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The Wines of California's Santa Rita Hills

Ooh, ooh, ooh -- how I love discovering underappreciated wine regions.  The next best one just might be (it certainly gets my vote)Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills. Located about 30 minutes from Santa Barbara, think Highway 246 off the 101 Freeway and the cities of Buellton, Lompoc and Los Olivos.  Total acreage is 30,720 acres.  About 2,500 acres are planted in wine grapes. The appellation is spelled Sta. Rita Hills on the  wine labels so as not to step on the toes of the Santa Rita wine region in Chile.  I’d be more direct and spell it

G-R-E-A-T

 It’s a young appellation having received federal recognition as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2001. For being 10 years old this year, this AVA rocks.  Expect interesting Pinots and Chardonnays, with some yummy Syrah, Pinot Gris and Grenache coming on strong. There’s at least 19 varietals currently planted, so for this group of talented winemakers, the sky’s the limit.  For wine lovers interested in seeing and experiencing an emerging star, this place is nirvana.

My discovery of the Santa Rita Hills began with my husband and me checking into the Hadsten House Inn & Spa www.HadstenHouse.com on Mission Drive in Solvang as the guest of General Manager Bill Phelps.  Centrally located, this distinctive European style inn is a gem.  With its tastefully decorated rooms, swimming pool, and spa services, we felt embraced and pampered at “Hello, Welcome to our Inn.”  The complimentary wine and cheese reception from 3 p.m. -5 p.m.  each day was a treat and set the tone for a blissful 2-day getaway.  Rooms run from a low of $164 - $254 weekdays to a high of $249 - $354 weekends.  Whatever you pay, it’s well worth the price. Be sure and have dinner there as we did.  Small intimate and a bit edgy, the restaurant lends itself to a romantic meal.  A nicely focused menu, local wine list, beautifully presented entrees and generous portions are going to impress you.

What I was hoping to find on this trip was the essence of what makes this place so special.  Barbara Satterfield, executive director of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance helped me with the itinerary by sending out a notice to her members that I was looking for small lot, family owned wineries with an interesting story to tell.  She had her members contact me directly to be part of the tour.  I received more offers than I could accommodate.  This is a place definitely ready for the spotlight.

Barbara was kind enough to drive us around to four wineries.  Each unique in story, profile and offerings, but all telling the ultimate story of focus, drive, dreams and excellence. If you’ve ever thought about being a vintner, these are the people you need to visit with.  

First stop was Gypsy Canyon Vineyards http://www.gypsycanyon.com with owner/winemaker Deborah Hall.  There is no tasting room, just a smart beautiful woman on stunning acreage doing what makes her happy. It took a bit of maneuvering over dirt roads, winding roads and trickling creek beds to get there, but the end result was magic.  Let me lead with the fact that Deborah makes only 300 cases a year, which includes her Pinot and Angelica wines. Each finished wine is bottled in a gorgeous hand blown bottle.  Her Pinot wines range from $95 to $230. The Angelica is $135. If you want to try it or buy it, you’ll probably have to join the wine club, get on a waiting list, or find her wines in limited quantities in a few restaurants and stores. Deborah treated us to a private tasting of her 2008 Trois Pinot and Ancient Vine Angelica. The word exquisite comes to mind for both.  The Pinot had a deep reddish-purple color, the nose presented with ripe black berries and a mellow oak backbone.  I enjoyed the silky texture in my mouth and the fruit forward notes.  Deborah explains it this way. "I want the wine to reflect the vineyard. I pick when the grapes are ripe and balanced.  Balance in the vineyard, produces balance in the bottle." The Angelica was served with a five year-old vintage Gouda cheese.  Flavors of aged root beer and caramel swirled together to produce a chewy yummy sensuous treat reminiscent of cold nights and warm log fires.  For a smart city girl turned country winemaker, this chix can run with the big dogs any day of the week. She had a dream to move from the LA area to the country.  She focused on what she wanted and how to get it.  She pretty much single handedly tamed the large acre property into a haven of grapes, rescued dogs, and fulfilled dreams. I’d say she embodies the Santa Rita Hills spirit.

Second stop was a rousing intellectual exploration of the wines of Kris Curran and husband Bruno D’Alfonso in Lompoc. Another off-the beaten track winery, we were invited into the production area to sit in old  leather lounge chairs to taste some wines and learn a lot about what makes their Santa Rita Hills wines so special.  If you’re in to a production facility done right, this is the stop for you.  No center columns, unique tanks and high ceilings make this winery facility an impressive site.  Both Bruno and Kris have impressive winemaker background: His from his Sanford Winery days hers from her Sea Smoke & Foley Winery days.

They’re dedicated to producing complex, fruit forward, flawless wines and guided by a keen sense of intuition, knowledge and science, the likes of which I have not seen before.  There’s a fierce sense of dedication and competitiveness permeating their every effort.  They currently produce 6,000 cases a year.  Wines range from $20 - $55. That’s a bargain. While each has their own labels, they also collaborate on a high end wine venture under the D’Alfonso -Curran label.  We tasted the 2010 Blue Steel Chardonnay, a couple of Pinot barrel samples and a bright 2008 Chardonnay. All we’re extraordinary. Really, extraordinary.  You need to taste them for yourself.

The D’Alfonso-Curran Winery is open for tasting by appointment (805-736-WINE).  It’s not going to happen in a luxury setting, but you’ll come away knowing you’ve been in the presence of brilliance, which I think trumps a fancy tasting room any day of the week.

Our third stop was to Kenneth-Crawford Wines http://www.kennethcrawford.com/  .  Located in an industrial area in Buellton, we were almost fooled by the young fresh winemaker face who greeted us at the door.  Ken reminded me of a college student, but I soon learned this is one driven winemaker.  In partnership with friend Mark Crawford Horwath, these two guys are producing some outstanding wines including Pinot, Syrah, and Grenache.  We tasted the Pinot, the Syrah and the Grenache.  Prices range from $25 - $45.  Worth every cent.  They make about 1,500 cases a year so there’s not much to go around. I think their wines can best be described as elegant.  They’re not over extracted or big jam bombs. I especially liked the Grenache.  Ken explained that he and partner Mark are taking their time with their wines.  They concentrate on sourcing the right grapes from the right places so their wines can be as distinctive as possible.  They want their wines to be fruit forward, food friendly, and balanced.  From what I tasted, I’d say they’re in the zone.  Make sure to call ahead for an appointment to taste these great wines and to meet the fresh young faces behind the success.

Just a few feet from Kenneth ~Crawford Wines, we headed over to our last stop Avant Tapas and Wine at Terrevant Wine Company http://www.terravant.com/ .  As with all of our stops on this first day, this place was a bit hard to find, but well worth our time and a great place to end our wine tasting experience.  Terrevant is a large high tech large, custom-crush facility specializing in full “grape to bottle” custom crush services. They can act as your winemaker or work in conjunction with your winemaker.  They also provide services like cold stabilization and alcohol reduction.  It’s an impressive facility, run by a talented team.  GM Joe Padilla took us for a facility tour and barrel samples of some Alma Rosa wines. He is a great guy and I understand he also does similar tours for people visiting the restaurant.  For $10 it’s a deal, and really puts you in touch with the whole winemaking process.

Connected to Terrevant is Avant Tapas and Wine.  We loved this restaurant.  It features the new wine stations we’d been hearing about.  With a selection of 40 wines by the glass (soon to be 70+) in varying pour sizes, this is the perfect place to do some food and wine pairing on your own.  Just insert a coded card and choose your favorite wine(s).  Pay at the end of the evening.  Featured wines are primarily from small lot wineries using Terravant’s custom crush facilities and are available by the bottle to take home. Talk about a smart pairing! The Avant menu changes weekly and uses local ingredients whenever possible.  Prices are VERY reasonable, and if you come on the weekends expect live music. This is a MUST stop, trust me.

Day 2 found us visiting the Forbidden Fruit Orchards in Lompoc with owner Sandra Davis. I had heard that there was quite a story about how Sandra came to be a farmer and then a vintner, so I wanted to meet her.  I am glad I did, as she is truly an inspiration to anyone who has a dream.

 The commercial farm is located about 15 miles from the ocean in Pinot Noir country. The soil is sandy with excellent drainage.  Sandra tells me she can grow just about anything, but her main crop is southern highbush organic blueberries. She also farms organic yellow raspberries, mulberries, currents, cherries, avocados, kiwis, and green tea…all of which she sells at the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers markets.  And in 2007 she planted 5 acres of Pinot and 1.2 acres of Chardonnay.

Her story of how she came to be a farmer is fascinating.  She shared that she has always loved gardening and always wanted to grow wine grapes.  I could tell you the whole story, but she tells it best.  Just know that she had a dream to have a farm.  There were lots of road blocks to the finish line, but she kept her focus and eventually found just the right 100 acre parcel to take her vision to reality.  As the saying goes, she leveraged up, took a deep breath and went for the dream.  Escrow closed in 2002.  She started with a few scruffy apple trees and in a few short years has planted over 16 acres in exotic fruits and wine grapes.   She runs the business with the help of six full-time employees. She still works a home-based internet business from her home office waiting for the day when the farm can sustain itself.  While we we’re there she was balancing dogs, jobs, workers, and an approaching freeze warning.

 In her future she sees her grapes maturing, allowing her to bottle her own wines.  She will be building a small winery – no tasting room- and plans to hold four events a year.  She is the personification of the modern woman who wants it all, executes a plan to bring vision to reality, and lives the success dream from the fruits of her own labor.

It’s now time to head back to LA.  I am so sorry to be leaving the lush green rolling hills of this dynamic AVA.  There is a drive, determination and power source here that is so keen I wonder if it isn’t something in the water –or wine—that makes this place and these vintners so  unforgettable…and geese they’re only in year ten.  I can’t wait to come back and check in to see where this is all leading to. I have a feeling it’s going to be very, very good.

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