While winter is hardly peak season in the California Central Coast, it can offer the brave and determined a rare glimpse of several wine areas. Our recent foray up the coast to the Santa Ynez Valley offered just such an occasion.
Quiet, warm fireplaces and very few crowds are your reward during this off season. In fact several of the wine makers take this time while the vines are dormant to get ahead of their other pursuits and maintenance activities. Frank Ostini of Hartley -Ostini and Hitching Post fame gave us a nice handshake en route to one of his properties with a tool box in hand. Such is life in the Valley during the off tourist season.
February is a great time particularly if you want to make those wine club pickups, and many of the local wineries have events around the Presidents Day weekend. As that did not suit our schedule, we made our way up Highway 101 from the Southland earlier in the month.
Our Saturday of tastings was greeted early with a phone call from a local number explaining that power was out. The storms had rolled in overnight and blocked several interior roads as well as a major closing both north and south of Santa Barbara on 101. We were locked in! Nothing to do but pivot. So off to Buttonwood we went.
If you haven’t discovered Buttonwood Winery and Vineyard yet you need to make it a priority. We have been club members with the winery for years and love the farm to table atmosphere. Winemaker Karen Steinwachs carries the vision of original founder Betty Williams forward with high “QPR” wines that illustrate the earth and bounty of the farm and vineyard. While Buttonwood could charge more for their wine and distribute nationally they choose not to do so. Buttonwood has a special place in our family history as we attended the All Farm Dinner in 2016 and were able to sit with Betty’s daughter and son in law, the artist Seyburn Zorthian and her husband Mark McGinnis – one of the early environmental supporters of the Earth Day movement.
Karen’s hard work and that of the full team does not go unnoticed. The Cabernet Franc is a full body varietal with traces of tobacco leaves and black pepper with hints of clove on the finish (SW 91). While most of the wine box we carried out was the Cabernet Franc, do not miss the opportunity to enjoy their white and red Bordeaux offerings (Trevin and Devin, respectively) and the Hibbits Ranch Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills AVA. Juicy and mouth watering reflection of the coastal terroir, this offering can easily sell for over $50, but as I mentioned previously that would be contrary to the Buttonwood purpose.
Our next stop was to Gainey Vineyard, still operating in candlelight with a the wood fireplace in full use. The team there seemed to be enjoying the mellow, more intimate climate and we pulled up chairs to sip their wines which we have bought for decades. Dan Gainey and team source their fruit from three distinct vineyards across different microclimates. The estate vineyard is based at the winery property in Santa Ynez. Here you will find predominantly the warmer climate varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. Evans Ranch vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills offers deep luscious Pinot Noir, lip-smacking Syrah and full-bodied Chardonnay. The Rancho Esperanza vineyard also located in the Santa Rita Hills compliments the fruit found at Evans Ranch. While tasting the flight sitting in front of the crackling fire, the 2016 Limited Syrah jumped out at me with its structure and mouth of bacon fat and dark fruits (SW 90).
Once the power snapped back on we proceeded to enjoy our barrel to bottle tasting in the cellar room. Gainey offers a number of tasting experiences worth your extra investment in time and this tasting allows visitors to taste the contrast between an existing bottled vintage and the following year still in the barrel. The highlight of the tasting was the 2017 Pinot Noir still in the barrel, framed with a meaty structure and chewiness that will only mature once finished. Matt Kettman from Wine Enthusiast rated the 2016 Limited Pinot Noir a 93. The 2017 vintage has the potential to even be more special.
Sunday was our departure day from the valley and the Highways were open and debris was clearing. And that’s when we met Frank on our way to stop at the new Hitching Post Tasting room on Highway 246 next door to the infamous restaurant of movie Sideways fame. Open since last September, the tasting room offers a lunch option featuring Frank’s famous Santa Maria barbecue and his iconic wines for tasting and purchase. The Pinot Noir Highliner sourced from Santa Rita Hills AVA is always a solid choice, as is the Cabernet Franc blended Four Top, where the current vintage is still 2012 – an early drought year California vintage. It’s a great stop and easy way to try Franks world famous barbecue steak and grilled seafood if you can’t make dinner reservations in advance of your visit at the main restaurant. Plans for more table seating and airstream enabled eats are in the offing.
While you might not enjoy the hours of pool time Santa Barbara county offers in the summer, winter in wine country affords many advantages both planned and spontaneous. Also consider the many restaurants participating in Restaurant Week in early February and your winter wine country junket might be just what you need.