Tama Takahashi
July 26, 2012 | MIscellaneous Wine Fun! , Wine Country Travel | Tama Takahashi

Wine Biz Buzz--The Hot Place To Taste Wine

Palmina WineryThe buzz around the wine biz is that the hot new place to taste is the Lompoc wine ghetto. Nearly two dozen well-known and rising star wineries have filled an industrial park near the intersection of Highways 1 and 246, at the entrance to town. Previously, humble Lompoc was a sleepy town existing only to serve the Vandenburg Air Force base that commands 35 miles of coastline to the west, and to house workers for the many flower fields that surround the town. Like the transformation of Paso Robles from being a dusty ranching community in the 1980s to the renown wine touring spot it is today, Lompoc is on the verge of being "discovered".

But for now, Lompoc still has small town feel and a weekend here is an absolute bargain when compared to more well-known wine regions. Clean motel rooms can be had at the Days Inn for just $72 per night and one can eat at family run restaurants like Floriano's (handmade tortilla chips) and at Suvan's Kitchen for Thai food without breaking the bank. There are two Championship golf courses: the challenging  Robert Muir Graves designed La Purisima Golf Club (lowest rate: $24 for 18 holes) and the unique Marshallia ($42) that is a must-play for golfers. The regal course is set within the 94,000 acre Air Force base, don't be surprised to see deer, coyotes, foxes and wild turkeys.

Lompoc MuralsLompoc can also be a town for kids. I had a fun mom/daughter weekend some years ago. We walked old town which is filled with dozens of murals, most of them part of a program conceived in 1988 by the Stevens family as a tourist draw. La Purisima Mission is one of the the largest and the most restored of the missions. We went on a Mission Life Day when one can be immersed in the mission life with docents in period costumes engaged in activities appropriate to the time--spinning wool, making candles, etc.

Palmina WineryBut, the main draw in Lompoc is the stellar wine. I drove out to replenish my supply of one of my favorite wines, Palmina's Barbera. Round, silky, and filled with berry and red stone fruit flavor, their Barberas are made to pair with food. A bottle can be open for days without turning sour, developing new flavors with time. Their Malvasia is another wine with this unusual ability to blossom with oxygen instead of turning. Palmina owners honor the Italian la dolce vita tradition of matching food and wine, not only in their winemaking, but in their wine club that ships their specialty food ingredients with recipes to pair with the wine shipment, and in their tasting room where imported cheese and salami is offered to nibble while you sample their wines. Tasting at Palmina should be a long-savored experience as you journey through their diverse portfolio of Italian varietals from the pale briny Tocai Friulani to the rare, opulent, nearly-black Lagrein.

Fiddlehead CellarsSta Rita Hills just to the east of Lompoc is home to many highly-rated wineries. It is known to have the perfect climate for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Fiddlehead Cellars takes advantage of this with their 728 Pinot Noir--with lovely black cherry flavor, structure and a balanced acidity. Fiddlehead's owner is Kathy Joseph, a pioneering female in the most often male dominated world of winemakers. She grows her own grapes for her Fiddlestix 728 Pinot Noir, sources grapes from the Chehalem Mountains of the Willamette Valley for her Oldsville Reserve Oregon Pinot Noir and sources Sauvignon Blanc from top Happy Canyon vineyards. I'm in general not a fan of the Sauvignon Blanc varietal, but I loved the BTG "By The Glass" Sauvignon Blan--juicy and fresh-tasting; just the right wine for shellfish or oysters.

Stolpman WineryEven on a Saturday in the summer, the Wine Ghetto tasting rooms are not mobbed the way they are in Napa. But, a happy group was at the congenial Stolpman Vineyards tasting room which is set up to make friends. One long table with benches takes up most of the room. One taster offered me some cheese and fruit she had brought and another family told me about their daughter who is studying to become a food editor. The friendly tasting room manager Alicia poured their well-crafted wines: Syrah, Sangiovese, Grenache, Roussanne and Viognier. The quality of the Stolpman vineyards, located on three limestone ridges, are coveted by winemakers. The limestone adds structure and acidity to the grapes, which are organically produced, hand-tended and dry-farmed once the vines are established, so the vines produce grapes with concentrated flavor. 

Rick LongoriaAlicia suggested I go next door to Longoria. It would have been a shame to miss his sublime Pinot Noir. Longoria has been receiving big scores from Wine Spectator, Prince of Pinot and Wine Enthusiast, including a whopping 95 points for his 2009 Fe Ciega Vineyard Pinot Noir--an exceptional wine at just $48 a bottle. I liked the 2010 Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard Pinot Noir just as well and purchased a bottle to wow my Pinot-phile friends. I had the chance to speak with winemaker Rick Longoria who, with his wife Diana, was the first to bring his winery to the Ghetto in 1998. He saw the potential in Santa Barbara County to make world-class wines and he was right. Terroir combined with meticulous hand-crafting small lots of premium wine have made Longoria one of the reasons tiny Lompoc is going to be squarely on the international wine traveller's map.

As yet, there are not the comfy amenities of wine travel that a region like Napa has--no spas, big resorts or gourmet restaurants. But, great food follows great wine, so I expect we'll start to see organic, farm-to-table wine country cuisine in Lompoc soon. Already you can buy wood-fired bread from New Vineland Bread in the Wine Ghetto's Piedrasassi New Vineland Winery.

If that's not enough, as you leave Lompoc going south on Highway 1, you will pass through a piece of California history that goes back 175 years. As you wind your way through the golden hills capped with stands of oak, you'll see wood signs with ranch names like Los Yridises, Los Amoles and San Julian carved with black letters. These are tracts within the last of the great Spanish Land Grant ranchos dating back to 1837, when José de la Guerra y Noriega was granted title to 48,000 acres to provide beef for the Presidio. The ranch was sold several times, ending up in the hands of Thomas Bloodgood Dibblee who married José de la Guerra's granddaughter, Francisca de la Guerra, bringing Rancho San Julian back into the de la Guerra family. Today, Rancho San Julian is sustainably farmed by descendants and their grass fed beef can be found at fine Santa Barbara restaurants and farmer's markets.

World-class wines, friendly people and wallet friendly prices make Lompoc a definite go-to. Catch it now while the prices are low and the tasting rooms uncrowded and friendly!


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