A Taste of California

By Al DeReu

Ecstatic that a winery I wanted to visit agreed to give me a tour on a moment’s notice, I took flight in a rented Chevy Cavalier, beelining it for Ventura Highway. I possessed directions that made me more than a little uneasy, but also an overpowering optimism that this pit stop en route to Big Sur was an ideal start to my California trip.

I had flown in the night before from Chicago via Phoenix, an adventure in its own right. As I intended to get in some camping, I was flying with a day pack stuffed impossibly tight; attached to it (by a carabineer, of course, to show everyone how serious an outdoorsman I was) was my trusty, sun-faded first aid kit. After checking in these items, I suddenly began suffering my first bout of airport paranoia, trembling with the fear that something was hiding somewhere in the dozens of folds and pockets of the first aid kit—an eight-year-old prescription or other incriminating object. Or worse yet, if airport security were to actually try to empty the day pack, they were sure to find my all-important Leatherman folding pocket knife. Just what I need, I thought, to spend my vacation behind bars explaining to the new Gestapo thought police that I really was going camping, hence the reason for such oddities as waterproof matches, surgical blades, and a snake-bite kit. But after a couple of beers at the bar and another chapter of A Confederacy of Dunces, I freely boarded the plane (after being told that I, among a few others, was “selected” for an additional security search…gee, what an honor).

The relatively open stretches of the endless southern Californian highways constituted quite a contrast to the stuffiness of the airport. Beckmen Vineyards is located in Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County, a scenic, serene, and slightly mountainous area only recently gaining respect for its wines. In addition to grapes, Beckmen grows pears, olives, apples, and a host of other agricultural goods on their land.

But I was there for the fabulous wines they craft. They pride themselves on producing Rhone varieties—that is, grapes grown in the Rhone River Valley in the south of France. These grape varieties are Grenache and Syrah, most notably, for red wines, and Grenache blanc, Rousanne, and Viognier for white. They might sound unfamiliar owing to their relative obscurity in California as a whole, but the Santa Barbara Vintner’s Association boasts numerous esteemed Rhone-inspired wineries.

In fact, Beckmen is going to stop making Chardonnay, ripping out these vines and replacing them with more Rhone grapes (what else?). Upon hearing this, I was surprised and disappointed. I’d had a couple of vintages of their Chardonnay and it was always well-made, and it was a veritable bargain for the $15 price tag. But my initial reaction quickly evolved into respect for the decision: They were abandoning something they did well because they saw Chardonnay as “passé” and sought to pioneer their own, new way. (If this point isn’t hitting home, imagine Wendy’s taking French fries off the menu and substituting egg rolls: It might work, it might not, but the fries were a sure thing.)

Despite Beckmen’s emphasis on Rhone wines, my favorite is their Cabernet, which is a Bordeaux grape. I shared this with my tour guide Anna, who had taken me to the tasting room. “There are only three of us here today, otherwise you’d get the full tour,” she apologized.

“Not to worry, I have many a mile to drive yet today,” l responded, avoiding the more rudely honest reply of “Once you’ve seen one {winery, dark barrel-filled cellar, or spotless stainless steel fermenter}, you’ve seen them all”. A drive around the property would certainly prove fruitful, with the picturesque surroundings. I added, “This is the first American winery I have visited, so I’m glad you had me, considering the short notice.”

From this remark, Anna took the lead in our conversation, asking me where else I’d visited wineries (Spain, Chile, and Argentina), how I came to know Beckmen (the wine store where I worked), what else I hoped to do while vacationing here (camping), and so on. Her skill at managing the tasting room showed as she set up a spit-bucket (it was 10:30 in the morning), the bottles to try, a vineyard map, and a packet containing tasting notes, winemaking information, and pricing. As she finished setting up, she rolled right into a brief history of the property, her personal favorites, and Beckmen’s plans for the future.

I personally think tasting notes make for boring reading, so for the most part I’ll spare you mine. Suffice to say that Beckmen excels at growing different—even obscure—grape varieties. They were the first winery in California to bottle a wine made entirely from the Grenache blanc grape. Anna’s favorite white was the neatly nuanced Rousanne, and an excellent fruity-but-dry Grenache rosé ensued. A fantastic blend, called “Cuvee la Bec”, followed; finishing the list were a pair of Syrahs and Cabernets.

“The consistently high quality Cabs are undeniably what inspired me to call you up,” I told her. She confidently (and correctly, I soon found out) informed me that the next vintages will be even better. The previous vintages, she detailed, contained a small percent of grapes they purchased, but from here on out it’s all estate-grown grapes only. My skepticism was quickly washed away upon tasting the next vintage. And to think not too long ago, people laughed at the idea of trying to grow Cabernet in SANTA BARBARA.

Our exchange began digressing a bit, signaling that it was about time to finish our business. She made me promise to email her any article I wrote about my time in California, whether or not I mentioned Beckmen. “I will, and you will be,” I assured her. I poked around their tasting room, not only scanning their wares for a souvenir but also contemplating my wine purchases. I grabbed an understated t-shirt to go with one bottle of “Purisima vineyard” Cab, one of the Grenache blanc, and one of the Grenache rosé. To go with them Anna gave me a map of area wineries (the spirit is much more towards mutual support than competition between local wineries).

I was momentarily tempted to visit another winery, but I was itching to start my trek to Big Sur, and I DEFINITELY wanted to have some daylight by which to drive Highway 1 along the Pacific coast for the first time. My timing was right on, and the epic drive along Highway 1 constituted a perfect segue into the outdoors part of my trip to explore more of this Golden State.

Only one bottle survived the rest of my trip, and this was only by chance. The Cab I drank in Big Sur the same night I bought it, mere yards from the Pacific Ocean, popping the cork as the sun set. The Grenache blanc died a deliciously slow death the following night at a campsite called Bother’s Gap, as I pondered the mysterious histories of a myriad stars.

But mere minutes before I was about to pair the Grenache rosé with some trail mix and smoked-gouda-stuffed pita bread toasted over the campfire, I heard heavy yet soft footsteps behind me. I immediately thought, “You know, that sounds just like what a bear would sound like walking through the woods, or say, through this very campsite, at this very moment.” I turned, and my suspicions were confirmed: A big stinky black bear was dropping by to see what was for dinner.

“Well now,” I thought, “I NEED TO ACT PROPERLY.” So I stuck two 3-foot-long branches in the fire, put the food back in the cooler, and put the cooler back inside the campsite’s bear box. I returned to my campfire, keeping it between It and Me. I leaned over and started blowing on the coals, figuring the fire was the ONE THING persuading the bear to move along, despite the enticing aroma of People Food. I then stood up, with my arms fully extended, holding my sorry excuses for torches as high as possible. The bear didn’t so much as move. I expected at this point that the bear would keel over, laughing hysterically at how comic my defensive actions must have looked. Instead, after it studied me for a couple of minutes, an eternity of uncertainty for me, it crawled slowly along. Much to my surprise, my ursine companion did not return, and I went to bed hungry.

Believe it or not, I actually slept well that night. The memories of the bear encounter, winery tour, and California sunsets wouldn’t flood me again until my last bottle of Beckmen wine flowed after I returned to my safe and sound Chicago home.

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Copyright© 2003 by Al DeReu.

1st image: Al DeReu. 2nd and 3rd images: beckmenvineyards.com. 4th image: didyouknow.cd.

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