Wine Ink: Quest for the perfect tasting room
The quest was to find the western-most winery in the continental United States. I ended up finding the most beautiful wine tasting “room” in perhaps all the world.
When one goes to California Wine Country there are the expected places — Napa, Sonoma, maybe Santa Barbara or Paso Robles. Then there are places that are a little farther afield, the Anderson Valley for example, or maybe the Santa Lucia Highlands or even Amador County.
But if you have the time, and the inclination for an incredibly beautiful drive, head north of Mendocino on California Highway 1, just past Fort Bragg, until you get to the amazing Pacific Star Winery. Here you’ll find Sally Ottoson, the proprietor, protector and winemaker of Pacific Star, some really interesting Cal-Italia wines, and stunning, in-your-face, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-them views of the mighty Pacific.
“We kind of have a whale freeway here,” laughed Ottoson as we walked from the winery and tasting room down a long spit of land that stretches into the sea. “They head south every winter and north in the late spring, and when they migrate you see 30 to 40 per day. The best is when the kids catch sight of them and they come charging down the bluff screaming in glee.”
It is hard not to be gleeful on this impossibly green bluff or in the rock-hewed, hand-made tasting room at Pacific Star. Ottoson is a refugee from Napa Valley who has spent the better part of 40 years in the wine business.
Back in the day, she was an early adaptor in Coombsville — then a region, now an appellation in Napa. The Haynes Vineyard, which appeared in these pages three weeks ago, was a favorite source when she was at the late, lamented Star Hill Winery just east of the town of Napa in the mid-1970s.
But the valley changed and so did Ottoson’s tastes. “I just got tired of talking about chardonnay and cabernet. I had done enough of that,” she said.
It was on a fishing trip in 1988 that Sally first laid eyes on the land that is now the site of Pacific Star. “We pulled up to the parcel and I thought that it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” she recalled. She set about building a home, a winery and a tasting room, the only winery on the coast. “We couldn’t do it today with the restrictions,” she noted, “but we are the first (and only) winery in the coastal zone in the state of California.”
With a change in location came a metamorphosis in her winemaking preferences. “There are a number of long-time families in Mendocino and Ukiah, many from Piemonte in Italy, who had these amazing vineyards of old vines with grapes like charbono and petite sirah that zinfandel,” she said. “I just fell in love with them. It was new to me and just so exciting.”
Ottoson became particularly enamored with the region’s charbono. A little-known grape that has its origins in either the Savoie in the foothills of the French Alps or Piemonte in Italy, depending on who you wish to believe, it has gained attention in Argentina under the moniker bonarda.
Dark, peppery and with a balance of tannins and moderate acidity, it is unique on the palate and a great food wine. In addition, it has an earthy and rustic component that reeks of its heritage.
“Inglenook and Parducci used to make charbono, but it had dwindled to just about 47 acres of plantings,” she said. Much of that was around the town of Calistoga, but a few acres remained in Mendocino County, some under the care of grower Eddie Graziano.
“I asked him to plant a couple of acres and people started to take notice,” she said proudly. Today there are close to 90 acres of charbono producing wines that many consider to be cult classics. The Los Angeles Times designated Ottoson as “The Queen of Charbono.”
But Pacific Star is about more than just views and charbono. The eclectic list of wines, all of which are sold to wine club members or visitors, include a tasty Orange Muscat — “We call it our breakfast wine,” Ottoson laughs.
There is also a delicious red blend of old vine carignane and petite sirah blended with charbono and hearty zinfandel called Dad’s Daily Red that she makes as an homage to her late father, Fred. And then there are bottlings of rousanne and dolcetto and, yes, even a little cabernet.
Any and all taste so much better with the sight of the Pacific staring you in the face.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass, Colorado, with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.