The Sta. Rita Hills: Wine & People of the Wild West
BY BRENNA RITCHEY | SEPTEMBER 16, 2020
“It’s been a great year for turkey vultures,” Michael Benedict told me as we carved our way through the rough, wind-beaten slopes of the southwestern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Moments earlier, an enormous dark-feathered bird had silently glided past the car’s windshield, ducking so low I wondered if he’d dive right into us.
“Why is that?” I asked him.
“Because it’s been a great year for rodents.”
“Why is that?” I pressed.
“Because it’s been a beautiful year of rainfall.” One of the best years ever, he told me, with temperatures in Santa Barbara staying cool during the day, rains perfectly spaced apart, and too-hot days few and far between. He’d sounded giddy about this year’s harvest - still several months away, but already a promising one.
“You’re asking all the right questions,” he added. “That’s good. Keep asking.”
What I’d really wanted to ask him was, “Are you sure you can tell the difference between a pterodactyl and a bird?” But those were probably not what he meant by the right questions.
So far, I’d spent the day playing front-seat copilot to Benedict as we traversed our way through the Sta. Rita Hills, the westernmost wine-growing AVA (American Viticultural Area) of Santa Barbara. A Mecca for cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the area is one of the most interesting AVAs in California, impossibly diverse and richly storied. Benedict is a glimpse into it all. His knowledge is sweeping, the result of a love story with the Sta. Rita Hills that began nearly half a century ago, long before the appellation ever was.
My love story with the Sta. Rita Hills isn’t nearly as long (I’ve only been drinking its wines for a couple years now). But names like Brewer-Clifton, Sanford, Au Bon Climat - those were labels I grew up seeing my parents enjoy in the 1990s and early 2000s, my 9-year-old eyes level with the kitchen countertop as I peered across it at their untouchable bottles. And so the Sta. Rita Hills have marked bits and pieces of my childhood memory. Driving up from my home in downtown Santa Barbara to meet Michael Benedict there felt a bit like a pilgrimage.
Better understanding the Sta. Rita Hills appellation has been a project of mine for a while now (before a certain global pandemic threw a very heavy, very rusted wrench in those plans). My postgrad job working at a local tasting room in Santa Barbara had convinced me that I knew next to nothing about the wheres and whens and whos of the wines I was selling. The Sta. Rita Hills appellation - already significant to my 9-year-old understanding of wine, remember - seemed like a good place to start.
Historic vineyards at Sanford Winery. Mt. Carmel, one of the highest points in the appellation, rises in the distance, with Sea Smoke vineyards along the slopes beneath it.
Sanford & Benedict: the Birth of Sta. Rita Hills
Michael Benedict’s name, along with Richard Sanford’s, are revered here in Santa Barbara. Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, the vineyard the duo planted nearly half a century ago, is maybe the single biggest contribution to the popularity of Pinot Noir in California today (though Bien Nacido in Santa Maria is primordial, too). The vineyard is living proof that exceptional cool-climate wines can be grown in Santa Barbara County as Sanford and Benedict envisioned so many years ago. The old-vine Pinot Noir at Sanford & Benedict is some of the oldest in the U.S., and a bit like the center of gravity of the whole AVA.
So I was halfway convinced, driving up to the Sta. Rita Hills to meet and chat with Benedict that morning, that there’d be some combination of secret passwords, riddles, and hail Marys before he’d pop out of thin air ready to talk to me. No one had primed me on the best way to summon a legend of old Santa Barbaran wine mythology. The night before, I’d been warned over the phone by John Terlato, a friend of Benedict’s, that it involved being well-prepared with plenty of questions. (So, no, I wasn’t at all intimidated.)
Benedict was already there, though - no riddles required - when I rolled up to Lavender Oak Vineyard in Buellton. The Lavender Oak property, owned by Dean and Christi Heck, houses Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and a dog named Joe, who is part Bernese Mountain Dog and part wooly mammoth. The vineyard is not actually in the Sta. Rita Hills, but is a good “starting point” if you’re entering the appellation via Highway 246. It paints a clear picture of the warm-to-cool temperature cline as you move east to west, and how much hotter the Buellton-side of the AVA really is.
Starting in the top half, on Highway 246, Benedict and I would tour the region as far west as Lompoc, circling back into the bottom half, on Santa Rosa Road, and finishing up at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, where it all began back in 1971.
“How much time do you have?” Michael Benedict asked.
“I’ve got all day,” I told him.
“Good,” he said. “If we’re going to take the time to do this, we’d better do it right.”
Lichen covering the abandoned barn that had once housed Sanford Winery.
I imagine him saying those same words 50 years ago, traversing the West Coast in search of the perfect place to put roots in the ground with Richard Sanford. By then, they’d purchased cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling - what Napa was head-over-heels for, at the time - and were keeping them in a nursery owned by Betty Williams (founder of Buttonwood Winery). Benedict remembered how he and Sanford would drive through the Santa Ynez Valley with a thermometer stuck out the car’s window in search of a sweet spot with the coolest temperatures.
“When you’re going 30 miles an hour, you get a good sense of those things,” he said. Having trained as a botanist on the Channel Islands, he’d look at the local vegetation, too, studying what it meant about climate, coastal influence, and soil type.
A ranch on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley with a dilapidated cattle barn fit the bill. It hugged the northern slopes of the Santa Rosa Hills and was well-positioned to the cool winds that raced through the Santa Ynez River corridor. Surrounded by barley, beans, and broccoli, the land was all agriculture. But it had history, too, having at one time been part of the 19th-century Mexican land grant, Rancho Santa Rosa. (All land in Santa Barbara can trace its roots back to a series of old land grants like these.)
Michael Benedict described the site to me as a “crosshairs of perfection”—the ideal intersection of a north-to-south cline of soils, and an east-to-west cline of temperature. Planting their own-root vines in 1971, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard was born. The first commercial vintage of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir that was released a few years later was made in the ranch’s old cattle barn. A local hot tub maker had helped the guys construct their homemade oak fermenters. Vintages that followed became cult classics, drawing early interest and other winemakers to what would become the Sta. Rita Hills.
The old barn still stands at Sanford Winery. It’s set apart, a short drive through the rocky Sanford & Benedict vineyards. The century-old siding is covered in lichen, and the inside is overrun with bats. It feels like holy ground anyway. The homemade fermenters are there, and a smaller separate room that had once served as the guys’ winemaking lab. Through its glass windows, you can see swaths of Sanford & Benedict vines, both old ones and new, backdropped by Mt. Carmel across the river, one of the highest points in the appellation. It’s a panorama of star-studded hillsides: Sea Smoke, Rita’s Crown, and others. Benedict says there are plans to restore this barn one day. It’s one of many projects on his and Terlato’s to-do list. But the frozen-in-time quality feels a little sacred, anyway.
Old-vine Pinot Noir planted by Michael Benedict and Richard Sanford in 1971.
Wine in the Wild West
The influence of the Pacific Ocean is part and parcel to the magic of the Sta. Rita Hills. The appellation is 10 miles from the coast, but might as well be a stone’s throw away - you could cover the distance on a map with your thumb. And because the valleys of the Santa Rita Hills run east-to-west instead of north-to-south, they act as wind tunnels, funneling cold Pacific air directly into the appellation. That wind is volatile, freezing, and armed with razor-sharp granules of sand. It’s a monster compared to what I’m used to - the beachy, gentle winds of downtown Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, the AVA’s soil map is a puzzle of textures. There’s volcanic soil along Highway 246 in the north; there’s pure diatomaceous earth in the southwest; there’s clay and river rock along Santa Rosa Road; there are sand dunes in the east. “You name it, we’ve got it,” said Matt Dees, winemaker at the The Hilt/Jonata/The Paring. “It’s a 10,000-piece jigsaw.”
At the westernmost edge of the Sta. Rita Hills, the more marginal vineyards are the first line of defense against primal winds and coastal fog. Radian and Domaine de la Côte are two extreme vineyards at the mercy of it all. Both feel far-flung and far-fetched: worlds away from Sanford & Benedict’s rolling hillsides, and impossibly harsh. The magic of the Sta. Rita Hills feels like dark, sinister stuff here.
The Pinot Noir does, too. “Sometimes I’m afraid to bottle it,” Matt had told me. “I feel like it’s going to shatter the bottle.”
It’s this dark, piercing, tightly-wound quality that has made The Hilt Pinots perfect representations of its little slice of the appellation. The Hilt Estate - made up of three fantastical vineyards: Bentrock, Puerta del Mar, and Radian - sits atop the old 19th-century Mexican land grant, Rancho Cañada de Salsipuedes. Dees is clearly unfazed by its translation: “Get-Out-While-You-Can Canyon.” Or the fact that one expert had determined the land would produce better asparagus than wine grapes.
He’s been around the Sta. Rita Hills for 16 years now (but still feels like a new kid on the block, comparatively), making wines under The Hilt’s Chard-and-Pinot-focused label since 2004. After graduating college in 2001, he catapulted himself into the wine industry by phoning up Staglin Family Vineyard using the number he’d found on the back of a bottle of 1995 Staglin Cabernet. When he asked for a job, they’d offered him a place in the vineyards, and he drove cross-country to Napa to start there that same year. A stint at Craggy Range in New Zealand came later. There, Dees worked alongside Doug Wisor (Littorai) and Adrian Baker before an offer from Jonata pulled him back to California.
The Hilt has more recently zeroed in on Radian and Bentrock as its champion vineyards for consistently producing focused, precise wines of place. Both are planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but are Jekyll and Hyde in just about every other way. Radian is steep and jagged; in the wind, its Pinot Noir berries are not much bigger than BBs. Bentrock is tamer, snuggled at the base of Radian, where chert-heavy soils help retain heat. Both are special - some of the most rugged sites in this sector between Domaine de la Côte and Rancho la Viña’s vineyards. Here, the wines, especially Chardonnays, seem to redefine - or at least reimagine - where the true “crosshairs of perfection” of the Sta. Rita Hills is.
But perfection hinges on time as much as place. The Hilt team bid their time until they were sure Radian and Bentrock could stand alone as single-vineyard bottlings. The litmus test was whether the team could pick those vineyards out of a 20-wine lineup by “sniff test” - and whether it was delicious.
“If it’s meant to be, you can do it easily,” Dees said. “For Radian, you don’t even have to smell it - you can tell it’s Radian just by looking at it.” (The way he said you seemed generous, but yes, I’m sure it was easy for him.) Chardonnay from Bentrock and Pinot Noir from Radian were the first to pass that sniff test. But that test raises an important point: that single-vineyard bottlings from the Sta. Rita Hills really ought to be singular and placeable before a “brand” is built around that site. With so many new winemakers buying fruit, that’s not always taken into consideration.
“Any single-vineyard wine must offer something consistent, specific, and delicious,” Dees said. He is a self-proclaimed skeptic of single-vineyard bottlings, which don’t always live up to the hype of their name, especially if they’re coming from too-young vineyards. “At what point is scarcity and exclusivity more important than the overall balance of the wine? What does just ‘interesting’ offer to the consumer?”
The Hilt is scaling down production of their vineyard blends, Old Guard and Vanguard, in order to make way for single-vineyard wines from Radian and Bentrock that speak to the incredible diversity of the southwest corner of the AVA. He describes the shift as one from style to place. And he hopes that those single-vineyard wines are a testament to due-diligence and patience - what happens when such loud voices of place are given time to speak.
A road cut shows layers of pressed rock, the result of geologic uplifts. It’s a mind-bending glimpse into the extreme soils characteristic of the “wild west” of the Sta. Rita Hills.
Wines that Speak to Place
There are plenty of ways to be interesting in the Sta. Rita Hills, when you consider that 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a soil map, plus the sheer number of winemakers and vineyards in the area today. (The AVA had housed around 17 vineyards in its earliest days; there are now at least 80.) It really is the Wild West, as one winemaker described it to me: “We’re all a bunch of freaks,” he’d said. “We’re all just shooting from the hip out here.”
But the wines have to be unanimous.
Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir can sometimes feel like rooms in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: a fudge room here, a marshmallow room there - like Wonka himself telling the kids, Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous! They really run the gamut and can be harder to pinpoint as “Sta. Rita Hills-vocal” as a result.
But Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnays have an unanimity of place. “They’re a dead ringer for drinking the saltwater nectar out of an oyster,” Dees said. “They have electricity, salinity, and a green citrus quality that’s like the pith of a lime.” He pointed to 2011 as a “sea change vintage” for Chardonnay, one that opened people’s eyes to a fresher, more vibrant style following heat spikes the years prior. Though high-alcohol Chardonnays had powered their way through the 2000s, 2011 “changed the way we made wine,” he said. “Everyone here was picking with an acidity like they’d never seen before.”
That trend has continued, and the electric, saline quality has become pretty universal to Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnays. Even Bentrock in the far southwest corner and Pence in the northeast corner share that common thread, and they couldn’t be further from one another.
Greg Brewer, whose Chardonnay comes from more centrally-located vineyards along Highway 246, compared Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay to a deconstructed margarita: lemon, lime, and salt. “Whether it’s 16% alcohol or 13%, whether you pick early or pick late, whether you use steel or concrete or oak, there is a citrusy, saline element.”
Meanwhile, winemakers hunch their shoulders when they talk about Sta. Rita Hills Pinot - this tense, brooding, coiled-up thing that’s sometimes easier to act out than describe in words.
And that’s to say nothing about the handful of acres planted to Syrah, Grenache, Riesling, and more. (Riesling may even predate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the area, planted at Sanford & Benedict in 1971.)
There’s Riesling down in the southwest corner of the appellation at The Hilt, which Matt Dees plans on harvesting just 300 pounds of this year (provided the squirrels don’t eat it first, like they have in the past). And he’s grafted over Pinot Noir to Syrah, which, despite forgetting about throughout last year’s harvest, turned out okay. “We squeezed the hell out of it to get one full barrel, and it’s one of the best Syrahs I’ve ever tasted in my life. We were visionary,” he joked.
Chad Melville, who grows eight clones of Syrah at the Melville Estate vineyards along Highway 246, said, “Syrah in Sta. Rita Hills is just as noble from anything else in this region. It is magical.” Grenache, too, which he recently planted from the same cuttings as Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet,” he said, “but at the very least, I’ll make a rad Grenache rosé.”
Still, the banner of the Sta. Rita Hills has always been Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (in that order). That will probably always be the case - and rightly so, since they’ve been the region’s ambassadors from the beginning. They’re the “gospel of the Sta. Rita Hills,” Dees said, “and we’ve all got to preach that same gospel under one Sta. Rita Hills.” I think Chardonnay is quickly becoming the first chapter of that gospel message, though.
In contrast to the pressed rock in the “wild west” of the Sta. Rita Hills, white sandy soils make up the brunt of the northeastern side.
Drawing the Lines
If the Sta. Rita Hills was alive, it wouldn’t even be old enough to legally drink its own wines. I’m not much older (I was a mature four-and-a-half when the area officially became the Sta. Rita Hills), but for both of us, I think, a lot has changed since then.
The late 1990s represented an infusion of interest and investment in Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara. New plantings in the area were steady. Greg Brewer, who planted Melville in 1997, remembers the slew of other projects that had popped up around the same time: Fiddlestix, Sea Smoke, Lafond, and more - all within just a few miles of each other. Many orbited around holy-grail sites like Sanford & Benedict. But it was the Sta. Rita Hills themselves that were always the focal point, the bull’s-eye at the center.
Meanwhile, the small crew who’d centralized around the area spent more time in those days explaining who they weren’t than who they were.
“Wine writers would reference the ‘cool Santa Maria Valley’ versus the ‘warmer Santa Ynez Valley,’” Brewer said. “The key motivational factor when we embarked on defining the appellation here was just educational clarification.” It wasn’t about stacking up to the rest of the wine world, it was about being taken seriously. And the truth was that the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley was not at all warm. It was actually pretty irrefutably cold. Resultant wines spoke to that. Or, rather, they shouted it from the wind-battered hilltops.
The squad of local vintners would gather around one table at Richard Sanford’s tasting room, poring over maps and gradually piecing together a cohesive identity. They’d trek across the hills and valleys on foot to study the topography, geology, and gather data. (If you’re picturing a group of merry men with coonskin caps like something out of a Lewis and Clark expedition, me too.) Once they’d mapped out the basic shape, it took them just three days to finalize those lines. Wes Hagen, manager of Clos Pepe Vineyard and all-around Very Smart Guy, took on the job of writing the petition. He’d been a former English teacher, and how different could AVA-writing be than grading an essay, really?
Everything about the process felt quantum, Hagen said, like they were capturing a powerful moment in time and space. Bryan Babcock called it “no fluke,” and he’d been making wine in the area since before most.
The petition was approved in 2001, and the Santa Rita Hills became an official American Viticultural Area. A name change in 2007 would shorten it to what is now “Sta. Rita Hills” (period mandatory). Yes, there’s a dramatic story involving a barely-avoided lawsuit, a showdown somewhere in Santiago, Chile, and Richard Sanford as the ragtag hero. Spell it out today, S-a-n-t-a Rita Hills, and someone might just hunt you down.
In 2016, an expansion redrew its eastern borders to include Pence and a bit of John Sebastiano vineyards. Parts of those sites are a lot warmer than the rest of the AVA, but even so, Pence Chardonnay (made by Sashi Moorman of Domaine de la Côte/Sandhi) is that citrus-and-saltwater through and through. Given the firestorm surrounding the vineyards’ inclusion, it’s unlikely the appellation will expand outward again anytime soon.
The Hilt Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs—which I tasted at home, over my rugged (er, wine-stained) map of the Sta. Rita Hills—may be redefining where the true “crosshairs of perfection” of the appellation is.
The Sub-Appellation Conversation
Still, there is the question of dividing the region into smaller, more nuanced sub-appellations. The Sta. Rita Hills itself is an appellation within an appellation (surrounded by the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA), and has only grown more and more saturated in the past 20 years. You could make a case for a division between the north and the south - and the east and west, too. In fact, Michael Benedict told me on our drive through the appellation that it’s only a matter of time before Sanford & Benedict Vineyard becomes the focal point of a new sub-appellation. But the debate is a controversial one, and over-appellating is never neat or tidy. A map of the area several years from now could look like a series of nesting dolls, appellations within appellations. And then its most marginal vineyards could be left stranded, too. Sometimes too much specificity works against things.
I talked to Chad Melville about this one morning over Zoom - because that is how the world works these days, and human connection most times equals WiFi connection. He’s another one of those early pioneers, having served as the Vice President of the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance when it was founded. He knows the area and its people as well as anyone, and says its diversity never felt contentious - it was always one love, one Sta. Rita Hills.
The idea of divvying up the appellation north to south “never really had much bite to it,” Melville said. The main difference between vineyards along Highway 246 (like Melville Estate) and ones along Santa Rosa Road, he said, “was drama: the south has those steep hillsides, the river flowing through.” The north, in contrast, is essentially a high, flat plain. “It’s easy to trick your eye into thinking that beauty or drama equals better wine.”
And besides, what sets neighbors apart from each other in the Sta. Rita Hills is not environment. It’s human input. “We’ve all got the wind, the fog, the climate, the soil,” Melville said. “But what you do with those things is 20% of it. That’s the fun part of it. The magic is the farming.” For that reason, the sub-appellation debate isn’t one Melville puts much stock into. If anything, new plantings, projects, and neighbors have only added to the story of the Sta. Rita Hills, not changed what it stood for.
It’s an idea that echoed what Hagen told me early on in my research, a phrase that so perfectly sums up what’s at stake: the appellation’s original borders had been competent at best, and prescient at worst. So that even decades later, those borders would stick, and hold up well to criticism or calls for change.
A map of the AVA and its 2016 expansion as drawn by Michael Benedict with Google Earth. The new addition to the eastern border (in red) roped in Pence and John Sebastiano vineyards.
Most are in that camp, still - Brewer told me, “I would strongly fight anyone who tried to slice up the Sta. Rita Hills under my watch.” Maybe a few years from now - or 300-ish - that might make sense, he said, but for now, that conversation is hasty. Consumers’ attention spans are limited, and the Sta. Rita Hills has spent 20 years trying to capture people’s attention.
The people are prideful here, as they should be. It’s these eclectic, hell-or-highwater personalities that make the Sta. Rita Hills so special. The appellation is a bit of a miracle, and that’s the gospel they’re all trying to preach.
But the Sta. Rita Hills has always had the curse of being “up-and-coming.” It’s as if wine writers don’t know what to make of it compared to California’s platonic ideals like Carneros, or the Russian River Valley. There’s something of an identity crisis of Santa Barbaran wine, said Brewer, that even strong tourism and sought-after wines can’t fix. World-class Santa Barbara wines have sometimes felt like the “shiny new toy” - maybe because of the incorrect assumption that the region is without history, tradition, or critical acclaim. The fact that tasting rooms are usually far away from any vineyards here doesn’t help. It’s hard for consumers to get behind the wines of place of the Sta. Rita Hills without actually being there.
Writing this article led me to that same conclusion, as the pandemic has made those kinds of in-person experiences difficult. Not long after my day spent driving through the Sta. Rita Hills with Michael Benedict, California shut down (again). And so this project of mine, this history-geography-wine lesson on the appellation, is bits and pieces of Zoom calls, phone interviews, map-unrolling, map-rerolling, and solo drives along foggy, vineyard-lined roads. Progress - gradual, as everything is these days - was thanks to people willing to connect however possible, WiFi be damned.
The Sta. Rita Hills will keep setting and surpassing its own benchmarks, and while it may be up-and-coming in some ways, it’s already arrived in many others. I look forward to the day that I can sit down with some of its winemakers in person and explain to them the importance of those “kitchen countertop” bottles I remember as a kid. They remind me I am my father’s daughter. Writing about the Sta. Rita Hills now - its place, its people - is the closest I may come to a socially-distant cheers instead.
You Might Also Enjoy
Finding Familiarity When Things Are Far From Normal, Brenna Ritchey, April 2020
Equal Parts Story and Substance, Brenna Ritchey, September 2019