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Zaca Mesa – Contending with Nature

August 20, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks, Santa Barbara County 1 Comment

Chess, the beloved ancient game for the opulent and the humble masses. Played by both Kings and noblemen, and millions from the working class. Chess is a human heritage with its foundations in ancient India, before coming to Europe where it evolved and spread around the world. It has inspired us to create international champions and produce numerous books and films dissecting its every part.

Like chess wine is a global obsession. It has found favor with the opulent few and with millions of modest means. It has enticed men to lose vast fortunes and has even revived the moral of men at war. Wine is a part of our collective human inheritance; passed down through the ages.

As there is in Chess, wine has two contenders, the Winemaker and Mother Nature. Each has their pieces in which they utilize in attack against or in defense from their adversary. Nature, has her heat, wind, rain, and frost. The Winemaker, has his land, his winery, and his vineyard and cellar team that he uses to outplay and outthink Mother Nature. In this battle between adversaries there can be only a single outcome: success for one and failure for the other.

While a game of Chess may only take a few minutes, the game of wine is played out over the course of a vintage. Everything that happens in a vineyard between harvests encompasses the playing field of wine. Nature will do everything she can to back our winemaker into a corner and our winemaker will do his best to respond…

NATURE: Late spring frost, check!

WINEMAKER: Deploy sprinkler system.

NATURE: Cold damp summer causing mildew, check!

WINEMAKER: Spray religiously and manage your canopy to promote air movement.

NATURE: Early rains during harvest, check!

WINEMAKER: Work non-stop to bring in the harvest.

The 2010 vintage is shaping up to be one of the most memorable vintages in the past decade for California wine. The drought-stricken State started the year with tremendous periods of rain. As the vintage progressed and the rains subsided, the vintage failed to replace them with a key component of summer: heat. While much of the Country has been burning through one of the hottest summers on record, California has been abnormally cool. Our Governor was Mr. Freeze after all. Connection maybe?

On a recent Friday, I found myself standing in front of Zaca Mesa Winery overlooking their Grenache Blanc vineyard with winemaker Eric Mohseni. It was, not surprisingly, a cool day with temperatures 10-15 cooler than a typical year. With some producers excited about longer hang times, others are worried by the potential challenges it presents.

“I’m trying to be really optimistic about it,” Eric says of the 2010 vintage. “On the white varietals they look strong, I’m seeing really nice even cluster size. I think its going to be great. On the reds, I’m seeing some shot berries, not that that’s necessarily a negative. We are about three weeks behind. So now the whole thing is, “is everything going to ripen timely?”

No winemaker can make outstanding wines year after year by strictly following a set formula. Rigidly adhering to a formulaic approach to wine will leave a winemaker vulnerable to unexpected change. This year, the cool weather is part of that change. I work about a hundred miles south of Zaca Mesa where it is usually uncomfortably hot. There is usually little choice but to suffer through it like a Nicolas Cage or John Travolta movie. Aside from one week of real heat, it has been a paradise of a summer, warm and pleasant.

The story is the same in the Santa Ynez Valley a half hour north of Santa Barbara. The summer heat has not materialized as it does in most years. There too has been a lone week of hot weather. “Even that week of hot weather,” Eric says, “it was like 92 and normally we get to 100 easily. In August, it’s normally well into the 90′s constantly and this year it’s been between 76-82. With the rain fall we this year it’s making for a very interesting vintage.”

ALP: “With everything you have to deal with, making wine is a ridiculous business.”

EM: “You’re a farmer when all is said and done. I don’t stress about it too much because I can’t control it. All you can do is stay on top of things and try to deal with what Mother Nature gives you.”

ALP: “It’s kind of what makes it exciting, the potential for change.”

EM: “You learn from it. As a winemaker you learn and you’re challenged constantly. You know last year we had those late rains. We had about a hundred tons [of fruit] still on the vine. I was not used to dealing with that amount of rain at harvest. So you call your colleagues, you dig into your tool box and you learn to deal with it.”

There can be benefit in the struggle. Benjamin Franklin saw advantages in the challenges of Chess. In his book “The Morals of Chess” (1750), he wrote: “The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it… for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with…”

Franklin says there are three advantages gained by Chess:

1. Foresight: considering the consequences that may attend an action.

2. Circumspection: Surveying the whole Chess-board and the relation of all the Pieces.

3. Caution: not to make our moves too hastily.

Outside Zaca Mesa’s tasting room there is a large Chess set, very large, five foot by five foot or larger. I couldn’t help but relate what Eric had been telling me to Chess.

Foresight: Wine requires the ability to think ahead critically. How much crop can be expected and how many barrels should be ordered?

Circumspection: Looking at the whole scene, the whole vintage, not just a week or two. How will a change in farming practices affect the fruit in the weeks or months to come? What about 3 years from now?

Caution: The ability to let reason prevail over panic when Nature presents an unexpected challenge.

OK, enough with the Chess metaphors.

Zaca Mesa has helped set the standard for Santa Barbara County wine for decades. Well known producers like Ken Brown, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard cut their teeth at Zaca Mesa in the early years. Even Clay Thompson of Claiborne and Churchill told me it was a visit to Zaca Mesa and a few other boutique wineries nearly thirty years ago to converted him into a devotee of the grape. Zaca is a big reason I love wine and I am a regular visitor to their winery on the leading edge between the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria AVA’s.

Raised in Los Angeles, Eric fits into the growing number of people who discovered wine at an earlier age than their parents and with more zeal. When you look at the food and beverage industry as a whole, you see a tremendous movement with younger generations. Chefs are just as likely to be hipsters with sleeved arms than a fat man with a beard or a skinny French man with an attitude.  Urban gardens are popping up around the country and many leading the charge are sub-forty. It is a good trend to see if you like food, especially responsible food.

“I think people are more daring,” Eric says of many of the younger wine drinkers he sees in the market place these days. “It’s not like their parents’ generation where you had a cocktail before dinner and you had a “white” and “red” wine. Back in the day, accessible wine was not that good. My parents drank jug wine. My dad knew a little about wine and he had a couple of his prized babies. I remember for my 21st he popped an old 71′ BV George La Tour. But for the most part, the everyday wine was Gallo or just kind of a jug wine. That’s what they knew and were comfortable with.”

While there are some positive signs that some in the industry are working to demystify wines image, and some have even claimed that the wine industry has succeed in appealing to young people, in actuality it is the young people who deserve most of the credit. Many have found an interest in wine despite many of the outdated marketing models many wineries continue to use. There is still a problem of pretension Eric says.

“One knock I have on the wine industry, it can be too pretentious, it can be stuffy. There’s rules or right and wrongs and I think that definitely sets boundaries for people. People get intimidated, “oh my god, am I doing this right?” I tell people, “it’s wine, it’s what you like.”

ALP: “I think there are still a lot of American wineries that say, “we represent higher living.”

EM: “Yeah but do you? I go back to my couple of trips to Europe. Wine was served in a little ceramic [container] in the South of France and it was fabulous wine. I never knew the producer’s name, it’s not on the list, it just is. You know it’s a common thing.”

ALP: “It’s been there so long its just part of life.”

EM: “It is part of life, they don’t question it. They don’t know the appellation rules, it just is what it is.”

It is all apart of larger shift that many see taking place. In The States, wine is moving from an elitist pleasure to the common realm. To be sure, there is a long way to go. But we are moving in the right direction.

Santa Barbara County is poised to play a strong role in that movement. With Los Angeles, one of the world’s largest wine consumer markets only two hours to the south, the potential to engage more people with wine and the land it comes from is substantial one. Santa Barbara has some challenges though.

In a land known for its beach culture and laid back living, there are also huge diversities in growing regions. Due to various geological conditions, Santa Barbara Country grows everything from Cabernet, to Pinot Noir. It makes for exciting wine country that can be a nightmare to market. People know Bordeaux and Burgundy and in the States they know Napa, but what does Santa Barbara do? Syrah right, and some Pinot?

Largely, much of it gets lumped into the “Central Coast” label, an overly large and broad growing region. Eric sees some of that confusion in the market places disappearing as smaller area specific AVA’s are created in the area (read about a new appellation in the works here: Birth of an AVA, Ballard Canyon AVA).

The creation of smaller AVA’s provide an opportunity to highlight what a specific region does best. People then come to know a region, what they do there, and through that understanding gain a connection to the region. It is what makes Napa great today, people know what to expect. “Eventually it’s not going to be Santa Barbara then Sta. Rita Hills,” Eric says. “It’s going to be [just] Sta. Rita Hills and people know its Pinot and Chardonnay.”

ALP: “I think in the short amount of time that the Sta. Rita Hills have existed it’s already getting to that point.”

EM: “And they’re brilliant to do that. They really were. There has been this whole talk in the [Santa Ynez] Valley about, “how do you sell Syrah and Rhone varietals?” But when you band together like that (in the Sta. Rita Hills), give it a name, give it an identity. It’s all about promoting region.”

ALP: “Do you have a favorite aspect of making wine, of your job?”

EM: “I like that it’s constantly changing. I have been here ten years and I can say every vintage has been different. It can be stressful and chaotic, but it’s in a good way. At the end of the day when you can get that wine into the bottle and reflect back on the vintage I think it’s really rewarding. I’m really fortunate to have a cellar crew that’s been here twenty years. We’re like a family, you get to work with your friends, that part is awesome. So that’s what I love about it, I just love the people. Your not in a cubicle somewhere, it’s awesome.”

ALP: “Who has inspired you?”

EM: “Randy Kemner, my first employer at The Wine Country in Long Beach. He’s a man bigger than life…He just taught me a lot of things. I was so eager at the time, we would try blends and I’m like, “what’s in the blend?” And he would say, “Eric godd***it, shut up! Pour it and if you like it that’s what matters.” He really taught me that wine is approachable to all people.”

Eric and I finished tasting through a few wines and off he hurried off to guide a couple on a tour of the property, the ever-changing job of a winemaker. He embodies what excites me about my local area and California as a whole. Lots of young men and women who firmly believe the best is yet to come.

Zaca Mesa believes that too. For a winery that is well regarded as a staple of the region, they stay active and engaged with their clientele.  While some tout their social media programs, Zaca gets out there and does it. They arrange for bird watching in the vineyard, Syrah flights under the starts complete with a team of astronomers to give you a peek or two at the galaxy. Recently they started a summer movie series at the winery, screening classics like “Bullet.” Much of this is the work of Kori DeVries, Zaca’s Cellar Club and Tasting Room Manager, and I was able to ask her why they put in the extra effort.

ALP: “What’s your goal for these events?”

Kori DeVries: “The goal of these events is to get different people out to the winery.  I like to have BBQ’s and music, but that is geared towards a certain crowd and every winery offers that. When you have events like star gazing you bring a different group to the winery. I always want to reach out to a new customer base and get them excited about the winery and what we have to offer.”

ALP: “Why is it important to engage with your audience?”

KD: “I find it very important to engage with the audience, I want to give my guests a great experience here at the winery, both with our wines and our people.  People play such a key role in the guest experience.  I work very hard to interact with our guests, it more enjoyable for them and for me.  I love what I do and this builds relationships and loyalty.”

If I had to recommend one spot in the Santa Ynez Valley to taste wine, it would be Zaca Mesa. The wines are amazing, the people fantastic, and the setting beautiful. My license plate even says ZACAFAN. OK it doesn’t, but you get the idea. If those statements makes this a “puff piece”, then PUFF, PUFF, PUFF. I am a fan, not only of what they are doing now, but what they have accomplished in the past. Success often comes as a result of the achievements of others, by studying the game of those who came before. As Santa Barbara County moves forward, I will be excited to watch young careers, like that of Eric’s, but always with great appreciation for who came before.


Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards

6905 Foxen Canyon Road
Los Olivos, CA 93441

(805) 688.9339

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