In the winter of 2016, I was eight months pregnant and day-dreaming about my next wine adventure. I’d heard so much about Santa Barbara, a beach getaway for celebrities. It’s also the home of celebrity winemaker Rajat Parr, who specializes in crafting restrained Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the coastal Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
I have a healthy love affair with coastal Pinot Noirs of California. They often taste fresh, floral, and fruity. The best are delicately balanced and retain a light and earthy quality that often eludes mass produced California wines. Each AVA that specializes in Pinots has a different flavor profile, such as the earthy beets of the extreme Sonoma Coast, the salty brine of Anderson Valley, or the red cherry liquorice of Carneros. In my experience, Pinots from Sta. (Santa) Rita Hills have a smokey characteristic and healthy acid.
Wine is not new to Sta. Rita Hills. In the 18th century Franciscan monks grew grapes for sacrificial wine in the 18th century. The unique east-west orientation of the valley allows the cool air and fog from the Pacific to flow freely over the vineyards, providing the ideal conditions for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. An approachable producer in the region is Melville Winery. Chad Melville, the head “winegrower,” focuses on the land, soil, and climate (the “terroir”) that makes incredible Pinots. I love that all of the soil from each distinct block of Melville’s Estate Vineyard is displayed in the tasting room. I may have gotten a few stares as I sniffed the soil samples and then tasted each wine (try it before you knock it). My favorite is Sandy’s block ($50) with notes of dusty red plum, herbal mushroom, lavender (also grown on the property – cover photo) and thyme.
While Melville has a stunning tasting room in the middle of their vineyard, many of Sta. Rita Hill’s tasting rooms are in town; such is the case for Alma Rosa Winery, from Santa Barbara wine legend Robert Sanford. His vision put Santa Barbara on the map for contemporary wine growing. A celebrity among wine geeks, Robert made a guest star appearance in the wildly successful Sideways film (still waiting for the Sequel) movie. Visiting the tasting room, you notice first the books lining the shelf, then the light from above. The vibe is laid-back and quintessential California cool. The wines are easy and delicious, especially the Pinot Blanc ($30), Clone 667 Pinot Noir (currently unavailable, approx. $50) and their Sparkling Blanc de Blanc ($55), made in the méthode champenoise.
Now let me get back to Raj. He’s an inspiration for wine geeks, known for being on the cutting edge of wine production. Truly his wine are spectacular and well, different. This is where wine is art. Nuanced and unique, it makes you curious. Check out his Sandhi label for earthy Pinots, and restrained Chardonnays with marked acidity (I could only find it for sale at the LA-esque cafe Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant in Santa Barbara).
When you’re looking for a wine country get away, try looking south to Santa Barbara. You won’t be disappointed.