Santa Maria Valley Uncorked: Byron Pinot Noir

“Growth is the process of expansion or evolution. Growth produces a different mindset — consider how hard it is to manage ‘stability.’

Just when you think you know about all the Pinot Noir hotspots, it's easy for some regions to get lost in the shuffle. So it's with that in mind, let's circle back to a well-deserved wine Pinot Noir producing region known as the Santa Maria Valley, which sits on the eastern border of Santa Barbara County. Byron produces wines from two distinctive, but site-specific sub-appellations; one being Santa Maria Valley (SMV) and the other the Sta Rita Hills (SRH).

Byron produces nine different Pinot Noirs, but the SMV is the first one I've had the pleasure of tasting. I've sampled both their 20007 and their  2008 vintages in early 2011. I would have to say I give the edge to 2007 for its overall flavors and aromas, but that said, look for 2008 to be a late bloomer. The aromas coming from both of these wines are quite captivating, and like me, you will be sad, when the last drop has disappeared from the glass. I'm a huge Pinot Noir fan, I guess it's because I like the idea of being seduced by my vino and this wine will do just that. But that side by side tasting arrived via samples in the spring of 2011.

Fast forward five years, things have changed with Byron Wines, they've adopted the Sea Smoke (SM), and Kosta Brown (KB) wine-business model of 'allocation' only wines. I'm not a fan of allocation list in the slightest, I've been on a few of the iconic 'lists' over the years, I find them preposterously overpriced, lacking substantive bang for the buck. It's also worth noting, there's an ample abundance of their wines still floating around the internet, much of the 2014 vintage for uber reasonable prices. 

Don't get me wrong, those reputations are well deserved, but 'cult' status, wait in line for hours, kind of fervor, uh, no. I think not. I use to be on the KB and other 'lists' like many of you, but the frugal part of my brain said "hold on a minute" I thought hmmm, it's time to reevaluate where and how much of the disposable income budget is going to wine purchases. 

While I salute their move away from the crass distribution model, even though their wines are still available to a few on-premise accounts and maybe even a few upscale off-premise accounts, their shift away from the traditional distribution bottleneck is a sign that things are changing in the wine marketplace, but is that change a good thing for the consumer? This question has yet to be answered. 

Which I why I was disheartened to hear of the change in their business model, but I do wish them well. This move is said to harken back to the original vision of Ken Brown to produce small lot, single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, focusing on quality, not quantity. While that may be true, I have no reason to doubt it, but perhaps the quiet acquisition of Byron by Jackson Family Wines, distributed by Regal may have something to do with the new strategy. 
“Since 1984, we’ve had a history of being a premium winery. We felt that was getting diluted with the Santa Barbara County and Santa Maria Valley blends.”
Many wine industry insiders and observers have taken note of the mass consolidation of the wine world, is it a good trend or a not so good one, I guess the jury is still out. Regarding Byron, who played with the idea of featuring Nielson prominently on the label, has shifted back to Byron and took on a very new look, with the sophisticated dark label. 

The case counts went from averages of 350 or more to 190 or less. Perhaps, getting smaller also means getting more profitable. The single vineyard lots are now being marketed as 'Grand Cru' of California. It's no secret I'm not a fan of using that description borrowed from true Grand Crus of Burgundy and Bordeaux. According to the Bordeaux dot com, "In the simplest of terms, 'Cru' is a status term, indicating that the winery, vineyard or estate has met specific qualifications to use that term."  But at the same time they want to make it a point to say (paraphrasing) that just because it's not part of the classification, it doesn't mean a wine or appellation is not outstanding. 

But do you really want to use a term, to describe domestic wines with one iconically used for French wines? For me, the answer is no, but I'm sure there are good arguments for both points, I just can't think of one to support the opposite point of view. So here you go, my review of their previous wines, from a different model, from a now bygone era of winemaking. 

Byron PN SMV 2007: I opened this one just the other night, paired against some seared Ahi and mushroom risotto, the pairing was in a word, fantastic. The aroma profile, a huge plume of rich cherry, strawberry and plum aromas streaming from the glass, accented by nuances of nutmeg, pepper, smoke, and a dusting of vanilla. The wine’s perfectly poised fruit to acid balance makes this wine incredibly food-friendly. My palate was struck by wave after wave of a rich cherry and raspberry pie filling, wrapped around the smokey vanilla-tinged wonderfully integrated oak, with a small dose of rich earthiness. 

The mouthfeel is silky, the brilliant finish is long and sumptuous. This wine is drinking FAB (a technical wine descriptor), right now and will only get better over the next few years. A real stunner, I gave this wine 93 points and it sells for $18 most places or $26 through their tasting room which is now appointment only. If you can still find this wine in any store, score as many as you can, a run don't walk recommendation.

Byron PN SMV 2008: I purchased a couple of these wines a few months ago, popped the cork on both and they were both outstanding. But in comparing my notes between the two, as I mentioned earlier, I gave the edge to 2007. Perhaps, it was the bottle time difference or maybe because 2007 as a vintage overall was pretty amazing. Either way, I still very much liked the 2008 and here is why; showing mineral infused cherry, sweet sandalwood, and a drop of cola flavors on the palate, impressive. It provides just enough acidity to carry the abundant fruit. 

In the glass, it is shining brightly with a strawberry cola colored core. The nose is decadent and explodes with raspberries and cherries, and notes of baking spices. The texture is firm and silky, the finish is long and very food friendly. I scored this wine 91 points, and it sells anywhere from $18 to $25, depending on where you shop. This wine, however, is likely long gone, and so are those generous prices. That is all I have for today, I hope you will give these wines a swirl and let me know what you think. Until next time, sip long and prosper cheers!


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