Field Report from Santa Barbara County: Rockets Red Wines

The town of Los Alamos lies in North Santa Barbara County along the Highway 101 that stretches along the coast of California. Once you exit US-101 onto CA-135 you have a choice: north to Vandenberg AFB or south into town along the old road that once was a stagecoach route. It is this point of decision in a way symbolizes the choices Jason “Zeek” Mergenov and his wife Carrie made some years ago as they exited a combined 28 years of active-duty service with the United States Air Force.

These days Los Alamos boasts a revitalized food and beverage scene, attracting world class culinary and winemaking talent. With its ease of access within Santa Barbara County and within an hour of San Luis Obispo, it is a growth center of the Central Coast.

Jason welcomes us to his home several blocks off the old stagecoach route and we walk past large fig and peach trees to the backyard court where Carrie also greets us. It is a warm day in the Valley and our hosts have prepared a shady spot under a tent canopy with Adirondack chairs, fruit and charcuterie board, and a cooler full of wines from Jason’s passion project: Rockets Red Wine.

As the couple worked through the various stages of their military careers, including several stops in the US Space Command (Jason has several military stickers with the Grim Reaper at the missile controls with bunny slippers on his feet), they found their way to Vandenberg and Los Alamos. As Jason prepared for what his post-service life might hold, he enrolled in several winemaking and viticulture classes at Alan Hancock College under the GI Bill. He found a passion for winemaking and grape growing – particularly Pinot Noir – and in 2018 Rockets Red Wine was born.

Jason’s wines are well structured and full of fruit. He grows several dozen Pinot Noir clone 2A vines at his home garden which he allows to wild stalk and water for a higher-acidity, lower sugar blending option to other grapes which are primarily sourced from Edna Valley (Grenache) and Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County, generally clones 777 and 91 from the Hancock vineyard.). His recent project involves his “Fizzion” pétillant naturel (called “Pét Nat” for short) sparkling wine of 100% Pinot Noir which is full of fruit, creamy mousse and tiny bubbles formed from the completion of fermentation in bottle (Matt Kettman of Wine Enthusiast awarded the wine 89 points). 

Unlike most winemakers who craft rosé as a by-product of red winemaking,  Jason makes a focus of crafting the rose wine as primary with the red wine as result. This technique known as reverse saignée where the wine is bled off crushed grapes versus free run or lightly pressed. This method not only creates full-bodied and deep strawberry colored still and Pet Nat rosé wines, but also allows the red wines to develop with very modest alcohol levels with a higher skin to juice ratio during fermentation. The Rockets Red Edna Valley Grenache red wine offering is a very respectful 14% without compromising body or flavor intensity in a very European winemaking style (Wine Enthusiast 90 points). The rosé of Grenache offering is simply delicious and has become a family fan-favorite, with full mouthfeel and even some soft tannins – truly a rosé for red wine drinkers (also 90 points from Wine Enthusiast).

Our visit completed, we bid farewell to our hosts. Jason and Carrie were preparing for the day’s local theater performance where Jason will sing a few notes in his baritone vibrato, another one of his post-military endeavors. As we chat about the fruit trees and sample a few figs for the road, I cannot help but feel admiration for Jason – not only his service but also his demeanor and passion for learning that has earned him a place of honor among small production winemakers.

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