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The Wine and the Bird
updated: Nov 27, 2010, 8:45 AM

By Marc Liberts

Instead of asking what I could bring to Thanksgiving dinner this year, I informed my wonderful hostess, Judith that I'd be bringing wine. I asked the attendees what kind of wine they liked, and then proceeded to pick out all my favorites. My thought was to introduce all the guests to the best of Santa Barbara County wines. So, I hosted a mini-wine tasting before Thanksgiving dinner. I think it went well, because it helped the hostess get everyone into the proper frame of mind, and it gave the hostess and her helpers time and space to do their work. Also, I set up the tasting at the edge of the kitchen, so the hostess and her helpers were able to taste along and still do what needed to be done.

Here are the wines I brought, and my impressions of them. All the wines were tasted non-blind. The whites were properly chilled. The one problem was the fact that the reds were opened and consumed immediately. Most reds are more pleasant when opened 2-8 hours before they are served. If not, decanting can also help them get the air they need to loosen up.

When doing a wine tasting, always try and start with the lightest wine, and end with the heaviest. Generally, you want to taste oaked white wines after ones that are done in stainless steel, because the oak flavors can overwhelm the flavors of stainless steel white wines. If you aren't sure, ask your wine merchant, someone who knows, or email me for suggestions.

1. 2007 Brander Vineyard Au Naturel - Fred Brander's famous flagship Sauvignon Blanc from his estate vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. I had the opportunity to cellar this one for a few years, and the cellaring paid off. The wine has a heavy grapefruit & citrus nose with booming ruby-red grapefruit on the palate. The wine has nice acid and minerality and has a pleasant and persistent oomph on the finish. I liked it very much and rated it 92 points. About $30.00 at local wine retailers, although the 2007's are long gone. You'll probably find the 2008 or 2009 in local stores or at the winery.

2. 2009 The Paring - The Point - Chardonnay - Sta. Rita Hills - The Paring is a sub-label of Jonata Wines, a local cult producer related to Screaming Eagle in Napa Valley. This wine is their un-oaked Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills. The nose is fairly bland. On the palate, I got nice acid notes, but the fruit was a bit dull. It does have a nice persistent Chardonnay finish, but I prefer Chardonnay that has been aged in oak. Overall, a well made wine if you like un-oaked Chardonnay. I rated it 88 points. About $20.00 at local wine retailers.

3. 2008 The Paring - The Hilt - Chardonnay - Another Chardonnay from The Paring, except The Hilt is partially aged in French Oak. Unlike The Point, The Hilt has a nice Chardonnay nose featuring hints of white stone fruits, like peach and nectarine. On the palate, I enjoyed nice toasty oak, a tiny bit of vanilla, and more white stone fruit flavors. This wine also has big acid, and a pleasant persistent finish. I liked it, and rated it 90 points. About $25.00 at local wine retailers.

4. 2009 Melville Viognier - Estate - Verna's Vineyard - Moving from lightest white to heavier white, Viognier is an old-world white Rhone varietal that is gaining in popularity and quality here in Santa Barbara County. This particular wine received a 93 point score from Robert Parker earlier in the year, making it one of the highest rated Viogniers in Santa Barbara County that I am aware of. This wine starts with a nice floral nose, as opposed to the quiet noses for the previous 3 wines. On the palate, this wine has very nice weight, balanced by a moderate amount of acidity. This is the second time I've had this wine, and I really like it because it has a plush mouth feel, in addition to a very pleasant balance of fruit and acid. I liked it again, but not as much as the first time I tried it a few weeks ago and rated it 91 points. About $25.00 at local retailers, if you can still find it.

5. 2007 Foxen Chenin Blanc - Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard - Santa Maria Valley - The last white we tried was this gem from Foxen. Foxen always produces some of my favorite wines in Santa Barbara County, and this wine is no exception. I had the chance to age this wine for a few years, and it was a gem. It was hands-down the favorite white of the night. The wine has a fruity flowery nose. On the palate, the wine has very nice weight, and features sweet fruit flavors such as nectarine, honey and good acid. It has a very pleasant and soft perfume based finish. I loved it, and rated it 94+ points. About $30.00 at local retailers or available from the winery's website or the winery itself if you can still find it. More likely, you'll find the 2008 or 2009 at this time.

When tasting red wines, it is equally important to get the light to heavy order right as with the white wines. As with white wines, a heavy red wine tasted out of order can overwhelm a lighter wine tasted after. I was very careful to try and get this order right. When I picked these red wines, I tried to find my favorite wineries, and then pick their best wines. I also picked only Santa Barbara County wines, and tried to pick different grape varietals as well.

6. 2006 Beckmen Grenache - Purisima Mountain Vineyard - Grenache is an old-world Rhone grape varietal found most famously in Chateau neuf-du-Pape wines from the Rhone Valley of France. Grenache is also rapidly gaining popularity on the Central Coast and here in Santa Barbara County, as well. This year's recently revealed Wine Spectator #1 wine of the year was a Syrah-Grenache blend from Paso Robles! Beckmen is one of my favorite wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, and his premier vineyard is the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. Any time you see wine by Beckmen, try and get any that have the single vineyard designation Purisima Mountain Vineyard if you can. Some believe that Grenache will be the next Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County. While I find Grenache very appealing, I personally don't think that Grenache has enough panache to replace the popularity of Pinot Noir. This wine starts with a toasty charry & fruit nose. One the palate, red stone fruit like cherry stands out. The wine is light in weight but strong in taste, with a soft pleasant finish. I got this wine a year or two ago, and aged it at my house for about a year. I'm glad I aged it, and I bet it would be even better if given the chance to age another 2-5 years or longer. A very nice wine that is very well made, I rated it 91 points. About $50.00 from the winery or at local wine stores if you can still find it.

7. 2007 Foxen Pinot Noir - Julia's Vineyard - Another excellent wine from Foxen, the 2007 Julia's Vineyard Pinot was one of the most popular red wines I poured. This wine has an overtly fruity and toasty nose, featuring nice sublime floral notes as well. On the palate, there is a plush blast of cherries and raspberries, and perhaps a hint of strawberries and cola as well. This wine has a persistent and pleasant finish as well. I aged it about a year, and I think this wine would benefit from another 2-6 years of bottle aging if you can do it. As it was, it was an excellent example of local Pinot Noir, and I really liked it. I rated it 92 points. About $55.00 from the winery or at local wine stores if you can find it.

8. 2007 Margerum Syrah - Great Oaks Vineyard - Doug Margerum is one of my favorite wine makers in Santa Barbara. I especially love his Syrahs, and I was really looking forward to trying this one. I have had his 2007 Uber Syrah, and his 2007 Colson Canyon Syrahs this year, and loved both. Unfortunately, this one was my least favorite of the bunch. I will defend it by saying that it needed to breathe more than the 10 minutes we gave it after opening it. I also think that this wine needs another 2-5 years of bottle aging before you should drink it. Unlike the other Margerum Syrahs I mentioned, this one had a very closed nose, and was very tight and tannic on the palate. On the finish, the rough tannins attacked me at the back of my throat, and I just couldn't enjoy it. However, I can see the potential in this wine, and I think that with a few years of age, it will be great. For now, I rated it 86 points. About $35.00 from the tasting room or local retailers.

9. 2005 Star Lane Vineyard - Astral - Cabernet Sauvignon - The favorite red wine of the night! I got this wine about 2 years ago from the winery. I liked it when I got it, and it has improved with 2 years of bottle aging. Unlike Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, this wine is somewhat over-extracted. However, that effect proved to be highly enjoyable for most of the tasters. The wine starts out with a nice nose featuring toasty oak, dark fruits, and tobacco. On the palate, I got over-extracted prunes and bing cherries, balanced by toasted oak, with tastes of tobacco, tar, cedar, and leather. The balance of fruit and acid is pleasing, and overall this wine is a fun powerhouse to drink. I'm not sure how well this would pair with food because it seems just too big to me. But, it is fun to drink and is well made. I rated it 90+ points, but you must like extracted wine to enjoy this. About $125.00 at the winery and local retailers if you can find it.

10. 2007 Piocho - Happy Canyon Vineyards - Santa Ynez Valley - The 2nd favorite red wine of the night. A local blend of 50% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder of Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. This is a classic Bordeaux blend that you would commonly find in France. I really liked the 2006, and I was hopeful that the 2007 would be equally good. While I liked this wine, I preferred the 2006, which I thought was excellent. Also, I should have poured this wine before the Star Lane Astral Cabernet Sauvignon, as it got somewhat overshadowed. However, I found this wine to be the most food-friendly of the reds. I like this blend because the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon compliment each other perfectly. A little more Merlot would probably put this wine off the charts (like the 2005 Piocho which I loved). However, as it was, it has a strong fruit and oak nose with powerful tannins, fruit and acid on the palate. I liked this wine's finish more than the Star Lane Astral because this wine is less extracted. Overall, this wine would also benefit from another 3-6 years of bottle aging. I really liked this wine and rated it 91 points. About $35.00 at their website or local wine retailers.

The overall winner of the night was the 2007 Foxen Chenin Blanc - Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard - Santa Maria Valley. Second place overall was the 2005 Star Lane Vineyard - Astral - Cabernet Sauvignon.

With Christmas dinners coming up, consider getting a wine tasting like mine together for your guests. Everyone seemed to really enjoy tasting all the wines, and it helped get everyone in the proper holiday spirit.

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