The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is one of California’s best for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It also excels with Syrah and Viognier. The region is located in southwestern Santa Barbara County, where the climate results in long, cool, dry growing seasons.
A Brief History of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA
The Sta. Rita Hills AVA became official in 2001, 30 years after Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict established the area's first vineyard. The AVA boundary was expanded a few years ago, adding more territory on the eastern side. Today, the AVA includes 59 vineyards with nearly 3,000 acres under vine.
Initially, Sanford and Benedict had been looking for a spot to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling cuttings they’d gotten from the Uriel Nielson Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. Having settled on a 473-acre site in the very cool Santa Rita Hills, Sanford and Benedict grew interested in growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir too. They got cuttings from Wente’s vineyard in Arroyo Seco, primarily an assortment of clones Wente acquired from the Mount Eden Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Over time, it became clear the area is too cool for the style of Cabernet Sauvignon preferred these days. And, though Riesling thrives there, that variety is no longer Americans’ go-to white wine. So it is that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate.
The name, Sta. Rita HIlls, may seem odd. Outside of official AVA nomenclature, the area is known as Santa Rita Hills. However, during the AVA-approvals process, Santa Rita Winery of Chile expressed trademark concern. Their lawyers agreed that abbreviating “Santa” would create adequate differentiation.
Sta. Rita Hills AVA map, courtesy of Santa Barbara County Wine
The climate is warm-summer Mediterranean. Temperatures are mild all year, owing to the nearby Pacific Ocean. The waters in the area are particularly frigid, due to upwelling of very deep currents flowing from the poles. That influence keeps daytime, growing season temperatures in the Sta. Rita Hills as much as 30 degrees cooler than Buellton, which is 20+ miles further from the ocean and shielded from wind by a range of hills. In general, for every mile closer to the ocean you get in the Sta. Rita Hills, the air temperature drops 1 degree.
Rainfall is scant and erratic. The average, annual precipitation is about 18 inches, nearly all of which comes during winter. However, some years have as little as four inches, while others are above 20. Dry-farming can be possible at some sites, depending on the precise location, soil type, vine age, etc.
The combination of moderate temperatures, low rainfall, and low humidity provide the potential for very long growing seasons. That extended hang time, coupled with abundant sun, can deliver great ripeness. Fortunately, the cool temperatures maintain acidity in the grapes.
The Sta. Rita Hills has a very unique geography, though ts soils are not particularly unusual for a coastal area—calcium-rich sedimentary. That soil formed from the remains of ancient sea creatures which accumulated and dissolved into their mineral components on the ocean floor. There is limestone, chalk, diatomaceous earth, chert, etc. The soil is low-vigor, which benefits wine quality. Calcareous soils also store water from winter rains and dole it out as needed during the growing season, making extensive irrigation unnecessary.
But, unlike virtually all of the United States’ west coast, there is no mountain range running parallel to the sea. This is a freak situation, caused by tectonic shift. A confluence of three moving plates created mountains on the North American plate, but then tore them away and rotated them clockwise 90 degrees. So the mountains now run east-west and funnel, rather than block, oceanic winds.
There are actually three ranges of mountains in the AVA. In the north is the Purisma. On the south is the Santa Rosa. In between them lies a central spine. Together, they form the shape of a trident, pointing toward the ocean.
Vineyards at Melville in the Sta. Rita Hills
Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
Most people consider Pinot Noir to be the signature grape of the Sta. Rita Hills. It’s true that the combination of climate and soils delivers character that is easily discerned, even compared to the Santa Maria Valley, which is just north and has a similar climate. Of course, any particular Sta. Rita Hills Pinot will be distinct from others, based on vintage, site, and winemaking choices. However, the wine is almost always focused on bold, red cherry flavors.
Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
Though Pinot Noir put Sta. Rita Hills on the map, it is Chardonnay that most clearly differentiates one vineyard on the map from another. These white wines are less fruit-forward and less heavily wooded. Therefore, they’re more transparent to terroir. Distinctive mineral notes are common. Chardonnay also allows a wider dynamic range of body and pH, from lean and extremely bright to unctuous and soft.
Sta. Rita Hills Syrah
Syrah may be the one variety that does extremely well in every AVA of Santa Barbara County. But it is also a good mirror for terroir, especially climate. In the warmest parts of the county, the Syrah is inky, full-bodied, and loaded with rich fruit. In contrast, Sta. Rita Hills Syrah tends to be juicy and medium-bodied. The fruit is less ripe and often takes a backseat to herb, spice, black olive, and mineral.
Spear Winery is a highly recommended visit in the Sta. Rita Hills
Visiting the Sta. Rita Hills AVA
The area is replete with tasting rooms. They are concentrated in three, easy-to-get-to zones, making wine-tasting trips stress-free. Winery tasting rooms co-located with vineyards line the two main roads that run through the AVA, Highway 246 and Santa Rosa Road. (Most of them are on 246.)
The other big concentration of tasting rooms is in the industrial parks known collectively as the Lompoc wine ghetto. It’s just west of the AVA on the outskirts of Lompoc. There are no vineyards, but there’s an upside to that. It takes just moments to stroll from winery to another.
For multi-day trips, you can find decent hotels in Lompoc. However, it’s more interesting to stay a little further away, either to the east in the Buellton area, northeast in Los Olivos, or north in the tiny hamlet of Los Alamos.
There are no restaurants at all within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. So, for lunch, you should either bring food with you or plan to make a 15-minute jaunt into Lompoc or west Buellton.
Try some Sta. Rita Hills Wine
JJ Buckley has a good selection of very high-quality, terroir-reflective wines from the AVA. Among the producers are:
La Voix - A relatively new project from Sta. Rita Hills veteran Steve Clifton
Melville - Excellent vineyards, organically farmed, and never any new oak
Sandhi - A collaboration between famed sommelier-turned-proprietor Raj Parr and winemaker extraordinaire Sashi Moorman
Spear - The organically farmed vineyard is just six years old, but has began producing great wine from its first vintage
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. He's founder of Wine Writers' Educational Tours, an annual, educational conference for professional wine writers. He also leads private wine tours and conducts tastings and and seminars. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator, Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist, and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers three times.