A Blossoming Region
The Sta. Rita Hills (which would be the Santa Rita Hills were it not for a prominent Chilean Winery Vina Santa Rita that got a little worked up about trademark issues) is one of the smallest American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) in California. It lies within the Santa Barbara County appellation, on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, about a two hour drive from LA.
The AVA, officially established in 2001, is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but other grapes, including Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc, are planted as well. Up until wine became a significant industry, the area was known mainly for flower seeds and an Air Force Base. The region also garnered a bit of lasting fame from a little movie from 2004 called Sideways, which featured, among other sites, the Hitching Post Restaurant in the town of Buellton.
From Buellton, the Sta. Rita Hills AVa continues west to Lompoc with the Santa Rosa Hills to the south and the Purisma Hills to the north. The region is distinctive partly due to the poor soils full of marine sediment, which add character and keep yields in check, and the high levels of calcium in the soil, which provide nutrients to the vines. Wines from the region tend to have a noticeable minerality which can be attributed to the distinct soil composition.
The geography is unique as well. Although most hilly areas near the coast run parallel to the coastline, the Sta. Rita Hills run from west to east. This creates a channel that wind and fog from the Pacific Ocean move through, cooling the vineyards. It never gets exceedingly hot in the area, nor does it get exceptionally cold. Temperatures are comparable to the far Sonoma Coast as well as to the vineyards of Burgundy, France.
The area came to be known as a viable place to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir when Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted a vineyard there in 1971 and started producing wines commercially in 1976. Today, many venerable producers make wines from the Sanford & Benedict vineyard.
The coastal breezes and ocean fog, in addition to keeping vineyards healthy, serve to moderate temperatures, enabling a long growing season. A longer growing season means that grapes can be allowed to hang on the vine well in to November without fear of freezing. This helps to explain the diversity of wine styles coming out of the Sta. Rita Hills. Some producers tend to let the grapes hang longer, contributing to higher alcohol levels and lusher wines. Others pick earlier, when acidity is at its peak, resulting in lower alcohol levels and more subtle wines.
Many of the newer winemakers to the area are pushing the envelope, planting vineyards at the far west of the AVA, even closer to the Pacific Ocean. These vintners are driven by the unique soils on the extreme coast, but this is also where breezes are no longer breezes, but high winds. Whether this will cause challenging problems in the vineyards remains to be seen.
Welcome to the Ghetto
If you’re visiting Sta. Rita Hills you will want to check out the Lompoc Wine ghetto. This collection of tastings rooms is located in an industrial park – so, a little bit of a different atmosphere than, say, Napa Valley – but you’ll get to taste through about twenty producers if you have the stamina. This should give you a good sense of the region’s wines.
Some of the producers that have physical wineries in Sta. Rita Hills include Brewer Clifton, Melville, Sea Smoke, Dierberg, Pali, Fiddlehead, and Sanford Winery.
A few favorite producers who source grapes from the AVA include Domaine de la Cote, Chanin, Tyler, Habit, Liquid Farm, Rusack, and Dragonette.