Monday, May 2, 2022

Tensley Santa Barbara County Wines

Tensley Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County Wines

During our Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria Valley Wine Experience, we drove the Foxen Canyon wine trail. On one of our stops, we were referred by one producer to check out Tensley Wines, which was near the estate we were visiting. 

We drove by the Tensley vineyards on Alisos Canyon Road, (shown left) which was closed, so we stopped in the Tensley tasting room in downtown Los Olivos.

We first visited a central location serving as the confluence of many producers in Woodinville, Washington, during our Seattle/Woodinville Wine Experience, where over a hundred wineries have retail tasting facilities. 

The town of Los Olivos is all about winery tasting rooms with forty different producers having public retail facilities there. It is the anchor for the Santa Ynez Valley wine appellation, situated on State Road 154 just off the major Route 101, about thirty five miles north, inland, from Santa Barbara.

One of the great surprises of our Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria Valley wine experience was the revelation of Syrah being one of the lead varietals in the area. We were expecting to see Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are predominant taking advantage of the cool climate being close to the coastal maritime eftects. The cool coastal breezes run up the valleys of the mountains that run perpendicular to the coast.

We were delighted to find several producers featuring or even specializing in Syrah, Tensley included. At the Tensley tasting room, we were able to taste a flight of their Rhône varietals centered on their Syrahs.  

Readers of these pages know we're huge fans of Syrah as one of our favorite varietals for big fruit filled every day sipping as well as serious wine pairing with robust foods such as BBQ.

Joey Tensley launched Tensley Wines in 1998 with the goal to produce well-priced, Syrah-driven wines, by "sourcing the best fruit possible and let the unique vineyards of Santa Barbara County speak for themselves."

The first release of Tensley totaled just 100 cases. By 2015, production had grown to 5,000 cases and included five single-vineyard Syrahs, the most in Santa Barbara County. Tensley Syrah’s have made the Wine Spectator’s Top 100, scored 99 points with Robert Parker, and won Food and Wine Magazine’s award for the “Top Syrah in America over $20.”

Joey’s first experience with wine took place when he was just twelve-years-old, when his soccer team toured a winery while taking part in a tournament in France. He vividly recalls the chill of the old caves and the aromas of wines fermenting in barrel. From that moment on he knew he wanted to be a winemaker. “Which pretty much made me the only kid in Bakersfield with that particular dream,” Joey says.

Joey got his start in the wine business working as a “cellar rat” for Fess Parker Winery in Santa Barbara County in 1993. Three years later, he became assistant winemaker at Babcock Vineyards. There, he came to appreciate the importance of the vineyard and the grower. 

Over time, Tensley also came to appreciate the uniqueness of Santa Barbara County as a growing region. “We’re one of the only places in the world with a mountain range that runs east-west. That gives us many different, unique micro-climates, so a Syrah grown in one place is so different from a Syrah grown in another. It’s an exciting place to make wine.”

In 1998, Joey became assistant winemaker at Beckmen Vineyards where he was also offered the chance to produce his own label. There, he developed his love for Rhône varietals and decided Tensley would produce only Rhône varietal wines, sourced solely from Santa Barbara County.

Tensley wines gained the attention of the wine press in 2001 when Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator named two of Tensley’s 2001 Syrah’s to his list of the Top Ten Wines in the World, and, Robert Parker scored all the ‘01’s in the high 90’s, calling them “serious, hand-crafted efforts.”

In 2008 Food and Wine Magazine named the Tensley 2006 Colson Canyon Syrah “Top Syrah in America Over $20.” Two years later, Robert Parker gave the 2008 Anniversary Series Colson Canyon Syrah 99 points, and The Wine Spectator named the 2008 Colson Canyon Syrah #17 of its Top 100 Wines in the World. The 2007 Colson Canyon Syrah was ranked #22 the year before

More recently Tensley received high praise and high scores from wine critics Josh Raynolds, James Laube, and Jeb Dunnuck. Dunnuck gave Tensley’s 2008 Syrah Noir 99 points and named Joey, “one of the rising superstars in California.”

In 2017 Joey also launched “Fundamental Wines” by Joey Tensley. The name was chosen because he felt it perfectly reflected the brand’s philosophy – make fundamentally sound, straightforward wines that over-deliver for the price on every level. Priced at about $18 per bottle, the brand has been a hit with the critics. The 2015 Joey Tensley “Fundamental” red blend received 92 points from The Wine Enthusiast and was an Editor’s Choice while the 2016 scored 90 points with both Jeb Dunnuck and The Wine Spectator. Dunnuck gave The 2016 “Fundamental White” 92 points.

I was not aware of this brand prior to this trip. It was a top discovery and revelation and may certainly be one of our go-to boutique labels going forward. We joined their wine club to obtain a supply of their labels from these tasted and going forward. 

After we returned to OC, we visited the two top wine shops, Total Wines and High Time in Cosa Mesa, the top independent merchant in the area. We were surprised and delighted to find Tensley wines on the shelves in both outlets. 

Our Tensley tasting flight included:

  • Laird Vineyard Marsanne 2021
  • 'All Blocks' Estate Blend 2020
  • Santa Barbara County Syrah 2020
  • Colson Canyon Syrah 2020

Tensley Laird Vineyard Marsanne 2021

Winemaker's Notes: "A very rare varietal that only a few wineries produce and this is our second vintage. It was the coolest vintage in over a decade thus resulting in a fresh mineral based version of Marsanne.'

"We did a bit higher percentage barrel fermentation to round out the middle pallet and give weight to the wine. In all I am very excited about this fun white wine.'

"A great that will pair well with so many dishes but the one that excites me the most is raw oysters! Look for saline, minerals, quince, star fruit and a slight nuance of almonds. Hint…. The almond flavor will evolve and show more with bottle age." 

169 Cases Produced


Tensley 'All Blocks' Tensley Vineyard Red Wine (GSM) 2020

Winemaker Notes: "Exclusively from Tensley and Colson Canyon Vineyards, this blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (GSM) is very complex and full of texture.'

"The Grenache brings red fruit and finesse, Syrah imparts riper black fruits to the blend, and the Mourvedre rounds out the complexity with savory notes and tannic structure. A wine built for enjoyment, super complex but juicy and round for easy drinking."

540 Cases Produced

This was awarded 93-95 points by Jeb Dunnuck and 95 points by Wine Advocate.

Tensley Colson Canyon Vineyard Syrah 2020

Winemaker Notes: "Everything we farm in house is something very special to us. This site is one of the most unique and special places in the world of wine. High (1400 elevation) in the hills north of the Santa Maria Valley with some of the most iron-laced soils I have seen in Santa Barbara County.'

"This wine always delivers juicy round seamless edges. This is the only wine we add some new French oak, as its weight and power integrates with the oak, adding a bit of toasty buttery complexity. Colson Canyon is such a beautiful example of fruit forward juicy California Syrah. Open it anytime and enjoy its blueberry, cassis and chocolate nuances or leave it 20 years and enjoy its leathery, almondy notes. It does not really matter when you open it, it will deliver."

1925 Cases Produced

This was awarded 94-96 points by Jeb Dunnuck and 96 points by Wine Advocate.

Might I consider this the Tensley 'flagship'? This reminded me of a couple other memorable highly rated Syrahs, Kongsgaard Carneros Hudson Vineyard and Penfolds Grange. Both are flawless, seamless, and notable for their smooth, polished, balanced profile. While not to that level of perfection perhaps, this is close and evokes the same experience. Can't wait to receive my allocation and try it at home.

Tensley Santa Barbara County Syrah 2020

Winemaker Notes: "Every year the vineyard percentages change, yet the style remains the same. In 2020 we introduced Laird Vineyard to the blend. By adding this vineyard we continue to work with sandy cool sites to add freshness and savory notes to the final blend.'

"We add complexity and power by including all of our single vineyard Syrah sources. At the end of the day, this wine is both powerful and fresh. It beams with bright acidy and saline notes, rounding out with blue and black fruits to make it generous, juicy and easy to drink. It will age 7-10 years, but do not hesitate to open and enjoy its freshness today."

2100 Cases Produced

We didn't get to taste this label during our visit but we got it as part of our wine club allocation shipment. Stay tuned.



Bells French Bistro Los Alamos

Bell's Restaurant French Bistro Lunch in Los Alamos, Santa Maria Valley

Visiting Santa Maria Valley Wine Country, we were able to get in to dine at Bell's Restaurant, an incredible, quaint, trendy, chic, family-run, French-inspired bistro in Los Alamos, California, just off the Santa Maria wine trail.

Since opening in March 2018, owners Greg Ryan and Chef Daisy and have been recognized as Food & Wine Best New Chef, Esquire’s Best New Restaurants, and have been featured in such publications as Eater LA, Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure.  Notably, they recently received a Michelin Star for their handicraft. 

Daisy Ryan, Executive Chef/Co-Owner is a native of the Santa Ynez Valley. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, she worked for New York City institutions Gramercy Tavern, Chef’s Fare at Brooklyn Fare and Per Se, before returning to the west coast with husband Greg. In Los Angeles, she helped open The Line Hotel in Koreatown, before heading to Austin with McGuire Moorman Hospitality. 

Three years later, Daisy and Greg permanently relocated to California’s Central Coast, opening Bell’s as their first independent restaurant project. They also operate a sister restaurant Bar Le Cote, in Los Olivos, opened in 2021.

Co-Owner/CEO Greg Ryan grew up in the Willamette Valley near Portland, Oregon, where he attended both college and culinary school. He began his career at Tribeca Grill and Per Se in New York City, before heading to the west coast with Daisy. After working as Restaurant Director at LA’s Beverly Hills Hotel, he and Daisy spent a few years in Austin, as GM for Jeffrey’s and Josephine House. Shortly after the birth of their son, Henry, Greg and Daisy returned to California to open Bell’s in Los Alamos.

The restaurant is housed in the incredibly quaint picturesque former Bell Street Farms space in downtown Los Alamos. 

For lunch, we opened with starters, the Chicken Liver Mousse with strawberry jam, cornichons on crostini, and the Crudo of Hiramasa with avocado mousse in a spring onion vinaigrette. 

Both were delectable served with an imaginative presentation.

We shared for our main course the Steak Frites coulotte with maître d’hôtel butter, a grilled beefsteak with their signature home-made fries. 

To accompany our lunch we tasted from the WBTG selections a local Chardonnay.

Metrick "Sierra Madre Vineyard" Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2016

Being a culinary driven restaurant, I followed their lead to select from their winelist this WBTG featured offering.

This is from Metrick, producer winemaker Alex Russan who strives to produce fresh and elegant wines that represent their vineyard origins, and to test techniques and theories on how to best craft wines so that they most accurately represent their vineyards. 

In addition to winemaking, Russan is known for his wine publications about wine science and the nature of terroir. Previously he owned Alexander Jules, a Spanish wine import company focused on rare grapes and labels of barrel selected sherries. Being interested in rare grapes, he crossbred new grape varieties, though though they're still a few years away from their first fruit.

​He carefully selects vineyards with the intent to produce his style of wine - high toned, "mineral" whites and earthier, herbal reds; both with good acid. He works with vineyards marked with coastal influence.  

For a pure and precise expression of Chardonnay, Russan selected the Sierra Madre Vineyard site with its cool, maritime climate and sandy soils. Originally planted in 1971, it is one of the most historic vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Barbara County.

Sierra Madre is the second closest vineyard in the AVA to the Pacific where constant ocean winds define the cool climate site, rarely exceeding 90 degrees during ripening (2016 was especially cool). The pure sand soils with a lower water holding capacity lead to quicker ripening relative to clay content soils pure thereby producing grapes with precise aromatics for leaner bodied wine.

Butter colored, medium bodied, elegant nicely balanced green apple, pear and stone fruits with smooth crisp elegance on a clean finish. 

RM 91 points.


Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards Visit

Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards Estate Visit 

Our travel through the Santa Maria Valley Foxen Canyon wine trail lead us to Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards. What a pleasant surprise and delightful encounter. At the winery, they have an extensive hospitality center with tasting room patio and deck, one overlooking the vineyards and mountain ranges in the distance.

The Zaca Mesa vineyards sit at the highest elevation on the Foxen Canyon Road wine trail. The native Chumash revered this site, naming it “Zaca,” meaning “restful place,”  sitting in the valley framed by the majestic San Rafael Mountains.  

While vines were planted in the area in the earliest days as early as the 1800's only to be wiped out by prohibition, there were but a few vineyards planted by 1970. The early- to mid-1970s saw a planting boom in the county, including Zaca Mesa.

Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards was founded in 1973 by John Cushman and five friends, who purchased the property the year prior. It was the third winery established in Santa Barbara County and in those early days there was much experimentation in determining the most appropriate grape varietals optimal for the property with the first vines planted in 1973. Several different varieties were planted to see which grapes would be the best suited to the estate’s unique terroir. 

Interestingly, in 1971 the most widely-planted red grape variety in Santa Maria Valley – by a wide margin – was Cabernet Sauvignon, while Riesling was followed closely by Chardonnay among white varieties. As elsewhere in California, it took time for appropriate varieties to be planted in the right areas, and most of those early Cabernet plantings were at sites too cool to ripen properly. Those that remain today are inland and in sites more protected from the cooling ocean breezes.

The Santa Maria Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) was the second AVA to be established in California, behind Napa Valley, the historic Santa Maria Valley AVA became official in 1981. It is recognized for its cool, coastal influence and sandy soils filled with ancient marine deposits. The unprotected valley with its transverse mountain range is cooled by the marine weather that comes ashore from the Pacific Ocean. The effect of the cool ocean air is one of the longest growing seasons in California resulting in an extra hang time and wines with complex flavor & balance.

After many trials, Zaca Mesa’s first winemaker, Ken Brown, planted Syrah in 1978, establishing Zaca Mesa as the first producer/grower to plant Syrah in Santa Barbara County. This block of Syrah remains the oldest Syrah block on the Central Coast and is now known as the Black Bear Block, name for a large black bear that once frequented the site.

Zaca Mesa produced the first Central Coast wine to achieve a Wine Spectator Top Ten at #6, the 1993 Zaca Mesa Syrah, created by Winemaker Daniel Gehrs. It became the wine of choice at the White House in February, 1996 for an official state dinner hosting then French President Jacques Chirac.

Today, Zaca Mesa Vineyards produce a broad portfolio of more than two dozen Rhône varietal and style wines with distinctive personalities that reflect the unique terror of the site. They have consistently received high marks for their wines with many 90+ rated wines and vintage labels.

Recently Zaca Mesa have also released a new brand, TREAD, featuring ultra-premium, site-driven wines dedicated to showcasing the diversity of Santa Barbara County focusing on the traditional Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

We tasted a flight of their estate, Reserve and Library wines. Our tasting flight:

  • Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée 2016
  • Clydesdale Syrah 2016
  • Eight Barrel Syrah 2017
  • Estrella Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 2017
  • Black Bear Block Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 2014 and 2017
  • Santa Barbara County Petit Sirah 2018
  • Tread Sierra Madre Chardonnay 2019 
  • Tread Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2019 

We were sufficiently impressed with Zaca Mesa wines, notably their line of Syrah's, that we joined their wine club to ensure receiving allocation releases we tasted today and going forward. 

Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée 2016

When I inquired about their wines, they cited this as perhaps their best known label. 
This is a classic Rhône varietal blend, what is often called a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre), this is a blend of 56% Mourvèdre, 36% Grenache 5%, Cinsault, and 3% Syrah.

Winemaker Notes: "We have been producing this classic Rhône-style blend since 1992. Inspired by the food-friendly and exquisitely layered wines of the Southern Rhône Valley, the Z Cuvée exemplifies the delicate unity between the savory elegance and fruit-driven nature of these blends.'

"Our 2016 Z Cuvée is a beautiful reflection of the harmony created when blending our favorite red Rhône varietals: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah. Each varietal is perfectly interwoven, revealing a dynamic bouquet of red and black fruits, potpourri, and dried herbs. The soft and seductive tannins are energized by flavors of tart spiced plum and cocoa dusted black cherries."

Inky, dark, red-purple. full body, rich, dense black and dark red fruits accented by pepper, earthy notes of asphalt, leather and graphite with grippy tannins on a lively finish.

RM and Wine Spectator 90 points 

Black Bear Block Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 2017
This might be considered their flagship best Syrah. Their 2009 release was awarded 96 points
by Wine Enthusiast and
*Top 100 Wines of 2013*.
Winemaker Notes: "The Black Bear Block is a 3 ½ acre block planted on its own roots in 1978. Named for the black bears that live around our vineyard, the Black Bear Block was the first Syrah vineyard planted in Santa Barbara County and is now the oldest remaining Syrah vineyard on the Central Coast.'  

"Aromas of cured meats, ripe black cherry and potpourri spice leap out of the glass, leading way to red fruit driven flavors. Persistent notes of black raspberry and tart plum are complimented by sweet baking spices introduced by aging in new French oak. Our 2017 Black Bear Block Syrah is approachable in its youth with signature fine-grained tannins, balanced by a graceful finish on the palate.

This was rated 94 points by Antonio Galloni and 93 points by Jeb Dunnuck.

Dark inky garnet colored, full bodied, complex concentrated blackberry fruits with notes of cassis, plum, dark mocha, bacon, smoky oak, white pepper, and licorice with refined tannins on a lingering finish. 
RM 93 points.
Zaca Mesa Clydesdale Syrah 2016 

Winemaker Notes: "As a family-owned winery with a rich history in Santa Barbara County, as well as historical roots that date back to America’s early days, family and history have remained integral parts of Zaca Mesa’s story. Honoring our past inspired us to create Clydesdale, a 100% Syrah paying homage to the Cushman family’s historical middle name, Clydesdale, which traces back generations.'

"The 2016 Clydesdale is a superb expression of Syrah from our estate vineyard. The core of black fruits are intertwined with notes of violet, tobacco, and leather. The voluminous texture cascades along your palate, carrying flavors of red plum, blackberry, and hints of toasted spice. This wine is impressive with depth and character, perfectly suited to age in your wine cellar for many years to come, or enjoy upon release."

This was rated 94 PTS by Antonio Galloni and 93 PTS Jeb Dunnuck. 

Dark garnet purple, medium full bodied, black berry and black plum fruits with tobacco, black tea, notes of vanilla and wet earth on a lingering moderate tannin finish.

RM 92 points. 

Estrella Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 2017
Winemaker Notes: "The Estrella clone represents the most significant Syrah clone found on California’s central coast. First planted on our estate in 1978, as the Black Bear Block, Estrella has become known as the signature Syrah clone of our vineyard. To honor the several generations of Estrella plantings on our estate ranging from 1978 to 2012, our winemaking team created this very special single clone Syrah. Perhaps the most versatile clone of Syrah on our estate, Estrella is the cornerstone of many of our Syrah bottlings.'
"This vintage of Estrella Syrah is another dedication to the charisma that it can bring to a wine. The aromatics blossom as the wine is allowed to breath, driven by a tone of graphite that overarches notes of anise and menthol. It delivers a charming rusticity in the front palate, with the acidity coaxing the wine into a brambly finish highlighted by granular tannins. Granted time in the glass, the plush texture can be admired, while in the coming years this wine is promised to develop further nuances and character."
Dark inky purple colored, full round blackberry fruits with notes of anise, tobacco and black tea with smooth polished fine grained tannins on the finish. 
RM 91 points.  
Eight Barrel Syrah 2017
Winemaker Notes: "The aromatics of the 2017 Eight Barrel Syrah are lifted by tones of juicy plum and caramelized cinnamon, followed by an underlying element of seasoned firewood. The burly personality of this wine is evident upon the first sip, broadly covering the palate and offering an abundance of both red and blue fruits. The texture evolves as opulent tannins settle into a persistent finish of cured meats and dried cranberry."

Tread Santa Maria Valley, Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay 2019

Winemaker Notes: "Initially, the bouquet is opulent with pear, pineapple skin, and citrus blossom. With a little time and warmer temperature, the wine unfolds and introduces notes of flint and sea salt crackers. A generous, creamy texture delivers refreshing acidity across a round middle palate, carrying flavors of juicy nectarine and toasted brioche. The finish is persistent with lingering acidity, priming your palate for another sip."

This was awarded 94 points by Wine Enthusiast, Editors’ Choice, 91 points by Wine & Spirits, and 90 points by Wine Spectator.

Fellow Cellartracker MattMauldin gave this wine 92 points. "Clear, bright pale-gold color. Lively aromas of lemon zest, verbena, creme fraiche, jasmine, oyster shell, and hints of hazelnut. Expressive and richer on the palate, with citrus flesh and quince notes, over a round secondary core of jasmine, crushed stone and allspice. Bright, integrated acidity, with rounded density. Finishes with very nice length of stone fruit and spice."

Tread Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2019

Winemaker Notes: "The 2019 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay is remarkably complex with powerful layers of Braeburn apple, pear, lemon cream, and guava. The fruit characteristics are balanced by notes of flint in this intricate bouquet. The creamy texture carries juicy flavors of pineapple and ripe nectarine in a silky finish that is kept taut by refreshing acidity and nimble citrus flavors."

This was awarded 92 points by Wine Enthusiast, Editors’ Choice, and 91 points by Wine & Spirits.

Zaca Mesa Winery Twitter - @ZacaMesa_Wine

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