Wine is art. There is no debate on that. I refuse to even entertain the idea that it is not.
First Let’s Talk Santa Barbara Wine Country
With the nickname The American Riviera, how could you not want to travel here? Santa Barbara County is a vigorously growing grape region. (See what I did there?) With almost 21,000 acres of wine grapes being grown, and more than 50 grape varietals being focused on, it is no wonder why the vitality of this region has some vivaciousness going on. (Leave me alone, I’m voraciously in an alliterative mood.)
The top three grape varietals that are being produced here by over 200 wineries are all of the vitis vinifera type [groan]: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, & Syrah. With effective microclimates, Santa Barbara County is doing its thing, and doing it well. According to the Santa Barbara Vintner’s website:
The unique, transverse nature of the valleys of Santa Barbara Wine Country provides a patchwork quilt of microclimates and terrains, resulting in one of the most diverse grapegrowing regions in the country. The valleys in the Pacific coastline actually run east-west rather than north-south, and both the coastal Santa Ynez Mountain range and the more interior San Rafael range are transverse too. Because of this geologic oddity, the ocean breezes sweep eastward, channeled by the hills and mountains that ring the region. Heading east into the foothills, the temperatures are warm during the day and very cool during the night, whereas the vineyards that lie westward toward the ocean enjoy a mild and moderate climate. Coupled with soils that run the gamut from ancient beach and diatomaceous earth to chirt and limestone, there is a near-perfect place for a wide variety of winegrape varietals.
To my knowledge, nowhere else in California has such a keen focus on Rhone Valley varietals. This is one reason why I was drawn to tercero wines (yes, that proper noun should be in lowercase letters) on the day of the vintner’s luncheon.
The Chosen One
At the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, California (July 10-13, 2014), I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Schaffer of tercero wines. Larry was just one of the many wine industry professionals pouring vino at the Santa Barbara Vintners Lunch on Saturday July 12th. Alongside those delicious pourings, savory salads of various kinds were being handed out. Leafy greens and wine? You had me at “lunch”.
Since I had had a solid breakfast that morning, I wasn’t ravenous. As a result, my focus was on the wine. Yes, I wanted those greens; by that point, I felt like a single carbohydrate molecule from all of the food I had chosen to eat during previous days while traveling. After I had found a spot to sit, I walked to the nearest salad station and immediately noted the colourful presentation before me. Southwestern Fried Chicken Salad, you say? You had me at fried. (I’m sensing a pattern here.)
At this lunch, I was inspired to turn my focus on one winery. The chosen one: tercero wines.
tercero wines: Visions of the Rhone Valley
I spoke with Larry Schaffer about his winery and libation inspirations. Not only is Larry an interesting fellow to chat with about our favorite subject, but he is also down-to-earth and entertaining. His personality is one reason I decided to focus on tercero wines that day; he exudes a noteworthy, energetic passion. Here is what Larry had to say on naming his winery and why he is focused on Rhone Valley-inspired wines:
- The Demystified Vine: I’m forever fascinated with knowing why people name things the way they do. Why did you choose “tercero wines” as your winery name?
Larry Schaffer: It is always somewhat daunting and challenging to name a ‘venture’. Much time was put into finding just the right name at the time the brand, tercero wines, was started. First of all, ‘tercero’ means ‘third’ in Spanish. I am a third child, have three children, was married to my ex-wife on the 3rd (but alas, I am NOT on my 3rd wife), and tercero is also the name of the dormitory complex that I lived in when I attended UC Davis. The number “three” seems to pop up a lot in my life.
- The Demystified Vine: According to your website, you source your grapes from five different vineyards. What is your reasoning behind sourcing grapes from a variety of vineyards?
Larry Schaffer: I actually work with about 10 different vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County. I make about a dozen different wines and strive for diversity in what I do; I will not release a wine if it is too similar to another that I am releasing. The vineyards I work with are all unique, and I try to be somewhat ‘transparent’ in my winemaking to allow a sense of ‘place’ to be noticeable in the final wine. I work with vineyards in both cooler and warmer climates; vineyards that have sandy soil and loamy soil; vineyards that see quite a bit of fog during the harvest period and others that see none. This allows me to have more ‘pieces’ to fit into my winemaking puzzle, if that makes any sense . . .
- The Demystified Vine: If you were to attempt to use only 5 adjectives to describe the experience you want people to have while enjoying tercero wines, what would those 5 adjectives be?
Larry Schaffer: That is actually tough! Limiting me to 5 words when I’m as loquacious as I am? I’ll try: honest, thought-provoking, food-friendly, enjoyable, unique.
- The Demystified Vine: Santa Barbara County is quite focused on Pinot Noir. Why do you focus on Rhone varieties?
Larry Schaffer: As I mentioned when I moderated the panel at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference on Pioneering Winemakers of Santa Barbara County, yes, there has been a real focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in our county. These two varieties are the most plentiful white and red varieties in our county and have been for quite some time. That said, this county is unique in that it has plenty of viticultural ‘nooks and crannies’ that allow for a plethora of other varieties not only to survive here, but to thrive and produce top notch wines from them.
Due to this variety of soil and climate, Rhone varieties thrive around here – in both warm and cooler climates. To me, Santa Barbara County is home to the most ‘balanced’ Rhone reds and whites in the state. I know that’s a strong statement, but I base this on tasting through hundreds of Rhone wines each year from throughout California. One other reason I love working with Rhones? The pricing on them tends to be much more ‘moderate’ than other varieties at the same quality level, and I prefer not to have my wines only in the ‘high rent district’ so to speak.
- The Demystified Vine: Are you currently experimenting with any other varietals other than the Rhone varietals?
Larry Schaffer: I currently make one non-Rhone variety, and I’ve been making a wine that I call “The Outlier” since 2008. It is a dryish Gewurztaminer, and it is truly a ‘purpose’ wine. I prefer dry white wines to off-dry ones, and Gewurztraminer is traditionally made in an off-dry manner domestically, with a few exceptions. Mine usually has between .75 – 1.25% residual sugar, but also has at least 7 grams of acid per liter and a very low pH. What therefore happens is that the wine has some apparent sweetness, but not too much. Why a ‘purpose wine’, you may ask? I love spicy Indian and Thai cuisine, and I make this wine to accompany those meals. I will also be making my first Albarino this harvest. I’m always drawn to aromatic whites that I can make in a ‘food friendly’ style. I really like Spanish and Mexican seafood dishes, and I hope my wine will pair well with them. I continue to have the opportunity to work with a lot of other red varieties, including Pinot Noir. I learned a long time ago to never say ‘never’, but I prefer to keep as much focus as I can on my offerings these days.
- The Demystified Vine: What is the tercero philosophy with winemaking? Are you organic/biodynamic at all? If so, why? If not, why not?
Larry Schaffer: The philosophy behind my winemaking is pragmatism. I’m not a fan of dogmatic practices in general, and really disdain them when it comes to winemaking. Most of the vineyards I work with practice sustainable farming practices, choosing to use things like pesticides only in ‘worst case scenario’ vintages. I work directly with the vineyard owners/viticultural managers to let them know what I am looking for in my grapes, but at the end of the day, I am not a viticulturist. I put myself in the hands of those who are and therefore know I lot more about it than I do. I therefore can rest easier that I do not have to micro-manage them, but instead, just interface with them to ensure I am getting what I’m looking for.Once the grapes come to the cellar, the fun begins – and I don’t necessarily plan out in advance what I’m going to do with each lot that comes in. I have a pretty good idea with some, but with others, I’ll change things up fermentation-wise or stem-inclusion wise just because I can. Ultimately, I do not control the entire process, and I don’t act like I do. I don’t have all of the answers, but instead use instinct, experience, and ‘educated guesses’ to get me from point A to point B.
The Tasting Experience
For the record, all of the wines paired quite well with my Southwestern Fried Chicken salad. I really had no complaints. Some fared better than others with the salad, but none of the four wines detracted from the savory salad.
The 2011 tercero Grenache Blanc was light and still youthful. Sliced nectarine, ripe peach, melon, and citrus notes fused together nicely. Good minerality was found on the palate, too. It was a fine partner for the Southwest Chicken salad, as the black olives, avocado, and roasted red pepper created a lovely flavorsome relationship.
Onto the 2012 tercero Roussanne I went! Larry pointed out while pouring this wine that he likes to serve it warmer than a white normally is. (Doing so with a white wine typically shows off its bouquet and flavors more so than if it were over-chilled.) My olfactory senses detected peaches & cream, lemon curd, cotton candy, and delicate white floral notes. I made a note that said, “something celebratory in the nose”. I guess I had turned poetic.
My personal palate does not tend to lean towards French-style rose, but I will always try a wine. Next up was the 2013 tercero Mouvedre Rose. Hello fast legs! An enthusiastic expression of an old world rose, this wine shone tenderly with cherry blossom, strawberry candy, unripe raspberry, and hints of rose petals. Softly aromatic, I felt like I should have been sipping it at a wine bar, leaning over the piano, listening to the handsome piano player move that ebony & ivory… [What? Oh, sorry…moving on!]
Lastly, I tried the 2010 tercero Syrah. A developing wine that I felt would peak in 2017, it was brimming with notes of not-overly-sweet jam made from red fruits and a backbone of pepper. The palate provided some additional red plum notes, and I noted that this wine was velvety. A definite cellar-worthy libation.
Thank you to the Santa Barbara Vintners for sponsoring such a great lunch, and thanks to Larry for taking the time out to engage in some wine chat with me!