Santa Ynez Valley

What could a former snowboarder and a former investment banker do but get together and make wine. Not just wine but cabernet sauvignon in Santa Ynez Valley, in the Central Coast’s southern Santa Barbara County? Jeff Tanner is the former investment banker and Rob DaFoe is the former snowboarding pro, and their enterprise is Tanner DaFoe Wines, a producer of minuscule amounts of very fine cabernet sauvignon wines first released from the 2009 vintage. I have simplified the story a great deal here, but suffice to say that the pairing of these partners was serendipitous — if you’re in the market for full-throated yet spare and lithe cabernets that cost $110 a bottle. Yes, these are luxury items, stylish and sophisticated in every sense, yet displaying none of the flamboyance, opulence and over-ripe/over-oaked character that many of California’s “cult” cabernets exhibit. Not easy to find, they’re definitely Worth a Search if you have the yen and the dollars.

These wines were samples for review.
Tanner DaFoe Rogue’s Blend 2011, Santa Ynez Valley, could be called the producer’s entry-level wine, at least in terms of price. The wine is a blend of 72 percent cabernet sauvignon and 28 percent cabernet franc; it spent 28 months in French oak barrels. The color is deep ruby shading to a mulberry-hued rim; the initial impression is striking aromas of mint and minerals, ripe and spicy black currants and raspberries, lavender and crushed violets, with back-notes of fruitcake, tapenade, cedar and rosemary and hints of ancho chili and loam; the wine projects, in other words, a clearly and cleanly delineated bouquet of great complexity and appealing fervor. This is a wine of tremendous tone and presence, dense, supple and lithe, packed with dusty tannins and graphite minerality, a large-framed wine that nonetheless profits from its poised energy and whiplash acidity and liveliness. A bit rock-ribbed presently, in its dusty, velvety oak and tannins and its lithic character, it opens as the moments elapse to offer hints of dill seed, caramelized fennel and bitter chocolate. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 96 cases. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2024 to ’26. Excellent. About $75.
Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Santa Ynez Valley. The current release of the winery’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon aged 28 months in French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a slightly lighter magenta rim; the raison d’etre here is structure and texture, with intense and concentrated but ripe and spicy cassis, blueberry and mulberry scents and flavors (with a high wild note of black cherry) deeply freighted by iron and iodine, piercing graphite minerality, lead pencil and a touch of cedar. The wine is sleek and chiseled, hewn from obsidian, it seems, supple and muscular, but for all that it offers fleshy and meaty notes of slightly roasted black and blue fruit and the animation of bright acidity. Mouth-filling and deeply savory, this 2011 feels potent, complete and confident, though it would benefit from a few years in the cellar; try from 2016 or ’18 through 2025 to ’29. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 167 cases. Excellent. About $110.
Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Ynez valley. The color is dark ruby with a violet rim; the first impression is of ripe, sweet, spicy black fruit aromas and flavors layered atop an incredible depth and reach of power and elegance; cassis, violets and potpourri, a trace of mint and touch of cedar, with hints of tobacco, sage and leaf smoke and back-notes of graphite, leather and underbrush characterize the seductive aromas. A supple, sinewy structure of lovely equilibrium yet stalwart framing and foundation — again, 28 months in French oak — supports juicy but understated flavors of black raspberry and blueberry; that structure includes dense, dusty, velvety tannins and potent acidity and leads to a polished finish packed with granitic minerality, exotic spices and woodsy accents. Completely gratifying weight, substance and bearing. I drank a great deal of this bottle with lamb chops rubbed with garlic and rosemary, with a smoked pimento and mint garnish; they made one of those transporting eating and drinking moments. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 141 cases. Consume now through 2025 to 2030. Exceptional. About $110.
The Tanner DaFoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, was the winery’s first release, and at a bit more than five years after harvest, it’s drinking beautifully. Every element of the wine feels precisely weighted and measured, finely sifted and balanced, and it flows across the palate like a dark, powdery essence of hillside cabernet grapes, all super-velvety and elegant, yet a little spare, though that description omits its sense of feeling slightly untamed, of being an untapped source of dynamism and power, like a brilliant luxury-status automobile idling before acceleration. I have no technical information about this wine, sold-out at the winery, but as an initial release, it’s a triumph, the best first-release cabernet I have encountered since the Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Drink through 2020 to 2025. Excellent. $NA.

William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.