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Tyler Chardonnay With an intensely busy schedule, featuring lots of driving, Santa Barbara surfaced as the perfect escape from LA. On a rare Sunday off, I headed to Lompoc, forty minutes north of SB, cramming as much wine tasting into an afternoon as possible, and where I happened upon my wine of the month.

Tyler was an afterthought that took root shortly after my brief visit to the cellar doors of Zotovich, and for that, I was thankful. It was at Tyler that I was walked through an entire flight of the difficult 2010 vintage (the difficulty being a limited vintage because of heat spikes at harvest, generally in Santa Barbara) and where my pick—2010 Clos Pepe Vineyard Chardonnay—made an indelible mark.

Best in class, the Chardonnay distanced itself from its two siblings, not just in fruit source—hailing from a prestigious estate in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA rather than Sta. Maria Valley AVA—accounting for the brawn… it was the finesse that helped it distinguish itself. Humming with apple, lemon peel, warming spices and kissed with sea salt, the Chardonnay was quite attractive, marrying the youthful core of fruit with a puissant medium-full body, taut acidity and an exponential and direct finish.

A serendipitous encounter, I enjoyed every wine in the lineup from the robust Pinot Noirs to the marvelously dense Chardonnays. Tyler’s wines are balanced, forward and worth seeking out—especially the Clos Pepe Chardonnay!

New World or Old World…, that decision can lead to contention among wine people. As much as I want to drink the latest Rajat Parr tweeted Burgundy, I generally don’t have the luxury. Old World wines are definitely sexy, but many, especially those that I’m interested in, benefit from a lengthy stay in the cellar to become their more refined selves. Though I would love to cut my teeth on the wines of the Côte d’Or, it just isn’t practical for everyday consumption (monetarily speaking). Living in Los Angeles however affords a bounty of great Pinot Noir makers nearby, those trying to strike a balance between the austerities of Burgundy while reveling in the California sun’s cooperative repair. I  sampled such a bottle, recently, from a budding producer in Santa Barbara.

Zotovich Cellars had been on my radar a short while, name thrown round by a few of my closest friends in the wine world, and I couldn’t wait to taste the touted Pinot Noir. I went to the website to see what I could glean, reading about the winemaker Ryan Zotovich and his stat sheets, showing that he split time between Sea Smoke and Palmina. An added bonus was the direction (consulting) of Steve Clifton—of Brewer-Clifton fame—as well as some decent reviews from Tanzer and Company… not cheating, just prepared. It would be my devoir and privilege to taste the 2009 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir.

With stemware handy, I popped the wine, poured about five ounces and walked away, watching some online television to encourage aeration; I made my way back only after I finished the latest episode of Suits. This is the wine world, always waiting on your date to put on her makeup. When I came back I checked for fault. In its place, a luscious aroma of red cherry starburst and dried rose petals slugged me with a clenched fist. I nosed the wine greedily, pulling out as much as I could in my newly honed WSET approach, finding a faint crack of pepper and some light mushroom.

I brought the bulb to my pursed lips, tasting a dialed-in red fruit attack in the youthful Pinot. Light-footed, with surprising acidity (teetering on medium-plus), wearing fine tannins and leaving a long impression of gorgeous primary fruits that were enhanced by the slightest bit of earth and faint dusting of pepper.

The quality was high, as well as the suggested retail ($39), but it was worthy of its price tag. Delicious, and drank better with every hour. While it might’ve fallen short of a Corton Grand Cru, in terms of austerity, or the seductive charm of Chambolle-Musigny, it was a beautiful Pinot Noir, proudly wearing its New World sweater. I’m still finding my palate, dedicating a serious portion of my time to sniffing out the best Burgundy deals I can find, but in the meantime I’m really happy to have found the Zotovich Pinot Noir to enjoy during the waiting game.

I lived in Laguna Beach growing up, a surprising town surrounded by more conservative cities that lent credence to the political expression, “Orange Curtain.” Access to Laguna is had by only two ingresses, PCH and the 133. The best part of that unique town was the beach, clean and infinite—relatively speaking—where I would come home from school and go swim when the water didn’t require a wetsuit. Since I left, I think one of the things that I miss most is waking up to the smell of the ocean (I lived really close); the salinity in the air was palpable. I’m reminded of my salad days when nosing a bottle of great white wine. The memory impetus was brought on by a bottle of Santa Barbara Chardonnay, 2009 Sandhi Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County—the entry-level in their cavalcade—dressed smartly with a demure label and sans foil to show off the glass. I chilled down the contents, opening the bottle over dinner with a couple of friends.

A pale gold liquid filled our glasses, with decent perfume of lemons and vanilla undercut by the salty spray of ocean mist. As we took our first sip, a confluence of minerals, citrus and a touch of new oak tornadoed across our palates, in its wake we were left with a complex, sinewy wine that possessed impressive balance. The alcohol was low and the acid was high for California Chardonnay and all winemaking techniques were gracefully in check.

Sandhi’s entry tier Chardonnay was delicious with dinner and long after we finished. Though I drank it miles away from my favorite beach, the bouquet easily brought me back to the Anita Street shores that I once tried my best to surf when the blackball wasn’t in effect. I can’t wait to see what else these Sandhi guys have in store.

My inaugural wine and burger pairing took place in Brea this weekend with a couple of friends, two flasks and a plastic pitcher full of wine. I could not think of a more appropriate “burger joint” to kick off wine and burger tastings than Brea’s Best—where two Greek brothers own the establishment and have been producing fantastic hamburgers as well as other fine meals for quite some time. One of the brothers (Tom) is also an avid wine enthusiast. It has been a favorite restaurant of mine for twelve years. Brea's Best

My hypothesis was that American wines would drink best with American food. I was going to limit the tasting to strictly California however one Italian wine (a Barolo) found itself on the tasting menu. The wines were picked randomly since this tasting would govern our choices for the next time. The wines poured were: Reversanti (2005) Barolo, Peju Province Merlot (2004) and finally Thompkin 3rd Degree (2006).

Aromas and Flavors

1.) The Barolo from Reversanti (14% alcohol) smelled of anise and cherry—coating the palate fully, big yet smooth. Knowing that this wine pairs well with big meals I thought it had as good as any chance to be the favorite with a hamburger.

2.) The Peju Merlot (14.5% alcohol) from Napa was herbaceous with a tiny bit of vanilla on the nose and medium bodied on the tongue. I selected this wine because I was afraid of overpowering the hamburger with a tight Cabernet—I decided to take a slimmer approach and see if this wine could complement the hamburger.

3.) The Thompkin 3rd Degree (15.8%) from Santa Barbara had the brightest fruit flavor. The full-bodied Cote du Rhone via Santa Barbra was a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache that seemed to be the strongest of the three choices and could have the advantage when it came to taming the char of the patty.

When the burgers arrived we immediately grabbed our three plastic cups and began pouring the contents of our mobile containers. Since this was a new procedure we fumbled around a bit with procedure and lack of resources: Would we share cups? Should we eat inside?

We ate outside–far from the restaurant (since that is not an option) and we did share cups. We made various observations about the tasting and how each wine interacted with the burgers. The first and most obvious note was that the Peju Merlot was flattened by the burger—all the interesting flavors that were present on its own were absent with each bite of a burger.

Thompkin Cellars 3rd degree shined through the drippings from the patty and the char—as expected, vying for the desired perfect pair of the evening. Its ability to cut through the flavors and still retain all of them was astonishing.

The Barolo was enjoyable from start to finish—it only seemed to gather strength with the meal, enhancing the char. Both were better together and that is what I was looking for. I would not think to have a Barolo with a hamburger but in this case the flavors paired synergistically making it my favorite of the three wines poured.

The next pairing will be better executed—as we have a point of reference—we will be more confident when pouring. We remedied our cup situation by immediately going to Cost Plus to purchase some wine glasses (without stems). We have also deduced that California wine may not have the advantage when it comes to pairing with hamburgers. The Barolo by a nose.

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