For an industry built on relaxation, there’s a lot of angst right now in Santa Barbara wine country, where a who’s who of vintners are drawing battle lines around whether the critically acclaimed Sta. Rita Hills appellation should expand eastward. On one side are regional pioneers such as Richard Sanford, Kris Curran, and Rick Longoria, who’ve pledged to protect the sanctity of the original borders, while on the other side are equally well respected yet comparably newer names like Norm Yost, Drake Whitcraft, and Sashi Moorman, who believe a slight change wouldn’t be the end of the world and might actually better define the region.
They and more than 100 others submitted comments on the proposal to the federal government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) by last Friday’s deadline, with about 20 in favor and more than 80 opposed to the idea. But the TTB’s Tom Hogue assured the expansion would be based on the data presented, not popularity. “Each of these rule-makings is very fact-dependent,” said Hogue from his Washington, D.C., office on Monday, noting the timetable for a decision is hard to predict. “The next step is to review all the comments, and then you have a choice: You can make a change based on the comments and move toward the final rule, or you can reject the comments and move toward a final rule, or you can end up with a situation where we go back out for another round of public comments.”
First proposed to the federal government back in February 2013 by the owners of Pence Ranch (which is just outside the appellation) and John Sebastiano Vineyard (which is mostly inside but partially out), the idea immediately triggered an angry response from many of those who helped create the roughly 33,000-acre Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area, or AVA, back in 2001.
Led by the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, the opponents say that the proposed 3,000 acres of new land are really part of the Buell Flats and fear the addition (which would also encompass part of the Rio Vista Vineyard not currently in the appellation) would dilute the geographic validity of the region, which is mostly planted in the cool-climate-loving grapes of pinot noir and chardonnay. If this expansion goes through, so would future ones, they say, claiming that the only motivation is money, since grapes fetch an additional $1,000-plus a ton when they come from the Sta. Rita Hills.
But ranch owner and primary expansion proponent Blair Pence believes his area is perfectly suitable for the appellation, points to a thick stack of climactic analysis as evidence, and said that money is not the main reason. “We’ve got a really confusing situation right now,” said Pence, who must explain to customers that he is just 550 yards outside of the appellation yet claims all of the soils, climate, and contributing factors otherwise match up. “Frankly, it’s a pain.”
Before proposing the expansion, Pence hired viticultural geographer Patrick Shabram to determine whether a border shift would be appropriate. “What I found was that the increase in temperature as you move inland was not as profound as people think,” said Shabram. “There are actually areas within the Sta. Rita Hills that appear to have temperatures warmer than the proposed expansion.”
That latter finding in Shabram’s work came under scrutiny by the opposition, with one expert claiming his numbers weren’t even in the “same ballpark” of what they should have been, essentially alleging he had fabricated the data. But Shabram said the critic incorrectly assumed the location of a particular weather station — he used mostly private stations owned by Central Coast Vineyard Care, but didn’t provide exact locations — and believes that the “ballpark” comment may be based on someone’s incorrect conversion between centigrade and Fahrenheit readings. “I stand by these numbers,” he explained.
Both Shabram and Pence were surprised at how much opposition was stirred up by the proposal, including social media campaigns, form letters, and a 10-minute video narrated by Richard Sanford that’s been making the rounds. Expansion supporters also criticize the way it was handled by the winegrowers alliance, where an official vote of members was reportedly never taken before an anti-expansion position was decided. “It’s not that big of an expansion,” said Shabram, “so it’s kind of inexplicable why there is so much pushback on it.”