The Sta. Rita Hills AVA lies on the west side of the Santa Ynez Valley closest to the ocean. The Marine layer and ocean breezes coming through the transverse valley make it the perfect growing region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here between the Purisima Hills and the Santa Rosa Hills the growing season is long and cool with heat spikes typically in late September and October. A typical day here sees early morning fog that disappates around 9:30 am, things warm up and then the wind comes up at 12:30 or 1:00 allowing the grapes to be left exposed without frying them.
20 million years ago this land was under the ocean. The techtonic plates moved and the mountains were shoved up out of the ocean in a North South direction causing the Mountain ranges we are familiar with in California. Over the next 12 millions years the mountains in the Santa Barbara area broke away from the plate and began their gradual clockwise turn bringing the mountain ranges here to an East West orientation. They are continuing their move today. You can check out some cool animated footage of this 12 million year move on the Sta. Rita Hills website at:
http://www.staritahills.com/appellation/ to get a better picture.
The first vineyard was planted in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1971, by Richard Sanford. Richard Sanford was a Navy officer who was on a destroyer during the Vietnam War. On his way home from the war he went to Nepal and began a spiritual quest. Coming home to California he sailed competitively for a bit and this allowed him to meet people who were interested in a vineyard.
He studied Burgundy and it’s weather reports and began driving California with a thermometer looking for property with a similar climate. He noticed that the area between Buellton & Lompoc rose by a degree for every mile inland you drove and the possibilities were wide ranging.
He teamed up with Michael Benedict, who was a botanist and they purchased 473 acres in Rancho Santa Rosa. In 1971 they planted the now famous 120 acre Sanford & Benedict Vineyard on Santa Rosa Road. They planted Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir & Riesling. They had open top fermenters, that Gary Gordon, a hot tub pioneer in Santa Barbara, helped them construct. Their first vintage was 1976.
Today Richard Sanford and his wife Thekla own and operate Alma Rosa.
Richard Sanford got this all started and soon others followed, like Rick Longoria, Adam Tolmach and Jim Clendenen. In the 1990’s Clos Pepe, Fiddlestix, Melville, Fe Ciega and other vineyards were planted with Pinot and Chardonnay.
Balance here is easier. The soil and climate combine to give you fruit that has lower sugars when fully ripe. That gives you great acidity and lower alcohol.
The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance was formed in 1997, when the area was simply known as Western Santa Ynez Valley. Wes Hagen and friends spend time gathering soil samples and checking elevation levels and temperatures. Richard Sanford, Bryan Babcock, Rick Longoria and others spent time studying maps, gathering data and then discussing boundries. AVA status was achieved in 2001. Sta. Rita Hills AVA has a total of 30,720 acres with over 59 vineyards with 2,700 acres planted.
Now about that name, “Sta. Rita Hills”. Well this story will tell you quite a bit about the area and it’s winemakers. The original name was Santa Rita Hills AVA. A very large Chilean wine producer “Vina Santa Rita” was concerned about this AVA name diluting its brand value. Richard Sanford and his wife, Thekla, were at the London Wine Trade Fair and marched right over to the Vina Santa Rita booth. Here Sanford’s spiritual journey is shown in action. He simply suggested that they talk about the problems and try to find a solution. So he flew to Santiago, spoke with the owners and the Vina Santa Rita folks flew out to Santa Barbara for a visit and they ultimately decided that the AVA would use the common abbreviation for “Santa” which is Sta.
Michael and I had a wonderful opportunity last year to be part of the top of harvest at Clos Pepe. Check out our great harvest video here. The grapes we picked, early in the season were for a sparkling wine to be made by Norm Yost at Flying Goat Cellars. I am very excited to get back out for the Vintner’s Spring Weekend and pick up a few bottles of that! We also had a wonderful tour of the Hilliard Bruce Vineyard with John Hilliard and Christine Bruce. You can see our video of their gorgeous property here. I am looking forward to seeing their new winery that they have been building on the property.
To really enjoy the area, drive the 34 mile loop that links Santa Rosa Road and State Route 246. I would suggest taking the curvy mountain road first. Head south on the 101 from Buellton and turn west onto Santa Rosa Road. The first stop is Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards tasting room, located on their El Jabali Ranch. Here you will get the history of wine in this area. This winery is organic and sustainable. Being good to the planet is important here. Further on you will come to Lafond. You can also taste their wines at the Wine Bistro in Santa Barbara. As you continue on you will come to Sanford Winery. Now owned by Terlato Famiy Vineyards, this was the original vineyard planted by Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict. The stunning winery here was the vision and dream of Richard Sanford. The winery is a beautiful stone and adobe design and the views of the vineyard are amazing.
The vineyards here are noteworthy names that you will see as vineyard designates on fine bottles of wine from this area. From the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard if you look north across Santa Rosa Road you will see Fiddlestix. Slightly east of of there is Sea Smoke, to your west is La Rincontada and Northwest lies the tiny Fe Ciega Vineyard.
Continue down to Lompoc and visit the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Here you will find a gathering of many of the Sta. Rita Hills winemakers, including: Fiddlehead Cellars, Flying Goat Cellars, Jalama, Longoria, Morretti Wine Co., Pali Wine Co., and Zotovich. Outside the Ghetto don’t miss Brewer-Clifton and Transcendence Wines.
Now you can head back into the Sta. Rita Hills via 246. Plan ahead and call and schedule tastings at Hilliard Bruce and Clos Pepe. They are appointment only, but well worth the visit. Melville where Greg Brewer is the winemaker is just a little further east, along with Babcock and Huber. Closer to Buellton Dierberg Starlane Vineyard will have tastings of their wines, both from the Santa Rita Hills and Happy Canyon. Back in Buellton stop by and try the Viogniers at Cold Heaven. Do check with the wineries, many are only open for tastings on Weekends. Visit the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance for a list of the wineries with links to their sites.
Check out the Video Below for Highlights of the 2014 Sta. Rita Hills AVA DInner