For Love of Pinot: In the Sta. Rita Hills

Please check out my latest wine story, published in the Spring 2013 issue of Edible Santa Barbara. I had a great time meeting the incredible winemakers in this story and, of course, drinking great Pinot Noir!

Cover photo by Fran Collin

Cover photo by Fran Collin

For Love of Pinot: In the Sta. Rita Hills

I’m in the rows at Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, volunteering for a night shift picking grapes during the harvest. It’s 9pm, the sun is long gone and the Pinot Noir grapes are a sheeny, luscious purple in the light of my headlamp. On my knees in the dirt, I get started snipping bunches of grapes and depositing them into tall orange buckets. A single tractor’s flood light illuminates the swirling dust kicked up by the busy crew.

The experienced pickers fly past me—I can’t fill up a bucket before they’ve overtaken me, gracefully plucking bunches from the vines and removing grapes I can’t even find the stem to. It’s cold. My hands are numb and sticky. My back aches, my legs ache, my arms ache. By the end of the night my knees are bloody and I’m covered from head to toe in a fine layer of grime.

Why put myself through all this, you ask?

A few years ago I fell in love with wine. Since then I’ve spent every possible hour climbing up the sommelier ladder, reading books and magazines, holding study groups and blind tasting sessions and taking wine exams. It was worth every achy muscle to experience firsthand the beauty and promise that this wine region has to offer. My exhausting but exhilarating harvest experience merely piqued my curiosity. So I decided to explore a little deeper and talk to a few winemakers about this unique area.

Back in 1970, most people thought Santa Barbara County was too far south—and too hot—for growing grapes. But winemaker Richard Sanford recognized the area’s potential. After studying a century’s worth of climate records from the cool region of Burgundy, Richard made an important find while driving around with a thermometer sticking out the window of his car: The temperatures in the Sta. Rita Hills are very cool, despite the latitude.

The unique transverse mountain ranges that run east to west (instead of north to south) funnel ocean breezes and fog inland, lowering temperatures and making it a perfect place to plant Pinot. Richard says, “We saw stunning quality in the first harvest, in 1976. It raised a lot of eyebrows as to the possibilities of this area. In Napa and Carneros they thought it was cool, but not quite cool enough.” Turns out, the 100-square-mile plot between Lompoc and Buellton was just right.

Pinot Noir grapes just before picking at Clos Pepe Vineyards

Pinot Noir grapes just before harvest at Clos Pepe Vineyards

“Pinot Noir’s the most difficult grape to grow and to make wine from,” explains Ken Brown, another Pinot pioneer. Brown has spent the last 30 years producing great Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County. His early days were spent at Zaca Mesa Winery. He went on to found Byron, where he stayed for 20 years until starting his own small, family-run operation, Ken Brown Wines.

“Pinot’s a shy, thin-skinned grape. It’s hard to get good color, concentration and complexity. You have to have a low-vigor site so that you get small berries and a higher skin-to-juice ratio. Site selection is huge—it needs challenged, shallow soil and a cold growing region. It’s so delicate and there are so many ingredients that have to combine to make great Pinot.”

Although it was the middle of the harvest, a time when winemakers and grape growers lose a lot of sleep and endure enormous stress, Ken agreed to meet me for a tour of Terravant Wine Company, a custom winemaking facility in Buellton. Establishing a winery costs a pretty penny so having this custom winemaking facility within reach allows wineries and producers to take their grapes to Terravant for crushing, fermenting and even bottling. Small case productions are affordable this way, without the massive investment required for building a brand from scratch.

Ken guided me through the massive warehouse facility as busy workers shuttled past us with hoses and carts of shiny stainless-steel sanitizing equipment. We cruised the catwalks past fermenting vats capable of holding hundreds of gallons of wine, where I saw one of my favorite Pinots fermenting—Fiddlehead’s Fiddlestix. Ken also showed me his own Pinot, fermenting in much smaller vats (he only produces about 2,000 cases a year). He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, plunging his arms into the mass of grapes to show me how the cap was forming, and spoke with me about what makes Sta. Rita Hills so special for Pinot, and why this grape is his passion.

Pinots from the Sta. Rita Hills tend to be more elegant and lively than those from other regions in California. Brown’s Pinots, like those of Richard Sanford’s Alma Rosa label and Clos Pepe, are more delicate and full of juicy acidity, while still rich in raspberry and blackberry fruit. They’re also able to improve in the bottle over several years—if you’re willing to wait that long.

Brown has a saying that I believe answers the chicken-or-the-egg question on every wine lover and Pinotphile’s mind: is it the vineyard or the winemaker? “100 % of the potential quality of the wine comes from the vineyard until the moment you pick the grapes. Then 100 % of the potential quality of the wine comes from the winery.”

Wes Hagen describes Pinot Noir as an artistic medium. “It’s like working with marble or acrylic: You can’t cover up your mistakes. Everything you do to it shows. It’s a singular expression of time and place if it’s made properly. I like to think it’s the voice of the vineyard itself.”

Sta. Rita Hills

Sta. Rita Hills

The Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) is still relatively new, having been officially designated in 2001. But now that the appellation’s vines are maturing, the wines are gaining more concentration and depth and Sta. Rita Hills is earning increasing recognition and critical acclaim. 2012 is widely to be considered a fantastic vintage. When I ask Wes what it means for the area to have appellation status, he explains that it’s up to the winemakers and growers to define its future. “Now we’ve told the world we exist, it’s up to us to make our AVA meaningful, to show typicity–what it is about our place that makes it so special. We are responsible for our own reputation by what we put in the bottle.”

Growing the best-quality grapes is crucial to that, as is maintaining a respectful relationship with the land. Richard Sanford’s wife, Thekla Sanford, has been in Sta. Rita Hills since her husband’s first vintage from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. She explains that great wine is all about balance.

“Wine has to have balance and the winemaker has to have balance, being conscious and aware of what you’re doing and how it’s all connected. In every step of the process, in every decision you make, you should be thinking about how to do it in a sustainable way. To me, that’s the future.”

She reminds me why this is such a fantastic place for winemaking: The quality of the wines is just as much about the dedication of the people responsible for them as it is about the unique qualities of where they’re grown.

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For more information about Sta. Rita Hills, please visit these websites:

Clos Pepe Vineyards

Ken Brown Wines

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyard

Terravant Wine Company

Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance

One thought on “For Love of Pinot: In the Sta. Rita Hills

  1. I’ll never forget my first hands-on harvest experience either. I was in Rias Baixas working the vines that were high, overhead on the emparrado. I thought ‘great, I don’t have to bend over’, but it was equally horrible! After the third day I could not raise my arm above my waist, and we still had amny days to go. Hah. Great article, glad I found your blog.

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