (2013), an unusual blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah, topped off with 3% Counoise, was the third tasting ($47.00). Earthy and full of substance, it had aromas of lavender, blackberry, and herbs, with the mouth flavors developing at the same time a hint of ripe berry coupled with dried stone fruit. Next followed 2013 Cuvée Matia, a Grenache with raspberry and red licorice on the nose, and tasting of pomegranate and spice. Demetria likes it with grilled meats and tomato based pasta dishes. The winery assesses it as aging well through at least 2020 ($60.00).
The fifth and final tasting was a 2013 “North Slope” Syrah (with 7% Viognier). An earthy wine, tasting of blackberry, coffee, and crème de cassis follows after complex aromas that include truffles and spices. Mark advised that this wine is Côte Rôtie styled. The Côte Rôtie AOC is located in the northern Rhône region of France. Guigal is perhaps one of the best known producers from this region
Having heeded the advice, we came prepared for a leisurely lunch. After enjoying cheese and crackers with our tasting menu, we then broke out the sandwiches and some heirloom tomatoes from my garden in Poway, to accompany a bottle of Cuvée Constantine which proved to be my tasting favorite. I purchased two more bottles of the same for home. I am accustomed to seeing wildlife, including quail, at my home in eastern Poway, but during our most enjoyable half afternoon at Demetria, we were witness to the largest covey of California quail I have ever seen. I counted at least 30 in a marching line at the edge of the vine rows, including an almost endless supply of chicks.
Demetria Estate is located on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail just outside of Los Olivos. Also visited on this trip were tasting rooms at Kenneth Volk, Fess Parker, Foxen Vineyard and others, which will be the subject of a future report.