Sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest places.
Is anyone else addicted to HBO’s “Big Little Lies?” We are—especially as the limited series is set in nearby Monterey, and parts were shot on the Monterey Peninsula and along the Big Sur coast. But we noticed a couple of reoccurring things, not only inaccuracies in geography but the observation that the only wine that is consumed is an unnamed white wine.
Of course we know that there are much more to Monterey County-grown wines than just “white wine,” and we went in search of suitable substitutes for the mystery white wine so elegantly sipped by characters Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Renata (Laura Dern). We selected Soledad’s Paraiso Vineyards/Smith Family Wines as the perfect place to find a great wine to enjoy while playing the “Big Little Lies” drinking game. Would we stick with a white wine? Or might we break the rules of the game and go red?
As a business, Paraiso Vineyards custom grows most of its grapes for various wineries and winemakers, and is a Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified vineyard. But they keep the very best for themselves and bottle it under the Smith Family banner. And it truly is a family operation, having been established back in 1973 by Rich Smith and his wife, Claudia Alexander Smith. The couple, originally from Santa Clara County, moved to the heart of the Salinas Valley, the small town of Soledad, and established their vineyard just southwest of Soledad, a short drive off of Highway 101. They bottled their first wines in 1989, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. Rich Smith, along with neighboring grower Nicky Hahn, pushed vigorously for the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) to be named its own American Viticultural Area (AVA). The area, located on the west side of the Salinas Valley at the base of the Santa Lucia coastal range, is a special AVA due to the area’s unique climate (foggy mornings, windy afternoons) which slowed the grapes’ ripening, allowing them to develop their full flavors, and the soils are well-drained and fertile—which is just what grape vines like the best!
Today Smith Family Wines are in the capable hands of Jason Smith and his wife Jennifer, with winemaker Larry Brooks, boasting 40 years of winemaking . The wines they make are very hands-on (Jason Smith frequently wanders through the tasting room) and limited in production. Tasting room fare currently features three whites and four reds. There are three labels within the Smith Family wines—luxury label Alexander-Smith, premium label Paraiso, Irie and special limited edition “Buckle” label, produced for the world-famous California Rodeo Salinas.
First up was a 2014 Paraiso Monterey Chardonnay. Aged in 70 percent stainless steel and 40 percent French Oak, this chardonnay is very crisp, clear, not overly dry but not overly fruity. With summer coming, it’s an enjoyable wine that you’d not feel guilty about drinking after a hot day in the sun.
Next, an exclusively SLH-grown 2014 Alexander-Smith Chardonnay was poured. It’s a limited production wine (only 300 cases). We were surprised to learn that this wine was aged for 16 months in French Oak—no time spent aging in stainless steel, but this wine was surprisingly not super-buttery, as Chardonnays that spend a majority of time in French Oak tend to be. There’s almond on the nose, and a crispy pineapple taste on the tongue.
Have we found our white wine for our drinking game? Nope. What comes next is one of two reasons to peel off Highway 101 just south of Soledad and head toward the foothills to the tasting room (or stop by the Carmel tasting room). The Rhone-style 2014 Paraiso SLH Rousanne is one of the most unique wines available on the River Road Wine Trail? Why? Because there are not a lot of Rousanne grapes grown in this area, and Paraiso Vineyard has only one acre of this grape. Made with 58 percent Rousanne, 33 percent Viognier and nine percent Chardonnay, this fantastic, absolutely perfect “I scream summer” wine is estate-grown, limited production (400 cases) perfection. Its white peach flavors, balanced acidity and light, pleasant minerality makes this wine a must-have. Seriously. We bought a bottle. We never buy white wines—and we need to go back and buy more!
The Paraiso SLH Rousanne is the white wine winner for the “Big Little Lies” drinking game. But wait, there’s more. You know how we feel about our red wines—yes, a mixed bag of hating on Pinot Noir and loving deep, full-bodied reds. You also know that we usually skip, minimally taste and pour out a pinot. Not today.
Today a pair of Pinots were on the docket: both 2104 vintages. The Paraiso Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in the Monterey and SLH AVAs, has a subtile and pleasant fruity taste, with a gentle “dirty” taste one expects from an SLH Pinot. The Paraiso SLH Pinot is produced from nothing but SLH-grown grapes, and when compared to its sister, has more vibrant fruity tones reminiscent of raspberries, dark cherries and oak trees. Yes, oak trees.
We poured out neither and drank every drop.
The 2014 Alexander-Smith Syrah, another limited production wine (200 cases), is made from three different clones of Syrah grapes, and is aged in French Oak. This wine establishes a place memory for this writer (Catherine)—the grapes are a definite product of their terroir. Grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands, surrounded by oak trees and pastures with dry native grasses, subject to the morning fog and moist afternoon winds, the Alexander-Smith Syrah tastes like Monterey County. We will be going back for some of this.
We thought we’d found our red winner for the drinking game (And we can’t fault you if you’d like to get a bottle or two for your own “Big Little Lies” drinking game party, or any other excuse you may have for wanting a full-bodied Syrah with character!)—but nope. The newly-released Irie Zinfandel knocked our socks off!
Irie is the label chosen by winemaker-in-training Justin Murphy, grandson of the vineyard’s founders. He makes his 2012 Zinfandel from grapes grown on the west side of Paso Robles, about an hour south of Soledad. There’s also a Petite Syrah, but 2013’s bottling has sold out, and what’s in the pipeline is not available for tasting.
We’ve tasted a lot of Zin from Paso Robles. But something happens to these grapes on their short ride north, and the Irie Zin is like no other. This wine is also a definite reflection of its terroir—gently sloping western coastal hills, surrounded by grazing pastures with dry native grasses, very hot in the daytime, with a vigorous arid afternoon wind. Aged for 16 months in 25 percent new French Oak, this Zin just been released and is a very limited production of 335 cases.
We have our red wine winner!
Smith Family Wines have been a sponsor for the California Rodeo Salinas for 12 years, and to commemorate that, a pair of special wines, made from grapes grown on the estate, are produced for pouring at the Rodeo. There’s “All-Around Red,” a Pinot Noir, and “Champion” white, a Chardonnay.
Because Smith Family Wines treats its wine club members like family, there are advantages to club membership. You’ll have first access to new releases, some of which are very limited in production. There are special events hosted throughout the year, pick-up parties, complementary tastings, and discounts of 20 percent on all wines at all times. You’ll receive three shipments per year, choosing “all reds” or “mixed” shipments, purchasing anywhere between 4 to 12 bottles each shipment.
With only one episode of “Big Little Lies” remaining to air, you’d be wise to take that quick hop off of Highway 101 south of Soledad, and head west on Arroyo Seco Road toward Paris Springs Road. Of course you can buy any Smith Family Wine at their website, and have your wines delivered to your home just in time for the series’ finale on April 2… although think of the fun you could have one (or two) afternoons binge-watching the series on HBO Go and playing the drinking game with your newly-adopted favorite wines from Smith Family Winery!