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Vol. 11 No.5.1 - November '03

Santa Rita Hills AVA

A pictorial essay of California's newest 'hotbed' for Pinot Noir

by Eric Anderson  
(excerpted from Vol.11 No.5, Journal du Vin, November 2003.)

The Fiddlestix Vineyard glistens in the early morning sun

Established in 2001, the Santa Rita Hills AVA is actually a sub-appellation of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. At about 48 square miles in size, it occupies slightly over 25% of the western-most portion of the larger Santa Ynez appellation.

The geography of this part of California is quite unique - the region is the only area on the Pacific Coast of North America with transverse, or east to west, mountain ranges. Adding further to the distinction of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, an ocean fog penetrates up to, and often past, the eastern end of the appellation, just outside of Buellton.

Although the Santa Rita Hills AVA is naturally cool and windy with more of a maritime climate than the Santa Ynez Valley, the fog adds an additional cooling element to the local vineyards. This permits lower temperatures for a longer duration of time, which in turn allows a longer hang time for the fruit - both of which are advantageous for the Burgundian varietals of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Top: Peter Cargasacchi. Below: Cargasacchi Vineyard, nestled in a hillside
Although the Santa Rita Hills name would appear to have been embraced by all the wine-loving population, as well as all of the necessary AFT authorities, there has been one long-standing issue with the name. The source of contention comes from an unusual place, the Santa Rita winery of Chile. Ironically, they feel that the similar name will mislead wine buyers. An interim solution to litigation was to change the spelling of the AVA to "Sta. Rita Hills."  

Bordered by the Purisima Hills to the north, and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south, there are in a sense, two valleys here, separated by the namesake Santa Rita Hills, which run like an east-west spine between them. While the soils of the two areas differ somewhat (gravely and loamy in the south; sandy in the north), the climate remains nearly identical in both - cold and windy. Two major east-west roads pass through the AVA, Santa Rosa Road on the south and Hwy 246 on the north. Both lead to Lompoc, which has quickly become the 'de facto' wine capitol of the AVA. The effect of all this attention has meant that rather than becoming synonymous with "Santa Barbara Wine Country," the Santa Rita Hills AVA has instead become an entity in its own right. Well, that is up to a point.

Rick Longoria's Fe Ciega (Blind Faith) Vineyard, with Sanford's Rancho La Viña in the distance


Sea Smoke Vineyards (foreground) march down the slope to the dry Santa Ynez River bed. Just past the chapparal and access road is Fiddlestix Vineyards. Beyond Santa Rosa Road (middle of photo), lies the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, and La Rinconada Vineyard (background, far right)
Above: the "chert" soil of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Upper right: small fountain at Sanford Tasting Room. Right: Richard Sanford

There are over twenty vineyards here, most of them specializing in Pinot Noir and/or Chardonnay, with a few acres planted to Syrah, Pinot Blanc, some Pinot Gris, and even some Dornfelder. Currently, the majority of vineyards are planted on the southern edge of the appellation, south of the Santa Rita Hills, on both sides of Santa Rosa Road. Just to the north of Santa Rosa Road lies the Santa Ynez River, and its benchlands.

This particular area off Santa Rosa Road is rightly considered the birthplace of the appellation. It was here in 1971 that Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted their seminal eponymous vineyard with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. More than thirty years later, the area has become a hotbed for California Pinot Noir.

















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