91+ Point Ode to Sea Smoke
In 1998, when the ex-Olympian purchased a sandy parcel on the western fringe of the Sta Rita Hills, expectations were high. But just six years later, the Decathlete sold his Pinot Noir patch for a pittance, realizing that pole vaulting 15' or hurling a discus a country mile is far easier than nursing world-class Pinot Noir to maturity on the fog shrouded hillsides near Point Conception.
In would be in the spring of 2004 that the 21-year-old nephew of the new proprietor could first be seen careening up Route 247 in a Kelly-green John Deere. He applied the brakes at a dirt pullout just in front of the ex-Decathlete's now-overgrown vineyard. Then, after looking left, then right, the kid gunned it, disappearing into a tangled sea of Pinot Noir plants.
When you ask Ryan Zotovich how he accounts for the rapid ascent of Zotovich Pinot Noir into the Sta. Rita Hills elite, he's quick to credit everyone but himself. "We got all the breaks. My uncle bought the property less than a year before Sideways came out. As soon as the movie hit, the weekend traffic on 247 promptly tripled. Foley and Melville were drawing crowds. We kind of picked off the leftovers."
Shortly after, young Zotovich's luck improved. Soon after completing his degree at Cal Poly, he managed to land an assistant winemaking job with legendary winemaker Steve Clifton. For a decade, Clifton and his partner, Greg Brewer, have been fashioning some of the highest-rated Pinot Noirs in California. When the duo purchased their first few tons of Zotovich Pinot Noir, word traveled like wildfire. It wouldn't be long before the Pinot Noir elite of the Santa Barbara coast followed suit -- Tyler, Paul Lato, and Dragonette.
By 2006, Zotovich Pinot Noir was fetching a whopping $4500/ton. Still, many figured the uncle and his nephew would soon pull back grape contracts, hoarding most of their small-berry fruit for estate production. But Ryan figured he still had more to learn. "I was like a sponge. Steve had taught me tons, but I wanted more. When the Sea Smoke cellarmaster position opened up in 2008, I couldn't pass it up."
For two years, Ryan Zotovich had his winemaking hands all over Santa Barbara's greatest cult brand. While the Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs leaned more towards Burgundy and the whole cluster protocol of Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac, Sea Smoke was the perfect counterpoint. "Steve and Greg were all about aromatic elegance and length. Sea Smoke pushed the envelope on ultra-concentration. I guess I came somewhere in between."
The 2009 Pinot Noir vintage, with its glorious turquoise skies and mild, dry days is generally considered to be the finest of that decade. For good reason. Temperatures flirted with 80 degrees. Barely a drop of rain fell. Sugars climbed incrementally, but on this chilly hillside on the western fringe of the appellation, the cool maritime breezes kept acids firm. At harvest, the tiny-berry clusters were sweet, the seeds were brown and mature. Ryan Zotovich would turn out the greatest Pinot Noir of his young career.
The 2009 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir "Zotovich Vineyards" earned matching 92-point raves from Parker and Tanzer, disappearing in a flash at $50/bottle. Paul Lato upped the ante, garnering 93 points from The Wine Advocate (available today on the auction market). As to Ryan Zotovich's own 2009 -- a bottle that seems to split the difference between Brewer-Clifton sophistication and Sea Smoke opulence -- the most resolute 29-year-old winegrower in Santa Barbara County came in at 91+ -- just a hair behind his mentor.
The 2009 Zotovich Vineyard Estate-Grown Pinot Noir is brilliant ruby in color. The aromas are of ripe raspberries and black cherry, laced with sweet herbs, gently touched by French cooperage. The attack is rich, high-toned and juicy -- taking a page out of a very good Sea Smoke book -- but the mid-palate is all high-energy fireworks, putting a broad smile on Steve Clifton's face.