The Precocious Story

A few years ago I introduced you to a new Pinot Noir Vineyard that landed a spot in our Terroir Extraordinaire portfolio. It’s called Precocious and it’s on the tip of an interesting little hill, located on the north side of that little valley that runs west from the town of Los Alamos, here in Santa Barbara County. The vineyard site is very captivating and so are its wines. In a nutshell, I named it Precocious because of the way its fruit ripens early and because of how good its wines taste the moment they are done fermenting. Right after I discovered this vineyard, I was pretty sure that I would call it Serendipity because of the way I stumbled on to it. After further thought, it became Precocious.

To understand Precocious’ story it helps to have some feel for the concept of terroir. Terroir is a French term that means many things to many people. For me it is like the concept influence. That is, a vineyard’s terroir is all the stuff that influences its vines and the resulting wines that they make. While there may be many factors, climate, altitude, exposure, etc., the main player is the soil. When a vineyard is planted on a unique soil and its resulting wines are unique because of it, then it is generally accepted as a good or strong terroir.

People also refer to terroir as if it were something intrinsic in wine. What I take from this is that they are referring to the signature characteristics that can be smelled or tasted in a wine that are the result of the factors that have influenced its vineyard. Nowadays wine writers love to say, “Terroir gives a wine its sense of place,” which I think is pretty much true.

For the Precocious saga it is also important to know that in Burgundy, the world’s original home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the greatest vineyards, the ones that have brought tears to many a wine writer’s eyes, the so called “Grand Crus,” are planted on sites where the underlying plates of limestone come closest to the surface, thus imparting a magical influence in the wines. The world famous Chardonnay vineyard, Le Montrachet, is a prime example.

With all the reverence for limestone in Burgundy, there has been a spill over affect into the new world, as vintners here have become fascinated by the stuff as well. Interestingly, I have learned that while limestone is usually considered to be a positive thing, it still has to be in balance with all the other organic aspects of the soil. Too much limestone is harsh and can lead to stunted vines that often turn yellow and do not make good wine.

So, about 6 years ago I started working with Tavo Acosta, the general manager of Premiere Partner’s extensive vineyard holdings in the Los Alamos area. What I was most interested in at the time was 20-30 tons of some good Chardonnay for my basic Santa Barbara County bottling. It did not take me long to figure out that Tavo was a good winegrower. During the course of him showing me acre after acre of nicely farmed vines, we came upon a section that was different. What I saw were these scrawny yellow vines struggling on a little hillside at the end of this one block. It was by far the scraggliest thing we’d seen, and I had the feeling Tavo was accelerating his truck to get us past it as quickly as possible.

“If I find an area that I like, and it only takes up a portion of one of your blocks, is it possible to pick only the ends of the rows that are in that area?” I asked.

“I don’t see why not,” said Tavo.

“What’s that white stuff in the dirt right there?” I asked.

“Limestone,” he said.

“Is that why these vines are struggling?” I asked.

“Yea,” he said hesitatingly.

“Is this section with the limestone available?” I asked.

I knew what he was thinking, “Oh boy, another nutcase winemaker.”

But lo and behold, after Tavo beefed the vines up through various inputs like compost, that section went on to produce for my Terroir Extraordinaire portfolio a very distinctive and delicious Chardonnay. It was called Oasis because there is very little limestone in the vineyards of Santa Barbara County. Limestone in our County is like water in the desert. Oasis went on to be quite a success. Even Tavo would taste the wine and agree, it was unique.

Now, let’s fast forward a few years from that point to a day when I got a call from my fully indoctrinated terroir hound, Tavo Acosta.

“Bryan,” he said, “We have purchased some very attractive ground next to our main vineyard at the El Camino Ranch, and to make a long story short, we are developing a Pinot Noir vineyard on top of another one of those rare outcroppings of limestone.”

I was so proud of Tavo. A few years prior to that call, he would have been racing to get past such a site. Now, all of a sudden, he’s calling me and it’s like, ‘Dude, check it out!’

So, of course, I did. And, of course, it looked great. And for the sake of shorter winemaker’s notes, I wish I could say that I went on to make its glorious wines, and that Tavo is ever so proud of himself for turning me on to it. But there is more to it than that, because, in the end, terroir is just not that simple.

What had happened in the interim was that I started making a Pinot Noir from a Paso Robles site that I call Déjà Vu. Interestingly, limestone in Paso is not an oasis. In fact, on the west side of town the stuff is everywhere. Déjà vu is on a hillside in the Templeton Gap that is saturated with limestone. So, you’d think the wines from Déjà vu must have many of the same characteristics as the best Pinots from Burgundy, right? But they haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, Déjà Vu is making beautiful wines. But they do not taste anything like Burgundy. Déjà Vu is its own beast.

Then my first bottling of Oasis Chardonnay came out. Did it taste like Burgundy?


In fact the joke was on me when it settled out in its barrels shortly after fermentation, and instead of tasting like Le Montrachet, it tasted kind of like a Chardonnay from Napa! While it was like a really good Chardonnay from Napa, the whole thing was like a strange dream.

So what did it all tell me? Well, in a nut shell, it told me that terroir is unpredictable. Even if you do have some limestone in a vineyard, who knows what the influence of it will be on the finished wine. It totally depends on what else is in the soil, as well as all the other factors such as climate. If nothing else, it definitely told me that you don’t necessarily need limestone to make great wine. I mean, if you can’t really predict what limestone is going to bring to a wine, then chasing after it in vineyards strikes me as a crap shoot. What about vineyards like Ocean’s Ghost on my ranch? It has no limestone, and it has been making great Pinots. Ultimately, all these experiences liberated me from this notion that if I found a site with limestone, I was obligated to make the wine from it.

There I stood with Tavo looking at another rare outcropping of the white stuff, and while he was thinking, “It’s gonna be the next Oasis,” I was thinking, “Who knows?”

That’s when I started to study the small triangulated hill top that lies above the limestone. It had a visual appearance unlike anything I had ever seen. And while I had no idea what kind of wine it would make, the site was just sexier. It was more elevated and was a little breezier. It was well above the spring frost line, and it would drain well, which usually helps to keep the vines from getting too vigorous. As Tavo and I walked up to it, I could see that its soil was darker and less sandy than the lower fields. Little fragments of whitish rock (not limestone) almost gave it a sparkly look. It was the kind of site that looked like it would have, good or bad, a definite influence on its wines. What can I say, it had a certain jais ne se quoi.

As for Tavo, he gets it. After I explained it all to him, he was just happy that I found something provocative, something potentially worthy of isolation and discovery. As for me, it all seems so fortuitous. If there had not been an interesting little hill above the limestone, I probably would have just gone home. But, there was a hill, one that I had a great feeling about as I serendipitously walked up to it.

So why didn’t I call the vineyard Serendipity in the end? Well, someone already has a trademark for Serendipity wines, and I don’t want to rock that boat. But perhaps more than that, while the idea of serendipity would represent a story, it would not necessarily describe the terroir. For a view of a terroir, one must look into the appropriate reflection; that is, one must to look into its wines. Thus far, the wines from this new site have been very precocious. The crop in this vineyard ripens early, the juice ferments rapidly, and then, as if it were touched by the hand of Bacchus, the new wine tastes great. It’s like 5 minutes old, and it tastes great. I think when you taste the wine you will get a sense for what I am saying. It’s delicate. There is nothing to argue with. It’s sweet and supple. It has a classic dried rose petal character and just a pinch of that bacon fat thing. The fruit is like spicy cranberry-cherry, and the mouth has an intrinsic succulence that is so tasty. This is one of those lighter Pinots that you don’t have to apologize for. Its delicacy and mysteriousness is its power.