Sta. Rita Hills a prime spot for great pinot noir 

Imagine you are a visitor from space and you want to try California pinot noir.

You might want to stop at Earth’s concierge located just one light-year from San Francisco for some advice. If I were on duty, I’d think about it for a minute — after all, there are the Russian River, Anderson Valley and Carneros — but ultimately, I’d probably tell you to point your spaceship in the direction of the Sta. Rita Hills.

Pronounced as Santa Rita, not station, this curvy 8-mile tract in Santa Barbara County is celebrating its 10-year anniversary as an American viticulture area. Its history goes back to 1971, when the Sanford Winery planted one of the earliest pinot noir vineyards in the entire region.

Like Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills has valleys that go east to west, creating a windy corridor. The temperature rarely goes much above 80 degrees, even in the warmest inland locations and the evenings can be downright cold. If this weather is not inclement enough, the Santa Ynez River acts as a magnet for fog. While this climate might not be ideal for your suntan, it is for pinot noir.

In general, Central Coast pinot noir can have a stemmy, tomato-like quality but I rarely detect it in the wines from Sta. Rita Hills. Brandon-Sparks Gillis, board member of the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Growers Alliance and partner at Dragonette Cellars, said that the wines are also “darker in color and fruit profile” probably because of the thickness of the berries that might result from colder temperatures during the late spring.

If you are a pinot noir fan and not familiar with this appellation, here are three that must be tried (they are pricy but worth it):

Kenneth-Crawford Wines Pinot Noir, Babcock Vineyard, 2008: Kenneth J. Gummere and Marl Crawford Horvath, two locals who had to pay their dues before obtaining access to this extraordinary fruit source, are rising stars. Toasty but with the fruit to match, it has a matrix of plums, berries and spice, with a note of dried morels. Suggested retail: $45

Clos Pepe Pinot Noir Estate, 2009: Winemaker Wes Hagen is a major player in the Sta. Rita Hills. He is given big-time credit for his role in the establishment of the AVA in 2001 and his fruit and advice is in high demand. Bright with wild strawberries, raspberry coulis, hints of cloves and white pepper and a mound of fruit on the mid palate, this wine delivers and then some. Suggested retail: $54

Fiddlehead Cellars Pinot Noir, Fiddelstix Vineyard, Lollapalooza, 2007: Fiddlehead is a legend in the Sta. Rita Hills. Founded by Kathy Joseph 20 years ago, her work has inspired many of the up-and-coming stars such as Dragonette Cellars. Lollapalooza means the best of its kind (I always wondered where the music festival got its name) and in this case, it is used for select barrels of the Fiddlestix Vineyard. At nearly four years of age, this work of art is showing chewy blueberry and black-cherry fruit, underbrush aromatics, a hint of bittersweet chocolate and solid mineral core, and will continue to improve over thenext 10 years. Suggested retail: 75

Pamela S. Busch is the owner of, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to

About The Author

Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched
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