Feature Coverage

A Perfect Place for Pinot

Notwithstanding fleeting moments on screen, wines from Fiddlehead, Sanford, Seasmoke, Pommard and Richebourg took a bow in the film Sideways. As the storyline evolves, Maya asks a key question. “Miles, why are you so into Pinot?” He muses and responds, “It can only grow in these really specific ittle tucked away corners of the world.”

The film’s impact created Sideways The Map, Sideways packages including tasting and accommodation information, and the Sideways Wine Club. Yet, we believe that even avid Pinot Noir aficionados missed the film’s focal setting—the Santa Rita Hills, a sub-American Viticultural Area (AVA) of the Santa Ynez Valley in California’s Santa Barbara County. It’s one of those “tucked away corners,” Miles referenced. Centuries ago, France’s Burgundy wine region was divided into small appellations where distinct climate and soils translate into Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bearing place personality. Today, California vintners and growers are more precisely defining AVAs to accurately tell the story of their wines. Such is the case for Santa Rita Hills.

According to Bruno D’Alfonso, winemaker at Sanford Winery, the Santa Rita Hills AVA established in 2001, is “one of the few honest appellations in California. This AVA was defined by climate, geography and the wines. Politics was not a factor.” Owner Richard Sanford first planted Pinot Noir (along with former partner Michael Benedict) in the Santa Rita Hills in 1971 at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Long before the establishment of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, Hugh Johnson wrote in his World Atlas of Wine (Fourth Edition), “In the right hands this is California’s best Pinot Noir so far.”


Santa Rita Hills AVA is located in Santa Barbara County, just west of the intersection of Highways 101 and 246 West, between Buellton and Lompoc (Lom-poke), 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Yet, Santa Barbara is generally considered warm — too warm to grow great Pinot Noir. In most parts it is; yet the Santa Rita Hills AVA lies in a transverse valley running east-west rather than north-south, like other California wine country valleys including Napa Valley, Salinas Valley and Sonoma Valley. Traveling west from Buellton to Lompoc along Highway 246, one notices a chill in the air as the temperature drops one degree for each mile traveled from Buellton. The Pacific Ocean and its accompanying marine influence cause this temperature drop and it’s the reason that Santa Rita Hills was established as the western sub-appellation, almost totally within Santa Ynez Valley.

According to Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards, “The idea to create the Santa Rita Hills AVA germinated in 1996 when growers asked Richard Sanford to join them in their effort to establish a new AVA in western Santa Ynez Valley. ” Kathy Joseph, owner of Fiddlehead Cellars adds, “Santa Rita Hills was created to distinguish the cool, western end of the Santa Ynez Valley from the eastern end, which is more hospitable to warm climate grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and red Bordeaux varieties.” This gives western Santa Ynez Valley its own identity. Hitching Post restaurant (remember its time on stage in Sideways?) owner and wine producer Frank Ostini suggests, “The problem with the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is that it’s a huge, diverse appellation where many grape varieties grow well, but it did not have a specialty. The area that became Santa Rita Hills has one—Pinot Noir.”

Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi Vineyards, described the unique climatic features of the Santa Rita Hills. “The western end of the Santa Ynez Valley opens wide to the Pacific Ocean and narrows as it approaches the Santa Rita Hills. This topographical feature creates a unique, cool weather pattern. Because of the marine influence, the months of June, July and August are cool while the warmest month is September, prior to harvest.” Santa Rita Hills experiences the ocean’s marine influence, funneled directly into the valley, bounded on the north by the Purisima Hills and in the south by the Santa Rosa

By Eleanor and Ray Heald, October 1, 2005
A Perfect Place for Pinot