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Sta. Rita Hills Is More Than Just Pinot-Land

Just 25 years ago, no one—not even winemakers in Santa Barbara County—promoted the name “Sta. Rita Hills” as a prime place for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yet just two decades after the appellation’s creation in 2001, this fog-soaked, wind-whipped western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley is a globally recognized hotspot for cool-climate grapes and a model of how to correctly craft an American Viticultural Area.

“It can be hard to wrap your head around Southern California and think of a cool climate,” explains Matt Dees, who makes The Hilt wines from the Bentrock and Radian vineyards on Rancho Salsipuedes. “Until people come here and see it for themselves or taste enough wines, it’s hard to fathom. But once people taste that freshness and electricity in the whites and the depth of fruit and complexity of the reds, they become believers pretty quick.”

Today, those believers include both larger wineries from Northern California and highly regarded domaines in Burgundy and Champagne. So how did this no-name region rise to international acclaim so quickly? And what does the future hold?

In 1971, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard proved that Pinot Noir could thrive in Santa Barbara County / Sanford and Benedict Vineyard
In 1971, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard proved that Pinot Noir could thrive in Santa Barbara County / Image Courtesy of George Rose

Beyond Hot or Not

The rise of the Sta. Rita Hills is rooted in the combination of pure intentions and perfect timing. “The beginning was pretty innocent—there wasn’t any expectation of greatness,” said Richard Sanford, who, along with Michael Benedict, was the first to plant wine grapes here in 1971. “We were just finding a way to be in nature and make a living. All the pieces came into place.”

When their 1976 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir won wide praise, others started planting vineyards between Buellton and Lompoc. The pace intensified into the 1990s, when the first Dijon clones of Pinot Noir hit the market and modern farming techniques such as drip irrigation, vertical trellising, cover cropping and high-density planting came into vogue.

“We took advantage of not only the climate and the soil and the land pricing but also these viticultural advancements,” says Chad Melville, whose father, Ron Melville, bought land alongside Highway 246 in 1996. “That was a big influence.”

But 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 true on the Santa Ynez Valley’s western end, so the vintners had to tell their own story. “The motivation of the appellation was very pure,” explained Greg Brewer, whose Brewer-Clifton brand is almost entirely focused on the region. “It wasn’t an appellation that was born out of a financial thing or an ego thing or a place of envy, like many borders can be. It was a real appellation born out of educational clarity. It was very basic: We weren’t hot.”

Holding firm to the message that the area was different, not better, Sanford convened a group, including pioneers in the region such as Richard Longoria and Bryan Babcock, to investigate forming a sub-appellation. With Wes Hagen— whose family planted Clos Pepe in 1996—handling details, they mapped it peak to peak to map it out, effectively developing their own appellation template.

“It wasn’t an appellation that was born out of a financial thing or an ego thing or a place of envy, like many borders can be.”

“This appellation was very, very different in its establishment because it wasn’t an old growing area and it wasn’t being leveraged by PR people,” said Sanford, who still laments that the eastern boundary was slightly expanded in 2016. “There was purity in the whole process—rather than trying to bend the boundaries to accommodate other people’s wishes.” Sanford also had to go to Chile to smooth things over with Viña Santa Rita, which is why the appellation’s name was eventually abbreviated to “Sta.” Rita Hills.

The appellation was approved in 2001, when winemaker Gavin Chanin of Chanin Wines was just a teenager. After working with regions across the state, he believes they got it right. “I’m a skeptic of AVAs—I don’t think they’re really useful, with the exception of the Sta. Rita Hills,” he says. “I find that it has a really distinct character, even though there are multiple soil types and multiple exposures.” The good times rolled on into the mid-2000s, with wallets growing fat and the film Sideways firing up a passion for Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills and the entire Santa Ynez Valley as a destination. “It had that perfect storm element,” says Brewer.

“Before the movie came out, people didn’t know how to pronounce Pinot Noir,” says Melville. “That gave people a comfort zone of getting their heads around this mysterious grape. It made it approachable.”

Melville Vineyard
Melville Vineyard, founded along Highway 246 in 1996, made the most of Dijon clones and high density plantings / Image Courtesy of George Rose

Not Just Pinot-land

Sideways pumped up the popularity of Pinot Noir, which now far outweighs Chardonnay in acreage. Over time, that’s bred a range of styles, from bold and ripe to lean and graceful, yet they all carry hallmarks of the appellation. “Whether you’re picking early or late,” said The Hilt’s Matt Dees, “the soul still shines through.”

Despite 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 proud of that.” Babcock says that the Chardonnay has “an extra gear” to compete with wines from anywhere, while Brewer calls it “very singular.” Evidence of that goes back to a 1995 bottling of Chardonnay from the region by Rick Longoria, long before anyone considered it as an appellation. Set against top Chardonnays from around the world by a prominent magazine, Longoria’s was named number one, earning 98 points. “That might have been the first glimpse,” he recalls.

Melville pours his Chardonnay last during tastings. “They have that salty, briny minerality—this beautiful tight acid with concentrated fruit—all wrapped up in one package,” he says. “When I pour it at the end, it just blows the whole thing up. People just stop in their tracks and are like, ‘Whoa.’”

These winemakers are also bullish on Sta. Rita Hills Syrah, which, says Melville, offers flavors 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 until the potentially wet days of November, but explains, “With the risk comes rewards.” In fact, some of the region’s most acclaimed wines—those from Eleven Confessions Vineyard by Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non— are Rhône-based, so it’s no surprise to see Grenache making headway, too. There are also exciting, if tiny, plantings of Gamay, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and other outliers.

“The story is a lot easier to tell if you say that the Sta. Rita Hills is Pinot-land, but there’s a lot of thrill in some other varieties, and definitely Syrah and Chardonnay are already proven in my book,” says veteran vintner Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard, who recently purchased Fe Ciega Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. “There is room for more discovery.”

Another frontier is sparkling wine, which Norm Yost of Flying Goat Cellars first crafted in 2005. “Why is nobody making any sparkling wine here?” he wondered back then while testing grapes around veraison and finding their chemistry perfect. “We have phenolic development at lower numbers. That’s why we can make them drier.”

Fess Parker Winery was second on that train, and now runs an exclusive sparkling tasting room called the Bubble Shack. Winemaker Blair Fox learned the process from Yost, and is now sourcing almost exclusively from their Parker West Vineyard on the appellation’s western edge. But it’s happening everywhere. “I see more and more people picking for sparkling wine now than ever,” says Fox.

Yost hopes the trend matures, wondering, “Is anybody going to plant Pinot Meunier?”

Melville Vineyards
Melville Vineyard / Image Courtesy of George Rose

The Long Game

One crucial hurdle for a region’s reputation is the longevity of its wines. Only in recent years have there been enough older Sta. Rita Hills vintages to judge as such, but the verdicts are encouraging. Anyone lucky enough to try those old Sanford & Benedicts of the ’70s and ’80s was convinced long ago.

“That is no fluke,” saiys Babcock. “This is an indication that, in a good vintage, if you make it right, the wine is gonna go 20 to 25 years, no sweat.”

Investment from the likes of Napa superstars such as Dave Phinney and big brands like Jackson Family has bolstered Sta. Rita Hills, but nothing better validates a wine region dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than vignerons from Burgundy and Champagne staking claim. Etienne de Montille did just that in 2017 when, after a month-long tour of the West Coast, through the Willamette Valley, Sonoma Coast, Santa Cruz Mountains and elsewhere, chose the Sta. Rita Hills for his Racines Wines brand. Champagne veteran Rodolphe Péters is a partner, overseeing the sparkling program. They share an underlying hope that the region’s direct coastal influence will temper the warming weather patterns, as compared to their land-locked settings in the Old World.

“We can confidently say that the Sta. Rita Hills has the coldest climate in all of those regions,” says de Montille. “The Sta. Rita Hills also enjoys more diverse soils than we could find in Oregon or Northern California, ranging from sandy soil to Monterey shale to clay to diatomaceous earth and even some limestone. That was a good surprise for us.”

Given the competitive nature of the wine business, California’s persistent drought and the increasingly chaotic effects of climate change, not even a blessed region like the Sta. Rita Hills sleeps soundly.

“I worry more, frankly, about water,” says Victor Gallegos of Sea Smoke Vineyard. “Everyone has their head in the sand on that subject. We’re not having any conversations about what level of planting that watershed can sustain.” He’s not talking about grapes or cannabis, which both use drip irrigation—he means old-school farmers. If regulators do get involved, says Gallegos, “The people who are flood-irrigating or sprinkler-irrigating row crops in the Lompoc plain will probably go away or change their practices.”

Sashi Moorman, who makes Domaine de la Côte with Rajat Parr, is preparing for more violent storms, but his prevailing climate concern is more subtle. “The winters are warmer,” he says, explaining that, without a proper freeze, vine diseases proliferate. “These are serious issues that will become more serious.”

“We’re not having any conversations about what level of planting that watershed can sustain.”

Adam Tolmach watched Pierce’s disease destroy his Ojai property a quarter-century ago. He’s since planted disease-resistant hybrid vines developed by UC-Davis (including Ambulo Blanc, Caminante Blanc, Walker Red and Paseante Noir) there and just planted some at Fe Ciega Vineyard as well, where the disease killed off a Chardonnay block close to the Santa Ynez River. “The lower areas are just awful—you can’t grow 100% vinifera down there,” he says. He’s “guardedly happy” about the hybrids, and so are others. “At least three different vineyards have wanted to get ahold of me and talk about what these are,” he said. “There’s great interest.”

When Pierce’s disease started killing his vineyard, Babcock pivoted by buying fruit from other vineyard sites around the county. “I feel like a kid in a candy store,” says Babcock, who’s solving another problem by no longer growing grapes: “The biggest issue that the industry has is oversupply [of grapes].” Strict development rules also constrain Sta. Rita Hills, where it’s all but impossible to build a winery or tasting room. “That might pose a challenge to the evolution of the area,” says Brewer, who, like so many others, makes his wine in a Lompoc warehouse and sells it through a tasting room in the wine-soaked town of Los Olivos. “There’s not a lot of marketing flashiness between Highway 246 and Santa Rosa Road,” explains Hagen, referring to its still very rural nature. “The vines and wines are the stars, and they do most of the talking for us.”

This article originally appeared in the Best of Year 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!