Sometimes education happens when you least expect it . . . or want it. Case in point, I received a last-minute invite last week to a wine party in San Francisco. Perhaps it was the use of BYOB in the title that lead me astray, but sounding more like a social mixer than an educational tasting, I happily left my sommelier hat at home and caught the next train to the city.
When I arrived fashionably late at Crushpad, the first “urban winery” to sprout in San Francisco, I walked unexpectedly into an analytical tasting of wines from Santa Barbara county. It was a blind tasting no less, complete with clipboards for note taking and cups for spitting. Because sometimes we sommeliers just want to have a drink, I spent a few minutes pouting by the cheese buffet before I joined the group in the learning experience.
Rather than participate in “guess the grape”, or criticize the quality of winemaking with phrases like “phenolic greenness”, I chose to socialize with the wines, get to know what Santa Barbara was really all about, without the pretense. I focused on fruit, aromatics, structure, and finish. Basically, I took pleasure in the intrinsic characters of the individual wines. I met deep Grenache wines with a common affinity for lots of toasted oak, their blueberry and plum flavors coated with caramel and cocoa. The Pinot Noirs I chatted up had personalities dominated by lots of juicy fruit - raspberry and cherry as expected, but some surprised with tropical notes of guava and ripe melon. A Sauvignon Blanc whispered gossip of floral perfume and the finish of certain Syrahs, burning with of clove and pepper, stung like a clever comeback.
In the end, I left the tasting with a new appreciation for the depth and diversity of this “Sideways” county. These are by no means wallflower wines; if you are looking to add personality to your party, an easy solution is to invite Santa Barbara. Babcock Winery, whose current releases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - definite social-butterflies - transition seamlessly from cocktail hour to dinner.