FrontRunners: From the Robb Cellar

Thanks in large part to the success of Napa Valley’s red wines at the famous 1976 Paris blind tasting, other regions in California with serious viticultural ambitions, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sought to produce Cabernet Sauvignons on a par with those that had overcome the prejudices of French critics. However, a handful of pioneers in Santa Barbara County recognized in the westernmost portion of the Santa Ynez Valley a rare opportunity to perfect a very different red wine.

This narrow stretch of land, known as the Santa Rita Hills, enjoys a unique topography: Unlike the other coastal ranges in California, which run north to south, the Santa Ynez Mountain range runs east to west, toward Point Concepción. Cool marine influences flow eastward from the Pacific, moderating temperatures in the western valley, whose lean, varied soils resemble those of Burgundy. These two factors, in 1999, inspired vintner Bob Davids to plant notoriously finicky Pinot Noir vines on 100 of his 350 acres in the Santa Rita Hills, which he named Sea Smoke—an allusion to the area’s frequent fog. Sea Smoke Cellars’ Pinot Noirs have since become Santa Barbara’s most sought-after releases, preselling, as they do, to a select list made up of private collectors and premier restaurants.

In the 2005 vintage, winemaker Kris Curran (recently succeeded by assistant winemaker Don Schroeder) has created two wines of intense beauty and playful sophistication. The Sea Smoke Botella Pinot Noir 2005 ($40)—named for the botella clay loam that is found in the vineyard—presents a lovely nose of cherry lozenge and rose petals, while, on the palate, it pours forth pomegranate, dried strawberry, and red currant spiced with a suggestion of menthol and cumin.

The more powerful Sea Smoke Ten Pinot Noir 2005 ($70), some tanks of which macerate for up to 28 days, is a tour de force of concentration. Dark in color, dense in body, this Pinot exudes scents of black plum and black cherry, both of which are present in the mouth, alongside more subtle flavors of toffee, sweet, damp tobacco, and the cool, earthy essences of wild mushrooms. www.seasmokecellars.com

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