TRANSPORTED FROM THE PAST, INTO THE PRESENT, AND TASTING FOR THE FUTURE
Can’t travel to Burgundy, then take a scenic drive along California’s Central Coast to Santa Maria Valley, where the crown of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines reign. Try finding a producer not dedicated to these two grapes and that would be like going to a bar that doesn’t serve alcohol. This small valley pocket is located within what’s known as the “American Riviera”, Santa Barbara County. Far from the luxurious image of Santa Barbara proper, Santa Maria Valley historically was built humbly by farmers and cattlemen.
Stunning wines may not be your first thought of this official AVA, rather their succulent Santa Maria “style” Tri-Tip! However, as unassuming as Santa Maria may appear, it’s the exact vision you have when you think of Wine Country, rural and rustic. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you’d get a sense you were instead kicking the dust along Burgundy’s countryside wine trail! After all, they are all farmers too! The area is gorgeous! The surrounding vineyards are cradled by the San Rafael Mountains, blanket by the Pacific Ocean fog in the morning, and kissed by sunshine in the afternoon, perfect for complex Chardonnays and Pinot Noir wines.
If anyone has heard of Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive, it’s California’s heart of extravagance: celebrity brands such as Cartier, Gucci, Spago’s….However, I’ll reveal to you the Santa Maria Valley’s version of wine Rodeo Drive without the frills and price tags like saying Napa Valley. Foxen Canyon Road is the ONE trail to take that’s home to the most famous wineries that define Santa Maria Valley:
ZACA MESA ( the oldest that began after Prohibition)
FOXEN VINEYARD & WINERY ( Captain William Benjamin Foxen and cattleman, established the famous Foxen Canyon road from Mexican land grants in the 1800s
FESS PARKER (yes, the same actor that portrayed Davy Crottet and Daniel Boone in the 1950s)
RANCHO SISQUOC (famed cattle ranch of the 1950s by Mr. & Mrs. James Flood)
INTO THE PRESENT
But the REAL crowning jewel on this iconic road is COTTONWOOD WINERY. Norman Beko considered the Duke around these parts of the king and queen of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, respectively. He may not be the oldest winery, or an actor, or even branded, but he is a bonafide pioneer in this valley and beyond. Other growers, wineries, and producers chase after his grapes, even as far as Ojai and Napa Valley.
You might ask why I’m writing such a big fuss about how truly phenomenal and significant Cottonwood Winery is, it’s because of the memorable moments I have had here and in general Santa Maria Valley wineries along Foxen Canyon Road. Twenty years ago, I had my first revelation of what quality wine tastes like, and romantically the wines were made from the holy grail of grapes, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Cottonwood Winery was the first wine that popped my palate cherry! I grew up in a Latino family and since the age of five I drank wine; it was part of our culture. We just never drank hand-crafted wines, only rustic wines. It all began twenty years ago with close friends of ours inviting Babito and me on a wine tasting trip to Santa Maria Valley. Forty of us every year, for about seven years, would pitch in to rent a nostalgic yellow school bus reminiscent of the TV series The Partridge Family bus and (of course a driver included in the price!). We would begin at 10 AM when all the wineries opened and start at Cottonwood Winery which is located at the northernmost end of Foxen Canyon Road. I often wondered if our Yellow Submarine would make it along the sketchy uneven winding roads, but we didn’t care, we had the best Pinots and Chards on this side of the coast! But I will also admit, we had a spectacular driver named Grace, who was both fun and tolerant of us as we reverted back to elementary children over the course of our wine tastings throughout the day.
Norman Beko or Norm as he’d like to be called was always such a gracious host. You really felt he was welcoming you into his home for a private gathering. It’s not very often to visit a winery no matter the size and have the honor of conversing with the owner/winemaker as you were old-time friends. That’s exactly the experience we had then and the same experience we had today.
The 78-acre estate was established in 1988. Ironically, when he purchased the property it was planted mostly with Chardonnay, today it’s outnumbered with Pinot Noir vineyards. And because the climate is cool enough, he decided in 2001 to throw in Syrah for good measure. Cottonwood Winery can boast to have built the first Santa Barbara wine caves. You can reserve a private tour and explore what’s behind the omicent vintage digs. The caves are guarded behind solid redwood doors reclaimed from a 200-year-old Ohio bridge! Now Ohio lays official claim for America’s first traffic light, but how many states can boast about contributing to Santa Barbara California’s first wine caves at Cottonwood Winery! Ohio, Buckeyes, you can stand proud.
TASTING INTO THE FUTURE
On a recent trip up to the Central Coast, specifically, to Santa Maria Valley, we stopped in at Cottonwood Winery. Upon driving in, it was like a blast into the past, nothing had changed in twenty years except a few modern touch-ups here and there. We expected nothing. Yet, the hospitality by the staff was as if being received on the Red Carpet ( and may I add, it was the same for everyone that was coming in). Babito and I were so grateful to be there for many reasons, but one I can’t ignore is being able to once again, after the Covid lockdown, to enjoy visiting wineries with fewer restrictions.
We were hosted by Marvelous Marla, on their enchanting patio, with a garden fountain, hearth fireplace, and panoramic views of the Santa Maria Valley overlooking Norm’s vineyards. It takes your breath away!
The chardonnay was a brilliant golden hue. The nose was like sunshine in a glass with ripe citrus fruit and juicy after morning rain peaches digging the nose a little deeper, there are lemon curds, and crushed rocks over water lilies. The same notes are reflected in the palate. The fruit is felt on the front the lively acid stayed linear all the way through the palate giving the body a lift and refreshing balance over the ripened fruits. Even with age it has focus and warming alcohol. It’s surely delicious to drink now since Norm succeeded the aging you!
This Pinot is a real treat. If you closed your eyes you may confuse it with a Pinot Noir from Nuits St. George, in Burgundy. The color is a light ruby with an orange rim tinge, which signs it’s developing slowly. The nose is spicy on the attack with wild red and black tart cherries, followed by red liquorice, wet soil, a bit flinty and the perfume of field flowers circulate the glass.
The palate gets the same treatment with bright red tree fruit, dusty earth, a crispy texture finishing long with a warmth of alcohol and sweet baking spices. It’s such an alluring wine; it’s neither pretty nor fruity, it’s a bonafide sexy Pinot Noir. Again, Norm has aged it beautifully for you, just enjoy it now!
The real Clinch was when we were savoring the Chards and Pinots, and before us was the one and only Norman Beko! Two decades later, we have all aged, but we joked with him that always had little hair but is now sporting a shiny scalp caressed by the Santa Maria Valley sun over the years. He sat with us for a while conversing about the future of Cottonwood Winery and where the industry is moving toward in the climate of the wine industry today.
Times may be changing but Norman Bekos wines NEVER have. He may be the only one in the Valley that knows when to harvest the delicate grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and hold back his wines to age a little. Why? Because his wine is that good!!!! Come to Cottonwood Winery and let yourself be transported to the Past, Present, and the future. You will not be actual Burgundy, but it will sure feel like it.
AS A SIDE NOTE IF YOU SEARCH FOR COTTONWOOD WINERY, DON’T CONFUSE IT WITH THE ONE IN ARIZONA OF THE SAME NAME, THAT WOULD BE A TRAGEDY!!!!
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