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06.05.2010

Sea Smoke Cellars, Santa Barbara: Current Releases

Sometimes as I'm traveling through wine country, I see beautiful pieces of land that aren't planted to grapes and I think to myself, "now why is it that someone hasn't turned that into a vineyard?"

I don't pretend to have an eye for what makes good vineyard property, but those who do seasmoke_label.jpgare constantly saying the same things about choice pieces of land everywhere. Sometimes these pieces of land become famous, or perhaps infamous is a better word, for their frustrating combination of appeal and unavailability.

For years, even decades, the wine country of Santa Barbara, and the appellation of Santa Rita Hills held such a piece of land. Directly across the Santa Ynez river from vineyards like Sanford & Benedict and Fiddlestix, an elongated parcel of land hugged the northern banks of the river and cried out to many a winemaker as a prime location to plant Pinot Noir.

But the land, planted to beans, wasn't for sale. And so for years, winemakers and would be winery owners would drive by and drool, and people like me would naively wonder why no one was trying to grow grapes there.

But then one day, along came Bob Davids. The CEO of Hong Kong based Radica Games, a company that designed and manufactured electronic and video games, Davids was a Burgundy fanatic who one day decided that he wanted to make world class Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara.

Davids fell in love with the bean field, and set his heart on owning it. Through a combination of persistence and making offers that were increasingly difficult to refuse, Davids managed to finally convince the owner of Rancho Chabuchu to sell him 350 acres of land.

Davids planted nearly 100 acres of Pinot Noir (and a little bit of Chardonnay) as soon as he could, and the 24 different vineyard blocks became Sea Smoke Cellars, named after the fog which floods its way from the ocean up the river valley and makes it possible to grow Pinot Noir this far south in California.

From the release of the 2001 vintage, the winery's first effort, Sea Smoke was a near instant success. With the coveted site, winemaking by the talented Kris Curran, and Davids' marketing savvy, Sea Smoke quickly became one of the more sought after Pinot Noirs in California. Sold almost exclusively to mailing list customers, the wine joined the ranks of the "hard to get your hands on them" Pinots like Marcassin, Rochioli, and Sine Qua Non.

The winery is a small operation, with only about six employees, and is run by Curran* and viticulturalist/vice president/general manager Victor Gallegos.

A mix of 10 different clones of Pinot Noir in the 24 vineyard blocks are tended with an eye towards keeping yields low. The grapes are hand harvested in the early morning and brought to the winery where they are destemmed, first by machine, and then carefully by hand, to eliminate even the "jacks" -- the small bits of stem that make it through the destemmer. Keeping the vineyard blocks separate throughout the winemaking process, he grapes undergo a cold soak for a few days before a two to four-week fermentation. Secondary fermentation and aging take place in French oak barrels, of which generally 75% are new and the rest used. Overall production sits somewhere around 15,000 cases.

I've tasted the Sea Smoke wines over several past vintages, and I think the 2007s are some of the best I have tasted.

* I will be interested to taste the 2008's and 2009's especially since winemaker Curren was lured away in 2008 by William Foley. The wines, starting with the 2009 vintage have been made by Gallegos and former assistant winemaker Don Schroeder.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

TASTING NOTES:

2007 Sea Smoke "One Barrel" Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of rich blackberry, cranberry, and violet aromas. In the mouth it is tart and lean with a gorgeous texture, light tannic structure and a core of cranberry and raspberry fruit. Balanced, powerful and expressive, the flavors deepen with time and air. Best leave this one alone for a couple of years. This wine represents exactly what its name suggests: one (the best one) barrel from the vintage, which in this year happened to be one of the used barrels, so no new oak involved. Only 280 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $150. Click to buy.

2007 Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills
An astonishingly bright, medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar, chocolate, and cherries, with a hint of herbal greenness that is appealing. In the mouth it is tart and bright with a core of cherry fruit tinged with raspberries. Light tannins creep around the edges of the palate, firm but soft in feel. The wine finishes nicely with a zing of acidity. Takes its name from the 10 different clones of Pinot Noir that go into it. Score: around 9. Cost: $80. Click to buy.

2007 Sea Smoke "Southing" Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills
Bright, light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of mulling spices, cranberry, and cherries. In the mouth it is smooth, and bright with acidity that works with light leathery tannins to frame a core of cherry, cranberry, and cedar flavors. An aromatic sweetness coupled with a wet stone and tree bark flavor lingers in a long finish. The wine takes its name from the south-facing slopes of the vineyards. Score: around 9. Cost: $52. Click to buy.


In addition to the wines above, the winery also makes a Pinot Noir called Botella and a Chardonnay.

Comments (18)

Gail Sumner wrote:
06.06.10 at 12:29 PM

Curran hasn't been with Sea Smoke for at least a year now, maybe two. She runs Santa Barbara's Foley operations, and makes wine under her own label. The Botella also is aged as long as the Southing and Ten. The major difference between the three primary bottlings (other than the Ten being from the ten clones) is the amount of new oak, not the time in barrel.

Arthur wrote:
06.06.10 at 12:56 PM

If it's named after the fog along the Santa Ynez River, then why is it called Sea Smoke? ;) - hint: look at their website. You'll see the name is derived from the marine fog that comes in from the ocean and over over the Santa Rosa Hills - opposite the vineyard.
The same person who oversaw the winemaking when Chris was on board is making the wines now.

Arthur wrote:
06.06.10 at 12:57 PM

And yes, I did make he mistake of typing "Chris" instead of "Kris"....

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.06.10 at 1:26 PM

Arthur,

The fog is not from the river, it's from the ocean. But just like the Russian River Valley, the east-west river valley draws the fog inland. Not over the hills.

Alder

Arthur wrote:
06.06.10 at 1:32 PM

Alder, I'm quite familiar with The Sta Rita Hills. I'm there about once a month. That said, the name is not from the fog over the river. It is not from the "fog which floods its way from the ocean up the river valley" as you just changed your post to say.

The Sea Smoke Cellars photo gallery once had a photo of the "sea smoke" coming over the hills over the Santa Rosa Hills.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.06.10 at 2:14 PM

Arthur,

Yes, I clarified my post to include the word ocean, because, of course, that is where the fog comes from. The fog is not generated by the river valley, but the river valley plays an important role in getting the fog to the Santa Rita Hills. As you say, you can "take a look at the winery web site" where they describe the arterial action that "on summer evenings, the Santa Ynez River canyon funnels a cool maritime fog layer (sea "smoke") across our hillsides"

Or elsewhere: "The coastal mountain ranges of the western hemisphere generally run north to south, forming a geographic barrier to the cool marine fog layer over the Pacific Ocean. On rare occasions, however, these coastal ranges are dramatically interrupted - allowing the marine fog layer to be drawn inland. One such interruption of the coastal range is the Santa Ynez river canyon, which runs east to west, cradling the Santa Ynez river as it winds its way to the Pacific Ocean. Flanked to the north by the Santa Rita mountain range, and to the south by the Santa Ynez range, this unique canyon acts as a funnel, drawing a layer of cool marine fog (sea "smoke") over some of the most beautiful pinot noir land in the world."

Why are you insisting that the fog comes from the hills? Hills block fog. Lowlands provide entry.

Arthur wrote:
06.06.10 at 3:27 PM

Alder

I have seen marketing copy/literature that had a photograph of "sea smoke" coming in over the Santa Rosas. That seemed to be emphasized in the origin of the name and not the fog in the Santa Ynez river bed. This was also conveyed to me in conversations.

"sea smoke" is the the condensing vapor coming off a sea/ocean surface. When you drive down Santa Rosa Road or Hwy 246 in the morning (or on some evenings) you can see this. I have seen it. It's actually pretty dramatic.

The Santa Rosas and the Santa Ynez mountains are not high enough to induce a complete orogrpahic effect. That is why the sea smoke rolls over the ridge - because that is a much shorter line to the ocean than due west.

I'd be cautious about the "Hills block fog. Lowlands provide entry." thinking. It's not always completely accurate or applicable.

The Sea Smoke vineyard is also a bit inland (if you follow the Santa Ynez river). While the vineyards along Santa Rosa Road are closer to the water (due south) than those along Hwy 246, this part of the SRH is actually warmer than the part along Hwy 246. And the farther you go inland, the warmer it gets, so this puts Fiddlestix, S&B and Sea Smoke in the somewhat warmer corner of the SRH.

So, while fog may accumulate in the SY river basin, I would expect it to burn off by the time you get to that part of the AVA.

The water level in the Santa Ynez river is very low for most of the year, so that is less likely to be causing any fog build-up but the river basin is pretty low, which allows for cooling of the air and condensation.

Finally, during the last frosts, I contacted Victor Gallegos and he asserted that the vineyard (for the most part) was not in danger of frost damage because it sits above the fog line. So this whole fog basin and buckle discussion on the site is interesting to say the least, I am skeptical that it has that much relevance to the site's miroclimate.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.06.10 at 3:43 PM

Arthur,

You seem to think I am saying that the fog is in the river bed, or comes from the river bed, or something like that. I have no idea why. I am talking about the macro level topography of the entire Santa Ynez River valley.

Arthur wrote:
06.06.10 at 3:51 PM

I understand what you are saying, Alder, but having been in the area countless times and at all times of the day, the notion that marine fog gets drawn into the SY river basin does not mesh with what I have seen or with the other story of the origin of the Sea Smoke name.

I invite you to come down to the region for a weekend. I think it will give you a good understanding of the "macro level topography of the entire Santa Ynez River valley" will be dramatically clarified. The SY river basin is quite torturous and encounters some north-south running hills which makes a larger, linear rule of climate trends not applicable.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.06.10 at 4:19 PM

Arthur,

Thanks for the invitation. I've been there several times, and specifically have made the drive from Buellton to Lompoc through the valley on 246 many times as well as flown over it in a small aircraft.

Alder

Arthur wrote:
06.06.10 at 4:31 PM

Then it seems you need a refresher. :)

jimmy wrote:
06.07.10 at 6:56 AM

Long time reader, first time commenter. This is the first time I've felt I had something worthy to say.

Arthur - get a life.

Kate wrote:
06.07.10 at 12:29 PM

First time reader. And last. First we have reviews of three wines of staggering prices for which the reviewer did not pay and for which the only justification seems to be the founder's hard-on for a farmer's bean field. If that hadn't turned me off, the childish back and forth (seriously, I cannot believe I'm reading this!) between the author and a commenter about the source of fog. Oh. My. God. GROW UP!

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.07.10 at 1:27 PM

Kate,

Thanks for the comments, and of course you are free to never come back to Vinography again. You should know, however, that I review wines of all kinds of price points (please see my "wines under $20 category" if you are looking for better values). You should also know that the disclosure of these wines as samples, which I've been doing since day one of this blog, is quite rare in the industry. Much of the wine criticism, especially in the form of tasting notes and scores, you read out there in the world is written about wines that were received as free samples, yet you never know that. While you may feel like you don't trust a review that is written about a free sample (your prerogative to be sure, and quite justifiable), please don't give me shit about it.

Finally, yes, that exchange between me and Arthur is a bit ridiculous. I considered deleting the entire exchange. But hey, if you want perfect presentation, go watch the Food Network. I'm a real, ordinary guy who isn't perfect, and when someone comes onto my site and tells me that I'm wrong about something when I'm not, I get defensive. Regardless, I can see how if this is your first experience of Vinography you'd have less than a stellar opinion about the quality of the dialogue here between me and my readers at the very least. So if I haven't lost you already, please do take a look at some of my other articles before you make up your mind.

Apologies for your first experience, warts and all.

06.07.10 at 5:07 PM

Just to set the record straight, Alder, your characterization of the source of (and path for) marine-layer fog for the entire Sta. Rita Hills AVA - including Sea Smoke - is correct. I invite those (undoubtedly few) brave souls who would like more information to contact me directly. I have a very instructive satellite image file of the topography of Santa Barbara County I can share, as well as local knowledge developed over 8+ years farming at Sea Smoke, in the heart of the AVA.

Kind regards,

Victor Gallegos
GM/Director of Winemaking
Sea Smoke

BaroloDude wrote:
06.08.10 at 3:46 PM

Kate, please come back and try again sometime. This is the best wineblog on the internet, imho (today's comments section aside). And Victor G, thanks for clearing it up! How long is the wait to get on your mailing list these days? Please tell me its shorter than Rochioli's 6 years... ;-)

Chris Lopez wrote:
08.06.10 at 11:21 PM

Kate - I must second BaroloDude in saying that this is by far the best wineblog on the 'net. There is a lot of wonderful information here as well as insightful commentary.

Alder - I must thank you for not deleting that little exchange up there! Leaving it adds transparency and also reminds the reader (well - me in this case) that you are a real person. It also gave me a great laugh which I certainly needed after a long day at the studio.

Victor - Just received my first allocation this year! I am eagerly looking forward to my first Sea Smoke experience! What are your recommendations for a drinking window for the 2008 Southing? I was only able to secure two bottles of it (money gets tight!) but would really like to be able to open one before it comes to purchase again. Thank you!

10.18.14 at 3:02 PM

I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
Did you design this website yourself or did
you hire someone to do it for you? Plz respond as I'm
looking to design my own blog and would like to know where u
got this from. appreciate it

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