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by Fred McMillin
for December 19, 2000

 

Too Cool!


Prologue

1960—The University of California—Davis viticulturists advise that the Santa Maria Valley, some 50 miles north of the city of Santa Barbara, is too cool for viticulture.

...The Wines of California, Stephen Brook

1999—Vineyard acreage in the valley (photo) is about 8,000!

What happened?


It's The Temperature, Stupid

U.C.-Davis had a good reason for recommending against trying to ripen grapes in the Santa Maria Valley. The prominent California wine growing valleys, such as Napa and Sonoma, ran north and south. Coastal mountains cut off the fog and cold air of the Pacific Ocean. Not so in Santa Maria. The valley was open to the sea, running east to west. Fog and cold air blew in regularly, so the average temperature during the growing season was an ominous 72 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Santa Maria Valley Vines

Santa Maria Valley Vines.

Nevertheless, in 1964 the first valley vineyard was planted...120 acres of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignan Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yikes! Today we know the latter two grapes require much more warmth than the first two. Otherwise, vegetal or grassy flavors will creep into the Blanc and the Cab. Needless to say, vintners pulled up and grafted over many vines until they got it right. The Chardonnay and Riesling belonged at the cooler west end, the Blanc and the Cab to the warmer east end.


Chardonnay Country

The exciting successes led to the valley being designated by the feds as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1981. Today, critic Steve Heimoff (I've talked with him; very sharp!)...anyhow, Steve writes that Santa Maria Chardonnay is a superstar. "It regularly achieves a balanced complexity rivaled only in the Russian River Valley and sometimes the Carneros." (Wine Enthusiast, 7/97) So one of those superstars is...


Our Wine of the Day

Steele Goodchild Vineyard Chardonnay
Vintage—I kept this bottle in my cellar for a couple of years, to show my students what time does to the color, aroma and flavors. The tart edge softens and a mixture of toasty flavors emerged in this bottle. It was a 1996.
Vineyard Location—Ace winemaker Jed Steele makes two Santa Maria Chardonnays, one from the Bien Nacido vineyard and one from today's Goodchild vineyard. He says the Goodchild is farther inland, and hides behind some low hills, so it's a bit warmer than Bien. Hence, it is ready to pick a week or so sooner than Bien.
Current Releases—Phone (707) 279-9475, FAX (707) 279-9633
Rating—HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Price—$26 range


Postscript

The Name Game: If you visit the Goodchild vineyard, you'll find it on the south side of the Sisquoc (sihs-kwahk) River. Sisquoc?? The Chumash American Indians called quail "sisquoc."

Photo Credit—Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau

 

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.

 
 


 
 

This page created December 2000

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