Tasting Santa Barbara Wines: #SBCWine #COH14

Helen Melville & Lamontagne Winery for Sippity Sup

Ken and I were joined by our friend Helen Melville at the Santa Barbara Celebration of Harvest, 2014 wine tasting event. Helen has contributed to these pages before and has a descerning wine palate. I asked her for a few words about the event this year. GREG

Santa Barbara Vintners Celebration of the Harvest

I have previously written about the need for a strategy at big wine tasting events. For those of us who do not spit, these events can put your senses on overload and be a bit like trying to cram in a visit to The Getty, LACMA, The Norton Simon and The California Science Center all in one afternoon. If you are not careful, you start resembling Patsy and Edina from “Absolutely Fabulous,” all purple-crusted lips and a complete inability to distinguish one wine from the next.

In tastings past, I have rushed around from booth to booth trying to taste the whites and the roses before getting to the meat of the reds. This time, Ken and I decided to focus on sampling complete flights from individual wine makers. Less walking, more concentrated information about the wines and a higher likelihood to remember the standouts.

We started the adventure at the Celebration of the Harvest Santa Barbara Vintners’ pre-festival wine seminar and panel discussion. It was during this informative talk that wine maker Doug Margerum joked about printing up a T‑shirt that said “Margerum,” on the front and “We’ve never heard of you, either,” on the back. He poured a Sangiovese that made my palate sing like Christina Aguilera. Suddenly I had an even more focused strategy for the rest of the festival: Seek the hidden gems.

Which isn’t always easy. For example, Doug Margerum was pouring wines under his Margerum and Barden labels. Both exquisite. However, he does not own a vineyard; he sources his grapes from all over and he’s quite prolific. A visit to Nielsen’s Market in Solvang and a chat with the manager of the wine department revealed some stellar wines under a variety of labels also crafted by Doug. Remember his name. Drink his wines. He’s a hidden gem that might be right under your nose (so to speak).

Tasting Santa Barbara WinesLa Montagne Winery

Any fool can wax rhapsodic about the amazing wines from Clos Pepe and our perennial favorite Brewer-Clifton, but it takes skill and industry to find a small-unknown producer crafting knockout wines… or it takes a lucky break.

Which is how I found La Montagne. There wasn’t much culinary fare for a vegetarian like me at this year’s festival, so I was forced to soak up the alcohol with truffles from Stafford’s Famous Chocolates. There are truffles and then there are Stafford’s. Divine decadence. Bliss.

While standing at the Stafford booth I was told by the woman handing out truffles, “You should try the wines at La Montagne.” Not quite sure if she was gently trying to save or sabotage my waistline, I decided to find seek out the La Montagne booth.

What I found was my hidden gem.

When I first met Kimberly Smith, “Kimmie,” the wine maker behind the La Montagne label, she was making the most of a short straw booth, angled so as to be best blasted by the full force of the midday sun in a California heatwave. The matriarch with a personality at least as brilliant as the sun’s energetic rays, told me her story whilst pouring her wines. La Montagne was born out of a dream. Kimmie shed over 100lbs in weight and with her newfound confidence, she decided to embark on a journey of love. Kimmie loves to drink Pinot Noir but she felt that she was tired of being dissatisfied with too many of the expensive bottles her husband used to buy. Surely she could find a way to make her own wines to enjoy? So, under the mentorship of the wine maker at Clos Pepe, she gave it a go.

Her first wines scored high points and great reviews. “The Wall Street Journal has written about me,” she said. I could see why. The wines blew me away. In fact, they blew me into the silent auction tent where I “won” a bottle of her 2012 Pinot Noir from John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills and her 2012 Pinot Noir from Bonna Terra Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. Ken and I agreed that we should pay a visit to her tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto the following day to taste more of Kimmie’s “babies.” She has Pinot Blanc, Malvasia, Chardonnay, Rose and Tempranillo wines, but I couldn’t wait to taste a full flight of her 2012 Pinot Noirs.

There was the atmosphere of a family BBQ at the tasting room, Ron, Kimmie’s supportive husband, was roasting chicken in the parking lot. The effervescent Kimmie greeted all visitors as if they were much-loved family members. Her two charming sons sporting scorched faces from the previous day’s battle with uva/uvb rays, poured and sold the wines.

Kimmie is interested in exploring the pure expression of the grapes she sources. For the 2012 vintage, she sourced Pinot Noir grapes from five different vineyards and came up with five wines with completely individual personalities:

  • Sierra Madre, Santa Barbara County: The baby of the family to be enjoyed now. Light and elegant with distinct notes of sour cherry and a refreshing acidity.  Yum.
  • Rancho La Vina Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills: No mistaking the masculinity of this child.  Forest floor on the nose, a larger mouth feel than the previous wine and hints of anise on the palate.
  • John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills: My personal favorite; an incredible nose tantalizing with aromas of dark cherry and wild mushroom, supremely well-balanced with a full three act symphony on the palate. Voluptuous and exciting, this child resembles its gorgeous “mother.”
  • Bonna Terra Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills: Back to the boys, showing more mineral than fruit with a sturdy backbone, this baby is no metrosexual.
  • Kessler-Haak Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills: Every vintage, one wine speaks to Kimmie more than the others. She names her favorite child after her husband. This is “The Ron.”  This wine has a huge personality, like the winemaker herself, with good acidity and smooth tannins suggesting that age may make it even better. The nose takes you into a forest on a sunny day. You can feel the weight on this one as it gives you a huge middle palate caress followed by a strong cuddle on the finish.

La Montagne was also pouring wines from the Library to illustrate how they age. “The Ron” from 2010 was out of this world. The grapes were sourced from Clos Pepe and this wine heralded the beginning of Kimmie’s wine making journey. This is a truly majestic wine with a classic nose taking you on an out of this world ethereal walk in nature. The fruit still daintily adorns the structure like fairy lights on a Christmas tree. WOW!

Kimmie was delighted to sign the bottles I had won but I don’t rate their chances for longevity in my wine cellar – I can’t wait to drink them. I think the next step could be a T‑Shirt: “La Montagne” on the front, “Join The Family,” on the back. HELEN

Sippity Sup at Santa Barbara Vintners Celebration of the Harvest