What’s the Deal with Pinotage?

Whether you love to hate it, hate to love it, or have never tried it, Pinotage is one of the most divisive grapes among wine drinkers.  It is treasured in its native South Africa and trashed elsewhere around the world.  It is not on the wine list at many restaurants, and is one of just a handful of varietals that some oenophiles refuse to drink.

What makes Pinotage so polarizing?  The taste can be overwhelming and a bit unpleasant to the American palate.  Though it’s not my favorite red wine, I still like to enjoy a bottle every now and then.

Pinotage is South Africa’s signature varietal.  It was created there in the 1920s by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known locally as Hermitage), but wasn’t widely planted until the 1960s.  Though it’s rare to find Pinotage outside South Africa, several New World wine countries are trying their hand at the varietal including the United States, Brazil and New Zealand.

Done well, Pinotage can have great flavors of chocolate, coffee, red fruit and smoke.  Done poorly, Pinotage can taste gamey, with notes of burnt rubber, wood chips, rusty metal and paint.  The line between a good Pinotage and a bad Pinotage can be very narrow; it’s these bad Pinotages that have turned off many wine drinkers outside of South Africa.

If you prefer lighter-bodied reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay, Pinotage is probably not for you.  Pinotage is a bold, full-bodied red, closer in style to Petit Sirah and Zinfandel.

The meaty flavors in Pinotage make it ideal for pairing with grilled meats.  Serve it with beef, lamb, venison or any type of game meat.

Don’t let people with a bad Pinotage experience scare you away.  Pinotage is something you have to try yourself.  Here are a few bottles I recommend:

Nederberg Pinotage 2007 ($9)
A great introduction to Pinotage, this wine has just the right balance of fruit and earth without a dominating wood flavor.  Aromas of smoky dark chocolate and cherry introduce flavors of plum, red fruit, tobacco and spice.  Soft tannins make this wine very easy to drink.  I recommend decanting this wine to fully enjoy the flavors.

Zonnebloem Pinotage 2007 ($11)
This fruit forward wine has ripe flavors of cherries and blackberries, rounded out by cedar, vanilla bean and toasted coconut.  Well-integrated tannins give way to a warm, fruity finish.

Kanonkop Kadette 2007 ($17)
One way to introduce yourself to Pinotage is to try it in a blend.  Kanonkop Kadette 2007 has 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Pinotage, 27% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc.  Smoky plum and pepper aromas are followed by concentrated flavors of cherries, blackberries, smoke and chocolate with a spicy finish.  The other varietals enhance the flavors of the Pinotage without dominating the palate.

AG Pick Under $10: 2005 Lazy Lizard Merlot

Looks can be very deceiving when it comes to wine labels.  I discovered the 2005 Lazy Lizard Merlot at a blind tasting and am glad I did — I don’t think I would have picked out this bottle if I saw it at a wine shop.  The name and the label don’t exactly give off the impression of a sophisticated wine from the Languedoc region of France.

Lazy Lizard MerlotAfter going through the blind tasting and evaluating the wine’s aromas, flavors and structure, I concluded that this was a Sangiovese from Italy.  Though I didn’t guess the correct varietal or country, I wasn’t too far off.

The Lazy Lizard Merlot certainly exhibits the characteristics of an old world wine — drier in taste with more prominent earth notes.  On the nose are aromas of cedar and dried red fruits.  On the palate are flavors of dried cherries, cedar, tobacco, crushed black pepper and just a hint of sun dried tomatoes.  Well-balanced acidity and tannins give the wine a nice structure and come together for a satisfying finish.  Be sure to let the wine breathe so you can fully appreciate its flavors.

Lazy Lizard Merlot is a French wine for Italian food.  Like my initial conclusion that I was sipping a Sangiovese, this red is great for tomato sauce-based dishes.  It’s perfect for lasagna, chicken parmigiana and pizza.  Since a bottle costs less than $10 it’s perfect for the night you order in a pie.

The 2005 Lazy Lizard Merlot costs around $8.

Posh Pies at Ecco Pizzateca + Lounge

If you’re in the mood for a slice of pizza, consider getting a whole pie instead at Ecco Pizzateca + Lounge.  It’s the latest trendy dining spot to open in Miami’s central business district, adding to the flourishing downtown dining scene.

Ecco PizzatecaEcco is located on the ground floor of the Huntington Building, on the corner of Southeast 1st Street and 2nd Avenue.  Surrounded by office buildings, it is quickly becoming the power lunch spot for the non-power lunch crowd.  Ecco has a funky and fresh vibe with an affordable menu — no expense account required.

Ecco won’t satisfy your craving for a slice of real New York pizza but it’s not a bad alternative.  There are nearly 30 different gourmet pizzas to choose from, created by award winning pizza chef Massimo Fabio Bruni of Italy.

The pizzas range from the basic Margherita (house made tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, $9), to the not so traditional Shock (spicy salami, broccoli, spinach, parmesan and gorgonzola, $15).  Ecco PizzatecaI ordered the Capricciosa ($11), which has ham, mushrooms, artichokes and black olives.  It had a great crisp thin crust, though it could have used more tomato sauce.  All of the individual pies are pretty big, so you’re guaranteed to leave full.

If you’re not in the mood for pizza, Ecco has a variety of salads, paninis and pastas, plus a few meat dishes.  The Lasagna Tradizionale ($9) is a generous serving of meat lasagna, though it tastes a bit bland.  If you’re craving baked pasta I’d recommend going to Soya e Pomodoro instead.

Ecco PizzatecaI like Ecco as a spot for an after work drink and light bite.  Sit on one of the funky chairs in the lounge area (my favorites are the big armchairs covered in cow print), and order an Antipasti.  The All’ Italia has something for everyone — Italian cheeses, prosciutto, salami, olives, roasted red peppers and arugula.  Pair it with a mixed drink, a glass of wine or beer, or a San Pellegrino Limonata.  Belgian beer fans will be happy to know that Ecco has Chimay on tap and serves it in Chimay goblets.

Though Ecco is mostly a weekday lunch spot (opening at 11:30am and closing at 4pm Monday through Wednesday), it is now open until 11pm on Thursday and Friday, and will soon be open on Saturday.

Ecco Pizzateca is located at 168 SE 1st Street in downtown Miami.  For more information visit www.eccomiami.com.

AG Pick Under $10: 2007 Chateau de Nages Reserve Red

Celebrate Bastille Day with a French wine!

I’ll be celebrating le 14 juillet by drinking the 2007 Château de Nages Costières de Nîmes Réserve Red, a red Rhône wine that’s a steal at $9.99.

Chateau de Nages Reserve RedLush and full bodied, this wine is surprisingly complex for such a low price tag.

The Réserve Red is a blend of 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah.  Deep dark purple in the glass, the wine has concentrated aromas of blackberries, mocha and dried herbs.  The taste is rich and layered, with flavors of blackberries, black cherries, cedar, chocolate and earth that culminate in a lingering spicy finish.  Ripe tannins give the wine a velvety mouthfeel.

Serve the Château de Nages Réserve Red with grilled meats or roasted chicken.

If you’re having seafood at your Bastille Day celebration, try the 2007 Château de Nages Réserve White.  It’s a bright and aromatic blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne that also costs $9.99.

If you can’t get to France to celebrate Bastille Day, drinking French wine is the next best thing.

A votre santé!

Organic Wines at Heller Estate Vineyards

It used to be that the word “organic” was associated with wines that didn’t taste so great.  But at Heller Vineyards, organic and delicious are not contradictory terms.

Heller winesHeller Estate Organic Vineyards was one of the last wineries I visited during my trip to California’s Central Coast.  It’s located in the Cachagua region of Carmel Valley, inland from Carmel and Monterey.  Heller’s wines are produced from certified organically grown grapes, grown without pesticides or herbicides.

At Heller you can indulge your sense of smell, taste and sight.  Toby Heller is a sculptor and displays her work inside the tasting room and outside in a sculpture garden.  Her sculpture “Dances on Your Palate,” a 15 foot high bronze sculpture that overlooks the vineyards, is the inspiration for the wine labels.

Heller Chenin BlancThough Heller mainly produces red wine, they do have Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.  The 2007 Chardonnay is 100% Chardonnay, with light and zippy citrus flavors that end in a crisp finish.  A bottle is $23.  The 2007 Chenin Blanc is 89% Chenin Blanc and 11% Johannesburg Riesling.  Notes of tart green apple are balanced out with a gripping acidity.  A bottle costs $25.

Heller’s red wines range from $24 to $60, with the exception of the 2003 Meritage “Celebration,” which costs $100 a bottle.

Among all their red wines, Heller excels with Cabernet Sauvignon.  I enjoyed the 2006 Cachaugua Cabernet, which costs $25 a bottle.  It’s 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc.  On the lighter side of the full-bodied spectrum, this wine has nice flavors of cherry, blackberry, dried herbs and earth.  Well-balanced tannins give the wine an easy drinkability.

Had my budget been bigger I would have loved to buy a bottle of the 2004 or 2003 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (which cost $40 and $60 respectively).  They were my favorite wines from my visit to the tasting room.  Both are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and have layered notes of black fruits, spice and vanilla.

After the Cabernet Sauvignon I had a tough time picking my next favorite varietal — so I ended up buying a bottle of three different ones.

Heller MalbecThe 2006 Petit Verdot shows just how tasty this often-blended varietal can be on its own.  It’s 100% Petit Verdot, with ripe flavors of blackberry and black plum that linger after each sip.  The wine is enhanced by lively acidity and well integrated oak and tannins.  A bottle costs $37.

The 2006 Malbec is another single varietal wine.  It’s a big red that you’ll want to decant so you can enjoy it better.  Silky in structure, the wine has delicious notes of blackberry, black cherry, cedar and toasted nuts.  A bottle costs $37.

Last but certainly not least is the 2003 Cabernet Franc.  It’s 75% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Juicy flavors of plum and blackberry are complemented by youthful tannins that give the wine a lush mouthfeel.  It’s great to drink now or in a year or two.  A bottle of the 2003 Cabernet Franc costs $38.

Earthbound Farm Organic Farm StandHere’s a tip if you plan to visit Heller Estate Organic Vineyards and are driving from the coast: stop at the Earthbound Farm Organic Farm Stand on Carmel Valley Road.  It’s the hub of the 30-acre farm that you’ve likely bought produce from (I buy their lettuce all the time at my local supermarket).  My advice is to buy a salad or sandwich at the farm stand and enjoy it outside in Heller’s sculpture garden.

For more information on Heller Estate Organic Vineyards visit www.hellerestate.com.

Whalebone: A Great Find in Paso Robles

The highlight of my day in Paso Robles was discovering the wines of Whalebone Vineyard.

Never heard of it? Neither had I before I came across their tasting barn. But after trying their delicious red wines I’m a huge fan.

Whalebone VineyardWhen I arrived at Whalebone I met Jan Simpson who, along with her husband Bob, bought the property in 1986 to farm and raise cattle. They planted their first grapes ahead of the Paso Robles boom in 1989 and were soon selling the fruit to nearby wineries for top dollar. Starting in 1994 the Simpsons saved grapes to make their own wine. “Bob Wine,” as they affectionately called it, soon became a hit among their friends. Jan explained that they got into winemaking full time after Bob (who was also a doctor), lost a couple of fingers in a hunting accident, effectively ending his medical career. The Simpsons released their first wine under the Whalebone label in 2001. They came up with the name after finding numerous whale and marine fossils on the property.

Today, with the help of winemaker Dan Kleck, the Simpsons produce their cult favorite Bob Wine, as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel.

If you like big, bold and spicy reds, you’ll want to order one (or more) of each right away. You won’t be disappointed.

Whalebone ZinfandelThe first wine Jan poured for me was the 2006 Zinfandel, their first vintage of this varietal. It’s a blend of 79% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 7% Tempranillo and 7% Counoise. The wine is bright and zesty with flavors of cherry, vanilla and spice with dried herbs and white pepper on the finish. Well-integrated tannins give it a velvety mouthfeel. It’s a great wine for grilled steak or lamb. The 2006 Zinfandel costs $30.

Next Jan poured the 2005 and 2006 Syrah. Both are really, really good. The 2005, which I prefered slightly more, is 95% Syrah and 5% Petite Sirah. Deep purple in color, the wine has lush flavors of cherry and blueberry with a hint of toasted walnuts. The 2006 is 100% Syrah and has intense flavors of blackberry, vanilla, black pepper and smoke. Both the 2005 and 2006 Syrah cost $30.

Bob WineAfter the Syrah came two vintages of Bob Wine. Tasting both I could see why these have always been such a big hit. The 2005 Bob Wine is 76% Estate Cabernet, 18% Syrah and 6% Zinfandel. Dark crimson in color, the wine has jammy flavors of blackberries and raspberries with crushed black pepper. The finish is long and fruity. The 2006 Bob Wine is 61% Estate Cabernet, 19% Petit Verdot, 13% Zinfandel and 7% Syrah. Ripe flavors of plum and raspberry are complemented with a hint of cedar and spice and rounded out by soft tannins. Both are $30 so buy one of each to compare the flavors.

The tasting concluded with a trio of Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2004 and 2006 vintages are 100% Estate Cabernet, while the 2005 vintage has 93% Estate Cabernet and 7% Petite Sirah. All the Cabs have delicious full-bodied flavors of ripe black cherry, blackberry, sage, cedar and clove. You can’t go wrong with any vintage, though the 2004 is slightly more elegant and refined because of its age. The 2004, 2005 and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon cost $35.

Whalebone tasting roomI enjoyed all of Whalebone’s wines so much that I joined their wine club and bought a few bottles to ship home.

Having been to many tasting rooms, I always prefer the more intimate ones where you get to meet the owners or the winemaker, or chat with friendly and knowledgeable staff. The wine seems to taste better when you’re able to interact with the people who help craft it. By the time I left Whalebone’s tasting room I felt like I was part of the Simpson family. Jan was so warm and welcoming that it was impossible not to fall in love with their wine.

If you can’t visit Whalebone, be sure to order some of their wines online at www.whalebonevineyard.com (I’m not sure if the wines are available at stores outside of California). But if you can visit, it will surely be a great experience you won’t soon forget.

Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

My next full day of wine tasting took me north and inland to the rolling hills and winding country roads of Paso Robles.

Paso RoblesOnly spending one day in this area does not do it justice.  Paso Robles is California’s third largest wine region, home to 138 wineries that produce more than 40 different varietals.

My first stop was Justin.  Style-wise the winery (which also has an inn and a restaurant), is a mix of California country, Tuscany and Provence.  Before visiting the European castle-inspired tasting room, take a stroll through the English garden.  You feel immediately happy and relaxed, and ready to enjoy the beautiful scenery with a nice glass of wine.

Justin Vineyards GardenI started the tasting with Justin’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc.  It was a great first sip for the hot and sunny day.  The wine has crisp and refreshing flavors of grapefruit, pineapple, lemon and melon, and would make a delicious pairing with seafood.  A bottle of the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc costs $15.

On the red side, I couldn’t decide which I liked more: the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon or the 2007 Syrah (so I ended up ordering a couple bottles of both).  The Cabernet Sauvignon is soft and luscious with layers of red and black fruit and a hint of vanilla and caramel.  The Syrah has delicious flavors of blackberry, cassis and spice, rounded out by elegant tannins.  Both wines cost $26.25.

Justin IsoscelesMy favorite red overall was the 2006 Isosceles.  It’s a Bordeaux style blend with 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot.  The wine has lush flavors of blackberry, cassis, mocha and leather, with a touch of vanilla and smoke in the lingering finish.  Well-integrated tannins give it a velvety mouthfeel.  It’s a special occasion wine at $62 a bottle.

I also really enjoyed the Orphan, a red blend that costs less than $20.  The wine is a mix of all the “orphaned” barrels — juice that wasn’t used in other wines.  It’s lighter in body than Justin’s other reds, with bright flavors of cherry, raspberry and plum with a touch of spice.  It makes a great party wine and pairs nicely with a variety of poultry, red meat and pasta dishes.  The Orphan costs $18.50.

Justin tasting roomIf you enjoy Port style dessert wines, you won’t want to miss the 2007 Obtuse.  It’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that has been fortified and aged for 10 months in neutral French oak.  The wine is dark ruby in color, with jammy flavors of blackberries, cherries and plum with a hint of dark chocolate.  It’s delicious with chocolate desserts and blue cheeses.  A 750ml bottle costs $26.25 and a 375ml bottle costs $15.95.

After leaving Justin I visited Tablas Creek Vineyard for a taste of its Rhône varietals.  This winery was created in the late 1980s in the style of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard.  Through a partnership with Château de Beaucastel from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in southern France, Tablas Creek imported vine cuttings from the French estate to ensure that they would have the same high quality and genetic source.

Tablas CreekTablas Creek’s flagship white wine is the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  The 2007 vintage is 68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc and 10% Picpoul Blanc.  It was my favorite of their white wines, with flavors of green apple, honey and spice balanced out with good minerality and bright acids.  A bottle of the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc costs $40.

The 2007 Côtes de Tablas Blanc is a less expensive alternative at $25.  This aromatic wine is 38% Viognier, 25% Marsanne, 20% Roussanne and 17% Grenache Blanc that has been fermented in stainless steel.  It has clean flavors of golden apple and orange blossom with a lingering finish of white peach.

vines for sale at Tablas CreekTablas Creek makes a really tasty Chardonnay called Antithesis.  The 2007 vintage is 100% Chardonnay that was fermented in neutral oak and stainless steel barrels.  The result is a wine that stays true to the varietal’s character.  It’s a mix of spiced pear, golden apple, citrus and butter that culminates in a crisp and clean finish.  A bottle costs $22.95.

Tablas Creek does a great job of blending red Rhône varietals for the right balance of fruit, spice, earth and structure.  My favorite red is their flagship red, the Esprit de Beaucastel.  I tried both the 2005 and 2006 vintages and prefered the ’05 just slightly more (it was tough, they’re both very good).  The 2005 vintage is 44% Mourvèdre, 26% Grenache Noir, 25% Syrah and 5% Counoise (the 2006 vintage has roughly the same percentage of each grape).  The wine has flavors of ripe plum, red cherry, pepper and nutmeg, with well-balanced acidity and gentle tannins.  Serve it with poultry and red meat dishes.  Both the 2005 and 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel cost $45.

Cotes de TablasTablas Creek’s less expensive red is the Côtes de Tablas.  The 2006 vintage is 72% Grenache Noir, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvèdre and 8% Counoise.  The taste is of juicy cherries and pepper, with a hint of licorice on the finish.  It makes a nice pairing for grilled steaks and pasta with meat sauce.  A bottle of the 2006 Côtes de Tablas costs $25.

I also really enjoyed Tablas Creek’s 2005 Syrah.  It’s 90% Syrah with 10% Grenache Noir to add extra fruit and acidity.  The wine has spicy flavors of black cherry, pepper and dark chocolate with smoke on the finish.  It’s perfect for steak or lamb.  A bottle of the 2005 Syrah costs $35.

Two wineries down, only 136 to go.  With the afternoon to fit all of them in, I’ll definitely need to plan another trip to Paso Robles.

For more information on Justin Vineyards & Winery visit www.justinwine.com.

For more information on Tablas Creek Vineyard visit www.tablascreek.com.

A Unique Ostrich Experience

While driving along Highway 246 in Buellton you’ll notice a strange sight — ostriches!

ostrichesYour eyes aren’t deceiving you.  Here, in the middle of Santa Barbara wine country, is Ostrich Land USA.  It’s a unique roadside attraction where you can get up close to more than 50 ostriches and emus.

Entrance costs $4 (it’s $1 for visitors 12 years old and younger).  Be sure to pay an extra dollar to get a pan of food — feeding the ostriches and emus is what makes the experience.

ostrichWhen you see ostriches at a zoo or on TV you know that they’re big.  But they look huge when they’re just inches away from you.  They stare right at you with their large eyes, especially when you’re walking up with food.  I must say, it’s pretty intimidating!  I thought at any moment they could take me out with one swift movement of their long neck.

You feed the ostriches food pellets from a plastic bowl attached to a dustpan.  The ostriches peck at the pellets with such force that their beaks make a loud noise against the bowl.

ostrichIt’s not until you start feeding the ostriches that you realize how many there are.  All of a sudden you’ll see an ostrich or two come out from behind a bush 30 yards away, their eyes focused on your bowl of food.  In the distance you’ll spot small groups roaming around.

Though you’ll see the ostriches first, be sure to save some food for the emus.  Smaller and less intimidating than the ostriches, these cute little guys love getting food too.

baby emuWhen I visited Ostrich Land last week I got to see several baby emus.  At their young age they already knew that people equal food.  They followed me from one side of their pen to the other and were very curious about me and my camera (which made for a great picture).

Don’t worry about your new ostrich friends — the birds are not raised for meat (though Ostrich Land does sell ostrich meat).  Only their eggs are harvested, which are large enough to feed a big family.  Each ostrich egg is the equivalent of two dozen chicken eggs.  That would make one giant omelet!

emusOn your way out, be sure to peruse the gift shop where you can buy all sorts of ostrich and emu related products, including ostrich feather dusters, emu oil and ostrich jerkey.  If you’re feeling adventurous (and hungry), you can even buy a fresh ostrich egg.  Ostrich Land also sells ostrich and emu eggshells that have been sanitized.

For more information on Ostrich Land USA visit www.ostrichlandusa.com.

A Taste of Los Olivos & Solvang

After a great time at Blackjack Ranch, I headed into downtown Los Olivos.  “Main drag” would be a better way to describe it.  All the action is on Grand Avenue, a cute few blocks of restaurants, tasting rooms, boutiques and a market.

I stopped for lunch at Los Olivos Cafe.  The menu is a mix of Californian and Mediterranean cuisine, with an extensive wine list to complement any dish.  The food on its own is enough to draw diners, though its cameo in the movie “Sideways” certainly didn’t hurt business.

Out of all the tasty sounding salads and sandwiches, I decided to order the pulled lamb sandwich.  It was hearty and well-seasoned with moist strips of lamb on a brioche bun.  It definitely hit the spot after a morning of wine tasting.

My first stop after lunch was at Tensley.  The tasting bar is tucked away in a shared space just off Grand Avenue.  Established in 1998, Tensley is a family owned and operated winery that primarily produces vineyard designated Syrah from Santa Barbara County.

I started with a taste of the 2008 Lea Tierra Alta Vineyard Syrah Rosé.  It’s a fun wine to drink, thanks in part to the way it was made.  Jennifer Tensley, the wife of owner and winemaker Joey Tensley, crushed the grapes by foot with their 5 year-old son.  In color and in flavor, this wine is almost like a light red wine rather than a rosé.  Notes of strawberries, raspberries and rose are complemented by light minerality.  This is a nice wine to pair with spicy food.  A bottle of the 2008 Lea Tierra Alta Vineyard Syrah Rosé costs $20.

Next I tried two Syrahs: the 2007 Thompson Vineyard Syrah and the 2007 Colson Canyon Vineyard Syrah.  I had a hard time picking a favorite.  Both are well-balanced and elegant.  The Thompson Vineyard Syrah has bright berry flavors with a hint of earth and leather.  The Colson Canyon Vineyard Syrah is deep purple in color, with flavors of blackberries, cherries and violet, and a nice balance of tannins and acidity.  Give me either one of these Syrahs and I’d be very happy to drink it.  Both Syrahs cost $38.

The tasting concluded with a wine named “Détente.”  The handshake on the label hints at the wine’s story.  It’s a collaboration between Tensley and Domaine de Montvac in southern France.  During a trip to the Rhône Valley in 2008, the Tensleys met winemaker Cécile Dusserre and came up with the idea to create a Rhône-style blend that would bring together their unique styles and terroirs.  The wine is 50% American grapes and 50% French grapes.  Tensley contributed Syrah from the Colson Canyon, while Dusserre contributed 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 5% Mourvedre from Gigondas.  The resulting wine is a harmonious blend of Old and New World.  Flavors of blackberries, plum and red currants mingle with licorice, spice and a hint of smoke.  Gentle tannins give the wine a rich and round mouthfeel.  It’s a nice pairing for grilled meats.  A bottle of the Détente costs $45.

After Tensley I walked up Grand Avenue to Epiphany Cellars.  Part of the Fess Parker family of wines, Epiphany is run by Fess’ son Eli.  With a variety of whites and reds, there’s a wine for any taste.  In particular I enjoyed a couple of white wines: the 2007 Purité Viognier and the 2007 Inspiration.  The Purité Viognier is 100% Viognier from the Santa Ynez Valley and aged in stainless steel.  Without any oak, the true flavors of Viognier shine through.  On the nose are hints of honeydew, pineapple and lychee, while on the palate are flavors of white peach, apricot and honeysuckle.  Low acidity in the wine leaves a soft finish.  This wine pairs nicely with fish, chicken, cheese or spicy Asian dishes.  A bottle of the 2007 Purité Viognier costs $24.

The 2007 Inspiration is a white Rhône blend consisting of 36% Marsanne, 30% Roussanne, 24% Viognier and 10% Grenache Blanc.  It’s aged for 10 months in 1/3 new French oak.  The wine has fresh flavors of peach, melon and tropical fruit with well-balanced acidity and a hint of honey.  This wine is great for seafood.  A bottle of the 2007 Inspiration costs $23.

My favorite of Epiphany’s reds was the 2005 Petite Sirah.  It’s 95% Petite Sirah and 5% Grenache from the Santa Ynez Valley.  The wine is aged for 24 months in 70% French oak and 30% American oak, with about 55% new barrels.  This red has those great smoky and chocolate flavors you expect in a Petite Sirah, along with notes of dense black fruits, pepper, spice and vanilla.  A bottle of the 2005 Petite Sirah costs $30.

Following the earlier recommendation of Blackjack Ranch’s tasting room manager, I left downtown Los Olivos to check out Brander Vineyard.  Though it seems a little off the beaten path, you can’t miss the bright pink chateau that houses the tasting room.  An unusual sight next to the lush green trees and vineyards, the tasting room looks like a princess’ castle designed by a 7 year-old girl.

Moving beyond the bright color, I noticed the flag of Argentina flying above the chateau.  I found out later that it represents the international background of the Brander family.  Owner and winemaker Fred Brander was born in Buenos Aires and later moved to Santa Barbara with his family.  He established Brander Vineyard in 1975, which at the time was one of only a few vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Brander excels in Sauvignon Blanc.  I especially enjoyed the 2007 Cuvée Nicolas, a blend of 80% Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc with 20% Semillon.  It has intense tropical fruit flavors and a hint of spice.  Three months in French oak gives the wine a silky texture.  The 2007 Cuvée Nicolas costs $25.

I also liked the 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  It’s a blend of Brander’s estate fruit and Sauvignon Blanc from other vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.  The wine has a bright floral nose and crisp flavors of pineapple, white peach and grapefruit.  Light and refreshing, it was a perfect match for the hot and sunny afternoon.  The 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc costs $15.

One of my favorite whites came at the end of the tasting — the 2007 Moscato Di Fredi.  Slightly sparkling with moderately sweet notes of white peach and apricot, this makes a great aperitif or dessert wine.  Serve it with cheese or fruit.  A 375ml bottle costs $12 and a 750ml bottle costs $20.

The good news for Florida residents is that Brander can ship to the Sunshine State (currently it does not ship to all 50 states, including New York).  Hot Miami summers go great with Brander’s Sauvignon Blanc.  Tensley, Epiphany and Blackjack Ranch also ship to Florida.

After the Moscato I was in the mood for something sweet.  On the way back to Santa Barbara I took a detour to Solvang, the “Danish Capital of America.”  It’s a quaint Danish village with shops, restaurants and bakeries.  Part cute and part kitsch, Solvang would fit in well at Epcot’s World Showcase.  As someone who loves that kind of stuff, I had a great time strolling around and peeking in shops.  I stopped at Mortensen’s Danish Bakery and got — what else — a cheese danish.  It was sweet without being overly sweet and the pastry was light and flaky.

Solvang is home to several tasting rooms with such interesting names as Lions Peak and Mandolina.  Unfortunately by the time I arrived my palate was a bit overworked.  At least that gives me an excuse to return!

Earlier: Wine Tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley – Blackjack Ranch