Simply 25 years earlier, no one– not even winemakers in Santa Barbara County– promoted the name “Sta. Rita Hills” as a prime location for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yet simply twenty years after the appellation’s creation in 2001, this fog-soaked, wind-whipped western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley is an internationally recognized hotspot for cool-climate grapes and a model of how to properly craft an American Viticultural Area.
” It can be tough to cover your head around Southern California and consider a cool climate,” describes Matt Dees, who makes The Hilt red wines from the Bentrock and Radian vineyards on Rancho Salsipuedes. “Up until people come here and see it for themselves or taste adequate wines, it’s hard to fathom. But once people taste that freshness and electrical power in the whites and the depth of fruit and complexity of the reds, they become believers quite quick.”
Today, those followers consist of both larger wineries from Northern California and highly regarded domaines in Burgundy and Champagne. So how did this no-name region rise to international praise so quickly? And what does the future hold?
Image Courtesy of George Rose
Beyond Hot or Not
The rise of the Sta. Rita Hills is rooted in the combination of pure intents and perfect timing. “The start was quite innocent– there wasn’t any expectation of achievement,” stated Richard Sanford, who, along with Michael Benedict, was the very first to plant wine grapes here in 1971. “We were just discovering a method to be in nature and make a living. All the pieces entered into place.”
When their 1976 Sanford & & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir won broad praise, others began planting vineyards between Buellton and Lompoc. The speed heightened into the 1990s, when the first Dijon clones of Pinot Noir struck the marketplace and modern farming strategies such as drip irrigation, vertical trellising, cover cropping and high-density planting entered vogue.
” We took advantage of not only the climate and the soil and the land pricing but also these viticultural advancements,” states Chad Melville, whose father, Ron Melville, bought land alongside Highway 246 in 1996. “That was a big impact.”
However the mainstream understanding of Santa Barbara County was that the Santa Maria Valley was cold and the Santa Ynez Valley was hot. That just wasn’t real on the Santa Ynez Valley’s western end, so the vintners needed to inform their own story. “The motivation of the appellation was very pure,” explained Greg Maker, whose Brewer-Clifton brand name is almost entirely focused on the region. “It wasn’t an appellation that was substantiated of a financial thing or an ego thing or a location of envy, like numerous borders can be. It was a genuine appellation substantiated of instructional clearness. It was very standard: We weren’t hot.”
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Holding firm to the message that the location was different, not better, Sanford convened a group, consisting of leaders in the region such as Richard Longoria and Bryan Babcock, to examine forming a sub-appellation. With Wes Hagen– whose family planted Clos Pepe in 1996– managing information, they mapped it peak to peak to map it out, efficiently developing their own appellation template.
“It wasn’t an appellation that was born out of a financial thing or an ego thing or a location of envy, like numerous borders can be.”
“This appellation was extremely, very various in its establishment since it wasn’t an old growing area and it wasn’t being leveraged by PR individuals,” stated Sanford, who still regrets that the eastern boundary was somewhat expanded in 2016. “There was purity in the whole procedure– rather than attempting to flex the borders to accommodate other people’s desires.” Sanford likewise had to go to Chile to smooth things over with Viña Santa Rita, which is why the appellation’s name was ultimately abbreviated to “Sta.” Rita Hills.The appellation was authorized in 2001, when winemaker Gavin Chanin of Chanin Wines was simply a teenager. After working with areas throughout the state, he believes they got it right. “I’m a skeptic of AVAs– I don’t believe they’re really helpful, with the exception of the Sta. Rita Hills, “he states.”I discover that it has a truly distinct character, even though there are multiple soil types and multiple exposures. “The great times rolled on into the mid-2000s, with wallets growing fat and the movie Sideways shooting up an enthusiasm for Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills and the entire Santa Ynez Valley as a location.” It had that ideal storm element, “says Brewer. “Before the motion picture came out, individuals didn’t understand how to pronounce Pinot Noir, “says Melville.”That provided individuals a convenience zone of getting their heads around this mysterious grape. It made it approachable.”Image Courtesy of George Rose Not Simply Pinot-land Sideways pumped up the appeal of Pinot Noir, which now far surpasses Chardonnay in acreage. Over time, that’s reproduced a variety of
styles, from vibrant and ripe to lean and elegant, yet they all bring hallmarks of the appellation. “Whether you’re choosing early or late, “said The Hilt’s Matt Dees,”the soul still shines through.”In spite of Pinot’s prominence, Dees believes– as do almost all of the dozen-plus vintners we spoke to– Chardonnay is the appellation’s true star.”
The beauty for me is that, from east to west, the Chardonnays are identifiably Sta. Rita Hills, even when tasted blind,”he says.”I’m ferociously happy with that.”Babcock says that the Chardonnay has”an additional equipment”to take on white wines from anywhere, while Brewer calls it” extremely singular. “Proof of that goes back to a 1989 bottling of Chardonnay from the area by Rick Longoria, long before anybody considered it as an appellation. Set against leading Chardonnays from all over the world by a prominent magazine, Longoria’s was named number one, earning 98 points.”That may have been the very first peek,”he recalls.Melville pours his Chardonnay last during tastings.”They have that salty, briny minerality– this stunning tight acid with concentrated fruit– all involved one plan, “he says.”When I pour it at the end, it simply blows the entire thing up. People just drop in their tracks and are like,’Whoa.'”These winemakers are also bullish on Sta. Rita Hills Syrah, which, says Melville, offers tastes of”purple flower, white pepper, olive tapenade and charcuterie, with fresh acidity and just enough grippiness to make it all work.” Of course, he often must let
it ripen till the possibly damp days of November, however describes, “With the danger comes benefits.”In fact, some of the region’s most well-known wines– those from Eleven Confessions Vineyard by Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non– are Rhône-based, so it’s not a surprise to see Grenache gaining ground, too. There are likewise exciting, if small, plantings of Gamay, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and other outliers.”The story is a lot much easier to tell if you say that the Sta. Rita Hills is Pinot-land, but there’s a lot of thrill in some other ranges, and certainly Syrah and Chardonnay are currently shown in my book, “states veteran vintner Adam Tolmach of
The Ojai Vineyard, who just recently bought Fe Ciega Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.”There is space for more discovery.” Another frontier is champagne, which Standard Yost of Flying Goat Cellars initially crafted in 2005.” Why is nobody making any sparkling wine here?” he wondered at that time while testing grapes around veraison and discovering their chemistry perfect.” We have phenolic advancement
at lower numbers. That’s why we can make them drier. “Fess Parker Winery was 2nd on that train, and now runs a special gleaming tasting space called the Bubble Shack. Winemaker Blair Fox discovered the process from Yost, and is now sourcing nearly exclusively from their Parker West Vineyard on the appellation’s western edge. However it
‘s occurring everywhere.”I see increasingly more individuals selecting for sparkling wine now than ever,” states Fox.Yost hopes the trend grows, questioning,” Is any person going to plant Pinot Meunier? “Image Thanks To George Rose The Long Game One important difficulty for an area’s reputation is the longevity of its red wines. Only over the last few years have actually there been enough older Sta. Rita Hills vintages to judge as such, however the
decisions are encouraging. Anyone lucky sufficient to try those old Sanford & Benedicts of the ’70s and ’80s was persuaded long back.”That is no