Driving Up California's Chardonnay Coast


I search out thousands of wines every year, so I spend plenty of time along California's wine roads. Even though I pass through some lovely areas, I rarely have a chance to admire the scenery. It's all business. So this summer, when traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco for a family function, my wife and I are going to linger in as much wine country as we can.

The area from just north of Santa Barbara to just south of Salinas is prime wine country. Santa Barbara County is rightfully famous for its Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. San Luis Obispo County grows lovely Pinot in cool areas and ripe, mouth-filling Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels and Syrahs in the warmer areas, with a fair smattering of Merlot thrown in. Monterey County is known for its Pinot Noir and Riesling. Santa Barbara and Monterey counties are also major Chardonnay producers.

This will be important on our journey. Mrs. Olken knows her grains and veggies, so she is a kind of agrarian tour guide. But when it comes to grapes, she can't tell the variety we're driving past. That's my job, and I have a trick. I call everything Chardonnay--unless, of course, the grapes have turned red, and then I call them something else.

I am pretty safe in this, since more than half of the grapevines in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties are Chardonnay, and Chardonnay ranks second in San Luis Obispo County (Cabernet is the acreage king). Highway 101, especially south of San Luis Obispo, goes through cool-growing regions where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most likely choices. While Mrs. Olken is busy deciding whether we're looking at cauliflower or broccoli, I will be serene in the knowledge that I can call everything Chardonnay and be right most of the time.

Of course, I will not ask her the names of the vegetable producers, whereas I will try to remember whether we are near Laetitia or Lincourt, Talley or Babcock--and oh, by the way, dear, how did their Chardonnay rate this year? The Chardonnays recommended below will help me with the ratings, but geography, well, that's a different matter.

* 1999 Babcock, Santa Barbara County, $16. In truth, I would like to see a bit more central fruit at work here, but the wine's slightly oily feel, its lightly tropical traits and its plump and open manner nevertheless make it very easy to like. It does not have the build or balance of a wine destined for long-term improvement, but it offers lots to enjoy in the here and now.

* 1999 Beckmen, Santa Barbara County, $16. By contrast, my rating on this wine is a bet on its future. I like the bright, tight, zesty green apple and pineapple fruit in its makeup, while it is firm and a little on the hard side at the moment. It needs a year or so to come out of its shell, and then it should be a fine mate to oysters and clams out of theirs.

* 1998 Calle Cielo, Santa Cruz Mountains, Bald Mountain Vineyard, $23. The grapes are from Santa Cruz, but the winery is in Santa Barbara County. Winemaking is at work here, from the buttery, creamy overlays in the wine to the lees-y, roasted-nut smells and the considerable oak. Still, the green appley and slightly tropical fruit holds its own in the nose and, in league with bright acids in the mouth, keeps the wine in trim. Balance and careful proportion are well-maintained, and the wine finishes with a crisp, clean aftertaste.

* * 1998 Lafond, Santa Ynez Valley, $25. This one, from grapes grown in Lafond's home vineyard, is led in the nose by a wealth of rich oak and toasty spice. It slowly opens to a fine measure of clearly defined fruit, and its expansive flavors are layered with apples, toast, vanilla and spice. A big-bodied wine by any standard, it buffers its ample alcohol with lots of extract and fruity substance, and it finishes with a flourish of oak and ripeness that hangs on and on. It has the structure to keep well for some time, but in the more immediate future it will drink famously with lobster in rich sauces.

* 1999 Laetitia, Arroyo Grande Valley, "Estate," $18. Abundant oak and lots of sweet cream qualities dominate the nose. (In fact, both in the nose and in the wine's properly ripe flavors, that oak comes close to overshadowing the wine's otherwise attractive notes of appley fruit.) Finished with a bit of crisping acids, this bottling has the structure to suggest that it will succeed with meaty fish and not-too-heavy chicken dishes now and over the next several years. (By the way, this is one winery whose vineyards I can identify as I drive along Highway 101. I just look at the big sign.)

$ * * 1999 Lincourt, Santa Barbara County, $20. Its initial aromas are so toasty they nearly put me off, but this deep and very well-filled Chardonnay slowly unfolds to show an increasing measure of rich fruit as its guiding force. Intense, quite oaky and long on the roasted-grain complexities of sur lie aging, it's moderately full-bodied with fine balance and a fairly mouth-filling feel on the palate. Its genuinely juicy center is every bit as evident at the end as at the beginning, and there is room for several years' growth.

* 1998 Santa Barbara Winery, Reserve, Santa Ynez Valley, $24. Big, fat, abundantly oaky and oozing with ripe-apple fruitiness, this effusively ripe and honeyed wine holds nothing in reserve. It has a thick and viscous feel and is rather hot in the finish, but its richness wins the day and earns it easy endorsement as a near-term partner to rich and tangy dishes like veal piccata.

* 1999 Talley, Estate Bottled, Arroyo Grande Valley, $22. This inviting youngster starts very nicely with deep aromas of fresh apples, cream, minerals and a bit of sweet smoke, followed by lots of bright, citrus-tinged fruit. Sporting a fair sense of body and a bit of initial roundness on the palate, it veers to acidity toward the end and picks up a bit of crispness that calls for service with seafood rather than chicken.



* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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