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A Perfect Blending : The Built-In Complexity of Zaca Mesa's Chardonnays

February 21, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

JUST AS THE French Impressionist pointillists would make well-considered dot-splatters to communicate more than mere color to the eyes of the beholders, (witness "La Grande Jatte" of Seurat), the wine maker blends as many as 20 to 30 different lots of Chardonnay grapes, often from several different vineyards, to make a single, delectably rich and complex Chardonnay. The famed non-vintage Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne, similarly, may have as many as 40 to 50 different wines composing its cuvee , from six to nine different years.

The grapes for the award-winning Zaca Mesa 1983 Santa Barbara County Cabernet Sauvignon-American Reserve (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) had come from the Mariposa vineyard of the 1500-acre Zaca Mesa ranch, planted by founder-owner John C. Cushman III in 1972. It was with Cushman and the winery's vice president, Michael Leatherman, at the award-winning Pavilion restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Center, that we had a chance to explore the meaningful semantics of a fine wine's complexity. It was particularly revealing when we came to the first Chardonnays, a vertical tasting of the unreleased 1986 Reserve, the 1985 regular release ($9.75) and the 1984 Reserve ($12.75).

"This 1986 Reserve," Leatherman said, "is composed of 15 to 24 different lots from at least four vineyards. We use both Prisse de Mousse and Champagne yeasts in the fermentation. Some lots have four to six hours of skin contact for flavor extraction; 75%, depending upon the vintage, is barrel-fermented, and some lots undergo malolactic fermentation. The wine maker (Gale Sysock), after the aging in different French oak barrels, tastes each lot and then makes the marriage and truly becomes the creative artist."

The extraordinary grace and grandeur of the 1984 Reserve derive, he explained, from more barrel-fermentation components. From the winery's library we then tasted the 1980 Reserve--a big, big Chardonnay that easily demonstrated the longevity of this Santa Barbara County white wine. It deserves to be poured as an aperitif to open an important dinner.

The 1985 Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50), made with 100% of this varietal, but without any grassiness, was silky-smooth and fashionable. Cushman, a widely known California's high-rise-office-building leasing and brokerage realtor--like the winery's co-founder Louis (Marsh) Ream--loved the agricultural-diversification challenges. Today, Cushman is virtually the sole owner of Zaca Mesa, having increased his share of ownership to more than 97%, while Connie and Marsh Ream have moved along to other challenges.

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