At the tail end of August, Jason (my intrepid partner in winemaking and life) and I left sunny Santa Barbara county and drove up to Northern California (St. Helena to be exact) in order to pick up a few slightly used French oak barrels. [NOTE: We are making a barrel of Syrah this year with biodynamically-grown fruit from the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in the Edna Valley AVA in San Luis Obispo. We are also hoping to acquire some Petite Sirah from a vineyard that shall remain secret for now, however due to this year's low yields we may not be so fortunate. We will know in a few weeks...cross your fingers.] It seemed a bit odd to me that we needed to drive hours and hours to locate good, clean, slightly used French oak barrels, but it turns out that here in Santa Barbara county, winemakers tend to use their barrels year after year whereas in the Napa/Sonoma area the barrels are often used once and then sold off. In Santa Barbara winemakers often use neutral barrels (barrels that have been used for at least four or five years) which impart very little oak influence to the wine. This allows the fruit to take center stage and works quite well with many of the varietals that are grown in Santa Barbara county including Syrah and especially Pinot Noir. Other winemakers will use some neutral barrels and a few new ones in order to create more complexity in the final blend of wine. In the Napa/Sonoma area where a great deal of Cabernet Sauvignon is produced, many of the renowned and in-demand wines are produced using 100% new French oak barrels. The intensity of Cabernet Sauvignon works well with new oak and the characteristics it imparts to the wine. All in all, Jason and I were thrilled to *not* be paying for brand new barrels as they cost $1000 or more. We paid a small fraction of that and walked away the happy owners of two gently used French oak barrels. I was especially happy that both barrels fit nicely in the back of the Explorer with our luggage.
The person who so generously sold us barrels is none other than Randy Hester, the cellarmaster of Realm Cellars in St. Helena. Not only does he have a hand in helping to make some beautiful, extremely hard to get wines (there is a waiting list, sigh), he is also an all-around good guy. Randy graciously took us on a tour of the beautiful caves and winemaking facilities they use at Chateau Boswell. Realm’s focus is making wines utilizing fruit from world renowned vineyards in the area including the famed To Kalon, Beckstoffer and Dr. Crane. Randy took us on a barrel sample tour of Cabernet Sauvignon made from these three vineyards. I was really excited to taste these because so many top wine producers (like Quintessa, Paul Hobbs, Provenance, Realm, Cain, Alpha Omega and Harlan Estate) create vineyard designate wines showcasing these vineyards. Though I didn’t take notes (I was there to pick up barrels after all) I thought that both the To Kalon and Beckstoffer were quite masculine and dense whereas the Dr. Crane seemed more feminine with some notes of violets. Of the three, the Dr. Crane was my favorite, though if I was eating a steak, I might choose the To Kalon or the Beckstoffer. Sadly these wines won’t be released for quite some time…and there is that pesky waiting list for Realm’s wines. I will have to be patient…this has never been my strong suit. Perhaps making a 2011 vintage will teach me patience? After all the wine is going to be sitting in barrel for at least 20 months and probably closer to 24 months. At least that gives us some time to think of a good name for our winery…even though the wines are just for friends and family we want it to have a clever name. If you have any great name ideas please let me know…if we choose a name you submitted you’ll score yourself some fabulous wine and Jason and I will take you out to dinner. Dang, Screaming Eagle is already taken…how about Shrieking Parrot?