Top Ten Sta. Rita Hills Wineries 7 min read
Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Appellation is located on California’s Central Coast in Santa Barbara County. One of the smallest in California, it was granted AVA status in 2001. In 2005, the originally named Santa Rita Hills AVA was notified by a 135-year-old winery in Chile, named “Vina Santa Rita,” that the title already exists, so it became “Sta.” Rita Hills. A total area of 30,700 acres, it is home to sixty vineyards, planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah and a few others. Heavy Pacific Ocean’s marine influence is the area’s signature characteristic, creating the perfect environment for growing cooler climate grape varieties. The wines absorb the coastal fog influences, aided by soils that limit vine vigor and yield intense, concentrated fruit with bright acidity and a solid backbone.
My Top Ten are:
Brewer-Clifton is a powerhouse comprised of two partners with staggering amounts of talent. Steve Clifton met Greg Brewer, then winemaker at Melville Vineyards in 1996. Curiously, Brewer’s background is a French literature professor at the U.C. Santa Barbara. The momentous decision to partner up and focus on single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays soon got the attention of the famed critic Robert Parker. His reviews helped launch their stardom. Parker subsequently compared wines to DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti), an honor he never bestowed on any other California Pinot Noir. A taste of 2005 Mount Carmel left no doubt in my mind that these two will go down in New World Pinot history. They developed Mount Carmel and Huber vineyards that were later joined by 3-D. Their latest addition, Hapgood, gave me chills at the last World Of Pinot Noir.
Peter Cargasacchi is one of the most highly regarded wine growers in the area. Armed with a deadpan sense of humor, (The question “Where did you train as a winemaker?” received “Prison” as a steadfast reply.) Peter farms three vineyards, two named Cargasacchi and a Cargasacchi-Jalama Vineyard. The majority of the fruit goes to other producers in the area and the rest is used for Peter’s own Point Conceptión and Cargasacchi labels. Cargasacchi’s winemaking philosophy is simple: deeply dedicated, meticulous vineyard work, conscientious cellar practices and a complete lack of pretense.
Wes Hagen, manager and winemaker of the twenty-eight acre Clos Pepe Vineyard is a walking encyclopedia of everything “wine.” Simply being around him certainly enhances one’s wine smarts. Owners Stephen and Catherine Pepe grow exceptional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes which are sold to several prominent producers. Wes Hagen also makes small amounts of his own, somewhat restrained, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in concert with the vineyard’s unique voice.
Bill Wathen and Dick Dore are industry veterans, who, long before the movie Sideways, pushed the Pinot grape into its legendary status. They have been making wine since 1985 at the historic Rancho Tinaquaic. They craft small lots of vineyard-designated wines from a number of varieties. Most famous for their Pinot Noirs, sourced from Bien Nacido, Julia’s and Sea Smoke Vineyards, their wines are opulent, generous and invariably delicious. They have two tasting room locations, one being a historic “Shack” with emphasis on Bordeaux and Italian varieties. Burgundy and Rhône-style wines are featured at their main location.
In 2004, two natives of Texas, John and Christine, planted a twenty one acre vineyard to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The first wines were offered in 2008, with contributions from consulting winemaker Paul Lato. John and Christine wanted to be hands-on winemakers, so they took courses at the U.C. Davis. Their wines immediately distinguished themselves by showing great acidity, solid structure and intense varietal character. A state of the art, LEED-certified winery is under construction. The brand also received a certified sustainable recognition by SIP.
I have written about John Hilliard and Christine Bruce here.
Brain Loring, a software engineer, caught the wine bug in college while working at a wine store in Southern California. Having tasted iconic wines from Dujac, DRC, Henri Jayer, Calera, Chalone, Sanford, etc. Brian was determined to craft his own wines. While working the crush at Cottonwood Canyon Winery, he made a couple of barrels of Pinot Noir, and the Loring Wine Company was born. Accolades arrived soon; with major wine critics awarding high scores to his extensive portfolio of Pinot Noirs. His formula for success lies in choosing stellar fruit sources and staying true to his stylistic choices. His Pinots are dark, broody, jammy and full-bodied, yet offer plenty of acidity and show excellent balance.
Ron Melville, a passionate lover of all things Burgundy, planted eighty acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir along Highway 246 in Lompoc, California in the nineties. He hired Greg Brewer as his winemaker, a prophetic and brilliant choice. His sons, Chad and Brent, are vineyard managers. They know their vineyards intimately, and it shows in the wines.
Their estate Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir is the best value in the business; not to mention my perennial favorite, Verna (Los Alamos Estate Pinot Noir) and small lot bottlings such as Carrie’s, Indigene, High Density and Terraces which merit major attention. Simply put, if you love wines of stunning beauty and impeccable integrity, you can’t afford to miss this brand.
Palmina represents a shared vision of husband and wife team of Steve and Crystal Clifton. Named in honor of Steve’s dear friend and mentor, they focus on Italian grape varieties. Some of the best vineyards in the area such as Alisos, Honea, Larner, Sisquoc, Stolpman and Walker supply the fruit, in most cases grown exclusively for the brand. They produce wines from relatively obscure varieties including Arneis, Barbera, Dolcetto, Lagrein, Malvasia Blanca, Moscato, Nebbiolo, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano as well as the more common, such as Merlot and Sangiovese. I have always loved their wines and was delighted to discover a recent program of sparkling Barbera, Malvasia, and Nebbiolo.
In addition to Melville Vineyards, Chad Melville has another small brand called Samsara. Translated from Sanskrit, the name means “eternal cycle of life.” Their fruit comes from carefully selected vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, with emphasis on maximizing winegrowing practices. Chad does little to no manipulation in the cellar. He firmly believes that the “wine is grown in the vineyard”. Chad has been experimenting with whole cluster additions with great tasting results; they appear to facilitate structure and complexity without compromising any of the fruit characters.
Owner Bob Davids didn’t leave any stone unturned while looking for his perfect vineyard in Santa Rita Hills. No expert was overlooked; no study irrelevant. After an exhaustive search, he found his treasure. Davids planted his newly acquired Sea Smoke Vineyard on the south-facing hillsides to ten different clones of Pinot Noir. The first vintage was 2001 and the legend of Sea Smoke was born. Bob’s superpowers are more about meticulous attention to detail than mysticism, highly skilled work than accidental fortune, and more ingenuity than intent to impress. Their original winemaker was Kris Curran who was succeeded by Don Schroeder (of Ampelos Cellars.) Three estate Pinot Noir bottlings are made; Southing, Botella and Ten. In addition, they produce a charming Chardonnay and a delightful sparkling wine called Sea Spray.
One of the great ways to fully immerse yourself into Santa Rita Hills scene is to attend the annual “Wine and Fire” celebration in August.
The Santa Rita Hills area is one of the most majestic places in California. A decade ago, when I drove past the limestone cliffs and pastoral landscapes, it was love at first sight. I love driving along Highway 101 in this direction, moved by the perpetual quest of wine, wind and wonder. If you visit there once, you will make fast excuses to return, guaranteed.