Sta. Rita Hills: Unique Cool Climate Expressive Wines in the Heart of Santa Barbara County

By Published On: June 13, 2022

Established in 2001 within the county of Santa Barbara, California, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA is part of the larger Santa Ynez AVA, situated between the town of Lompoc and Buellton. The region has a distinct topography and microclimate.  Millions of years ago, Tectonic plate movements led to mountains rising out of the ocean, rotating clockwise, creating one of the most defined, transverse ranges on the Pacific Coast.  Combine that with moderate temperatures, low rainfall and limited heat spikes, the Sta. Rita Hills has one of the longest growing seasons in the world.  From a quality perspective, climate comes first as good soils can become meaningless in harsh conditions. Due to the wind and the proximity to the ocean, it can be very difficult to get decent yields if the grapes are too exposed.  However, the low yields often can provide wines with great intensity and depth.  Growers have to be methodical and match a vineyard site with a variety that is conducive to the variables.

The first vineyard in the region was planted in 1971, but it was not until the late 1990’s when Wes Hagen and a group of vintners began doing technical analysis and coming up with boundaries ultimately petitioning for AVA status.   Originally named “Santa Rita Hills”, but due to protests from Vina Santa Rita, a Chilean wine producer, who argued the AVA was impacting its brand, they ended up changing the name to Sta Rita Hills.

Due to the cool climate, the Sta. Rita Hills is mostly known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, but that is expanding as Rhone and other varieties suited to the region continue to expand.  

This young AVA continues to attract vintners who are looking to tackle the unique conditions that define the region, included are a few of their stories.

LaBarge Winery

Photo: Joe Campbell

For Pierre LaBarge, his love of wine began at a young age. Although he grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, Pierre came from a French background where wine was ingrained into his upbringing. By the time he got to college, he could tell you what grapes were grown in every appellation around the world. 

After graduating from college, Pierre moved to San Diego bouncing around in different jobs before pursuing his passion for wine. He took a job at Fallbrook Winery and had the opportunity to learn viticulture from the ground floor- in fact-his first day on the job he laid out irrigation lines to plant a vineyard and was immediately hooked. 

Pierre would eventually end up working with Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non learning how to craft world class wines.  This was the pivot point to start his own winery. In 2009, Pierre purchased two vineyards– five acres on the farthest western edge of the region and 12 acres within the heart of it. 

Both sites have similar soil types, but very different climates.  The farthest west vineyard is cooler due to its proximity to the ocean and has less sunlight during the growing season on account of the marine layer.  “The transverse mountain range has a tremendous influence on the area, which allows us to grow cool climate varieties so far south–we are on the same latitude as Tunisia,” said Pierre.

For Pierre, the vineyards are the lifeblood of the winery.  “I’m dogmatic about not manipulating anything in the winery so our picking decisions are probably the most important thing to me. The chemistry and integrity of the fruit has to be perfect in my mind when the fruit is harvested. The fermentation cycle is dynamic as there is a narrow window to do a pump over punch down at the exact time.  The health of the fermentation is essential since we are not adding or subtracting anything,” said Pierre. “We are on call 24/7 during harvest to make sure we are more proactive than reactive.” 

Although the Sta. Rita Hills is known for its Burgundian style wines, Pierre has expanded into Rhone as well as other varieties. Grenache and Syrah require more detail and precision, but offer a unique cool climate expression within the region.  LaBarge Syrahs tend to be more savory than fruit forward while having interesting notes of green peppercorns, fennel and white pepper– elegant and powerful yet nuanced dancing across the palate.  

“Our Grenache is definitely a favorite of mine.  I’m so proud of the results of growing a grape that some people told me wouldn’t work at our site.  Grenache will naturally have higher potential alcohol levels at harvest and you have to learn to not let that solely direct your picking decisions,” said Pierre.  “Also, we implement a lot of whole cluster fermentations with our Grenache and one of the benefits is raising the pH because of the potassium in the stems. In the end, you have a wine with fairly elevated alcohols with great acidity that really balances it out.”  

LaBarge also planted Albarino, based on research done by Dr. Richard Smart, who determined the region was on par with the Rias Baixas in northwest Spain, minus the rainfall, and would be an optimal site for this variety. The vines perform very well and are typically harvested later in the growing season.  Pierre always tells people that Albarino is the antithesis of a big and round Chardonnay. It is pressed in a basket press, then fermented and aged in 600 liter concrete eggs as well as neutral barrels.  Shellfish is the ultimate pairing for a LaBarge Albarino as it makes the wine explode and blossom in your mouth.

Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Wines

Photo: Kessler-Haak

For Dan Kessler the wine journey is analogous to the children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie?”  Drinking wine at home led to learning about wine–which led to wine making–the stories goes on and on.   Ultimately, Dan and his wife Ellen fell in love with the Sta. Rita Hills, purchased a large parcel and planted a 30 acre vineyard. They found a property that met all their expectations– less than 50 acres, easy access from a major road, a house all ideal for building a winery. It also helped that their neighbor was featured in a Wine Spectator article.

The vineyard is located on Hwy 246, 11 miles west of Buellton where it tends to be the coolest spot within the Sta. Rita Hills.   Cool air drifts down and they get puddles in a large portion of the vineyard.  The property has rolling hills with mostly well drained soils.  In conjunction with cool Springs and breezes throughout the year, vine growth is restricted giving the fruit longer hang time encouraging ripeness and complexity.  

Dan’s focus with Pinot Noir is to make lean, acidic wines with an exceptional nose for flavor. He holds them back until they are ready to release.  Their current Pinot Noir release is six plus years old while other varieties it is only two.  If properly handled, Pinot Noir  will produce unique characteristics every year that reflects the harvest.  

“Sta. Rita Hills is characterized by a strong acid backbone and incredibly ripe flavors without the flabbiness other sites produce. It produces an elegant wine with great aging potential due to the acid backbone that can rival some of the best Pinot Noirs in Burgundy,” said Dan.   “Unfortunately, many of the wines made here are released very early and without time to mature. In the United States, most people age their wines in their trunk–as a consequence– the wines are closed and angular and people are trained to think that is how a Pinot Noir tastes.”  

Kessler-Haak also makes a cool climate Syrah, which is vibrant with great acidity.  It is a challenge to grow in the Sta. Rita Hills as the weather is borderline of not being warm enough to sustain it. Most years, they will harvest it in late October to mid-November.  Initially, there was no interest from the customers for the Syrah, but as they tried and realized it is a more nuanced and complex representation of the variety, it sells out every year with demand for more.

Alma Rosa Winery

Alma Rosa Winery vineyards in Buellton, California. Photo: Ciro Coelho

Founded in 2005 by Richard and Thekla Stanford, Alma Rosa Winery is named for the original Rancho Santa Rosa Mexican land grant of 1839 of where the winery is located. Richard is often considered the “Godfather of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir” as he was the first to plant the grape in 1971, recognizing the region’s distinct geology and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. In 2014,  the winery was sold to Bob and Barb Zorich who continue to carry the torch that the Stanfords lit with a focus on expanding the vineyards while maintaining that high quality customers have come to expect.  The Zorichs brought in viticulturist Michael Anderson to bring cutting-edge farming practices to the 38 planted acres across five non-contiguous sites.

Another key part of the operation, Samra Morris was hired to oversee wine making responsibilities.  A native of Bosnia, Samra has a unique perspective and talent for bringing out the unique characteristics of what each vineyard has to offer.  Her first vintage in 2019 of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was met with critical acclaim.  “When you taste my wines, I hope that you notice marked differences between each, as the sites are so extremely specific in the Sta. Rita Hills.  Even though all of our vineyards we work with exist within 10 miles of each other along the same stretch of the road in the southern corridor of the Sta. Rita Hills, they could not be more different in terms of climate, exposure, soil composition, vine age, etc.”, said Samra.

For Alma Rosa Winery, Chardonnay has done well in the Sta. Rita Hills, as the refrigerated sunlight,  allows for the variety to fully ripen while developing concentrated phenolic compounds and preserving the fruit’s natural acidity. 

 “Chardonnay will reflect some of the special sites and climate-specific nuances that are possible in the Sta. Rita Hills. One of these is the chalky, salty minerality we see,” said Samra. “I think of my childhood summers on the coast of Croatia when I drink a great Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay–smelling the Adriatic Sea– and eating fresh seafood on sunny beaches.”

What’s Next in the Sta. Rita Hills?

The region remains one of the wine world’s best kept secrets although wine aficionados are slowly starting to gravitate there in search of exceptional Pinot Noir among other things. Santa Barbara, at large, is starting to win a lot of accolades bolstering the region’s reputation, but advertising and marketing is still very much word of mouth.  The winemaker is in the tasting room giving that intimate customer experience of community versus large crowds.  Dan’s fear is that smaller family wineries will get purchased up by large corporate wineries who will attempt to mass produce Pinot Noir.

“The Sta. Rita Hills has really grown since I came here in 2009 and it is a really exciting time to be here. You had so many legends that started this appellation and helped it grow to what it is today. It is truly an incredible group of people– now you see them mentoring others and passing the torch so to speak. It is our job now to carry it forward and to keep pushing the envelope,” said Pierre.

Wine Recommendations

Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Wines 2017 “Ohana” Pinot Noir- gorgeous garnet in the glass with flavors of plum, raspberry, a touch of cedar with some black pepper for good measure. Aged a bit showing complexity while retaining nice acidity ending with a smooth finish.

Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Wines 2014 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills-  beautiful aromatics of stone fruit and hibiscus with flavors of pomegranate, black currant, blueberry and a little bit of tea. This wine is not showing its age at all.

LaBarge Winery 2018 Grenache- beautiful strawberry mixed in with some floral aromatics followed up by flavors of cranberry, raspberry and a touch of spice. Nicely balanced with a great mouthfeel.

Alma Rosa Winery 2019 Pinot Noir, Rancho La Vina- Dark luscious flavors of black cherry, plum, licorice and cranberry. Silky tannins followed up by a smooth finish.

Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Wines 2018 Syrah- deep purple in color with flavors of plum, white pepper and a bit of sea salt on the finish. This wine is both vibrant and complex.

LaBarge Winery 2018 Syrah- bold and expressive flavors of black currant, olive and plum while detailing elegant complexity followed up by a smooth finish.

Alma Rosa Winery 2019 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills- ruby red in color with flavors of strawberry and bing cherry.

Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Wines  2017 Chardonnay- on the nose you get pear aromatics with flavors of citrus, caramel, lemon and a touch of salt followed up by a delicate finish.

LaBarge Winery 2019 Albarino- flavors of grapefruit, nectarine, caramel and honeysuckle to name a few. This wine showcases great minerality while finishing on a vibrant yet crisp note.

Alma Rosa Winery 2020 Chardonnay- flavors of lemon, honey and peach showing bright acidity, weight and balance.

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : joe@winebulletin.net .