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The Wine Frontier

It's nearby Santa Rita Hills, where the vintages are world-class and the setting distinctly local


BUELLTON — Ever envy those wine old-timers who sit around bragging about the old days? Visiting Robert Mondavi in the Napa Valley in the 1970s, chatting with the Sterlings in Sonoma in the 1980s, dropping in on wacky Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach and Bob Lindquist in Santa Maria in the 1990s. Oh boy, they'll tell you, that was really something. Too bad you missed it.

But don't worry. The California wine industry is constantly reinventing itself and there's always another pioneering wine region to visit. Lucky for us, one of the hottest new areas is in our own backyard.

Just north of Santa Barbara, vineyards on either flank of the Santa Rita Hills are turning out wines that are earning rave reviews. The Wine Spectator's Jim Laube recently chose Sanford Winery's 2000 Pinot Noir from "La Rinconada" as the best California Pinot of that year--and it was made from only the vineyard's second vintage.

In critic Robert M. Parker Jr.'s recent review of California's south central coast, wines from the Santa Rita Hills came in for particularly high praise--especially the cult winery Brewer-Clifton, whose Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were variously compared to some of the greatest wines of Burgundy: Chevalier-Montrachet, Pommard and even La Tache.

Best of all, the area is so close it is an easy day trip. Head up in the morning, visit a couple of wineries, have a picnic lunch, visit a couple more, stop for an early dinner and you can be home in time for Leno.

The Santa Rita Hills appellation lies between Buellton in the east and Lompoc in the west. It is approximately 15 miles long and at present, there are only four wineries that offer tasting rooms. But it is expanding quickly. There were only 500 acres of vineyards in 1998; today there are more than 700, and there are hundreds more due to come on line in the next couple of years.

By then, of course, everybody will have been there. Now is the time to grab the bragging rights.

Technically, almost all of the Santa Rita Hills appellation is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley. Grapes are nothing new in these parts; the modern wine industry started here in the 1970s. But until now, most of the activity has centered on the eastern part of the valley, between Lake Cachuma and Solvang.

The areas are as different as night and day--or, more appropriately, hot and cold. Temperatures in the new Santa Rita area are typically 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the eastern part of the valley. The eastern part is doing well with Rhone varietals such as Syrah, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Around Santa Rita, the grapes are predominantly Burgundian--Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

That's due to a trick of geography. In California, because of the way the tectonic plates jam together, most mountain ranges run from north to south. This walls off the interior of the state from the cooling influences of the ocean. It's why Merced bakes while Monterey, which is just on the other side of the mountains, chills.

There are breaks in that solid wall, though not many. One of the biggest lies near Lompoc. Here, there is an east-west valley (or "transverse maritime throat" in geo-speak) that funnels cold air from the Pacific inland. Where the valley is narrow (between Lompoc and Buellton) folks are wearing sweatshirts while people just a couple of miles away in Santa Ynez, where the valley widens out and the cool dissipates, are stripping down to T-shirts and shorts.

Smack in the middle of this breezy valley, between the Purisima and the Santa Rosa hills, lies the Santa Rita Hills, a warren of nooks and crannies perfect for winegrowers seeking varied vineyard exposures.

A few hardy pioneers braved the chill and staked out vineyards here years ago--Richard Sanford's Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, planted in 1971, was one of the first trophy vineyards in all of central California.

Despite that, the western end of the valley has never been as popular for wineries. For one, there is a nearly constant chilly wind. Trees tend to grow at an eastward slant and the coastal fog hangs in until noon even in September.

But while it may be inhospitable to sun worshipers, these cool temperatures allow grapes to hang on the vine for a long time before they come to full ripeness, gathering more flavor with every day.

Wines from this area tend to have intense, deep fruit flavors (what wine mavens call "extracted"). They also tend to be somewhat more alcoholic than normal. It is not uncommon to find Chardonnays with 15% alcohol. What is uncommon is that however high the alcohol might be, so concentrated are the fruit flavors that it rarely shows.

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