Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Perfect Pinots and Charming Chardonnays

An East Coast friend was recently insisting that you just cannot get a good Pinot Noir from California, that Oregon was “the” place for it. In fact, he and his wife were planning a trip to Willamette Valley this year to experience the lovely Pinots at the source, in the cascading hills caressed by the cooling Pacific Ocean breezes. “Good for you,” was my response, and I agreed that Oregon produces many magnificent Pinots. In fact, I recommended he visit the Evening Land Vineyard (www.eveninglandvineyards.com), where consulting winemaker Sashi Moorman works his magic.

But I gently admonished my friend, and informed him about the beautiful, local (to me, anyway, in Southern California) AVA called Santa Rita Hills, just 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, which is producing some of the loveliest, most nuanced, and most drinkable Pinots – and  Chardonnays – I’ve had the pleasure of tasting.

My local wine retailer, The Wine House (www.winehouse.com) this week hosted a "focused tasting of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA" featuring 29 wineries and 58 wines, produced from grapes grown in the AVA. It was almost overwhelming for me, as I can for the first time ever say that there was not one sip of wine at this event that I did not like. The hardest decision I had to make all night was which wines to purchase.

Established officially as Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 2001 (note that the abbreviated spelling is in deference to the Chilean producer Santa Rita) is situated in the cooler hills of Santa Barbara county, just east of the sprawling and warmer Santa Ynez Valley. Just about 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the area benefits from the eastward jag of the coastline and the west-to-east running hills, which allow coastal fog and wind into the area. The fog lingers from late afternoon to early morning, and then burns off, creating a combination of warms days and cool nights, which is perfect weather for Pinot and Chardonnay.  Additionally, a wide variety of soils – clay, sand, silt, slate – provides conditions that have been described as Burgundian, adding intense minerality to the wines.

The weather and soil conditions also produce grapes with nice acidity – a key to any good wine. So, in addition to Pinot and Chardonnay, you will find Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer – varietals known for their high acidity – as well as Grenache. 
The big-flavor wines that typified the AVA in the early 2000s are giving way to much more refined, mineral- and “terroir-“driven” examples. Several vintners at the Wine House event had two versions of their Pinot Noirs, from two different “micro-lots” (patches of earth) in the Hills, and the comparison was quite interesting. For instance, Transcendence’s (www.transcendwines.com) Joey Gummere had  tastes of his 2012 ‘F’ Street Pinot alongside his 2012 Encantada Pinot. The former ($34.99) had a beautiful fruit on both the nose and palate, while the latter ($44.99) was all about the minerals. Delicious in both cases.

Longoria's "Lovely Rita"
Richard Longoria of Longoria Wine (www.longoriawine.com) has been making wine since 1982, long before the area achieved AVA status. His two Pinots were the 2012 Lovely Rita ($29.99) and the 2011 Fe Ciega ($46.99). Lovely Rita had the classic Pinot aroma and taste of sour cherry as well as some spices, while the Fe Ciega offered much more, as it “is one of the most elegant, refined vintages of Fe Ciega we have produced,” per Longoria.

Other notable Pinots included Montemar (www.montemarwines.com) 2011 La Encantada ($49.99) and Rio Vista ($44.99); 2012 Wan Fiore Project Pinot Noir ($45.99); Pali Wine Co. (www.paliwineco.com)  2011 Pinot Noir “Fiddlestix” ($53.99); Lindley 2011 and 2012 La Lomita Vineyard (both $54.99); and Kitá 2011 Pinot Noir Hillard Bruce (www.kitawines.com, ($59.99). (Kitá is a Chumash Indian word meaning “Our Valley Oak,” and winemaker Tara Gomez is a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, who provided a scholarship to help her study enology at UC Fresno.)

LaFond Chardonnay
A few Chardonnays were also notable, including the 2012 Lafond (a bargain at $21.99). This was oaked, but not too much, with good minerality and acidity. The Crawford Family 2012 Chardonnay Tin Shack ($41.99) is stainless steel aged, with nice acid and minerality, and a touch of grapefruit on the palate.

Many of the Sta. Rita Hills producers have tasting rooms located in Lompoc, Los Olivos, and downtown Santa Barbara. The “Lompoc  Wine Ghetto” (that’s pronounced “lom-poke” I was told several times during the event!) set up in an industrial park on the east side of town, has become the in spot for tasting rooms, so don’t just pass through this town on your way to and from the tonier spots in the Santa Ynez Valley. Stop, and enjoy a few tastes.

Until next time, Cheers!

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