From the third promising harvest in a row to increasing international acclaim, notable vineyards changing hands, and the steady rise of a sparkling wines, Sta. Rita Hills winemakers have much to celebrate during the pinot-noir-dominant appellation’s annual Wine & Fire bash this weekend, but the bucolic stretch of rolling hills between Buellton and Lompoc — which was first designated as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, by the federal government in 2001 — is also abuzz with politics: Last week, the feds began accepting public feedback on the controversial push to expand the wine-growing region’s borders a bit to the east, a move initiated by Pence Ranch that would also benefit part of the John Sebastiano Vineyard, since fruit from the appellation fetches a higher price. (For an in-depth and even-handed account of this debate, see this report.
To get an update on these topics and more, I chatted with veteran winemaker Greg Brewer, who’s been involved with the Sta. Rita Hills for 23 years, most notably as co-owner for Brewer-Clifton and winemaker for Melville Vineyards. Here’s what he had to say, some of which will surely emerge on Saturday when Brewer joins Jake Lindley (see sidebar) and others for an informative panel discussion during Wine & Fire.
On the proposed appellation expansion: “A border is a border,” said Brewer, who helped start the movement to form an appellation in 1997. “Any movement of a boundary is a very slippery slope. I feel quite strongly that it needs to be respected, but I would never infer being outside is inferior in any way. It’s simply different.”
On lean vs. meaty pinot noirs: To Brewer, the current focus on examining wines based on alcohol levels, Old World vs. New World preferences, and clonal selections misses the point. “People are unfortunately prone to drawing more judgmental comparisons between stylistic objectives and priorities,” said Brewer. “That is very tarzanic and infantile. It depends on what people are into.” For instance, in the estate pinot he makes for Melville, Brewer starts picking earlier than most of his neighbors to get those fresh flavors and keeps picking past when most others are done to get the “hedonistic, guttural stuff,” too. “It isn’t good or bad,” he explained. “It’s just how we approach that wine.”
On single vineyard bottlings vs. blends: Brewer compares the difference to a soloist’s performance, which can be “very emotional and deliberate and moving,” versus a quartet concert that has “power and a comprehensive voice.” “It’s a completely different type of experience,” he said, noting that simply preferring one over the other on label alone is “like saying, ‘I only like the soloist and not the quartet.’”
On Sta. Rita Hills sparkling wine: “The potential is through the roof,” said Brewer, who makes the 3D sparking chardonnay under Brewer-Clifton and will make one for Melville this vintage, but he said the pricing is still off, as it costs twice as much to make but people don’t seem willing to pay that much yet.
On the 2014 vintage: Since the past two years were ample harvests, Brewer predicted a small harvest this year, equating 2012 and 2013 to Friday and Saturday nights but figuring 2014 would be like Sunday, “when we need to get our act together and pay the bills and do the laundry.” Instead, another solid vintage is lining up, as he explained: “It’s turned out to be a three-day weekend. Everything seems to be right on track.” It is, however, “much earlier than almost anybody here has seen, even the old-timers,” said Brewer. “We’ll see if the wines are still Sta. Rita Hills-ish, or if they will resemble any other region.”
On Sta. Rita Hills character: When it comes to what defines Sta. Rita Hills wines, Brewer admitted, “We’re all sorting that out,” but he does believe the wines exhibit a “real carnal purity” because the long, predictable growing season allows the “unadulterated, unfettered” farming, and that, thanks to the sandy loam and oceanic soils, there is a “briny element to both the whites and the reds.”
On the recent purchase of Rancho Salsipuedes: He’s elated that the team behind Jonata — particularly winemaker Matt Dees — bought the property on the western edge of the appellation that’s home to Radian, Bent Rock, and Puerta del Mar vineyards. “Matt Dees is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life, inside and outside of this business,” said Brewer. “He’s talented, sensitive, and detail-oriented, and I see that purchase being super positive for all of us in the whole appellation. If there are more wines that come out of his hands, we’ll all be better for it. He’s a genius. I love that guy.”
The Sta. Rita Hills Wine & Fire Weekend includes various tastings and events August 15 to 17. See staritahills.com.