​Sta. Rita Hills Syrah Reinvented

Davies Wakefield

sta. rita hills syrah reinvented—davies wakefield—august 2020


The Sta. Rita Hills AVA (American Viticulture Area) is one of the newest AVA's in California. Founded in 2001, it used to be called the Santa Rita AVA but the Santa Rita winery in Chile raised its hackles, sued and it became Sta. Rita Hills in 2006. What is also confusing is the orientation of the mountains in this area north of Santa Barbara. All the mountains run from north to south in California except for the Santa Rosa Hills and the Purisma Hills in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. What is clear, is that the east west orientation of those two hills allows the marine layer and oceanic breezes to flow east over the vineyards there. And that quirk of nature makes this AVA one of the unique areas on the planet to grow Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And yes, this was the film set for the movie Sideways and I have visited the area many times since I started drinking wine. The Santa Barbara area is Mediterranean in climate and the place that Julia Child retired to.

My first trip to Santa Barbara was in 1987 when I was setting up an industrial expo in Los Angeles to showcase my company's heavy-duty trailers. After the show I drove up the coast to Santa Barbara and purchased a case of the Sanford and Benedict Chardonnay and schlepped it back to the airport. This was a time when you could walk a case of wine onto a commercial jet and stow it in the overhead bins. At that time the wineries of that area were young and inexperienced but the wine was great. It had very little oak influence. It was crisp and bright with pineapple flavors. Unfortunately, the old maxim “Nothing succeeds like excess" came into play as producers tried to improve the flavors by maximizing the hang time of their grapes which drove the sugar content of the grapes up as well as the resultant alcohol levels after fermentation. The use of new oak, and in the case of Chardonnay, barrel fermentation changed that fresh, bright pineapple flavor into a caramelized buttery mess reminiscent of caramel corn at the county fair. There were a few iconoclasts that bravely resisted the mob and continued to produce great wines in near anonymity.

Adam Tolmach of the Ojai Vineyard in Santa Barbara admitted to a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that, “We lost our rudder when we went for even bolder, riper flavors." He went on to vow that he was going to make leaner, low alcohol wines.

Today, 12 years later, Adam's hair and beard are now white, but he is making some of the best Syrah in the area and his philosophy has spread to other wine makers. He states the issue of growing Syrah as a balance between warmer sites which produce “lots of fruity goodness" and cooler areas producing wines with a savory side that he prefers. Savory means scents of clove, burnt sage, blood, iron filings and cured meats. He compares his wines with the famous Côte Rotie (roasted coast) and as his premature white hair attests the wines he now makes “feel nervous and edgy."

The climate in the Santa Rita hills is edgy by any measure. With direct exposure to the Pacific Ocean just north of the jutting elbow of Point Conception, it's subject to prodigious wind as well as regular fog that curtails sunlight hours and contributes to some of the coolest average summer temperatures in the state. Most early plantings of Syrah were situated on the warmer east side of the appellation, away from the coast. Planting Syrah at all seemed risky, given its late start and longer arc of maturity. But such calculus didn't take into account the forgiving autumn weather of the southern Central Coast, resulting in a much longer growing season.

Tolmach continues, “Here we can ripen Syrah all the way to the end of October and not have to worry about frost."

But to really see what's going on for Syrah in the appellation, get into your car in Solvang or Buellton and head west to Lompoc on State Route 246. Keep your eye on the dashboard temperature gauge as you drive: you'll notice a temperature drop of one degree per mile. By the time you've reached the western edge of the appellation the temperature has dropped ten degrees and you are ten miles from the ocean. The soil is a mix of limestone, shale and diatomaceous earth. Perfect for Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wines from this area are made at very small wineries like Brewer Clifton, Holus Bolus, Sebastiano, Sea Smoke, Ojai Vineyards, Melville and Barden. These are small production wines and they are expensive. Most sell out on introduction. I was lucky to get three bottles of the Barden Syrah for this article.

Doug Margerum, who owns Margerum Vineyards, started a second brand called Barden (his middle name) after tasting Syrah grown at John Sebastiano's Vineyard, devoted to raising Sta. Rita Syrah. Doug started using different techniques to treat the Syrah as well by using whole cluster and shorter aging periods with dramatic results. The resulting Syrah is generous and rich but with a cool aromatic profile of purple flowers and pink peppercorns.

Probably the most significant early adopter of Rhone varieties was Sine Qua Non, the cult producer founded in 1994 by Manfred and Elaine Krankl. Like Tolmach, Krankl worked with several warmer climate vineyards in Santa Barbara county and still does. But the backbone of his red wine program is Eleven Confessions, his north-facing vineyard, neighboring Sebastiano on the ocean side, planted in 2001, which has resulted in lean aromatic wines with peppery smoked meat scents.

He says, “People thought we were crazy to plant Syrah. It was too cool, this was Pinot and Chardonnay country, but I didn't buy into that." Krankl compares the finesse of Sta. Rita Hills to the thread count in an oriental rug. “The better rugs have more knots, a finer weave. That's what happens in cooler climates."

Amy Christine and Peter Hunken founded Holus Bolus in 2005 and have been quietly cultivating a reputation for lean aromatic Santa Barbara County Syrah using purchased fruit including from the Sebastiano vineyard. Their new vineyard takes cool to another level; it's the westernmost Syrah vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. The Joy Fantastic takes its name from the Prince album, “RaveUn2 the Joy Fantastic." It rises up a steep slope beneath a sloughing diatomaceous cliff that is farmed organically. Christine says that, during the season, the site is under heavy fog until 10 a.m.; when it lifts, the wind picks up in force until the fog returns and the cycle repeats itself. These two young people are true pioneers taking big risks planting where no one else has dared. Yields are tight. It is one of the most extreme sites for Syrah in California.

The Barden Syrah that I purchased for this column is $60 a bottle. It is 13.2 percent alcohol. My wife and I enjoyed half the bottle with a hanger steak off our grill. Grilled meats go perfectly with this wine but it was too much to enjoy the whole bottle. Two weeks later we enjoyed the rest of the bottle which had settled down with some oxidation and it was even better. Now that I've discovered the change in winemaking techniques that this area is undergoing, I'll be looking for more bottles from the area especially from Christine and Peter at Holus Bolus and Doug at Barden.

Additionally, some of these wineries are offering free shipping on purchases of three bottles or more during this pandemic. This is a great time to help out these small businesses while getting to taste wines that we'll probably not see in local wine stores.

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