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!