There are those wine brands whose “House Style” – a unique and distinctive common stylistic thread – is present in all their wines. In the Central Coast, and Santa Barbara County in particular, there are a few producers who fit in this category.
There is the unabashedly Californian ripeness of Paul Lato and Joey Tensley‘s wines, the high-octane styling of Consilience‘s Brett Escalera and the powerful compositions of Greg Brewer‘s wines and the dazzling elegance of Dragonette wines.
Few other producers make wines as divergent from a safe, formulaic approach of perky, bright, bouncy fruit as Cottonwood Canyon Winery does. What sets Norm Beko’s wines apart from others is that he releases his wines with about four years of bottle age. Norm has told me that this was the business model when he started the brand.
A fair, if not cynical, counterpoint would be that he may have simply overproduced at the beginning and needed to clear his inventory. Determining which is the case here, is irrelevant to the following discussion.
In all fairness, however, it must also be mentioned that this approach runs the risk of increased variation, bottle-to-bottle, and an increased risk of oxidation. His willingness to take those risks is what makes Beko a maverick in the Santa Maria Valley wine scene.
This style has a bouquet which includes, but is not centered around jammy fruit. Beko’s wines are very mature at release; offer a more complex bouquet beyond the cherry-pepper-cola-vanilla formula for Pinot Noir. On a frame of high acids, are higher-toned, bright fruit, spice box, tobacco pouch and oak in the reds and hazelnuts, crème brulée and more complex and integrated tropical fruit notes in the Chardonnays.
Wines like these require a bit more attention (beyond mere ceremony) from the consumer: They need coaxing. They need to be decanted not only to remove sediment but also to allow them to open up and even out. For this reason, they show so well in the tasting room as opposed on first pour at home: Repeated tipping and pouring aerates the wine allowing it to fully open up.
This, perhaps, is also why Cottonwood Canyon wines are among the more misunderstood and under-appreciated wines in the Central Coast: they don’ jump out, bouncy, youthful and ready to go, straight out of the bottle. These wines may not be for everyone, but they have a loyal following. And they reward patience and offer complexity, structure and food-compatibility.
I recently reviewed some of his new releases, including 2008 and 2009 wines. It is clear that these wines still bear an indelible mark that says “Cottonwood Canyon”. As I was writing my summaries and opinions on these wines, I found myself using the term “hallmarks of the house style”, juxtaposing “mature” and “fresher, younger”.
And so, this tasting has me thinking about the notion of “House style” and how it should fit in the context of a scheme of varietal and regional typicity.
It has been said, by a number of wine commentators and experts, that regional character comes through not in fresh wines which are bursting with youthful fruit, fermentation esters and aromatics attributable to yeast strains – both of which dissipate relatively early. Rather, this thinking goes, with maturity, wines develop site- or region-specific characteristics.
Using a relatively small number of aged Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted as a reference, I’m inclined to say that Norm’s wines reflect the character of aged Pinot Noir from this AVA. This is not an absolute and definitive proclamation. More extensive tastings of library wines would bear this out more clearly.
I belong to a group of people who believe that the wine in the bottle should bear sensory hallmarks of the grapes and the region on the label. This school of thought asks questions similar to the following:
1) Is there a point to putting “Cabernet Sauvignon” on the label if the wine does not bear any characteristics of the grape?
2) Does it do anything for the wine (and an AVA’s reputation and cachet) to put the name of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara on the label if there is nothing in the wine that helps a wine enthusiasts of at least intermediate sophistication distinguish it from an Alexander Valley wine?
American winemaking values individualism and uniqueness. This gives rise to an additional question:
3) Should individual, house, style be subordinate to the character to the grape or the region or the other way around?
In my view, House Style should be an interpretation of the two variables of grape and region. It is born of and dependent and related to them. It is a variation on a theme and variations should stay true to the theme.
Recent Cottonwood Canyon reviews:
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