One super hot spring Friday afternoon, we, a small group of wine aficionados, sipped wines — and plenty of water — produced by a winemaking duo and a winemaking trio. Dan Kessler and Ellen Hawk-Kessler produce Kessler-Haak chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, syrah and pinot noir rosé both from their Sta. Rita Hills estate and other grapes sourced within the region.
Our second visit was to the new winemaking facility of Dragonette Cellars, where Brandon Sparks-Gillis, winemaker with brothers John and Steve Dragonette, tasted us through newly bottled releases and barrel samples.
We tasted eight current releases on the shady back patio of the family home. While we were shaded, the day was very warm. I cannot speak for my cohorts, but I had a bit of trouble distinguishing nuances in the reds because of the heat. The wines weren't overly warm, but I was.
Kessler and his wife, Ellen, are low-key and gracious hosts. I've gotten to know them gradually over the years, reconnecting during the region's plentiful wine events. As do many in our wine industry, the two bring other/worldly experience to the business and love of making wine.
2011 Dry Riesling, Lafond Vineyards, Sta. Rita Hills: Fresh and ripe pear with a lovely mouthfeel.
2010 Estate Chardonnay: Super bright with slight butter on the mid-palate. Clones 95 and 76.
2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir: Bright berry with solid watermelon tones and great acidity. One of the longest finishes on any rosé in recent memory. (Only 60 cases made and this wine is almost sold out, according to the Kessler-Haak website).
2010 Pinot Noir: Produced from clone 2A, one of my favorites, and aged in all neutral French oak. Minuscule amount of prune and lots of blackberry. (Here, Phil interjected "orange rind," and boom! Once he voiced his opinion, there it was, and it was lovely).
2009 Pinot Noir: Here Dan utilized four clones — Pommard, 115, 667 and 777 — to craft an exquisite blend that's lighter in color than the 2010 above and presented both more sour cherry and overall fruit than did the 2010.
2010 Pinot Noir: Another blend, same as above but shy the Pommard clone, this time using 35 percent new oak. Lots of white pepper, and my favorite among the reds.
2010 Pinot Noir: Solely Pommard this time, with 50 percent new oak. More sour cherry but also more restrained than the 2009.
Note: All of Kessler-Haak's pinot noirs are produced from estate fruit. Dan Kessler is assistant winemaker for Lafond Winery & Vineyards, where he sources fruit for a couple of his wines.
2010 Syrah, Lafond Vineyard: Full of essence of chocolate dust.
We bid Dan and Ellen goodbye, followed the winding road out of the vineyard and back to the highway, where we headed east to Buellton to the production facility of Dragonette Cellars.
Dragonette is the winemaking team of brothers John and Steve Dragonette, their friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis, and their respective spouses. Cellar master James Sparks, whose sister, Michelle, is Brandon's wife, divides his time between the cellar and the tasting room, in Los Olivos. Working alongside him there is his wife, Anna.
During our visit, Sparks and the Dragonette brothers were busily packaging wine club packages for shipping.
While over the years I've sampled several random Dragonette vintages, I'd yet to taste "formally," so to speak. Today would change that, and strengthen my alliance to this brand and the teamwork behind it.
The winemakers source grapes from several of Santa Barbara County's premiere vineyards, among them Fiddlestix, Vogelzang, Stolpman, Thompson and La Encantada.
The four of us tasted a just-bottled wine and many barrel samples.
2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Happy Canyon: When we tried this wine, it had been in bottle just one week, Sparks-Gillis told us. "We're very happy with it," he said. "Usually young wines are not so good at this stage," but 2012 was a special vintage. John Dragonette joined us briefly and, clinking glasses with Sparks-Gillis, grinned: "Came out OK, eh?" It was a poignant moment between winemaking partners for a wine that is full of spice and fresh lime.
Barrel sample of 2012 Pinot Noir, Radian Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills: This vineyard is on Santa Rosa Road across the river from Cargasacchi Vineyard, Sparks-Gillis said, on the western edge of Sta. Rita Hills. Elegant but restrained.
Barrel sample of 2012 Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills: The pith of the orange peel and subtle pepper and spices — classic Fiddlestix.
Barrel sample of 2012 Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix, clone 115: Nice and lean, with smoke and the slightest hint of pepper. A favorite of mine
Barrel sample of 2012 Pinot Noir, La Encantada Vineyard (Sanford). Dragonette sources this pinot from one of the vineyard's higher blocks. Smoky nose and subtle.
Barrel sample of 2012 Pinot Noir, Cargasacchi Vineyard: Classic Cargasacchi, bright fruit on the nose, restrained on the palate.
2011 Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills: Pink fruit, slight bubble gum and lots of fresh cherry. Just about perfect in my book.
2011 Grenache, two-thirds from John Sebastiano and one-third Thompson Vineyard: Sparks-Gillis calls this wine "varietal specific," or true to the profile of grenache. This wine had also been in bottle just one week. Darker, more smoke and less fruit than the previous wine.
Barrel sample of 2011 "Seven," a 95-3-2 percent blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre culled from several vineyards, Sparks- Gillis said. My notes: "Wow." This is a big wine, but elegance reigns on the finish. "It's full of the classic notes of iron and blood," Sparks-Gillis said.
Barrel sample of 2011 "MJM" (named for Mitchi, Jen and Michelle, the winemakers' wives, who are also very involved in production and marketing): This is nearly 100 percent syrah with just a tiny percentage of grenache and mourvedre and is sourced from a handful of vineyards. "We did the blend and put it back to barrel," he said.