The search for great chardonnay continues!
Recently, I went on a trip to Santa Ynez which, although it feels like Southern California to me, is part of California's Central Coast wine region. Maybe it was all the rain we got this year, but the route I took from Santa Ynez up through the Santa Maria Valley was one of the more beautiful drives in California. There were huge sections of undeveloped nature with gorgeous oak trees intermixed with ranches, wineries and small farms. The rolling hills and small peaks create a magical topography that rivals some of the most beautiful wine regions of the world. Travelers tip: once you leave Santa Ynez Valley and are headed towards Santa Maria Valley, expect to lose cell service for quite some time. You may want to download the map to your phone or go "old school" with a paper map.
My first stop was at Gainey Vineyards. This is definitely a popular tourist destination as there were about 3 large buses stopped in the parking lot, but I could see why. The tasting room bar was not very spacious, but there is a big area in back for larger groups to taste among the many decorative barrels. Their tasting room also has a gift shop with unique wine region knick-knacks and glassware. They were only tasting their 2015 Limited Selection Chardonnay while I was there. It was a great chardonnay but didn't really fall into the buttery category for me. That being said, if you are an oak fan, this wine had a good amount and was quite rich in flavor. After tasting the wine I navigated my way around the buses and went on to my next stop, Firestone.
Firestone is one of the more well known wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. They have a cool vineyard with oak trees dotted amongst the vines. Its tasting room is quite large and their selection of chardonnays is nice too! On the buttery, creamy front, I actually enjoyed Firestone's basic chardonnay more than the others. Interestingly the creamy butter flavor doesn't really present itself until about midway through the sip. The reserve chardonnay was nice and smooth but had more acidic characteristics that were the dominate features of the wine. The staff was extremely nice at Firestone and I would recommend it as a stop if you are in the region.
Foxen was the next stop on the Central Coast wine trail. The most beautiful section of the drive was between the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Maria Valley. When I do trips, I try to research the chardonnays ahead of time to make sure they will fit the flavor profile of my customers - unfortunately this one missed the mark. If you are a fan of light, crisp, high acid chardonnay then you will definitely enjoy this wine. The saving grace for this stop was the winery itself. It had a wonderful ranch-like charm with fun outdoor seating areas and one of the cooler uses of an old barrel and corks I have seen. The winery is dog friendly too so if you bring your pup along this could be a good stop.
I really enjoyed this winery. It has a quaint country home feel with the nicest staff and a really great higher end chardonnay. I always love a winery with dogs, and Roy, the elderly pup above, was adorable. The cheaper option on the chardonnay front, the Riverbench Bedrock Chardonnay, was a bit acidic and had no oak but the Riverbench Reserve Chardonnay was a great wine. It probably did not have enough butter to be in a Chardonnay Box shipment, but the wine had great aromas and flavor. They used 50% new French oak and it really comes through nicely. I don't get nutty flavors out of too many of the chardonnays I try, but this one had hints of hazelnut and almond, which added to the robustness of the wine.
Cambria Winery & Vineyards
I had tasted Cambria chardonnay before and enjoyed it but at the winery you can really explore the depth of chardonnays they make. They are a huge winery, producing over 100,000 cases of wine per year and you can really see the size of the operation as you walk by the big tanks on the way to the tasting room. I tried the Fog Tide, West Point, Clone 4 and Benchbreak chardonnays as well as a couple others. They were all quite good but my favorites were the West Point and the Benchbreak. The Benchbreak was the most robust of the group having a wonderful mix of oak and butter with subtle notes of pineapple, brown sugar and minerality. Cambria is only ~5 min off the beaten path and is definitely worth the visit for the chardonnay lovers out there.
Beckman vineyards was an interesting stop. If you like butter in your chardonnay you can skip this winery, but the way they farm their grapes was really interesting. They use a method of farming called Biodynamic Farming. This is like organic farming on steroids, except the steroids would be organic and good for you. Basically, you know when you drink their Ballard Canyon Chardonnay you are getting the most raw representation of the grape.
Blackjack Ranch Winery
I had fun at Blackjack Ranch and it was only partially because it was the 7th winery of the day. Blackjack Ranch had really good chardonnay and their tasting room was featured in the movie Sideways! They also had a very unique tree growing in the middle of their vineyard. The two chardonnays I tasted were the Chardonnay "21" and the Reserve Chardonnay. The Chardonnay "21" was definitely the best fit for my buttery chardonnay fans out there. It has buttered popcorn, cream, cantaloupe, Fuji apple, toast and a little dessert wine flavors that hit the tongue in a big way. The Reserve Chardonnay is a bit more subtle and balanced but has many of the same flavors. I would say aside from toning down the richness, this chardonnay trades some of the big butter flavor for a less intense smooth cream. Definitely stop by Blackjack Ranch if you are in the area, even if you don't love buttery creamy chardonnay. They have a wide range of other wines and the tasting room has a fun humorous feel to it that makes it a great destination. Also, this winery is much closer to Santa Ynez and Solvang than some of the others farther up in the Santa Maria Valley, so it is quite easy to get to.
For those of you who have been to Solvang you know it's Danish charm. If you have not been there and you are planning a trip to Santa Barbara, definitely stay in this quaint little town for a night or two. It is full of cute shops, fun restaurants and of course, more tasting rooms (should you feel so inclined). Make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date on the Chardonnay Box journey!