Back when I lived in Lompoc, I would ride my bicycle down nearby Santa Rosa Road. It meandered past bean fields and pumpkin patches, looking out toward chalky bluffs on the opposite side of the Santa Ynez River.
On a few slopes of the Santa Rita Hills, the low range just east of Lompoc, I noticed small vineyards but never gave them much thought.
As it turns out, those scattered vineyards in the early 1980s were a harbinger of what was to come. Today the Santa Rita Hills constitute one of California's most exciting wine areas.
Until receiving designation as an appellation in 2001, this compact region was largely overshadowed by the neighboring Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys. But no more.
Easily explored via a 34-mile loop linking Santa Rosa Road and State 246, the Santa Rita Hills have become a destination for visitors looking for distinctive Pinot Noirs or a lazy drive through the unspoiled country of western Santa Barbara County.
Just what distinguishes Sta. Rita Hills wine (as the appellation is officially named after a legal challenge by Chilean winery Viña Santa Rita)?
Check out the map put out by the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance. Floating on a bed of fog above Lompoc is a face - with cheeks puffed and lips pursed - blowing for all it's worth. The cooling breezes and maritime influences that wash over the region help create ideal conditions for the late-ripening, moody, and quite literally thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape.
"There's a sequence to how the day progresses here," says Bruce McGuire, who arrived in the area in 1981 and is winemaker at Lafond Winery and Vineyards. "The fog leaves at 9:30. The wind comes up at 12:30 or 1. So we have a cool wind blowing when areas farther inland are getting hot. That means we can leave our grapes exposed when in other spots they would just get fried."
With eight tasting rooms open on a regular basis and others by appointment, the region is big enough to sample a variety of winemaking approaches but not so large that you become overwhelmed by choices.
Lompoc - once known for its flower fields, its rocket launches, and its federal penitentiary - is the de facto Dijon for this mini Burgundy. In a nondescript area tucked behind a Home Depot, a cluster of independent winemakers is lovingly called the Lompoc Wine Ghetto - three words that I never expected to see together.
From Lompoc, it's a short way south on State 1 to Santa Rosa Road. Various crops still grow here, but the vineyards now define the landscape. In fall the hills glow gold, the leaves take on a reddish cast, and vines hang heavy with grape clusters. And many of those vines are just now maturing, which promises great things to come.
"What we've already produced has been encouraging," McGuire says, "but it's at 10 to 15 years that the vines mature. You get more depth and texture. So they're now just hitting their stride and will only get better and better."
The American Viticultural Area Sta. Rita Hills is about 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara and makes an easy afternoon side trip. It's best to start from U.S. 101 at Buellton, then head west on State 246. For more information, contact the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association (805/688-0881). The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance has a helpful website.
While many wineries carry gourmet items, there are no restaurants or accommodations along the loop. Both Lompoc and the nearby Santa Ynez Valley have a range of dining and hotel options.
A FEW OF OUR FAVORITE STOPS
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards Pioneering winemaker Richard Sanford returns to his roots at this tiny, rustic tasting room. INFO: $5 tasting fee; 7250 Santa Rosa Rd.; 805/688-9090.
Babcock Winery & Vineyards Bryan Babcock is one of the region's leading winemakers. INFO: $10 tasting fee; 5175 E. State 246; 805/736-1455.
Fiddlehead Cellars This is a good bet for a taste of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto scene. INFO: Open Thu-Sat and by appointment; $10 tasting fee; 1597 E. Chestnut Ave.; 800/251-1225.
Lafond Winery and Vineyards Pick up its earthy "SRH" Pinot Noir 2005 and enjoy views from tables overlooking the vineyards. INFO: $5 tasting fee; 6855 Santa Rosa; 805/ 688-7921.
Melville Vineyards & Winery Sample lush, velvety Pinot Noirs in a Mediterranean-style tasting room. INFO: Tastings from $5; 5185 E. State 246; 805/735-7030.
Sanford Winery & Vineyards Vintage lumber and handmade adobe bricks make this the most architecturally distinctive tasting room. INFO: $5 tasting fee; 5010 Santa Rosa; 805/688-3300.
THE BEST OF SANTA RITA HILLS
Sta. Rita Hills (the appellation's official name) has channeled France's Burgundy in grape varieties. Look for powerful Pinot Noirs full of red berries and dark cherries and for rich Chardonnays balancing minerals and tropical fruit. But because this isn't tradition-bound Burgundy, look for fascinating cool-weather Syrahs too. There's nothing to stop a California region from adding a Rhône varietal to the lineup.
A web of winemaking and winegrowing relationships provides some interesting tasting comparisons here. In some cases, a winemaker has a label of his or her own (Greg Brewer of Melville Vineyards & Winery and Brewer-Clifton, for example), and wineries often buy grapes from other wineries' vineyards, so you can taste wines from the same vineyard made by different people as you crisscross the region.
Here are some of our favorite bottles:
Babcock "Rita's Earth Cuvee" Chardonnay 2005 ($20). Crisp, spicy pear and apple flavors have a kick of pleasantly bitter orange zest and the barest hint of pineapple showing through on a long, creamy finish.
Fiddlehead Cellars Fiddlestix Vineyard "Seven Twenty Eight" Pinot Noir 2003 ($38). Delicate berries, but less about fruit than florals, herbs, cedar, leather, spices, balance, and structure.
Lafond "SRH" Pinot Noir 2005 ($24). Earthy, smoky aromas, with red berries, cherries, and cola, plus warm pie spices.
Melville Carrie's Pinot Noir 2004 ($52). For lovers of lush, ripe Pinot; velvety dark plums and berries with a touch of licorice.
Sanford Winery Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 ($48). Rich aromas of dark cherries and berries - with lots of cloves and other warm spices - are followed by generous fruit on the palate and a racy edge of licorice, sandalwood, and orange peel.
Sea Smoke "Botella" Pinot Noir 2005 ($40). Named for the clay loam in the vineyard, this cult label from the Lompoc Wine Ghetto isn't poured in a tasting room but is worth looking up in local shops for its layers of red fruit, warm spices, anise, and herbs.