Zaca Mesa Santa Ynez Valley Wines
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Zaca Mesa Santa Ynez Valley Wines Tasting Notes

Earlier this year after the 2008 Syrah Symposium I had the privilege of touring Zaca Mesa's property with president Brook Williams. Zaca Mesa (“Zaca” in the original Chumash Indian language means “peaceful place”) sits in California's Santa Ynez Valley a bit north of Santa Barbara. For those of you interested in saints, Santa Ynez is none other than the Spanish for Saint Agnes who, in addition to being the patron saint of betrothed couples, bodily purity, chastity, and the Girl Scouts, is, importantly for our purposes, the patron saint of crops. As Brook pointed out to me on our tour when we inspected frost damage, wine grapes are first and foremost an agricultural crop. The most recent crop of Zaca Mesa wines sent to me—all Rhône type wines—adds the hand of man (under winemaker Clay Brock) to make the most of Zaca Mesa's agricultural effort. Each of these wines is estate grown and bottled.

The 2006 Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée is a $20 southern Rhône blend with similarities to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (leading with 59% Grenache with help from Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsaut). The wine sees 16 months in French oak, 20% new. I enjoy the warm fruity roundness of Grenache, and have especially enjoyed a number of New World Grenache constructions like this one. The wine is a crystal clear ruby with strawberry, raspberry and blueberry on the nose. The flavors are mainstream berry fruit, with a touch of black cherry. The oak is nicely employed and the blend holds together with balance. With moderate acidity and soft tannins, this is wine that does not have a strong dramatic plot from first attack through mid-palate to finish, but it is a joy to drink at every stage. The Z should appeal to a wide variety of tastes and marry well with a number of foods. The finish is fruit with a dash of dark chocolate.

Zaca Mesa's 2004 Santa Ynez Valley Syrah is $22. With a nod to the tradition of Côte Rôtie, 2% Viognier adds its typical zip and color-fixing magic. The wine is a deep ruby with some earthy tones, and the nose is a delight of blackberry, cassis, smoke, dried herb, some dried fruit, and a dark chocolate bar somewhere deep in the shopping basket. This is a full-bodied wine, 14.5% alcohol, with good forward acidity. On the palate especially the wine shows a commitment to wood, in this case 100% French oak, 25% new, for a 16-month stay. The grape juice is absolutely up to the wood influence. The wood-litany one would expect is all there: vanilla, dark chocolate, cigar box, wood tannins that meld with vino-tannins to bring a superb drying astringency. What rounds it all out is the acidity and the fruit. When acid and tannin are in balance as they are in this wine the brain has work to do, but it is the kind of job at which you stay late in the office, get to know the security guards and cleaning people—that kind of thing. The finish is less a finish than a continuation of the dramatic arc of this dramatic wine. This is a wine that will reward keeping, and at $22 with just short of 6,000 cases produced, better buy some now.

The $25 Zaca Mesa 2006 Santa Ynez Valley Roussanne is a bright gold, with tinges of orange. The nose is pronounced, bringing immediate ripe apricot, almond, honey, orange blossom, and a bit of stony minerality. Layered on this nose is a sensation of a field of flowers on which bees are hard at work. This wine is 100% Roussanne (the varietal is so often blended with Marsanne in the Rhône), aged 10 months in French oak, 70% new. The elements that bordered on feisty on the nose come gentler to the palate, there is less minerality and more fruit, the ripe apricot leading once again. The wine is dry, not too acidic, showing some alcoholic weight at 14.5% and yet quintessentially easy to drink. The finish is long and maintains good fruit, in a glowing sort of way. This Roussanne is the kind of white wine I wish I would see by the glass in more restaurants so I could use it to wean my white wine friends away from the usual two or three stalwarts. A fine effort.

Verdict: French heritage, American verve
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Here's to American winemakers with the imagination to put their reputation behind blends in a market dominated by varietals.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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