Learn About Wine: The Stars of Santa Barbara

I was recently invited to an exciting and rather prestigious wine tasting event showcasing the Stars of Santa Barbara. It was hosted by Ian Blackburn of Learn About Wine. They offer classes in wine tasting and wine acredidation. I was pleased to be invited. And though I spent quite a few years living in Santa Barbara and I have a good palatte when it comes to wine and wine pairing, I am not an expert and certainly not acredited.

So in these instances I usually like to bring along someone to pick up the slack where my wine knowledges wanes. The resident wine expert at Sippity Sup is my brother Grant, (Sip! to my Sup!). He has his own set of credentials from The French Culinary Institute, but he lives in Florida these days– and though I am sure Ian was pleased to have Sippity Sup attend his event, I don’t think I could ask him to fly my brother to Beverly Hills. Could I?

Nooo, especially when I have my own local expert in wine right here: Helen Melville. Helen has been a guest on Sippity Sup before. She attended the Around the World in 80 Sips event with me and revealed her own tortured route from wine “guzzler” to wine “snob” in an entertaining write-up on that event.

So she seems like the perfect partner in wine crime to accompany me to Ian Blackburn’s Stars of Santa Barbara. Because part of that journey Helen describes actually involves Ian. You see, Helen is a gradutate of the Ian’s LAW (learn about wine) School Acredidation Program.

So please make the jump and “learn about wine” from Helen’s point of view. If you’d like to meet Ian or Helen you could attend a LAW event yourself. In fact there is still time to attend the Stars of Oregon & Washington today in Orange County or tomorrow in Beverly Hills. I know they will both be there… GREG

Helen Melville & Ian Blackburn for Sippity SupIn March of 2008 I passed a horror of an exam (we had to blind taste 6 wines and then complete a written exam within 7 days!) and became a “Junior Wine Executive” recognized by LAW (Learn About Wine) School. He who created the monster, Ian Blackburn, opened my eyes, nose and tongue to a brave new world, www​.learnaboutwine​.com, where dilettantes and professionals alike clink glasses and have fun learning about (fabulous) wine and developing their palettes through a variety of classy events and classes.

I attended my very first annual Stars of Santa Barbara wine tasting event at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in January of 2008 when I was slap bang in the middle of LAW School and anxious to absorb every last ounce of information about the wines and wine making process. Most of the wines are poured by the people who have made the liquid art, and they love talking about it… so ample opportunity to learn and get happy.

Actually, I got a bit too happy at the 2009 Stars of Santa Barbara. I had bought some anti-hangover pills from a website and booked a taxi home and therefore lulled myself into a false sense of invincibility when it came to my drinking capacity. The morning after very nearly resulted in my giving up alcohol for life. I’ll spare you further details.

At the 2010 Stars of Santa Barbara, I behaved far more responsibly and ate a good deal of the yummy food designed to both line the stomach and complement the wines being poured. Being of sounder mind that year, I also discovered the lure of the silent auction table. All proceeds for the silent auction benefit the TJ Martell Foundation, which funds innovative medical research to find cures and treatments for leukemia, cancer and AIDS, so one can feel terribly philanthropic going into a bidding frenzy on amazing bottles of wine.There’s other stuff like art and guitars, but I don’t allow myself to get distracted from the wines on offer. I think I managed to stock my wine cupboard for a full year with my winnings.

For the 2011 Stars of Santa Barbara this January, I was all business. There were many familiar names from years past such as Jaffurs, Demetria, Foxen, Tantara, Melville, Sanford, Summerland, and Epiphany (who poured my hands down favorite Grenache Blanc last year). This event is like living the abridged version of  the movie Sideways... all the wineries in one evening without the driving and scenery. Alcohol is still involved though, so one cannot rule out the possibility of romantic shenanigans! Ian has a knack for drawing in the big names and crowd pleasers (Sea Smoke for the Silent Auction bidders!), but he is also a terrific judge of Stars in the making and to that end I must draw your attention to Presqu’ile Winery and Shai Cellars.

SweenyOne of the fabulous things about attending this event year after year is that it gives you an amazing insight as to how a wine evolves with the growing conditions and harvests of a particular year. As is my custom, I began my tasting with the whites and was shocked to find that this year many of them, in several varietals, were very high alcohol. Too much sugar in the grape at harvest and you have the potential for 14% alcohol plus. The alcohol is apparent on the nose but also announces its presence with a hot jalapeno kick at the back of the throat. Not a selling point in a chilled white, methinks. I had to look to a favorite producer from last year’s tasting to find my favorite white — the Sweeney Canyon 2006 Chardonnay which had strength with balance and structure along with a kiss of food friendly acidity.

Shai CellarsGreg too had a great time. He discovered one of his dream wines in the newcomer, Shai Cellar’s 2008 “Adome”.  It’s a smooth, rich blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Ynez Valley. It really set his tastebuds dancing and his mind inquiring of what dead animal flesh he could cook to be the perfect fit for this wine. I, of course, thought of dark chocolate.

presqu'ileHowever, for me, the absolute find at this year’s event woke up my palette with a tantalizing burst of elegant fruit, raspberry and black cherry spiced with anise, leading to a long, mineral finish wrapped in silk and lace. Presqu’ile (press-KEEL), 2009 Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley was my 2011 Star.  It was no surprise upon talking with the wine maker, Dieter Cronje,  to discover that he hand harvests earlier than most at moderately low brix (sugar) to keep the wine bright and relatively low alcohol. The fruit does the talking in this wine, not the oak — Presqu’ile wines are aged in 70 — 75% neutral French oak barrels as well as stainless steel tanks and one concrete egg. I can offer no better accolade than to confess that I won a bottle of this pinot noir in the silent auction due to zealous hovering over my bid to ensure that this baby went home with me!

Helen Melville