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Sta. Rita Hills: Top Choices from One of California’s Greatest Sites

2014 February 7

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view of southern portion of Sta. Rita Hills AVA, from the top of the Mt. Carmel vineyard

(This is the first in a series delving into what I think is one of California’s most exciting wine regions these days: the several appellations that make up Santa Barbara County wine country. This sprawling area of rolling hills and diverse climactic zones begins about 20 miles north of the City of Santa Barbara and continues for about 35 miles, to the area east of the town of Santa Maria. The series begins with Sta. Rita Hills AVA, the most famous of Santa Barbara County’s five official appellations.)

Sta. Rita Hills AVA is a ten mile stretch of land between the Santa Barbara County towns of Buellton and Lompoc that encompasses two wind buffeted valleys and the east-west transverse hills that rise between them. The cool climate, super long growing season and largely poor soils here facilitate the production of wines that potentially “have it all”: weight, body, richness, minerality and scintillating acidity. Winemakers elsewhere around the world would kill to have this combination of favorable conditions, making it possible to produce fine wines in just about any style a winemaker wants.

That doesn’t mean that growing grapes here doesn’t take significant effort. The fog and cool temperatures generate significant mildew pressure throughout the year. Wind is a constant factor during the growing season, and some areas lack sufficient protection. And, as elsewhere in the State, the lack of rainfall is of growing concern. Whereas Sta. Rita Hills normally receives an average of 12 inches of rain per year, total precipitation for the past two years combined has been a meager 14 inches.

Winegrowing here dates back only to the 1974 planting of the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard—the subject of a previous piece here. Most of the existing vines in the AVA were planted starting in the mid-1990s. Nonetheless, the results to date have already shown the tremendous potential of this area, and refinements are constantly going on in vineyards here and with new plantings. I truly believe that anyone interested in New World wines in general and cool climate wines in particular should know about this region and seek to sample some of its stellar Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrahs.

I spent two days in the appellation on my last Santa Barbara County visit at the end of last year, doing a day and a half of intensive comparative tastings, organized by Sao Anash and Chad Melville. I got a much deeper sense of the appellation’s geography thanks to a three-hour tour led by Chad, whose family has been growing grapes here since 1997. I also spent a few hours with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, the author (he prefers the term “scribe”) of the region’s 1997 application for AVA status that was ultimately approved in 2001.

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Chad Melville beginning my appellation tour at Melville Vineyard

As Wes explains, this special microclimate began forming 20 million years ago during the Miocene, when marine sediment was deposited under the Pacific Ocean. Tectonic plate movements subsequently pushed mountains up from the ocean here in a north-south orientation. Over a period of 12 million years, the mountains gradually broke from the plate and shifted east to west. Wes calls the area “the most erosive, geologically unstable part of California,” claiming that it “was underwater 12 million years ago and will be again within one million years.”

It’s this east-west orientation of what has been described as “the most clearly delineated transverse range on the Pacific Coast” that makes this 100 square mile area so special. Fog and cool winds generated by the Humboldt Current off the coast are drawn in daily through the east/west maritime throat, keeping temperatures predictably low and balmy, even throughout the summer.

The northernmost of the two east-west oriented valleys that comprise the appellation begins below the La Purisima Hills and extends to the Santa Rosa Hills in the middle of the appellation. This portion is easily accessible via Route 246. The southern valley begins at the southern flank of the Santa Rita Hills, which includes Mt. Carmel, and extends southward to the northern foothills of the Santa Rosa Hills. The Santa Ynez River winds through this valley, and its upper section is reached via an access road entered from the east on private property belonging to a Peruvian Horse ranch. The main drag through the southern portion of this lower valley is Santa Rosa Road.

A map showing the parameters and older vineyards of the appellation can be found here. A much needed update to this map, to indicate vineyards planted since 2005, is underway.

As Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict learned when they explored the region back in the early ‘70s, temperatures increase by only about one degree per mile as you head east through the region from its western border, which lies about two miles east of Highway 1 in Lompoc.

The poor marine based soils here have elevated calcium levels. The soils are diverse, and vary a lot even within vineyard parcels. Nonetheless, one finds more largely sandy areas in the northern section and running downhill from Mt. Carmel, with a preponderance of clay, most notably Botella clay loam, in the south. There are also significant veins of diatomaceous earth, consisting of fossilized remains of a hard-shelled algae called “diatom.” One of three diatomaceous earth plants in the country is located here.

Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict originally planted a number of varieties, including Bordeaux varieties, at their pioneering vineyard. Reportedly the results were good even with the Merlot, which tends to perform better in warmer growing conditions. It was the Pinot Noir at Sanford & Benedict, however, that really grabbed the critics’ attention, leading to lots more Pinot being planted as additional growers arrived.

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Wes Hagen by the 900,000 gallon irrigation pond at Clos Pepe

According to Wes Hagen, 72 varieties of grapes are now grown in this compact appellation, with approximately 400 different clones represented. The vast majority of its 2800 planted acres, however, consists of Pinot Noir, amounting to over 75% of the plantings. Chardonnay follows with about 18% of the vineyard area. About 150 acres are planted to Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and other white grapes. Manfred Krankl’s Grenache vineyard, Eleven Confessions, is located at the southern end of the appellation to the east of Sanford & Benedict.

When plantings got going in earnest in this region, in the mid-1990s, the newly released Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, like 115, 667 and 777, were all the rage. These clones produce distinct red and black fruit characteristics. With the long hang time potential here, and a common tendency to wait until full ripeness through the late 1990s and early 2000s, those flavors became quite intense. With wines from Sea Smoke, Loring and others in this style getting high points from major critics who favor big, ripe wines, the appellation quickly gained a reputation for this style of wine.

In more recent years, however, California heritage clones, like Mount Eden and Calera, have also been planted, helping to diversify the flavor profile. Melville’s 66 acres of Pinot, for example, contain 14 different clones.

Producers like Melville, Brewer-Clifton and Sandhi have also used significant whole cluster or stem inclusion to add texture and savory characteristics to the fruit. It takes a lot of work in the field to do this successfully, including identifying the parcels and particular vines where the stems reach “senescence,” i.e., lack of bleeding, which will keep them from overwhelming the fruit with excessive green flavors. Estate producers like Melville, after years of vineyard work, are making that happen, and it’s helping to bring a depth and dimension to their wines that is very appealing, and quite different from the superripe, jammy Pinots for which this region became known in the early 2000s.

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one of the comparison tastings at Melville with, from left to right: Rick Longoria, Mark Horvath, Bill Wathen, Greg Brewer, Fred Swan, Richard Sanford, RJ and Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi

Another characteristic of Pinot Noirs here is deep color. Wes attributes that to both the elevated calcium levels, which tend to result in thicker grape skins, and the small berries due to the low vigor soils and cool climate. With thicker skins on smaller berries, the amount of juice per berry is reduced, but the color and tannin producing elements of the skins are increased.

Out of the 150-plus Sta. Rita Hills wines I sampled over the past year, I rated a high percentage of them, over 46%, 92 points and higher. Below are tasting notes for the 70 wines I rated at this level, divided first by variety: Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Within each variety, the wines are listed by producer, including a little more information on many of the major producers.

In the case of the Chardonnays, there is exceptional minerality amongst the best of those, along with lively acidities and rich fruit. Those ranked highly are very ageworthy.

Pinot Noir here still does tend to show a lot of ripe red fruit—cherry, raspberry and cranberry—along with black fruit typical of certain Dijon clones. Wines from the southern end of the appellation, from the Sanford & Benedict and Fiddlestix Vineyards, for example, often show beet root flavors, as well as great tannic structure. I also find a lot of appealing spice here, like cinnamon, orange spice and Asian 5-spice. Thanks to the cool climate and soils, there is always that balancing acidity to the Pinots that distinguishes them from ripe, Dijon-clone dominated Pinots from warmer parts of the State, like the Russian River. Because of the small berry size and thick skins, there is also a structure to the Pinots here that, like great Burgundies, makes them more enjoyable with at least a few years of bottle age, giving a chance for those firm tannins to resolve.

Final note: The AVA was known from 2001 to 2006 as Santa Rita Hills AVA. As the result of a protest by and subsequent negotiations with Viña Santa Rita, a large Chilean wine producer, the name was officially changed on January 6, 2006 (with producers given a year to change their labels), to Sta. Rita Hills.

Chardonnay

  • Brewer-Clifton
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    This is a Sta. Rita Hills focused partnership between two seasoned winemakers–Greg Brewer, winemaker for Melville, and Steve Clifton, who has his own Italian varietal project, Palmina. They began their collaboration, making wines solely from the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, in 1996. They now farm five dedicated vineyards from which they obtain all the fruit, and also purchase fruit from several other Sta. Rita Hills growers. Their Chardonnays are made for aging, with richness balanced by bright SRH acidity. I’ve had thoroughly delicious examples that have spent eight years or more in the bottle.

    From the 2011 vintage, they made one Sta. Rita Hills appellation and four single vineyard bottlings. I have so far only sampled the one made from a largely sandy, 10-acre vineyard on the eastern side of the appellation. My favorite Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay to date was the rich and mellow 2008 from Sanford & Benedict fruit.

    • 2011 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay 3-D
      Light medium lemon yellow color; Brazil nut, almond, lemon gelee nose; rich, medium bodied, tart lemon, Brazil nut, saline, mineral, lemon gelee palate with medium acidity; could use 1-2 years of bottle age and should go 15+; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% each clones 76, 4, Hyde, Wente from Sea Smoke and Mount Eden) 92+ points
    • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills
      Bright light yellow color; appealing, tart lemon, ripe lemon nose; rich but poised, tart lemon, ripe lemon palate with medium acidity needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 92 points
    • 2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
      Light lemon yellow color; reduction, tart lemon, saffron nose; tasty, almond, ripe lemon, saffron, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
  • Clos Pepe
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      Clos Pepe was started by owners Steve and Catherine Pepe when they purchased a 40-acre horse ranch in 1994 in the center of what would eventually become Sta. Rita Hills. They planted the first half of what is now a 29-acre vineyard starting in 1996. The Pepes’ son-in-law, Wes Hagen, pictured above, worked for three years in the vineyard before becoming vineyard manager in 1998. He designed and led the planting of the last 14 acres of the vineyard. Most of the vineyard–25 acres–are planted to Pinot Noir, with four acres being devoted to Chardonnay. Most of the fruit is sold to six or seven producers a year, so only a small amount is made under the Clos Pepe Estate label. The Axis Mundi label uses purchased fruit.

      The voluble, wonderfully opinionated Wes is also the winemaker, with his wife Chanda serving as assistant winemaker. (And Wes was an English major who loves to write, so you can follow his thoughts on farming, winemaking and blog on the Clos Pepe website.) The grapes are fermented with a mix of commercial yeasts. They use no new oak on the Chardonnay, and between 25 and 35% new French oak on the Pinot Noir. They barrel age the wines for 11 months before bottling. There are generally two Chardonnays, a barrel fermented version and one raised exclusively in stainless steel, “Homage to Chablis.”

    • 2012 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay Barrel Fermented
      Spring 2014 release – Light yellow color; tart pear, tart apple nose; tasty, juicy, very precise, tart apple, mineral, tart pear palate with good acidity; could use 6 months; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 11 months in 12% new French oak; 100% barrel fermented) 92 points
    • 2012 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay Homage to Chablis
      Light lemon yellow color; lightly reductive, tart lemon, chalk, almond nose; silky textured, mineral, chalk, tart pear, saline, baking soda palate; medium-plus finish (Chablis-like) 92+ points
    • 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay Barrel Fermented
      Light yellow color; appealing, poached pear, tart apple nose; tasty, tart pear, tart apple, lemon palate; with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • Deovlet
    Ryan Deovlet began buying fruit from Sanford & Benedict three years ago; 2010 was his first vintage from the vineyard for his relatively new Deovlet label. Now he’s getting three tons of fruit. He gets his fruit from block T15, a block of old vine Chardonnay. The 2011 Chard is a really brilliant, minerally effort that should age beautifully.

    • 2011 Deovlet Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
      Light yellow color; a little reduction, almond, tart pear nose; poised, rich, almond, tart pear, tart lemon, mineral palate; could use 2 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (an exciting Cali Chard; 13.4% alcohol; picked at about 22.5 brix; 1/2 malo) 93+ points
  • Diatom
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      Diatom was a very interesting project of Greg Brewer’s, dedicated to Chardonnay, that was influenced by Japanese philosophy. The bottlings were named based on emotional connections and the wines’ personality. Unfortunately the label became a casualty of Greg’s recent divorce. This was a sample from the last vintage of Diatom, 2011.

    • 2011 Diatom Chardonnay Hana Shinobu
      Light lemon yellow color; focused, ripe lemon, tart golden delicious apple nose; tasty, mineral, light green herb, very saline palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.8% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Liquid Farm
    4/2/12 Sta. Rita Hills Tasting
    This has been an impressive project to date, with assistance from the winemaking team at Dragonette Cellars (see below). Nikki Pallesen and Jeff Nelson, who live in L.A., are the proprietors. The couple share a love for Champagne and white Burgundy, so it figures that their new project is Chardonnay-centric. Jeff has worked in wine for over 20 years, specializing in Champagne houses. He worked for both Veuve and Laurent-Perrier before joining Henriot as their Regional Division Sales Manager, representing Henriot Champagne as well as Bouchard, William Fevre and some Italian and Spanish producers. They met while Nikki, who has a degree in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was working for Henry Wine Group, Henriot’s sole California distributor. Nikki has since left HWG to focus full time on Liquid Farm. 2009 was Liquid Farm’s first vintage. All three of the 2011s are delicious Chardonnays, with the Golden Slopes being particularly impressive—one of the best Chardonnays I’ve yet tasted from this appellation.

    • 2011 Liquid Farm Chardonnay White Hill
      Light yellow color; tart lemon, almond, light hazelnut nose; tasty, silky textured, tart lemon, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.4% alcohol) 93 points
    • 2011 Liquid Farm Chardonnay Four
      Slightly hazy light medium yellow color; ripe pear, apple nose; luscious, juicy, tasty, creamy textured, ripe pear, light vanilla palate; medium-plus finish (14 months in 25% new French oak; 14.1% alcohol; 75% Clos Pepe, 25% Rita’s Crown) 92 points
    • 2011 Liquid Farm Chardonnay Golden
      Slightly hazy, light medium green-tinged yellow color; appealing, focused, green apple, white jasmine nose; tasty, luscious and rich but poised, silky textured, tart apple, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (14 months in 18% new French oak; 14.1% alcohol) 93+ points
  • Longoria
    Richard and Diana Longoria

    Richard and Diana Longoria


    I am a big fan of Richard “Rick” Longoria and his body of work, which I highlighted in this piece. For me, Rick’s most striking and successful wines are his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, especially those based on fruit from his Fe Ciega vineyard. His Sta. Rita Chardonnays are among my favorites of the appellation. The 2011 Rita’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay, his first vineyard designate Chard in 10 years, also stands out for its crystalline acidity and minerality, and its long finish.

    Rick’s winemaking history in Santa Barbara County goes back to his first stint, as cellar foreman for Firestone in 1976. (His very first wine gig was at Buena Vista in Sonoma.) He worked at Chappellet in Napa before returning to Santa Ynez Valley as winemaker for J. Carey Cellars. He had a long run as winemaker for Gainey, which he left in 1997 to devote full time to his own production. He had started his own label in 1982. His winery was the first in what is now Lompoc’s “wine ghetto.” His own vineyard is the eight-acre Fe Ciega (which means “blind faith”).

    • 2011 Longoria Chardonnay Rita’s Crown
      Light lemon yellow color; Brazil nut, lemon gelee, nutmeg nose; rich, round, ripe lemon, mineral, lemon gelee, lemon tart, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; long finish (like a round Mersault with good acidity, very impressive; 13.6% alcohol; pH 3.07; clone 96 from block 13, very steep, south facing slope; lees stirring every two weeks, never racked; no malolactic) 93+ points
  • Melville
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    • 2012 Melville Chardonnay Clone 76 Inox Estate
      Light yellow color with clarity; focused, tart lemon, ripe lemon, saline nose; tasty, Chablis-like with more body, tart lemon, lightly briney, minerally palate; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol) 92+ points
    • 2012 Melville Chardonnay Estate
      Light medium yellow color; appealing, focused, ripe lemon, tart apple nose; tasty, rich but balanced, minerally, tart lemon, tart white grapefruit palate with medium acidity; should mature beautifully over many years; long finish (14.5% alcohol; all neutral oak; 9-10 months on lees; great buy at $25) 93 points
    • 2011 Melville Chardonnay Estate
      Light medium lemon yellow color; intriguing, tart lemon, ripe lime, tart pineapple nose; tasty, rich but balanced, tart lemon, quince, mineral, saline, briney palate; medium-plus finish (good value at $26; 14% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Sandhi
    • 2011 Sandhi Wines Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
      Light medium lemon yellow color; tart lemon, tart pear, lemon oil, white jasmine, almond nose; rich, tasty, firmly textured, ripe lemon, tart pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; should age very well; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; picked at about 21 brix; 25% new oak; full malolactic; from vines planted in early ’70s) 93 points
  • Sanford
    • 2010 Sanford Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills
      Light yellow color; hazelnut, almond paste, light Abba Zabba nose; rich, creamy textured, ripe pear, butter poached pear, almond, hazelnut palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
  • Tyler
    February 2013 079

      Justin Willet, pictured right above, started Tyler Winery in 2005 when he was assistant winemaker at Arcadian. He produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from selected vineyards in Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. With the 2011 vintage, production had grown to 2500 cases, comprising 12 bottlings based on fruit from seven vineyard sites. The lineup is very strong, minerally and balanced, and the 2011 Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay is one of my favorite Sta. Rita Hills Chards yet.

    • 2011 Tyler Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
      Light yellow color; very appealing, almond, hazelnut, pear, butter nose; tasty, poised, creamy textured, tart pear palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
  • Viognier

  • Cold Heaven
    4/2/12 Sta. Rita Hills Tasting
    Morgan Clendenen, pictured above, has been making Viognier under the Cold Heaven label since 1996. She typically makes two single vineyard bottlings, the one from Sta. Rita Hills coming from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard that was planted in the early ’70s.

    • 2011 Cold Heaven Viognier Sanford & Benedict
      Light lemon yellow color; appealing, fresh, floral, ripe pear, pear cream nose; silky textured, tart pear, pear cream, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 93+ points

Pinot Noir

  • Alma Rosa
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    Richard Sanford, pictured above, is both a California Pinot Noir and Sta. Rita Hills pioneer, having planted one of the State’s great Pinot Noir vineyards, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, at the western end of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 1974, when the area was simply part of the Santa Barbara County appellation. Wines from this vineyard were produced by the Sanford & Benedict winery from 1976 to 1980, at which point it became the Sanford Winery, which Richard Sanford ran from 1981 to 2005. He planted La Rinconada Vineyard in 1995 and La Encantada Vineyard in 2000. La Encantada’s 100 acres are planted mainly to Pinot Noir, with 1.9 acres of Pinot Blanc, and 1.5 acres of Pinot Gris. La Encantada’s Pinot Noir is planted to Dijon clones 114, 115, 667 and 777, and to Swan and UCD 4. Differences in business philosophy led Richard to part ways with his Sanford Winery partners in 2005 by exchanging his interest in the brand to the Anthony J. Terlato Family for the El Jabali Ranch and La Encantada vineyards. Richard and his wife Thekla then established Alma Rosa, producing wines from El Jabali and La Encantada. The winemaker is Burgundy native Christian Roguenant, who worked at Champagne Deutz for 15 years. These 2011s were very impressive—silky textured, very balanced and delicious.

    • 2011 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard
      Medium ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, black cherry, tart berry nose; delicious, silky textured, flavorful, poised, ripe raspberry, cherry palate; medium-plus finish 94 points
    • 2011 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills
      Dark cherry red color; very appealing, tart cherry, ripe raspberry nose; tasty, poised, delicious, raspberry, tart cherry palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
  • Ancien
    • 2011 Ancien Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard
      Dark cherry red color; tart cherry nose; tart cherry, tart raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 92 points
  • Bonaccorsi
    • 2011 Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard
      Dark ruby color; ripe raspberry, tart cherry, baking spice nose; tart raspberry, tart cherry, raspberry puree palate; medium-plus finish (Pommard & Dijon clone 115; 100% destemmed; 18 months in 25% new French oak) 92+ points
    • 2010 Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Cargasacchi Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; tar, light black pepper, green peppercorn nose; tight, tart cherry, peppercorn, tar, mineral, raspberry puree palate; needs 3-plus years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (clone 115, 100% destemmed, 20 months in 50% new French oak) 92 points
  • Brewer-Clifton
    Greg and Steve make remarkable Pinot Noirs that have shown steady improvement over the years as they’ve refined their vineyard techniques toward picking for substantial whole cluster inclusion. In 2011, they produced one appellation and six single vineyard bottlings. The 2011 edition of the Machado, from a vineyard adjacent to Clos Pepe in the northern part of the appellation, is particularly complex, showing orange and Asian spices. The 2010 Mount Carmel bottling noted below, from the steep, south-facing hill located around the ruins of the unfinished Carmelite Monastery comes from grapes planted in 1991, largely on their own roots in the sandy soils there. It’s wonderfully saline and minerally and should see a long development.

    • 2011 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado
      Medium dark ruby color; baking spice, Asian spice, baked raspberry, dried cherry, orange spice nose; medium bodied, rich but elegant, orange spice, tart cherry, briney, black tea, dried cherry palate with firm, sweet tannins; could use 2-plus years of bottle age and should go 15+; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 25% each clones 459, Mount Eden, Pommard and Merry Edwards; 100% whole cluster) 93 points
    • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado
      Dark ruby color with clarity; complex, appealing, ripe blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry nose; plush, rich, tart blackberry, black cherry, baking spice, black raspberry palate; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points
    • 2010 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Mount Carmel
      Very dark purple red violet color; focused, iodine, tart black cherry, tart berry, saline nose; iodine, tart plum, saline, mineral palate; tasty now but will develop further over 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (80-85% whole cluster; 14.9% alcohol) 93 points
  • Cargasacchi
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    Peter Cargasacchi, pictured above in his new tasting room, is one of Sta. Rita Hills’s major personalities–with a wicked sense of humor and a passion for communicating about the intricacies of grape farming and his region’s peculiar weather patterns. He comes from a line of Italian Americans who lived and farmed in the Central Coast since the early 1900s. After Peter graduated Berkeley, he wanted to plant grapes and was thinking Merlot, as he enjoyed Merlot-based wines. He met Richard Sanford, however, who told him, “You’re in a great spot for Pinot Noir.” Peter planted Cargasacchi Vineyard in 1998. It consists of 12 acres of Pinot Noir, all Dijon clone 115, on two different rootstocks, 3309C and 420A. Most of the fruit is sold to other wineries, but Peter reserves a small amount for his own wines.

    • 2010 Cargasacchi Pinot Noir Estate Cargasacchi Vineyard
      Medium dark ruby color; baking spice, ripe cherry, tart black berry, black raspberry nose; tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, baking spice palate with near medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Clos Pepe
    • 2011 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir Vigneron Select
      Very dark cherry red color; intense, lifted, lavender, ripe black cherry, reduction nose; rich, plush, ripe black cherry, ripe cherry, lavender, berry palate; needs 3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish 92 points
    • 2010 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir
    • Dark red color; appealing, floral, hibiscus, tart cranberry, tart cherry nose; tasty, poised, tart cranberry, tart cherry, mineral palate with a little toasty oak; needs 2 years to integrate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 93 points
  • Cold Heaven
    • 2010 Cold Heaven Pinot Noir Never Tell Sta. Rita Hills
      Dark ruby color; appealing, berry pie filling, ripe black cherry, black raspberry nose; rich, ripe, tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, berry pie filling palate; could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (15.5% alcohol; excellent version of Pinot in a very ripe style) 92+ points
  • Crawford
    • 2011 Crawford Family Wines Pinot Noir Walk Slow
      Very dark ruby color; appealing, black cherry, black raspberry, subtle spice, nutmeg nose; tasty, poised, elegant, tart black cherry, black raspberry, nutmeg palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; pH 3.59, .63 TA, 33% whole cluster; 1 year in neutral oak) 92 points
  • Dierberg
    • 2010 Dierberg Pinot Noir Drum Canyon Vineyard
      Black tinged dark ruby color; light peppercorn, roasted black fruit, tart black fruit, light green herb, dark roast coffee nose; brooding, tight, dense, tart blackberry, sweet green herb palate with firm sweet tannins and good acidity; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (13.2% alcohol) 92+ points
  • Dragonette
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    The proprietors/winemakers of Dragonette are John and Steve Dragonette and their friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis. They source Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah from vineyards in the cool, coastal areas of the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley and York Mountain (west of Paso Robles). They try to buy on a “per acre” basis, allowing them to control major viticultural decisions during the season, like shoot and cluster density, canopy management and irrigation. They also personally walk the rows, fine-tuning the farming (leafing, green harvesting) and select harvest dates for each block based upon flavors. Their Sta. Rita Hills wines have included a Rosé, from a saignee of their 2011 Pinots, an SRH appellation bottling and a Fiddlestix Vineyard designate. The grapes are destemmed without crushing, given a 4-7 day cold soak, and then fermented with a mix of indigenous and commercial yeasts.

    • 2011 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir Black Label
      Medium ruby color; baked red fruit, oak, green peppercorn nose; tight, ripe cherry, tart raspberry, tart strawberry palate with good acidity; could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; 80% new French oak; best five barrels; 100% destemmed) 92 points
    • 2011 Dragonette Cellars Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills
      Medium ruby color; baked raspberry, ripe cherry nose; tasty, poised, tart cherry, tart raspberry, mineral, light clove palate with good acidity; long finish (14.2% alcohol; 23% new French oak; 100% destemmed) 92+ points
  • Fess Parker
    • 2011 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Ashley’s Vineyard
      Very dark cherry red color; appealing, black raspberry, black cherry, berry, talc nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe cherry, raspberry, tart red berry, grenadine syrup, mineral, raspberry syrup palate with good balancing acidity; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol) 92+ points
    • 2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Clone 115 Sta. Rita Hills
      dark ruby color; floral, rosehips, light sous bois, ripe raspberry nose; rich, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, spice, blackberry, light oregano palate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% whole cluster) 92 points
  • Flying Goat
    4/2/12 Sta. Rita Hills Tasting
    Norm Yost and Kate Griffith are the proprietors of Flying Goat, which Norm started in 2000. He chose the fanciful name because of his two pet Pygmy goats and their gymnastic antics. Norm has been making wine for over 30 years, serving stints in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Russian River and now Santa Barbara County. He makes several Pinots, a Pinot Gris from Santa Maria Valley, and some interesting sparkling wines. I have been most impressed, however, by the Pinots from the Rio Vista Vineyard, the appellation’s easternmost vineyard. Flying Goat receives clones 2A, 115, 667 and 777 from Rio Vista. From this fruit they make three clonal-designate wines–clone 2a, clone 667 and a Dijon clone blend.

    • 2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Noir 2A Rio Vista Vineyard
      Very dark cherry red color; focused, rosehips, tart cherry, tart raspberry nose; tasty, tart raspberry, baked strawberry, rosehips, cherry pie filling palate with medium acidity; could use 1-2 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; 3.71 pH, .56 TA, 100% destemmed) 92+ points
  • Foxen
    IMG_4122
    Foxen winemaker and co-owner Bill Wathen

    • 2011 Foxen Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard
      Dark ruby color; lifted, baked raspberry, Asian spice, light pepper, black cherry nose; tasty, complex, spice, dried cherry, Asian spice palate; needs 3-4 years bottle age; long finish (13.8% alcohol) 94 points
    • 2011 Foxen Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard
      Black tinged dark ruby color; baking spice, tart cherry, light orange spice nose; tasty, orange spice, tart orange, tart raspberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; 100% destemmed, 16 months in 60% new French oak; 50% clone 115, 50% 667) 92 points
  • Furthermore
    • 2010 Furthermore Pinot Noir La Encantada
      Dark ruby color; cherry pie, berry pie filling nose; rich, poised, baked cherry, berry, black cherry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • Gainey
    • 2012 Gainey Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills Dark ruby color; aromatic, tart berry, blackberry, black raspberry, berry compote, rosehips nose; complex, tart black berry, tart berry, tart raspberry, mineral, cranberry, rosehips palate with medium acidity; could use 1 year of bottle age; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; 10 months in oak, 20-25% new) 92+ points
  • Goodland
    Goodland's Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

    Goodland’s Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano

    • 2011 Goodland Wines Sta. Rita Hills Red
      Dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cherry, ripe strawberry, tart raspberry nose with a sense of salinity; delicious, focused, tart cranberry, rosehips, mineral palate showing salinity and medium-plus acidity with firm, sweet tannins; should age beautifully; medium-plus finish (5% whole cluster; Dijon 115; all neutral oak) 92+ points
  • Hilliard Bruce
    • 2009 Hilliard Bruce Pinot Noir Moon
      Dark cherry red color; appealing, baked cherry, baked raspberry nose; tasty, balanced, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry, mineral, bright red fruit palate; medium-plus finish (pricey at about $80) 92 points
  • Longoria
    IMG_4134
    The Longorias relied entirely on purchased fruit until Rick had a chance to plant his own vineyard, a partnership with Hank and Brenda Klehn, on the Klehns’ 40-acre ranch located on a small mesa at the western end of the Santa Rita Hills. After discussing and planning the project for two years, they planted 7.75 acres in 1998 to three clones of Pinot Noir: Pommard, 115 and 667.

    They named the vineyard Fe Ciega, Spanish for “Blind Faith.” The name is partly a tribute to a favorite band—Rick is a huge music lover, and there is a musical reference in another of his wines’ names (“Lovely Rita”). In 2008, they planted an additional 1.25 acres of Pinot Noir, Mount Eden clone, and three-quarters of an acre of Chardonnay. With his Pinot, Rick destems completely and usually inoculates. The wine stays 11 to 12 months in barrel, with racking only right before bottling.

    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Block M Fe Ciega Vineyard
      Saturated very dark ruby color; very appealing, tart cherry, ripe raspberry, roses nose; youthful, ripe and delicious cherry, ripe raspberry palate with fine tannins and good acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (14.5% alcohol; 30% new oak for 14 months) 93+ points
    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Lovely Rita
      Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cranberry, strawberry, light sous bois nose with a sense of salinity; delicious, well delineated, poised, ripe raspberry, strawberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (an elegant Cali Pinot for $32; 3.24 pH; 20% new oak) 93 points
    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; sous bois, forest floor, tree bark, light cinnamon nose; tight, powerful, complex, juicy, ripe cherry, orange oil, cinnamon, nutmeg palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (13.6% alcohol) 93 points
    • 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard
      Medium dark ruby color; saline, tart black cherry, tart raspberry, earth nose; tight, tart black cherry, ripe black raspberry, tea leaf, mineral palate with medium acidity and sweet, firm tannins; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 14 months in 33% new French oak; 100% destemmed) 93 points
  • Lutum
    • 2012 Lutum Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
      Barrel sample – very dark ruby color; appealing, tart berry, tart cherry, pepper nose; tight, tart cherry, tart pepper, mineral palate with a sense of dried herbs; will need 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 92-93 points
  • Melville
    • 2012 Melville Pinot Noir Estate
      Dark cherry red color with clarity; appealing, baked raspberry, roses, floral, cranberry, sous bois nose; delicious, balanced, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, mineral palate with good, balancing, medium acidity and firm tannins; could use 2 years and should age beautifully; medium-plus finish (one-third whole cluster; 100 different lots; all 16 clones planted; no new oak) 93+ points
    • 2011 Melville Pinot Noir Terraces
      Medium ruby color; appealing, roses, sous bois, rosehips, tart berry, blackberry nose; tight, tasty, berry, blackberry, tart raspberry palate with medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (about 70% whole cluster; Dijon clones 115, 667, 777, Mount Eden, Pommard and Swan) 92+ points
  • Pali
    • 2011 Pali Wine Co. Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard
      Pre-release (Fall ’13 release) – dark cherry red color; baked cherry, baked raspberry nose; rich, poised, silky textured, baked cherry, baked raspberry, baked strawberry palate; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol) 92 points
  • Paul Lato
    • 2011 Paul Lato Pinot Noir Cest le Vie Wenzlau Vineyard
      Dark cherry red color; appealing, ripe cherry, cherry pie filling, baking spice nose; lush but fine, tart cherry, tart black cherry, violets palate with good acidity; needs 3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (13.8% alcohol; 3.45 pH; 70-75% new oak) 93+ points
  • Rusack
    • 2011 Rusack Pinot Noir Reserve
      Very dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, roses, loamy, earthy nose; delicious, rich, ripe raspberry, roses, tart cherry, ripe cranberry palate with good acidity and structure; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; 3.5 pH) 93+ points
  • Samsara
    • 2012 Samsara Pinot Noir
      Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry, grenadine syrup, loam nose; rich, plush, ripe cherry, grenadine syrup, baked raspberry palate with balance; accessible and tasty now; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 25% whole cluster; 1 year in neutral oak) 92+ points
    • 2010 Samsara Pinot Noir Melville Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; sous bois, tar, roasted green bean, soy nose; tasty, complex, sous bois, roasted green bean, mineral, tar, roasted black fruit palate with fine tannins; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 50% whole cluster; a Saint Joseph style Pinot Noir; ideal pairing with roasted veggies, seared steak, Moroccan lamb) 93 points
  • Sandhi
    • 2011 Sandhi Wines Pinot Noir Wenzlau
      Medium ruby color; sous bois, stems, rosehips, hibiscus nose; textured, sous bois, stems, rosehips, hibiscus, tart cherry, mineral palate with medium acidity; needs 4-5 years to integrate the stems; medium-plus finish (100% whole cluster) 92 points
  • Sanford
    IMG_4149
    Sanford winemaker Steve Fennel at the Hitching Post

    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Estate Bottled Sta. Rita Hills
      Dark ruby color; appealing, roses, rosehips, ripe cranberry nose; tart cherry, cranberry, rosehips, mineral palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 93 points
    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
      Very dark ruby color; ripe raspberry, tart cherry, tobacco nose; very tasty, medium bodied, silky textured, tart raspberry puree, tart cherry palate with medium acidity and grip; could use 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol) 92 points
    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir La Rinconada Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; appealing, tar, tart black cherry, tart raspberry, saline nose; very tasty, rich but poised, medium bodied, tart raspberry puree, saline, tart cherry, mineral palate with firm, sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; paired remarkably well with rib eye steak) 93+ points
    • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Old Block Sanford & Benedict
      Medium dark ruby color; very appealing, roses, tart cherry, rosehips nose; tight, tart cherry, cranberry, tart raspberry, mineral palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (not yet labeled) 93+ points
  • Sea Smoke
    • 2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Southing
      Medium dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, baked cherry nose; tasty, lush but poised, tart cherry, baked cherry, tart raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • Storm
    I wrote about Ernst Storm’s relatively new project here. One of Ernst’s two Pinot Noir bottlings is from Sta. Rita Hills, from two blocks of the John Sebastiano Vineyard, a west-facing vineyard, buffeted by winds, on the appellation’s northern edge. Both of Ernst’s Pinot Noirs are gently handled during the winemaking process. The Sebastiano Vineyard is more powerful and rich, with darker red fruits showing, along with spice notes and great acidity.

    • 2011 Storm Wines Pinot Noir John Sebastiano Vineyard
      Dark red violet color; very appealing, buoyant, tart cherry, spice nose; tasty, youthful, rich, tart cherry, spice, cinnamon palate with medium acidity; good now but could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; no whole cluster; 115 clone; 3.69 pH; 6.3 TA) 93 points
  • Tyler
    • 2010 Tyler Pinot Noir Clos Pepe
      Medium dark ruby color; very appealing, ripe cherry, raspberry, roses nose; rich but poised, very tasty, ripe cherry, raspberry, roses, lightly saline, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
    • 2011 Tyler Pinot Noir La Encantada
      Black tinged dark cherry red color; black cherry, berry, oak nose; tight, black cherry, ripe berry, blackberry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 93 points
    • 2011 Tyler Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
      Very dark cherry red color; very appealing, tart cherry, forest floor, savory, light green peppercorn nose; tight, silky textured, tart cranberry, mineral, green peppercorn palate with lots of extract; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (from top 4 rows of block T13) 92+ points
  • Syrah

  • Melville
    • 2012 Melville Syrah Estate
      Very dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, toast, charcoal nose; rich, tight, tart black fruit, black cherry, charcoal palate with near medium acidity; needs 4-plus years; medium-plus finish (25 to 30% whole cluster; all neutral oak) 92+ points
  • Ojai
    • 2000 Ojai Syrah Melville Vineyard
      Very dark red violet color; liquid pepper, white pepper, tar, tart black fruit nose; intense, tasty, liquid pepper, lavender, anise, peppercorn, roasted plum, tar palate; medium-plus finish (should go 15-20 years; 14% alcohol) 94 points
  • Samsara
    IMG_4211
    Samsara is the very small production project of Chad Melville and his wife Mary. They make the wines out of quarters in the Lompoc wine “ghetto.” I was tremendously impressed by these wines. The cool climate Syrahs here compare favorably with the best in the State.

    • 2010 Samsara Syrah Melville Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; very appealing, aromatic, chili releno, pepper, green peppercorn nose; velvety textured, rich, medium-plus bodied, chili releno, green peppercorn, roasted green chile palate; could use 3-4 years; long finish (14.8% alcohol) 93+ points
    • 2010 Samsara Syrah Turner Vineyard
      Very dark ruby color; very appealing, pepper, roasted fruit nose; delicious, Cote Rotie-like, tar, roasted black fruit, black pepper, very tart black fruit palate; could use 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 100% whole cluster; 2 years in neutral oak, 1 in bottle) 94 points
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Coradeschi permalink
    February 9, 2014

    Great article! Not sure how Lafond Winery was missed. Opened in 1961 they were the first winery in SB County since prohibition, theirs was the first vineyard planted in SRH in 1971, they makes killer Pinot, Syrah, Chard, etc., etc.

  2. February 9, 2014

    Richard,

    Great piece on one of my favourite regions in California. I’m always jealous of Californian’s proximity for weekend trips! Disregarding clone choice, I’m curious if you know more about the soil influences on the finished wine.

    Your paragraph on soils states: “The poor marine based soils here have elevated calcium levels. The soils are diverse, and vary a lot even within vineyard parcels. Nonetheless, one finds more largely sandy areas in the northern section and running downhill from Mt. Carmel, with a preponderance of clay, most notably Botella clay loam, in the south. There are also significant veins of diatomaceous earth, consisting of fossilized remains of a hard-shelled algae called “diatom.” One of three diatomaceous earth plants in the country is located here.”

    Later you discuss how elevated calcium levels result in thick grape skins and the low vigor soils produce small berries, which give colour and structure.

    I am wondering what you know about the importance of sand vs. clay to the finished wine. Is it just an issue of drainage impacting fruitiness in the final product? What else is resulting from these soil distinctions? Also, what is the impact of diatomeaceous earth?

    Any thoughts or knowledge to share would be fantastic. Thanks!

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