HEAD FOR THE HILLS

Each time I attend a Wine Cask Futures Tasting event, I choose a different theme to investigate. I previously reported on some wines I tasted at the March tasting, so the April tasting was my opportunity to focus on wines from the unique Santa Rita Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area).

The Santa Rita Hills region was formerly a part of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA; it covers more than 30,000 acres between Lompoc and Buellton (only 1,500 acres are currently planted). In 2001, Santa Rita Hills was officially recognized as a separate American Viticultural Area because its unique soils and climate distinguished the grapes in these vineyards from those grown in the warmer, eastern part of the Valley.

A typical day in Santa Rita Hills starts with a marine layer of clouds and fog, which burns off by midmorning, followed by two to three hours of calm sunshine until the on-shore winds pick up in early afternoon, cooling things down again. This is the result of unique east-west mountain ranges combined with hillside orientation of the vineyards and oceanic climate. From Solvang, heading west through Santa Rita Hills, the temperature is said to drop one degree for every mile traveled. This maritime influence, combined with the sedimentary soils with patches of limestone, make this region a favorable place to grow Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other Burgundian wine grape varietals.

One vineyard owner who has benefited handsomely from this region is Peter Cargasacchi, whose grapes have for years been sought-after by winemakers such as Bonnacorsi, Brewer-Clifton, Babcock and Hitching Post. During his winery’s “Terroir Exclusives Wine Program” several months ago, Bryan Babcock told me about Cargasacchi’s meticulous grape farming and commitment to vines.

“With regard to his winegrowing, Peter Cargasacchi is nothing short of a full blown fanatic,” Babcock says. “He is determined to grow the kind of Pinot Noir that will eventually be considered some of the world’s finest. All the grapes at Cargasacchi are outstanding.”

Hitching Post’s Frank Ostini describes Cargasacchi as “a salt of the earth dirt farmer who is shooting for the highest quality in Pinot Noir growing.”

The Hills Are Alive

In 1999, Cargasacchi planted his first vineyard in the extreme western end of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, one of the coolest areas in the county. “In the Santa Rita Hills, the maritime flow is concentrated,” he explains. “It is like an hourglass shape with the cool ocean breezes starting out at a wide end, then narrowing down through the waist that is the Santa Rita Hills, before expanding again over the Buellton flats. That narrowing means a concentration of the flow of the cooling breezes such that by early- or mid-afternoon, the temperature of the vines drops to the point where their photosynthesis shuts down. This translates to a longer growing season for more concentration of flavor.”

This cool, long growing season and the vineyard’s botella clay earth yield grapes with potent intensity reflected in a dense fruit core flavor surrounded by rich tannins. The 2005 Cargasacchi Pinot Noir “Cargasacchi Vineyard” Santa Rita Hills is from his second vintage of his own bottling of this vineyard’s grapes. It was produced entirely from a single grape clone (115) and expresses the grapes’ powerful fruits with dark plum, black berries and cherries with a substantial tannin and mineral backbone.

Cargasacchi’s winemaking philosophy allows the natural attributes of the varietal and vintage to reveal themselves, rather than impose a style onto grapes. He is not looking for uniformity from vintage to vintage because, as he puts it, “That would be like looking at art that is all the same. Each year’s weather and growing conditions are completely different. Part of the pleasure of enjoying wine is the taste of each unique vintage and the flavor profile which prevails each particular growing season.”

Aside from winemaking heavyweights such as Lafond and Sanford & Benedict, who have been in Santa Rita for more than two decades, other vineyards were planted about the same time and with the same clones.

“That has resulted in a characteristic quality to the grapes,” says Bruno D’Alfonso, who makes Badge 2004 Pinot Noir, from Santa Rita Hills. “These grapes can yield rich, flavorful Pinot Noirs that are big, brooding, and heady with dark berries, blackberries and blueberries. These are not like the Pinots from Carneros or Russian River with their raspberry and cherry flavors."

Actually, some winemakers consider the power of the grapes from this region to be a “problem” in that they are concerned that the intensity of the color and flavors can’t be tamed and balanced into the Pinot Noirs people are used to.

But if anyone can harness these grapes, it may be D’Alfonso. In the ‘04 Badge Pinot he blended 60% Ashley’s Vineyard fruit to serve as the high-toned backbone to harmonize with the deep black fruits and rich texture of Ampelos Vineyard grapes. Wine Cask wine director Wendy Van Horn described the wine as “a tantalizing ambrosia of succulent red and black fruits mingled with nose-tingling aromas of warm ginger, vanilla, smoke, cola and black pepper. From electrifying attack to expansive middle to lingering finish, this juice hits all the right notes.”

Tourist Tasting

Although Santa Rita Hills is not encouraging specific visitation routes with its own wine trail, you can get the feel of this region’s unique physical-geologic-geographic nature by biking, hiking or just keeping your car windows rolled down as you journey between Highway 246 and Santa Rita Road through the Santa Rosa, Santa Rita and Purisima Hills. Inhale deeply and enjoy the well-tended vines as you pass such vineyards as Sea Smoke, Fiddlestix, Sanford & Benedict, Foley Estates, Lafond, Babcock, Melville, La Rinconada, Badge, Brewer-Clifton, Cargasacchi, Carr, Foley Estates and Gainey. These varietals are of course also all available at neighborhood distributors.