The Sta. Rita Hills Are Alive!

The Sta. Rita Hills Are Alive!

The following text and photos are contributed by Flying Goat Cellars Ambassador Faye Walker:


The Hills

The Extrinsic and the Intrinsic

Visitors to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto seem to know that our operation is inextricably linked to our location. A single taste of the 2018 Pinot Noir Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard will have one person exclaiming over its style, while another will wax rhapsodies upon sipping the distinguished expression of the 2018 Rio Vista Vineyard Dijon blend. Single-vineyard wines are all unique; cultivars, climate, and soil come together in a single bottle that transports the taster to a particular place. But where does the physical meet the metaphorical?

Tasting Terroir

The concept of terroir may be a muddled mix of mud and vines, but at its heart is a love for the earth. The term gout de terroir, or "taste of the land," refers to the characteristic tastes and flavors of a wine that stem from the land in which they were grown. Our vineyard-designated Flying Goat and Goat Bubbles offerings are a nod to the French belief that the physical characteristics of each site are inherently embodied in the sensory properties of the resultant wines. When opening a Blanc de Noirs from Ampelos Vineyard, physical variables from the location are compounding and colliding. The mix of geology, vine density, and topography results in a one-of-a-kind experience. The amalgamation of elements appeals to our emotions, even as it remains undefined by rational science.
As it stands, no one factor of terroir can be understood in isolation.  In fact, there aren't even accepted tools for objective measurements.  Piecing together the puzzle requires a deeper dive into the parameters within soil, water, and air.
Cool Climate

What's in a Name?

The Santa Rita Hills have always been an important feature of Santa Barbara County. The introduction of an AVA, named for these very hills that run through the middle of the appellation, turned out to be an area of contention. Chilean wine producer Vina Santa Rita objected to the idea of dueling Santa Rita's--leading to international negotiations spearheaded by pioneer Richard Sanford to rename the American Viticultural Area as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. At that point, the region was ready to go down in history as a landmark producer of Pinot Noir.
Since the days when Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted Sta. Rita Hill's first wine grapes in 1971, winemakers have appreciated the unique character of the region. Tempered by cool ocean fogs in the evenings and early mornings, Sta. Rita Hills has one of the coldest climates of the AVAs throughout Central and Northern California. 
An Ace Place
Regions such as Champagne, Burgundy, and our own mountainous AVA have accrued a reputation for producing grapes with naturally high acidity--optimal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Summer weather here could see afternoon highs in the 80s, but face chills descending to the 60s by evening. Photosynthesis and the development of anthocyanin pigments are known to occur at optimum temperatures of 63-79 degrees Fahrenheit. Fruit from the Sta. Rita Hills is therefore able to mature and accumulate aromas and phenols with a balanced temperature within this range. 
Besides temperature, the climate of this appellation is affected by many physical site components:  rainfall, wind, sun, slope, and terrain are just a few. Soils are particularly important in allowing water drainage, hence limiting extreme effects from excessive precipitation. Further parameters of texture and mineral composition within the soil allow it to maintain a certain water-holding capacity.

Diatomaceous Earth

When it comes to riches, the soil of the Sta. Rita Hills holds one of the rarest treasures in the world. Deep sea deposits of algae from the ocean floor have shaked, rattled, and rolled over millennia to create the undulating hillside that we see today.  Composed of diatomaceous earth, the area is a hotbed of silica-rich fossils.   
Silica, or calcium silicate, is a mineral with high porosity. Grapes produced on soils with high levels of calcium have a honeycomb-like matrix with high porosity. Those extra structural spaces and holes in the rocks provide a huge bonus:  enhanced soil drainage. This important feature, which helps limit the water supply to vines, might be the very element that creates a sensory expression of terroir.






The fossilized creatures of ancient oceans have left their mark in geological deposits of alluvium. Alluvial soils vary greatly in their mineralogical composition. If high levels of calcium in an area could produce high-quality red wines, then it stands to reason that adding boosters, such as crystalline compounds of calcium carbonate, would transform the result.
The reality? No direct link exists between certain minerals and sensory attributes.  The perception of minerals in wine, trending towards impressions of flint or wet sharpness on the palate, remains just that:  a subjective interpretation.     
Instead, research has suggested that vine water status influences wine style much more than soil mineral composition. The Sta. Rita Hills experiences an average rainfall of 18 inches. This places it right in the sweet spot of 12-39 inches per year that is typical of renowned wine-growing regions. That aridity serves as an advantage; water deficit stress limits yield, forcing the roots to dig deeply into the earth in search of water. Resultant wines are known for complexity, longevity, and--you guessed it--minerality.



The Emotional and the Rational

Some may say that the concept of terroir is a belief system, rather than a firm truth. Certainly, wine tasting notes with descriptions of firm granite will conjure up images of rocky terrain. The reverse is similar. Seeing Rio Vista Vineyard's marine layer of sandy loam soil will draw attention to the strength of those deep-rooted vines that must dig through sediment and soil to catch a drop of quickly-draining water.  
The complex geological, morphological, physical, and chemical properties of the Sta. Rills Hills produce wines that are undeniably in a class of their own.  We owe a great deal to this special region. Whether it's the underlying depth of the fossils or the mere power of suggestion that brings such profundity of flavor, the end result is held intimately close to our hearts. 


Sources and Further Reading:

Alley, Linn.  "Santa Rita Hills Appellation Changes Its Name to Settle Conflict."  Wine Spectator.

EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sciences Added to Food.  "Re-evaluation of calcium siilcate, magnesium silicate, magnesium trisiilcate, and talc as food additives."  EFSA Journal.

Kettmann, Matt.  "Sta. Rita Hills is More Than Just Pinot-Land."  Wine Enthusiast.

Wikipedia.  "Alluvium."

Wikipedia.  "Diatomaceous Earth."

Zoecklein, Bruce.  "What Defines Your Wines?"  Wine Business Monthly.

Comment 1

Jeanette on

Thank you for this information about how the location of the vines , the water and soil and weather ,contribute to the wine’s unique flavors 😊

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