Home California Devoted to the Sta Rita Hills: Tasting wine near the edge of the world

Devoted to the Sta Rita Hills: Tasting wine near the edge of the world


Moving in the Sta Rita Hills

Looking at S&B Vineyard from Mt Carmel

Santa Rosa Road side of Sta Rita Hills; looking across to Sanford & Benedict Vineyard from Mt Carmel Vineyard

Yesterday Matt Dees, winemaker of The Hilt, drove me through the Santa Rosa Road section of the Sta Rita Hills. The appellation inspires in its winemakers a dogged devotion, and two differing kinds of commitment to match two distinct zones.

Melville Pinot Noir Vines

Looking across the flats of Highway 246 section of Sta Rita Hills, Melville Winery

Along Highway 246 there is a prevalence of diatomaceous soils, that is, to put it simply, sand. The vineyards planted here struggle in wind and lack of natural born water, depending on irrigation in the midst of no ground cover and no rain. Winemakers like Greg Brewer have found a way to devote themselves to the starkness of such conditions, offering wines with a vivid saline and seaweed finish. One of my favorites, the Melville Inox, gives the sense of shooting an oyster with rock salt on top.

Santa Rosa Road instead rolls in a twist of exposed and nestled hills. The canyon and slope sides curling and bowing into varied aspects and angles generating a rich texture and flavor potential, all with high acid commitment. The Santa Rosa Road section of Sta Rita Hills also has sand, but more prevalent loam and clay, with old vineyards still on own root and dry farmed. The vineyards through this zone can readily be considered heritage.

S&B Vines Looking Towards Mt Carmel

Looking across 1972 planted Mt Eden clones in S&B Vineyard, towards Mt Carmel Vineyard

On the North slope perches Mt Carmel, the beneficiary of an unfinished nunnery that just ran out of money. It’s undone building stands still devoted to God’s timing near the top of the hill. Below grow old vines brought into known quality by the work of Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer for their Brewer-Clifton label. Today the grapes are used instead by wine named for the vineyard, showing the dark fruit, spicy, thick skinned quality of Pinot Noir on this slope.

Now Sashi Moorman and Raj Parr of Sandhi Wines also source from Mt Carmel, finding a ready home for Chardonnay. Though they have made Pinot from the South facing slopes of Santa Rita Road as well, Sashi Moorman expresses a greater interest in making their Pinot from the North-facing side of the road. The North-facing side offers greater sun protection that Pinot Noir needs.

S&B Vineyard Looking toward Sea Smoke

Looking at Sea Smoke Vineyard, beside Mt Carmel, from S&B Vineyard

On this North-facing side, Sanford & Benedict (S&B), planted in 1972 with still about 100 acres of own rooted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Mt Eden clones, offers steadier paced growth. Matt Dees explains the development of the clusters from this vineyard, “even with heat spikes, these vines take their time. They don’t jump to conclusions. They maintain their acidity. The fruit doesn’t jump. It mosies.”

The Santa Rosa Road area of Sta Rita Hills seems almost comforting against the persistent barrenness of the Highway. Both, however, trigger appreciation. Standing on Mt Carmel with Matt Dees, looking across to Sanford & Benedict, I was swelled with feeling. When you recognize that in the early 70s Richard Sanford planted his vineyard site amidst a completely unknown region it is easy to see his work as inspired.

View from the top, Pence Ranch

View from the top, looking into Sta Rita Hills from Pence Ranch

Sta Rita Hills as a whole carries that sense of inspired expression. The region should be respected for its ability to generate impressive whites. Raj Parr calls Sta Rita Hills one of the best regions in the world for white wine. Moorman too agrees that whites as a whole, not just Chardonnay, are brilliant here. Acidity comes naturally thanks to the Hills’ conditions. Coupled with the concentration and layers of flavor found through Santa Rosa Road, or the saline sea air finish of the Highway, the whites are more than compelling.

The region focuses too on Pinot Noir and Syrah, both benefiting from the acidity and long growing season. But where the whites speak with an established albeit young fervor, the reds offer a feeling of quality that is still discovering what can be said. It is the kind of exploration celebrated and encouraged by Matt Kramer in his recent push for Pinot producers to take chances. The work of Chad Melville through Samsara, and Ryan Zotovich through his self-named label, give examples of grounded reds with lift. Comparatively, larger projects like Dierberg, with winemaker Andy Alba, still show that stable verve possible through the region, and new projects too, like Blair Pence’s Pence Wines, offer insight into the lively richness possible with Pinot. The yet to be released Goodland Wines Sta Rita Red (a Pinot named to express the appellation rather than the grape) hits home with its impressively taut line of energy.

In his devotion to the Santa Rosa Road section of Sta Rita Hills, Moorman describes the contrast between the North [S&B] and South [Mt Carmel] facing slopes, “from Mt Carmel you really taste the sun. In S&B you taste the soil.” Tank tasting Sandhi Chardonnays with him it’s easy to agree with his description. Considering barrel samples from the wines of Highway 246 the third note becomes visible. There you taste the ocean.


Thank you to Sashi Moorman, and John Faulkner for taking the time to meet with me.

Thank you to Matt Dees for spending the morning touring me on the vineyards of Santa Rosa Road. Thank you to Drew Pickering.

Thank you to Greg Brewer, Steve Clifton, Blair Pence, Andy Alba, Jim Dierberg, Meredith Elliot, Lacey Fussell, and Sao Anash.

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    • Hi Colin, Thank you for taking the time to comment. Yes, you’re right. The Pence Ranch is on the Eastern edge of the Sta Rita Hills AVA, technically just outside the AVA. When I visited the ranch I thought of it as a boundary vineyard that shows the characteristics of the appellation by being on the edge of it. I could have made that more clear in my writing above. Thank you again. Elaine

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