The Sta. Rita Hills AVA sits on the western side of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Pacific Ocean is only 16 miles away and the cooling influence of the ocean makes the Sta. Rita Hills AVA one of the most respected cool-climate wine regions.
With more than 3,500 acres planted in more than 59 vineyards, the Sta. Rita Hills is known for Pinot Noir, as well as Chardonnay and Syrah. But only 50 years ago, this region did not exist. It is because of Richard Sanford, and those that followed him, that the Sta. Rita Hills AVA exists today.
After returning home from the Vietnam War, Richard Sanford, who had studied geography, drove up and down the coast of California. With the east-west running valley, which is the result of the transverse mountain range, the proximity to the ocean, the soils, and the exposure, he saw the potential of the Central Coast.
The Sanford and Benedict Vineyard was planted in 1971 to Pinot Noir and the first wine was released in 1976. Many other producers followed and planted other now well-known vineyards, including Fiddlestix, Melville, Seasmoke, The Hilt, Domaine La Cote, Ampelos, and more. In 2001, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA was granted status.
Pinot Noir is a grape with personality. “Pinot Noir wines are driven by the place, not the people,” explained The Hilt winemaker Matt Dees. “When you stick your nose in a glass of Pinot Noir, you know if it is from the Sta. Rita Hills.”
Eight Winemakers Share Their Perspectives
Kathy Joseph, Fiddlehead Cellars
Kathy Joseph first started making wine in 1989 but bought land in 1996. She purchased land in the Sta. Rita Hills and planted the Fiddlestix Vineyard. Kathy was looking for a certain flavor and texture profile, and the Sta. Rita Hills had it. “It was different from Santa Maria,” she explained. “What makes it is its soil, history, proximity to the ocean, slope exposure, and minerality. This combination is what makes the wines taste unique. Sta. Rita Hills offers the entire package.”
Fiddlehead Cellars 2016 728 Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – Fiddlestix Vineyard is located at mile marker 7.28 on Santa Rosa Road, hence the name of the 728 Pinot Noir. This wine has lots of spice and earth aromas, as well as black cherry notes. On the palate, the wine has dusty tannins and a vibrant lift.
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Gray Hartley, Hitching Post
Gray Hartley has been making wine in the Sta. Rita Hills since before it was the Sta. Rita Hills. Hitching Post made its first wine from the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard in 1985. “There is a lineal commonality that ties the Sta. Rita Hills together, from the east-west mountains to the unique soils and weather,” Gray shared. “It's a magical place…it’s ethereal.”
Hitching Post 2018 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills – With notes of red fruits, spice, and earthy, this wine is a classic expression of a Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir.
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Matt Dees, The Hilt
The Sta. Rita Hills has been Matt Dees’ home since 2014. The Hilt opened their winery in the southwest corner of the AVA in 2019.
With three vineyards, Radian, Bentrock, and Puerto del Mar, Matt describes the vineyards as “second to none” and “unlike anything I have worked with.” When asked what makes these vineyards so incredible, he explained. “It is everything, the climate, which is like refrigerated sunshine, the soil, the slopes, and the exposures are all inseparable factors.”
The Hilt Radian Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills – Radian is a rugged, steep, extreme vineyard that sits at 1100 feet elevation and has diatomaceous earth. The wine is spice driven with notes of black tea and cloves. It is a wine of structure and texture. There is a purity to the wine which has a give and take between tannin and acid.
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Peter Work, Ampelos Cellars
Peter and Rebecca Work purchased their 82 acres in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1999 and named it “Ampelos” which is the Greek word for vine. They have been certified biodynamic since 2011.
Located on the eastern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills, the vineyard gets the cool breezes from the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Rosa Hills, and La Purisima Mountains. Peter loves everything about the Sta. Rita Hills.
“The climate is ideal. Summer breezes roll in and then there is fog and then blue skies,” he shared. “There is a transparency to the site and with the proximity to the ocean, the wines have a brininess and salinity, like a kiss from the ocean.” Peter added “it is also the people. We were welcomed here when we first arrived and now pay that back.”
Ampelos Cellars 2018 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir - Rho – This wine is made entirely from free-run wine from eleven selected barrels. It spent 33 months in barrels with no racking and one year in bottle. The wine has dark fruit and spice aromas and is lush on the palate with elegant acidity.
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Karen Steinwachs, Seagrape Cellars
Karen Steinwachs came to the Santa Ynez Valley in 2001 and began Seagrape Cellars in 2007.
Karen has worked in various AVAs in the Santa Ynez Valley and what she likes about the Sta. Rita Hills is the “serenity of the region.” She continued, “It is a calm region with the push and pull of the fog.” She added that “there is the radiance of the sun without the heat that results in a long growing season that allows the grapes to ripen gracefully.”
Seagrape 2017 “Jump Up” Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills - “Jump Up” is a Caribbean term for an impromptu street party.
The grapes are sourced from Viña La Rancha and 20% were left whole cluster. The wine has savory herbal and cola notes, as well as fruit aromas of black cherry and rhubarb. On the palate, the wine is fresh with good acidity.
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Dusty Nabor, Dusty Nabor Wines
Dusty Nabor sources fruit from vineyards across the Santa Ynez Valley, including from four vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills: Spear, Radian Bentrock, and Fiddlestix. He makes two vineyard-designated wines and one blend from these four vineyards.
When asked what draws him to the Sta. Rita Hills, he emphatically stated, “I love the Sta. Rita Hills. I find it so enticing for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” He added, “When making wine, there is something about your artistic interpretation of the land, it is a feeling and the Sta. Rita Hills was created for Pinot and Chard.”
Dusty Nabor 2021 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills
A blend of fruit from Spear, Radian, and Fiddlestix Vineyards, the grapes are hand-picked, whole cluster fermented and aged in both French barrels and stainless steel. The wine has elevated aromatics of red berries and crushed flowers, as well as herbaceous notes, and fresh acidity.
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Jessica Gasca, Story of Soil
Jessica Gasca sources from 15 vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley for Story of Soil Wines. Five of these vineyards are in the Sta. Rita Hills.
She loves wines with acidity, and she describes the Sta. Rita Hills as “a perfect place [for acidity] with the cool climate and soils created by diatomaceous earth and ancient ocean beds.”
Story of Soil 2021 Ampelos Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills – Sourced from the Ampelos Vineyard, this is a pretty wine with bright red fruit notes and fresh acidity.
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Shauna and Martin Mackenzie, Three Furies Wines
Shauna and Martin Mackenzie started Three Furies Wines in 2016. Based in Napa Valley, they make three Pinot Noirs from three regions, Anderson Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, and the Sta. Rita Hills. While Sta. Rita Hills is the most southern of the three regions, it is the coldest.
Sta. Rita Hills is a favorite of Shauna and Martin who are drawn to the ruggedness of the region and the “voluptuous and tantalizing fruit”.
Three Furies Wines 2019 Constant Vengeance, Viña La Rancha Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – A luxurious Pinot Noir with personality. Structured and intense with aromas of dark red fruits and spice.
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About the author:
Allison Levine is the owner of Please The Palate, a boutique marketing and event-planning agency. Allison is Level 3 WSET Certified from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and is certified as an Italian Wine Specialist from the North American Sommelier Association. She also has a Master's Degree in International Communications with a focus on cross-cultural training from the American University School of International Service. As a freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications, including California Winery Advisor and the Napa Valley Register, while eating and drinking her way around the world. She is also the host of the Wine Soundtrack podcast. You can find additional content on her blog at Please The Palate; Twitter and Instagram @plsthepalate; Facebook: Please The Palate