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Should Sta. Rita Hills Be Larger?

One grapegrower's proposal to extend the Santa Barbara County appellation's boundaries angers neighbors

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: March 27, 2013

A Santa Barbara County grapegrower wants to expand the Sta. Rita Hills appellation to include his vineyards, but his proposal is drawing the ire of those already in the appellation. Blair Pence, owner of Pence Ranch vineyard, filed a petition Feb. 25 with the Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to redefine the eastern boundary of the American Viticultural Area (AVA). The proposed expansion would extend the eastern boundaries to include three vineyards—John Sebastiano Vineyards, Rio Vista Vineyard and Pence Ranch Vineyard.

Pence owns 40 acres of vines—mostly Pinot Noir—that were planted in 2006, and he has been selling grapes to local wineries, including Au Bon Climat, Brewer Clifton, Pali and Hitching Post. He said that his grapes are typically used in Sta. Rita Hills bottlings (labeling laws allow up to 15 percent of a wine to come from grapes grown outside of an AVA), but because Pence’s land falls outside of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, he feels his fruit is undervalued—he estimates it sells for $1,000 less a ton.

So Pence filed a petition, arguing that his land's soil and climate is similar to the established AVA. “It really boils down to science, and most people think it’s pretty straightforward,” said Pence. He suggests that one of the reasons his ranch wasn’t originally included is that there wasn’t data on his ranch's climate and soil. “Nothing we’re doing here is an indictment of [the original authors of the AVA proposal]. They did a relatively good job, considering the data that was available to them.”

The board of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrower Alliance (SRHWA) disagreed with Pence's arguments, however, and voted unanimously to oppose expansion. Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, the original petitioner who crafted the AVA boundaries, is against the expansion, saying the new border would extend into a distinct landmass called the Buellton Flats, which has a north-south orientation, while the current AVA has an east-west orientation. According to Hagen, the areas Pence wants included also lack the maritime influence that growers insist make the region ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“We’ve spent $25 million and 20 years promoting the area,” said Hagen. “We don’t want to be catty, but we want to protect what we’ve built.”

Area vintners are also grumbling that Pence hired an out-of-state consultant to develop his proposal and did not contact the SRHWA or the original authors of the boundaries. “He’s an out-of-town guy, and his geologist is an out-of-town guy,” said Hagen. “I would have liked it if he handled it like a farmer, not a developer. We farmers talk over fences.”

Pence defends his choice to hire Colorado-based geographic consultant Patrick Shabram. “We tried to hire the smartest, most qualified guy on the subject," said Pence, "not someone who had a vested interest in the outcome.” Pence also said he offered to set up a meeting with the SRHWA to go over his findings, but never got a response.

This isn’t the first time Sta. Rita Hills vintners have clashed with outsiders. Recognized as an AVA in 2001, the area was originally named “Santa Rita Hills," but was changed to “Sta. Rita Hills” to settle a conflict with Chilean producer Viña Santa Rita, who argued the name caused consumer confusion.

This time, both sides agree that what’s at stake is the reputation of the region. There are economic impacts depending on where the AVA lines are drawn. Pence wants to charge what he feels is a fair price for his grapes, but he also believes that his opponents feel that if the AVA were larger, their property values might go down. A similar fight broke out in Sonoma's Russian River Valley in 2008 when some local vintners objected to E&J Gallo's petition to expand that AVA by 14,000 acres, including some Gallo properties. The TTB approved the expansion in 2011.

Hagen said Pence chose to purchase land outside of the boundary because it is was less expensive, and suggested he start another AVA, not try to redefine Sta. Rita Hills. “I wish him luck outside of this realm,” said Hagen. “If he wants to start another AVA, that’s his prerogative.”

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