This past weekend, hundreds of people converged on the Sta. Rita Hills between Lompoc and Buellton to celebrate and reflect on the renowned winegrowing appellation during the annual “Wine & Fire” event. In addition to a dinner at Avant on Friday, a grand tasting on Saturday at Mission La Purisima, and open houses throughout the region on Sunday, about 100 people gathered on Saturday morning for the weekend’s most educational offering: two seminars on chardonnay and pinot noir, followed by a grilled lunch from the Hitching Post crew, all served up on the bucolic grounds of Fiddlestix Vineyard, right in the heart of the hills.
The panels were moderated by critic Josh Raynolds, assistant editor of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, and the five wines tasted during each session were sampled blindly, leading to some interesting guesswork by the winemakers as to which was theirs and prompting insightful discussion all around.
Here’s a rundown, paired with some photographs from the event.
Panelists: Nikki Nelson of Liquid Farm; Dan Kessler of Kessler-Haak; Karen Steinwachs of Seagrape Cellars; Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Estate; Steve Fennell of Sanford Winery
Tasted: 2010 Liquid Farm White Hill; 2010 Seagrape Cellars Zotovich Vineyard; 2010 Sanford Winery Rinconada Vineyard Estate; 2010 Clos Pepe “Homage to Chablis”; 2010 Kessler-Haak Vineyard Estate
Flavors: Ranged from the ultra-austere, steel-fermented Clos Pepe to the more buttery, oak-enhanced version from Seagrape. But in all of the samples, Nelson noted, “You can taste and smell salinity.”
Steinwachs said that each one had “verve,” explaining, “It’s really got that fun yin-yang thing going on that you don’t find from other regions.” Among other flavors noted: crème brulee, apple, pear, melon.
“I think chardonnay is the greatest grape we produce in the Sta. Rita Hills.”
—Wes Hagen, known for saying controversial things, but his point was that, while chardonnay has long been a commodity grape, it has the potential to be one of the highest quality grapes in the world.
“The only time we’re in the middle of the road of anything is when we’re swerving from side to side.”
—Karen Steinwachs, discussing trends in the wine world. For chardonnay, producers have jumped from making over-oaked wines back toward making wines with no oak at all.
“This isn’t soft, gutless cougar juice.”
—Wes Hagen, discounting typically over-oaked chardonnay aimed at the middle-aged woman crowd while praising the Sta. Rita Hills versions.
“Being a winemaker is like being a kicker on a football team: I’m not gonna win the game, but I can certainly screw it up in the last 10 seconds.”
—Wes Hagen, on staying out of the way as a winemaker and letting the vineyard do the heavy lifting.
Pinot Noir Panel
Panelists: Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines; Frank Ostini of Hitching Post; Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon; Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi Vineyard; Adam Lee of Siduri Wines
Tasted: 2009 Ken Brown Rancho La Vina; 2008 Hitching Post Fiddlestix Vineyard “Perfect Set”; 2009 Cargasacchi Vineyard Estate; 2010 Siduri Clos Pepe Vineyard; 2010 Gypsy Canyon Estate
Flavors: Tea laves, violet, strawberry, cherry. “These wines have flavor intensity without the excess weight,” said moderator Josh Raynolds, on what sets the Sta. Rita Hills apart.
“I remember before there were grapes around here.”
—Peter Cargasacchi, on his family history of farming the region for generations.
“If there’s anything I could fault California winemakers for, it’s their obsession with clones.”
—Josh Raynolds, arguing that clones are a small part of much bigger winemaking equation and that variety is good.
“It’s really how the wines taste, and if it tastes balanced, I don’t care how much alcohol there is.”
—Frank Ostini, raising balanced winemaking over the current trend of just low-alcohol wines.
“We’re now all screw caps.”
—Adam Lee, on how his Siduri wines are moving completely away from cork with this vintage
“I take these wines to Burgundy, and they do the Exorcist head-spinning thing.”
—Josh Raynolds, on how impressed the French winemakers are with Sta. Rita Hills wine.
For more on the Sta. Rita Hills, see staritahills.com.