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.