April 2010

Transverse Transcendence

How the Central Coast’s Santa Rita Hills came to produce a world-class pinot noir
by WES HAGEN / photographs by MACDUFF EVERTON

A visitor to France might be haunted by the sideways glance of an impossibly beautiful woman in a Parisian café, but my epiphany arrived in a glass in a smoky bistro in Chambertin. Pinot noirs from the vineyards of Chambertin were the favorite of Napoléon Bonaparte, and he would make his troops salute the vineyards as they marched through Burgundy. This was the first and only wine that brought me to tears: a 1972 Chapelle-Chambertin made by Domaine Trapet.

But the afterglow was not what I had expected. Instead of wanting to replicate the wine when I returned to Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills to start my career as a winemaker, I decided it was wiser to leave Burgundy in Burgundy and focus on producing wines that represented our soil as well as Chambertin represented hers.

Like a scriptwriter considering his craft after reading Chinatown or a painter struck dumb by the genius of d’Orsay, the experience wasn’t about the desire to re-create the greatness but about my awakening wonder to the idea that the greatest art and craft is based on simplicity. Great wine, like great art, makes humanity and the creative act transparent. It taunts and lures us with the idea I could have made that.

I met my wife, Chanda, when I returned from France in 1999. At the time, I was vineyard manager of Clos Pepe in northern Santa Barbara County, and Steve Pepe (the owner) and Cathy Hagen Pepe (my mother) agreed to launch a small estate production of pinot noir and chardonnay after five years of being strictly growers. Chanda and I shared a bottle of Beaujolais at our first meeting in Isla Vista, made a date for the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association Celebration of Harvest the next week and never separated again. We were married in September 2000, and instead of taking a traditional honeymoon, we launched into our first “estate” harvest, crushing pinot under our toes.

My 15 years in the Santa Rita Hills have given me insight into the climate, soils and rhythm of the growing season. It certainly is one of the only ways a SoCal boy can feel connected to the passing seasons. Winter is mellow and quiet. Spring is spent on edge, watching the frost alarm. Summer is a flurry of farming and canopy management. And fall provides an old-world test of stamina and strength, as we pick fruit all night and spend our days in the winery crafting the vintage.

Even though winemaking may seem like a magical life to many, there is enough anxiety to stretch any personality to the breaking point. Fortunately, we have plenty to drink to remind ourselves that we love this life and that the attempt to make a perfect pinot noir requires nothing less than all our passion.

All’s Fair in Love and War

The pinot noir winemaker must have the stomach to endure the tempestuous fits that come with any romance. Grow it in the wrong soil or in a slightly inappropriate climate, and the wine will be about as pleasant as a princess who has slept on a rocky mattress. Because the vines produce small clusters, small berries and small yields, it’s expensive to farm.

The unforgiving (but ultimately rewarding) pinot grape is unlike any other in the sense that it is transparent: It shows everything that was done to it in the vineyard, especially the vintage’s weather. Some may say pinot noir is a time machine. Pay special attention to what you smell and taste, and a fine pinot will take you somewhere, even back to the year it was grown.

In a colder year (imagine cool Pacific breezes and foggy mornings), you may taste bracing acidity and bright cherry, raspberry and hints of baking spices. In a warmer, riper year (imagine sunny mornings, warm afternoons and cold, starry nights), the wine may have blueberry, strawberry, blackberry and more masculine, even gamey, aromas. But try to grow the grape in an inappropriate climate, and it will show, dramatically, your mistake in planting.

If you do plan to drop $50 on a bottle of pinot noir, be sure it was grown in one of the cool coastal climates that produce a consistently delicious variety. There are barely a dozen hospitable locations for growing world-class pinot, many in California (Central Coast, North Coast, Monterey County), the Willamette Valley of Oregon, New Zealand (include, if you must, parts of Australia and Tasmania) and, of course, Europe, with isolated exposures in Germany, Alsace, Austria, Switzerland and France (Champagne, Burgundy). A perfect storm of climate and rarefied dirt is required to make a palatable pinot...and to make a profound bottle takes nothing short of a miracle.

The miracle of the region’s microclimate, which allows the Santa Rita Hills to produce glorious pinot noir, began about 20 million years ago deep under the Pacific Ocean. During a violent tectonic shift in the Miocene epoch, the Pacific tectonic plate crashed against the North American plate, and mountains rose out of the ocean in a north-south orientation.

As the colossal plates rubbed and ground together, a good chunk of northern Santa Barbara County literally broke off the Pacific plate and began turning clockwise up the coast. This “cookie” of free-floating land continued to grind and turn over millions of years, until the north-south mountain ranges pivoted 90 degrees and fell into their current eastwest alignment between Buellton and the Pacific Ocean, about 30 miles away.

From Vietnam to Viticulture

The story of pinot noir in the Santa Rita Hills starts on a destroyer in Vietnam. Richard Sanford graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965 with a degree in geography, then he was drafted and sent off to war. Discharged from the navy in the Philippines, Sanford “returned the long way through Nepal, India, the Mideast and Europe.” His “spirit quest” convinced him the war was futile, and when he returned to the States, he sought to ground himself. Needing an “earth connection,” Sanford embraced agriculture. Thinking back to a bottle of Volnay (Burgundian pinot noir) he’d tasted with a shipmate in the war, he began a period of intense viticultural study, preparing himself for the task of finding a perfect climate for the grape and planting his first vines.

“Remembering that fine Volnay, I decided pinot noir in California, which often had a pruney, overripe character, was being grown in too warm a climate,” he said. “I collected 100 years of climate data from Burgundy and from all over California. I soon became aware of a remarkable geographic anomaly: the Transverse mountain range. The unique east-west orientation of the mountains allowed the cool, maritime winds to moderate the growing climate in these coastal valleys. Sanford planted his first vines in the Santa Ynez River Valley and, in 1981, started the venerable Sanford Winery, producing many of the region’s early pinot noirs.

The approach to the pinot noir of the Santa Rita Hills has come a long way since Richard Sanford planted his first vine. In spite of the American wine intelligentsia’s attempts to define the typical style of the region’s pinot, those with a broader understanding of wine know that style is never static. It changes with every vintage, every winemaker. And it is inevitably influenced by what is selling in the market. While consumers may have passionate ideas about which style is superior, winemakers will never insist their approach to style is the best. Pinot noir—and wine, for that matter—is an intensely personal experience.

Of the two styles, big, ripe wines may prove perfectly suited for the way Americans drink wine—young. They are full of youthful richness, their flavors are as sunny and unapologetic as California herself. The more elegant may be preferred by the initiated food and wine enthusiast. They may not get the same attention in publications, and require more patience in the cellar, but they integrate more deftly at the table.

Where We Go from Here

In September 2008, the king of American wine critics, Robert M. Parker Jr., wrote: “The explosion in quality and diversity of wines in various parts of the United States... includes pinot noirs from the Santa Rita Hills.” Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast adds: “Today, I think it’s safe to say that the SRH stand as one of the greatest places in the New World to grow pinot noir. And they got there on their own—not with marketing packages and celebrity auctioneers. Not with spin. Not by luring in big spenders with resorts and great restaurants.”

It’s true. SoCal’s wine country does not have the pomp of Napa. We are a young wine-growing area, one free from stuffy convention, ripe with exuberance. This is Sonoma in the 1970s—empty roads, a few dozen tasting rooms, winemakers and their families greeting customers at a barn door. The charm is not painted on like a Disneyland facade, and the time it takes to make a few appointments is readily repaid by a rare and intimate view of a budding wine culture.

Whether it’s a bacchanalian dinner with Bruno D’Alfonso and his wife, Kris Curran, or a walk through the organic vineyards with the gentlemanly Taoist Richard Sanford, the area bubbles with passion, thoughtful stewardship and an agrarian authenticity born from pursuing the most challenging of the wine world’s crops. With only three hours separating Angelenos from pinot paradise, it is just a matter of time before Highway 246 and Santa Rosa Road are busy thoroughfares. We hope you’ll come for a visit while we’re still down to earth.

WES HAGAN is a viticulturalist who pens WineMaker’s “(Another) Year in the Vineyard” blog. His mission is to create confident, liberated wine lovers.

How do Santa Barbara’s pinot noirs stack up? We taste-test them!