'Twas the Night Before Christmas...
I always like writing this column at the end of the year. Year-ends are a time for reflection. Last year, my topic was the good, the bad and the ugly.
This year, just the good.
The year has been pretty sweet. I have moved into a bucolic setting in the Los Alamos Valley, a stone's throw from some pretty neet vineyards, finally make a break from living for over two decades in Santa Barbara-truly a coastal Paradise if there ever was one, though!
The economy seems to be pretty good-and holding-despite El Nino-with the heaviest rains since 1983-with road closures, bridge retro-fitting, and the like on Highway 154.
And a lot of terrific area wines released from both the 1996 and 1997 vintages-super wines, as you would expect, from the likes of Alban, Au Bon Climat, Beckmen, Bedford Thompson, Buttonwood, Cold Heaven, Fiddlehead Cellars, Foxen, Hitching Post, Jaffurs, Lane Tanner, Qupe, Sanford, Santa Barbara Winery, Stephen Ross, Talley, Vandale, Whitcraft and Zaca Mesa-and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
But in a very hypothetical setting-if I were stranded on an island Paradise somewhere (and not a county Paradise like Santa Barbara) this Christmas, and I could have one and only one wine in the world, I think I would choose the Alban Vineyards estate-grown 1996 Edna Valley Grenache. (Last year, my wine of the year was John Alban's 1995 vintage Grenache.)
Grenache, sadly, is a very maligned wine grape in California and the United States. It produces big yields. In fact, it is one of the most widely planted red wine grapes in California, and I have been told it is the most widely planted grape in the world-period!
Grenache wines are typically light in color, and the wine can make very lovely roses. In fact, my favorite California rose is the Grenache Rose made by Craig Williams at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Try a '91 or '94 vintage if you find a bottle lurking on a store shelf some place. They are exquisite wines and defy the myth that roses and pink wines just don't age well!
In California, grenache, therefore, is frequently relegated to "classic red blends" of bulk table wine.
In France, on the other hand, the grape is the mainstay of the southern Rhone Valley, and is the usual main ingredient in the great Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines of France-some of the great red wines of the world.
Back to the Alban Grenache!
John Alban models his estate grenache after a wine which many aficionados and wine lovers regard as the greatest of all Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, Chateau Rayas-the wines of the eccentric owner, Jacques Reynaud.
Last spring I tasted the wine with an Internet wine writer friend, Tom Hill; a bottle we had taken to dinner at the Casmalia Hitching Post. Over dinner Tom remarked the Alban clearly exceeded its model. And indeed it did!
At a recent blind tasting of grenaches we held at the Buellton Hitching Post, the Alban 1996 Grenache came in first place by a resounding distance.
Good friend, wine-geek and rocket scientist Bernard Roth posted his tasting notes for the event on an Internet discussion group: "John Alban may just have made the best grenache anywhere in 1996. This bottle is fantastic, all together, big, rich, ripe, complex, powerful. It more than doubled the score of its nearest competitor in this tasting, with 24 points (3-2-1 system) to 11 for La Nerthe. This is John's best grenache since the 93, and may indeed outshow it in a few years."
My one pick for 1998! Suggested retail is $28. And if you are lucky enough to find a bottle, snap it up.
- The 17th annual Santa Barbara County Vintners' Festival is scheduled for April 17 and 18, from 1-4 p.m. at the Firestone Meadow. Ticket sales begin February 1. Tickets are $60 each. For more information, or to order tickets, call the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association at 688-0881. Happy New Year!
Bob Senn writes The Independent's monthly wine column, "Grapevine," lives in the Los Alamos Valley and owns the Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium.
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