Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyard, one of Santa Barbara County’s oldest vineyards, ranks high in local winemaking lexicon, and this year will celebrate its 42nd anniversary.
It is the vineyard that experimented with various grape varietals to test vineyard suitability, the training facility for some of the area’s most successful winemakers and the first vineyard in the county to plant syrah.
Winemaker Eric Mohseni and Brittney Burrows, Zaca Mesa’s public relations/communications and social media specialist, recently spent a morning tasting me through current releases and leading a tour of the facility.
Los Angeles native Mohseni, who graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with a food science degree and chemisty minor, started his extensive wine career in retail as a wine buyer at Wine Country in Long Beach.
In 1997, Mohseni took a harvest job at Enda Valley Vineyards, and got bit by the proverbial wine bug. In 1999, he traveled to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, for a second harvest, this one at Esk Valley. He credits his time there with honing his love for sauvignon blanc. His own wine label, Osseus, comprises 300 cases of that varietal.
In 2001, Mosheni joined Zaca Mesa as enologist, working his way up to assistant winemaker, associate winemaker and, in 2008, to winemaker.
Today Mohseni’s associate winemaker is Kristin Bryden, and the duo team to produce Zaca Mesa’s current annual production of approximately 35,000 cases of wine.
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The Foxen Canyon Road ranch that houses the vineyard, winery and tasting room is approximately 750 acres, said Mohseni, and is planted to 178 acres — 86 of which are syrah.
Six friends invested in the original property in 1972, and began planting the vineyard in 1973.
Today, just two of the original six remain owners: Brothers Lou and John Cushman, Mosheni said. Ruben Camacho has managed the vineyards for 37 years, Burrows said.
Since few other vineyards existed when Zaca was first planted, the owners experimented by planting many grape varietals to determine which would thrive. The original vineyard included cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, riesling, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, grenache, chardonnay and syrah.
After two decades of research into the best varietal-by-vineyard match, Zaca Mesa now focuses on the Rhône varieties of syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, viognier and roussanne because they flourish, block by block
“Now, we’re all planted to Rhônes, but for chardonnay,” Mohseni said; that chardonnay now is under contract to another buyer, and the 2013 Zaca Mesa chardonnay is the last vintage bottled from estate chardonnay.
The 2013 vintage includes five whites and eight reds, both estate and the “Homage Collection” bottling, Mohseni said. The Homage line comprises wine from fruit sourced from other vineyards in 2013: Sauvignon blanc (McGinley Vineyard); pinot blanc and pinot noir (Bien Nacido); and cabernet sauvignon (Vogelzang). The whites are available for tasting and purchase; and the reds will be released in coming months.
The Zaca Mesa winery, visible from the road, was built in 1978 — the same year that vineyard crews planted syrah, making the site the first in Santa Barbara County vineyard to put that varietal into the ground.
The rest, one could say, is history.
Ken Brown was Zaca Mesa’s first winemaker, and among the others who worked at Zaca Mesa are Adam Tolmach (Ojai Vineyard), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Daniel Gehrs (Daniel Gehrs Wines) and Bob Lindquist (Qupe).
Using cuttings provided by Gary Eberle, another syrah pioneer, Brown planted syrah in the section of the vineyard known today as Black Bear Block — named for the black bear (or bears) frequenting that area over the years, Mohseni explained —and Lindquist produced Zaca Mesa’s first syrah from that block in 1995.
Because of the syrah grape’s history at Zaca Mesa, and the fact that Santa Barbara County’s cool-climate syrah remains so highly regarded, Mohseni invited the region’s top syrah producers to a clone-based syrah “bull session” Jan. 15 at Zaca Mesa. Read all about it here
I tasted through 10 wines with Mohseni. In order:
2012 Viognier: All neutral oak makes this a lovely mix of melon and minerality. Mohseni utilizes two picks of estate viognier, one at 20 to 21 brix and the second between 22 and 23, and blends the two.
2012 Grenache Blanc: This estate wine comes from the 3-acre block along the road leading to the winery, and shows nice acidity.
2011 Z Blanc: Honey and light spice. This blend of 78 percent roussanne, 17 grenache blanc and 5 viognier showcases the varietals; “these three will always be the base of this wine,” Mohseni said.
2010 Roussanne: Complex, lovely and rounded after barrel aging. Mohseni, like some other winemakers, fondly describes roussanne as “the red wine drinkers’ white wine,” one that “really opens up in the bottle.”
2013 Sauvignon Blanc (Homage Collection): Light and classic.
2010 Z Cuvee: True story: This particular blend is what introduced me to Zaca Mesa more than 16 years ago. This vintage is 54 percent grenache, 34 mourvedre, 6 syrah and 6 cinsault. This cuvee’s varietal ratio varies by vintage, based on the “best and most available” varietals, Mohseni noted. He’s a fan of blends that bring out the best in each varietal.
2012 Grenache: Light and bright with essence of plums. From the Tablas Creek clone — a “workhorse” — this contains about 12 percent viognier, Mohseni said.
2012 Mourvedre: Packed with pepper and smoke, this is another winning expression of this classic Rhone grape. Growing it takes patience, as it’s “slow to ripen.” Zaca farms 15 acres each of grenache and mourvedre, Mohseni said.
2010 Syrah: Big mesquite smoke, and, no doubt, a big seller. This wine represented 10,000 or 12,000 cases of Zaca Mesa’s total that vintage, he noted.
2011 Chapel G Block Syrah: Pure elegance, and Mosheni recommends cellaring until 2023.
Visit zacamesa.com Tasting daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 6905 Foxen Canyon Road in Los Olivos. (805) 688-9339.