My first impression was that Joey Tensley is one laid back dude.
Only after discussing his various projects did I understand he’s one busy guy: He has released the 20th vintage of his Rhone-style Tensley Wines, serves as winemaker for Paso Robles’ Carina Cellars and is expanding his “Fundamental” series, a tier of big-value, everyday wines, each priced under $20.
Knowing that I would be in the area — and always looking for an excuse to hang out in picturesque Los Olivos — I reached out to Joey. I had read some recent good reviews and wanted to taste his Santa Ynez Valley syrah, sourced from vineyards on the eastern side of the Santa Barbara County wine region.
Tensley’s Los Olivos tasting room is on Alamo Pintado, just off the main intersection, the one with the old flagpole in the middle of the street. The authentic charm of this place makes managing stress easier with good food and art to pair with the wine. Today, tasting Tensley’s wines was at the top of my agenda.
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By way of introduction, we began with the 2017 Tensley Colson Canyon Grenache Rose’ ($22), the first from this vineyard using grapes that were farmed and picked specifically for it. It is a tightly woven fabric of floral aromas with crisp, complex flavors. With production limited to three barrels, it is hard to find.
Joey has been sourcing grapes from the Colson Vineyard since the millennium, finally purchasing it in 2016. New farming techniques and surgical watering have produced the 2016 Tensley Colson Canyon Syrah ($42), described as a balance of power and finesse and awarded 94-points from Wine Spectator magazine. The deep, dark color was alluring, and the earthy qualities and firm tannins were balanced with fruit-forward flavors. Previous vintages of this wine were named to Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, No. 22 in 2009 and No. 17 in 2010. If you’re partial to syrah, you should try this one.
While priced under $30, the 2016 Tensley Santa Barbara County Syrah ($28), sourced from three Santa Ynez vineyards, offers intense, concentrated dark fruit flavors with hints of peppery spice. For me, it had a soft, accessible mouthfeel with attributes that will lead to more recognition.
A partiality to grenache peaked my interest in the 2016 Tensley “All Blocks” Red Wine ($34) where it is dominant (85 percent) and blended with syrah (14 percent) from the Colson Canyon Vineyard and a smidge of mourvedre (1 percent)from the Tensley Estate. It has an earthy character that is balanced with expressions of dark fruit, all delivered with a luscious mouthfeel. Wine Spectator was also impressed, awarding it 94-points.
Comprised from the best barrels from both estate vineyards, the small production 2016 Tensley Syrah “Noir” ($55) is aged in 80 percent thirsty new French oak for 16 months. The flavors are complex and layered with equitable expressions of dark stone fruits, spice and minerality. The tannins are evident and this wine will age gracefully in the cellar.
Joey has plans to expand his value-priced “Fundamental” series with a chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and the white Rhone blend. For now, he feels that his full-bodied 2016 Tensley “Fundamental” Red Blend ($18), combining syrah, mourvedre, petite sirah, grenache and viognier can compete with any other similarly priced release. He’s probably right.
Tensley also serves as the winemaker for Carina Cellars with vineyards in the western hills of Paso Robles. The grapes are transported south, and wine is made at the production facility in the Santa Ynez Valley. His work with Carina mostly focuses on Rhone-style blends, but I was impressed by the 2011 Carina Cellars Zinfandel Paso Robles ($29), with intense, concentrated flavors and a luscious mouthfeel. There seems to be a zinfandel style for every mood. This one is more about Zumba than yoga.
First-class syrah and other Rhone blends have come out of Santa Barbara County for decades, and current Tensley releases are earning recognition. The ones we tasted ranged in price from $18 to $55, and there is enough diversity for most palates. I expect them to be among the top wines of this year.