Updated: Jan 8
You might get some arguments, but there is no debating that the Santa Rita Hills AVA boasts some of the most coveted Pinot Noir from California. It's a unique AVA for several reasons. It's one of the most southerly Pinot AVAs in California and much closer to the equator than any European Pinot Noir growing region.
The warm latitude combined with plantings on prime south facing slopes provides more than ample sun throughout a long growing season. Yet, these cool climate-loving vines do extremely well here given the built in air conditioning coming off of the Pacific.
Unlike any other part of California, the mountains here run perpendicular to the ocean, not parallel. There are three mountain ranges forming a trident that opens to the Pacific and funnels cool breezes and fog into the valleys and across the vineyards.
The waters along the coast are also particularly cold owing to the deep currents that originate in the artic and surface near the coast along the Santa Rita Hills AVA. This cooling influence can make the temperatures in the AVA as much a 30% cooler than neighboring Buellton, a close 20 miles away.
So despite the latitude, the growing temperatures in the Santa Rita Hills AVA are actually cooler than the Carneros in Napa Valley or the Russian River Valley in Sonoma. This combination of cooling influences with a site so far south ensures that the wine growing season is extended by 30 to 40 days longer than most other Pinot growing regions in California which adds to the intensity and complexity of the fruit.
Finally, there’s very little rainfall in the region. Average annual rainfall is less than 20 inches and falls mainly during the winter. For a varietal that is notoriously difficult to grow and susceptible to fungus, this arid climate is ideal. And most of the vineyards in the area are under 20 years old, so they have the most modern irrigation and vine management technologies to ensure the grapes do well.
Poor soils, rich wines
Then there's the soil. Raised from the sea floor of the Miocene era oceans, the hills harbor some of the world's largest deposits of diatomaceous earth. These white chalky, calcium rich deposits have engendered a nickname in the region – “The White Cliffs of Lompoc.” Rich in minerals, some attribute the unique minerality and salinity in the wines to these deposits.
Another benefit of the soil composition of the AVA is good drainage, and the ability to hold the small amounts of rain deep underground for the vines to find. Sand is also present in the soils for the northern portion of the AVA, while some more alluvial soils can be found in the southern portion. This adds some subtle differences to the taste profiles in the AVA.
What’s a Sta. Rita?
You will often see the AVA abbreviated as Sta. Rita Hills. It’s not that the growers here are too lazy to add an extra couple letters. When the AVA was first established, the branding was challenged by the growers in the Santa Rita PDO of Chile. As a compromise, they agreed not to challenge the branding if the abbreviated name Sta. Rita Hills was used.
The AVA extends from the northern fork of the trident, the Purisima Mountains, down to the southern fork in the trident, the Santa Rosa Mountains. It is one of the smaller AVAs in California, and was carefully laid out to highlight cool-climate hillside viticulture.
That’s not how it started, however. Sanford and Benedict planted the first vineyards in the area in the early 1970s to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. The climate wasn’t conducive to the big fruit Cabs that were becoming popular, but with new plantings it was increasingly clear that cooler-climate loving vines like Pinot Noir would do well here. By the late 1990s, growers in the area had agreed upon the characteristics and boundaries for the AVA application and status was officially granted in 2001.
Currently, 80% of the AVA is planted to Pinot Noir, with 15% planted in Chardonnay. There are roughly 60 vineyards in the AVA featuring blockbuster Pinot Noir labels such as Sea Smoke, Melville, Loring, Foxen, Sanford, Babcock, Brewer-Clifton, Clos Pepe, and Hilliard-Bruce.
You can read more about Sta. Rita Hills from these expert resources:
Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance