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Babcock and Melville Wineries – Santa Rita Hills, California

Last September we were in Santa Barbara for a few days and visited a couple of wineries in the area. Here are my notes from the trip.

There’s not much to do in the small town of Santa Barbara, so it’s a good thing it’s situated in wine country. The drive up 101 is breathtaking, and as this was my first-ever winery visit, I was really excited.

We only had one afternoon for wine tasting, just enough time to visit two places, so I did a bit of research beforehand and decided on Babcock and Melville in Lompoc. Both of them have their own vineyards in addition to the winery and happen to be adjacent to each other. I chose these particular wineries based on some criteria that was appealing to me: small production, terroir-driven, and location in the Santa Rita Hills.

The Santa Rita Hills appellation is at the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, very close to the Pacific Ocean. Its cool climate is ideal for growing pinot noir and chardonnay, and I was looking forward to tasting this region’s expression. I’m a big fan of Oregon pinots and red and white Burgundies, but I haven’t been that impressed with the California pinots I’ve had from Carneros and the Russian River Valley. They weren’t bad wines by any means, just too fruit-forward for me.

Babcock Winery

In addition to pinot noir and chardonnay, Babcock also produces pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, rosé, and a couple of red blends.

I’m not familiar with this wine region at all, so when I tried the chardonnay (2005 Rita’s Earth Cuvée), I was very pleasantly surprised — the only California chardonnays I’ve had were big, heavily oaked clunkers from Napa, and I expected more of the same. Instead, this was a soft, medium-bodied wine with apple and pear flavors and a bit of creaminess. Sure, it was oaked, but the flavor integrated well and wasn’t overwhelming in the least. The wine girl informed me that many winemakers in the region don’t care for the heavily-oaked style at all, which was a wonderful revelation for me.

The pinot noir we tasted, the 2005 Tri-Counties Cuvée, was a bright, deep red, had a very assertive fruity nose, and tasted pretty jammy as well. Way too fruity of a pinot for my taste.

Our favorite ended up being the estate-grown 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, which was crisp, mouthwatering, and refreshing. I also really liked the 2005 Big Fat Pink Shiraz — really big with lots of strawberry and cherry, but dry and not cloying or heavy.

As I mentioned, this was my first winery visit, and as much as I enjoyed tasting wines in a charming, rustic wood-panelled room overlooking acres of lush grapes and rolling hills, the company was even better. Josh and I were the only visitors there at first, but about three wines in, we were joined by a couple I’ll call Mid-life Crisis and Trophy Fiancée.

The smarmy, slick-haired fortysomething guy strutted in, oversized Gucci-sunglassed blonde girlfriend in tow. They plopped themselves into the stools next to us, and Mid-life immediately started chatting up the wine girl about how much he admires winemakers who employ biodynamic viticulturalization techniques, how he’s a wine buyer and owns a large wine shop in Atlanta, all his friends are so impressed with his wine knowledge but of course! he does this for a living, isn’t it great that you can do exactly what you love and be so successful at it? The wine girl nodded detachedly, Josh and I exchanged glances, Trophy Fiancée looked bored. I’ve never been overly sympathetic toward rich, skinny blonde chicks, but I began to feel really sorry for her. I glanced over at her.

“I like your rings,” she said, noticing my wedding and engagement bands.

“Thanks, I like yours too,” I replied, admiring her Chiclet-sized bauble.

There was nothing else to say. The three of us drank in silence as Mid-life continued his monologue. It was hard to think over the incessant, pompous drone. On an average day, this guy would have seriously annoyed me, but everything’s funnier when there’s lots of wine around.

Melville Winery

The Melville tasting room is housed in a beautiful Mediterranean-style villa, large and airy with terra cotta tiles and lots of sunlight. There were already several people drinking and laughing when we got there, lending a friendly, festive tone to the room — a good way to start off this visit.

Melville specializes in pinot noir and chardonnay; we tasted two pinots and three chardonnays along with a syrah and a viognier, all of which were very enjoyable.

Of the two pinot noirs, we preferred the 2005 Melville Estate from Santa Rita Hills over the 2005 Estate Verna’s. The Verna’s was delicate and fruit-forward, tasting of raspberries, a bit of blueberry, and a hint of violet. SRH was darker and richer in both color and flavor — dark fruits like black cherry and plum, dark, warm spices like clove, and some earthiness and minerality I like so much.

If there’s anything I discovered from this wine tasting experience, it’s that I now love(!) California chardonnays — well, at least the ones from Melville. I was still floored that they could taste like fruit instead of a 2×4 when we left Babcock, and Melville’s wines were even better examples of how delicious and balanced chardonnays could be.

The 2005 Estate Verna’s was my least favorite of the bunch, but even so, it was pretty good — light, sweet fruits like apples and peaches. What I didn’t like was that the wine had a very slightly greasy texture even though it wasn’t heavy. Next was the 2005 Melville Estate from Santa Rita Hills — my favorite. This one had bright lemon and lime flavors and white floral elements that added an almost perfumey richness, but very well-balanced and subtle. And it was interesting to me how fresh and clean tasting it was, even with the oak and flowers. Finally, the 2005 Clone 76 Inox — Josh’s favorite. This one was a totally new, wonderful experience — I’d never had an unoaked chardonnay before. Because of the stainless steel fermentation, the true essence of the wine came through, and I tasted limes and pears, something green and herbal, a bit of chalky mineral. I thought perhaps chardonnays required oak to give them structure, but this one definitely had plenty of it. We decided to purchase both the SRH and Clone 76 chardonnays.

The 2003 Estate syrah was also worth buying — big black cherry and blackberry flavors, slightly peppery but not hot. And we loved the 2005 Estate Verna’s viognier, which was also stainless steel fermented and tasted of creamy tropical fruits.

Mid-life and Trophy Fiancée arrived as the wine girl was pouring the viognier. It was a good thing they were seated next to us once again, otherwise I would’ve missed out on this gem from our favorite wine expert: “Mmmm…I love viggoner.”

Luckily there were plenty of other people in the tasting room who were far more interesting and far less self-absorbed than Mid-life. We met a group of five guys from L.A. in their mid-twenties who were traveling northward through California wine country as part of a week-long bachelor’s party for one of them, and a friendly fiftyish ex-hippie looking guy from San Francisco with whom we discussed Rick and Skip Bayless. It was a great time talking and enjoying wine with these folks and the perfect way to end a trip to central California.

As we drove back toward Santa Barbara, an expensive white American convertible veered aggressively into our lane, almost cutting us off. I’m sure you know who it was — Mid-life and Trophy, of course. “I’m sick of this guy,” groaned Josh. Then he snickered. “How much do you want to bet they’re here on the Sideways wine tour?”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Just because he’s an arrogant bastard and a complete idiot doesn’t mean he’s doing what everyone else is doing.”

Josh laughed. “Just watch.” Sure enough, a few minutes later, they pulled right into the Hitching Post.

Some people may be predictable, but I’m glad the wines we tasted were not.

P.S. Babcock and Melville are not on the Sideways wine tour.

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