Los Alamos: Outpost of Outstanding Wines

Driving on Highway 101, between the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria in Santa Barbara wine country, you pass by rolling hills punctuated by oak trees, sedate cattle and a sea of vineyards, like the ones off Cat Canyon and Kendall Jackson's 1,600 acres.  You also pass by Los Alamos, an old western town founded in 1876 that still doesn't have its own grocery store.

What this rustic outpost does have, tucked on its main street between antique shops and boarded up businesses, are two wineries, sometimes three, depending on what lease terms are offered.  Los Alamos is truly a destination, either because you seek out Bedford Thompson and Cold Heaven wineries, or because you stumble across them due to a much needed restroom break as your car screams along the freeway in search of civilization.

If you stop, and you should, you’ll discover an interesting little town that is just beginning its “gentrification.”  New homes have popped up, their sales flags waving in the wind like cloth telegraphs.  One restaurant is gaining a lot of attention for its funky pizzas.  But most importantly, you’ll discover wine, really good wine.  Bedford Thompson and Cold Heaven are ensconced on Bell Street, along the main drag.

Stephan Bedford, one of the founders of Bedford Thompson Winery is a talented, if underappreciated, winemaker who fell into the wine business for 25 years ago.  He needed a job and being a rather burly guy, he was tapped to haul and clean barrels.  “I was strong of back and weak of mind,” he said self-effacingly.  He spent time working with Ridge Vineyards and Mt. Edan in Santa Cruz and Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria.  In 1994 he began his own venture and now he is the sole proprietor of Bedford Thompson.  His unfiltered syrah is a perennial favorite and, hands down, one of the best versions to come out of Santa Barbara.  Bedford makes a few whites, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and a very nice Gewürztraminer, but he prefers Mouvedre, Grenache, Petite Sirah and other oddball wines.  And he has a penchant for making them as 100 percent varietals.   And Stephan doesn't make any anemic, watery red wines.  His reds are bold and aggressive, balanced and pure.  He uses French wines as a road map, but ultimately he makes what he likes.  There is the usual comparison of his wines to Cote ‘d’Or.  “You stress the similarities and understand the differences,” he said.

Cold Haven is the creation of Morgan Clendenen, whose near single-minded fanatical drive for producing viognier has made her stand out in a world of flabby, over produced white wines that clutter store shelves and waste valuable space.  Viognier, still on the rise here in the U.S., is well known in Europe.  However, as Clendenen noted, what motivated her to focus on Viognier was what the grape could become.  "Here in the U.S. it is sweet and cloying with too much alcohol," she said.  "Most people couldn't even define what it was supposed to taste like."  Using the Condrieu region in the Cotes du Rhone as her model, she bolted headlong into the abyss of an unknown wine.  "I saw something I could really hang my hat on, a wine to define and pioneer in California as it hadn't been done before," she noted.  Her attention to detail has paid off.  Cold Heaven is now one of the top producers of Viognier in the U.S.

If only Los Alamos itself could garner such attention.  Perhaps Bedford Thompson and Cold Heaven will help place it on the map.

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For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.