Indeed, there are fortunates who developed their wine knowledge traveling with their families in Europe, their tastebuds sensing the circumflex in Côte de Beaune by the time they turned seventeen. More likely there are more families like mine, where I can't remember my dad drinking wine at all (perfect Rob Roys were his potent potable), and my mom, a Manhattan gal, had some large format generic Chardonnay opened for ages in the fridge for fish dinners.
That means most of us have to turn elsewhere for wine guidance, and a good wine store is perhaps one of the best places to play catch-up. One of my mentors has been the irrepressible Bob Wesley, a fixture in Santa Barbara for decades, first at Lazy Acres Market (where he hosted tastings that gave me first sips of unattainables like Bryant Family and Sine Qua Non) and now at The Winehound. Wesley even took over the Santa Barbara County futures wine program for a few years, until that became untenable. Since then, he has held largish but not unwieldy events like one May 11 at SOhO Restaurant, featuring 37 wineries pouring 99 wines. And why yes, it does get hard to sample even a goodly number at that point; one of my tasting notes near the end was "bathe me in this, please" (for a Samsara 2010 Pinot Noir Melville Vineyard, if you're looking for a wine to fill your tub with).
When in doubt the best strategy at a large tasting is to focus on wines you don't know. This isn't easy, when Peter Stolpman himself is waiting to regale you with stories and pour their estimable L'Avion, a Roussanne not for the faint of heart. This is nearly decadent, not just tasting of honey but also that rich in the mouth, but then there are the other complex notes of grass, rich melon, a tinge of citrus, some baked bread. But you know that wine, so you don't drink it again (or maybe you're not strong, like me, and do).
There are pleasing new surprises, too. Transcendence, the winery run by Kenneth "Joey" Gummere, formerly of Kenneth-Crawford, along with his wife Sara, has soothed all those who lament that winery's demise. Their 2011 Pinot Noir Lafond Vineyard comes from the oldest pinot vines in the county and you can taste the depth such age implies. The 2011 Chardonnay Zotovich Vineyard packs an almost shocking lemon-lime zing. The 2009 Parea, a Rhone Blend that's 54% Grenache and 46% Syrah, is a lovely jam bomb.
But, if only one wine had to be singled out, it would have to be A Tribute to Grace's 2011 Grenache Santa Barbara Highlands. Winemaker Angela Osborne came from New Zealand and discovered in the blip of the town Ventucopa at 3200 feet elevation the perfect place to purchase Grenache grapes. The winery's name honors her grandmother Grace. And graceful it is, a perfectly pitched, elegant wine, Grenache with its brambles gone but its blackberry heart sweetly pressed.