Sandhi Chardonnay Retrospective: The Alpha & Omega
Alpha and Omega…the beginning and the end. So many chapters surrounding this offer have opened and closed. For me, a year of Viticole offers…my life in Santa Barbara… For Raj, cutting his teeth in a vein of the industry where bottles are emptied - only to find a home in the place where empty bottles are filled…
And for us…a reunion of sorts…to live one very perfect Santa Barbara day, from dawn to dusk…
Hunting/gathering at the Farmer's Market...
March 25th, 2017 - Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market - Morning
The Grocery list:
• 9 lbs of local rabbit
• nettles (for days)
• assorted seasonal veggies (asparagus, cauliflower, etc.)
I have to imagine most of us don’t whip up nettle rabbit for dinner. Raj can flat out cook. Some day I will have to pin him down for the recipes but he’s an elusive one in the kitchen - especially with that ungodly nettle sauce.
Raj channels his Calcutta heritage and melds it into a Santa Barbara country cooking landscape. He finds the best ingredients - local whenever possible - often fantasizing over black garlic or the finest fish sauce purveyor without ever yielding a bibliography. Flavors are bold and delineated. Dishes are intense but clean…hangoverless..
Tonight’s dinner would not disappoint, but first things first…
A quick round of bloodies at oceanfront Brophy Bros. before wine country...
March 25th, 2017 - Sta. Rita Hills - Late morning
From SB proper, the road to wine country is roughly an hour. This gave Raj and I ample time to break in the new rig (pictured below) and discuss the oft-asked question: Why Santa Barbara? Raj started talking about rocks… Big ones…little ones…sedimentary ones…diatomaceous ones. The geological geek meter went from 0-60 faster than his barely-out-of-the-shrink-wrap Volvo.
Where did we land? Chardonnay loves rocks. Rocky rocks. But peeling back the layers, we uncover strata and more strata...
Not since Crockett & Tubbs...
Behind and to the right of that fine piece of Swedish machinery is a word picture that explains a great deal about Sta. Rita Hills terroir in the southwest part of the region. For a place primarily known for Pinot Noir, 90% of Sandhi's vineyard sources in the appellation comprise white grapes. Silica-based, oceanic outcroppings break apart in your hands like chalk, rendering themselves the perfect breeding ground for Chardonnay.
A trip to Burgundy will teach you that from clay soils you get richness, a rounder texture. The parcels with higher proportions of limestone - where vine roots will struggle to penetrate through shallow rocky soils - yield a Chardonnay palate full of tension and focus with an unmistakable salty minerality that White Burgundy lovers lap up like catnip. According to Raj, Sta. Rita Hills is home to some of the most dynamic Chardonnay soils on the west coast. “The climate in coastal Sonoma, let’s say, is not that different to Santa Barbara. There are subtle differences, but the main reason why Santa Barbara Chardonnay is so different is the soil.”
March 25, 2017 - A View from Bentrock - noonish
I’ve stood in front of Romanee Conti in Burgundy, a vineyard whose Pinot Noir garners more than $10,000 per bottle in most vintages. I don’t know what I expected when I gazed upon that site the first time. But for a bottle price that high, the least I could get were cherubs or perhaps a majestic peak roped off with braids of unicorn hair. Instead, I saw a plow horse relieving himself on a gently sloping clay heap. I’m sure there are a few takeaways there, but the one I'm comfortable with is this:
When it comes to a good vineyard vs a world-class vineyard the difference is rarely in your line of sight. Rather it’s an amalgamation of multiple variables - above and below the ground - whose parts are so intricate that the truth of its pedigree is in many ways a mystery.
Is Bentrock the Montrachet of Sta Rita Hills? Quite possibly. Raj will certainly concede that “in 40 or 50 years Sta Rita Hills Chardonnay will be mentioned in the same breath as Burgundy, or anywhere else in the world, as a reference point for Chardonnay.” His parcel - Block 1 as it’s called - is a steep north-facing slope that gets pounded by wind from an ocean just 9 or 10 miles away. You don’t have to look too far for the mother rock, buried less than a foot from the surface. Pure compressed shale - older and harder than the friable road cut we saw earlier. Interwoven with flintstone and chirt are ribbons of mineral-rich clay. Even if we couldn't draw any conclusions from anatomical correctness, the proof is in the glass. Bentrock Chardonnay just has another level. We would put that notion to the test later on in the evening…
Left: Floriano's tacos for a late lunch Right: Let the blind tasting begin...
March 25th, 2017- Lompoc - afternoon
Santa Barbara County has a pretty serious street taco scene. Floriano’s in Lompoc is no exception. Why Serrano-laden al pastor was a good idea before a barrel tasting in Sandhi’s cellar is beyond me? We chose to eat well and ask questions later.
After whirling through some 2016’s in barrel, the conversation turned to the “R” word... Chardonnay can be a chameleon, expressing itself a range of different ways. Still vs sparkling, oaked vs unoaked, and oxidative vs reductive.
Geek alert: This is a deep subject, so I’m sure our little drive-by today will be a bit Rated G for the die-hards, but reduction is a subject worth touching on, as it explains a great deal about the Sandhi style.
If oxidation is exposure to oxygen (think apple core turning brown), then reduction is the opposite or an oxygen-deficient environment. With oxidative Chardonnay fruit flavors are less fresh, nutty aromas unfold - the wine is on it’s way to becoming vinegar and hopefully the wise vigneron will find that sweetspot where enough pleasing freshness is there to accompany those nutty, oxidative flavors.
Sandhi is very much reductive in style. Protected from oxygen, grape yeasts are stressed. They get agitated and the byproduct is a signature match stick, or flinty aroma. My palate craves reductive Chardonnay, with its salty, citric nose and its enhanced mineral palate. This is the crisper, racier side of Chardonnay. A small gaggle of high quality French producers, such as Burgundy royalty, Jean-Marc Roulot of Meursault, have mastered the finer aspects of reduction.
March 25th, 2017 - Los Alamos (Chez Parr) - sunset
In our forthcoming blind tasting, we would sample several producers of reductive Chardonnay from the 2013 vintage against 2013 Sandhi Bentrock. With none of us knowing which wines were which, the results were eye-opening. Sandhi Bentrock has a place at the table with fine Burgundy (wines that retail well over $200 per bottle).
The majesty of Bentrock
A true Santa Barbara day is not complete without a little seafood. Our good friend and urchin whisperer, Stephanie Mutz joined us for dinner. Stephanie is one of the most prominent urchin divers in the world, and subject of an upcoming documentary from SOMM director, Jason Wise, called Delicacy. Coincidentally, she lives three blocks away from Raj and just happened to have a fresh batch of urchin and lobster to complement our Chardonnay line-up (nettle rabbit called for red).
The 2012 Sta. Rita Hills has plenty of life still ahead of it but has found its stride. Blessed with a healthy portion of Bentrock fruit, this is a composite of some of Sandhi’s best vineyards sources. The 2013 Sandhi ‘Bentrock’ Chardonnay was full of pleasure now (as evidenced during our tasting) but really just a baby considering what it will become over the years. What a triumphant wine, tasted side by side with ’14 and ’15 Bentrock as well. All I could think about was, as potent a producer as Sandhi is today, we won’t begin to realize just how special this winery is until years from now, when these glorious wines are 15-20 years into their prime and still screaming…
Left: LL Bean Catalog Shoot Right: Nettle Rabbit prep
March 25th, 2017 - Los Alamos - fading to black
I’ll spare you photos of the dinner. I encourage you to use your imaginiation, dream about it liberally, multiply that times 10 and you’re almost half way there. Raj’s food is singular and - whether he were willing to admit or not - pretty much every aspiration he has in this industry follows suit.
Viticole's first ever podcast with Rajat Parr
March 26th, 2017 - Los Alamos - early morning
I asked Raj in our recent podcast pictured above “where he sees Sandhi in the context of what most people think about when they think of California Chardonnay?” He was quick to clarify that Sandhi is merely returning to “the old way of working - making fresh, transparent Chardonnay with longevity.”
And so the ebb flows back from where it came, rewriting a chapter that was laid down in the 60’s and 70’s, but exploring new oceans along the way...
Tasting Notes: 2012 Sandhi Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills: Citrus driven, with yellow apple, smoky/savory nuances, hazelnut - generous texture | 2013 Sandhi Chardonnay 'Bentrock' Sta. Rita Hills: Flinty, and mineral-driven. All that the Sta. Rita had but with more depth. Saline stoniness on the finish.
Seasonal Pairing: Lobster tacos. Get it...
When to Drink: 2012 Sandhi Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills: Best now through 2024+ | 2013 Sandhi Chardonnay 'Bentrock' Sta. Rita Hills: Best 2019 - 2030+
Geeky Things: Bentrock is actually a 200+ acre ranch. 4 acres are dedicated to this special block that comprises Raj's single-vineyard bottling. The 2012 chard is 12.8% abv. The 2013 Bentrock is 12.0% abv
Area Eats: in Lompoc, its all about hole in the wall Mexican food: Floriano's, El Palmar (for fish tacos)
Vintage Report: 2012 and 2013 were very similar ripe vintages - both were bumper crops and signaled the beginning of our string of drought years.
Bigger Than Wine: Viticole donates $5 per case of everything sold to a charity of the featured winemakers choosing. Raj and Sashi chose Meals on Wheels, an organization that works to enrich the lives of seniors, and assist them in maintaining independence, by providing nutritious food, human connections and social support. You can check them out online.
Podcast: In the inaugural episode of the Viticole Wine Podcast, founder Brian McClintic, MS is joined by long-time friend Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines in Santa Barbara County. Listen in as Brian and Raj talk about what makes Sta. Rita Hills a world-class location for Chardonnay and Raj's many adventures in food & wine. Check it out.