(Another) Year in the Vineyard, Week #5 with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards

 (Another) Year in the Vineyard Wine Blog, Week #5

April 9-15, 2010

Viticulturama, Why Technology Matters, A Lamb By Any Other Name,

Another Version of the LA Times Magazine Article.

cp flag

A Few Local Events to Entice You:

  • This SUNDAY:   Clos Pepe Open House and Wine Pickup party on the Vintner’s Festival Weekend:  Sunday, April 18th from 11 am – 3 pm at our Lompoc winery facility at 1273 West Laurel.  Tasting, nibbles, barrel dipping and a word of wine wisdom (or two!) from Wes.  Breaking news:  We will have old and rare library releases to offer ONLY at this event.
  • Two rare CLOS PEPE WINEMAKER DINNERS with Wes and Chanda Hagen in April at:
  • Bradley Ogden’s Root 246.  Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 in Solvang: Chef Johnny Church and I are going to put our collective heads together over some Irish Whiskey and knock this menu out of the park.  From the man who brought you foie-stuffed Eber Skeebers with huckleberry preserves and a foie-topped burger with a half lobster tail, we expect to experiment to find the perfect small plates to match our wines harmoniously.  It will be a busy night, so get your rez now if you’ll be in the area. (805) 686-8681.
  • Buona Tavola, a fabulous Italian restaurant in San Luis Obispo on Saturday, April 24th.  Local folks, let’s have dinner together and allow the wine and food carry you away. Menu highlights will include:  2007 CPE PN with Parpadelle Cinqueterre- Wide ribbon pasta with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, sea scallops. house cured salmon, a diced braised garden vegetable medley, white wine and lighty creamy saffron sauce.
    2006 CPE Pinot with Petto d’Anatra al Porto-  Muscovy duck breast pan seared and oven roasted, finished with a port wine reduction sauce.
    Please call for a reservation right away to guarantee seating: (805) 545-8000

The vineyard:  Shoots are growing, frost damage is repairing itself, the crew is out suckering.  The growing season is clicking right along, we’re seeing between 1” and about 8” of shoot growth out there, and I’m very happy with the consistency and uniformity of budbreak.  Of course there are a few acres that are still recovering from the tragically unfunny April Fools Day frost, but as you read last week, we’ve used a recovery pruning technique that is likely to improve crop recovery in the frosted sections.

What the crew is doing:  After snipping off all frost damage, the crew is knocking ‘suc kers’ off the vines.  This means that any shoot that emerges from the vine that is not in a position meant to produce fruit is removed.  This includes trunk shoots, extra shoots popping off ‘water buds’ on the head of the vine, and basal shoots that are popping off from the rootstock.  Taking these off focuses the vine’s growth and use of nutrients to fruitful shoots in the correct positions.  But you know all of this!


Suckering before

Same vine after suckering

Spraying:  In a world dominated by press releases focused on organic, sustainable and biodynamic viticulture, talking about spraying the vines doesn’t get much play.  But praying to Rudolph Steiner or burying a cow horn will not stop the mildew monster in the Santa Rita Hills.  All the cool weather and moist soil is a perfect combination for the sporulation of powdery mildew and the shoot blight called botrytis.  A little botrytis is a good thing for Chardonnay and dessert wine at the end of the season, but early season ‘bot’ will decimate young, green tissue on shoots, and is controlled with copper sulfate.  Nice thing about copper: it also destroys the bacteria that allows ice crystals to nucleate within the tissues of grapevines, so an early season application of copper sulfate will knock down the ‘bot’, and also give us a few extra degrees of frost protection.  We’re saddling a number of various sprays into one this week:  4 formulations of foliar nutrients to aid the vine to grow strong and resist frost, to add nutrients for early season growth and fruit development, and some sulfur and copper to give a good broad-spectrum protection against botrytis and mildew.  The spray should last about 10 days for mildew, and then we’ll spray sulfur again—likely by itself.  Sprays continue until the fruit is immune to mildew—just after the fruit softens and gets about 19% sugar by weight.


Spraying 4/15

Frost:  It’s been gloriously cool but not frosty at nights, and I turned the fans and sprinklers on for the first time in almost a week last night.  Reminder to self: tequila at 4 am will impact your day when you wake up at 6:30.  No damage to speak of since 4/1/10.  Vines damaged in the first frost are recovering and starting to push replacement (secondary) shoots.

The basics of high end viticulture:

All a winemaker needs to know:  Walk into the vineyards you buy fruit from, find the vineyard manager.  Walk around looking gravely disappointed, pick at a few clusters and leaves, and then tell the vineyard manager before leaving:  ‘When can we get a crew into my section and tidy up?’  Alternatively, don’t go into the vineyard, but say you did. Phone it in:  ‘I walked the field today, and was a bit disappointed.  When can we get a crew in there and get some work done?’  Either method is usually sufficient to put a fire under a vineyard manager.  (Of course, our contracted winemakers never resort to such chicanery…)

From the grower’s side, a few keys to proper pinot farming: 

  • Pruning is the foundation of every vintage…expert pruning is necessary to making great wine.
  • Try not to show contempt when a contracted winemaker suggests farming techniques that you know won’t improve fruit quality.  Do finish farming sections of the winemakers who visit regularly.  Stay in contact with winemakers and make sure you have meetings to make sure the farming is being completed to produce grapes that they want to buy.
  • Try to get the cultural practices done in a timely manner and with an expert crew that has been trained over many, many years and have fine tuned their viticultural chops.
  • Focus on getting sunlight and air movement in the fruiting zone.  Sun will improve the flavor of the grapes and air movement will curtail mildew and rot pressure.
  • Position the shoots as they grow into a vertical position so they do not bend back over and shade the fruit.
  • Position the shoots so each cluster has their own niche space and clusters do not nest together in jumbled bunches.
  • Spray the vineyard with fungicide regularly to assure clean fruit at harvest.
  • It’s better to walk the vineyard and observe than to overspray.  There is truth in the old adage: ‘The best fertilizer for any vineyard is the footsteps of the viticulturist.’
  • Leaves should be pulled right after flowering and fruit set.  Getting light on the newly forming clusters is key to managing flavor and the potential of sunburn.  Also retain a few  leaves that will shade the vines in the heat of the day.
  • Sunlight on fruit improves flavor and minimizes vegetal aromas and flavors, so getting sunlight on the clusters without sunburn (a tricky balancing act) is key.
  • Use whatever farming method produces the best wine.  Using only organic or biodynamic practices does NOT guarantee an increase in quality.  I love human ingenuity and science, and will never eschew scientific discovery just to put ‘organic’ on a label.
  • Test the fruit as it ripens and give the producers (winemakers) an accurate assessment of sugar and pH levels so they can fine tune their wine style.
  • Harvest at night if possible to bring in the fruit as cold and sound as possible.

This is not a complete list, but it is the main areas that I concentrate on for the ‘big picture’.

lambs 4/15/10

The sheep:

They are growing and bleating, and they are pretty damn cute.  We are also having a NAME THE SHEEP contest on my Facebook page (go to Wes Hagen or fan ‘Clos Pepe’ to enter).  Look at the individual pictures of the lambs, read the instructions and try to name those lambs.  Winners receive a great prize, 5 prizes in all!

LA Times Magazine:  What You Saw and What You Didn’t See:

The rest of this week has been pretty mellow:  lots of shipping, getting ready for the Open House, lots of tours and tastings, speaking engagements, computer stuff, branding meetings and the like.  I thought a fun way to supplement this week’s blog was to offer a view of my LOS ANGELES TIMES MAGAZINE ARTICLE published April 4th, 2010 (click the link to see the article as it was published), and the first draft of the article that was submitted and rejected.  I’ll publish the second draft that they edited down in some future blog as well.  And without further ado, here is the original article that I submitted in September, 2010.  The editor wanted more passion and drama.  /shrug:


LA Times Magazine

Passion and Pinot: (Version 1, Rejected)

A Love Letter to the Queen of Wine Grapes

As Expressed in the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County

By Wes Hagen, VM/WM Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate Wines


Harvest begins at Clos Pepe.  The crew of sixteen squint to see the lustrous black clusters of pinot noir hidden in the haze of false dawn.  As the hills begin to glow indigo, then salmon, the Santa Rita Hills emerge on the southern horizon and the buckets fill quickly to the cadence of snipping clippers and Mexican radio.  It will be a short pick today, slightly unripe pinot noir fruit for a Brut Rose’ sparkling wine.  Within a few weeks every vineyard will begin picking their pinot noir in the Santa Rita Hills of Northern Santa Barbara County.  The same heat wave that pushed fires along the northern edges of L.A.’s mountain communities moved the timetable forward for picking during the 2009 harvest.  The heat came early enough not to wreck hopes for a glorious vintage–2009 has been a long, cool, nearly perfect year for Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir– and after a string of amazingly good vintages (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) it seems that the winegrowers and winemakers in Northern Santa Barbara are ready to add another fine batch of wines to their young, yet impressive resume. 

The History and the Buzz:

The Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County is a young wine growing area, one free from stuffy convention, ripe with youthful exuberance and passion, but still sorely lacking in the type of first-class restaurants and lodging that would suit a wine country with a burgeoning global reputation for quality and craft.   Still, for those more interested in quality wines than Rolex-set amenities, Lompoc and Buellton offer a comfortable and affordable hub from which to explore the west side of the 101.  This is Sonoma in the 1970’s—empty roads, only a few dozen tasting rooms, winemakers and their families greeting customers at a barn door.  The charm is not painted on like a Disneyland façade, and the time it takes to make a few appointments is readily repaid by a rare and intimate view of a budding wine culture.  Whether it’s a Bacchanalian dinner with Bruno D’Alfonso and his wife Kris Curran, or a walk through the organic vineyards with the gentlemanly Taoist Richard Sanford, the area bubbles with passion, thoughtful stewardship and an agrarian authenticity borne from pursuing the most challenging of the wine world’s crops. Cabernet sauvignon may attract the vain to plant a Napa vineyard, but pinot pioneers in this area are more likely poets than poseurs, more likely cleaning barrels than cornering commodity markets. 

This coastal throat, nestled between Lompoc and Buellton, was first planted to winegrapes in 1971 and produced its first pinot noir wine in 1975.  “The 1975 and 1976 vintages of Sanford & Benedict [pinot noir] are legendary in the annals of Santa Barbara’s wine history,”  recalls James Laube of the Wine Spectator. The Father of the Santa Rita Hills is certainly Richard Sanford, who planted the vineyard that many still see as a flagship for the area: the Sanford and Benedict.  

The area attracted passionate families looking to establish new vineyards slowly and methodically.  Pierre Lafond planted a large vineyard near the Santa Ynez River in 1972, then in the late 70’s and early 80’s, families like the Babcocks and the Hubers planted the first vineyards along Highway 246, the northern corridor of the Santa Rita Hills.  Pinot noir will likely be the Queen of the Santa Rita Hills in perpetuity, but there will always be a supportive cast of varietals: structured, mineral laden Chardonnay in the true cool-climate style that is so rare in the New World, and pockets of fruit that express the coastal climate with bright, fresh flavors and extraordinary character and cellar longevity:  Syrah, Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Gris (Grigio), Pinot Blanc, even a bit of Dornfelder, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer.

Many critics agree the Santa Rita Hills shows the potential to rule the New World pinot noir roost.  In September, 2008, the King of American Wine Critics, Robert Parker, wrote: “The explosion in quality and diversity of wines in various parts of the United States […] includes Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills.”  Steve Heimoff of the Wine Enthusiast adds: “”Today, I think it’s safe to say that the SRH stands as one of the greatest places in the New World to grow Pinot Noir.  And they got there on their own — not with fancy marketing packages and press kits and events with celebrity auctioneers. Not with spin and hype. Not by luring in big spenders with resorts and great restaurants and golf courses. They did it the old-fashioned way: They earned it.”

It is with that hope of ‘earning it’ that we steel ourselves for another long Fall of testing, picking, crushing and pressing the most challenging and seductive of all wine grapes:  that fickle princess we call Pinot Noir. World Class pinot really is produced a mere two hours’ drive north of Los Angeles.   L.A. is closer to the Santa Rita Hills than Paris is to Burgundy.  The 34th latitude is as far south as quality pinot noir is grown anywhere in the world, and it took untold miracles of geology and passionate craft to make it happen.

The Geology:

Great pinot noir requires rarified dirt and a perfect climate.  Burgundy has their limestone-infused clay based soils, the most complex soils being in the heart of the hillsides, where the vaunted ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards reside.  Standing in the center of the Santa Rita Hills American Viticultural Area, it’s miraculous to consider that this land was once under the Pacific Ocean, and that in a few thousand years it may be underwater again.  During a violent tectonic shift between 10 and 20 million years ago, the Pacific tectonic plate crashed against the North American plate, and mountains rose out of the ocean in a north-south orientation.  This is when the story gets interesting.  As the plates rubbed and ground together, a good chunk of Northern Santa Barbara County (mostly adjacent to Point Conception, that elbow that sticks out of the Central Coast) literally broke off the Pacific plate and began turning clockwise up the coast.  This ‘cookie’ of free-floating land continued to grind and turn over millions of years until the north-south mountain ranges pivoted ninety degrees,  so the ranges now run east-west between Buellton and the Pacific Ocean, about 30 miles away.  The grinding and turning of the plates continues, and the entire peninsula (and the Santa Rita Hills) are doomed to crumble into the Pacific sometime over the next 100,000 years.  This is borrowed land—an area that happens to be in a serendipitous, yet transitory, state of pinot perfection.

As the hills (Purisima Hills in the north, Santa Rita Hills in the center, Santa Rosa Hills in the south) became oriented in a east-west direction, the climate of this area changed drastically.  The coastal throat cooled, the new geography promoted foggy mornings, afternoon winds and a climate as chilly as any on the Central Coast.  The golden hills stretch to the pacific like fingers groping for the ocean, luring cool breezes that buffet the vines and their precious crop of ripening pinot noir clusters .  Most grapes wouldn’t ripen here on these wind-swept and chilly hills.  Pinot Noir is an exception.  Even Chardonnay struggles to ripen in some spots, and is always harvested later than the pinot.  Any superior wine growing region lies on the edge of where the grapes can get ripe. These marginal areas allow for a longer time for the clusters to hang on the vine and develop flavor, not just sugar, but the compounds that develop inside the skins that give wine flavor, richness and color. 

As the hills rose from the Pacific, forced upward by buckling shelves of rock, mass extinctions of single-cell organisms called diatoms settled in large deposits throughout the landscape that would become the Santa Rita Hills.  These diatoms added a great deal of calcium and silica into the soil, which has the effect of thickening the skins of the pinot noir grapes grown here.  The thickened skins reduce the amount of juice inside the berry and add extra color and flavor compounds to the wines produced here, making wines of great depth, color and intensity.  

Ken Byron Brown, formerly of Byron Winery and now making small lot wines under his own label, explains:  “The most remarkable aspect of this region is how good our Pinot Noirs are from relatively young vineyards that,  for the most part, are less than 15 years old. I know of no other Pinot Noir region in the world that shows such outstanding quality from vineyards that, by world standards, are still in their adolescence. If you think it is good now,  just wait since our wines are only getting better.”

The Wines:

The American wine intelligentsia is eager to define the typical style of a Santa Rita Hills pinot noir, while those with a broader and more historical understanding of wine understand style emerges over centuries, not mere decades.  Between the Burgundian-styled wines of the more elegant producers to the ripe, fleshy masculine wines of darker flavor and color, there is a wine and a style produced for every palate in the Santa Rita Hills.  In interviews on the subject of style and ripeness in the Santa Rita Hills, two facts emerged from all those concerned: every winemaker has a different take on style in pinot noir, but none insisted that their philosophy represented some Platonic truth.  The first noble truth of being a true Pinotphile is the revelation that pinot noir shows every aspect of farming and production, and the second noble truth is that no two pinot noirs, even from the same vineyard, will be exactly similar.  Some like elegant, jazzy wines, and others like rich, dark, masculine monsters that demand attention. The diversity of styles in the Santa Rita Hills foments spirited discussions on style and ripeness, but the wise Epicurean always know that loving pinot noir means we will constantly be surprised by what we find in the glass.  Every taste is a journey into fog, wind, soil, sunshine, vintage, craft and a winemaker’s passion.

Adam Lee is co-winemaker of Siduri Wines with his wife Dianna.  Siduri makes Pinot Noirs grown from the 34th parallel (latitude of Santa Rita Hills), all the way up to the 45th parallel in Oregon.  Because they make pinot noirs from all over the West Coast, they have an enviable ability to pick out the subtle differences in flavor, structure and character from different viticultural regions.

Santa Rita Hills fruit in particular, Adam explains, makes pinots that show “darker color, concentrated fruits…usually darker fruits…not light cherries but more blackberry and some noticeable tannins.”  Pinot noir usually has a lighter color due to the finest tannin molecules of any red wine—so the dark, rich style produced in some pinots in the Santa Rita Hills has not gone unnoticed.

Stephen Brook writes for Decanter Magazine in the UK, and has written many award-winning books on California and Bordeaux wine.  He recently visited the Santa Rita Hills on a research mission for his ‘Wine of California’ project.  Stephen believes it’s too early to pigeonhole a typical style of Santa Rita Hills pinot noir: “…[T]here are so many different winemaking styles, as well as clonal variations.  These are the early days.” 

 Justin Willett, the rising star behind Tyler Wines adds his characterization of Santa Rita Hills pinot noir: “Cola, dark, red fruit,”  he says, “Earth and leather on the Santa Rosa Road side and more red fruit and minerality on the Highway 246 side.”

“Profound aromas of dark fruit such as wild blackberry, dark plum and occasionally blue berries with a thread of minerality are often traits of SRH Pinot Noir,” Ken Brown explains. “The aromatics are seldom dominated by earthy complexities which allows the distinctive dark fruit character to dominate with earth tones as background notes.  A full structure on the palate is characteristic of SRH Pinot Noirs allowing the wines to age gracefully for many years often similar to our old world counterparts.”

William ‘Rusty’ Gaffney, also known to his readers as the ‘Prince of Pinot’, describes how to identify a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir when tasting blind:  “I look for concentrated, masculine wines that are deeply colored and fragrant with intense and luscious fruit flavor in harmony with crisp acidity and an underpinning of minerality.”

The diversity of soils, farming techniques and the differing orientations of the vine rows in each of the 52 vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills make for an impressive diversity of wine styles.  If pinot noir is the perfect vehicle for channeling place via flavor in the glass, then this region will keep wine lovers busy for decades in their attempts to taste, define and understand how the myriad of mesoclimates (and farming philosophies) influences flavor, aroma and how long these wines can lay down in the cellar.

Ken Brown understands Santa Barbara pinot noir like Michelangelo understood marble.  He weighs in on ripeness and how balance imparts varietal and regional flavor in pinot noir: “It’s about finding the correct balance of ripeness from each vineyard. We can never alter the potential flavor of the wine that comes from the day we pick pinot.

“If the vineyard has the potential to produce consistently outstanding Pinot Noirs, then it is important to find the “sweet spot” of ripeness. Grapes that are harvested before the signature is fully developed deprive the wine of the potential of the vineyard character. Grapes that are picked too ripe will not show the signature of the vineyard or the appellation which compromises the reputation of both.”

There aren’t many critics (or more accurately wine proselytizers), that study the global wine scene with as much intensity or passion as Dan Berger, writer of the Vintage Experiences subscription newsletter.  In 1980 Dan wrote a review of the 1976 Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir in a syndicated column—an article that really launched the buzz surrounding this area.  When I asked Dan about that wine, a flood of memories poured out of him.

“The early eighties were a difficult time for pinot noir, and American critics were probably as confused as those trying to make the wines.  Pinot noir wasn’t really on the radar and there were more mistakes in planting and winemaking than successes.  That first Santa Rita Hills wine, the 1976 S&B,  really surprised me, and during that early period, say 1980-1986 a lot of my colleagues and I were agreeing that something very special was happening west of Highway 101 in the Santa Ynez Valley.  The wine was so enlightening because it actually tasted like pinot noir—plenty of fruit, but had a streak of varietal character that could be described as wild thyme, similar to what I taste today in some wines from Central Otago, New Zealand.  While those that don’t study pinot noir may have seen the flavor as a fault, I found it amazingly distinctive, regional—not broadly appealing to an immature American wine audience, but fascinating nonetheless.  And isn’t that what pinot noir is all about?”

There’s a quote attributed to the venerable vigneron of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Aubert de Villaine, that goes something like this:  ‘Pinot noir does not exist.  It’s a ghost.  A transparent vehicle to show off the flavors of a piece of earth.’  When I mentioned the quote to Berger, he responded with a passionate, ‘Brilliant! Pinot needs to taste like the place it comes from, which means the farming must allow a certain element of distinctiveness.  Pinot should never be indeterminate,’ Berger said.

Even though the wines of the Santa Rita Hills are stylistically diverse, ranging from transparent, restrained and ethereal to powerful, viscous and opaque, there is no sense that one style is battling for supremacy.  Perhaps there is a sense that the bigger the wine, the bigger the numerical score, but scores are becoming less important as Americans begin to understand that their own tastes are paramount, and every wine (like styles of music) has a place in our lives.  Big, ripe wines may prove perfectly suited for the way Americans drink wine: young.  They are full of youthful richness and their flavors are as bold, sunny and unapologetic as California, herself.  The more elegant wines are a tougher sale but may be preferred by the initiated wine enthusiast: they may not get the same attention in the major wine publications and require a bit more patience in the cellar, but in my experience integrate a bit more deftly at table.  Pinot noirs may need a few years in the cellar to lose a bit of youthful baby fat and allow their  mineral and earthy complexity to emerge, impress and delight.  But do wines over 15% alcohol struggle to show elegance (due to alcoholic heat in the back of the palate) at 5-10 years of bottle age?  Some would argue they do, but some bigger wines made in this area have defied that convention, mainly as a function of their cool-climate verve.  One thing I’ve learned about pinot noir is that it is ephemeral and defies preconceptions: as soon as you develop a fast rule about it in your head, the next wine you drink changes your mind.

 In an American wine culture where 85% of wines purchased are consumed within 48 hours, making a Santa Rita Hills pinot that can age gracefully for ten years can be, sadly, a marketing liability.  But when a pinot noir with a decade of age hits the right table with the right food, I would argue that the winemaker’s bravery and stylistic insistence is well compensated.  Because pinot noir and chardonnay both represent, more than any other grapes, the footprint of their environment and the handprint of their vintner, it would be disappointing to see the wines of this region homogenized into a standard style.  But with personalities as diverse as the Loki-cum-Pasteur tricksters/scientists Peter Cargasacchi and Bruno D’alfonso, the restrained, considerate and experienced masters such as Richard Longoria and Kathy Joseph, the Buddha-in-a-bowtie presence of Richard Sanford, or the passionate proselytizer/workhorse combination of Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton, the Santa Rita Hills are in no danger of becoming stale stylistically.

The Passion and Personalities:

Those who grow and make pinot noir consistently posit their own style on the wines they grow, vinify and bottle.  By virtue of picking decisions (ripeness), oak treatment (forests and length of aging), yeasts, cellar practices, even filtration options, the wines change by the slightest difference of philosophy.  Perhaps this is why pinot noir is so controversial and finicky; we all know what we like in a glass of pinot noir, and that the person sitting next to us at dinner may certainly prefer something else.  The varietal suffers no fools, takes no prisoners and hides no mistakes.  Without dissent in the world of wine geeks, pinot noir is the most transparent vehicle for showing the impact of a specific climate, soil and the farmer’s decisions than any other grape.  It is the Princess in the fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’.  You can plant pinot noir where you choose, but if she’s not perfectly comfortable, she’ll make it immediately obvious.  Making pinot noir is a fool’s errand—until you create perfection and then it’s the Holy Grail. You may be able to coerce Grenache or Cabernet to make a decent wine out of a decent region, but pinot noir requires rarified soil, climate and a passionate (if not loony) hand to guide it to greatness. 

Allen Meadows, known to his readers as the ‘Burghound’, is America’s top expert on Burgundy wines.  He has begun to include reviews of domestic pinot noir in his Burghound publication, and offers this assessment of the winemakers and growers in the Santa Rita Hills: “Pinot must be guided by a passionate hand.  Visitors who spend much time in the area talking to Santa Rita Hills producers will be struck with the passion and sense of discovery that exists.  The future is very bright for the SRH appellation in my view.”

In a region full of young winemakers developing their reputations, we cannot forget the pioneers and heroes of the Santa Rita Hills still honing their craft and making themselves available to guide the journeymens’ hands.  Richard Sanford, Richard Longoria, and Ken Brown have more than paid their dues in this Valley.  Sanford returned from the Vietnam War looking to heal himself, and planted the first vineyard in the area, even after being warned by local farmers that grapes wouldn’t ripen near Lompoc.  Longoria brought his experience working with the Father of California Winemaking, Andre’ Tchelistcheff, to bear on the region, as well as his decades of experience making some of the most beautiful wines in Santa Barbara County.

 Ken ‘Byron’ Brown, who really put Santa Barbara Pinot Noir on the map in the 1980’s with his ‘Byron’ label (later sold to Mondavi), credits Sanford and his early wines for his decision to make wines in this area:  he left the winery he founded (Byron) to re-pursue winemaking in tiny lots—with a strong focus on the Santa Rita Hills.  Together, the Richards and Ken represent almost a century of winemaking experience in the Santa Rita Hills, and Rick Longoria’s son, James, represents the beginning of multi-generational winemaking that is so vital to the ongoing development of style, technique and expertise.

Much of the mythology that surrounds the Santa Rita Hills emanates from a single personality, that of Richard Sanford, the first winegrower that put down roots in the west end of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Brown remembers:  “The day that I met Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict to taste their first release, the stunning 1975 Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir, turned my direction from establishing a vineyard in Carneros to planting my roots in the promise of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. Truly a wine and a day that I will never forget.”

The passion and craftsmanship of these three men are, in many ways, the foundation of wine quality in the Santa Rita Hills.

Pinot Noir in a Post-Sideways world.

When Rex Pickett wrote the novel ‘Sideways’, no one could guess that his semi-autobiographical tale of two characters split from his own personality (the self-depracating, struggling alcoholic writer and the smooth, womanizing ‘stud’ with no apparent morality) would impact the wine world with an authority and influence far beyond the scope of the book’s hedonistic prose.  Clearly the story of boys behaving badly under the influence of profound wines struck a chord with the common man, and infected drinkers with an almost viral affectation for the complex and mysterious pinot noir grape.  Merlot sales plummeted, the Hitching Post hosted a reservation book like the French Laundry, and buses, limos and Jettas flocked to Santa Barbara with thirsty Gen X’ers clamoring for the vaunted taste of Santa Rita Hills pinot noir.  The movie was released in 2004, the greatest impact on wine tourism was felt in 2005 and 2006, and by 2007 the hype had dwindled, much to the relief of many locals (and even vintners) who believed the movie was bringing young, uncouth tasters who drank more than they bought.  In 2006 the oak tree that claimed Miles’ Saab was removed in order to finish a mixed-use housing and retail project in Buellton. 

And even though I like to say that Sideways did for Santa Rita Hills pinot noir what the Soviet Union did for Socialism (moving from Feudalism to a free -for -all a bit too rapidly to be sustainable), the end product has been thoroughly positive.  The ‘Sideways Crowd’ has disappeared, and in their stead the stalwart and progressive oenophile has taken their place.  We want Los Angeles to support their wine country the way San Francisco supports theirs—and we’re getting closer with every tasty vintage.  Wine lovers who are aware of the craft and passion evident in these coastal hillsides have reclaimed the wineries, tasting rooms and vintages  as their own private pinot palaces.  Santa Rita Hills winemakers and vineyard owners have special relationships with their customers—many help with bottling, harvest and winemaking to complete their understanding of the region and the wines. 

This is the audience that we hoped for during those early days of quietude and the busy Sideways-days of babysitting; those that would be content to lodge in a Holiday Inn in Lompoc, drive to their pinot noir appointments during the day, and out to Bradley Ogden’s new Root 246 in Solvang for dinner, where we may see them at the bar and finish the day with one last drink together.  This is the Wild West of Pinot Winemaking.  We’re not working the Manhattan market, because we’re too busy running headlong into harvest with guns blazing and eyes glazed from lack of sleep and a penchant for long evenings at table and persistent product testing.  For in the end that’s what these Santa Rita Hills wines really represent: the spiritual magic that enables one of the last meaningful rituals in American culture: sitting at table with food, friends and family and allowing anxiety and anticipation to vanish in an environment of conversation, flavor, euphoria  and laughter.