Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Aromatic White Wines from California’s Central Coast

Illustration of a hand holding a white wine glass with pictures around it of different aromatic components such as citrus, grass, peach and ginger root.
Illustration by Vidyha Nagarajan

In this episode, we explore the world of aromatic white wines from California’s Central Coast.

Contributing Editor Matt Kettmann speaks with John Niven, Owner/Winemaker at Cadre Wines, about these delicious and exciting selections. Niven has been involved in Edna Valley’s wine industry for over 20 years, though his family has been rooted in the area’s wine production since the early 1970s, with his grandfather, Jack Niven, considered the pioneer of Edna Valley.

Niven’s unique experiences and perspectives lend great insight into why the Central Coast is a prime player for aromatic white wine expressions.

From racy and stony Rieslings, to strong examples of Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño, there’s a bevy of beautiful, ethereal pours from the expansive region to behold. All deserve your attention.

To read more about these stunning selections, check out this article on Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc, or this one on white wines from Paso Robles.

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Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Matt Kettmann, John Niven

Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re exploring the world of aromatic white wines from California’s Central Coast. Contributing Editor Matt Kettmann speaks with one of the region’s pioneers, John Nevin, about these delicious and exciting selections, from super racy and stony Rieslings to strong examples of Gewürztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Albariño. There’s a bevy of beautiful ethereal pours from the expansive region to behold, all deserving of your attention. So grab a glass and settle in to hear more about Central Coast’s aromatic abundance.

Matt Kettmann 0:59
Hello, everyone, this is Matt Kettman. It’s my job to cover the Central Coast of California as well as southern California, which puts me on the front lines of some really interesting wines, including what we’re going to talk about today: aromatic white varieties. So California is kind of known as a land of Chardonnay, but there’s actually all of these great other varieties, such as Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer that are being grown as well, particularly on the Central Coast and particularly in the Edna Valley. So joining me today is John Niven, whose family was one of the pioneers of the Edna Valley really started early on there. And we’ll hear some of that story. And they went on to start Edna Valley Vineyards at one point. And then they also started brands like Baileyana, and their aromatic white varieties were bottled under Zocker and Tangent labels. John will tell us about his family history. And then he also has recently started a new brand called Cadre, which is focused right now intently on these aromatic white varieties, and will learn about this new really exciting brand beautifully packaged lots of cool images on those bottles. And they’re really scoring well by my palate, and also drinking really well, too. So, John, welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. How you doing?

John Niven 2:14
Excellent. Thanks for having me, Matt.

Matt Kettmann 2:16
Yeah, my pleasure. You know, when it was time to do a show on aromatic white varieties, I mean, you were kind of the first person I thought of because your family was really one of the pioneers in this style of wine in the Edna Valley. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your family history with the Edna Valley, and how you guys came to be one of the pioneers of that region, then we can kind of shift into talking about some of these grapes as well.

John Niven 2:39
Yeah, well, it all goes back to my my grandparents, and definitely my grandfather, Jack Niven. We used to be in the grocery store business all the way back, really starting in the early 1900s, leading all the way up until the late 1960s when the landscape of that industry started to change. And you went from kind of these smaller grocery stores, which are—call it in Trader Joe’s size grocery store. And, you know, at one point that the company is called Purity Grocery, and it was about 185 stores. And coincidentally, the the furthest south store was in San Luis Obispo. And the majority of them were kind of focused around the Bay Area going all the way up to the Oregon border. But as that industry in the landscape of an industry started to change to these big box stores, my grandfather chose to instead of kind of rebuilding the business to compete with those big box stores, sell them off individually, and he wants to look at growing grapes. So in the summer of love, summer of 1969, he hired Professor Petrucci from Fresno State and Professor Winkler from UC Davis, kind of the two godfathers of higher education for viticulture. And what he did do is he hired them to do the exact same thing, but didn’t tell them. So they they were tasked to go up and down the Central Coast and find new regions to plant grapes. And mind you, they didn’t know they were doing the same thing. And they both pulled him aside and said, “Hey, there’s this little transfers valley right outside of San Luis Obispo that could be something pretty special.” And that is what is today the Edna Valley. So he bought the land and kind of took the shotgun approach. He planted 547 acres to 13 varietals, which at the time was was pretty aggressive. And you know, he wasn’t that kind of yahoo type of maverick, he was just this, this chill quiet guy I knew as Papu. But he really went out there and went after it. Those 13 varietals is kind of interesting. We only grow three of those original varietals today, and that would be Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc, so stuff like Cabernet and Zinfandel are low and Johannesburg Riesling and Chenin Blanc and Semillon and Gamay Noir are a lot of the stuff I kind of wish we still grew. But that is no longer and really that that’s what started off with the Paragon Vineyard in 1973. And, you know, fast forward to the late ’70s, he shared the same banker, as the owners of the Shalom Winery, Dick Graff and Phil Woodward and I think was 1977 with Shalom they had a drought year, and they just built a brand new winery and they were barely filling it because the crop was so low in the Shalom appellation that our banker said, “Hey, there’s this guy in the Edna Valley, Jack Niven that’s growing some new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, you should check it out.” So, so Dick Graff, who is another, you know, staple of pioneer in our industry really brought kind of those Burgundian winemaking techniques to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He bought some fruit made it and they ended up bottling under a private label called Chaparrel, which was for like Wally’s and the Duke of Bourbon and Flask and Green Jug, kind of these group of retailers back down in Southern California. And the wine was so successful that they did it the next year and the next year, and after three years, they’re like, let’s turn this into a winery. And that’s when they started Edna Valley Vineyards back in 1980. So, yeah, I kind of like to say, you know, there was definitely some other great growers in the region during the ’70s and ’80s. But, you know, I think Jack did a lot of the heavy lifting, including spearheading what was back then the BATF but writing the application for that and valley to become an official American Viticultural Area, also known as an AVA, back in 1982. So yeah, he, he did a lot and kind of helped him put in the region on the map.

Matt Kettmann 6:49
Yeah, that’s great. And he had no farming background before this. He was he was in grocery stores. Was there farming in your family going back, or he just wanted to get into agriculture?

John Niven 6:59
No, he just, you know, when they sold off the stores, he could have lived a nice quiet life and retired, but he was a businessman, he kind of looked at numerous things, including, you know, almost like a venture capitalist would, investing in and various things. But farming was was top of mind and and he always knew of the Central Coast because he bought so much produce with the grocery stores, you know, basically in the Salinas Valley, all the way down to Santa Maria Valley, so he knew the Central Coast and obviously, there was grape growing already happening in in Paso Robles in in some parts of Monterey, but he want to look at growing grapes.

Matt Kettmann 7:39
Right. And so, what happened in certain parts of Santa Barbara County and parts of Monterey? I mean, the focus pretty quickly seems like it became Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is that right?

John Niven 7:51
Yeah, I mean, that’s in the early days. Chardonnay is really what put the Edna Valley on the map. Pinot Noir kind of played a secondary role. But you know, it’s interesting, I found one of his folders where he kept anything that was ever written about his wines. And I’m talking about the Edna Valley Vineyards wines. And it’s amazing the amount of press those wines got in the ’80s. The Edna Valley Chardonnay, he had letters from André Tchelistcheff, you know, was Ronald Reagan was serving at the White House all the time. And Edna Valley Chardonnay is definitely what put the the region on the map. And the bridal today is still the, I call it the queen bee, the mothership, you know, that’s the most widely planted varietal in the Edna Valley. But, you know, we always knew Edna Valley Chardonnay was wonderful, but that kind of led us to the path of exploring these aromatic white wines.

Matt Kettmann 8:46
And so when when did that happen? When did you decide to kind of, I mean, you had the Sauvignon Blanc, that kind of counts. But when did you start to go into these other grapes? And also, I mean, even before that, when did you start intimately working with with the company?

John Niven 9:00
So I, you know, my generation, we all got the talk when we graduated from college and said, “Don’t think you’re coming to work for the family, no silver spoons here, get out and learn life and business on your own.” And so we all did that in in the late ’90s, both my cousin Michael Blaney and myself expressed an interest in coming back and to work for the family. And so, I actually went and worked for—we had a winery called Seven Peaks, which was a partnership with Penfolds Australia, it was kind of like Australia comes to California this is in late ’90s. That’s where I started and cut my teeth in learning this business and then really in the late I think was 1999 is when I moved to San Luis Obispo my cousin was here and the opportunity we were given was with Baileyana which was started by my grandmother. That was a winery she started in her front yard in the Edna Valley by planting three and a half acres of Chardonnay. It’s funny, she was the maverick she was kind of the go getter and she said, “Okay Jack, you’re doing your thing with those Shalom guys and your Paragon vineyard I’m going to show you how to make Chardonnay out of our front yard.” And that’s essentially what started Baileyana. But when Michael and I came on we were kind of given that as an opportunity to see where we could take it. We kind of repositioned it to make them the Fire Peak Chardonnay and Fire Peak Pinot Noir and growing it to where it is today. But we actually made Sauvignon Blanc under Baileyana back then and Sauvignon Blanc from the Edna Valley has just proven to be this just hidden gem. You know, it’s extreme cool climate where we are in the Edna Valley and I’m sure we’ll get into the growing conditions, but Sauvignon Blanc under Baileyana just it didn’t get the respect. It’s like, “Wait, you guys are a Chardonnay and Pinot house, why are you making Sauvignon Blanc?” And you know me be kind of the the thinker that I am, I woke up one night I’m like, “God, how do I how can we reposition this this wine to really thrive?” because it was such a good wine. And came up with the concept of Tangent, which was focusing strictly on white wines other than Chardonnay, all grown in the Edna Valley, zero ml, all stainless steel, fresh, zesty, crisp, fun whites and that’s kind of when things kicked in. And at the same time, we used to, believe it or not, have about 100 acres of Cabernet in our vineyard. And that, for decades, was all sold to a Napa winery and cool climate Cabernet and Edna Valley Cabernet, I could promise you is not a great standalone wine because it has so much of that kind of cool climate flavors with the the pyrazines and those green flavors, but the Napa winery that was buying it loved it for a blender. And then finally when they cancelled that contract, we tore those vines out the day they cancelled the contract because they really had no viability. But, we had 100 acres of fallow land. And this is right when this kind of whole idea and concept of exploring these other white wines was coming up. So my cousin and I we convinced our family to plant 45 acres of Albariño, we planted just shy of 13 acres of Gruner, we also planted Grenache Blanc and Viognier, expanded our Pinot Gris plantings. So that’s really when things kind of got going.

Matt Kettmann 12:17
And that’s what? Mid-2000s, something like that?

John Niven 12:20
Yeah, exactly. Tangent was founded in 2005. And we started off with, there was actually a little vineyard, about five acres of Albariño planet in the Edna Valley that was planted by a gentleman by the name of Alan Kinney. And that’s where we actually had the long term lease on that vineyard. And so that’s where we sourced it initially, but we instantly gravitated towards the potential of Albariño. And so we started expanding our plantings basically in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Matt Kettmann 12:51
Right. And so I guess, describe, you know, what the Edna Valley is like for people who haven’t been there. I mean, it’s it’s extremely close to the coast just kind of separated by one little ridge of mountains. And it really reflects some of these regions you’ve seen in Spain as well, right?

John Niven 13:07
Yeah, I mean, the Edna Valley is super unique place for California. I mean, most wine grapes in California are grown in in warmer climates. I mean, you think Napa Valley, think Sonoma, you think Alexandra Valley, of course Paso Robles. But the Edna Valley is a rare what we call transverse valley we open up directly to the Pacific Ocean, as you kind of head west towards Morro Bay. And sitting off coast, it gets deep real quick. And so there’s a large mass of cool water. It’s actually where the the current comes down from Alaska. It’s called the California current that is bringing this large amount of cool water that sits offshore and if you can imagine open up directly to the ocean with the valley. We get a ton of fog and when that comes in, and it gives us a super unique growing season in that it’s very long. You got to remember we’re closer to Los Angeles than we are to San Francisco. So our winters are much milder, we get a break earlier so we’re talking about a break typically in something like February. But, you live in Santa Barbara you experience kind of the same summers we do you wake up to fog every morning and you kind of have this long, cool summer and then we kick into the fall which is where we get our great weather and helps finish off that ripening. So ultimately the growing season in the Edna Valley could be from February all the way into late October, sometimes November. What that does is gives us this long, and I like to compare it to grilling. I’m a big fan of smoking meat and think of a Texas style brisket, you’re going slow and low you’re smoking for well over 24 hours and you’re being patient to get those flavors, but when it when you get there it’s absolutely money. And that’s kind of what we have with the Edna Valley—slow ripening. But the magic, which makes it a great place for these white wines, is we preserve natural acidity. So we could get beautiful right California fruit, but what’s left is an amazing amount of natural acidity that gives all these wines just kind of that that verve, that energy, kind of that zestiness. And I think that’s what makes the Edna Valley super unique. There’s not many places on this planet where you achieve the acid levels we have, but also get the ripeness. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Matt Kettmann 15:24
Right. Yeah, no, that’s and that’s been a hallmark for me of Edna Valley wines for sure, and particularly for these aromatic white varieties. Let’s talk about the the phrase aromatic white varieties. I mean, it’s not it’s not a hard category or anything. And it kind of means, to me, almost means like something other than Chardonnay a lot of the time. But what is it when you when you’re talking about aromatic white varieties. How do you define them? What do you think when when someone says that?

John Niven 15:49
I mean, it’s, it’s obviously, you know, when you pour glass wine, and you could smell it from across across the room. And that’s an aromatic white varietal. But to me, the bridles that really jumped out as being true, aromatic whites would be like Gewrüstraminer, Viognier you could throw Albariño in there, Sauvignon Blanc. And, you know, those are just wines that are very, very high in aromatics, have the vile structure that is going to jump out of glass. Terpenes is another term that’s thrown around. But really, they’re wines that just smell of floral and beautiful fruit, they really just jump out of the glass. Typically, you don’t see oak involved with those wines. So really what you’re smelling is true Mother Nature’s expression of what those fruit floral components are out of those wines.

Matt Kettmann 16:39
Right. All right. And so which of the grapes, did you really—I mean, obviously, you liked them all. You made a bunch of them, but which ones did you really gravitate to yourself, as far as, you know, these these different varieties? Were some screaming more to you than others?

John Niven 16:57
Yeah, you know, Albariño always has held to kind of a sweet spot for me. I was fortunate to go over there with our winemakers and vineyard managers, we went to Vinho Verde and the Rias Baixas, which is the region in Spain and Galicia where they are growing Albariño, that’s in the northwest tip right about Portugal. And on that trip, we were just blown away. We were fortunate enough to kind of be able to meet and taste and spend a lot of time with the who’s who of Albariño over there. But really what we figured out is the Edna Valley has a ton of similarities. And over there they are right on the Atlantic Ocean. So when people think Spain and wine they typically think about the Mediterranean and these warmer beautiful regions. But in Galicia it’s known as green Spain, because it looks like Ireland, even in the summer, they have a ton of rain. And they have a ton of influence coming in from the Atlantic. So all that fog and wind coming in from the Atlantic is similar to what we see in the Edna Valley with fog. And with the big differences, they get way more rain than we do. I think they get well over 60 inches and we’re lucky to get 20 inches in year. But ultimately, for Albariño, what we’ve seen is the similarities are spot on. So you kind of get this high acid zestiness, these wines that kind of have this beautiful mix of citrus and tropical fruit. But a classic term for Albariño it was the Vino del Mar, wine in the sea. Over in Spain, you get this briny, kind of this salinity in the wine. We’re seeing the same thing in the Edna Valley. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence because that is actually salt that’s coming in from the sea air, and all the wind and the kelp beds offshore. And that you could actually measure and sometimes even feel that salt content on the skins of the grapes. So it’s no wonder that Albariño is kind of known as this zesty, kind of briny type wine. Well, 96% of the Rias Baixas is planted Albariño, and the Edna Valley, we get that salinity as well. But we also see it in our Savignon Blanc or Gruner, Albariño. So to kind of answer your question, I’ll bring us a soft spot for me, but Gruner and Sauvignon Blanc and being right there in the Sauvignon Blanc that I make under our Cadre wines, really has a soft spot, because about half of that wine is coming from my grandfather’s original planting. So the same plantings we just talked about, those are now 48 years old vines, which were planted just after I was born. So I kind of feel a tight bond with that block in the vineyard. We’ve kind of gone through this journey of being in the industry together. So yeah, I mean, those are my favorites. And that’s no coincidence why make Albariño, Gruner and Sauvignon Blanc under Cadre.

Matt Kettmann 19:42
Right. And you you must have been one of the first wineries that was really doing this on a broad commercial scale. I mean, is that is that safe to say? Where you guys kind of on the leading edge of these aromatic whites?

John Niven 19:55
Yeah, when we found Tangent back in 2005 I remember friends in the industry think like, well, that’s crazy and so innovative, you’re doing only alternative whites, 100% under screwcap. And at the time, it did seem a bit innovative. But as you know, nowadays, I mean, you know, fresh, crisp whites, everybody’s drinking. So yeah, at the time, there was a bit of putting ourselves out there. I mean, especially when we planted Gruner, our neighbors thought we were crazy. It was a varietal they couldn’t even pronounce, it was in the middle of the kind of the mortgage financial crisis. And people just thought we were nuts. But even with that, I mean, the second we started putting that to bottle, people really started kind of perking up and raising an eyebrow and saying, “Wow, check this out.”

Matt Kettmann 20:43
I have to say that Gruner that you guys made was probably the first domestic Gruner, I’m almost certain was the first domestic Gruner I ever had, you know, 15 years ago or whatever that was. But you know, since had a lot of Gruner, there’s kind of a lot out there at this point. But it’s an interesting grape to me. I mean, tell us a little bit about Gruner, its history, where it’s from and what it’s like kind of supposed to taste like. Because I actually get versions that are completely different. You can get ones that are quite peachy and you get ones that are quite grassy. I mean, what what are you aiming for when you’re when you’re doing a Gruner?

John Niven 21:16
You know, I mean, Gruner is kind of what I call the Chardonnay of Austria. It’s the most widely planted grape there and grown in different regions, but primarily along the Danube River. And Gruner, to me, I mean, it’s a zesty white wine typically has at medium to high acid. But great descriptors are Gruner is kind of that white pepper and that zesty citrus. I mean, the citrus component we get that in the Edna Valley is kind of that is grapefruit, almost like a pithy grapefruit, but it’s just as fun, spicy, super crisp, easy drinking wine. You know, it started to gain traction in the States, kind of in the mid-2000s. Sommeliers kind of started turning towards it, because it was one of the few wines that pairs well with green dishes, meaning like salads and asparagus and artichokes. It’s really versatile when it comes to food pairings, and it started getting a following and it really hasn’t looked back. But for us, you know, we kind of, we like to kind of grab on to the fact that we’re able to get that beautifully balanced ripe fruit but back it with zesty acidity. And over in Austria, you see a whole wide range of styles. I mean, they put easy drinking Gruner and low alcohol in the one liter bottles with the Crown cap all the way up to the, you know, in the Baucau. They have three different classifications based on alcohol levels. And the Smaragd style would be their top classification where it gets over 13 and a half percent alcohol. And those wines almost drink like a white Burgundy, they’re insane. So yeah, Gruner is kind of like Chardonnay, it can run the whole gamut. But what we see in that valley is kind of that middle style where we’re kind of, right there kind of in moderate alcohol just floating right around 14, either below or above. But we get that white pepper and that zesty grapefruit. To us, that’s kind of what our Edna Valley expression is.

Matt Kettmann 23:13
Great. So beyond the Edna Valley, if we’re looking across the Central Coast, I mean, what other regions are you seeing that produce good examples of these aromatic whites? I mean, I know Monterey has some great spots. Santa Barbara has some spots. So what are you seeing out there?

John Niven 23:28
Yeah, I mean, Monterey seems to be playing with some Gruner and Albariño as well, especially kind of the cooler regions, you know, Arroyo Seco, as well. You know, when it comes to all Breno you’re kind of seeing it planted throughout the state now. I mean, there’s some down in the Santa Rita Hills. I know that Miramar Torres is growing some in the Green Valley of Russian River. Carneros is also been a spot for Albariño. And Albariño’s got a pretty rich history in California. It was actually planted in by three different I kind of call them the OGs. And Brian Babcock originally planted it in the Santa Rita Hills. Michael Havens, planted in Carneros and then Alan Kinney, who brought it to the Edna Valley, he actually played it Virginia. So those cuttings came from Virginia to the Edna Valley. And when we planted our 45 acres, we actually took cuttings from all three of those selections, and almost treated them as separate clones even though they’re not clones and farm them differently and vinified them separately. And we didn’t see much of a difference. It was more site specific but going back to these other regions is no wonder that Michael Havens planting in Carneros you know, being so close to the San Pablo Bay there. Yeah, I mean, there’s just so much going on with these aromatic whites that even up in Oregon, you see what they’re doing with Gewurstraminer, and you’re seeing some Albariño in southern Oregon and some Gruner as well up in the Willamette Valley. These are just fun varietals that I think we’re just scratching the surface domestically on.

Matt Kettmann 25:04
Yeah. And I mean, Albariño, I think it excels in these cooler climates but I’m also seeing it planted in warmer spots in Paso and it still seems to retain that acidity even in these warmer climates, which is which is pretty cool for for white grape, especially in a region that makes kind of richer wines. It’s a nice little offset to the richer reds that you’re drinking there too. Does Brian Babcock still have his in the ground?

John Niven 25:27
No, I think he actually he tore that out pretty quickly, pretty quickly in grape years. But yeah, I don’t think he’s had it in the ground for decades. But his cuttings came from a very well known property over there called Adegas Morgadio. So it’s kind of fun to taste their wines and see what those cuttings are like here. Like, yeah, and Albariño makes sense for, I mean, they’re growing it in Lodi as well as Paso. It’s such a high acid grape, that it makes sense in a warmer climate because you could get those acids, you know, still where they’re preserved and you get that freshness. But to me for true Albarino you need to be right smack on the ocean, you need to be able to taste that ocean in the wine. And that’s what I love out of our Edna Valley Albariños.

Matt Kettmann 26:16
Right. Funny enough, Brian has been pushing growers down here in Santa Barbara to plant Montilla, which is the you know, the red from that part of Spain. And also he just emailed me the other day about Hondarrabi, you know, that they make the Txakolina wines out of? He’s trying to get someone to plant that too. So he’s like, “What do you think?” I’m like, “I’m not sure. You know, good luck with that.” But I love those wines. So maybe they will work. Yeah.

John Niven 26:25
And that’s the beauty of where we are in the the Central Coast in particular, the South Central Coast. You know, you hear people talk about is the wild west where there’s still people out there exploring and pushing the limits. So hearing that Brian still has that spirit going is pretty cool.

Matt Kettmann 26:57
Yeah, well, he’s been ripping out vines and planting like butterfly gardens too. So he’s got all manner. So how was the market, you know, when you came out with these wines in the mid-2000s, you know, 15 years ago now? Were people ready for them? Or did it take a bit of education to get people excited about these varieties or people were eager?

John Niven 27:17
People were ready. The Albariño was tricky at the beginning. Because Albariño I don’t think had the popularity it has now, Spanish Albariño. So we would have buyers tell us like, “Well, why would I buy this when I can buy the real stuff for cheaper?” And quite honestly, they were right, this was back in 2005. But Albariño has grown in popularity, and it’s really only grown in Galicia. So there’s a finite amount of it. If you’ve seen Albariño pricing, it’s crept up. And so now some of our domestic, you know, options, whether it’s it’s Cadre or Tangent, they actually come in showing as great values. So you know, the market at the beginning, people, they loved it, don’t get me wrong. With Albariño and Gruner it was like shooting fish in a barrel because there wasn’t much to compete with domestically. And obviously, you know, buyers were very intrigued. And, of course, we are super proud of the wines and how they showed and yeah, we got a good following real quick. And the wines kind of like I said, kind of turn some heads and raised some eyebrows out of the gate. One thing though, that we haven’t talked much about is Sauvignon Blanc. And the one thing I want to touch on about Sauvignon Blanc in California is it’s a tale of two types. And I’d say about 99% of all Sauvignon Blanc grown in California is grown in warm regions. And you know, think of Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Lake County, Paso Robles, nothing wrong with warm climate Sauvignon Blanc, they make beautiful wines, but there’s very little cool climate Sauvignon Blanc grown. You have a little bit in the Santa Maria Valley with Presqu’ile, you got obviously what’s been going on in the Edna Valley. And then you got to kind of get into the northern part of Monterey or up into the Petaluma Gap and the north coast but cool climate Sauvignon Blanc is so unique in that it just brings a totally different flavor profile. And to me the two greatest regions on this planet for Sauvignon Blanc would be Sancerre in the Loire Valley and Marlboro on the South Island of New Zealand, both cool climates so we’re right at home there. So going back to kind of these exploration of these non-Chardonnay varietals, I think Sauvignon Blanc grown in cool climate has an amazing amount of potential and I hope that people start playing with it more because it really comes through is quite an amazing wine.

Matt Kettmann 29:46
And you expect it to be a little grassier or maybe a little more mineral maybe a little briny as well. I mean, that’s kind of what sets it apart from these other warmer regions where people can make, you know, rich versions of Sauvignon Blanc that sometimes are even oaked and taste like Chardonnay to some extent or even are called Fume Blanc sometimes when they’re oaked, so I mean, is that right? I mean, this cooler climate stuff gonna give you these grassier elements?

John Niven 30:11
For sure, yeah, you get some of those green grassy elements. I mean, we even get some of those, it’s like a little pinch of kind of jalapeno or serrano chili, but not in a, you know, a way that’s off-putting. It’s just a nice little spice element. You’ve nailed this salinity. I mean, that’s really once again, coming from our proximity to the ocean, but they’re just zesty wines. And then there’s a ton of minerality behind it as well. So yeah, I think cool climate Sauvignon Blanc is super, super, you know, on the upswing in California. Like I said, I hope more people playing it because it’s got a ton of potential.

Matt Kettmann 30:49
Right. Let’s discuss your family wine, Niven Family Wines recently sold, and then you started your own brand. So tell us a little bit about what happened there.

John Niven 31:01
Yeah, so the older generation, chose to sell off the wine company. And they sold the brands Tangent, Socker, Baileyana, and True Myth to WX, which is a great wine company up in the North Coast, who are kind of now stewards of those wines and taking it to the next level. I consult with them and it’s been great to see how they integrate it into their team. So yeah, it would, it wasn’t for my family selling, it wasn’t quite what I expected, but you know what the blessing is it then triggered me and my wife Lucy to start Cadre. And Cadre is kind of this continuation of exploring all these beautiful white wines from the Edna Valley. I always like to say you will find no one more passionate about white wines from the Edna Valley than myself, and I firmly believe that the region should be part of that discussion is one of the great white wine regions of the world. You know, I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world and go to these great white wine producing regions in France and Spain and Italy, New Zealand. And when I come home and taste wines from the Edna Valley I’m like, “Damn, we are right there and no one knows it.” That’s kind of my quest with Cadre is to craft these wines to showcase beautiful cool climbing, kind of maritime influence Albariño, Gruner and Sauv Blanc. So we, we have our Stone Blossom Sauvignon Blanc, which comes from those old vines from my grandfather and then we have the Sea Queen Albariño and the Band of Stones Gruner, which, you know, you asked earlier, is one of my favorites. It’s no wonder why I’m making those three because those definitely are my top three and we’re barely year old, but so far, so good. We’re about to start harvest on our third vintage. So super fired up,

Matt Kettmann 32:49
And you plan to expand that line into other grapes. So you just gonna stick with those three for now?

John Niven 32:55
We’re gonna stick to those three for now. It’s that old term “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s what we know best. To me, that is where I think that the potential of the Edna Valley and the San Luis Obispo Coast outside of course, Chardonnay, I think those three varietals are just, you know, really defining a whole new spectrum of, of what they are like in California and we’re gonna focus and continue to fine tune and, and do even better.

Matt Kettmann 33:23
And and the market’s still hungry for these for these alternative whites, I imagine?

John Niven 33:29
Well, I think more than ever, I mean, if you just look at, I mean, Chardonnay is still you know, the mothership when it comes to white wines, but look at the growth of Sauvignon Blanc, look at the growth of rose. I mean, consumers are understanding that they love fresh, crisp whites that don’t have to have a bunch of oak on it. And they like the zestiness, the crispness. So yeah, this I think that the market has been more receptive than ever for these wines. And I think it’s just gonna keep on having more of that popularity. I kind of look at is, you know, Chardonnay is, like I said, always been the mothership. But then you have of course Sauvignon Blanc and then Pinot Grigio, but all these other white varietals are kind of down hanging out in the same pool. It’s going to be who jumps out of that? You’ve obviously have the Rhone whites that have, you know, had their time and continue to do well, but I think people are discovering that like Gruner and Albariño is like, wow, these are wines I’ve never heard of, but slowly becoming household names. So hopefully that trend keeps on going.

Matt Kettmann 34:35
Right. So let’s say I’m sitting down dinner tonight and I’m going to crack your Albariño what should I be eating it with?

John Niven 34:43
Oh, man, I mean, you’re in Santa Barbara. Being so close to the coast, obviously. Any seafood is gonna pair well. It’s an interesting statistic in Galicia on the Rias Biaxas, it’s the highest consumption of seafood per capita outside of Japan. And so it’s kind of no one no wonder that Albariño has morphed to be this incredible wine that pairs with all things out of the seas. Over there they have all these kind of native indigenous shellfish that this wine just pairs well with. So whether it’s raw oysters or crudos, or anything, I mean, I would crack open some Albariño and you know, jumping in some of that Santa Barbara uni, I mean, you could go on and on. I like just having a glass on its own. It’s kind of fun to open it and have a glass before dinner and then take it to the table because it’s going to pair so well with so many dishes.

Matt Kettmann 35:40
Yeah, I sent you that picture when I was out on Santa Cruz Island on the west end with with some friends and I had a bottle of I think it—was it your Sauv Blanc, which they have with me. Do you remember what?

John Niven 35:50
I think I think was Cadre’s Sauv Blanc. Yeah.

Matt Kettmann 35:53
And there’s a phrase on it. It was like where the stones meet the sea. And we were literally standing on stones in the sea and we were searching for uni. We actually got skunked and couldn’t find it this time. Last time I was out there we found quite a bit. But we still drank the wine and it was delicious with nothing too.

John Niven 36:11
Well, that’s what makes them fun. Versatile, we’ll call it.

Matt Kettmann 36:16
Alright, John. Well, thank you for for joining me today on this, I think we really dove into aromatic whites and Albariño and Sauv Blanc and Gruner and all that. And we learned a little bit about your, you know, family history, which is critical to the entire Central Coast region. And also a little bit about your new brand Cadre too, so I definitely encourage people to go out and try these wines. They’re delicious. They’re beautiful. Those labels you have are amazing and really reflect I think what’s inside of the bottle too, which is always a cool thing when that when that kind of come together. So thanks for joining me, John. It’d be fun to hang out in person one these days and maybe crack some these old world Albariños and see how you stack up.

John Niven 36:55
Nah, I would love to. Give me any excuse to crack open multiple bottles of Albariño and I’m there. But yeah, definitely appreciate it. It’s always fun to catch up.

Matt Kettmann 37:05
Great. Thank you, John. And thank you all for listening. Happy drinking.

Lauren Buzzeo 37:13
My mouth is watering after listening to all of the fantastic options worth seeking out and trying today. Personally, I’m ready to pop a bottle of John’s sparkling Albariño to celebrate fall thanks to the wines vibrant apple, citrus and baking spice aromas, but so excited to explore even more of what California’s Central Coast has to offer thanks to the great tips and insights shared here today. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast@winemag.com. For more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories. Visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on October 27, 2021
Topics: Podcast