A Perfect Wine: Santa Barbara Co. Label Earns Elusive 100 Point Score

By Gabe Saglie   |   October 13, 2020
The tasting room patio at Alma Rosa in Buellton has been reconfigured into an outdoor “Weingarten” shaded by umbrellas and featuring various six-seater tables.

Winemaker Paul Lato says, “there’s a really big gap between 99 and 100.”

The celebrated vintner, a Polish native who was a sommelier in Canada before he moved to the Central Coast in 2002, has earned many coveted scores for wines under his eponymous label, along with a fervent consumer following. But 100 points for any wine is as illustrious as it is elusive.

As impressive as they are, “getting a 97 or a 98 or a 99 – it still means you’re one of many,” continues Lato. “A 100, though, means your wine is truly special.”

That makes Paul Lato’s 2018 “Il Padrino” Syrah, for all intents and purposes, the perfect wine. The 100 point score comes from respected critic Jeb Dunnuck, who applauds the wine for exhibiting “everything I look for in a great wine: richness without heaviness, incredible complexity, a singular character, and the ability to deliver both intellectual and hedonistic pleasure.” He goes on to note its “masculine, peppery, and gamey” characteristics.

Celebrated winemaker Paul Lato is a Polish native who was a sommelier in Canada before he moved to the Central Coast in 2002

The winemaker offers his own description: “It has ripeness, beautiful blackberry, cherry, with some vanilla and violet flavors. And there are other nuances that open up with decantation and with air, as the wine sits. You get different aromatics and structure. Tannins come up, the fruit changes, and the wine becomes darker in the glass.”

The perfect score is a triumph not only for the artisanal Paul Lato label, which is a staple at luxe restaurants like Montecito’s Lucky’s Steakhouse and Santa Barbara’s bouchon, but for the wine’s place of origin, too. Indeed, this marks the first time ever that a wine harvested at Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley has earned 100 points. The legendary vineyard was planted in 1973 by Santa Barbara’s Miller family and remains one of the most sought-after sources in the state for pinot noir and chardonnay, primarily, as well as syrah. Mr. Lato has been contracting syrah grapes from the same specific hilltop block of Bien Nacido for nearly two decades.

“Paul has been a great supporter of our vineyards over the years, and… we’re honored to have Bien Nacido be part of this superb wine,” says Nicholas Miller, vice president of sales and marketing for The Thornhill Companies, which, aside from Bien Nacido, also owns Solomon Hills Estate and French Camp vineyards, boutique labels like J. Wilkes and the custom crush facility Central Coast Wine Services. “And I can’t help but echo Jeb’s sentiments when describing the wine: it’s beautiful, concentrated, and powerful without feeling heavy.”

Descriptors from experts and fancy points aside, Lato says he’s committed to staying humble and to continuing to make wines that are defined, in large part, by where they’re consumed, and with whom. “Many times, a wine will make you turn to your spouse or someone you love, at sunset, with the barbecue on – and it makes you want to say, ‘Honey, life is good,’” he muses. “That can be a perfect achievement, so that any wine can become a 100 point wine.”

The 2018 Paul Lato “Il Padrino” Syrah, with a retail price of $90, is sold out. The winemaker expects the price to go up slightly in vintages to come. The bulk of his 4,000- to 5,000-case annual production is vineyard-designate pinot noir and chardonnay wines from throughout Santa Barbara County, which can be purchased through his website, paullatowines.com.

One More Thing…

As California’s guidelines for wine tasting room visitation remain ubiquitously prohibitive, Santa Barbara’s vintners have become increasingly creative, moving much of their guest experiences outdoors. I found one of my favorite creative solutions at the Alma Rosa tasting room in Buellton, where the tasting room patio has been reconfigured into an outdoor “Weingarten.” The space is shaded by umbrellas and features various six-seater tables spaced more than six feet apart, where wine lovers can savor a selection of five wines for $20. Wines can also be bought by the glass. Alma Rosa, which was founded by local wine pioneer Richard Sanford, produces some of the best pinot and chardonnay in California; I was impressed by the 2018 Santa Ynez Valley Grenache Blanc ($30) and the 2017 Donnachadh Vineyard Syrah ($68) I tasted during my recent pop-in. The tasting room is easy to access: just off Highway 101 and along Industrial Way, right next door to what may be Buellton’s best eatery, Industrial Eats. Reservations are recommended. Check out almarosawinery.com.


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