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  • James Laube

A Cabernet Revival in Santa Ynez Valley Two novices find a groove with an old favorite in Santa Barb

Jeff Tanner and Rob DaFoe, among others, are making impressive gains with Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the eastern reaches of Santa Barbara County. It's a new twist on an old story. In the 1970s, Cabernet was foremost on the minds of Santa Barbara vintners, but for a long time the wines offered more promise than results, and failed to inspire. Now a few from the eastern end of Santa Ynez Valley are making a modest revival.

The Tanner Dafoe duo has produced a pair of outstanding wines from 2012, making it the fourth year in a row that they've excelled.

Both the Tanner Dafoe Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez Valley 2012 and the Rogue's Valley 2012 come from Buona Terra Vineyard, which is "incredibly rocky," according to Tanner. The vineyard is farmed by John Belfry, a well-respected grower in the region.

They reflect the quality of the grapes and the site. Both exhibit taut fleshy flavors and firm tannins, with loads of red and dark berry fruit. The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points, $110, 167 cases made) shows a little more density and weight, and more gravel and earth features.

Both Tanner, 51, a one-time professional snowboarder born in Santa Barbara, and DaFoe, 45, who produces TV commercials, know of Santa Barbara's history with Cabernet. Early pioneers held out hope that Cabernet would be a springboard for this emerging region. At the time, Cabernet had the best name and reputation in California, and there were Bordeaux aficionados establishing vineyards in Santa Barbara and willing to pursue it with vigor.

But after early efforts had mixed results, the focus shifted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and later Syrah, with all three of those wines establishing themselves as sounder choices for the region.

Brander, Zaca Mesa, Firestone and Bryon were early Cabernets advocates dating to the 1970s and early 1980s. Those wines came from cooler parts of the county now favored for other grapes, and fell out of favor as those grapes gained popularity. It didn't help that Santa Barbara was lumped into the broad Central Coast appellation, which included Monterey. Modern viticultural practices and better matching grape to climate and soil types have given Cabernet in Santa Barbara a happy reprise. The further east and inland, the warmer the sites, and the happier for Cabernet.

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