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Thursday Thorns
The South Will Rise Again—Beware The Santa Rita Hills

By Stephen Eliot

We spent a couple of hours this past Tuesday with members of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrower’s Alliance in the unlikely setting of Santa Rosa. It seems that the Alliance took to the road with stops in San Francisco and then at host Adam Lee’s Siduri Winery in Sonoma to remind us northerners that some pretty serious stuff is being made in Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills appellation and that California’s North Coast vineyards do not have a monopoly on quality.

As a quick primer for those who do not know, the Santa Rita Hills district has been producing fine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays dating back to the late 1970s, but it is only in the last decade or so as the numbers of wineries and planted acres have been on the rise and the region has begun to garner widespread acclaim. The Santa Rita Hills district was not granted AVA status until 2001, and, after some legal wrangling to soothe the concerns of the large and apparently quite powerful Vina Santa Rita winery of Chile regarding perceived confusion in the international marketplace, the AVA name was formally changed to the Sta. Rita Hills in 2006.

The region is defined by two latitudinal corridors that open on the west end to the nearby Pacific Ocean, and the growing season is one of the coldest to be found in any California appellation; not exactly what you might expect given its southern location. Needless to say, it is cool-climate varieties that head the marquee, but the occasional outlier successfully pops up here and there.

We freed up a few days last summer and headed south for a much-overdue first-hand visit, and we must say we were impressed then as we were earlier this week with the vitality of the Sta. Rita Hills winemaking community, and the stuff in bottle was pretty good as well.

While tasting through a collection of tasty new releases from the likes of Longoria, Cargassachi, Zotovitch, Cold Heaven, Clos Pepe, and Siduri to name just a few of our favorites, the conversation inevitably turned to just what makes the region so special, and who ultimately benefits most from AVA naming in general.

The latter question, in particular, has taken on new gravitas lately as Pence Ranch Winery has petitioned to expand the boundaries of the appellation to the east. It has understandably met with a good deal of opposition from the Grower’s Alliance, but it begs the larger question of just how predictive any AVA really can be. Yes, the Sta. Rita Hills has a fairly uniform climate, but, as with most every AVA, exceptions abound. There are microclimates galore with varied soils and exposures that can play a profound role in differentiating one wine from another. We have tasted delicate Sta. Rita Hills wines of great finesse and restraint, and we have come across some alcoholic behemoths that challenge every expectation. There is, in fact, enough variation to be found here that, while that there are certain shared traits to many of the region’s wines, there is nothing so absolute that the curious consumer is afforded any real guarantees.

Now, I do not mean to wholly dismiss the value of the AVA system, and it is useful as far as providing at least a general, if somewhat fuzzy, outline of what to expect from this or that place, but I cannot but help wonder if AVA recognition is far more about serving wineries than, as one winemaker suggested, “protecting the consumer.” It is better than nothing, perhaps, but rarely, if ever, does an appellation name guarantee anything.

In the end, it is the combination of vineyard and vintner that defines just what and how good any wine really is. Sta. Rita Hills probably comes as close to a usefully predictive set of results as any AVA, and, if nothing else, this AVA designation has brought attention to a group of wineries whose products are increasingly being recognized for their inherent quality.


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Size Matters
by Brian Loring
Posted on:5/16/2013 11:05:27 AM

AVAs within California will most likely never provide the same style guarantee as seen in places like Burgundy.   The entire Côte de Nuits consists of only 3,700 acres - whereas Sta Rita Hills is nearly 64,000 acres in size.  And the Côte de Nuits is even further divided into Vosne-Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, etc! 

Additionally, the growing season and weather in Burgundy create an "upper limit on ripeness".  In most years, producers struggle to get fruit ripe, so the wines are forced into a similar style.  In California, we have a much longer growing season (due to latitude) and less rain pressure, so winemakers can choose from a wider range of ripeness levels. 

As such, I think your idea that it's the vineyard and vintner combination that gives you the real scoop in California is spot on. 

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