There may not be a more diverse, strongly opinionated group of winemakers than the members of the Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance. The alliance held its inaugural event, Wine & Fire, in June and offered the public a firsthand opportunity to experience and celebrate the wines, vines and people of Santa Rita Hills AVA.

“The group of people in this community have a depth and breadth of experience and background,” says Karen Steinwachs, assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead and member of the alliance. “We like to get together, but we are all mavericks with our own egos and agendas bringing our ideas to the table. Working to build this association has been a great way to get to know each other.”

In 2001, the Santa Rita Hills (SRH) became recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). The hills spans 30,720 acres between Lompoc and Buellton, but only 1,500 acres are currently planted on the Santa Rosa, Santa Rita and Purisima Hills. A combination of rare east-west mountain ranges, hillside orientation and oceanic climate influence allows Pinot Noir vines to produce low-yielding vintages of exceptional complexity and intensity. Wine critics consistently designate the Santa Rita Hills as an important new area for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production.

During a recent early summer evening, La Purisima Mission in Lompoc was the backdrop for a reception with more than two dozen winemakers pouring Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in the courtyard. The artisan wood-fired pizzas, salads and desserts from American Flatbread Company of Los Alamos accompanied the wines.

At one table, pouring his Loring Wine, Brian Loring confessed that his “obsession with Pinot Noir” came long before he worked at Cottonwood Winery for the 1997 crush. “Even though I hadn't planned it, I ended up making two barrels of Pinot Noir,” he says. “That was the start of the Loring Wine Company. What had started out as a dream fifteen years earlier was now a reality – I was a winemaker.”

In all its breadth, Santa Rita Hills contains several microclimates and soil types that have an indelible influence on the taste of a wine. For instance, Loring characterizes the Santa Rosa corridor of the Santa Rita Hills as a soil with “more clay and chirt,” which are “reflected in dried blueberries, minerality and cola in the Pinots. By contrast, the Road 246, more northern-side, has the sandier soil with black cherry characteristics in the wine.”

Winemaker Ken Brown agreed that “wine from Santa Rita Hills has the wild, dark berry and grapes from the north side’s sandier soil that yield a mid-palate softness, while fruit from the heavier clay of the south side produce firmer, more tannic wines such as those of Sanford and Benedict, Fiddlestix and Cargasacchi.”

While we sipped the well-structured, multilayered LaFond Vineyard Chardonnay with winemaker Bruce McGuire, we learned how McGuire lets the terroir of this estate wine come through in its finesse, acid backbone and viscous mouthfeel. “I use grapes from a special, low vigor two-acre section of our six-acre Wente Clone block, age the wine in a selection of barrels, then select those barrels that best show the greatest flavor intensity from this block,” McGuire explains.

In the LaFond Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills, McGuire blends Lafond Vineyard, Hilltop Vineyard and Sweeny Canyon Vineyard to showcase the Santa Rita Hills intense fruit.

Other winemakers take advantage of the Santa Rita Corridor to create livelier wines with higher acidic content. Such an approach taken by pioneering winemaker Richard Sanford has been a real crowd pleaser. “I thought Chardonnays were getting too fat and flabby so I worked to get a leaner wine by picking grapes that are less ripe, fermenting them in neutral oak, and not putting the wine through malo-lactic fermentation (the secondary fermentation process that changes some of the apple crispness to a creamy richness in the heavier chards),” Sanford says.

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Ohhhhh Fiddlestix!

Fiddlefest is a celebration and exploration of Fiddlestix Vineyard, a magical bit of Pinot Noir paradise in the heart of Santa Rita Hills. At this year’s first annual tribute to the vineyard, owner and winemaker Kathy Joseph recognized the winemakers who purchase grapes and give their special twists to their wines they craft from Fiddlestix grapes. Accompanied by the fiddling of The Southside Bluegrass Band and a grilled bounty presented by Frank Ostini and crew from Hitching Post II, the day was worthy of standing ovations.

Joseph and her team tend Fiddlestix Vineyard with diligence and care. The uniformity of the ripening berry clusters one sees looking across the vineyard can only be produced by extensive work on each vine. Not only was there consistent growth within clonal blocks, but also evenly spaced clusters on each plant and symmetrical maturity throughout the entire vineyard. Joseph says “visits” each vine in the vineyard every other day from early August to the end of harvest to make decisions about opening up the canopy of leaves to let in more sunlight, removing errant clusters of grapes to ensure perfect ripening for all, and dropping grape clusters that exceed her yield specifications to assure that each vine puts its energy into instilling intense flavor into each grape, rather than diverting the vine’s vigor into excess leaf growth or too many grapes.

Fiddlestix Vineyard is located at the 7.28-mile marker (from the ocean) on Santa Rosa Road in the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, on the north side of a tight east-west running valley that is part of the Santa Rita Hills AVA. It is said that for each mile one travels east from this area the temperature increases by one degree. The cooling breezes come up predictably about 2 pm and this cool climate translates to longer hang time for the grapes, allowing them to develop their intensity and powerful acidity.

Joseph says she tries to create wines in a terroir-driven manner to feature the stylistic characteristics of each grape and exhibit a sense of place. “The vineyard is planted to Pinot Noir, and Pinot Noir only,” she says of a vineyard that is managed by Jeff Newton and Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care and Rafa Medina the vineyard foreman.

First planted in 1998, the vineyard has tight spacing, with vines planted four feet apart, and each row only seven feet wide – resulting in 1,556 vines per acre. The vineyard is made up of 32 mini-blocks representing different combinations of six clones, three rootstocks and various elevations, exposures and soil combinations.

How do winemakers get the highly sought Fiddlestix grapes? Kevin Bening, partner and sales director of Summerland Winery, explains, “After two years of begging we made the cut. We, and probably every other winemaker who buys Kathy’s fruit, would buy all she would sell us, but she likes to give different winemakers the opportunity to see how they would express Fiddlestix grapes. We contract not by the row, but by the clone. Our winemaker, Etienne Terlinden, contracts clones 667, 777, 113 and Pommard clones and works closely with Kathy to obtain optimal ripeness and flavors at harvest to get fruit of unparalleled depth and intensity.”

Drew Horton, Cellarmaster at Gainey says he made his 2005 Fiddlestix Pinot from only a single clone 667 and the barrel sample he poured that day was both silky and intense. By contrast, Chuck Ortman, of Ortman Family Wines, says he blends five clones because “it is like being a chef, taking a lamb and blending a spice mixture to baste it with while grilling. We take these clones, use oak barrels from a variety of coopers, variable lengths of fermentation and create the blend to show the flavor characteristics of Fiddlestix.”

Chuck’s son, second-generation winemaker, Matt Ortman, says this goulash of clones, Ortman 2004 Fiddlestix Pinot, delivers flavors “black fruit, blackberry, black cherry, with dusty, earthy, mushroomy aromatics and a silky, velvet texture.”

Fiddlestix fruit is also sold to several other respected, discriminating winemakers, such as those at Arcadian, Anglim, Drew Family, RN Estate, Rusack, ampelos and Ancien – an elite few given that Joseph has only 100 acres of grapes to offer.

It’s this short supply and the quality of each yield that have winemakers jostling for more grapes at every harvest period. “Kathy has more than thirty strings on this instrument she calls Fiddlestix,” says Gray Hartley, of Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Wines, one of the lucky few clients. “How fortunate for those of us who source her grapes to be able to come and play the notes, bow the strings, and pick the frets that resonate in our souls to create our individual wine variations on the theme of Fiddlestix grapes.”

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