July 10, 2020

– The New Awkward- Post-Covid Wine Tasting Experience

As the economy lurches forward in fits and starts, we are all longing for some sense of normal.  After months of being locked down inside our homes, we are ready to venture out and get back to living.  Even though opening things up poses risks to our health, these are risks that most are willing to take in order to  experience more of what we are used to and less of what we have to settle for.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the wine webinars and other forms of socially distanced drinking but what I want, what I need after all we’ve been through is a professional wine tasting.

So Thursday, June 18th I headed out mid-morning, up PCH under the dreary clouds of June gloom towards Santa Barbara.  I take the coast as much as I can.  The freeway is faster but even under grey skies, I prefer the scenic route.  I pass beach after beach, mostly empty save a few surfers, fishermen and the occasional half full campground.

Less that an hour later the haze burns off and I’m in Santa Barbara’s wine ghetto under sunny blue skies.  It’s busy, not packed, but bustling.  Most people on the street have face coverings as I pop in on a few tasting rooms to chat with staff.  Most tasting rooms have expanded their outside capacity as much as possible and decreased their capacity inside or completely eliminated it.  Winetenders weren’t staying behind the bar and speaking to groups, they were bringing that experience outside, to the table.  Some to better effect than others.

Reservations were encouraged at most, but walk ins were welcome everywhere I went.  There were young families with strollers, older couples, groups of friends and random single tasters unmasked at tables.  Masks were mandatory to enter and to walk to the restroom, but not necessary once seated.

The sun finally came out as I waited in line, standing on the now common yellow star shaped sticker on the sidewalk for a coffee pick me up before heading out. The line wasn’t long and everyone politely stood six feet apart on their own yellow stars.  I happily received the first coffee that I hadn’t brewed myself in a very long time. 

Drinking coffee and driving to Ballard Canyon was my next joy.  Heading up the 151, I marveled at the landscape, beautiful undulating golden brown hills dotted by massive oak trees, conjuring images of Chumash Indians and the Pony Express.  A flash of white limestone to my left reminds me of the pockets of chalky soil that dot the area. It acts like a sponge holding water from spring in reserve for the vines during summer, great for farming with minimal intervention.

sign on side of red barn
Ballard Canyon

I arrive a little late for our four o’clock appointment but the hostess that is set up on the sidewalk at a desk easily accommodates me.  Stolpman is by appointment only and they have reduced their capacity to only hold tastings outdoors.  The tables are appropriately spaced and made from roughly hewn logs.  They are one of those has closed their wine shop and bar area to the public.  The inside wasn’t open to visitors to peruse but the staff attending the tables were very knowledgable and thorough.  

side table of log with tasting menu

Everyone gets an hour to sit and enjoy a glass, bottle of wine or a flight.  The tasting fee is waived if you purchase any three bottles from the store.  The latter was the route I took and the wines did not disappoint. 

All eight wines I tasted were good but the best white was their Roussanne from their L’Avion bottling.  It was the star.  For the ABC crowd (Anything But Chardonnay) its always a hit with it’s beautiful golden color, rich, full bodied, with hints of elderflower,  integrated oak, pears, micro herbs followed by a long mineral finish.  It’s mouth coating with just enough acid to for food.  I want something spicy, but they they don’t serve food here.  I must drink more.  Dinning will come later. Wine tasting is now.

Their Grenache was the star amongst the reds.  It grows well in the area but is often overlooked because good Syrah is so easy to find.  This is a wine that begs for grilled meat, from BBQ chicken to grilled skirt steak, this wine is the palate pleaser for a wide range of foods and crowds.  Medium red in color with hints of purple, the wine starts off with medium dark red fruit flavors, hints of clayey earth, liquorice and good acidity.  The finish is medium to long with lingering forest notes.

After my allotted time expires I move on the the only restaurant open in town, the Wine Merchant.  Like everywhere, there were stickers on the floor suggesting where to stand, the staff wore gloves and masks and tables were set up outside on the sidewalk, spilling into the street and down the side alleyway.

Baked brie to start, followed by Steak Frites and many refills of  water.  The wine selection was great and the food was excellent.  It was the only way to cap off a fun day of wine exploration.  Rehydrated and with a full stomach, it’s time to journey home.

The drive is easy with the sun setting in my rear view mirror and before you know it, I’m restocking my wine fridge with a few bottles of wine to be used in my next webinar.  I’m happy I took the trip.  It’s nice to see the wine world coming back to life.  It might be awkward with the social distancing and face masks muffling conversations but it’s the way it’ll be for now.  It works for me and it can work for you too.  

If you are thinking about taking a day trip to wine country for wine tasting, they are ready for you, just bring a mask, hand sanitizer and a lot of patience, especially if you don’t have an appointment. 

Cheers!!

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