Thursday, April 7, 2011


Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Tasting Event

California's Santa Barbara County offers some tremendous wines, many of which come from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.  The area lies between the small towns of Buellton and Lompoc, and is cooled by winds from the Pacific Ocean which blow along the Santa Ynez River.

The winegrowers of this region gathered recently at Palate Food + Wine in Glendale, California to pour some of their best.  The public packed the house on Sunday April 3, 2011.  I attended the trade tasting event the following day.

The Sta. Rita Hills region is home to big names like Longoria, Sea Smoke, D'Alfonso-Curran, Cargasacchi and Foley, as well as rising stars like Zotovich, Weber and Flying Goat.  I sampled the wines of ten Sta. Rita Hills producers at this event.

The Winemakers

Peter Cargasacchi planted the Cargasacchi and Jalama vineyards in the late 1990s.  His Italian and winemaking heritage are points of pride, as are his wines.  Peter was manning his own table and poured some exceptional wines for me.  His '09 Jamala Vineyard Pinot Noir is rich and dense, while the '07 Pinot Noir shows nice minerals and spices with a good acidity.  The Cargasacchi Pinot Grigio Dessert Wine is succulent.  Peter explained that he gambled on good weather and left the grapes on the vines an extra ten days for additional ripening, harvesting them at 40 brix.

Wes Hagen advises you lay down his Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noirs for four or five years to get maximum expression from them, but nobody will fault you if you can't wait that long.  Wes and his wines always draw a big crowd at every event where I've seen him pouring.  His Pinots show great minerality with hints of chocolate peeking from behind the fruit.  As a treat, Wes was pouring his Clos Pepe '01 Estate Pinot Noir in addition to more recent releases.

Morgan Clendenen's Cold Heaven Cellars poured several Viogniers, as she's best known for her work with that variety.  Her Le Bon Climat Viognier shows off a lush mouthfeel and an abundance of honeysuckle aromas with plenty of minerals on the palate.  Cold Heaven's '09 Viognier from the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard has a great citrus zest profile, while the Santa Ynez Valley Viognier is produced using a Viognier clone that was once thought to be Roussanne.  One taste will show you why that mistaken identity came about.  Her gentle Pinot Noir, "Nevertell," is grown in a Sta. Rita Hills vineyard - which one?  She'll never tell.

Kris Curran and Bruno D'Alfonso, of D'Alfonso-Curran Wines, have many fans, myself included.  D'Alfonso's history with Edna Valley Vineyards and Sanford Winery and Curran's with Sanford, Cambria, Koehler, Sea Smoke and Foley form a pedigree that would be difficult - if not impossible - to match.  The D'Alfonso-Curran 2008 Chardonnay from White Hills Vineyard was one of the hits of the event.  Big, buttery and smokey in the tradition of California Chardonnay, this wine also has a zippy acidity.  A trio of '06 Pinot Noirs on this label hail from different vineyards but show a high level of winemaking skill.  On the Badge label, the '06 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is loaded with minerality and great acidity.  The latter quality is a hallmark of the duo's wines.

Norm Yost's Flying Goat Cellars poured a couple of winners.  The '09 Goat Bubbles is a rosé of Pinot Noir sparkling wine, light and airy with tons of summery flavors.  Flying Goat's Pinot Noir Rancho Santa Rosa Sta. Rita Hills is rustic and earthy.

Norman Huber is not only a winegrower, but a woodworker, too.  His handiwork is on display aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, as he headed up the restoration of the grand lady of the sea.  His custom-built bars grace the tasting rooms of fellow SRH winemakers Longoria Wines and Fiddlehead Cellars.  Huber's '08 Chardonnay is steely with plenty of bracing acidity and tropical flavors.  The '08 Huber Pinot Noir has a beautiful bouquet and feels lovely on the palate.  It's a pity they ran out of his Dornfelder.  He devotes a portion of his vineyard to that grape as a tribute to his German upbringing.

Dan Kessler of Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Winery poured his 2010 Rosé of Pinot Noir made from the grapes of the estate vineyard.  It's lush, and you'll want more.  Kessler-Haak specializes in the main grapes of the Sta. Rita Hills, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  They also do a fine Syrah with Turner Vineyard fruit.  It's bold and spicy.

Rick Longoria started making his own wine in 1982 and opened Longoria Wine in '98, the first winery to locate in what would come to be affectionately known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  Longoria sources his wine from choice locations in Santa Barbara County, including the Sta. Rita Hills.  His '07 Tempranillo was one of my favorites at this event.  The grapes come from the Clover Creek Vineyard and the wine is edgy with a great mineral presence on both the nose and palate.

Pali Wine Company scored with their '08 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, sporting cinnamon, raspberries and strawberries.  Pali's '08 "Huntington" Pinot Noir has 60% Sta. Rita Hills fruit, 35% Santa Maria Valley grapes and 5% sourced elsewhere in Santa Barbara County.  It's nice and earthy.

Weber Wine Company sources fruit from the Sta. Rita Hills as well as Paso Robles, Sonoma Coast and Dundee Hills in Oregon.  Their '09 "Mishelle" Pinot Noir is from Babcock Vineyard.  Earthy notes dominate the nose while the palate is a bit tart, yet smooth as silk.

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