Giving Back – La Cuadrilla!

Monday, July 3, 2017 11:28 AM

What is now known as The La Cuadrilla program at Stolpman Vineyards began as a way for the vineyard manager to better train his crew. The idea was to dedicate a two-acre block, or cuadra, that the vineyard crew had to then cultivate, from pruning to harvest, without supervision. This training block was called the La Cuadrilla, in Spanish meaning the people of the block. To challenge the crew even further, this two-acre training block would be set up in another part of the vineyard the next vintage. Eventually the vineyard manager confided to owner Tom Stolpman the success of this training system. It was Tom who came up with the idea of making wine from that training block and giving those bottles to the crew as a way to enjoy the fruits of their labor. By 2009, the program expanded to include fruit from other parts of the vineyard so that La Cuadrilla could be sold commercially. Profits from the sale of La Cuadrilla are divided among the vineyard crew in the form of a year-end bonus. This is a creative way for all to benefit by incentivizing learning and taking steps to achieve sustainable employment. Bravo to Stolpman Vineyards!

Of course, in order for this program to really work well, the wine has to be good – this can’t be just a gimmick. The 2015 La Cuadrilla is a lively blend of Syrah with small additions of Grenache, some of it old vine, and Sangiovese. The wine is vinified in concrete tanks and then aged in neutral barrel. La Cuadrilla has a lot of brightness and tart red fruit. It isn’t heavy or over-ripe, but is dominated by red fruit flavors and a pleasant, earthy note. Because of its fresh palate feel, it’s a great choice for warm-weather food pairings like smoky barbecued meats.

Stolpman Vineyards is located in the heart of Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon is Santa Barbara’s newest AVA and sits between the Santa Rita Hills and Happy Canyon. Ballard Canyon benefits from warm days during the growing season and is protected from wind by the surrounding hills. Temperatures drop significantly at night. Some soils, like at Stolpman, have limestone deposits.

I won’t only be celebrating our nation’s birthday this weekend. I will also be celebrating my mother’s birthday and my own. Mother and daughter will be throwing a joint birthday party! My brother, bless his heart, suggested putting only one candle on each of our birthday desserts. I agreed, adding that we wouldn’t want to ignite a raging inferno. My birthday year was not a particularly good vintage for wine throughout most of world. No worries here because the party calls for youthful wines, so La Cuadrilla will make an appearance on the table. It should be another great family meal up at the dacha out on the deck beneath the Redwoods. Happy Happy, Everyone! – Anya Balistreri

the 2013 Chardonnay El Camino Vineyard Santa Barbara County from Varner



Varner single-block Chardonnays from the Spring Ridge Vineyard up in the Santa Cruz Mountains are undeniably some of California’s most exquisite Chardonnays. They garner high scores from critics who bestow points, are collected by passionate advocates of California Chardonnay, and are universally admired for their rich fruit and restrained balance. My personal take on the wines is that if you champion and appreciate great Chardonnay, Varner should be on your list of wines to drink. So, can you imagine my excitement when I learned that Varner was about to release a brand new wine from a vineyard in Santa Barbara County?!



As Jim Varner explained to me, he doesn’t really like telling people he can’t sell them any more wine. Poor guy has to do this probably all the time, since Varner wines are allocated and in great demand. It makes sense then that Jim and Bob Varner would want to look for a way to use their Chardonnay making prowess to expand their offerings. Jim went on to explain to me that he and his brother were ready to take on a new project and wanted another creative outlet, so the search was on for the fruit. The El Camino Vineyard in northern Santa Barbara County parallel to the Santa Rita Hills was the right spot. The grapes come from a single block (see a pattern here!) of clone 4 Chardonnay. Clone 4…what does that mean? In the beginning stages of a vineyard’s life, clones matter, but over time – 10 years out or so – Jim tells me grapes can lose their clonal distinction as site overtakes influence on the vines.


Cooking with Varner Chardonnay


El Camino Vineyard is five miles east of the Pacific Ocean with cool, coastal influences, but it is not a windy site. The Varners don’t favor windy sites. The phenolics in the grapes were especially compelling to theVarners and fit in with the direction they wanted to take with this new project. With the 2013 El Camino Vineyard Chardonnay, the Varners de-stemmed the fruit and fermented it in stainless steel tanks. A quarter of the wine was then aged for 6 months in new French oak puncheons, while the rest remained in tank resting on its lees. The intention was to preserve acidity and temper the tropical notes of Santa Barbara Chardonnay, moving flavors towards citrus and apples, convening into “a more tightly coiled Chardonnay in a modern style”.



I must confess, I was taken aback by the wine when I first tasted it because I was expecting another Spring Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay, which it isn’t. I had failed to pay close attention to the tech sheet provided by the winery.This wine is a clear juxtaposition to their barrel-fermented Mountain wines. The 2013 El Camino Vineyard is quick on its feet with pronounced acidity. The tropical fruit notes while not eliminated, play background to the lemony citrus notes. At this stage, none of the oak is detectable. I predict that with some bottle age those flavors might emerge ever so slightly. The tangy acidity and firm structure of the fruit are its dominant features. Jim told me he was under a lot of pressure to release the wine early. I can see why.The quality, price, and the fresh, vibrant style is ideal for restaurant by-the-glass lists, not to mention Varner fans and anyone looking for a different expression of California Chardonnay.


Jim & Bob Varner


Once I put away my expectations of what I thought aVarner Chardonnay should taste like, I began to appreciate the 2013 El Camino Vineyard Chardonnay on its own merit. Fortunately the night I opened a bottle, I had prepared for dinner a simple quesadilla with caramelized onions and sautéed nopales. The green tartness of the nopales was perfect foil for this crisp Chardonnay. It was also another unseasonably warm winter California evening, so something light and fresh was definitely in order. Its no secret that the entire staff at The Wine House are admirers of the Varners. Both Jim and Bob are uncommonly gracious. They’re a couple of the good guys who happen to also make great wine! Oh and here’s a teaser: a Varner Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is coming soon! So stay tuned.

The Wines From Palmina

Monday, March 4, 2013 6:45 PM

To borrow a phrase from my good friend Mendel, Palmina wines are for people who are interested in Italian varietals from California but do not necessarily want Cal-Ital wines. The 2011 Dolcetto from Palmina is nothing short of delicious and is an authentic expression of the grape. The punched up berry fruit, soft tannins and succulent acidity which are present in the 2011 Palmina Dolcetto are all elements one demands from high quality Piedmontese Dolcettos. The effusive aromatics hint at things to come. The flavors on the palate are stunning – rich, tangy raspberry flavors that remind me of the soft-center fillings of European hard candies. With all that fruit, you might be concerned with the finish, but no need to because there exists a freshness and vibrancy that culminates into a lively, dry finish. It wouldn’t take much effort to drain a bottle before the pizza gets delivered.

Steve Clifton, of Brewer-Clifton fame, has been playing around with Italian varietals grown in Santa Barbara County since 1995. Well, he’s not playing around anymore! I believe, and this is especially true for the last couple of vintages, that the wines from Palmina are spot-on and, again I’ll use this term, authentic expressions of Italian varietals. Their Dolcetto, which can be thought of as Palmina’s entry-level red wine, has commendable depth and personality. I wouldn’t feel cheated out if I were served this rather than a comparably priced Dolcetto from Piedmonte. In fact, I may even prefer it…honestly. The 2011 Dolcetto captures the sun-ripe fruit of south coast grapes without sacrificing balance and attack. Sixteen years experience is evident in Steve’s ability to pick just at the right time and in his confidence to back off in the cellar, allowing the grapes to express themselves as naturally as possible. 
At the conclusion of a tasting appointment, I might ask to have a sample of wine poured into a vial so that I can later get to know it better in the comfort of my home without the distractions of work; nothing like relaxing on a comfy chair with a sample of wine to really get a hold on it. I was so taken with the 2011 Dolcetto at the shop, I felt I just had to take a sample home to examine it further. That evening, I poured my sample into a glass and was about to sit down when my husband, who normally doesn’t share in my imbibing on a weeknight, asked to take a sip. I obliged, giving him the glass, and proceeded to sit down. Reaching back for the glass, low and behold, he had drained it! “Hey”, I said. “That was my sample!” He looked at me with doe-eyed innocence and said, “It’s really good. Don’t you have a bottle opened?” And there I had my confirmation: the 2011 Dolcetto is indeed delicious. I promptly placed an order via my smart phone.

I think that a lot of the intimidation surrounding wine is the idea that only the very top echelon (expensive) wines are good and therefore enjoyable, when in truth this is just rubbish. The good news is that a lot of fabulous and affordable wine is being made from all corners of the world.For well under $20, the 2011 Palmina Dolcetto will out-deliver on quality and flavor, not to mention its ideal pairing with pizza and pasta – so yummy! If you haven’t done so already, it is time to take notice of Palmina, the wines are worth everyone’s consideration. As an added bonus, to accompany the red Dolcetto, we have in stock their white 2011 Arneis; also not to be missed. —Anya Balistreri 

Old World Italian Varietals and Their New World Makers

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 10:21 PM

I understand. You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, you made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend like me. But now you come to me, and you say: “Don Corleone, give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather.…. (Ooohhh, chills).

Well, last night marked the (hold for pensive moment…23rd? 57th? 134th?) time I’ve watched “The Godfather”. How does one describe a movie like this to someone who’s never seen it? Well, if you’re me, your eyes bulge out of their sockets and you stammer out something like What!? How have you never seen this movie?! It’s like, it’s uh… I mean, it’s just really good.

Enough said, right?

OK, for the sake of conversation, you could say it’s the 3-part story of an old world family making their mark on new world soil. Oooh, more chills. And so, it is with this story (and all the delicious details) fresh in my mind that I felt inspired to pay homage to a trilogy of wines with Italian bloodlines but domestic zip codes. The following wines aren’t your typical let’s-take-a-stab at “Cal-Ital” and see what happens type of thing. NOT at all. In fact, I’d venture to guess that the creative minds behind the bottles wouldn’t be too keen with such a quaint categorization of what is not only their professional passion, but their personal identity.



Ex-surfer/rockstar/Italophile, Steve Clifton (of the Brewer-Clifton fame) and his wife Chrystal (fluent Italian speaker and former wine manager at Bouchon) are the the heart & soul behind Palmina in Santa Barbara, where they make wines that not only represent the varietals indigenous to Italy, but also the culture & lifestyle surrounding the consumption of wine. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen another domestic winemaker so insistent upon the fact that they make wines meant to complement food… in addition to“conversation, celebration, and love.” (I don’t know if that’s more Californian or Italian but I like it!). Based on the two wines we have from them, I’d say they ain’t kidding. Both thePalmina 2010 Santa Barbara County Pinot Grigio and the Palmina 2009 Santa Barbara County Barbera are in a nutshell, wildly unexpected. The fruit shows through in a way that suggests they’re not trying to hide their Santa Barbara upbringing, yet they have thatundeniable acidity & finesse one finds in their quality Italian cohorts. Both were picked from various cool-climate vineyard sites throughout the area and whole cluster-pressed directly after picking in order to retain the cool evening temperatures. The Pinot Grigio is lively and aromatic(two qualities often missing in P.G. on this side of the pond) with hints of lemon curd, quince, and a bit of mineral flintiness that I like quite a bit. While the Barbera is a melange of dark plummy and more tangy cherry/rhubarb fruit underlined by medium tannins and enough earthiness to give it some street cred.


PETRONI VINEYARDS 2006 Rosso di Sonoma

Most people know Lorenzo Petroni as the face behind the San Francisco institution known as North Beach Restaurant, which serves authentic Tuscan cuisine to weary travelers and eccentric locals alike. However, rumor has it that Lorenzo’s first love is the grape. More specifically, his dream was to be the first California vintner to grow the prized Sangiovese Grosso clone from his native Tuscany in Sonoma soil. Lofty, but apparentlynot impossible. In the Spring of 1992, Lorenzo & his wife stumbled upon a vineyard site on the red, rocky, mineral rich terrain of the Mayacamas Range, bought it the next day, and began growing grapes. His Rosso is aSuper Tuscan-like blend of Syrah, Sangiovese, and Cabernet. Again, awine that aptly reflects both its Italian heritage and its high elevation Sonoma home. Dense blackberry & dark cherry, cedar, spicebox, and hintsof the volcanic soil from which it hails are the hallmarks of the Rosso’s aromatics. On the palate the tannins are soft & rich, but again, the old world structure hasn’t been lost to a heavy, overly-extracting hand.

In keeping with my old-world-meets-new-world theme today, I’m going to grab a bottle each of these wines and head out to watch the Brew Crew play the Giants and eat some sausages…. Italian sausages, of course! – Emily

Costa De Oro: A Study in Restraint

Monday, April 4, 2011 1:35 PM

I first got to know winemaker Gary Burk back when he was still working with Jim Clendenen over at Au Bon Climat more than a decade ago. In 1994, he was hired on for harvest and stayed for eight years. There’s a great story how Gary and Jim first met, classic Jim really, described in a local paper. It’s a fun read and I love the way the article touches on all of Gary’s passions: wine, music and farming.Coinciding with Gary’s tenure at ABC, he began making his own wine under the Costa de Oro label. The idea was to make wine from the Gold Coast Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, a vineyard his father planted in the late 80s. We carried some of Gary’s early releases and somehow, as can happen in our personal lives as well as in business, we lost touch. Fortunately, Gary didn’t forget us and paid us a recent visit showing off his latest releases. I was blown away by the aromatics and texture of his wines. I was especially impressed with his entry level “Santa Barbara County” Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. For the SBC wines, Gary uses fruit from the estate Gold Coast Vineyard and some that is purchased. For me, what set the Costa de Oro SBC-designated wines apart from other Central Coast wines similarly priced are the aromatics. I love it when you can be satisfied with a wine simply by smelling it. Just stick your nose in and inhale. So much going on with only a whiff. And you can’t beat the quality/price ratio either, both wines come well under $25.


The 2009 harvest was a challenging one for Chardonnay. Rains came in at midharvest stopping picking for several days. At Costa de Oro they picked 2 lots prior to the rain and 3 after. The sugars came in low, which translated to lower alcohol levels. I get lots of distinct lemon citrus peel on the palate with lingering flavors of apricot and peach skins. The low 13% alcohol content lends a crisp and snappy finish….so refreshing and pleasing to sip! The Chronicle’s Jon Bonné had this to say about the 2009 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, “Winemaker Gary Burk put a lot of effort into this affordable bottle, which landed at a more modest 13 percent alcohol. Even with barrel fermentation, it retains plenty of precision: marjoram, bright mineral and lemon zest, with rich peach skin, cantaloupe and a lovely brightness.” (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 31st, 2011).

The 2009 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir has a light touch with overtones of strawberry, cranberry and earth. I get a nice tangy, savory quality to the wine with a slight earthy note of nori seaweed. It’s a wine to drink now and like the Chardonnay, restrained and elegant. They are the perfect antidotes for those looking to avoid overblown, heavy-handed wines. Anya Balistreri

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