Touring with Sashi Moorman
“In order for the region to grow, I think we need to really look at what makes Sta Rita special.” I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Sashi Moorman’s Toyota. We’re heading out Sweeney Road to drive up the side of a mountain that is vineyard Domaine de la Cote, the site Moorman started working first for Evening Land, then later purchased with friend Raj Paar. He’s telling me what sets Sta Rita Hills apart. “We need more discussion about the soils here. It’s a very unique and special part of the appellation. It distinguishes the AVA from others in California. Understanding the soils really elevates this region.”
On the way out Sweeney, Moorman stops the car. There is a sort of split a little inland along the canyon road. It’s a place where the soils change and looking first left, then right you can see it. Along the North-Western entrance to the canyon the soils are brown, loose, and full of small rocks — mineral rich sands from old sea beds. “This is the soil along the Highway 246 corridor,” Moorman points out. “Over here, the soils change.” He points Southeast in the direction we are headed.
“It’s difficult to find a region in the new world where you have cool climate, and also have geological diversity as varied as some of the great regions of France.” Moorman is referencing the Sta Rita Hills. “This Southern half of the appellation contains diatomaceous earth. It’s not celebrated. There isn’t much of it. But it’s a very very special part of the AVA.” I look up along a wall of the highway. The wall is glowing white.
diatomaceous earth, Sweeney Road, Sta Rita Hills, Jan 2014
Diatomaceous earth stands at the top of mountaneous peaks in the Southern portions of Sta Rita Hills above mid-zone bands of marine shale. The lowest elevations are alluvial. The diatomaceous formation deceives the eye, as its silica structure glows of hard white rock, but almost flies from the hand lifting it. It is so light. The rock formed under water from silica based, single-celled life forms dying, then descending to the bottom of the ocean, and compressing over time into rock. It’s a challenging ground for plant life to grow in, but even so roots can penetrate it.
“I love diatomaceous earth,” Moorman tells me, “and marine shale. They are both permeable, so roots can penetrate them. Marine shale though, with a nice layer of clay mixed in to hold some organic material, and some water….” Moorman drifts off for a moment. He seems to be imagining the vitality of the roots in such ground. He continues. “I love diatomaceous earth, but it’s really hard to grow in.”
We’ve driven almost to the top of Domaine de la Cote, and Moorman’s stopped. He wants me to get out so he can show me some rock, and the view.
Sashi Moorman showing me marine shale, Sta Rita Hills, Jan 2014
Moorman picks up a couple handfuls of marine shale and shows me the material. It’s an easily breakable rock, and sets itself here on the hillside surrounded by earth with clay. “Diatomaceous earth does well for chardonnay. It doesn’t need as much clay. The Cote de Beaune,” he tells me, “it’s hard rock. They grow chardonnay. The Cote de Nuits? More clay. Pinot Noir loves clay.” Moorman is explaining to me why the mid-slope of their Domaine de la Cote vineyard grows Pinot. The marine shale-clay combination supports the health of the red. At the very top, the portion of the vineyard he and Paar named Siren’s Call, is all diatomaceous earth exposed too to wind. There they grow Chardonnay. “The higher the elevation in Sta Rita, the more we like Chardonnay.” He explains.
For Moorman, the stretch from Domain de la Cote on Sweeney Road, up the canyon to Santa Rosa Road, where the very first plantings at Sanford and Benedict sit, carve the heart of the Sta Rita Hills. Moorman finds there the highest quality vineyards of the appellation. He warned me too, when I first climbed in his Toyota, that his is a view not everyone shares. Quite a number of vineyards sit along the passage that is Highway 246. There is no question that stretch presents a different expression of the Sta Rita, but it is also one that many people value. For Moorman, however, his attention is on this section he calls the heart.
looking up Moorman’s heart of Sta Rita Hills from almost the top of Domaine de la Cote
In the midst of Moorman’s explanation for the region is an account too about ripeness levels, balance, and site expression. “Making balanced wines is not a fad. It’s actually traditional. More alcohol in a wine makes it less expressive of the site, and more expressive of the winemaker.” We stand looking down the valley for a moment, then he continues. “On the other hand, if you pick at a potential alcohol of 13%, then you can taste the site differences — if a section is planted in diatomaceous earth, or planted in chert.” Chert is a sedimentary rock, more compressed and dense than diatomaceous but also made of silica. It occurs on the Southern most stretch of Santa Rosa Road buried into the mid-slope of Rinconada Vineyard, right next to Sanford and Benedict. That section of the appellation Moorman also works for the label he and Paar started, Sandhi.
For Moorman, organic farming also brings site expression even closer to the surface, more available to a glass of wine. “If you want to make great wine, you have to respect the terroir.” Moorman says. “You have to plant grapes that will work in that terroir.” His early reference to the differing needs of Chardonnay versus Pinot are an example. “If you don’t have terroir for a particular grape, you don’t have the terroir. Plant what is going to work there,” he repeats.
But Moorman’s point about balance doesn’t just rest in alcohol levels. He wants to think about a cohesive process from vineyard through cellar. “The word balance gets thrown around a lot but really it’s something that has to be thought about all the way through. Balance in the field. Balance in the winery. Balance in punchdowns, in racking, in cellar work.” He waves his hand for a moment indicating he means to list every time our hands touch what will be the wine. “Balance is a question of how you make the most elegant wine, not the most powerful, the most elegant.” He smiles for a moment remembering something. “There is a saying,” he continues. “You can have too much of everything, but not elegance. You can never have too much elegance.”
As we hop in the car to drive further into Moorman’s heart of Sta Rita we begin to think on other areas planted in diatomaceous earth. Neither of us can think of any. We turn down slope through Domaine de la Cote. Moorman is smiling. “Look how healthy the vineyard is. All the bugs, and the birds.” They’re dancing in the sunlight.
Sashi Moorman makes the following wines.
In Sta Rita Hills:
Domaine de la Cote: http://domainedelacote.com/
Sandhi Wines: http://sandhiwines.com/
In Ballard Canyon:
Stolpman Vineyards: https://www.stolpmanvineyards.com/
From Around the Central Coast:
Piedrassasi New Vineland Winery: http://newvineland.com/
Thank you to Sashi Moorman.
More on Sta Rita Hills, and tasting with Sashi in future posts.
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