The Wicked Wine Grapes of Rancho Salsipuedes
Bentrock and Radian Vineyards Thrive on the Challenging Western Edge of the Sta. Rita Hills
Once you scale the cliff-like driveway and park on a precarious mesa high above the Santa Ynez River, it doesn’t take long to figure out why they named this stretch of land Rancho Salsipuedes, which roughly translates to “get the hell out if you can.” It’s hard to find a flat piece of earth on the tumultuous property — whose 3,700 acres straddle the western fringe of the Sta. Rita Hills winegrowing appellation around the intersection of Highway 1 and Santa Rosa Road near Lompoc — and much of it is dissected by vertical canyons that not even the cougars dare.
That didn’t stop the Premier Pacific Vineyards team — an investment outfit of the state pension fund CalPERS, which formerly owned the property — from planting about 190 acres of grapes there seven years ago. Since vintners tend to be the masochistic type, those paying attention quickly rejoiced in the resulting pains, from the poison oak that grows in between rows to the maddening Pacific winds that blow constantly to the ash-like diatomaceous earth that serves as soil on the upper ridges.
Combined with sketchy roads and vines planted at every imaginable angle, these conditions make growing grapes in the Radian and Bentrock vineyards logistically difficult, to say the least. But that’s also the charm — so much charm, in fact, that, according to the Santa Barbara County Assessor’s Office, the current owners paid about $25 million in 2014 for the property, which also includes the six-acre Puerta del Mar vineyard to the west, outside of the appellation.
“It thrives off of its challenges,” said Matt Dees, who makes wine for Jonata and The Hilt, the two brands owned by the ranch’s new patron, St. Louis sports team mogul Stan Kroenke. “This corridor is the sweet spot of the Sta. Rita Hills,” said Dees, looking east toward the historic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard before turning his eye back to the Radian Vineyard rows before us, “and this is the most radical vineyard anyone has ever seen.”
Last month, Dees and Coastal Vineyard Care’s Ruben “The Grape Whisperer” Solorzano took me on a tour of the organically farmed property, which is fast becoming one of the most coveted sources for pinot noir and chardonnay in the New World. Star sommelier Rajat Parr sells his Sandhi Bentrock chardonnay for $90 (a price unheard of for white wines from around here), and Bryan Babcock’s Appellation’s Edge and Radical bottlings are some of the tastiest pinots on the planet, both $60. Esteemed brands such as Dragonette, Liquid Farm, and Ken Brown also bank on the two vineyards, and Dees plans to keep it that way. “They’ve been carrying the flags and doing a great job,” he said. “We’re not going to use all the fruit. We’re looking to have long-term relationships with other passionate and talented winemakers.”
The 190 acres is about evenly split between Radian and Bentrock. The latter is closer to the Santa Ynez River, on a bench of reddish, iron-rich soil laid across relatively gently sloping hills. “The soil actually looks like soil,” said Dees. It’s also where most of the ranch’s 15 acres of chardonnay is planted, which Dees called “rare as hen’s teeth and worth its weight in gold.”
The topography of Radian, however, is more like a ski resort. There’s the powder-like diatomaceous earth on the “moon blocks” of the upper ridge (which is the Sta. Rita Hills’ southwestern boundary), the shale- and chert-loaded earth on the northern slope, and then the steep “pinot bowl” full of black clay in between, where all manners of shade, sun, and wind aspects exist. You couldn’t design a more diverse and visually striking vineyard.
Aside from the amazing setting, Kroenke’s purchase of Rancho Salsipuedes gives The Hilt, his Burgundy-focused brand, its own estate. There’s an office being built on the property, with hopes for a winery down the road one day at Puerta del Mar. Currently, Kroenke’s Jonata brand produces about 5,000 cases in a big year, but The Hilt hovers around the 2,500 mark. Expect those numbers to get closer, said Dees, explaining, “Now that The Hilt has a home, it will grow.”
Many brands that source Rancho Salsipuedes fruit will be pouring at the Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend’s grand tasting on Saturday, April 25, at River View Park in Buellton. There are also seminars, receptions, and a tasting visa program running April 23-26. See sbvintnersweekend.com for a full listing of events.