Blue flames rose from the coils of the patio heater.
The marine layer and rain endured all day, but as happy hour approached in Lompoc, California, last Thursday, so too did a break in the weather at Transcendence Wines tasting room.
As area tasting rooms started to close for the day, Transcendence tasting room manager Tina Wika-Puga and socially distant customers were spaced out around the bar and outdoor pub tables at the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Center.
Being fully vaccinated, I had taken my first flight since the pandemic to my favorite wine region on the planet.
The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, Lompoc Wine Ghetto, Los Olivos and Sta. Rita Hills tasting rooms are open for business. Every tasting room had masked employees. COVID-safe conditions featured outdoor tastings, ample space between tables and booked appointments to eliminate overflow crowds. While customer visits have started to return to form, last week was the perfect time to visit.
It felt more like “Cheers” than a tasting room as guests warmly greeted Wika-Puga by first name and she, in turn, did the same. The camaraderie was as welcoming as the wines: the red fruit and tobacco spice driven G Street Pinot Noir 2019 ($38) and Rolph Vineyard Zinfandel 2018 ($44), a fun-loving brambly red and black fruit full-bodied wine that was as rambunctious as a puppy.
A short walk across the street in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, Ampelos’ tasting room had moved entirely outdoors. Its wine club membership remained strong through the pandemic. As foot traffic picks up, its pinot noir and Rhone blends are an elixir for travelers with cabin fever.
The Ampelos Sta. Rita Hills Gamma 2016 Syrah ($35) showcased the area’s potential with the varietal. There’s layers of garden herbs, white pepper, smoky meat and blackberry flavors. Dark and brooding with loamy earth, baking spice and dark fruit flavors, the Ampelos Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2018 ($38) was also on an amazing hotel wine list.
Because I’d arrived before the Alma Rosa tasting room in Buellton had opened on Thursday to meet with winemaker Samra Morris, a cleaning crew was still busy prepping the modern cozy space.
We’d travel into the Sta. Rita Hills for a tasting at the Ranch House, which dates to the state’s land grant era. It has since been renovated, yet was rustically appointed to preserve its charm.
Describing a summertime sipper, Morris said she can taste wild strawberries when she drinks the Alma Rosa Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2020 ($35). “When I first tasted it, I felt like I was eating a strawberry with salt on it,” she said.
Even though Alma Rosa is in a haven where pinot noir and chardonnay thrive, Morris is thrilled to showcase the area’s potential for pinot blanc grenache and syrah. “I want to show we can make exceptional wines beyond pinot noir and syrah,” she said.
A concept no one knows better than Pete Stolpman. Seated at a wooden picnic table outside the Stolpman tasting room in Los Olivos, we tasted off and explored the list of wines being poured to showcase the Ballard Canyon AVA.
To ensure COVID protocols were met, Stolpman turned to a reservation system. When tasting rooms were shut down, an email campaign offered library wines that would have been saved for later at premium prices. While inventory was liquidated, the offerings sold out and compensated for any walk-in shortcomings.
“We invested in [the] Tock reservation system,” Stolpman said. “We knew we’d be outdoor-only and not allow folks to go four-deep at the bar, which was the norm for us. Foot traffic is less, but the brick-and-mortar business is not down. We’ve hit our typical revenue in the tasting room.”
The Stolpman Hilltops Syrah 2018 ($52) had a lavender nose, meaty wild game and subtle red fruit flavor. The vibrant Angeli 2019 ($72) played black fruit off black pepper flavors.
Their neighbors at Solminer Wine Company, David and Anna Delaski, got help from the county when it came to outdoor tastings.
“We needed a license,” said David Delaski, a former EDM (electronic dance music) DJ. “The county said sure and gave a permit, which allowed us to stay in business. Wine tasting is one of the fairly normal things you can still do outdoors.”
A record summer heat wave and cold winter furthered the challenge as they now use an outdoor deck and former parking space for tastings.
“Summertime, it would even be slow sometimes as people vacation,” Delaski said. “We saw a major uptick in first-time visitors exploring their own backyard. As far as I know, no COVID was transmitted via outdoor tastings.”
Even when restrictions are lifted, Foxen Director of Marketing Jenny Williamson Doré envisions the reservation systems for tastings will remain.
“Customers enjoy it more,” she said, seated among outside couches. “They’re buying more even though there are fewer people. We get people really interested and committed in tasting.”
Foxen’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria AVA appellation wines are excellent, but their eight vineyard-specific sites highlight their portfolio. The Solomon Hills Pinot Noir 2017 ($52) came from the coolest spot in the Santa Maria Valley and had soft blue fruit flavors with a spice rack finish. It’s owned by the Miller family, who also own Bien Nacido, representing rows that make some of Foxen’s best wines.
While all of California’s wine-growing regions are strikingly beautiful, perhaps the most visually arresting tasting room vista is at Demetria Estate. It takes 10 minutes to ascend a winding, single-lane road. A yellow Spanish Mission-style estate and massive tasting area are ensconced in the sprawling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Sheep graze in the distance, and a crew puts the finishing touches on pruning. They are barely visible in the distance. Demetria’s award-winning rosé ($30) is still great in 2020 with its watermelon, strawberry and sage flavors. Its North Slope Syrah 2018 ($45), an homage to France’s Cote Rotie with its 5% co-fermentation with viognier, offered a floral lift from the black fruit and white pepper flavors.
“We’re lucky because we’ve always used our backyard for tastings,” sales manager Logan Livermore said. “We take pride that this doesn’t feel like a tasting room.”
On a crisp, sunny Friday morning, after a long year, it felt like paradise.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.