Sometimes one needs to step away from the familiar of one’s immediate surroundings and spend some time exploring areas that are close but oft forgotten. So when the opportunity came up to go to Wine and Fire put on by the Santa Rita Hills Wine Alliance and region, located about an hour south of us, in Lompoc, it was a no brainer. First it helped get my bearings as I was always confusing Santa Lucia Highlands (north in Monterey County) and Santa Rita Hills (south in Santa Barbara County) with each other. Aside from the directional confusion, I realized that the Highlands focus more on Bordeaux and Southern Rhone with some Burgundian varietals thrown in, where as the Hills focus on Burgundian and Northern Rhone varietals with a little Bordeaux thrown into the mix.
This was the 6th annual Wine and Fire Celebration, so named because the event revolves around wine and barbecue. The event was 3-fold; the opening event was a Press tour and barn party that took place at Hilliard Bruce winery, the next day included a seminar entitled “Hwy 246 Vineyards A-Z” discussing the varietals, wines and region along with a catered lunch, then it was off to the grand tasting at La Purisma Mission where many of the wineries came out with their wines and local restaurants were on hand sampling some of their grilled deliciousness.
We arrived a bit early on Friday for the Press tour of Hilliard Bruce so we walked the grounds a little. Though Hilliard Bruce has a stunning winery (where they make incredible wines), it is more vineyard centric and is not “permitted” for a tasting room, with no plans to build one any time soon. So typically appointments for tours and tastings are required to visit the winery. Aside from being a winery, they also raise stunningly beautiful (and in my case, cuddly) Arabian horses. They have a brand new foal that will absolutely melt your heart it’s so cute, but only if momma will let you close enough to see it.
Our tour of the winery was given to us by Kari, the lovely and very knowledgable events director. Hilliard Bruce winery is a LEED certified building built 2 years ago on property that’s been owned for 15 years and used primarily to raise Arabian horses. The owners Christine and John are from Houston, Texas and had a previous career in shipyards. The lower level of the winery is dug into the hillside and holds the barrel room and cellar. The lighting is all natural through solar tubes or LED lights that emit no heat and maintains a natural cool temperature. They use a gravity feed to move wines and juice from the upper level crush pad, which holds the presses and fermenters, using hoses put through holes in the floor and dropped into barrels on the lower level. Both Christine and John are winemakers and they have a friendly competition between them. She specialize in making Chardonnay and he, Pinot Noir. Using essentially the same barrel program for both varietals; 30% new French oak and 18 months aged in Dame barrels, they are creating some incredible wines. Christine makes her Chardonnay in a Burgundian style and stirs the lees giving it a nice rounded mouth feel and lemon lime, cool crispness.
After our tour it was time for the Barn Party, a welcome kick off party with live music, several Santa Rita Hills winemakers sharing some of their library stash, some in large format bottles (ie: Magnums) and some of their small production bottlings. To satiate the appetite some pizzas from Bello Forno, and a gorgeous cheese table provided by Central Coast Specialties. The evening was lovely and over 20 different winemakers were there.
Day 2 was the seminars on Chard and Pinot, a barbecue luncheon and then off to the grand tasting day. The seminar started with the Chardonnay portion and the Moderators were Blogger at Wineberserkers Philip Carpenter and J. Wilkes winemaker extraordinaire, Wes Hagen while our panel consisted of: Bryan Babcock Babcock Winery, Christine Bruce-Hilliard Bruce, Steve Clifton-Machado Vineyards and La Voix Winery, Karen Steinwachs-Hibbits vineyards and Buttonwood, Aaron Walker-Pali Wine Co, and Dan Schuler Jones –Zotovich Vineyards.
Wes began in the wine industry by working with Bryan Babcock in 1996, and likes to joke that the Santa (Sta.) Rita Hills Chardonnay AVA was started by Pinot Noir. He’s a huge Chard fan, and says it’s the editorial monitor of the wine world. Chardonnay is the step child of the Sta. Rita Hills region, it’s wonderfully expressive of the region and offers an especially descriptive drinking experience. Wes was recently honored as Winemaker of the Year by the Wall Street Journal, and named #68 of the top 100 Most Influential Winemakers in the U.S. by Decanter magazine and happens to be one of my favorite moderators for events like this. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable and that knowledge is extremely diverse, from the history of wine through the making of it and more.
Wes started by asking the panel at large 2 main questions “What about this wine represents the 246 corridor (Northern half of the region)?” and “What have you done with the wine to make it representative of the Region?”. Naturally everyone started to answer but went in totally different but highly informative directions.
The discussion started with Babcock’s Top Cream Chardonnay, aged in 50% new French oak, it is named for the white creamy look of the top soil it grows in. The Chardonnay had a compelling nose and a sweet but dry palate. According to Bryan and company he “used to make the best wine on 246” but with all the great new winemakers he has a little competition and he considers it to be very good competition. According to Karen the soil is “cruddy” described as sandy, in some places clay and the ocean influences with a daily marine layer keeps it cool and sunny with the breeze coming in about mid afternoon. Most of the Chardonnay is on “this side of the corridor” (where Hilliard and Bruce are). The impact of that means you can expect to taste crystalline minerality, citrusy (lime) fruit, pear, and some nice acidity. It has obvious oak influence giving a more creamy and buttery quality to the wine. There has been an important movement toward focusing more on the vineyards becoming the stars versus the style of the winemakers which is where the focus has previously been.
Steve made a good point in that, Chardonnay is a very transparent varietal when it comes to expressing itself and there is never enough focus on Sta. Rita Hills being the only region that is bordered on 3 sides by the Pacific Ocean which creates a raw product that has more of an oceanic brine quality, that is then enhanced by the oak and winemaker’s ability. The winemakers were asked what foods they would pair with their Chardonnay? Some of the answers were Seared Scallops with black truffle, Lobster, Potato Chips, and Roast Sunday Chicken.
We took a break and the winemakers went about pouring the Pinot Noirs for the next portion of the seminar. Starting with Aaron who said, Pinot is more marketable than most other varietals, and thus in the Santa Rita Hills there are 44 Pinot Noir acres and 6 Chardonnay acres. Pinot Noir has the thickest skins in the world, so thick, that there is literally a loss of one full barrel of wine just to skin weight. On average winemakers will only get about 120 gallons of juice per ton.
Keeping the clusters very small offers a lot of concentration, but very dark skins are a traditional indication of a young vineyard. Because of the skins, it’s common for Santa Rita Hills Pinots to be dark and richly extracted, and the cool climate brings spice to the wines while keeping the plants healthy and happy. Due to drought trends and how it affects the vineyards, last year’s crop was small; the weather this year made a big difference by flushing out the soils which across the board helped in creating some really nice wine.
Bryan pointed out that Pinot has a waxy substance called “bloom” which attracts yeast (great for native fermentation, though many of the winemakers admitted to inoculation using commercial yeast), so as soon as the grape is crushed it will start to ferment. The bloom also protects the clusters from sunburn through sun contact. Early in the season bloom prevents mold and later in the season it supports ripening. Viticulture architecture is all about discovering the relationship between the vines, fruit and soil of each vineyard. Carrying on that theme, Karen said, “wine is made in the vineyard” everyone on the panel acknowledged they are very involved in vineyard management. Managing the canopy with leaf pulling is used to focus on full clusters, and more exposure to the sun sometimes allowing for 100% sun exposure. Though some winemakers prefer not to pull as many leaves simply for the sake of doing it, the pulling and trimming needs to be done at a very precise time and early in the evolution of the grapes. Because it is so tricky, it is important to know what you want to show in the expression of the end product, to get it exactly right.
Where as we mentioned earlier, too much exposure to the sun and the grapes will get sunburned, too much shade will create high Pyrazines (giving the wine tomato stemmy, and raspberry notes) so canopy management is key to creating a fruity blackberry and blueberry quality. Steve said he uses 20% whole clusters so the stems create the high Pyrazines flavors he likes his wines to have. Aaron said the Pali vineyard is making very good wine, though there were struggles with the planting. Because Pinot is such a food friendly wine with great acidity, very cherry aromatics and is very representative of the region; they were also asked to give their favorite food and Pinot pairings. The general consensus was pair it with duck, pork, anything cooked over red oak and traditional Santa Maria style barbecue.
Speaking of which, after the seminar we were treated to a lovely barbecue lunch on the Hilliard Bruce Winery patio with a band, and food provided by The Hitching Post 2, made famous in the movie Sideways. During the lunch we got a chance to talk to Aaron, the winemaker at Pali Wine Company, who invited us and some others over to the vineyard to do a little wine tasting and a tour. It was a blast! We tasted 4 or 5 wines, then all piled into his truck and toured our way to the top of the vineyard. Aaron was very hospitable and made it very special, he even let us taste some of his personal brand of wine, “MoonWalker Cellars”.
Then it was off to La Purisma Mission for the Grand Tasting event. Forty plus wineries were there along with restaurants- Babe Farms, Campbell Farms, Central Coast Specialty Foods, Homegrown Cowboy, The Hitching Post II, Tollhouse BBQ, Scratch Kitchen, The Ballard Inn and many members of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance all providing samples of local fare and wine. The Mission grounds are lovely and we walked a winding path to the different vendors, tasting some amazing wines and food. In that I have a serious addiction to a silent wine auction (No, like seriously it’s a problem. With some women it’s shoes or purses; me, wine) naturally I was drawn like Bugs Bunny to a carrot, and entered it. Then the magic happened, I won 2 bottles of Conarium Pinot Noir! Which I promptly got signed by the winemaker. Then, after a fun wine and education filled weekend it was time to head home. This is definitely an event worth attending, so if you get an opportunity make sure you go.
Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.” ~ Paulo Coelho
Great up and coming events: 1/2-31/17 San Luis Obispo County Restaurant Month; 1/13-15/17 Paso Blend Fest; 1/14/17 Esprit du Vin; 1/28/17 Down the Rabbit Hole; 3/17-19/17 Vintage Paso; 5/4-5/7 Chardonnay Symposium; 5/18-21/17 Paso Robles Wine Festival; 6/3/17 Firestone Walker Beerfest; 10/20-22/17 Harvest Wine Weekend