Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Direct From Hadsten House in Solvang CA: Day Three: October 7th: Curtis Vineyard, Firestone, Sanford, Hitching Post and Tarantulas On The Road

"Adventures In Wine Country" with Co-Hosts Chuck Byers and Greg Rist is a new series airing in April 2010 on CHEX Television Channel 12 Durham and the Greater Toronto Area"

Walkabout Solvang!
It was about 8 am and Greg and I had just finished breakfast when we decided that prior to going to meet Christopher Weir, publicist for Curtis Vineyards we would visit Olsen's Bakery which was the place to meet people in Solvang. We went down and introduced ourselves and took some great shots of the bakery but intended to go back at some point to meet local people in their "relaxed" contemplation of their daily activities. We also decided to shoot local scenes and went about the streets taking shots of the wine bars and town spots i.e. the magnificent windmills located at different points of the city.
We then hustled ourselves to the Curtis Winery which was just off Foxen Canyon Road near Los Olivos. I've always loved this drive which included some great scenic shots of hills, cattle and other wild life.
Curtis Winery
The Curtis Winery always struck be as being somewhat special with its large oaks and vineyards. Still owned by the Firestone family, it had a charm all its own and the drive past the gates reflected the care and interest that the family gave to it. We were met by Christopher Weir who I had met some four years before when I was doing the "Wine Frontier" program. Chris has proven to be a good friend and contact who I kept in contact with during the years that followed the program. He introduced me to Chuck Carlson, winemaker and general manager for Curtis.
Chuck seemed a no nonsense individual who was proud of his wine making at Curtis. He was full of great information regarding the winery and its history! We went on a tour of the winery and vineyards.
The vineyards still had much Syrah grapes on vine. This was great in as much as Greg needed to interview him in the vineyard and if that had to be done, there may as well have been grapes on the vines. After the interview we went back to the winery.
Teddy Roosevelt, Art And A Great Punch Down!
Curtis is part of the Firestone Family and as part it is subject to its history. Its vineyards had begun being planted in 1990 (Ambassador Vineyard) and 1997 (Crossroads) were dedicated to Rhone style wines. The Syrah vines are accompanied by several blocks of Grenache and Roussane.
The tasting room which used to be an art studio has an air of openness about it. It still reflects the artistic flair with many paintings which reflect a rich native heritage. One massive mural can be viewed in another room just off the main tasting area. Again, it depicts a native American theme and apparently was brought from New York by the Firestone family.
One interesting item I found on one of the side walls was an original letter from President Theodore Roosevelt, framed. It was addressed to Elroy Curtis basically telling him that more is expected from a person of his training than the norm. I do not know what the significance of the letter was but it certainly was impressive. The Firestone family has a rich and somewhat enviable history of which this letter is part of.
While I was reading the letter, winemaker,Chuck Carlson came over to tell me that Greg had arranged a special "stand up spot" for filming. Stand up it was!
I had to try my hand at "punching down" the fermenting "must cap" in one of the fermenting vats.
This was not without a bit of danger to both the wine, my clothes and ego since I had to balance myself atop the edge of the square fermenting vat while holding a long handled, plunger shaped utensil that was designed to push down the grape must cap thus mixing the skins with the juice below. This would bring the skins and juice in contact with each other and thus extract more colour and also assist the fermentation in proceeding more evenly.
I got up on the edges and could imagine slipping into the tub of purple juice---bubbles of ferment oozing out of the mixture. In addition to keeping my balance, I had to physically plunge the plunger up and down---very gently so that the skins and juice mixed without extracting acid into the mixture (by pressing too hard).
"A bit more to the left. A bit more over there," came the orders of the assistant winemaker who, I am sure was finding this bit humorous. Greg , on the other hand was taking the shots and secretly hoping that I lost my balance and fell in! However I disappointed him and completed my task. Years of Judo training allowed me to keep my composure and balance.
Wine Tasting
Chuck Carlson then had the difficult job of picking three of his wines for us to taste on the show. He picked a Curtis Vineyards Viognier, an Ambassador Syrah and Heritage Cuvee.
Curtis Viognier
A wine that is a brilliant light yellow in colour with a floral/citrus and almost toasty nose. The palate is full of tropical (lime/pineapple/mango) fruits with a light creamy finish that fails to disappear quickly.
Ambassador Syrah
Dark garnet in colour with a nose of black fruit and vanilla spice with tannins that indicate a capability to age, this wine has a similar effect on the palate with a pepper accent, a touch of chocolate and a very long lingering finish.
Heritage Cuvee
A blend of Rhone varietals (though never the same percentages from vintage to vintage) this dark wine has a nose of red and black fruits with smoke toastiness and spice. The wine has a great mouth feel on the palate with raspberry, plum and black cherry fruit along with vanilla spice and some light chocolate leading to a long and lasting finish.
Chuck Carlson proved again why he was one of he leading Rhone winemakers in the valley.
A Visit To Firestone
While at Curtis, I ran into Chad Munsey of Firestone Winery. We had been missing each other via emails etc. and it seemed that Greg and I weren't going to get a chance to visit. However, that all changed when we finished at Curtis a bit earlier than anticipated and had over an hour and a half to do some extra visiting. Since Firestone was only a hop and a skip from Curtis, we decided to go ahead with a visit.
We were welcomed at this lovely winery perched atop of a hill overlooking the valley. The mountains in the distance had not lost any of their charm or their scenic looks as I viewed the scene while Greg got his equipment out of the car.
Firestone has a long standing history in the area. It was started in 1972 by Leonard Firestone and his son Brooks and is by virtue one of the oldest wineries in the area. Recently, the winery was sold to Bill Foly who has put new efforts into the Firestone tradition.
The tasting room still smacks of the Firestone's, however, with wall pictures of the family with various United States Presidents such as: Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Jr. as well as older pictures of family members with Presidents, Taft, Harding and Eisenhower.
There were other "shots" of Harvey Firestone in the company with the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
The Crush
ChadBold led us out to the back of the building where he "crush" was going on. Sauvignon grapes were being placed into a destemmer/crusher which prepared the vines for pressing and fermentation. Dry ice was placed as he grapes were being moved through the crusher destemming machine so to keep them cool thus avoiding the early onset of fermentation and also to prevent damage to the grapes on their journey through the process.
Kevin Willenborg, the winemaker, came over to join us and the three of us watched in horror as Greg appeared to be having some problem with a wasp---we thought!
In actual fact, Greg had not been paying attention and smacked his head on the sharp edge of a roof which knocked him on his fanny.
"I saved the camera!" was his answer to how he was! Kevin applied some first aide and Greg was up and around.
Kevin then took us for a brief tour to the stainless steel tanks from which he extracted some fermentation juice of Sauvignon Blanc. It is too bad that an economical way of bottling some of this ferment could not be achieved since the drink is very refreshing, fizzy and sweet.
We then tasted some of the Sauvignon Blanc from the 2008 vintage. It was great with a nose of tropical fruits and herbs and a similar palate of citrus, mango, pear and herbal spice with a refreshingly crisp acidity.
Our visit was not a long one but one that reassured me that the Firestone Tradition was in good hands.
Tarantula On The Road
We were a bit late for our next winery so we had to rush. Sanford was some 45 minutes away and we had to hustle. Going down Foxen Canyon Road is not what you'd call a speed area. one had o watch for other cars coming down the winding road as well as wild life. Speaking of wildlife, as I drove at a reasonable clip up a hill, my eye caught sight of a rather large spider running across the road. "It's a TARANTULA!" I yelled and swerved the car around to try to find the spider. All rush to Sanford was forgotten. Greg was equally excited but to our chagrin, no spider could be found when we got to the scene.
Sandford Winery
Sanford was made famous by the movie "Sideways" but its wines have long been enjoyed by many oenophiles around the world. Owned by the Terlato Wine Group the winery was founded in 1971, the winery has made classic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay deep within the Santa Rita Hills Appellation.
Winemaker Steve Fennel has overseen the operation for years . I remember filming him when I first came to the valley about four years ago. He still looks the same. There must be something about the air in this area.
Some things have changed however, a new tasting room is absolutely super with high ceilings and a great wine displays. Plenty of room to move around also.
The very interesting elevator fermentation tanks are still there. In order to avoid pumping and thus possibly harming the must to the tank, special tanks with a capacity of 40,000 gallons each (there are four of them) have he capability of being lowered to floor level so gravity could be used to guide the grape juice/must down. They are then elevated to normal height when filled.
The winery otherwise had not changed much and sometimes, no change is the best.
Wines Tasted
Sanford Chardonnay
Almost Burgundian in style, this lemon yellow wine has a brilliant colouration to it. It has a nose of tropical fruit, butter and citrus with a palate that expresses minerality, fruit with an acidity that keeps it fresh.
Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir
A Pinot with attitude. The dark wine needs some time. It has the medium body of a Pinot but is more of a brooding wine with dark fruit as well as some red representation on the nose with similar tastes on the palate but leaning more to dark fruit. The mouth feel is round and velvety.
The finish is a long one that keeps on coming.
Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir
If you want to meet the big brother of the above wine you will not have to go far since the Rinconada Vineyard is just a pebble's throw away. This is a dark wine capable of some aging. It still is quite young and if the top one was brooding this is down right "Eastwood" in character.
On the nose it is complex with dark fruit and spice on the nose with a similar palate structure. The mouth feel is round with present tannins that show promise for the wine. The concentration is excellent and makes one want to buy several of these bottles to try on a yearly basis for some years to come. The taste remains in the mouth for minutes.
After the tasting Greg and I scurried our way back home to prepare for a great filming meal at the Hitching Post.
The Hitching Post!
Just off Highway 246 in Buellton is a culinary landmark that was so long before it became part of the "Sideways" movie legend. Frank Ostini founded the Hitching Post in 1986 and has been going strong since. The movie "Sideways" served to make the Hitching Post even more popular.
Frank Ostini is also a winemaker who makes some pretty great wines at Terravent. So Greg and I with a lot of help and encouragement from Bill Phelps at Hadsten House went over to film a meal being prepared.
First of all, I must say that people always make a conducive atmosphere. In this case, I was right again. I met some great people while waiting for Greg to finish his filming portion at the Hitching Post.
I ran into a lovely couple who celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. They were from Colorado. Lee and John Nicoll told me about their family. They were obviously very proud of their son who was a "TOP GUN" and served in the Gulf War. They also told me about their other son who was a CEO of a company and his passion for wine. Another interesting fact was that John's great grandfather was involved in the wine industry years before. What a story.
Another great couple were the Hanrahan's from Las Vegas, Nevada. This twosome loved good food and wine. They really made a good looking couple and represented Las Vegas very well.
People here made the difference and I never knew what story I would hear next.
The food came and it was humongous!!!!
Filming it was tough as I could hardly wait to get my hands on it and into my big mouth. But soon the filming was done and Greg and I ate. OH! What did we eat?
I had Lobster and Steak while Greg had a Black Angus Rib Chop (it was 24 ounces of meat)!
We shared the food as well as the Green Pepper stuffed with Cheese and Shrimp. The meal came complete with Garlic Bread and all the extras. Our wine was an excellent Hitching Post Syrah!
Lovely people, great meal and super Hitching Post!