In search of some great Pinot Noir’s and Chardonnays.
By Hudson Lindenberger
When my wife first suggested we take a drive down CA 246 and taste some wines in the Santa Rita Hills region I must admit I was skeptical. I had not heard much about this area before; normally we head to the Santa Ynez valley and the well-known towns of Solvang and Buellton. Little did I know the joys that awaited me in this delightful region best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The region is one of the newer appellations in the AVA having been formally recognized in 2001. In 2006 the name was changed to Sta. Rita Hills, to avoid confusion with the wine maker VINA Santa Rita in Chile.
The Santa Rita Hills have been recognized for it’s unique micro-climate that makes it particularly suited for producing world class Pinot’s. Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune describes it thus, “With the Pacific Ocean just 11 miles to the west and, thanks to the coastline’s sharp curve eastward at Point Conception, also nine miles to the south, Sta. Rita Hills is blessed with a unique climate that winemakers began to realize would be ideal for France’s cooler weather grapes, notably pinot noir and chardonnay. Coastal fogs and ocean breezes keep such a lid on the heat that temperatures rise roughly one degree for every mile you travel east through the area.”
While the region is home to more than 45 winemakers and vineyards, only a few offer estate tastings rooms, most of which are in a business area in Lompoc called, appropriately, the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. We consulted our map and made the decision to visit three tasting rooms located on the wineries (Foley Estates, Melville Winery, and Babcock Winery) and then stop by the Wine Ghetto to give us a feel for everything the region has to offer.
The first stop was Foley Estates approximately 10.5 miles east of Lompoc on Hwy 246. The Foley family has been producing wine since the late 1990’s and they operate 10 separate vineyards throughout California. Bill Foley got his start in the Santa Rita Hills producing high quality Pinot Noir’s and Chardonnay’s and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. The tasting room is nestled in the middle of the coffee-colored hills surrounded by green vineyards in every direction you look. The estate’s buildings were part of a former thoroughbred horse facility that was transformed into the modern ranch inspired facilities that house the winery and tasting room. The tasting room is quite large (3,500 square feet) with comfortable leather chairs, large fireplace and a comfy patio out back to enjoy a glass of wine. $20 will get you a tasting of five great Pinot’s, but the fee is waived if you join their wine club.
A couple of miles west down Highway 246 is Melville Winery. Ron Melville founded the vineyard in 1996 after nine years of successfully producing wines in Sonoma. The tasting room is housed in a Mediterranean inspired villa surrounded by vines and soaring trees, a relaxing escape from the heat of the day. All of the wines offered in the tasting room are estate grown, which means that all of the grapes are produced in their vineyards and not sourced from other growers. The large French doors that dominate one wall beckon you to take your tasting to the outdoor deck and soak in the beauty of the surroundings. $15 will get you a tasting of several varietals, but the fee might be waved if you buy a bottle of wine, it is up to the tasting room manager and depends on what you are purchasing.
Right next door to Melville is the Babcock Winery, a rising star in the region that has received abundant awards including being named one of the top 10 small production winemakers in the world by the James Beard Foundation. The vineyard was founded in 1978 by Mona and Walter Babcock and is currently run by their son Bryan, the consummate innovator. Babcock’s current focus is on their concept of “revolutionary farming” in which Bryan has challenged the way wine is grown by raising the height of the vines to eye level and pioneering a whole new way of shading grapes. The tasting room is housed in a warehouse and offers an eclectic mix of stage props, vintage furniture and novelties. The vibe here is a mix of the TV show Mad Men, your grandmother’s house and a rock concert all thrown into a blender and served willingly by tattooed sommeliers. The wines that he produces were the highlight of our trip, we had the Terroir Tasting, a mixed varietal affair we knew would be memorable when the first wine offered was Identity Crisis…A white Syrah! $15 will get you a tasting, but the fee is waived if you join their wine club.
As we drove into Lompoc on Highway 246 to find the Wine Ghetto we were surprised to be driving through a light industrial area but, as we all have been told, never judge a book by its cover. Signs for the Lompoc Wine Trail point you to the entrance of the Wine Ghetto and as you enter it there is a feeling that the community proudly embraces their off wayward gem, for good reason. The Ghetto has 19 tasting rooms offering a numerous array of world-class wines, many of them produced on location in their back rooms. You might not be surrounded by rolling hills but you smell grapes, you see vintners and you know you will be sampling some great wine. Some notable wineries located here include Brewer-Clifton, Fiddlehead, Longoria, Transcendence and Tyler to name a few.
The Santa Rita Hills and surrounding area are best known as the locations for the hit movie Sideways, where the main character brings his friend for a week of excellent wine, great food and golf. I recommend spending a day or two touring the area and sampling these fine wines; I bet in the end you will go home with a few bottles yourself.
For more information visit www.santaritahillswinetrail.com/
Feature photo, view from Melville porch: The vineyard view from the porch at Melville Winery. Photo by Hudson Lindenberger.