Monday, July 13, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 19

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Glass it up: Zaca Mesa's 2016 Clydesdale pays homage to the founding family's history


Every once in a while I fall back in love with a good syrah.

Kristin Bryden has been Zaca Mesa’s winemaker for the past eight years. In working to create their 2016 Clydesdale, she said the winemaking team sought to honor the Cushman family’s legacy by naming it after their historic middle name.

As much as we like to taste and experiment with wines, sipping recently released blends and getting talked into bottles of new brands and varieties we've never had before, eventually we all become creatures of wine habit. Some people settle into a hearty pinot noir, and others just want a safe rosé without complications.

For years, I was a syrah disciple. I never drank anything but, and I fancied myself a bit of a snob (despite having to resort to the aisles of a local 7-Eleven for my selections during college). I later moved on to crisper whites with more acidity or fruitier wines that nailed my sugar craving to a T.

Recently, the winemaking team at Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyard offered me a unique chance to try a new wine that just so happened to be a syrah, which is their speciality. I was intrigued by the way the team had approached the wine, using multiple blocks to create a pastiche of their syrah style and philosophy. I wanted to learn more.

The syrah grapes used to make Zaca Mesa’s new 2016 Clydesdale were hand-harvested from nine different blocks throughout their estate. The idea, explained winemaker Kristin Bryden, was to create a broad showcase of the winery, from vineyard blocks to vine age and clones.

But first I wondered, what do winemakers such as Kristin Bryden—who has been at Zaca Mesa for eight years—feel makes a truly great syrah?

"I like a balance between strength and elegance," she said. "A core of black and red fruits mixed in with some earth and spice and structure as well. Part of the beauty of syrah is the structure of the wine. If you can get all that into one glass, you're doing a good job."

That's what Zaca Mesa's winemaking team hopes to do with one of their latest releases, a 2016 Clydesdale syrah that represents a tapestry of the vineyard's best elements. Bryden said they started the process of creating the wine as a tribute to John Cushman and his family, who helped found the vineyard.

Cushman and a group of friends purchased the land that would become Zaca Mesa in 1972, making it only the third winery to exist at that time in Santa Barbara County. They tinkered for a while with different grapes to see what would work best in their land, but it wasn't until 1978 when they planted their first block of syrah (known as the Black Bear Block) that the vineyard struck gold.

Get a glass
Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards is located at 6905 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos. For more information, visit

Clydesdale, a historic name of the Cushman family that traces back generations, was born out of an interest in celebrating the family's legacy.

"Over half of our vineyard is syrah," said Bryden. "It's our flagship varietal. So it's a great tribute to them and the commitment that they've had to Rhone varietals, especially in the Santa Ynez Valley."

There are a lot of good reasons why Zaca Mesa thrived as a syrah maker. The typical profile of a syrah is a medium acidity. Because of where Zaca Mesa is situated, the high elevations of the mesas are about 1,500 feet above sea level. That allows the grapes (thanks to the cool breezes from the Pacific) to mature and retain their all important acidity.

Zaca Mesa’s 2016 Clydesdale is an estate vintage, aged for 22 months in 12 percent new French oak. It has flavors of blackberry and toasted spices and was named in honor of the John Cushman family, who founded the winery.

For this particular wine, harvest took place at the end of August and beginning of September 2016.

"It was a great vintage," Bryden said. "This wine is made of multiple blocks. With syrah, we have nine different clones of syrah on the property—different vine age, different root stalks—so they tend to ripen at different stages. That's where the range comes from."

The syrah is from five different blocks (along with a few sub blocks) from a south facing hillside of the vineyard. With all the choices and all of the possibilities, it's hard to imagine how winemakers such as Bryden begin to craft the recipes for blends of one type of grape born in different areas of their vineyard.

"I think you imagine your wine style," she said. "You determine specifically your end product and what you're looking for. Then you're looking at all the different components and what the strengths are in each of those. That's how you start to compile your blend."

One sip of Clydesdale and it's pretty clear a lot of thought and finesse went into selecting the blend. Clydesdale has a wonderful mouthfeel; it's very silky and not too robust. It has a good representation of the core flavors of black fruit, which is key to a successful syrah. It's an incredibly flavorful wine as well and very easy to savor over a long meal or evening out.

Bryden said it stands out from their other wines in some special ways.

"I think the tannin profile is a little softer," she said. "We aged it a month longer than some of our reserves, and there is just a nice viscosity to the wine."

So as they say, que syrah syrah, whatever wine will be, will be  (OK, I know, absolutely no one says this). Whether you're getting back into syrah after a trial separation or if you're an aficionado looking to boost your collection, Clydesdale is a horse of a different color. I promise to never make puns again.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose has a rich history in wine. Contact her at 

The 2019 Santa Barbara Vintners Festival is scheduled for May 4.

• Start making plans now because the The Santa Barbara Vintners Festival (pictured above ), currently celebrating its 37th year, is scheduled for May 4 at Rancho Sisquoc Winery. This festival stands out in a world awash in wine festivals—featuring a huge gathering of winemakers pouring and discussing their favorite wines with attendees. Tickets are available by visiting

Cubanissimo Cuban Cafe is always coming up with unique and fun specials, and these tostone cups filled with beef picadillo (pictured right) are no exception. Served with a fresh cucumber salad, I think this would be great as an appetizer or a light snack if you're just stopping in for their famous coffee. Check them out at 4869 S. Bradley Road, suite 118, Orcutt.

Tostone cups filled with beef picadillo from Cubanissimo Cuban Cafe.

• Allow me to go crazy here and step outside our normal coverage boundaries and tell you about Planted in Arroyo Grande, which has some of the best cold-pressed juices I have ever had in my life. It also serves giant plates of delicious vegan and vegetarian food. What's that? You don't want to drive? OK, fine; head to your local farmstand or grocer and pick up some celery, cucumber, kale, chard, fennel, apple, pear, lemon, and a little parsley and juice yourself your very own version of their Awakening juice. You won't regret it. The venue is located at 201 E. Branch St., Arroyo Grande.

• If you prefer to stay local for your wine events, Vino et Amicis is featuring Tu Chez performing smooth jazz, Latin, and other music on request on March 22. The show runs from 6 to 9 p.m. at 165 S. Broadway, Orcutt.

• Here's a unique thing to try. Cottonwood Canyon Winery is hosting salsa lessons by the caves on March 23 from 2 to 5 p.m. Come learn how to salsa with dance instructor Liliana Graham; no partner is necessary, and all ages are welcome. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at The winery is located at 3940 Dominion Road, Santa Maria.

• There is a new Habit Burger in town and while I usually avoid talking about chains, I have to admit I scarfed down my body weight in their onion rings over the weekend, and they were absolutely delicious. The other thing I really like is their variety in burgers and sandwiches. They have turkey, tuna (which is perfection), veggie, portobello, and of course lots of beef and steak options at 985 E Betteravia Road, Santa Maria.

Weekly Poll
What'd you make of the county's decision to close beaches for the Fourth of July weekend?

It was sensible since counties to the south closed their beaches.
I was OK with it. I set off fireworks at home instead.
It was ridiculous. The restrictions have to stop.
It didn't matter. I went to SLO County.

| Poll Results

My 805 Tix - Tickets to upcoming events