Considering that their current vintage is 2010, I figure that TAZ had a brain spaz and sent me a review bottle of 2004 pinot gris by mistake. If so, I’m glad they did: The Taz bin was anything but a has been.
In fact, it almost made up for ‘Sideways’.
I know, I know; I was supposed to hyperventilate over that flick because it was about wine geeks, but I have a stubborn streak and I tend to not like stuff I’m supposed to like. As you may (or may not) recall, the film was about two men much, much older than moi taking a last-hurrah wine tour of Santa Barbara—Taz country, and home to this nicely burnished, slightly smoky, age-softened pinot gris.
Ba Ba Ba, Ba Barbara Wine…
The first thing that you notice about Santa Barbara County AVA is that it is, in fact, sideways. By which I mean that the big valleys run east /west due to the transverse orientation of the coastal Santa Ynez Mountain range and the interior San Rafael range. In part, this allows for a remarkable diversity of microclimates dominated by a variety of soils including beach sand, limestone, powdery silica and something called ‘chert’—which doesn’t hurt. Petrologists describe chert as cryptocrystalline, microfibrous quartz which often contains fossils, and as a component of vine soil, chert is off the chart.
This mixed bag of dirt, exposure and elevation nurtures a hundred wineries—many small and rustic, others managed by some of the state’s largest producers—who take advantage of the proximity to the ocean and nightly drop of forty degrees, making Burgundy varietals the predominant grapes grown. Chardonnay accounts for the lion’s share, with 7000 + acres and pinot noir, about half that. According to the 2012 California Grape Acreage Report, Santa Barbara has a scant 50 acres planted to pinot gris, ten times less than merlot, which would curdle poor Miles’ fictitious blood.
Taz, St. Babs and All that Nickname Jazz
Good thing that Bob ‘Taz’ Steinhauer didn’t show a penchant for kissing female skunks or his wine might be called ‘Le Pew’. Instead, his frenetic energy reminded friends of that other Chuck Jones anthropomorphic, the Tasmanian Devil. In Napa, he forged a reputation as a dedicated and tireless grower casting a constant dragnet for quality—quality he was ultimately convinced could be found in Santa Barbara County. For his pinot gris, he found conditions particularly favorable in the Cat Canyon Annex Vineyard in the Los Alamos region, which has not yet achieved AVA status. 2002, his first pinot gris release under the TAZ label, met with considerable critical success, being variously described as ‘fine textured and mouth-filling’, ‘firm and lush’ and ‘more lively and fruity than any bare-boned Pinot Gris from Oregon’.
Pretty hefty praise for wine from vines only a few years old.
Two years later, Taz vinified under a set of vintage conditions that Californian’s still remember: A warm spring and mild summer was followed by a late and significant heat wave that led to one of the earliest harvests in state history. Yields were light, but most Southern California wineries reported a crush of excellent quality and Jeff Lyon of E. & J. Gallo maintained, ‘We are anticipating some memorable wines…’
Other reviews pointed out that Taz was shooting for a ‘European-style’ wine with his 2002 pinot gris, and I see no reason to suppose that 2004 took any rakehell turns in his concepts. By European-style, they no doubt meant Alsace, where pinot gris (formerly known as Tokay d’Alsace) reaches heights of splendor not seen elsewhere. It’s prone to rot, and so, in France, performs best in Grands Crus Pfingstberg (Orschwihr) and Gloeckelberg (Rodern).
One of the hallmarks of Alsace pinot gris, of course, is its ability to age with grace and develop complexity as it does. So, the 2004 Taz Vineyards Pinot Gris that lightened my door was a great chance to see if Steinhauer was able to capture this essence—among the most vital—in this fascinating variety.
And to a great extent, he did. The big floral and fruit of younger pinot gris, especially the unmistakable notes of ripe melon and pear, had faded, but this allowed a richer, more enigmatic wash of pepper, arugula and slightly browned apple to emerge. The butterscotch from the oak, in which about half the wine was fermented, was prominent, and the citrus remained intact, although much of the acid was AWOL.
Where by hook, crook or some schnook in shipping/receiving, I was delighted to have the chance to see what Taz pinot gris could offer after they’d been around the block a few times. Eleven year old whites from Santa Barbara are not easy to come by; if this keeps up, I may find myself with a Chuck Jones nickname myself: High Note, from the 1960 Warner Brothers animated short.