Those who read my blog are already familiar with the fact that a vast majority of wines bought are consumed within a few hours of purchase. Various writers estimate this to be around 95% plus. Those who buy and lay down a bottle of wine, i.e. most of us in my wine world, are rare. It is also an accepted fact that an even vaster majority of Domestic wines, especially those produced in California are for immediate consumption. Even if you get some expensive, ageworthy wine like Heitz or Opus, you always have the option of opening it immediately and have a “drinkable” wine experience, unlike Bordeaux or Barolo that absolutely have to age many years before they become drinkable.
Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered a California wine, a Pinot Noir of all things, usually regarded a “feminine”, delicate wine, that benefits from some age. Produced in the Santa Ynez River Valley between the Santa Rita and Santa Ynez Mountain ranges in Santa Barbara County, Sea Smoke has a geography and climate similar to Carneros, a Northern California niche for Pinot Noir that we are more familiar with. Both enjoy cool breezes and fogs from the Pacific that penetrate deep inland and create ideal conditions for this fickle grape. In the case of Carneros it is the San Francisco Bay and its Northern alcove, the San Pablo Bay that sucks in the Pacific. In Santa Barbara, it is this west-east oriented valley that absorbs the Pacific fog that gives the wine its name: “sea smoke”.
I first experienced this wine in Plumpjack Cafe, a now defunct San Francisco restaurant (Sea Smoke sells a significant chunk of its production to restaurants), upon recommendation of a waitress. I was struck by how wonderful it was. Well, as it turns out it was a cult wine of sorts, and when I got around to buying a half case of its 2006 vintage, it was $ 52 per bottle, a price too steep for my personal pinot noir budget. But, what the hell! The memories overcame me and I took the plunge.
My usual domestic pinot noir experience is “buy & drink”. I was quite surprised that this wine – which is their “Southard” label -, upon first tasting about a year and a half ago, was tight as a young Bordeaux, and thick with extraction like a Petite Syrah. In summary it was undrinkable.
I discussed my experience with a colleague and wine connosseur Rick Rawson. He told me, with firm conviction, that he thought this wine was spiked with Syrah. This was his interpretation of the first impression Sea Smoke made on him. Say what?! Mixing pinot with other, more “muscular” grapes is a uniquely French Burgundian caper. I could not believe that local domestic winemakers could be doing the same. I decided to lay down the wine and try it later.
Tonight I opened my next sample. The wine is no longer thick with extraction, or syrah-like. The nose and fruit in the palate are definitely those of “warm weather” fruits: dark cherries, blackberries and even a hint of fig. There is also quite a bit of that smoky, bacony “stuff” that I love in pinots. The mid palate features a good wallop of sweetness unique to our warmer lands in California. But the finish has good acid. It is well balanced, and best of all, despite its fruit forward, ripe character, the wine delivers a silky, delicate, feminine texture unique to pinot noir.
Sea Smoke is a well crafted version of pinot noir that is true to its own territory, subtantially warmer than Burgundy, the original French home of the grape. While it is “big”, after a few years of age, it is still capable of delivering what pinot noir lovers expect from the grape: a silky, delicate experience, albeit with more fruit and sugar than its French counterpart. It turns out that in wine, American “feminine” tends to be more overbearing than French; think Jayne Mansfield or Marilyn Monroe versus Catherine Deneuve or even Bridgitte Bardot. Heck I personally think that Bardot might very well be the Chambolle-Musigny of sex-godesses; the one closest to the American experience. Nonetheless, you catch my drift: the French are more subtle and “elegant” when it comes to feminine than us Americans, in more ways than one.
And now we come to the one non-American feature of Sea Smoke: it cannot be consumed within days of purchase. You need to lay it down a bit, like around two or three years to get its full pleasures. Not a bit troublesome for “cult” followers, most of whom are accustomed to cellaring. Now the bad news: the latest vintage is around $ 69 per bottle. How much are you willing to dish out for a good domestic pinot? For me this price range is reserved for “masculine” wines, mainly Bordeaux. How much do you spend on “feminine”? An existential question for men.