The terms Wine and Fire can evoke many thoughts , however when you use those terms in California’s Sta Rita Hills it has only one meaning , a weekend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, a BBQ in a renown vineyard , and a grand tasting under the stars at an historic mission .
Every summer the Sta Rita Hills winegrower’s alliance has their Wine and Fire event that offers guests 3 days of tasting some of the best wines in the world amongst the beautiful Sta Rita Hills. The Alliance was created in 1997 with the focus of unifying the growers and winemakers in the area and to gather information to create a new AVA. Renowned winemakers Richard Sanford, Bryan Babcock , Rick Longoria and others spearheaded the effort that eventually created the Sta Rita Hills AVA. Today there are over 48 members that source grapes from this very special area.
Having traveled the back roads of the Sta Rita Hills for many years we arrived with great anticipation to travel those familiar roads once again to taste wines from old friends and find those hidden gems that are always waiting to be brought to the forefront.
The first stop on our list was to spend some quality time in the Lompoc wine Ghetto. Zotovich cellars was our first stop and were impressed as always with the young winemaker Ryan Zotovich’s palate pleasing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay . The Ampelos Cellars tasting room is always a mandatory stop whenever we are in the area. Sampling Peter and Rebecca Works incredible line up from Rose, Pinot Noir , Syrah and other sustainable , biodynamic wines show how versatile the AVA is.
One could spend literally an entire day in the Wine Ghetto and we did our best with visits to Kathy Joseph’s Fiddle Head Cellars , Flying Goat Cellars, Palmina and Moretti just to name a few. It was time to head down highway 246 to visit nearby Buellton and Solvang for a stop in at a few tasting rooms to sample their best. With the sun setting behind the Sta Rita Hills and fog settling over the vineyards we made a stop at the legendary Hitching Post Restaurant in Buellton for some very famous culinary creations from Chef , Winemaker Frank Ostini and then a welcome reception at D’vine wine bar in Lompoc .
The sun, breaking through the early morning fog began to shine through our window signaling the “Big Day” for this Wine and Fire weekend has started. Back on Highway 246 , turning onto Hwy 101 we headed to Santa Rosa Road winding our way down into the valley to our destination , Fiddlestix Vineyards for a day of education and lunch amongst the vines.
The Sta Rita hills has long been known to produce world class Pinot Noir. Many in the industry have stated they are probably one of the top three Pinot producing AVAs in the United States. Recently , much to the wine makers delight , Chardonnays from the Sta Rita Hills are climbing their way to the forefront to join their Pinot Noir “cousins “ as some of the best being produced .
It was only fitting that the Wine and Fire event bring together a prestigious panel to taste and discuss the AVA’s Chardonnay’s. Guests filed into the Barn at the Fiddlestix vineyard to sip and learn from the experts. The renowned Chardonnay panel of experts brought Nikki Nelson, Karen Steinwachs , Steve Fennell, Wes Hagan and Dan Kessler together to blind taste several Chardonnays and discuss their impressions , the varietal and its place in the Sta Rita Hills.
The impressive lineup of Chardonnays consisted of 2010 Liquid Farm, White Hill Seagrape cellars 2010, Zotovich, Sanford Winery Rinconada Vineyard , 2010 Clos Pepe Homage to Chablis and 2010 Kessler-Haak Vineyard Estate were submitted blind to the amazing panel for their insight .
You could hear and see the passion with every sip as they spoke on each wine and agreed that Chardonnay gets the worst soil in the AVA but is making big gains. “If we could only plant one varietal now, without question it would be Chardonnay” was echoed up and down the panel of legendary winemakers and growers.
The Chardonnay panel had completed their work but that did not mean the educational experience was over. A Pinot Noir panel was being assembled, but first who could resist and walk through the Fiddlestix vineyard with renowned AVA expert, winemaker and Clos Pepe Vineyard Manager Wes Hagan.
With a hand full of diatomaceous earth ageing 12 to 13 million years in his hand , Wes shared is vast knowledge of the AVA with the very attentive guests under a cloudless day in the vineyard.
Pinot Noir from the Sta Rita Hills needs no introduction nor does the members of the Panel that came together to discuss in detail what makes Pinot Noir from this region special and a blind tasting of the AVAs best.
Winemakers Ken Brown, Frank Ostini, Peter Cargasacchi , Adam Lee and Deborah Hall took their seats and began the interactive discussion.
It was a Pinot parade featuring Ken Brown Rancho La Vina 2009, Hitching Post Fiddlestix Vineyard, Cargasacchi Vineyard estate, Siduri Clos pepe 2010 and Gypsy Canyon Pinot Noir Estate to the delight of the guests being very interactive with panel.
In short, the panel of Pinot Noir All-stars honed in on one particular but important theme, “Make the best wine from what the vineyard shows you”. With that theme ruminating in our heads , guests enjoyed an outdoor luncheon prepared by Frank Ostini of Hitching Post fame accented by many of the area’s best wines while overlooking the Fiddlestix vineyard and the Sta Rita Hills.
Leaving Fiddlestix vineyard and climbing out of the valley on Santa Rosa road, there was still one more, but very big official event yet to attend during this intimate weekend of Wine and Fire. The featured event was a grand tasting showing off the best the AVA has to offer. For those who have attended Wine and Food events in the past, Grand Tastings are pretty much the same.
Like everything else the Sta Rita Hills the event took it to the next level with a tasting under the stars at the historic Las Purisima Mission Founded in 1787. The La Purisma Mission once covered nearly 470 square miles and was as home to the Chumash people and Spanish settlers. On this starlight night an intimate group of 250 settled in as well and enjoyed some tasty treats from local restaurants and of course those lovely wines from the Sta Rita Hills.
Sipping wines under the Oak Trees at the mission was a perfect way to end the day. Walking amongst the wines guests mingled with legends like Richard Sanford, Ken Brown and Peter Cargasacchi all standing side by side with newcomers speaking with the guests and pouring their wines to the delight of all.
The AVA came together on this cool, clear night with the wines of Seasmoke , Babcock , Cargasacchi , Dragonette, Ampleos , Hilliard Bruce , Wedell , Zotovich and others to spotlight the versatility and quality of wines produced in the AVA.
One of the best aspects of the Wine and Fire weekend is its open houses where attendees can go to the vineyard or tasting room to enjoy the entire lines from many of the areas producers.
We took full advantage attending an invite only library and current release party in the Clos Pepe Vineyard with Wes Hagan then traveling down hwy 246 to Solvang and a visit with Ken Brown at his tasting room.
With plenty of time left, we paid a visit to the legendary wine making pair of Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran in their winery on Santa Rosa Road. Since we were already visiting the AVAs legends, we headed straight for Lompoc for a visit with Peter Cargasacchi in his winery as well.
Our last stop on this weekend of Pinot bliss was the beautiful Hilliard Bruce Estate on Hwy 246. The Sun began to set once again and the fog settled on the vineyard as we enjoyed some highly pointed Pinot Noir from Hilliard Bruce with John and Christine over looking their pristine pastures , which are home to their beautiful Arabian Horses . Is there a better way to end the weekend? We think not.
The Sta Rita Hills has been overlooked for years by wine writers and oenophiles alike. Over the last 8 years this very special appellation has begun to shine like a lighthouse beckoning all to come , enjoy and see why the Sta Rita Hills has taken its place amongst the best in the United States.