"We're looking to pick the perfect eating apple, not the apple-sauce apple."
This is owner and winemaker Joe Davis' succinct summation of his approach to winemaking, and why his gorgeous Arcadian Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 ($60), this week's selection, is so different from that of most of his colleagues.
At the moment it just bursts with bright red summer-fruit flavors, but as it matures it will more closely resemble darker fruits like plums and dark cherries, and show those beguiling old-wine flavors like cedar and wet leather. I asked Davis what he thought would be its optimal age and he declined to speculate, pointing out he had only been working the vineyard for nine years so he didn't have the perspective. However, given its adolescent exuberance at the moment, 20 years wouldn't seem like too outrageous a guess.
I thought it near impossible, in the heat of California, to make a restrained, elegant pinot like this, a wine with real fresh fruit flavors as opposed to the all-too-common semisweet cola-wine versions. Of course, the Santa Rita Hills is one of the coolest growing regions in the state, but this then raises the question of why so many Santa Barbara wines don't taste like cool-climate wines. Davis' answer is telling: "That's a stylistic choice, quite frankly."
"It has nothing to do with the soil or the weather, it's a choice made by winemakers who are choosing to pick much later, harvesting much riper fruit, producing these darker, blacker wines with very little acidity and astronomical alcohol levels."
According to Davis, 20 years ago when Santa Barbara winemaking was just taking off, the wine that was getting the most press attention was this sort of overripe, high-alcohol pap, so this became the trademark of the region. People just assumed it was the way to make pinot noir.
So why did he decide to do things differently?
"I had the great pleasure of spending two years making wine at Domaine Dujac in Morey-St-Denis (in Burgundy). I had a different benchmark."
His Damascene moment came in 1982 when he drank a 1978 Clos de la Roche from Dujac. "I had that wine as a young undergrad and I am pretty sure I levitated, and that forever has been the elusive chalice that I have chased in my career."
Now, if his Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot is anything to judge by, it seems he's pretty close to claiming that holy grail of pinot perfection that has eluded so many others.
To find this wine, go to www.wine-searcher.com.
When to Drink: Now, and for the next 10 years
Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour's breathing is essential
Food Pairing: Pork, roast chicken, pasta
Grape: 100 percent pinot noir
Appellation: Santa Rita Hills