WINERIES IN SANTA BARBARA County on the central California coast are producing better wines of greater individuality than was once thought possible. One of the earliest wineries here, Zaca Mesa, in Los Olivos, has been experimenting with reds and whites for more than a decade, and winning medals. Zaca Mesa, owned by group of investors, is located just a few miles south of Santa Maria, most famous as a retirement community.
White wines have tended to do best in these southerly climes, but cabernet sauvignon is a contender of increasing importance, and so is pinot noir. The enologist at Zaca Mesa, Ken Brown, trained at Fresno State, produces a consistent line of very reasonably priced varietals, including a very good pinot. It is one of Zaca Mesa's "American Reserve" wines -- the designation of their best line -- and has good color, lushness and balance enough
to last awhile. The grapes
come from the Santa
Maria valley, close to the
ocean and cool enough for
pinot, usually associated
with wetter climates. This
pleasant discovery indicates once again that pinot
noir and American microclimates are still getting to
know one another.
Nearby Firestone Vineyards, owned by Brooks
Firestone of the rubber
fortune, and by Suntory of Japan, has discontinued its pinot noir in favor of cabernet grown in the warmer Santa Ynez valley. Firestone has also hired a new winemaker, Alison Green, trained at the University of California at Davis, who is lightening up Firestone's cabernets. The '78 Firestone cab was inky and hot on the finish, and the '79 was big and jammy, with a touch of mint, but both wines had character. The '82 cab, which is 14 percent merlot, has a nice nose but also some bell pepper overtones and a lot less stamina. It remains to be seen if the new Firestone reds will match the quality of its whites.
Firestone's former winemaker, Tony Austin, left in '81 to start his own Austin Cellars. The winery is located just a few miles west of Firestone, with an office in Los Olivos. Some vineyard land has been planted in chardonnay; pinot noir and sauvignon blanc are scheduled to go in next spring, but for the moment Austin makes all his wines from purchased grapes grown on the coastal slopes of northern Santa Barbara. He makes a couple of different chardonnays every year, and what I can only describe as a wild, grassy, memorable sauvignon blanc with more body than one is accustomed to.
The real surprise was the Austin Cellars pinot noir, made from grapes from two different vineyards and from vines at least 12 years old. The '82 Austin Sierra Madre displays ripe but elegant fruit and has the long finish one wants in good pinot. The '82 Austin Bien Nacido has a big Burgundian nose and mouthwatering fruit. The color of both wines is phenomenal for the shy pinot, which can be anemic-looking in the hands of an inexperienced winemaker. Both cost $10. That is a good price for a scarce red wine made in a part of California once known only for ranches and retirement villas.