Samra Morris took an unusual path to becoming a winemaker in the surging Sta. Rita Hills region of California.
A native of Bosnia, she grew up in a war zone. Later she had dreams of becoming a brewmaster. Now she is the winemaker for Alma Rosa, a Sta. Rita Hills winery that makes some outstanding wines.
Trying to make the best of the COVID pandemic lockdown, Alma Rosa introduced
Samra to wine writers via a virtual tasting. She was delightful, and her wines were fabulous. The four wines we tasted all were the first wines in which she had control from vineyard to glass.
I would prefer to do these wine tastings in person, and nothing can compare to meeting winemakers face-to-face, but the virtual tastings do allow all of us a greater range of tastings. And while wineries are slowly reopening tasting rooms, they can at least reach wine drinkers throughout the country with the Internet.
The wines we tasted were beautiful, bright whites and rosés, all perfect for spring and summer drinking. I especially enjoyed the tasting because my wife and I were in Edisto Beach, S.C., our first trip away from home in more than a year. We sipped the wines during and after the tasting while watching the waves roll in on a gorgeous sunny day.
“I’m very excited about these wines,” said Samra. “It’s an amazing moment in my life.” This fall she expects to release her first Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rhone-style wines from Alma Rosa.
She is a rising star in the world of wine, and the first Bosnian woman winemaker in
California. After coming to California with her husband, an Air Force First Sergeant, she trained under winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown at Hestan Vineyards in Napa Valley. She completed her first internship at St. Supery, and had cellar internships for three harvests with Rivers Brown’s Mending Wall. She also worked at Michael Mondavi Family Estate and Free Flow Wines.
When Debra Eagle became general manager at Alma Rosa in 2018, she recruited Samra as assistant winemaker. She was promoted to winemaker in less than a year.
Samra said Brown had the biggest influence on her development.
The Santa Barbara area is best known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because of the cool climate.
The four wines we tasted were the 2020 Alma Rosa Vin Gris of Pinot Noir ($35), followed by the 2020 Grenache Rosé ($30). We finished with the 2019 La Encantada Pinot Gris ($32) and the 2019 La Encantada Pinot Blanc ($35). I chilled all the wines in the refrigerator for about an hour.
I would describe all the wines as full of aromatics, elegance and lightness.
The Vin Gris was outstanding, a dry, smooth elegant wine with hints of wild strawberry. I loved the delicate color, a light pink that was not as dark as the Grenache. Samra said the light color for both wines was by design.
“The Rosés don’t stay on the skins (during fermentation),” she said. “I love the light color we get.”
The Vin Gris opened with beautiful aromas of white flowers, grapefruit peel and wild strawberries with a hint of ginger. The first sip revealed complex flavors of apricot and red berries leading to a long finish marked by minerality. It has a refreshing acidity, which would make it a great food wine. Alma Rosa recommends pairing it with grilled fish or pork carnitas tacos. It would pair well with a variety of dishes. It is made from 100 percent Pinot Noir.
The Grenache Rosé is a deeper pink in the glass with delicate aromas of melon and hibiscus. It is full of rich, lush flavors, such as guava and passionfruit. After Samra pointed it out, I recognized a slight saltiness to the flavors in the wine.
She described it as “like a salted strawberry,” and said it reminded her of the Old World wines she grew up drinking during summer trips to the Mediterranean coast. The winery suggests pairing this with grilled squid, oysters on the half shell, or a classic Provençal fish strew. I also had it with fried shrimp when we were at Edisto and it was terrific.
The grapes are 100 percent Grenache.
The grapes for both the blush wines came from Alma Rosa’s El Jabali estate vineyard. This historic vineyard was planted by winery founder Richard Sanford in 1983.
The Pinot Gris was a gorgeous straw yellow in the glass with green undertones. The aromas were powerful, primarily melon and white stone fruit. On the palate I picked up more melon and white stone fruit with some almond and baking spices. It is a tasty wine, with the fruit balanced by crisp acidity.
The grapes (100 percent Pinot Gris) came from the La Encantada vineyard, originally planted by Richard Sanford in 2000. The vineyard is two miles west of the Alma Rosa estate and grows a large majority of the Pinot Gris in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. It is the farthest west vineyard in the Alma Rosa fold.
The wine was aged for 15 months in 74 percent stainless steel drums and 26 percent new French oak barrels.
The winery suggests pairing this wine with classic Italian antipasti, mild creamy cheeses such as ricotta, or seafood dishes such as shrimp scampi or buttered scallops. We loved it with steamed shrimp.
The Pinot Blanc was another spectacular seafood wine. It is made up of 100 percent Pinot Blanc grapes from the La Encantada vineyard. The wine is fermented and then aged in 70 percent stainless steel and 30 percent new French oak for 15 months.
It is a pale lemon in the glass, a little darker yellow than the Pinot Gris. It had pleasant aromas of toast, apple and grapefruit. On the palate it was dry, full of citrus flavors with crisp acidity. It was well balanced, with a long, mineral finish. It reminded me of a Chenin Blanc, a wine that I love.
Teri and I had this wine with steamed shrimp and with fried shrimp and fried flounder. It was a great match for all the seafood. We got the fried shrimp and flounder from McConkey’s Jungle Shack, the only night we didn’t cook at the rental house. We did get the food as a takeout and ate it at the house, to be pandemic safe.
Bob and Barb Zorich have owned Alma Rose in Buellton since 2014. They bought it from founders Richard and Thekla Sanford who planted their first vineyard in 1983. The estate is on 628 acres, with 38 acres planted to vines. The estate vineyard, El Jabali, is joined by four non-contiguous vineyards of Pinot Noir (55 percent), Chardonnay (30 percent), and Syrah and Grenache (15 percent). All are farmed with sustainable methods.
The vibrant and balanced wines are driven by the cool climate influence of the Pacific Ocean. While most vineyards on the West Coast traverse north to south, the valleys in the Sta. Rita Hills area line up west to east, funneling the cool air through the vineyards. The AVA is best known for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
It’s lucky for all of us winemakers that Samra Morris didn’t like the smells in the brewery when she was studying to be a brewmaster. One internship was enough to convince her to switch to making wine.
Then in 2012 her husband was transferred to Travis Air Force Base near Napa Valley, and she had a chance to meet key people in the wine industry. She worked at several important wineries until July 2019 when Debra Eagle lured her to Santa Barbara. By the end of the year she was promoted to winemaker, and now she had two harvests behind her.
“I fell in love with Santa Barbara County, and especially Alma Rosa,” said Morris. “I always wanted to make big, bold cabs, but I love making the cool climate wines here.
“We call the climate here chilled sunshine. Most of the valleys from Chile to Alaska run north to south, but here they are west to east.”
Morris said she has no preset notions when she sets out to make a wine.
“I go to the vineyard and taste the grapes,” she said. “During fermentation I decide when to stop. I hope more people will discover Sta. Rita Hills.”
Morris said the hint of saltiness in some of the wines reminds her of the wines in her native Croatia.
“Sta. Rita Hills grapes give me a homesickness,” she said. “And it’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous.”
She also hopes to plant some Žilavka grapes, which are from Bosnia. She thinks the acidity and minerality in those grapes would produce great wines in Sta. Rita Hills. “I’d like to take Bob and Barbara to Croatia to try this varietal,” she said.
Žilavka is a white wine grape that is used to create Bosnia-Herzegovina’s most prestigious wines. It is noted for high levels of natural acidity and potential alcohol.
The name means “strong roots,” and it’s roots can run deep to cope with drought. It can produce fresh, light wines with pleasant aromas but it can produce more complex wines with skin contact during fermentation. Some of those wines are even colored orange, and some can age really well.
Morris also praised the assistant winemakers who have helped her learn about the region.
“They have been super supportive,” she said. “I have learned so much about their winemaking style. And Debra has been very supportive. I’m truly blessed to be a California winemaker even if I am from Europe.”
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Alma Rosa Winery is committed to helping mental health efforts. On July 24 it will host the second annual Peace of Mind–10,000 Steps in the Right Direction fundraising walk. Last year’s inaugural effort was a virtual walk in September and raised more than $144,000.
This year the walk (approximately 5 miles) will take place on the Alma Rosa Estate. If you can’t attend in person you can still participate virtually.
“Anxiety and depression are among the most prevalent mental health disorders affecting our communities today, and we believe there has never been a more urgent time to be part of the solution,” says Bob Zorich.
“We feel especially compelled to give back to our community by supporting research and care within Santa Barbara County and the state of California. We believe strongly that giving back is contagious, and hope to inspire people to join us in supporting these two organizations and the critical work they do.”
Bob and Barb Zorich have a history of supporting mental health-related causes. The money raised will support research and treatment for anxiety and depression through two beneficiaries, Mental Wellness Center and One Mind. Alma Rosa will also observe Mental Health Month by donating 10 percent of all direct sales generated during the month of May to Mental Wellness Center in Santa Barbara. For more information, or to sign up to receive additional updates about the fundraiser, visit http://almarosawinery.com/about/community-commitment