Blair Pence stands in front of his vineyard, which sits just east of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.
Matt Kettmann

Vintner Blair Pence filed with the federal government this February to expand the borders of the increasingly renowned Sta. Rita Hills wine-grape-growing appellation to the east to include his vineyard, which he planted in 2006 outside of Buellton, as well as parts of the Sebastiano and Rio Vista vineyards. Ever since, the Bakersfield-born, USC-educated developer-turned-farmer has been dealing with the wrath of his winemaking neighbors, and their terroir tussle is now making headlines in the international wine press. “If you look at the history, you look at the geology, you look at the weather, it belongs in the appellation,” said Pence, who built Los Angeles office buildings and industrial parks before growing grapes, ranching cattle, and raising avocados. “The science is so clear-cut.”

Critics say the land does not conform to the Sta. Rita Hills parameters and complain that he’s an interloper who bought the property for cheap and now wants to cash in on the region’s reputation. “There are 81 properties that are either cut by or on the boundary,” said Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards, who wrote the original petition to create the appellation and has said that the members of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrower Alliance ​— ​which unanimously voted to not support the expansion ​— ​have spent $25 million and 20 years to define it. “Allowing any change of those boundaries will open a floodgate of petitions to expand it and will destroy the integrity and reputation that we have dedicated our lives to define.” [CORRECTION: According to Sta. Rita Hills boardmembers, there was no vote ever taken on this matter, despite previous media reports to the contrary.]

Because he’s not in the appellation, Pence’s grapes can sell for $1,000 less per ton. But he says he found the property “more interesting” than what was available in the appellation and that while he’s hopeful, the expansion isn’t the crux of his business plan. The outcry on the blogosphere was a surprise, said Pence, explaining, “I didn’t think it would be as vehement, and I certainly didn’t think it would be as personal.” Though he opposes the move, which will be open for public comment soon, Hagen is trying to stay neighborly. “We hope Mr. Pence has success in the farming and making of his wines,” said Hagen, “as we realize that every wine made in Santa Barbara County either elevates our reputation or does not.”


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