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Comartin Cellars

Santa Cruz Mountains winery specializes in grenache

TESTAROSSA VINEYARD is one of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ high temples of pinot worship. The winery’s big and luxurious pinot noirs have helped establish the region’s reputation as “pinot paradise.” Assistant winemaker Adam Comartin is responsible for creating the marquee pinot noirs as well as the winery’s other wines. While he is passionate about Testarossa’s marquee varietal, he has another not so secret passion: grenache.

Comartin is the winemaker and owner of Comartin Cellars, a side project aimed at showcasing the little-known grenache grape. His day job is at Testarossa, but the winery generously gives him a little space to make his wines on the side. Production is very small. Last year he made only 300 cases. While he’s starting small his ambitions are big. And his wines are fantastic.

Grenache originated in Spain and migrated to southern France where it’s a key component in Rhone wines like Chateauneuf du Pape, which typically blends syrah, grenache, mouvedre and other lesser-known grape varieties. But grenache seldom gets to step out on its own.

Comartin first fell in love with the grape when in Australia. For him, the wine falls between the soft, delicate fruit flavors of pinot noir and the more muscular, earthy profile of syrah. It’s a sweet spot between the two wines that he likes, and he figured other wine drinkers would enjoy it, too.

Together with his wife, Jennifer, Comartin’s goal with the winery is to showcase how good California grenache can be. Currently he sources all his fruit from Santa Barbara County vineyards, but he has plans to get grapes closer to home. Nearby Black Ridge Vineyard recently grafted over a section of vines to grenache and Comartin will harvest the first crop from them this fall.

“The dream is to one day have a winery here in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he says.

As a grape, grenache has a lot in common with pinot noir. Both are rather thin-skinned and require a soft touch in the cellar. Overmanipulation compromises the wine. But the big difference between the grapes is that pinot noir likes cool, even foggy weather, while grenache is a sun lover and needs long hot days to reach full ripeness.

I tasted three of Comartin’s 2007 releases, a blend of three vineyards and two single vineyard designated wines. All of them were flat-out gorgeous. My favorite was the 2007 Tierra Alta Vineyard ($30). Exciting things happen in the mouth with this wine. It starts out with supple, red fruit flavors of raspberry and pomegranate and then a bit of earth and spiciness flickers on the palate and leads into a long, smooth finish. Lively acidity and barely there tannins make it an immediately satisfying wine.

The 2007 Ballard Canyon Vineyard ($30) is the yang to the Tierra Alta Vineyard’s yin. It has a bit more brawn and spice and a stiffer tannic backbone. It’s tailor made for grilled lamb or an herb encrusted pork loin. The 2007 Santa Barbara County grenache ($26) blends the best of both worlds—soft, delicate fruit framed by a structure of light tannins and a juicy acidity.

Comartin also makes a grenache rose ($16), a light but not lightweight wine that finishes with a bit of spiciness that makes it a refreshing, warm weather wine. The wine is named Adelaide’s Rose, an ode to his young daughter and the Australian city where his affection for grenache first began.

Being a small winery, Comartin Cellar’s wines aren’t widely available, but they are definitely worth seeking out. Wine Affairs in San Jose and Uncorked in Saratoga carry the wines as does Cava Wine Bar in Capitola.