Wine and Fire

Showcasing the traditions and natural beauty of the Santa Rita Hills wine region, the 2nd Annual Wine & Fire Wine Weekend offered another opportunity to recognize why this region is its own AVA. Santa Rita Hills (SRH) was recognized by the U.S. Government as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2001. The region spans 30,720 acres between Lompoc and Buellton, but less than 2,000 acres are currently planted on the Santa Rosa, Santa Rita, and Purisima Hills. A combination of rare east-west mountain range configuration, hillside orientation, and oceanic climate influence allows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines to produce low-yielding vintages of exceptional complexity and intensity. Wine critics consistently designate the SRH as an important new area for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production.

Sampling the wines crafted in this region was even more enchanting under the stars and majestic oaks at the Friday evening wine reception in the courtyard of the historic La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, situated on the outskirts of the Santa Rita Hills Appellation. In this most uncrowded of all wine festivals, guests, growers, winemakers and winery owners mingle. There is time for conversations with the professionals who grew the grapes and made the latest releases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines being poured and tasted (and no long lines to inhibit these exchanges).

The “fire” part of the festival’s name is attributed to the individuality and artistic talents and non-conformist personalities and philosophies reflected in this group of wine professionals. The “fire within” each of them inspires a sense of community, camaraderie, and passion for the Santa Rita Hills region they share.

For example, when we came to the Kenneth-Crawford table, both talented winemakers, Kenneth “Joey” Gummere and Mark Crawford Horvath offered a unique tasting experience that demonstrated the significance of grape clone and terroir. They poured us side-by-side glasses of two of their Pinot Noirs. The 2005 Babcock Vineyard Pinot came from a flat plateau area where 25-year-old grapevines are planted, half with clone 115 and half with Pommard clone. The 2005 Turner Vineyard Pinot came from a vineyard that literally shares a fence line with the Babcock Vineyard, but was planted only 6 years ago on a south-facing slope with sandy loam, using all clone 115.

A little background on clones. Clone 115 is the quintessential pinot grape clone because it essentially yields grapes with stand-alone color, aroma, flavor, structure, and tannin. No blending is needed with this clone, especially when, as in Turner Vineyard, the terroir is just right. This wine from these young vines has the classic Santa Rita Hills spice but with bright red fruit aromatics that continue into the palate. There is a sustained and powerful finish, unexpected from young Pinot vines….unless we’re talking Santa Rita Hills.

Pommard clone adds a silky glossy texture to Pinot and that shows in the Babcock Vineyard Pinot with its dark ruby color, black cherry and Asian spices, and the tell tale Santa Rita Hills earthy, peppery, slate character. This vineyard’s older vines give the wine fine tannins for a long finish and firmness that will age for more than five years.

In a similar demonstration of comparisons, David Lafond, General Manager of Lafond Winery & Vineyards poured us side-by-side samples of ‘05 and ‘06 Lafond Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills. They were both from grapes grown in the same area of the Lafond Vineyard, from vines planted in 1982, and of identical Wente Clone, known for its tiny clusters of intensely flavored grapes. The difference? The handling of the grapes. The ‘06 Lafond Vineyard Chardonnay “Wente Clone in Stainless Steel” was aged in stainless vats and shows as a lighter, crisper wine. The ‘05 Lafond Vineyard Chardonnay was aged in oak, using 46% new oak, and shows rich butterscotch and tropical fruit depth.

It was another “so many wines, so little time evening,” even though the hours 6:30 to 10 permitted more tasting time than most festivals. This time, however, the accessibility of the winemaking professionals meant more great talk, and alas, less time to visit the wine tables. I did taste a wonderful 2005 Rio Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir from Hitching Post Hartley-Ostini, and a Barrel Select (of the top 6 barrels selected by the winemakers) of Santa Rita Pinot, Ortman Family Cellars (all from the fabulous Fiddlestix Vineyard).

It was indeed an evening of delights for the senses with the sounds of ranchero-era classical music, beauty of the fully bloomed Matilija poppies, the aromas and tastes of elegant wines complemented by fire-grilled delights passed around on heaping trays by waitstaff, and the historic beauty of La Purisima Mission under the stars. Although parting was with reluctance, the glowing luminarias guiding us back to our car made even departure sweet. The Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance lived up to its mission of “kindling the flame of excitement for the wines, people and place that is Santa Rita Hills.”

Sip Tips

You can join the 2007 Downtown Wine Trolley Tour. Good wines, good times, and a trolley ride Sunday July 8th and cruise the streets of Santa Barbara’s downtown wineries where you’ll stop to enjoy boutique wines and gourmet nibbles. or call 805-963-3633.

My bang-for-the-buck wine this week is 2004 Partners’ Reserve Lockwood Vineyard, Monterey ($20), a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec, made from the best fruit on the estate. 2004 had a dryer than usual growing season with low crop yield meaning more of the plant’s energy going into fewer grapes. In the tasting, that translates to an explosion of black cherry balanced by firm tannins. Enjoy!