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Santa Barbara's New Frontier

Santa Rita Hills cool-climate Pinot Noirs add an enticing new twist

James Laube
Posted: September 24, 2003

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Santa Rita Hills may be the newest appellation in California's Santa Barbara County (it received government approval in 2001), but it has already begun to make its presence known.

The roots of Santa Rita's success go back to the mid-1970s, when Sanford & Benedict Vineyard provided a glimpse of what the future might hold for Pinot Noir grown in the far reaches of Santa Ynez Valley closest to the Pacific Ocean.

The 1975 and 1976 vintages of Sanford & Benedict are legendary in the annals of Santa Barbara's wine history. And while S&B has proved to be both a workhorse and a racehorse for a host of local vintners -- at times producing brilliant wines -- it has taken the ensuing 25 years for the rest of the appellation to develop more fully. Now Santa Rita is establishing an identity separate from the rest of the Santa Ynez Valley. About 10 years ago, a handful of the area's growers began discussing the need for a Santa Rita Hills appellation because they saw the quality of its grapes as distinctive. They also recognized that the long east-west-tending Santa Ynez Valley was much cooler at its western end, where Santa Rita is located. Initially, growers faced a legal challenge from Santa Rita Winery in Chile. (The Chilean producer still wants Santa Rita Hills to be spelled differently -- Sta. Rita Hills -- to distinguish the two.)

Santa Rita Hills straddles the winding Santa Ynez River between the small city of Lompoc and the region's major thoroughfare, Highway 101. These days, it is enjoying a boomlet and showing a surprising strength in wine numbers. Pinot Noirs from the likes of Babcock, Brewer-Clifton, Clos Pepe, Fiddlestix, Foley, Hitching Post, Longoria, Loring, Melville, Ojai, Sanford, Sea Smoke, Siduri and Taz offer the kind of rich, unique, compelling flavors that excite Pinot lovers.

Add to these a half dozen other wineries that buy Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills and you have the makings of an appellation that's capable of producing enough distinctive, high quality wine to make an impact in the market.

"It took a long time [for vintners] to make the psychological move [to this area]," says Sanford winemaker Bruno D'Alfonso. Until recently, Santa Barbara winemakers looked to other, more widely planted pockets of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys for their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

"You could just go out and buy grapes, so planting a vineyard didn't make much sense," says D'Alfonso. Moreover, with an undeveloped Pinot Noir market and sky-high land prices in the area, few vintners could afford to invest in planting expensive vineyard land. And many of the ranches are large but with little plantable vineyard acreage. "You could buy 1,000 acres and maybe plant 50," says Kris Curran, 36, winemaker for Sea Smoke. Locals also didn't want to sell to outsiders or big corporations.

In the go-go 1990s, though, as Pinots improved in quality and the grape won a wider following, Santa Rita Hills began to take shape. Sanford planted his second vineyard in the area, La Rinconada, joining earlier settlers such as LaFond, Babcock and Clos Pepe. Today there are an additional two dozen vineyards with an estimated 1,400 acres in vines that dot the landscape of this picturesque valley. There is also an air of confidence among winemakers about what lies ahead.

"We could see there was an oversupply of Chardonnay and we could see there weren't many areas where Pinot Noir did well," says Peter Cargasacchi, 40, of Cargasacchi Vineyard, whose family has been farming in Santa Barbara since the 1800s. "We sort of put all our eggs in one [Pinot Noir] basket."

Richard Sanford, now 60, remains the resident guru and determined visionary whose hunch on Pinot Noir proved correct. And the voluble D'Alfonso, 51, is the seasoned pro willing to dispense wisdom and sage advice to a younger and less experienced corps of winemakers and growers. It's this pioneering youth movement, in fact, that's giving this area an atmosphere of excitement as its potential comes to life.

While there are successes with Chardonnay and Syrah, it's the rich, earthy, blueberry- and blackberry-scented Pinot Noirs that have energized most vintners. "The first time I tasted a 2000 Pinot from this area I thought 'Holy cow, this is a whole new ball game. This is revolutionary,'" says Mike Bonaccorsi, 42, a master sommelier-turned-winemaker who is one of the new vintners buying Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. He's so convinced of Santa Rita's future success that he has set up his winery in a rented space in Buellton once occupied by Sanford.

As the Bob Dylan song goes, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. "It's ferocious," says Kathy Joseph, 47, of Fiddlehead, who wowed locals when she paid about $9,000 per acre in 1996, and then brought in Beringer as a partner to defray the costs. The wind gusts steadily off the chilly Pacific Ocean a dozen miles to the west. "When you get home after a day in the wind, you're exhausted," admits Chad Melville, 33, of Melville Vineyards.

The wind, everyone agrees, does more than just keep warm temperatures at bay. It moderates plant growth. Which, combined with a mix of soils and precision farming, is helping give winemakers high quality grapes. And while, according to Curran, the wind has a straight shot into Santa Maria Valley, there are some windbreaks in Santa Rita Hills.

The other key difference between the Santa Rita and Santa Maria Valley growing areas is that many of the vines in the more northerly and more established Santa Maria Valley are planted with older Pinot clones, not the cutting edge ones used in the Santa Rita Hills vineyards. "We have all these sexy new clones," says Curran. Clones such as 667, 115 and 2A give the Santa Rita Pinots structure, beautiful colors and result in more complex wines, she says.

Santa Rita Hills can be divided into two sections. In the northern part, the soils are a mix of sand and clay; along the southern part, the soils are clay and decomposed rock known as Botella. Both the sand and Botella soil types "are stellar for Pinot Noir," says Jeff Newton, the area's resident viticultural expert. The devigorating vines lead to small crops of tiny berries. "We want the vines to be happy, but not too happy," says Wes Hagen, 34, of Clos Pepe.

The region's unusually long growing season often stretches from February to October and, in most years, works to the growers' advantage, allowing the crops to ripen to ideal levels. Low yields are crucial for intense varietal character, says Cargasacchi. Too much crop and the wines have green tannins. The pressure to pick the grapes at optimum ripeness is intense.

"Around harvest [winemakers] turn into beasts," he says. "You cannot imagine the pressure when the grapes are ready." "Most of our emotion is in the vineyard," says Greg Brewer, 33, part-owner of Brewer-Clifton. "It's not us doing wizardry. It's the sites."

The most visually captivating vineyard is Sea Smoke, owned by Bob Davids. He named his 100-acre vineyard after the billowing white fog that rolls through the valley. Sea Smoke is planted on a steep, rocky, south-facing grade, accented by sharp bluffs and jetting buttes. From the valley below, the neatly manicured green-tinted vineyard almost looks as if someone had designed an unforgivingly treacherous golf course on the hillside, punctuated with impossibly rugged hazard areas.

On the flat land below Sea Smoke are Fiddlestix, Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada, three large vineyards by Santa Rita Hills standards. Fiddlestix is co-owned by Beringer-Blass, which is introducing its first new Pinot Noir from that vineyard under the Taz label -- dedicated to its vineyard mentor Bob Steinhauer, whose nickname is "Tasmanian Devil." To the north lie Melville, Cargasacchi, Babcock, Clos Pepe and the new vineyard owned by Fess Parker -- called Ashley's Vineyard, one of the area's largest.

"The first 10 years of a project [like this] are a moving target, but we're starting off at a very high level," says Joseph, who also makes Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley under her Fiddlehead label. "You have all the effort in the vineyard and all these hands-off winemaking techniques [resulting in] these dark, juicy wines."

The wines are indeed fascinating. At times, they show a commonality of rich, intense, concentrated dark berry flavors, yet they're also reflective of different winemaking techniques.

Three of my favorites from 2001 -- Brewer-Clifton Melville (92, $52), Melville Carrie's Small Lot Collection (92, $40) and Ojai Clos Pepe (92, preliminary rating: to be released in 2004) -- reflect the strength of the vineyards as well as stylistic considerations. The first two wines both come from the Melville Vineyard, and are fermented with ripe stems, a technique most winemakers avoid because it can give the wine a green, stemmy character.

Yet the Brewer-Clifton and Melville wines are exquisitely crafted; the firm tannins support the rich, intense flavors, making the wines deep, firm and deliciously balanced. The Ojai by contrast, shows intensity and purity of flavor but with a silkier texture. Tasting Sanford's S&B alongside its La Rinconada bottling can leave you torn between which of the two is more compelling, the elegantly styled S&B or the somewhat richer and denser La Rinconada.

These and many other wines manifest the kind of subtle distinctions among vineyards -- and among winemaking styles -- that should help Santa Rita Hills recoup on some of the time that it has lost since the days when it looked as though it had a head start on most of California's Pinot Noir regions.

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