Monday, April 1, 2013

The modern era

LaFond winery tasting room
Though the winemaking trade is ancient, in some parts of Southern California it's almost brand new. Santa Barbara County's rolling valleys were planted with grapes as early as 1782, but by the time Prohibition was implemented in 1918, the wine business in the county had collapsed.

Today's booming wine business didn't really revive in the County until the 1970s. So it shouldn't be surprising that the face of Santa Barbara Wine Industry is a distinctly modern one.

If you've toured the great and ancient vineyards of Europe, and explored the stone monasteries and half-timbered cottages and tower-embellished chateaux, you might find it a little disconcerting that one of the richest troves of wine tasting rooms in Southern California happens to be located in a pre-fab industrial park behind a Home Depot big box store in downtown Lompoc, CA.

Lompoc's Wine Ghetto
Known unabashedly as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, this industrial park is home to 19 wineries' tasting rooms. Unromantic maybe, but these prefab units are home to some world class varietal wines.

We visited the tasting room of Ampelos Cellars. This winery was started in 2000 by Peter and Rebecca Work, and was one of the first vineyards in the country certified to be sustainable, organic and biodynamic. We were so delighted with their Rose of Syrah that we came away with a full case (at a great discount).

On a previous trip, [The Man I Love] and I had visited another "Wine Ghetto" winery, Fiddlehead Cellars, which is known for its bright and fresh sauvignon blancs.

This time, we visited four wineries on Santa Rosa Road,which meanders along the base of the Santa Rita Hills between Lompoc and Buellton - where many of the Lompoc wineries actually grow their vines.

Sanford Wines
The larger, corporate Sanford Winery had a large tasting room that looked like a modern hacienda - or perhaps a suburban chain restaurant, like an Olive Garden. Nevertheless, the wines were quality, and they're easily found on most supermarket store shelves.

LaFond, one of the pioneers of the modern wine industry, has a low sleek tasting room, with a nice picnic area adjoining the parking lot.We were impressed with their chardonnay and pinot noir wines.

Almarosa Wines
But we were charmed by two smaller places, which hearkened back to more countrified times. Almarosa Wines welcomes visitors to this rustic, picturesque tasting room. We tasted pinot noirs pressed from the very vines that lined the gravel driveway leading to the place.

Mosby Wines focuses on Italian varietals and styles, and we were charmed not only by the flavors, but also by the beautiful artwork on the labels. Here, a rare north Italian grape named Lagrein has been brought to the peak of flavor by winemaker Bill Mosby, as a velvety, rich dark red wine that goes great with rich red meat, especially with mushroom-flavored dishes, and is so alluring it's called La Seduzione. We took advantage of an amazing discount and got a case of this.

As we made our way back to Buellton and the 101 freeway which would take us back to Los Angeles, we decided to have lunch at a place that almost everyone we'd met had mentioned. It was a tapas bar, we'd been told, and the star dish - known as "yuppie crack" - was dates stuffed with goat cheese, and wrapped with applewood smoked bacon.

Restaurants in this community include the famously rustic steakhouse featured in the film "Sideways," the quaint cottage cafes of Danish-themed Solvang, and the cornball tourist resort famous for its split pea soup - so I don't know what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn't expecting a sleek, modern, almost corporate looking edifice.

Avant Tapas and Wine is part of a larger complex, a state of the art winemaking facility, that offers services to smaller winemakers, providing assistance at crushing, processing and bottling wine. Avant is a restaurant with a bar and a dining room, and - as a modern tasting room - a high-tech wall of automatic wine dispensing that allows customers to try and taste a vast variety of wines.

The waitress gives you a card similar to an ATM card. You browse the offerings, and you can slip the card into its slot and choose which wine you'd like the machine to dispense into your glass. Would you like a taste? A half glass? Or a full glass? It's up to you - the prices are all displayed. It may cost less than a dollar for a taste of one wine, or more than five dollars for another. Would you like to compare a vintage year pinot noir from two, or perhaps three, neighboring vintners before choosing your glass? Just slip the card into the slot.

What a brilliant idea - and fun - and, frankly, quite a revenue-generator for the restaurant!

"Yuppie crack"
The food menu complements the wine.  It's fascinating to see how a traditional industry transforms itself as an industry evolves.

But what will always remain constant is the vines, the sun, the soil, the terroir.


Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Please send an order of the bacon wrapped dates ASAP!

smalltownme said...

You did a great wine loop here and hit many places I have not been (although I have tried a fair amount of those wines). But I have used that Avant ATM a few times!

You can imagine my son Ernest riding his bike along Santa Rosa Road. No wine for him though!