We’ve been working with the Wine Institute of California for the best part of a year now in order to improve our range of Golden State wines. And it is with great pleasure to say that it’s time to take a closer look at the top-end.
It’s easy to buy good wine at the higher prices. However there’s very little that’s not of an impressive quality level when you start paying over £15 a bottle. But it’s finding the great wines that set themselves apart from their peers that is the challenge that makes buying exciting. Virgin Wines customers, in my experience, are always searching for quality. But they shop with VW because they also get that ‘little something extra’. Something that makes their wine stand out from the crowd, which gives us a very clear focus when we’re sourcing.
The natural first step on this new buying journey…is a journey! A week in California to absorb as much of its wine culture as possible. Also I had to make sure any of those hidden gems are brought back to the UK’s most adventurous and deserving customers.
Santa Barbara, California
On arrival in LA, it was straight to collect the car. I had to make sure I got to my first night’s hotel in Santa Barbara before the local bars closed. The novelty of driving past signs for Beverley Hills, Santa Monica Boulevard and Mullholland Drive was enough to keep jetlag at bay. And I was delighted to learn when I arrived at the hotel that ‘the best bar in town’ was just round the corner from the hotel. It was right on the harbour, selling ceviche, beer and a poky Bloody Mary. No chance of not sleeping after one of those beauties.
I had time for a walk around Santa Barbara town in the morning. Pretty much exactly as I’d imagine a smallish Californian town to be. Sea, sand, people on rollerskates, palm trees, and weathered old gentlemen on benches talking about the Cold War enshrouded by a herbal-smelling fog. Very much a people-watching town. A healthy amount of wine shops too, selling the local wares.
Time to head inland to Paso Robles for the first winery visit – Eberle. This was one of the best drives, up through the Los Padres National Park, winding roads and steep, rugged mountains. No challenge too great for the Hyundai Sonata though. The landscape and climate changes dramatically the other side of the mountains. Most notably it’s hot and dry, quite inhospitable really, which is the marginal climate that makes the vines really work for their water. Stress on the vines is a philosophy that Eberle employs in order to achieve greater concentration and character from its fruit. It also allows for greater expression of the individual characteristics of their different vineyards.
After a tour of their impressive winery/tourist attraction (they sell a huge amount of their produce at the cellar door). I was greeted by Gary Eberle and his wife, Marcy. We tasted through their wines and had a chat. Gary is quite a big deal in the Californian wine industry. He’s the man known for bringing Syrah to the state, and has adopted the nickname ‘Rhone Ranger’ for his pioneering work. He’s also a pioneer of quality wine production in Paso Robles. Boasting an extensive and impressive wine and science education. Gary identified and realised the potential in the sandy loam soils of what is now the Eberle estate, one of Paso Robles’ finest.
Good Friends, Good Wine
Their whole portfolio was great. The Rhone Ranger’s Viognier and Syrah stood out for me. That’s quite apt given that these are two of the most at-home grape varieties in the Rhone Valley in France. Both had real purity of expression, lots of varietal character. Both had clearly benefited from the cold California Paso Robles nights with an excellent freshness that works so well with the ripeness of fruit thanks to the Californian daytime sunshine.
After being laden with local craft beer by winemaker Chris, it was back to Club Eb (the Eberles’ guest accommodation that surrounds their private lake) to freshen up (drink the beers) before a mountain of superb Mexican food in town.