The sun shines brightly on the northern ridge of Foley Vineyards as a dense layer of morning fog retreats westward toward the Pacific. As far as the eye can see are the undulating grapevines of pinot noir and chardonnay that have garnered international praise for California’s Sta. Rita Hills appellation, but one thing is curiously absent: the usual 25 mph gusts of wind that torment the region.
That delights winemaker Alan Phillips (pictured above) and vineyard foreman Jorge “Beto” Garcia since the vineyard is in its most crucial period-the time when the flowers bloom and the fruit must “set” on the vines. Too much wind, too much cold, or too much rain in this 10-day window could knock off the fruit and result in a lackluster harvest. “The same things that make pinot great are the very things we fight,” explained Phillips, waxing philosophically about winemaking’s most temperamental-and sought-after-grape.
But today, the air sits still, and the two men are visibly thrilled as they examine the tiny flowers and miniscule nodules clinging to the vines. They smile at each other, and then Garcia, who scours the vineyard’s 230 acres daily, confirmed, “I like this year very much.”
While the 2007 harvest may be bountiful, it’s impossible to talk about pinot noir and the Sta. Rita Hills-which extend roughly from Buellton to Lompoc- without delving into 2004. That’s the year the hit film Sideways popularized both the grape (by romanticizing its sophisticated subtleties) and Santa Barbara County wine country (by showing off its eclectic beauty). Everyone’s tired of talking about it-and I’m tired of writing about it-but the film’s impact on skyrocketing sales of pinot noir across the country is undeniable and tasting rooms from Summerland to Santa Maria are still enjoying bigger crowds (for better and, many times, worse).
Yet, according to Phillips, the equation is not as simple as film-equals-pinot popularity. “Sideways was a catalyst,” he said, explaining that discriminating palates were already recognizing pinot’s pleasures. “The reaction was already happening, but Sideways made it happen faster. Pinot noir should have always been the other red wine, and I think it is now.”
From Foley, down Highway 246 at Melville Winery, Chad Melville, who tends to his family’s vineyards and makes his own wine called Samsara, appreciates what the film did for American wine drinkers on a broader scale. He said, “Sideways exposed people to a varietal that goes against the American mentality where bolder and bigger is better. It not only opened the door to the varietal itself, but it opened the door to a more complicated and sophisticated varietal to understand, something softer and more elegant than most people were used to drinking.”
Three years later, the grape is still booming with no apparent end in sight. “I don’t know how many times I get the question, ‘Do you have any fruit for sale?’ And my answer is always, ‘No, I don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does,'” said Melville. “There has been no sign of weakness whatsoever.”
Nevertheless, there’s natural speculation that the boom must one day end and outsider predictions that pinot and the appellation may be over-planted in the years to come. Much of that centers on the massive Sta. Rita Hills acreage being planted during the next couple years by Premier Pacific Vineyards, a financially oriented firm that invests big money in wine country projects throughout the West Coast and, according to its Web site, is “uniquely positioned to capitalize on inefficiencies in the wine industry.” Will the company lowball the other pinot producers or, even worse, create a pinot glut?
No one in this appellation seems to think so. “I don’t think it’s possible,” said Melville. “It can only be grown successfully in a particular climate, and the yields are much lower.” Whereas a chardonnay or syrah can pump out eight tons an acre, pinot noir produces closer to two, maybe three tons an acre. “Pinot will not produce four, five, six tons an acre,” Melville explained. “It’s not in its nature. So if you don’t have production, you can’t make wine that affordable.”
Over lunch at Sissy’s Uptown Cafe in Lompoc, Peter Cargasacchi-who makes his own wine under the Point Conception label as well as an eponymous one and sells his fruit to the biggest names in pinot-took it further. “Premier Pacific is the best thing to happen to the region,” said Cargasacchi, who explained there was a shortage of pinot long before Sideways ever hit the big screen. “It will keep the bottle price from getting out of hand. What scares me is we have to make sure we don’t do what Napa cab did with $100 bottles. Then we’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot. We need people to be able to afford pinot noir. Premier Pacific will make people continue to focus on quality. I think it’s good for everybody, I really do.”
All this talk is on the verge of the appellation’s second annual Wine & Fire event, a weekend-long gathering of wine experts and fans to toast the region, foster educational debates, and then, of course, taste as much pinot noir and chardonnay as you can. It begins Friday night with a reception at La Pur-sima Mission and continues through Sunday with tastings at all the Sta. Rita Hills wineries.
But the heart of the event is Saturday, the educational component, this year happening at Rancho La Vi±a off Santa Rosa Road. Instead of the usual panels, which can become stodgy, repetitive, and dull, it was Cargasacchi’s idea this year to stage a bit of wine country theater instead. So there will be mock “trials” on specific topics, pitting Santa Rita’s star winemakers and grape growers against each other, with a judge-namely trial attorney Cathy Pepe, co-owner of Clos Pepe Vineyards-eliciting expert testimony and delivering verdicts.
On trial will be the appellation’s star varietals: chardonnay (to oak or not to oak?) and pinot noir (are clones or growing conditions more important?). There will also be a bento box food pairing comparison with pinot, which is less of a trial, but perhaps more illuminating on a practical wine-drinking level than the preceding debates. Of course, many of the “witnesses” actually appreciate multiple winemaking methods, and tend to employ more than one process. For instance, Melville and Foley both simultaneously use the two distinct chardonnay-making methods: steel fermenting only and oak-barrel fermentation. Nonetheless, the witnesses have promised to vigorously defend their chosen stance, so the morning should prove entertaining, informative, and perhaps even violent.
But violence should be easily abated, because everyone in the Sta. Rita Hills appreciates Chad Melville’s explanation: “We all have really strong beliefs, we have all found success, and yet we are all on different paths. That’s what’s fun about it, that’s what I love about this industry: There are many different paths to the same thing.”
The Sta. Rita Hills celebrates the second annual Wine & Fire this weekend, with an opening reception at La Pur-sima Mission (2295 Pur-sima Rd., Lompoc) on Friday, June 22, from 6:30-10 p.m.; a Trial by Fire educational event at Rancho La Vi±a (4455 Santa Rosa Rd., Lompoc) on Saturday, June 23, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; and tastings throughout the region on Sunday, June 24. For more info, see staritahills.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.