Wildflowers and Wine: Santa Barbara Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills AVA

Hillsides surrounding the vineyards at Sanford and elsewhere in Southern California are covered in bright yellow mustard flowers; the barley cover crop was chosen to draw excess moisture from the soil in this rainy year.

Looking for a wild flower show? With a side of wine?

If so, head to the Santa Barbara Hills in April… and if you’re lucky you’ll also catch the Vintners New Release Spring Weekend more here.

Along the way you will be thrilled by spring green hillsides with yellow mustard, splashes of patches of orange poppies, strips of purple vetch, asters, lupine, and others, plus fields of orangey-yellow fiddleneck along with vines budding out in Chartreuse and Peridot near deep emerald oak trees with bright shiny leaves.

I know all this because just a few weeks ago, I attended the Garagiste Festival in Santa Ynez then went camping in the Carrizo Plain.

camping in the Carrizo during the superbloom: these are fiddle necks

And just a few days ago, Tony Fletcher and I did a pre-Santa Barbara Vintners New Release Spring Weekend trip with a focus on Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

While actually within the Santa Ynez Valley appellation as you can see below, Sta. Rita Hills has “unique soils and climate distinguish the grapes grown there from the ones in the warmer vineyards to the east. A typical day in Sta. Rita Hills starts with marine layer clouds and fog, which burn off by 10am; there is then two or three hours of calm sunshine until the on-shore winds pick up, cooling things down again. This maritime influence, combined with the sedimentary soils with patches of limestone is the perfect place to grow the appellation’s hallmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Watch Video

The Sta. Rita Hills appellation includes about 1700 planted acres within a 10 square mile area. Located between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc, the region is bounded by the La Purisima Hills to the north and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south, and intersected by the Santa Ynez River. For more information visit the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance website. Click here for the official Federal definition of the Sta. Rita Hills Viticultural Area.

Tony recently returned from a round the world trip where he tasted Pinot noir in AUS, and enjoyed a memorable bike ride in the Coonawarra for Cabernet (yes there is more to AUS wine than Shiraz!). Then he spent three weeks traveling by VW van in New Zealand where he spent a day walking to a number of wineries specializing in Pinot Noir.

With a clear sense of these region’s Pinot Noir plus his previous knowledge of Burgundy in France, Tony asked if we could do a Pinot Noir excursion when he was visiting as part of a trip that included a reading and discussion at Ventura College, a talk at Lucidity Festival, and speaking on a panel at the LA Times Book Festival.

Of course, I thought. But which wineries? how to curate?


We started at Sanford, because, in many ways, this is where it all began for Pinot Noir and modern winemaking in general in Santa Barbara County when Richard Sanford graduated from UCB with his geography degree and, flooding a stint in the military, sensed that this area could make wine to rival Burgundy.

To get to Sanford, we traveled north on the 101 from Ventura in a driving rain that receded as we turned inland at Gaviota Pass. To get to Sanford, stay on 101 almost to Buelton; you’ll turn off just before on Santa Rose Road. The road makes a sharp bend to avoid Mosby, then travels up about 10 miles west toward the ocean through beautiful, quiet, rural country side with vineyards, cows grazing, and other agriculture–and plenty of wildflowers too. So if you get  a chance, head up there.

When we arrived, winemaker Steve Fennell was at the front of the scenic winery grounds with a reporter and videographer. When we all arrived in the tasting room, I went over to Steve and reintroduced myself: we’d met at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference when I took an excursion there for tasting and dinner, and recently wrote about a Sanford Pinot Noir. We chatted, Tony chatted, then the reporter chatted with me and asked to interview me! Somehow I neglected to get photos of us with Steve — or to ask someone to get a photo of me while I was being interviewed!

Watch for a segment on KEYT in May about Sanford, Lompoc, and the Lompoc Wine Ghetto which features a clip of me!

Since it is Earth Month, I want to point out that Sanford has been an industry leader for their approach which pays attention to the land so that everything gets reused and recycled from composting spent material to making candles from bottles. True to our word, we tasted through their five Pinot Noir, plus we tasted their vin gris of pinot noir. And then at the end, Tony was tempted to taste their Viognier… so I did too! While they have a tasting room in Santa Barbara, I strongly encourage you to get out along Santa Rosa Road so you can experience the vineyards too. Be sure to check them out at the vintner’s festival.

2015 Sanford Pinot Noir Vin Gris SRP $30

Loved the glittery rose gold color in the glass, lively aromatics and acidity, refreshing. Pair with a picnic or holiday ham diner.

2014 Sanford Pinot Noir “Gravity Flow” SRP $50

Mushroom/truffle, rustic, husky. 30% new oak. I wrote about the 2013 vintage here.

2014 Sanford Pinot Noir “La Rinconada” SRP $70

Florals on the nose, spice, pollen, subtle with a sweetness and mineralogy and finesse.

2014 Sanford Pinot Noir “Sanford and Benedict” SRP $70 

Made from grapes grown on 45 year old wines, the original plantings, this wine offers a rich nose, lots of spice, and a lighter, elegant palate.

2014 Sanford Pinot Noir “Dominio Del Falcon” SRP $80

There’s a temptation to like best the most expensive wine or the final wine you taste. This wine was both, and it was clearly my favorite. I enjoyed the cherry notes, Asian spice, and mineralogy. Classy and classic.



Next we headed to Lafond Winery and Vineyards, located just a few miles east of Sanford, and SIP certified since 2016– that means they are pretty darn Earth Month friendly — all year! We went there to meet with farmer and winemaker Dan Kessler of Kessler-Haak for a barrel tasting because this is where he makes his wines — and he is an assistant winemaker there too. While we waited for Dan to extricate himself from his vineyard 20 minutes away, we tasted Lafond’s Pinot Noir, plus for good measure and since we were still waiting, their syrah and chardonnay. They will be pouring at the Vintner’s spring festival, and you can find their SRH designate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah in restaurants; their SRH wines really are a great value– nice wines for the price! But they only make 8-10k cases so that distribution is not that wide and much of it goes tot their own restaurants in the Santa Barbara area. While we were focusing on Pinot Noir, I was quite taken with their Syrah with its spicy sarsaparilla notes and black pepper finish.


Dan Kessler with Tony Fletcher

Now Dan Kessler won’t be at the Vinters Festival so to taste his wines, you’ll need to head to the tasting room in Lompoc. And taste them you should! I think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made from his grapes are some of the best of the region. Last winter 2016, we were introduced to Dan’s wines at a #Winestudio twitter tasting of his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and Sue and I were so taken with it we immediately made plans to visit which we did last June. Now that I’ve been to the winery and tasted from the barrel, we have a complete story which we are excited to share soon! We’re also planning on doing a comparison tasting of from wineries making wine from his Pinot Noir, including his own.

Dan Kessler at the end of the barrel tasting with me, Wine Predator: we both look pretty happy!

I will say now  however, that the 2016 vintage looks really exciting. Dan has one experiment of full cluster that he stomped himself that I hope he bottles separately. In fact, he has most of the Pinot Noir separated in the barrel by the various clones, and that was fun to taste and learn more about their characteristics.

Turns out that Dan had never done a barrel tasting before — and neither had Tony! I hope he does more: Dan really comes alive when he is actively in the process of being a part of the wine as opposed to in the tasting room.

Dan Keesler uses this glass device to get the wine out of the barrel for Tony Fletcher and I to sample

We tasted nine 2016 wines in the barrel, mostly Pinot Noir clones:

  • a barrel blend that I loved for its cherry/strawberry/minty/sage/lavender,
  • Dijon 115 which offered some interesting sweet bubble gum notes
  • ??? peanut buttery notes,
  • clone 777 is Christmas spice and a little Christmas tree too,
  • 667 is a bit stemmy with a nice mouthfeel and fruit flavors,
  • 115 block 1 has a powerful nose and both red and blue fruits like blueberry and a long complex finish,
  • clone 2A came in late so it is whole cluster and stomped by Dan offering beet and mocha,
  • a Nebbiolo redolent of lemon custard, citrus peel, and rich blue fruit
  • a Cabernet from Star Lane in Happy Canyon with TONS of cherry fruit



I am going to say straight out that I have never had a better tasting room experience than we had at Melville the other day. We were ten minutes to closing but that didn’t matter:

As they say at Melville, you’re never too late as long as you’re there.

Melville will also be pouring at the Vintners Festival, and you should also see if Melville winemaker Chad Melville is pouring his Samsara wines because they are fabulous! We had such an amazing experience at Melville that I am going to save that for its own blog post as well but for right now, just let me say that if you really want to learn about Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, Melville will answer all of your questions and then some. They have five soils on site, and they have are jars in the tasting room so that those who are interested can feel, and smell, and get an idea of the relationship between the soil and the wine.

And the glasses! If you are a regular reader of my blog, or watch my tweets, or visit my house after a tasting, you know I have a thing for glasses. At Melville, they gladly gave us a glass for each Pinot Noir so that we could go back and forth to taste the wines and compare them. And they put sticky notes on the glass so we could tell who’s glass was who’s and what was in it. And I didn’t have to wash a single glass! Wow.



Our final stop of the day was Alma Rosa, or “soul” rosa meaning the soul of Santa Rosa Road. Alma Rosa was started by Richard Sanford — yes that Richard Sanford — after he sold his eponymous winery down the road– the one where we started out day.

About two years ago they moved into a beautiful very modern yet very relaxing tasting room next to Industrial Eats — which means you not only have the wines by the glass or carafe selection from Industrial eats to pair with your meal but you can also get a glass of wine from Alma Rosa!

And this one will be will its own separate blog post too because this post is clocking in at over 2300 words right now!

I hope this introduction to a few key Pinot Noir producers in Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills AVA has you excited for this year’s Festival Grand Tasting on Saturday, April 22 from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m (Early Entry and Connoisseurs Club at 12:00 p.m.) at River View Park in Buellton.

Consider tasting a particular varietal your strategy! You might focus on Chardonnay like I did my first time, or “unusual whites” or white blends or rose then at about the hallway mark, move to focus on a red wine like Pinot Noir or Syrah to really get  feel for the terroir of the region. Leave yourself some time to go back to other wines that caught your eye.

And remember that it’s ok to dump and spit — even when the wine is awesome and you don’t want to!

Also take notes or photos — twitter and instragram are a wonderful way to keep track of what you tasted and what you love!

The event offers opportunities to  enjoy new release wines from participating member wineries; food sampling from more than twenty food purveyors; live music; wine and cooking demonstrations; local artisans; silent auction; and free parking all included in the ticket price. It’s a lot of fun! Tickets here.

The Saturday morning Santa Barbara Wine Seminar from 9:30 – 11:00 a.m. at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott will feature an in-depth tasting with a winemaker panel moderated by renowned wine writer, Elaine Brown. This is likely sold out but if you can attend it you should! Elaine is just returning from two extended trips this year to New Zealand and I’m curious how she’ll characterize the difference between the two regions Pinot Noir.

That  Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m is the Big Bottle Bash at K’Syrah, a new special event venue in downtown Solvang, featuring large formatwines brought by guests and winery representatives. In the style of a La Paulee, guests are invited to bring their own bottles to share with fellow guests.

Vintners Visa Wine Country Tasting Pass gets you unique and complimentary offerings at your choice of twelve of 25 or so participating tasting rooms from today through Sunday.  Throughout the weekend, many wineries host their own events, including open houses, winemaker dinners, library tastings, and barrel tastings.

And don’t forget to stop and smell the roses! Well, look at the wildflowers anyway!

2 thoughts on “Wildflowers and Wine: Santa Barbara Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills AVA

  1. Pingback: Ventura County Barrel Weekend 2017 Highlights | wine predator

  2. Pingback: Why We’re with WALT: Winery Owner Kathryn Hall, Winemaker Megan Gunderson Paredes | wine predator

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