Tasting California Anew: Tercero, Notre Vue, Kaena

I’ve been attending a variety of wine events in the last couple of months, which included wines of the Rioja region of Spain, the Union Grands Crus of Bordeaux, wines from two producers in Virginia, and the Chablis wines of Patrick Piuze, to name a few. Not to mention my trip to Italy last fall, focused on the wines of the Lugana region (see my posts on Italy here). I love tasting wines from around the world, but every now and then I need to be reminded that I live in the great wine state of California, where wine runs plentifully, and there are some world-class examples that warrant my attention.

I just had a quick visit to Santa Barbara County, which is one of my favorite wine regions in the state, where I reacquainted myself with, and introduced my good friend to, the wines of Tercero Wines and Kaena Wine Company. The LA Wine Writers also hosted a pair of luncheons at A.O.C. Brentwood wine bar, one with Larry Schaffer of Tercero, and one with Renee Brown-Stein, owner of Notre Vue of Sonoma. All of these wineries produce excellent and unique examples of California wine.

Tercero Wines, Los Olivos, Calif.

A tasting with Larry Schaffer, owner, winemaker and provocateur (in the best way) regarding the wine industry, is always entertaining, and decidedly tasty! I believe Larry to be one of the most talented winemakers in the U.S., and also one of the most daring. He makes wines that remind me of the Old World, but with a New World twist. He’s been making wine for over 20 years, sourcing grapes from some of the best vineyards in Santa Barbara County, picking and foot stomping everything himself, and regaling visitors in his no-frills but elegant tasting room in Los Olivos. He’s also quite peripatetic, hauling his wines to wine-pairing dinners, to wine luncheons such as the one with LA Wine Writers, and wine fests, like the popular Garagiste Festival, where he often has samples of his homemade bread to pair with his wines.

Larry is a Rhone guy, and is also vice president of the Rhone Rangers, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines. He’s got Mourvedre (red, rose, and even a carbonic version that’s so good), a GSM blend, Grenache, Cinsault, Counoise, and Clairette (one of the few to make this Southern Rhone white outside of France … and it’s delicious!), among others. But he doesn’t stick just to Rhone varieties, producing other wines such as dry Gewurztraminer, Picpoul (which I have yet to taste), Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. “Never say never,” is one of his mottos, and I’m glad because I eagerly await each and every new wine he produces. His Pinots are new as of the 2020 vintage, and he began making them because his wife loves Pinot. True to form, he makes three versions from three clones, from grapes grown in the Kessler Hawk vineyard. I’m going to watch how these beauties evolve.

He calls himself a “typicist,” meaning he doesn’t interfere with the grapes during the winemaking process, but let’s the grapes speak for themselves. He believes his most important decision in winemaking is when to pick the grapes. All his wines are made using whole clusters, at a facility in Buellton, and he produces a total of about 2500 cases per year.

At the A.O.C. Brentwood tasting, Tercero wines were paired beautifully (as always at this top-notch wine bar!) with dishes by the excellent and award-winning team of Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin, not to mention their staff, who pours wine like pros. My favorites of Tercero wines are both of the lighter body reds, the Counoise and the Cinsault, and I recently downed a bottle of his Mourvedre Rose, which was fantastic on a warm spring day.

La wine writers luncheon at AOC with Larry Schaffer of Tercero

I’m definitely a fan of Tercero Wines, and encourage anyone in Los Olivos to drop in for a tasting, and some great conversation with Larry, if he’s there. Another one of Larry’s mottos is “remain curious.” I’ll drink to that!

Notre Vue, Sonoma, Calif.

More often than I’d like to admit I get introduced to a winery from California that I just know nothing about. Such was the case with Notre Vue, which I learned about recently at another LA Wine Writer’s luncheon at A.O.C Brentwood.
The luncheon was hosted by Notre Vue owner Renee Brown-Stein, pictured below in the top center photo (Cori Solomon, President of LA Wine Writers is on the left, yours truly is on the right). As per usual, A.O.C. paired Renee’s wines with their scrumptious small plates, which included salad, appetizer, hanger steak entrée, and a cheese plate. Each dish was paired with two Notre Vue wines, which includes Balverne wines.
Balverne, which I should know but did not at the time, was quite renowned back in the day … the day of Ronald Reagan in the White House, that is!
After initially planting grapes in the 1970s, Balverne Cellars was launched in the Regan era and rose to fame quickly, becoming one of California’s first cult wines. The award-winning wines were served in the White House, at a Supreme Court luncheon, at the famed Brown Derby restaurant, and on United Airlines flights. But like many fast-to-fame people and places, Balverne eventually ended up in bankruptcy, and languished for many years before Renee and her husband Bob Stein purchased it in 1992. The couple, an interior decorator (land and sea) and yacht designer, respectively, learned grape growing “from the bottom up,” says Renee, and for 20 years sold them to the likes of Williams Selyem and Dutton. Then in 2012 Renee re-designed and re-invigorated the Balverne label and introduced their Notre Vue (French for ‘our view’) label.
Notre Vue and Balverne wines cannot be pigeon-holed into a category, as the varieties they grow cover the wine map. There’s Sauvignon Blanc, GSM blends (rose and red), Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Cabernet, among others. All are made to high standard, and the winery has won numerous awards and, if you’re into point systems, they’ve earned some high marks from the likes of James Suckling and Wine Spectator. Winemaker Alex Holman introduced low-intervention winemaking and the farm is now organically certified, and it says so on its label.
Renee, who lost her husband in 2020, is now sole proprietor and takes great pride in putting her stamp of approval on all winery decisions, but with a trusted team, including her Estate General Manager Geoffrey Thompson, winemaker Holman, and vineyard manager Lupe Ruiz, who oversees the 700 acre estate, 176 acres of which are planted to vines and 350 acres of which are a “Forever Wild” protected open space. The winery also has a permanent year-round crew of 30 individuals.
As a sustainable property, the winery uses no pesticides, and sports an open space in the center of the property, from which insects “eat the bad critters,” says Renee. Other good critters on the property include foxes, bobcats, 300-400 turkeys, geese, deer, rabbits, and “lots of lady bugs.”
When asked about her wines, Renee glows when she talks about sparkling. A sparkling program was introduced when Holman took the reigns in 2019. It’s obviously her pride and joy (among many) and she can go on and on when discussing the wine and the all-important bottle shape, color and label design all of which are gorgeous (see bottom middle photo below).
While I have yet to visit the property, I’m looking forward to doing so.
LA Wine Writers luncheon at AOC with Notre Vue

Kaena, Buellton, Calif.

It had a been a long time since I’d tasted the wines of Santa Barbara County’s “Grenache King,” Mikael Sigouin. He and his wife Molly have poured at many a Garagiste Festival over the years, which I’ve either attended or volunteered for, and I’ve seen his wines leave people swooning. So, when my friend from San Francisco wanted to meet up somewhere between LA and San Francisco, I suggested Buellton for it’s easy access to all of Santa Barbara County wineries, from Los Olivos to Los Alamos. And lo and behold, on this trip I saw that Kaena Wine had opened a second location!

In addition to a tasting room in downtown Los Olivos, across the street from Tercero, Kaena now has the ‘ranch’ on the main road from Buellton to Solvang, called Kaena at the Ranch. It’s been open two years now, so interesting timing, as they opened during Pandemic. The ranch is beautiful, simple, rustic, and idyllic, and is a nice mid-afternoon stop where you can sip wine leisurely surrounded by well-spaced chairs and picnic tables, and enjoy the view.

The tasting room is a large barn, which the couple stripped and refurbished simply, but elegantly. It has a gallery of enlarged photos of Mikael’s family, depicting his Hawaiian ancestry (hence the name Kaena, and the hibiscus flower label), some of which are just mind-blowing. His grandfather was a surfer, who caught waves with the famous Duke Kahanamoku and even made surfboards. These photos alone are worth a stop at this winery.

Also worth the stop are a few other things, most importantly the wines! Kaena makes lots of Grenache, and makes it well. The Reserve from 2021 is divine, but the ‘regular’ Grenache is also a keeper. The Grenache Blanc is crisp and refreshing, perfect for al fresco dining, or any other occasion!

Kaena also makes wonderful Syrah, bone-dry Riesling, Cab Franc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and host of other varieties. But it’s the Grenache that always draws me in, whether red, white or rose.

Molly was a super hostess on the day we visited, pouring us a range of wines and answering our myriad questions about the wines, the location, the mountains behind the ranch winery, and the vineyards on the property. We found out that the vines are old Sangiovese plants that the team at Kaena is reviving. As you can see from the photos below, the vines look healthy, and will someday be a new variety of wine at Kaena. Like Larry of Tercero, Mikael (who was not present on the day we visited) is also staying curious!

If you’re driving into Solvang on Highway 46 going East, you will find Kaena at the Ranch on the road right after the Ostrich Farm. I recommend you stop in.

Kaena wines collage of vines and tasting room

Until next time, Cheers & Mahalo!