The Sta. Rita Hills AVA in southwestern Santa Barbara County is known for its cool-climate Pinot Noirs and the hip “coolness” factor of its wines. Yet the 2010 and 2011 vintages gave new meaning to the word “cool.”
First approved as “Santa Rita Hills,” this American Viticultural Area was forced to abbreviate its name to “Sta. Rita Hills,” after Chile’s Viña Santa Rita winery complained that consumers would be confused about its wines versus those of the California region. I doubt that many wine buyers would mix up the two, but both sides came to a compromise, with the Californians changing the AVA name to Sta. Rita Hills. If somewhat awkward, Sta. Rita doesn’t seem to have been impacted by the AVA name change, as its Pinot Noirs -- as well as Chardonnays and Syrahs -- have achieved top status.
The Santa Rita and Santa Rosa hills run east-west, not north-south -- as is the case in most California winegrowing regions -- with the Santa Ynez River running between the two ranges. Fog from the Pacific Ocean travels unimpeded along the river’s route, chilling vines to such an extent in the morning and evening that those seeking to produce ripe, opulent, gushing-fruit wines need not apply. Those who wish to make crisp, fresh, nuanced wines find the Sta. Rita Hills riveting -- and so do consumers who enjoy this style.
Richard Sanford recognized Sta. Rita Hills’ climate conditions as being similar to those in Burgundy, and planted the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1970 -- long before the AVA was a gleam in anyone’s eye. He also found that its soils -- diatomaceous, clay and limestone -- promoted the development of grapes that show mineral and earthy notes -- positive traits, to my mind, that aren’t easily achieved in warmer Pinot Noir zones of California.
The climate and soils of Sta. Rita Hills almost dictate that its Pinot Noirs be of the style I appreciate so much. The wines are not delicate, typically showing dark red and black-fruit aromas and flavors, spice, black tea and structured tannins, yet most are balanced and bracing. I’ve seen Sta. Rita Pinot Noirs described by others as being “masculine,” and while I shy away from assigning gender traits to wines, the AVA’s Pinots do tend to be on the muscular side. The best of them are tight-knit and focused, with palate-refreshing acidity and an edge that smoothes out after a few years of cellaring. Does that sound a bit like red Burgundy?
“As an AVA, it’s the oddest place in North America to make Pinot Noir,” says Victor Gallegos, general manager of Sea Smoke Cellars in Sta. Rita Hills. “It’s Region I on the UC Davis heat summation scale, the coolest in Southern California. Yet it has the latitude of Tunisia, with the same solar intensity and semi-arid desert, and being in Southern California, there is relatively no rainfall here.”
Adam Lee, owner/winemaker for Siduri Wines in Sonoma County (along with his wife, Dianna Lee), produces multiple Pinot Noirs from Oregon and California’s cooler regions. Siduri, along with Sanford Winery, was among the first wineries to put Sta. Rita Hills Pinots in front of critics, trade and consumers.
“Sta. Rita Hills produces the most tannic grapes we deal with,” Adam Lee said. “We get smaller berries and more intensity.” Typically, there is higher acidity in Sta. Rita Hills grapes than in other areas of the state, although in cooler years – 2011, for example – winemakers work hard to ensure there is enough fruit character to match the acidity and tannins. “We do more cold-soaks and punchdowns (than with other regions’ grapes) to manage those tannins,” Lee explained.
Yields are usually small, so imagine the worry winemakers experienced in the difficult 2010 and 2011 vintages, when conditions reduced the crop far more than usual. Less crop means less wine, and less income, for grape growers and winemakers. In some cases, that translates to higher bottle prices, although many in Sta. Rita Hills took the hit and held the line on pricing.
“The 2010 vintage was often one of extremes,” Lee recalled. “There were tiny crops, remarkably cool weather, with two extreme heat spikes (in August and September), which led to grapes possessing high Brix, high acids and high nutrient levels.”
It was downright cold during the 2011 growing season, even for a historically chilly region. Lots of clusters were dropped so that the vines could concentrate their ripening energies on the remaining clusters. Yields were way down, yet there was also a blessing: The early October rains that caused rot in Pinot Noir vineyards in North Coast vineyards bypassed Sta. Rita Hills. “Russian River Valley got 6.5 inches of rain in October in 2011,” Lee said, “but Sta. Rita got just half an inch.”
After all the climatic drama, I was eager to taste a selection of Sta. Rita Pinot Noirs from 2011, 2010 and 2009. I was most impressed with these wines:
2011 Dragonette Cellars Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir: Judiciously oaked, with crisp texture and layers of complex fruit and spice.
2011 Pali Wine Co. Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir: Plump and spicy, with ripe blackberry fruit, spice and great verve.
2011 Siduri Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir: Very supple and long, with bright blackberry fruit and crisp finish.
2010 Hilliard Bruce Sun Pinot Noir: Full-bodied and rich but not overly ripe, with a refreshing close.
2010 Kessler-Haak Pinot Noir: A vivid mouthful of black cherry and blackberry fruit, with a lean, slightly tart finish.
2010 Longoria Fe Ciega Pinot Noir: Lovely floral nose, tight (for now) black fruit that should open with a few years of cellaring.
2010 Zotovich Estate Pinot Noir: Zesty, with mouthwatering acidity and pretty red and black cherry fruit.
2009 Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir: Great balance, acidity and freshness, with vivid cherry/berry fruit.
2009 Flying Goat Cellars Rio Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir “Dijon”: Plush and juicy, with dark cherry and citrus notes.
As a footnote, a petition to extend the eastern boundaries of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA has been submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Blair Pence sponsored the petition, seeking to expand the AVA to include his John Sebastiano, Rio Vista and Pence Ranch vineyards. Several producers purchase his grapes for their Sta. Rita Hills bottlings (TTB allow up to 15 percent of a wine to come from grapes grown outside an AVA). The response from growers already in the AVA has been tepid at best. Here is the partial response from the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance:
“The Sta. Rita Hills AVA lies within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, an east-west transverse valley with a continuum of climatic and geological features influenced by its opening to the Pacific Ocean. The current and original AVA boundaries were carefully and exhaustively determined in 2001 by the original petitioners based on patterns of daily oceanic fog and temperature data. The eastern boundary to the AVA is a north-south range of hills that alters the sea fog pattern and brings an increase in daily temperatures moving east from this boundary. In the opinion of the original petitioners and the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, it is imperative that the cool-climate environment for winegrowing is maintained. A study of the data in the petition … will be reviewed by the Alliance Board, but at this time the SRHWA stands by the integrity of the original and current boundaries.”
It’s an unfortunate sign of success when an AVA becomes so distinguished that others just outside of it want to get in. Sta. Rita Hills’ legacy is in the early stages, and its boundaries may alter, yet there is no argument that today, its Pinot Noirs are among the most distinctive in California.