If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I’m a big believer in blind tasting (and if you read it with irregularity, you should drink more wine). On a recent jaunt to the Arroyo Grande region of California’s Central Coast, I was invited to take part in a blind tasting hosted at Laetitia Winery for the So-Cal Chapter of Women in Wine (Retail Sales Division). Me, 25 women, 25 wines, I liked the odds.
The first blind flight featured sparkling wine. As much as I profess an affinity for Champagne in general, the one true Champagne in the flight was terrible. All yeast, very little life, way out of whack, it showed why Grower Champagnes (as opposed to this purchased fruit, mass-produced ‘Large House’ Champagne) are making serious headway, and helped the California sparklers stand out as more than just good values. The NV Gloria Ferrer blanc de noirs was quite a surprise, with a fine bead of tiny bubbles, a hint of strawberry amid the citrus medley, and excellent balance. Equally good was the NV Laetitia brut, quite bright, with a steady bead of effervescence and crisp apple flavors with a hint of fleur de sel caramel. Prior to the blind tasting, I also sampled the ’11 Laetitia brut rosé, a stunning American sparkler in the class of Soter, Schramsberg and Argyle as alternatives to Champagne. If you’re a sparkling fan, don’t miss it.
Next up was California chardonnay. The ’13 Laetitia stood out as the best balanced and showed multiple nuances, even at this young stage. The Laetitia Arroyo Grande property boasts some of the highest elevation vineyards in the Central Coast, and their proximity to the ocean supplies an underlying marine influence that is most prominent in their pinot noirs but can be found in the shadows of their chardonnay as well. In this case, there is a baseline of slightly coddled cream and crushed seashells beneath the mix of Gala apple and Valencia orange-fruit palate. The only other real contender was the ’13 Ferrari Carano, with a layered richness and beautiful use of oak aging, if perhaps a tad less fruit complexity. While both these wines are fairly priced, the Laetitia can usually be found for 30% - 40% less. The other chardonnays in this flight all suffered from heavy-handed use of oak and/or poorly balanced fruit to acid structure (and, in one case, a sickly sweet level of fruit better suited for ice cream topping than wine drinking), which makes the fact that they cost two to four times more than the Laetitia even more disturbing (and shine a spotlight on the Laetitia as a chardonnay steal).
The California pinot noir flight was another winner for Laetitia, as the ’13 was a mélange of sour cherry and portobello mushroom, with hints of black plum, marjoram, iron and gardenias. Balanced, delicious, and, yet again, quite affordable. A fairly close second was the ’13 La Crema from their cool climate Russian River lot. More fruit, to be sure, berries and cherries and dashes of Dr Pepper and chilled cocoa, but all of it was in check with acid and tasted like expressive pinot noir (as opposed to another, more expensive, offering that could’ve passed for a merlot) (I’m still not sure it wasn’t a merlot) (it put the ‘no’ in pinot). It would be a long stretch to say any of these were ‘Burgundian’ (picture Paul Goldschmidt of the D-Backs reaching for a one-hopper from deep short type of stretch) (I wanted to say Boog Powell, but all I can picture him stretching for is seconds at the prime rib buffet), yet the consistent growth in quality and popularity of pinot noir from California and Oregon speak to the beauty of the fruit and the ability of the winemakers to take advantage of it. Is it a coincidence the most heralded French Burgundy and Bordeaux come from what is frequently now termed ‘California vintages’?
California cabernet sauvignon closed out the blind tasting. Laetitia has a second property based in the Santa Barbara Highlands called Nadia, which follows the terrific quality-to-price ratio model of the Laetitia lineup. The ’12 Nadia cab, winner, winner, make reservations for dinner, it was fantastic. Fairly big, bold and chewy, like a bittersweet chocolate truffle wrapped around a center of crème de cassis and dipped in espresso. I can’t say with certainty which is the better vintage for California cabernet, 2010 or 2012, but so far the success rate is at an all-time high (or at least in the conversation with 1974 and 1997). The triumphant improvement of Central Coast cab is really the story, as it wasn’t so long ago that most every effort from the region was a bottle of green bell peppers gone bad. This lineup included one of those, a ’12 from Santa Ynez with more dill than a case of Clausen pickles, as well as a thin ’11 from Napa, and a stunner from – get this – Malibu, the ’10 Saddlerock. I had never experienced this wine (Malibu cabernet has a ring to it, like sound government or jumbo shrimp, IE these things shouldn’t really go together), but it’s on my radar now, and, like the Nadia, should be pretty high on yours, too. Other Central Coast cabernet to strongly consider from ’10 and ’12 include Justin, Smith & Hook, Niner, Cass and Mount Eden Vineyards.
The Women in Wine were impressive at the whole blind tasting thing. A couple of them guessed roughly half the entries down to the producer. I myself managed some vintage and most regional responses correctly, but if we were playing strip tasting, boy, would my cheeks be red. The hostesses at Laetitia, Owner Nadia Zilkha and National Sales Manager Tabitha Alger, were phenomenal. Nadia is a treasure, from her lilting British accent to her exquisite hospitality. Tabitha (spoiler alert: she is a longtime friend who can hang with the best of them, be it laughing, drinking, cursing, or you fill-in-the-blank, girl has game) was the life of the party even while herding felines (25 women drinking wine under one roof, not exactly a tranquil oasis) (and if any of that sounds like I’m complaining, just the opposite, I’d join Women in Wine at any tasting, anytime, anywhere, rosy cheeks be damned).
Following the blind tasting, I was able to sample a pair of rare Laetitia pinot noir from 2012, the whole cluster estate bottling and the La Colline single vineyard. The whole cluster has a meaty, gamey, cranberry bog sensibility, with a promise of tremendous complexity with age. The La Colline vineyard was planted in 1981 with Martini clone pinot noir, and the combination of old vines and earth-forward clone creates a pinot noir of lighter color, ethereal delicacy, and an umami-esque essence. Both these wines are produced in extremely small quantities, are very difficult to locate, and cost significantly more than the other wines in the tasting, yet they still represent a solid value, given their high quality, uniqueness, aging potential and scarcity. Snag a bottle if you can (yes, I surely did).