Take a piece of dirt in Santa Barbara County, plant some Pinot Noir vines, then invite a small group of winemakers to select the grapes they want and make a Pinot that reflects not only the vineyard but the winemaker's style. This innovative concept, called Julia's Vineyard Artisan Program, is the brainchild of Barbara Banke and Lane Tanner. Banke, and her husband, Jess Jackson, own Cambria Estate, of which Julia's Vineyard is a small but essential part. Tanner is the owner of Lane Tanner Winery in Santa Maria, California. Although the idea is probably not unique, it is a great way to demonstrate the importance of terroir and how different winemakers handle it.
In 1987, Jackson and Banke purchased the Tepusquet Vineyard, on Santa Barbara County's Santa Maria Bench, and changed the name to Cambria. Two of the best plots in the 1405-acre Cambria Estate, named for Jackson's two daughters, are Katherine's Vineyard, devoted to Chardonnay, and Julia's Vineyard, planted to Pinot Noir. Tanner and some other small winemakers in 'the neighborhood,' as Banke calls the area around Cambria, were buying Pinot grapes from the Cambria estate and so when she and Banke hatched the idea of making a string of Pinot Noirs from the same vineyard, but with different winemakers, it was decided that each winemaker could pick grapes from anywhere in Juila's Vineyard then make a Pinot Noir according to their own style. The result has been positive, and the individual wines are some of the best and most distinctive Pinots that Santa Barbara County has to offer.
'We think it's important to work with the small wineries in the neighborhood because they helped to create the area's reputation, to define the area's terroir,' says Banke. 'Also, we think that, because of these cooperative programs, farming is now better and you can attribute a lot of that improvement to small wineries.' Banke says that each year, the grapes selected by the participating winemakers represent about 5-10% of the total Pinot Noir grown on the Cambria Estate. 'The program is good for us and good for them,' adds Banke, and we plan to expand the program.' This year the participating wineries are Cambria Estate, Byron, The Hitching Post, Lane Tanner and Foxen.
But is the Julia's Vineyard Artisan Program just another elite, esoteric exercise to squeeze yet another drop of difference out of grapes that may or may not exist? The winemakers who work with Julia's grapes rate the vineyard one of the best in Santa Barbara County, and consider it a privilege to be part of the program. 'I was the first to pick a spot in this program,' says Lane Tanner. 'I was allowed to pick any block I wanted. I tried them all, and Block B4 was the outstanding winner, so I chose rows 7 to 12 because they were not quite as uniform and lush as the rest of the vineyard.'
Picture-perfect vines and grapes were not what the winemakers were looking for. Jonathan Nagy, winemaker for Byron Wines wanted to see less vigor in the vines he selected. 'I looked for a section that was a bit de-vigorated compared with other sections. The thought was that the grape clusters would be smaller and more intense.' Denise Shurtleff, winemaker for Cambria Wines, who works with Julia's grapes every vintage, agrees about the wisdom looking for less vigor and smaller clusters and berries, adding, 'The grapes from this block tend to have more 'spice character' and tannin structure along with the usual red fruit and earthy aromas and flavors.'
The usual red fruits, spice and earthy notes are the descriptors that seem to come up when winemakers who work with Julia's Vineyard grapes, describe the general character imparted vineyard's terroir. Tanner calls it 'crunchy red fruit flavors and winter spice,' and 'there is also an 'inherent smoky quality.' Nagy defines the terroir character of Julia's as more 'earthy, rose petal, dark cherry,' while Shurtleff notes that because of the unique east/west orientation of the Santa Maria Valley, the mouth of the valley opens directly to the Pacific Ocean, allowing for more marine influence. 'The grapes are not subjected to long durations of heat during the day, and are allowed to mature slowly,' says Shurtleff. Bill Wathen, winemaker for Foxen believes that because Julia's Vineyard 'is situated on the level ground of the Santa Maria Bench and is planted to the Pommard clone, the wines are more elegant and refined than the wines from the higher slopes.'
Put those essential factors together with the valley's ancient sandy loam alluvial soils, and Julia's Vineyard produces what Shurtleff describes as 'ripe strawberry, cherry, cranberry with cinnamon and nutmeg aromas and flavors, combined with an underlying earthy character and balanced acidity.' And, as Foxen's Wathen puts it: 'The Pinots from Julia's Vineyard are more sleek, elegant and silky in most vintages.' Foxen has been making a Pinot Noir from Julia's Vineyard for 13 vintages. Frank Ostini, the multi-tasking owner/chef/winemaker of the Hitching Post, thinks the 2006s are 'the best group of Julia's Pinot Noirs I've seen to date.' He adds that the Hitching Post Pinot is 'right where we expect it at this point…balanced but somewhat shy at the moment and poised to blossom with bottle age.' Ostini notes that it is the 2002 vintage of Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir is selling at the Hitching Post Restaurant now.
All of the Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noirs are made in small quantities, often between 200 and 500 cases, and at least three of the winemakers used French oak barrels from Francois Freres, noted for a heavier toast that seems to marry exceptionally well with Pinot Noir. For the 2006 vintage, which Banke believes has produced the best Pinots yet, all of the wines carry the Julia's Vineyard appellation, except Cambria's, which is called Clone 4 Pinot Noir. Winemaker Denise Shurtleff says Julia's Vineyard will be on the label of all subsequent Pinot Noirs, starting with the 2007 vintage. For a review of the five Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noirs, go to the Wine Reviews page.
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