My first wine tasting excursion of the year, with my husband Jason and friend Ann, was to Lompoc, California.  This is an area affectionately known as the “wine ghetto”.  Here there are neither beautiful chateaux, nor rolling hills with planted vines shining in the sun.  Nope, nothing pastoral or picturesque in the wine ghetto.  Instead, we see nondescript industrial buildings, located behind the Home Depot, some of which house simple tasting rooms and warehouses full of aging barrels of wine.  First we stop at Palmina to taste wine made from Italian varietals by Steve Clifton.  The white offerings today included a lovely 2007 Tocai Fruilano. Tocai is a wine traditionally reserved for special occasions (like weddings) in Italy.  It is fruity and crisp – a refreshing summertime bottle or ‘first glass to a meal’.  Next up, Palmina’s 2007 Malvasia Bianca. This white has a floral nose –mostly honeysuckle and jasmine. On the palate it is dry with citrus and mineral notes. This is a perfect “hot summer night” white. We move to reds next, with one of my favorite Italian varietals, Dolcetto. This is one of Palmina’s everyday drinking wines, great with pizza, pasta and any foods with tomatoes.  We also tasted the Tretono which is made of Malbec made from fruit grown in Argentina. Then we tasted 2005 Savoia which is a blend of Nebbiolo, Barbara and Syrah.  I am quite partial to blends because sometimes the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and the Savoia doesn’t disappoint but I’d prefer to give this one a couple more years of cellar time.

Next up was Ampelos, an appointment-only tasting room.  We drove into an industrial park and past a cabinet shop.  We opened a warehouse door and walked into a cool, dark space with neat rows of wine barrels.  Since it was overcast and cold, Peter Work, the wine maker, suggested that we come upstairs to the office in a loft above the barrels to do some tasting.  We were greeted by Peter‘s wife and business partner Rebecca and their extremely friendly chocolate labrador, Bacchus. Oddly enough, Bacchus is a female dog named after the Roman god (not goddess) of wine.  We tasted 2007 Chien Edelzwicker made by Don & Lindsay Schroeder (Rebecca’s son and daughter-in-law).  I first tasted this wine at Elements restaurant last summer. This blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer was my favorite white of 2008. We spoke of lesser known white wines and Peter let us know that he is making the first California-grown Grüner Veltliner – a wonderful white wine grape most commonly found in Austria.  Grüner Veltliner – called GrüVe (pronounced groo-vee) by its fans – is an incredibly food-friendly wine. It even plays nice with hard-to-pair foods like artichoke and asparagus. In blind tastings it often trounces top rated Chardonnays. This is a good one to try out on anyone who is stuck in a Chardonnay rut. While leading us through two of his favorite Pinot Noirs – the 2006 Lambda and 2005 Rho (both amazing – made with fruit from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation), Peter explained that the Rho is made only from the best barrels of wine. It is then bottled and allowed to age for another year. I can assure you, it is truly worth the wait!

Peter proudly spoke of his son, Don Schroeder, who in 2008, took over the wine making duties at Sea Smoke.  Don is stepping in to fill big shoes left by Kris Curran – who is now with Foley.  Kris Curran and husband, Bruno d’Alfonso (of Curran, Badge and di Bruno) are also consulting winemakers for Ampelos.  Kris was Don’s mentor at Sea Smoke while he was assistant wine maker.  I for one am looking forward to tasting the 2009 Sea Smoke. Maybe I’ll get lucky and be able to do some barrel tasting with Don? Next we tasted a wonderful Syrah/Grenache blend called, you guessed it, 2005 Syrache. This wine has a nose of plum and cherry and a balanced and long finish. I keep wanting to pronounce the name of this wine as SEE-rah-chay because it reminds me of a really spicy Thai hot chili sauce, called Huy Fong Sriracha (pron. SEE-rah-chah), that you in many different types of restaurants in Los Angeles – from Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Cajun – even little diners. Sriracha’s clear plastic squeeze bottle with a green top features a distinctive line drawing of a rooster on the front (hence the oft used nickname “rooster sauce”). The text on the back is in English, Spanish, French Vietnamese and Chinese. David Tran, Sriracha’s creator, is an ethnic Chinese refugee from Vietnam who immigrated to Los Angeles about 30 years ago. If you’re ever looking for proof that America is a “melting pot”, look no further than “rooster sauce”. If you’d like more proof then I’ll offer up, Ozomatli, a band based out of Los Angeles. The group is influenced by music from many countries including Mexico, Asia and Africa – give them a listen if you haven’t already. Okay, enough of my off-topic ramblings, lets get back to the wine ghetto! And now Peter moves us on to his Syrahs (probably my favorite varietal from this area), first the Ampelos 2005 Gamma. This Syrah is made from fruit grown in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. I get lost in this wine with its dark stone fruits and exotic spices with a soft mouth feel. The next Syrah we tasted was the 2005 Epsilon. With a big and mature taste, packed with black fruit and spice flavors, this one has a richness that seems beyond its years. Next we tasted the 2005 Delta – a lovely expression of Grenache with rich flavors of raspberry and a long finish that invites you back for the next sip. After talking with Peter and Rebecca and enjoying their wines for 2 hours, Peter took us downstairs to the warehouse for some barrel tasting.  He stopped to pick up a wine thief (a handy tool for getting wine out of a barrel).  I really enjoy getting to do barrel tastings with wine makers. It is interesting to taste wine first while it is “in process” and then later when it is released. The changes that can occur over just a few months are astounding. Next we tasted from a new French oak barrel of Gewürztraminer. I hope that I’ll get to sample this one again, before it is bottled in order to taste where the Peter steers it. We tasted a lovely, fruity Grenache which had good color (a pleasant surprise). The Grenache won’t be released for quite some time, but it is already absolutely wonderful.  Next, we tasted a very special wine made from a German varietal called Dornfelder.  Peter bought the fruit from Huber, another local winery – the only grower of Dornfelder in California that I am aware of.  (Note:  I’m intrigued by this unusual grape, so if you happen to know of another grower, please let me know).   Dornfelder is unbelievably dark – it looks like ink and actually stains the inside of the glass – and teeth, purple.  Ampelos’ Dornfelder, while still in the barrel, was chock-full of flavors including blackberry jam and caramel. I cannot wait to taste this wine when it is released!

Jason and I enjoyed the wines from Ampelos so much that we joined the wine club and brought a case home.   While it takes a bit of planning to make an appointment to taste at Ampelos, I highly recommend a visit!