Wines from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation should be a part of any wine cellar

Growing up in the Bay Area, I can remember driving to Disneyland and stopping, with my parents, at the Anderson Split Pea Soup restaurant in Buellton. Years later while living in southern California I became familiar with the Sta. Rita Hills AVA appellation in north Santa Barbara County that essentially extends from Buellton eastward to the coastal town of Lompoc.  It is in the valleys and foothills on this stretch of land where world-class pinot noir, cool climate chardonnay and syrah is produced most vintages.

The appellation, founded in 2001, is bounded to the South by the Santa Rosa Hills, located on the North side of Point Conception that provides an east-west facing funnel, giving access to the fog and ocean breezes.  The Sta. Rita Hills AVA, along with the Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, the Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, is one of the premier growing sites in California.

Terraced vineyards at Seasmoke

Living again in northern California, I must take advantage of my limited visits to acquire some familiar wines.  While open to exploring, I tend to fall back on some traditional favorites and am never disappointed.

My first stop along Highway 246 is Foley Estate for the 2016 Foley Estates Barrel Select Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills

($58), awarded 90-points by Wine Enthusiast magazine.  

In addition to fine pinot noir and other chardonnay releases, the “Barrel Select,” vintage to vintage offers the classic creamy texture with baked fruit flavors and lively acidity that is welcomed on my palate.

A few miles down the road lies Spear Vineyards and Winery, certified organic with new vines planted by owner Ofer Shepher in 2014.  During a past visit, young winemaker Kathleen Gaffney took me on a jeep tour of their hillside vineyards that she describes as the root(pun intended) of exceptional wine.  She prefers neutral oak and avoids anything that would diminish the impacts of the terroir. 

Spear Vineyards Winemaker Kathleen Gaffney

I selected the 2017 Spear Gnesa Vineyard Chardonnay ($45), a highly rated release from an estate vineyard planted in 1997 and the 2017 Spear Estate Pinot Noir ($45), a dry wine with a layered and diverse flavor profile.

A few miles closer to the coast is Melville, an iconic winery  founded in 1989 that produces consistently prodigious vintages of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. I selected three favorites starting with the 2018 Estate Chardonnay, Clone 76 Inox that stays exclusively on lees in stainless steel tanks for five months, without any oak influence.  It is a crisp food wine with a healthy acidity and floral hints.

Hillside vines at Spear Vineyards

Boasting consistent ratings in the mid-nineties, the 2015 Estate Pinot Noir Sta.Rita Hills ($36) is a neutral oak release that consists of fruit from sixteen different clones, forty percent fermented as whole cluster.  This release has savory elements that balance the fruit flavors and soft tannins.

I wouldn’t leave without a bottle of the 2016 Estate Syrah Sta.Rita Hills ($36), another highly rated, value-priced wine that combines dark fruits, spice and floral elements on the nose and palate.

In Lompoc, I stopped for a 2016 Richard Longoria Fe Ciega Vineyard, Block M ($75) and a 2013 Fiddlehead “Lollapalooza” Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills ($85) two releases from neighboring vineyards that provide clear expressions of fine pinot noir from the region.

2013 Fiddlehead Lollapalooza Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills

Terraced, high above Santa Rosa Road lies the vineyards of Seasmoke Cellars, a very discreet producer of Burgundian-style pinot noir and chardonnay.  There is no tasting room at Sea Smoke.  Their certified organic and biodynamic wines of the highest standard are accessed by applying, then joining their list when available. As a long standing member, I plan, as with previous vintages, to enjoy the 2016 Sea Smoke “Southing” Pinot Noir ($65) that always combines intricate flavor with exceptional grace  

Similarly, the 2017 Sea Smoke Chardonnay ($70) has the features of a French grand cru, aromatic with stone fruit flavors and a elite mouthfeel.

Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton have partnered to create acclaimed Burgundian-style pinot noir and chardonnay since 1995 and currently farm four “monopole” or single-vineyards with some of the finest stock in the appellation. I selected the 2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($40), that blends grapes from the 3D, Machado and Hapgood estate vineyards.  Whole-cluster pressed and aged in neutral oak, it is an exceptional wine at a reasonable price.  Of course, their prestigious vineyard specific releases are available by joining a list.  

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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