During a recent tasting of new releases from Beckmen Vineyards, I asked its director of winemaking and viticulture, Steve Beckmen, “Did you bring your Cabernet Sauvignon?”
Beckmen hesitated. He almost said no, because the Santa Ynez Valley winery makes some of California’s best Rhône-variety wines, including Grenache, Syrah and two “Cuvee Le Bec” blends, one white, one red. Cabernet Sauvignon is a tiny part of Beckmen’s production, and not “on topic,” in marketing parlance.
In Santa Barbara County, you’re either Rhône to the bone, or born to Beaune; Cabernet Sauvignon screws up the message. And besides, what sense would it make for Beckmen to pour his Cab for writers who taste and rate oceans of wines from Napa and Sonoma?
A lot, it turns out. Beckmen acquiesced to our pleading and opened his 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez Valley. After we tasted it, we agreed that the wine was much to our liking: Subtle in oak aroma and flavor; restrained in alcohol; elegant and layered, with classic hints of cassis, cedar, leafy herbs and cigar box; well-mannered and focused, yet brimming with sunny California red-fruit flavors riding a wave of mouthwatering acidity. Great Cabernet from Santa Barbara County? Indeed.
Play the wino-word-association game with Santa Barbara County and players will likely respond with “Pinot Noir.” Chardonnay and Syrah will get some votes, too, though the Pinot Noir image drives the county’s wine production image. Only intrepid wine shoppers will come to know that Santa Barbara County offers so much more than Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.
As California matures as a winemaking state, and as federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) become established, based on their specific soils, climates, exposures and winemaking histories, consumers, trade and media have begun to adopt such mantras as, “Russian River Valley for Pinot and Chardonnay” … “Dry Creek Valley, Lodi and Sierra Foothills for Zinfandel” … “Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon” … “Paso Robles for Rhône varietals.” The movie “Sideways” left the impression that Pinot Noir was the most important wine in Santa Barbara County.
This is all well and good, as such definitions help novices identify the regions that produce the types of wines they like to drink. Yet AVAs can also be misleading, preventing adventurous wine drinkers from discovering amazingly good wines from unsuspecting places. The Beckmen Cabernet Sauvignon is but one example.
Santa Barbara County’s cool-climate areas in the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills AVAs produce marvelous Pinots -- and Chardonnays -- yet there are warmer pockets within them that are conducive to growing Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
AVA status doesn’t always give a detailed picture of the vinous opportunities a region presents. Only with the establishment of specific sub-AVAs within larger AVAs will consumers begin to understand the varietal options and wine styles they can expect in the bottles they purchase.
Granted, Beckmen’s Cabernet Sauvignon is but a tiny part of its production. The Beckmen family’s Purisima Mountain Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley is best known for Syrah, Grenache and other Rhône Valley varieties. You’ll find little Pinot Noir or Chardonnay here, because what is known as the Ballard Canyon area is simply too warm for these varieties.
Santa Ynez Valley is a long, east-west-running AVA that has cool temperatures and fog at its western end (best for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and a warm, sunnier climate at its eastern end (best for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhône varieties). Steve Beckmen and others have joined to submit to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) a petition requesting that Ballard Canyon be designated a sub-AVA within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, within the Santa Barbara County appellation.
A Ballard Canyon AVA makes great sense, as it would inform savvy wine buyers that the soils and warm climate of the region are ideal for Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, separating the region from the cooler, Burgundian-centric vineyards in the chilly, western parts of Santa Ynez Valley.
The AVA system is no doubt flawed, with approvals granted by TTB employees in Washington, D.C., who review petitions submitted by growers and winemakers. There are no inspections of the potential appellations, no surveying of soils, no gauging the climates, no tasting of the wines. A well-written and researched petition is all that is needed for an area to be designated an AVA, unless there is emphatic public dissent.
Imperfect as it may be, the AVA system is all we have, and it serves consumers who want to know where the grapes were grown for the wines they consider purchasing. Yet until it evolves into more specificity, it’s also a barricade to wine lovers in finding the Beckmen Cabernet Sauvignon (because they don’t think of Santa Ynez Valley/Santa Barbara County for Bordeaux varietals), and the Italian-inspired wines of Steve Clifton’s Palmina brand (Arneis, Malvasia Bianca, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and Barbera), and the rare Sagrantino red produced by Mosby Winery from Santa Ynez Valley, made from grapes grown from cuttings taken from the Montefalco hilltop town in Umbria, Italy.
Those looking sideways to Santa Barbara County for Pinot Noir will likely miss some tremendous wines if they stick to the movie’s theme. Yet as the AVA system develops, and specific viticultural areas such as Ballard Canyon are recognized and made known to consumers, Santa Barbara County will be seen not as a one-trick Pinot pony, but as a region capable of producing a wealth of wines styles, to please all palates.