The Wines of Santa Barbara

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Zaca Mesa

The first Santa Barbara wine I can recall trying was the 1979 Zaca Mesa Pinot Noir, which was good enough for me to repurchase and in fact I probably have one very tired bottle of this wine left in my cellar. Since those days Zaca Mesa has refocused on Rhone varietals, and in fact has the oldest Syrah vineyard in the county at their Black Bear site. 3 1/2 acres of own-rooted Syrah planted in 1978, making it also the first Syrah vineyard in the county.

Their refocusing might account for some of the momentum Zaca Mesa may have lost in the media over the years but one thing always strikes me when I try their wines; they are always good. In fact they have always been good, and affordable, and I don’t understand why we don’t see more of them. These tend not to be fancy wines, but rather wines for wine drinkers and at that they succeed very well. There are a few higher priced wines for the geeks out there, like the high end Syrahs, which with the Reserve and Black Bear bottlings can pretty much compete with any examples at their price points. But Zaca Mesa is not really about the high end, they remain a great winery catering to the wine loving community in general and have a beautiful facility that welcomes all visitors.

Looking back through my notes as I write this I am struck by the high quality of these wines all across the board. Bravo Zaca Mesa!

2012 Zaca Mesa Estate Z  Gris 13.5% $16


All SS

At most 2% previous vintage mourvedre

A little spicy and floral on the nose with cherry, strawberry and a touch of rhubarb aromas and something bit flinty dusty. Fairly bright on the palate with just a suggestion of creaminess to the strawberry and guava flavors that show a hint of spice, some fine powdery tannins, and a hint of lemon pith and passion fruit on the backend and through the moderately long finish. Just enough sugar to show but with fine acid balance. Juicy, fresh and fun. 89pts

2010 Zaca Mesa Estate Viognier 14.5% $16


Three months in neutral wood, began in SS, no ml,

Huge exotic lychee and mango nose with some dusty base notes and peach pit aromas. Big and rather mouth filling with fine supporting acids, this delivers rather rich, luscious apricot and melon flavors that are powerful and surprisingly bright, then finishes with great clarity on the palate and fantastic tangerine laced peach pit, mineral and melon flavors. Lovely viognier that avoids the pitfalls of many. 91pts

2010 Zaca Mesa Chardonnay Estate 13.5% $16


Rather ripe and with barrel fermenty sweetness with white floral leesy notes a hint of flint over apple, mango and pear fruit. With a nice little mineral note early on the palate then this opens up nicely, broad yet transparent with integrated acidity, fairly tense but not bright, finishing with a gently rolling bit of soft wood influence over tart apple and slightly mango fruit. The finish has cleansing energy, oak on the nose is present but very subtle and integrated in the mouth. A bit tropical but nicely proportioned. 88pts

2009 Zaca Mesa Grenache Blanc Estate 14.5% $25


Earthy and perfumed with lots of floral, balsamic aromas on the  oily nose which shows raw wood terpene notes.Rich,  powerful, tight and youthful in the mouth showing early notes of raw nut meats, butchers wax and a little lemon and peach fruit with a hint of vanilla. This is powerful yet focused, tight long and mineral with acid, a hint of vanilla cream on the midpalate, with lots of pear fruit from the midpalate on through the moderately long finish. 91pts

2010 Zaca Mesa Z Blanc 14.5% $20

47% roussanne, 47% grenache blanc, 6% viognier

Barrel aged separately, the blended and aged 7 months

A beautiful nose that is floral, lightly smoky, and rich with the aromas of nut meats, apricot, mango, and melon. Bright and clear on entry with a lovely texture that shows a nuanced richness surrounding vibrant fresh fruit that's light and precise. This gains some depth and oaky complexity on the backend, finishing with fine minerality and impressive length. Super fun and delicious. 90pts

2009 Zaca Mesa Roussanne 14.5% $25


Smoky oak laced nose with a smoked meat, prosciutto aroma over dark, slightly dried tart, astringent fruit. While a bit soft on entry, this turns broad and round in the mouth with a creamy if clear midpalate. The oak adds plenty of spice to the midpalate and the backend, which is a little short with a hint of burnt orange rind. This is  soft, creamy and accessible. 85pts

2010 Zaca Mesa Mourvedre 13% $35

18 months in oak, 25% new

Rather oaky and noticeably raw at that with light toast, vanilla laced black currant and tarry dried meat aromas. Bright and crisp on entry, this is thoroughly medium bodied  with lovely, lively, meaty, berry flavors that show a touch of tar and dried plum fruits. Cool, crisp and lightly mineral on the palate this turns dusty and chalky on the long finish that ends with a blip of raspberry juice. Elegant and nuanced Mourvedre with very fine tannins and great acidity. 91pts

2009 Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée 14.5% $ 20

53% Grenache, 39% Mourvedre, 8% Syrah

A bit of raw oak marks this smoky and slightly balsamic nose with a bit of mourvedre beef jerky and dried beef, lots of violet, lots of wild blackberry and a hint of plum fruit. Bright yet powerful on entry with mouthwatering acidity and a nice base of supple if dry tannins, give clarity to the peach, raspberry, and wild cherry fruit on the midpalate with just a hint of strawberry. This shows hints of a little finesse and elegance, in a lovely red fruited blend. 87pts

2008 Zaca Mesa Z Three 14.5% $42

51% syrah, 37% mourvedre, 12% Grenache

Toasted nut, present but well balanced oak, hints of black olives and black pepper framing smoky dried meat and wild black plum and berry fruit flood the nose. This is aromatic. . Smooth, rich and powerful on entry, with a mouthfeel supported by fine grained if slightly dry and wood derived tannins and integrated acids. This  retains good clarity on the palate, a nice spicy tone on entry then fine wild cherry fruit with raspberry and plum accents. With a bit of air this develops tons of beef jerky on the nose and develops a long finish laced with sweet spices and palate cleansing astringency. Complex and deep. 91pts

2009 Zaca Mesa Syrah Estate 14.5% $25

40% new oak, 18 months

1% viognier cofermented

Rather ripe on the nose, then smoky and dark with some caramel notes framing a bit of honeysuckle While not as powerful on entry as the nose suggest, this is rich and  rather well balanced with decisive cut to the palate’s wild cherry, black pepper, dried meat and bergamot tea flavors. There is a fine blend of tension and intensity here with lots of fruit on the long finish. This is really nicely done, balanced, nuanced with gentle stemmy spice notes, and hints of tar and spice. 89pts

2010 Zaca Mesa Eight Barrel Syrah 14.5% $42


Tight on the nose nose with a funky blend of soil, oak, and savory Syrah fruit rich in white pepper, dark fruit, and hints of truffle and pencil lead. Elegant if just a bit on the soft side in the mouth with lots of fine grained sweet tannins supporting a big gamy midpalate that shows hints of pepper and spice in a rather integrated and supple style. There’s lots of  red fruit here, especially on the backend which shows currant and cranberry flavors leading to the long finish with plenty of fine grained fruit tannin. This offers up a super blend of power and richness, though it is a touch soft. 89pts

2009 Zaca Mesa Syrah Mesa Reserve 14.5% $44

21 months 80% new

Dark with nutty oak top notes and bitter chocolate shavings framed wild blackberry and grilled meaty fruits on the nose. Texturally this is worlds above the Eight Barrel with  superb clarity on the palate with just a hint of either youthful or wood induced sweetness. Layers of slightly gamy blackberry and black plum fruits with a real freshness to them cover oak notes that are superbly well integrated showing up on the backend with pencil shavings and rich black pepper notes leading to a long powerful, wild raspberry and peach skin rich finish. The tannins are finely ripe but build nicely on the finish. 92pts

2009 Zaca Mesa Syrah Black Bear Vineyard 14.5% $60


Funky and rich on the nose, gamier and more savory than the Mesa Reserva Syrah with a nice black olive aspect and fine briar and smoky overlay. In the mouth this shows impeccable balance, super clarity, and excellent ripeness of fruit. Earthy, gamy and deep with a soft truffle and black pepper overlay to the black cherry and wild raspberry fruit, the tannins here are fine grained and tightly packed adding some volume to the elegant mouthfeel and leading to a clear if very slightly earthy, bitter chocolate and thyme laced finish which is long and clear. This has a great sense of ripeness without a hint of over ripeness. 94pts

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: LisaTillis
    221025 13

    Greg - If you did not sample the wines of winemakers, Joey and Jennifer Tensley, then you need to make a return trip. They are making some really exceptional Syrahs from the Colson Canyon Vineyards and Thompson Vineyards. Tensley wines are consistently rated at 93 points or more and have become our go to favorite. Absolutely outstanding! - Lisa Tillis, North Carolina

    Sep 19, 2013 at 1:21 PM

  • Snooth User: snoman
    229582 196

    Ditto for Jaffurs.....

    Sep 19, 2013 at 3:18 PM

  • Snooth User: johnmmoore
    170772 15

    Glad to see the Rhones being showcased. I cut my teeth on Rhones in Santa Barbara county. Tensley and Jaffurs were early favorites of mine for sure. Jaffurs does a whole lineup of Syrahs, and my first experience with cool climate Syrah was a Jaffurs Ampelos Syrah (Ampelos is a Pinot producer in Santa Rita Hills that also grows Syrah and other Rhones). The lesson I learned there was to look for Syrahs grown where Pinots are grown, and it's paid off. Evans Ranch, the premium label from Gainey Vineyards in Santa Ynez, produces all their wines out of Santa Rita - two Chards, two Pinots, and two Syrahs - I love them all. And Melville produces some nice Syrahs as well - their Vernas is not only cheap but very tasty (not from Santa Rita but close by). Really too many good Rhones in the region to mention. It's wine heaven, and anyone searching for wines that will inspire simply must visit. Having Santa Barbara and the beaches just over the hill is simply a bonus.

    One note - I've learned that where the grapes are from is paramount. Yes, technique and style are important, but knowing where the fruit is from goes a long way to predicting what a wine will taste like. I eschew notes of strawberry, tar, etc and cut right to the chase - where are the grapes from? AVA is important, and vineyard if you know the region. I know a Tondre Pinot when I taste it - same goes for a Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. And for a cool climate Rhone lover, location is key. It's literally teaching someone to fish rather than giving them the fish. Santa Barbara county is a terrific place to hunt down some amazing cool climate Rhones.

    Sep 19, 2013 at 5:26 PM

  • After reading this I can't wait to get back out there to taste at Stopman and Martian Ranch! Zaca Mesa and Qupe are already favorites. I look forward to your Pinot wrap up and hope it will include Longoria, Clos Pepe and Hilliard Bruce! And have you tried the amazing Sav Blancs out of Santa Ynez?

    Sep 19, 2013 at 11:08 PM

  • Snooth User: eastwoods
    982332 1

    Interesting reading, but most of these are out of my $$$ range, with the exception of Zaca Mesa Chardonnay (it's at the top of my price point). Make note to self to try it.

    Sep 20, 2013 at 1:12 PM

  • Lisa is right Tensley is fantastic the colson canyon is amazing and so is their Grenache. Also Blair Fox down the street is amazing too. Loved their Grenache blanc

    Sep 20, 2013 at 1:54 PM

  • Snooth User: searchub
    1370139 20

    What about those who don't live in Santa Barbara. Maybe I need give a visit!

    Sep 23, 2013 at 11:01 AM

  • Greg, thanks for the update, definitely some interesting wines to explore. FYI, Stolpman winemaker Sashi Moorman is also doing great things at Sandhi Vineyards with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

    Sep 25, 2013 at 8:50 AM

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