Santa Barbara County (North), Ca
|Day 1 Reception Under the Stars (click image)||
Day 2 Trial by Fire (click image)
I hesitate to give all the specifics of the weekend's setting, climate, activities, food and of course, wine. Mainly, because doing so might sound so good to so many people that this little shangri la of a wine region will suddenly explode under popularity. Diving through the area is reminiscent of the Napa County wine region in the early 80's. Open land, beautiful hills and flat valley floor, winding roads punctuated by stands of California Live Oak and alternate fields of grape vines and other agriculture.
The Santa Rita Hills are hidden from any main highways. Driving between Santa Barbara and Northern California, you would not even realize that just over a small coastal ridge, along the rural highway 246, is a valley made for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not only would you drive by it without even noticing, you might miss it even if you knew it were there. It is almost as if the local wine makers are keeping their fantastic secret from you. Don't feel left out. Even the locals that may not be wine makers themselves, seem to be unaware that it is there. I asked the person behind the desk at my Lompoc Hotel (close enough to hit a winery with an empty wineglass thrown underhand) if they had a map of the local wineries. She told me that there "really wasn't many nearby, and that I might want to head inland to Buellton to find them." She seemed surprised that there were probably 2 dozen award winning wineries and vineyards in the 15 miles between there and the hotel.
Wine and Fire started last year, 2006, as the first annual Santa Rita Hills Winegrower's Alliance event. An opportunity to show and show off the incredible wines of the little valley. A unique geography and topology gives them a blanket of fog in the morning and then breezy, warm, sunny days for over 200 days a year.
That weather is great for people, but it seems to be even better suited for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Day 1 Reception Under the Stars:
The reception was informal. Tables of great wines being poured by the rock star winemakers and vintners themselves. So many of the trendy wine events that have popped up in recent years, have booths staffed by friendly volunteers who may know that they have a white and a red to pour, but other than that, no additional knowledge of the wine. At this reception, the people pouring the wine have been with it since it was a bud on a cane.
The pride in their wines is so obvious, and for good reason, that it is almost surreal. A few times, as winemakers would pour a taste, they would beam like a parent who is watching their son or daughter give the valedictorian address at their college graduation. Maybe because they have been as involved as a parent in building this wine. It shows.
I could not write about the wine at this reception without talking about the food. We are not talking about trays of Costco mini meatballs here. Oh no. Three different caterers were there, with their trailers and even a mobile stone pizza oven. The food fit the wine perfectly.
The evening event was in the courtyard of the historic La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, situated on the outskirts of the Sta. Rita Hills Appellation. Scattered among the twisted live oaks. It complemented the evening well.
Day 2 Trial by Fire
Some of the participants were probably lulled into a false sense that the second day, like the first, was going to be laid back, relaxing, and just very enjoyable. Let me dispel those beliefs right away. It was anything but laid back, instead, it was active and participatory. It was not relaxing, it was captivating, no, more like engaging. And finally, it was not just very enjoyable, it was one of the best experiences I can recall ever being involved in.
Day two was set up on the grounds of the spectacular Rancho La Viña, on the southwestern edge of the AVA. Rancho La Viña is the image that you would see in your mind if you closed your eyes and thought about the central coast. Driving into the 2,800 acre ranch from Santa Rosa Road takes you past groves of walnut trees, cattle and gardens of organic heirloom tomatoes. The current ranch is what remains of the original 1860 land grant and has been a working ranch since then.
The days started at 9:00am with coffee and pastry to help clear the cobwebs from the night before. But at 10:00, we all went into the large tent and the day began.
The day's theme was Trial by Fire. And, it was a series of trials, moderated by a judge in full parliamentary judge frock and wig. The defendants and/or expert witnesses were a unique set of 6 of the local winemakers or grape growers. Each trial had a different set of winemakers. They were each given their turn with the topic at hand and then it was opened up to a "Cross Examination" by the jury, which was all of us. We could pose questions to the panel.
The topics were things like "Oak or No Oak", "Wine Food Pairing", "ET Clone Home (the importance of clones)", and the topic everyone was waiting for: "Where is wine REALLY made, in the vineyard or in the winery". All table knives and breakables were removed for that one.
All of the discussions were very informative and lively. Sometimes they strayed from the topic to other interesting and topical discussions like screw caps vs. cork, sustainable practices and environmental concerns. All topics were discussed with fervor and there was no doubt that the winemakers were passionate about their craft. Many times, it felt as though we were being let in on the discussions they have when they get together to let out steam after a week of working their vines and managing their wines. We got to feel a part of the Santa Rita Hills extended family. The winegrower vs winemaker discussion was certainly the most anticipated and it did not disappoint. Voices were raised, maybe some egos were bruised. But at the end of the session, you could tell that all of these wine artisans respected each others talents, skills and contributions. This AVA was made possible by all of them and they all seem to appreciate what each other brings to the mix
The 4 panel discussions were split, 2 before lunch and 2 after. Lunch was a wonderfully catered meal and I probably don't need to even mention that the wine selection was phenomenal. You have probably been to a barbeque where you were lucky enough to be able to choose from a white or a red wine. This one had a table of probably 45 different wines to choose from. Pinch me.
The tables were spread around an open Live Oak grove and all of the tables seemed to be peppered with their own rock star wine makers.
In conclusion, I have to say that this is a unique group of winemakers and wine growers that love what they do. They do it because they can not imagine not doing it. And they were so kind, to let us join with them and their families, in their world, for a weekend.
Thanks guys. I had a wonderful time. I think that I feel like most of the other participants, and look forward to next year.