2012 Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance Tasting

RN74, San Francisco, California
Tasted Monday, April 2, 2012 by Richard Jennings with 943 views


Twenty producers from Sta. Rita Hills, one of California's younger officially designated appellations, returned to San Francisco for the second time in two years for a tasting for wine buyers and media at San Francisco's RN74 Restaurant this month.

Sta. Rita Hills, formerly a part of the Santa Ynez Valley appellation in Santa Barbara County, gained American Viticultural Area (AVA) status only in 2001. It has long been thought to be a particularly promising area thanks to its location near the ocean, giving it cool growing conditions, and to its hilly sites and geology, including calcareous soils which often make for particularly minerally wines in Europe.

Based on last week's tasting of 72 wines from this appellation, I am happy to report this region is definitely starting to fulfill its promise as a source of characterful, balanced and terroir-driven wines—from flavorful Chardonnay and Viognier to minerally and complex Pinot Noir and Syrah.

I was, in fact, thoroughly delighted with the wines overall. Many were from the relatively cool recent vintages--2009, 2010 and 2011--which seem to have been ideal for Sta. Rita Hills, permitting lots of hang time, adding complexity and flavor to the region’s wines.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA sits between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, comprising about 100 square miles and 1700 planted acres. Its two east-west oriented valleys are formed by the Purisima Hills to the north, the Santa Rosa Hills to the south and the Santa Ynez River flowing between them to the Pacific Ocean.

Pinot Noir dominates the plantings and reputation of this AVA. This is not surprising, given the cool climate and marine breezes that are ideal for Pinot. This was originally demonstrated by Richard Sanford’s first vineyard in the area—Sanford & Benedict—planted in 1970, and the wines he produced from that vineyard under the Sanford label.

Lafond Winery also planted its first vineyards in the area that same year. They were followed by Babcock Winery in 1980. The rest of the vineyards here date mostly from the mid- to late-1990s, when several Pinot Noir enthusiasts bought land in the area with the aim of growing cool climate Pinot.

That said, there’s also terrific Chardonnay now coming from Sta. Rita Hills.

I reported here recently on the In Pursuit of Balance tasting, where I got to sample two Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnays from Sandhi Wines. Those Chardonnays and a 2002 from Clos Pepe are the best Chards I’ve had yet from the region—minerally, structured and complex. At this tasting, I was also thrilled by Chardonnays from Alma Rosa, Liquid Farm and Longoria.

Pinot Noirs from Sta. Rita Hills range from the ripe and fruity style of Sea Smoke and Loring (neither of which were represented in this tasting) to the higher acid, more “Burgundian” styles of Alma Rosa, Clos Pepe and Longoria.

One tends to find lots of black fruit–black cherry, berry and plum–in Pinot Noir grown in this AVA, as well as intense red fruit: cranberry, cherry and raspberry. I think these flavors owe in large measure to the Dijon clones, like 115, 667 and 777, that dominate the plantings. The good news is that more California heritage clones, like Mount Eden and Calera, are also being planted, which should help to diversify the flavor profile.

The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance includes both owners of vineyards located within the geographical boundaries of the appellation and winemakers who make wine from grapes grown there. Some, like Peter Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe and Zotovich Family Vineyard, are both growers and wine producers.

The Association’s website lists a total of 46 members. The participants in this tasting included many of the names most identified with this AVA, like Alma Rosa, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Fiddlehead, Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post and Longoria.

Of the 72 wines I tasted, I scored 28 of them, or 39%, 92 points or higher. That's a very high percentage of high scoring wines at an appellation tasting like this, which is why I felt very excited about wines from many of these producers, including some that I usually taste year after year.

For example, the wines from Richard Sanford's Alma Rosa were the best lineup from this producer I've tasted yet, including a delicious Pinot Blanc, admirable Chardonnay and thrilling Pinot Noir based on the Mount Eden clone.

The wines from Cold Heaven were similarly impressive. After I complimented winemaker/proprietor Morgan Clendenen on the lineup--including not only the Viogniers for which she has long been admired, but also thoroughly delicious barrel samples of her 2010 Pinot Noirs and a Syrah--she admitted she feels she's "in a groove now" after many years of getting to know the vineyards from which she sources.

The producers responsible for one or more wines I rated 92 points or higher were Alma Rosa, Ampelos, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Cold Heaven, Dierberg, Dragonette, Flying Goat, Gypsy Canyon, Liquid Farm, Longoria, Siduri and Zotovich Family.

The best whites of the tasting were:
2008 Alma Rosa Pinot Blanc La Encantada - 92 points
2009 Alma Rosa Chardonnay El Jabali - 92 points
2010 Cold Heaven Viognier Sanford & Benedict - 93 points
2010 Liquid Farm Chardonnay White Hill - 92 points
2010 Liquid Farm Chardonnay Golden Slope - 92+ points
2010 Longoria Chardonnay Cuvée Diana - 92 points

The best rosé was the 2011 Dragonette Cellars Rose.

The most appealing Pinots were:
2009 Alma Rosa Mt. Eden Clone El Jabali - 93+ points
2007 Ampelos Rho - 92 points
2009 Cargasacchi Cargasacchi Vineyard - 92 points
2009 Cargasacchi Cargasacchi-Jalama Vineyard - 93 points
2009 Point Concepción Salsipuedes - 92 points
2010 Clos Pepe Estate - 93 points
2009 Clos Pepe Estate - 93 points
2007 Clos Pepe Estate - 93 points
2010 Cold Heaven Makepeace barrel sample - 92-93 points
2010 Cold Heaven Never Tell - 92-93+ points
2010 Cold Heaven Queen's Cup - 93-94 points
2009 Dierberg Estate Grown Drum Canyon Vineyard - 92 points
2010 Dragonette Cellars - 93 points
2008 Flying Goat Cellars 2A Rio Vista Vineyard - 92+ points
2010 Gypsy Canyon Trois - 92 points
2009 Longoria Fe Ciega Vineyard - 93 points
2010 Siduri Clos Pepe Vineyard - 92+ points
2009 Zotovich Family Estate - 92 points

The best of the Syrahs were very good:
2010 Cold Heaven Syrah Second Sin barrel sample - 92-94 points
2009 Zotovich Family Estate - 93 points'

And the only sweet wine, an homage to California's fortified wine heritage dating back to the 1800s, based on the Mission grape, was the non-vintage Gypsy Canyon Ancient Vine Angelica Dona Marcelina's Vineyard - 92+ points.

For more details on many of these producers, and my complete tasting notes, see below.

A note about the peculiar looking abbreviation/punctuation of the AVA’s current name: The AVA was known from 2001 to 2006 as Santa Rita Hills AVA. As the result of a protest by and subsequent negotiations with Viña Santa Rita, a large Chilean wine producer, the name was officially changed on January 6, 2006 (with producers given a year to change their labels), to Sta. Rita Hills.

Flight 1 - Alma Rosa (4 Notes)

Richard Sanford, pictured above, is both a California Pinot Noir and Sta. Rita Hills pioneer, having planted one of the State's great Pinot Noir vineyards, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, at the western end of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 1970, when the area was simply part of the Santa Barbara County appellation. Wines from this vineyard were produced by the Sanford & Benedict winery from 1976 to 1980, at which point it became the Sanford Winery, which Richard Sanford ran from 1981 to 2005. Richard planted El Jabali ("wild boar") Vineyard as a 100% organic vineyard in 1983. Its seven acres are planted half to Pinot Noir and half to Chardonnay. He planted La Rinconada Vineyard in 1995 and La Encantada Vineyard in 2000. All three became the first vineyards in Santa Barbara County to be certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers in 2000. La Encantada's 100 acres are planted mainly to Pinot Noir, with 1.9 acres of Pinot Blanc, and 1.5 acres of Pinot Gris. La Encantada's Pinot Noir is planted to Dijon clones 114, 115, 667 and 777, and to Swan and UCD 4. Differences in business philosophy led Richard to part ways with his Sanford Winery partners in 2005 by exchanging his interest in the brand to the Anthony J. Terlato Family for the El Jabali Ranch and La Encantada vineyards. Richard and his wife Thekla then established Alma Rosa, producing wines from El Jabali and La Encantada. The winemaker is Burgundy native Christian Roguenant, who worked at Champagne Deutz for 15 years. These '08s and '09s from Alma Rosa were the most stunning wines from this producer that I've tasted yet. The '09 Pinot Noir Mt. Eden Clone from El Jabali Vineyard was one of the best Pinots of the tasting.

Flight 2 - Ampelos (6 Notes)

Ampelos takes its name from the Greek word for vine. Its proprietors, Peter and Rebecca Work (Rebecca pictured above), were married on a small Greek island, and now own a small hotel there. Their vineyard is triply certified as sustainable in practice, organic and biodynamic. They purchased 82 acres in what was eventually to become the Sta. Rita Hills AVA back in 1999. They planted the first 15 acres to vines in 2001, and an additional 10 acres in 2005. The first planting included 10 acres of Pinot Noir (clone 115 and Pommard), five acres of Syrah (Estrella and clone 99), and about a fifth of an acre of Viognier (clone 1). The planting of the later vineyards, which consist of more Pinot and Syrah, along with one block of Grenache, is more tightly spaced--seven feet between rows and three feet between vines. The new Pinot Noir blocks are inter-planted with four percent Pinot Gris as part of ongoing experiments with co-pigmentation. In 2008 they also grafted the clone 99 Syrah over to Grenache. Their son Don, now winemaker at Seasmoke, has been very much involved with the project from the beginning. I was most impressed with the 2007 Pinot Noir Rho bottling, a barrel selection that sees two and a half years in 50% new French oak followed by one year of a bottle age.

Flight 3 - Cargasacchi/Point Concepción (3 Notes)

Peter Cargasacchi, pictured above, is one of Sta. Rita Hills's major personalities--with a wicked sense of humor and a passion for communicating about the intricacies of grape farming and his region's peculiar weather patterns. He comes from a line of Italian Americans who lived and farmed in the Central Coast since the early 1900s. Peter planted Cargasacchi Vineyard in 1998. It consists of 12 acres of Pinot Noir, all Dijon clone 115, on two different rootstocks, 3309C and 420A. He started planting the 16 acre Jalama Vineyard, which lies three miles southwest of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in 1999. Peter claims it's one of the most westerly and coolest vineyards in the State. It is planted to Dijon clones 115 and 114; the Martin Ray or Mt. Eden clone; "a very tannic, dark, 'suitcase selection' purported to be 828 from Soane Et Loire that is a very interesting imposter but clearly isn’t 828"; and a small amount of Alsatian Pinot Grigiio. Most of the fruit from both vineyards is sold to other wineries, but Peter reserves a small amount for his own wines. Under the Point Concepción label, which is made with both estate and purchased fruit, Peter bottles Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Syrah. The Jalama Vineyard bottling was particularly impressive, but all the wines are showing minerality and complexity. For more background on Cargasacchi, see my report on my 2010 visit to Peter's winemaking facility here: http://www.rjonwine.com/california-wine/peter-cargasacchi/

Flight 4 - Clos Pepe (6 Notes)

Clos Pepe was started by owners Steve and Catherine Pepe when they purchased a 40-acre horse ranch in 1994 in the center of what would eventually become Sta. Rita Hills. (Steve and I both worked at the same law firm, O'Melveny & Meyers, in Los Angeles, where Steve was a partner, from 1981 to 1986.) They planted the first half of what is now a 29-acre vineyard starting in 1996. The Pepes' son-in-law, Wes Hagen, pictured above, worked for three years in the vineyard before becoming vineyard manager in 1998. He designed and led the planting of the last 14 acres of the vineyard. Most of the vineyard--25 acres--are planted to Pinot Noir, with four acres being devoted to Chardonnay. Most of the fruit is sold to six or seven producers a year, so only a small amount is made under the Clos Pepe Estate label. The Axis Mundi label uses purchased fruit. Wes is also the winemaker, with his wife Chanda serving as assistant winemaker. (And Wes was an English major who loves to write, so you can follow his thoughts on farming, winemaking and blog on the Clos Pepe website.) The grapes are fermented with a mix of commercial yeasts. They use no new oak on the Chardonnay, and between 25 and 35% new French oak on the Pinot Noir. They barrel age the wines for 11 months before bottling. I have been tasting the Clos Pepe Pinots for years, and this was an excellent showing for all three vintages I tasted, the '07, '09 and 2010, all of which featured red fruit and minerality with good acidity and balance. The Chardonnays are good too, but I prefer the barrel fermented version to the one raised exclusively in stainless steel, "Hommage to Chablis."

Flight 5 - Cold Heaven (6 Notes)

Morgan Clendenen, pictured above, has been making Viognier under the Cold Heaven label since 1996. In 2003 she started making some cool climate Syrah as well. Since 2008, she's also added Pinot Noir, and the barrel samples of three different 2010 Pinots she was showing at this tasting were stunning--I look forward to the final results. But back to those Viogniers. Morgan typically makes two single vineyard bottlings, one from Le Bon Climat, the Clendenen Family vineyard, and one from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard that was planted in the early '70s. In '09 she also made one sourced from Santa Ynez vineyards that were planted with white grapes originally labeled Roussanne that ultimately turned out to be Viognier. That year she also co-created a Viognier from Sanford & Benedict grapes with Condrieu’s Yves Cuilleron. That was labeled under the name Deux Mondes “Saints & Sinners." She's also previously made Viognier from the Vogelzgang Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley. Both of the 2010 Viogniers at this event were delicious, with good acidity, but the Sanford & Benedict had crispness and definition that I was missing on the riper Le Bon Climat bottling. In contrast to the vineyard-designated Viogniers, Morgan doesn't officially identify the vineyard sources of her Pinots, instead giving them names like "Never Tell" and "Makepeace." All of Morgan's 2010 barrel sample Pinots were showing well--in a lush and ripe, but balanced style. Best of all was the barrel selection from the five best barrels that Morgan is calling Queen's Cup. Awesome juice! The 2010 Syrah barrel sample was likewise impressive. Congratulations Morgan!

  • 2010 Cold Heaven Viognier Le Bon Climat 91 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    Light yellow color; ripe peach, nectarine, honeysuckle nose; tasty, focused, ripe peach, nectarine, baked peach palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (a little riper than usual)

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  • 2010 Cold Heaven Viognier Sanford & Benedict 93 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills

    Very light yellow color; floral, tart apple, tart peach nose; tasty, crisp, tart peach, tart apple palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (picked in November)

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  • 2010 Cold Heaven Pinot Noir Makepeace Santa Barbara County 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    Barrel sample - dark ruby color; ripe cherry, ripe berry, black cherry nose; tasty, ripe, delicious, rich black cherry, berry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92-93 points

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  • 2010 Cold Heaven Pinot Noir Never Tell Sta. Rita Hills 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills

    Barrel sample - very dark ruby color; lush, ripe berry, black cherry, black raspberry, vanilla nose; rich, plush, ripe, hedonistic but delicious, wild berry, black cherry, black raspberry, berry liqueur palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 92-93+ points (clones 2A, 115 & 667; 25% new French oak)

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  • 2010 Cold Heaven Pinot Noir Queen's Cup 93 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    Barrel sample - dark ruby color; gorgeous, ripe, lush, blackberry, wild berry, black cherry, boysenberry, violets nose; rich, luscious, blackberry, wild berry, black cherry, black raspberry, violets palate; medium-plus finish 93-94 points (5 best barrels; Santa Rita Hills and Los Alamos)

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  • 2010 Cold Heaven Syrah Second Sin Santa Barbara County 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    Barrel sample - very dark ruby color; lifted, tart black fruit, lavender, light herb, tar nose; delicious, complex, tart black fruit, herbs, light pepper, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 92-94 points

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Flight 6 - Dierberg (1 Note)


  • 2009 Dierberg Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 92 Points

    USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills

    Dark ruby color; intriguing, tart cherry, cranberry, light herb nose; silky textured, tart cranberry, herbs, mineral palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (destemmed; 60% new French oak; south facing hillside vineyard planted in 2004 to 60% Dijon clones, Calera and Wente)

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Flight 7 - Dragonette (3 Notes)

The proprietors/winemakers of Dragonette are John and Steve Dragonette and their friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis. They source Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah from vineyard sources in the cool, coastal areas of the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley and York Mountain (west of Paso Robles). The try to buy on a "per acre" basis, allowing them to control major viticultural decisions during the season, like shoot and cluster density, canopy management and irrigation. They also personally walk the rows, fine-tuning the farming (leafing, green harvesting) and select harvest dates for each block based upon flavors. Their Sta. Rita Hills wines were the focus at this event, and these bottlings showed very well. The Rosé, from the saignee of their 2011 Pinots, is terrific, dry and Provence-like. I preferred the 2010 Santa Rita Hills Pinot to the '09 Fiddlestix designate. The 2010 SRH is a blend of grapes from the John Sebastiano Vineyard (65% of the blend, planted to clones 4, 828 and 777) with additions from Cargasacchi, Fiddlestix, La Encantada and Zotovich. The grapes were destemmed without crushing, given a 4-7 day cold soak, and then fermented with a mix of indigenous and commercial yeasts. The wine was then raised in French oak, 25% new, for 15 months without racking, before being blended for this bottling.

Flight 8 - Fiddlehead (3 Notes)


Flight 9 - Flying Goat (5 Notes)

Norm Yost and Kate Griffith are the proprietors of Flying Goat, which Norm started in 2000. He chose the fanciful name because of his two pet Pygmy goats and their gymnastic antics. Norm has been making wine for over 30 years, serving stints in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the Russian River and now Santa Barbara County. He makes several Pinots, a Pinot Gris from Santa Maria Valley, and some interesting sparkling wines, including the Pinot Blanc based sparkler they poured at this tasting. I was most impressed, however, by the 2008 Pinot from the Rio Vista Vineyard. Rio Vista is the easternmost vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Flying Goat receives clones 2A, 115, 667 and 777 from Rio Vista. From this fruit they make three clonal-designate wines–clone 2a, clone 667 and a Dijon clone blend. The very floral Rio Vista poured at this tasting was from clone 2A.

Flight 10 - Foley/Lincourt (4 Notes)

Flight 11 - Gypsy Canyon (2 Notes)

The proprietor here is Deborah Hall, pictured above. She makes a tiny amount of wine, just 300 cases a year. The wines are quite pricey, but good. The bottles she uses are uniquely shaped and handblown. Since I don't buy wine for the bottles, that feature frankly does nothing for me, but would make it hard to fit her wines in the cellar if one were to buy them. The Pinot was good, but doesn't really stand out enough to justify its $95 price tag. More interesting to me is Deborah's homage to California history with her fortified bottling from old Mission grapes. I've had old Angelica from over a hundred years ago, and this Angelica, which is supposed to come from grapes planted as long ago as 1887--claimed to be the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara County--is a very respectable version in that tradition. At $130 for a half bottle, though, there are even more special sweet wines that I'd buy before this one.

Flight 12 - Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post (4 Notes)

Flight 13 - Huber (2 Notes)

Flight 14 - Kessler-Haak (6 Notes)

Flight 15 - Lafond (4 Notes)

Flight 16 - Liquid Farm (3 Notes)

This is an exciting new project, with assistance from the winemaking team at Dragonette Cellars (see above). Nikki Pallesen and Jeff Nelson, who live in L.A., are the proprietors. They recently married at Kessler-Haak Vineyard, from which they source fruit, followed by a reception at Dragonette Cellars, where their wine is made. The couple share a love for Champagne and white Burgundy, so it figures that their new project is Chardonnay-centric. Both of their Chardonnays were excellent, and I thought the Golden Slope bottling was the best Chardonnay of the tasting, and one of the best I've tasted from Sta. Rita Hills. Jeff has worked in wine for over 20 years, specializing in Champagne houses. He worked for both Veuve and Laurent-Perrier before joining Henriot as their Regional Division Sales Manager, representing Henriot Champagne as well as Bouchard, William Fevre and some Italian and Spanish producers. They met while Nikki, who has a degree in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was working for Henry Wine Group, Henriot's sole California distributor. Nikki has since left HWG to focus full time on Liquid Farm. 2009 was Liquid Farm's first vintage. The 2010 White Hill Chard was sourced from Zotovich, Kessler-Haak and Rita's Crown vineyards. It's currently available for $34 from K&L Wines, where the Golden Slope is retailing for $48. I very much enjoyed all three of these wines.

Flight 17 - Longoria (3 Notes)

Richard Longoria's winemaking history in Santa Barbara County goes back to his first stint, as cellar foreman for Firestone in 1976. (His very first wine gig was at Buena Vista in Sonoma.) He worked at Chappellet in Napa before returning to Santa Ynez Valley as winemaker for J. Carey Cellars. He had a long run as winemaker for Gainey, which he left in 1997 to devote full time to his own production. He had started his own label in 1982. His winery was the first in what is now Lompoc's "wine ghetto." His own vineyard is the eight-acre Fe Ciega (which means "blind faith"). It is planted to Pinot Noir clones Pommard, Dijon 115 and 667, and Mount Eden clone from Mount Eden budwood. With his Pinot, he destems completely and usually inoculates. The wine stays 11 to 12 months in barrel, with racking only right before bottling. Besides Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Richard makes Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Albarino and Tempranillo. All the wines he offered from Sta. Rita Hills were good, but the Chardonnay Cuvée Diana was very strong, and the '09 Fe Ciega Pinot is outstanding, and very ageworthy.

Flight 18 - Pali Wine Co. (2 Notes)

Flight 19 - Siduri (2 Notes)

I've written about Siduri and tastings with Adam Lee, proprietor and winemaker, many times here. Adam makes an almost bewildering array of Pinots, single vineyard and appellation bottlings, from fruit sourced from throughout California and Oregon. These are his two 2010 Sta. Rita Hills offerings, and they're both quite good, especially the Clos Pepe.

Flight 20 - Zotovich Family (3 Notes)

Steve Zotovich is the owner of Zotovich Family Vineyards and his nephew Ryan Zotovich, pictured above, is the winemaker and Steve's partner in Zotovich Cellars. Ryan grew up working on the family vineyard, before getting his degree in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly. Before graduation, Ryan worked with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton, eventually becoming assistant winemaker. He subsequently worked as cellar master at Sea Smoke until June 2010, when he and his uncle decided to partner on Zotovich Cellars. The vineyard is planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Dolcetto and Barbera. It was the Pinot and the Syrah that most impressed at this tasting. The clone sources are mentioned below. Both the Pinot and Syrah spent 18 months in French oak, 30% new.