At the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, a homely set of corrugated buildings in California's south Central Coast, a handful of Santa Rita Hills winemakers routinely gathers to taste and talk about the wines taking shape in their cellars. Over the last three vintages, the talk has taken on a more earnest tone: For each, the Ghetto has served as a kind of incubator toward the pursuit of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that have brighter flavors, leaner textures, invigorating acidity and lower alcohols, the opposite of what has been happening in the region — and the state — over the last decade.
Each has come to believe, fervently, that this kind of balance is easier to accomplish in the Santa Rita Hills than anywhere else in California. They'll tell you that at harvest their fruit is fully mature — the reds deeply colored, the whites limpid and mouthwatering — at lower sugars and lower alcohols, while retaining a level of acidity that is almost a thing of the past in California.
"This place presents us with so many choices," says Chad Melville, of Melville and Samsara wineries. "There aren't that many appellations where you can do this."
In fact, sommelier Rajat Parr, who has made Pinot and Chardonnay for his Sandhi label from several California appellations, recently announced that he's walking away from those other places and going all-in on the Santa Rita Hills. "It's one of the only regions I know where you can make a wine with 9 or 10 grams of natural acidity but can still have proper ripeness in that context."
This is, in effect, a rediscovery. In 1970, Richard Sanford, seeking a soulful enterprise after his stint as a Navy officer in Vietnam, planted Sanford & Benedict vineyard here, amid pastureland and row crop plantings of cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and patches of brightly colored flowers, grown for seed. In doing so he established what was arguably California's first cool-climate vineyard, and the character of his bright and nervy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay attracted producers like Rick Longoria, Adam Tolmach and Jim Clendenen (the last of whom is still making graceful, nuanced Chardonnays from the vineyard).
In the '90s and early aughts, vineyard development exploded, and important vineyard plantations — Fiddlestix, Clos Pepe, Melville, Fe Ciega, Cargasacchi and others — were planted, many employing new quicker-to-ripen Dijon clones for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
As these vineyards came into maturity, the region's focus seemed to change. Rather than working within the constraints of coolness, the region spawned a coterie of full-bore producers — Sea Smoke, Loring, Siduri and Brewer Clifton among them — that exploited the region's high acid levels to push ripeness into new terrain, often resulting in extremely high alcohols and a fruit profile that can only be described as lurid.
Such efforts were rewarded by critics, however, notably James Laube of the Wine Spectator; in a curious irony, the state's coolest wine region earned a reputation for some of its biggest wines.
At least some in the Wine Ghetto crowd went with the trend, believing that their best wines were those that flirted with high levels of ripeness. But the 2009 vintage offered a unique set of conditions to explore even cooler climate. That exploration, at least at first, started with popping in on each other and tasting wines that had been picked fully mature at lower sugars — subtle flavors and textures that developed slowly, like a hand-printed photograph. As the wines matured, an aesthetic took shape.
Such transformations weren't limited to the Ghetto. That year Greg Brewer, winemaker at Melville Vineyards and no stranger to big wines at his own Brewer Clifton, followed an impulse and made a Melville estate Chardonnay that came in at 12.5% alcohol, a wine that might pass for premier cru Chablis.
Meanwhile, Melville, who manages the vineyards for Brewer at his family estate, gave himself more freedom to experiment with wines for his own label Samsara, and was impressed with the results: "I was used to making riper wines, but I started to notice how the more you rein a wine in, the more delicate and open it becomes; things popped out."
That same vintage, Justin Willett, just getting going on his own venture called Tyler Winery, brought in fruit at Clos Pepe Vineyard a full week before anyone else did, then spent the winter fretting about the decision. But that spring, the wine started to reveal itself — bright, tense, "pixelated," as Willett put it — resulting in a limpid, graceful Pinot at 13.4% alcohol.
And Ryan Zotovich of Zotovich Cellars, the youngest of this group at 28, took note of the pretty lime-scented Chardonnay that Willett made with fruit from the Zotovich family vineyard — picked at a potential alcohol of 13.2%, well below what he had come to think of as ripe.
Sashi Moorman became immersed in the region through the development of vineyards for Evening Land, on a wind-bitten patch of earth within sight of the ocean. Working at Evening Land put him in contact with the winery's legendary consultant, Dominique Lafon of Meursault, Burgundy, whose entire enterprise, says Moorman, is motivated by conveying energy and vibrancy to a wine.
"Concentration without heaviness," Moorman says, "that's what he's really a master of."
Moorman's other partner, Parr, is one of the country's foremost sommeliers, with the Michael Mina restaurant group. Parr has access to the world's greatest wines but is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of, and access to, the wines of Burgundy, which he believes are simply peerless.
Inevitably, Parr's commitment to the Santa Rita Hills has put everyone more in mind of Burgundy as a point of comparison. To have Parr make associations between the two regions certainly adds credibility, at least among winemakers. "You hear people make comparisons like that and it's mostly crap," says Moorman, "but when Raj does it, when he uses the same vocabulary for Santa Rita that he uses for Meursault — well, he makes that connection better than just about anyone."
In Chardonnays, this translates to wines more Chablisienne than perhaps any other region in California, with subtle floral notes, a margarita mix of lemon-lime flavors, and a steely texture with rippling acidity and a saline minerality on the finish. Some of these wines go through full malolactic fermentation, but the sweeter lactic elements remain finely rendered, like a spice.
The Pinot Noirs can be just as pristine, but it is harder to generalize about them, in part because a number of these new producers include stems in their fermentations, which mollifies the high acidity in the wine and imparts a savory, tea-like spice note, adorning the fruit like a seasoning, sometimes just a touch, sometimes a heady wallop.
Parr likes to say the fruit is "crunchy," with the tension and suppleness of a firm, fresh-picked cherry. As such, these wines are the opposite of fruit bombs: They possess deep color and dark fruit flavors, but the textures are racier, the structures built on tension and not amplitude — if anything, they're fruit missiles.
Such efforts aren't lost on Sanford, the region's éminence grise. Sanford gave up his eponymous winery on Santa Rosa Road in 2005 and was able to start a new winery the following year called Alma Rosa, which if anything adheres more closely to the principles that placed him in this valley 42 years ago. Meanwhile he's delighted to see the valley's young producers travel down a path he helped establish.
"In the end, elegance is more important than impact," he says. "But you can't force elegance. Elegance comes from a place, I think."