Central Coast’s Laetitia Winery of Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo-California
18th July 2023
I had been selected to be the opening sommelier for Norman’s as Chef Norman Van Aken had been chosen by Cushman Wakefield real estate developers to be an anchor tenant at the newly built Sunset Millenium Plaza on the famous Sunset Strip in West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The developers had spared no expense to build out the most glamorous restaurant in one of Los Angeles most fabled neighborhoods. I arrived five months earlier pre opening, and the entire crew was onsite cooking with a custom built French Molteni flat top kitchen island grill and ovens. I would have been astonished how this kitchen was assembled in the restaurant, or whether the restaurant was built around the kitchen first? Each part of the design was carefully crafted to flow the dinners towards to the guests.
I remembered the TV show 77 Sunset Strip, and I lived ½ mile up the Hollywood Hills off the Boulevard.
I needed to explore my new neighborhood, and walking was encouraged by my physician for exercise. I had been home bound doing research in 2002 for a new online wine San Francisco startup, as such I was confined to my apartment utilizing the decade earlier established inter-web connectivity.
San Francisco and the wine country (at its closest) was 24 miles to the nearest winery. In Los Angeles to get to the Central Coastal wine district was a three hour drive in crowded stop & go traffic, just to get to the nearest edge of Central Coast vineyards.
Being well rested, with planned itineraries, and patience is de rigueur on the Southern California roadways.
The urban sprawl cacophony leading to bucolic vistas that only California affords. It is quite the dichotomy of urban nightmares, crossing delightful natural geography.
My first exploration of the Central Coast wine regions began when I was 17 years old driving through Solvang, an ersatz Scandinavian village. I was astonished at how far I had driven to get to the edge of cold climate vineyards along an east-west running V-shaped Santa Ynez Valley, particularly well acclimated for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape vineyards. The summer ripening temperatures rose quickly to 35 degree Celsius daytime, but as soon as the sun sets the evening diurnal temperatures plunge to 12 degrees Celsius, definitely chilly sweater weather!
I’ve always been curious about history and geology. The unique transverse valleys of Southern California’s Central Coast were completely intriguing to me, drawing the huge reserves of cooling Pacific weather influences up the west to east running Santa Ynez Valley, 75 miles long. I had just read about the phenomenon of Santa Rita Hills further south and west to the Pacific edge coastline, the origins of Sanford & Benedict, a Holy Grail Pinot Noir vineyard! There the unique diatomaceous clay landscape makes a special contribution to grapevines combined with the cooling Pacific breezes. Until 1975, it was sheep-grazing countryside!
This is where Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman have established a strong foothold in the Central Coast with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and they are rewriting the modern viticulture history in Oregon and California.
North of Santa Ynez is another modified transverse northwesterly Arroyo Grande to southeasterly valley in southern San Luis Obispo county where Laetitia winery is located. Originally built and planted by the Maison Deutz Champagne wine team, the eventual Laetitia Winemaker and General Manager Eric Hickey “began his relationship with the Laetitia Estate in 1988 when he was just 16 years old, working in the cellar with his dad, Dave Hickey, who was a production assistant for Maison Deutz at the time. Seizing the golden opportunity to apprentice with French winemakers, Eric joined the Maison Deutz team full-time after graduating from high school. From vintage to vintage, he gained a deep appreciation for the property’s fruit, while also taking time to explore the Rhône, Burgundy and Bordeaux in France and participating in an extension program through U.C. Davis.
“In 2000, Eric was named Head Winemaker, and has since taken on the role as Senior Winemaker and General Manager, overseeing the still and sparkling wine programs. With a winemaking style that balances Old World tradition with cutting-edge California, Eric consistently produces generous, articulate wines that are true to the character of the Laetitia Estate.”
I was fortunate enough to receive Best Sommelier honors in Los Angeles by Angeleno Magazine in 2004, and the owners of Laetitia came to Norman’s, introducing me to the sparkling wines from their estate vineyards. When I opened the 2001 bottle Laetitia Coquard Brut, I was immediately transported to the chapel led morning prayers by my scholarly Jesuits who shared the calming incense. The Coquard hand operated is a vintage basket grape press employed by the original Deutz winemakers to regulate the cuvée from the taille pressing’s. This is the most precise method for controlling grape press tannins in the clear final juice. I was emotionally moved by the bottle’s smoky scent, ripe red and floral perfume notes I had last experienced when opening a Krug vintage from the 1970’s, this wasn’t just another bottled pretty face. According to Hickey, “I keep it simple,” he says, “and I stay eye-to-eye with our vineyard manager because the interplay between us is what determines the wines’ quality. Everything done in the cellar starts with what we do out in the vineyard.” The Laetitia Coquard vintage Brut wine’s richness and elegance is on prominent display! There are fantastic Laetitia still vintage wines available as well as three more sparkling cuvées.
Restaurant General Manager, Corporate Beverage Director, & Hospitality Consultant, with these qualities he represents a Triple Threat: a culinary tableside historian, an accomplished wine taster with the casual ability to make flavor relationships and beverage quality value accessible.