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Pinot Noir By Car
updated: Sep 18, 2010, 9:00 AM

By Marc Liberts

Those of us living and working in the 'American Riviera' of Santa Barbara are blessed with great weather, beautiful scenery, excellent restaurants, and a vibrant community. What some don't realize is that we're less than a one-hour drive from world-class vineyards and wineries as well! In the last 10 years, the world's wine community has paid particular attention to a small section of Santa Barbara County known as the Santa Rita Hills.

The Santa Rita Hills AVA, is a region generally located between Buellton on the West and Lompoc on the East. For the past 15 years, the Santa Rita Hills AVA has become famous for pinot noir and chardonnay. The Santa Rita Hills AVA was officially designated in 2006 to distinguish it from Vina Santa Rita in Chile. If you take the 101 North out of Santa Barbara and drive past Goleta, El Capitan, and Gaviota, you'll end up in Buellton in about 40 minutes. When you exit 101 in Buellton at Highway 246 and turn left, you are entering the Santa Rita Hills. From Highway 246, as you drive toward Lompoc, you'll be passing through the Santa Rita Hills AVA. You can find an excellent map of the region here: http://staritahills.com/images/map.pdf.

Due to the areas topography and geography, the fog and cool ocean breezes moderate the temperatures in this area, creating a regional microclimate that provides a perfect growing environment for chardonnay and pinot noir. Those of us living in Santa Barbara know all about microclimates. For example, in the summer, you can start a drive at Stearns Wharf in Downtown Santa Barbara where it would be fogged in. You could then drive up State Street, hang a right on Mission Street and wend your way up past the Santa Barbara Mission up to Foothill Road. Sometimes the fog will still be blanketing the area. Sometimes the fog will be thinner. Turning left onto Foothill Road you'll meet Highway 154 in about 5 minutes. Heading North onto Highway 154, you'll start to climb up the San Marcos Pass, and more often than not, you'll suddenly depart the marine layer, and encounter clear blue skies. Depending on the time, you may see blue sky quickly, or you may have to drive all the way to the top of the San Marcos Pass. This would be a good example of local micro-climature that we encounter on a day-to-day basis (especially during the Summer of 2010). The Santa Rita Hills benefit from this interplay of fog, ocean breezes, and sun - ultimately creating a perfect climate for pinot noir and chardonnay.

I've written before about wine tasting trips I've taken around California, Oregon, and Washington. I've also written about wine tasting events in and around Santa Barbara. Having become fairly expert in local wines in the past 5 years, I've been trying to expand my knowledge to the Old World wines, focusing on France in particular. Last month I attended a wine tasting event that featured Don Schroeder, the winemaker for Sea Smoke Cellars and Chien Wines. For those of you who don't know - Sea Smoke Cellars specializes in pinot noir and has become world renowned in the past 10 years. However, Don Schroeder was there to talk about his personal project called, Chien Wines. Chien Wines focuses on certain French Alsatian varietals. The Chien wines we tried were the 2007 Edelzwicker Santa Barbara County, and the 2009 Santa Barbara County Gruner Veltliner. The 2007 Chien Edelzwicker is composed of 56% Riesling, 7% Gerwurztraminer, and 37% Pinot Blanc (all classic French Alsatian varietals). Both the Chien '07 Edelzwicker and the Chien '09 Gruner Veltliner were very enjoyable.

My secret wine mentor loves the wines and varietals of the Alsace region of France (traditionally being composed of Reisling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris), so to entice him to attend the event, I went on-line to seek out the finest Alsatian wines I could find. After doing copious amounts of research on the subject of wines of the Alsace, I settled on one of its most prestigious producers, Zind-Humbrecht, and I was able to get Zind-Humbrecht's 2008 Rielsing, 2008 Pinot Gris, 2008 Gewürztraminer, and a very special 2006 Zind-Humbrecht Grand Cru - Clos St. Urbain - Rangen de Thann Pinot Gris. All four wines were unbelievably great. It was especially gratifying to try them side-by-side against their Santa Barbara County counterparts produced by such wineries as Chien, Rancho Sisquoc, Rideau, Margerum, and many others. My review of those wines can be found at the end of this article.

Before I digressed, we were driving up 101 and had just exited in Buellton at Highway 246 and were headed west. If we make an immediate left on Avenue of the Flags, we can follow that road down to Santa Rosa Road and out towards Sanford Winery & Vineyards, Lafond Winery & Vineyards, and Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. We could stop at each of these wineries and try some of the great pinot noirs and chardonnays they are producing from the heart of the Santa Rita Hills.

If we continued to drive all the way down Santa Rosa Road, we'd eventually come to Highway 1. Turning right on Highway 1, we'd drive right into Lompoc and re-connect with Highway 246. We're now in the "Lompoc Wine Ghetto". The Lompoc Wine Ghetto is a growing collection of very small production, artisan wine makers, focusing primarily on the pinots of the Santa Rita Hills. Current and future residents of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto producing great Santa Rita Hills pinot noir include: Ampelos, Flying Goat, Fiddlehead, Jalama, La Vie, Loring, and Samsara. A quick stop in this area will yield a wide variety of excellent Santa Rita Hills pinot noirs. Here is a map of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto: link. I've enjoyed pinot noirs from all of these producers. My 2 favorites are Loring and Ampelos. However, all make good wine and all are worthy of a visit and a tasting.

After the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, we would head North and East on Highway 246 back toward Buellton. As we head back, we'd be passing 2 of my favorite wineries and vineyards: Melville and Dierberg. Both are famous for Santa Barbara County and Santa Rita Hills pinot noir and chardonnay, among the other varietals they grow and produce on their estate vineyards. In particular, Dierberg's 2005 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir made Wine Spectator's 2008 Top 100 Wines of the Year.

If you lived on the Riviera in France, you'd be a few hundred miles from the famed pinot-growing region Burgundy. Burgundy is generally regarded as producing the best pinot noir in the world. However, if you live in the American Riviera, you are within fifty miles of one of the best pinot noir growing regions in California, which some are now saying rivals or exceeds those of the Old World. That's one vote for our Riviera!


1. CHIEN - 2007 Gruner Veltliner - Santa Barbara County - crisp & spicy with sour apple on the palate. I rated it 88 points.

2. RANCHO SISQUOC - 2009 Riesling -Flood Family Vineyard - heavy residual sugar tasting like purple sweet tarts. 84 points.

3. ZIND HUMBRECHT - 2008 Rielsing - tasted like crushed rocks, orange, and spice. 87 Points.

4. BERTHAND - 2007 Chasselas Dore - Sonoma - I found it medicinal and industrial tasting. Not enjoyable - 79 points.

5. BRANDER - 2009 Pinot Gris - Los Olivos Vineyard - Gooseberry on the nose with a pleasant plush mouth-feel. 89 points.

6. AUXERROIS VIEILLES VIGNES 2007 - Albert Mann - Bright fruit & acid with a spicy finish. 90 points.

7. ZIND HUMBRECHT - 2008 Pinot Gris - Silky & Plush with a long & strong finish. 92 points.

8. TANGENT - Arroyo Grande 2007 Pinot Blanc - Thin on the palate but fairly substantial finish. 88 points.

9. SCHUFFIT - Pinot Gris - Colmar - 2004 - Nice acid/fruit balance with a nutty & caramel finish. 89 points.

10. ZIND HUMBRECHT - 2008 Gewürztraminer - odd nose, but plush & spicy on the palate with a big & long finish. 92+ points!

11. TRIMBACH - 2007 Riesling - fruity nose with a big citrus & minerally mouth-feel. 89 points.

12. STEINKLOTZ - 2005 Alsace Grand Cru - Helfrich - Gewürztraminer - WOW! Nicely balanced fruit, spice & acidity. Nutty/spicy on the palate and finish. 93+ points!

13. DANIEL GEHRS - 2008 Limited Riesling - Monterey - Cloyingly sweet and disjointed & sloppy. 82 points.

14. KUNTZ-BAS - 2008 Riesling - nicely balanced fruit, acid and spice. Very nice finish. 89 points.

15. RIDEAU - 2008 Riesling - La Presa Vineyard - Santa Ynez Valley - Cloying sweetness blocked the enjoyment. 83 points.

16. CLAIBORNE & CHURCHILL - 2007 Central Coast Dry Riesling - spicy and dry. Nice food wine! 87 points.

17. FETZER - 2007 Gewürztraminer - Valley Oaks - sweet & cloying & slightly sloppy. 82 points.

18. GRUFF - 2007 Riesling - Kabinett - Mosel - Not Alsatian, but a nice Riesling - spicy and tart. 88 points.

19. ALBERT BOXER - 2006 Grand Cru - Sommerberg - Riesling - POW! Huge wine of immense proportions & beautiful balance. Excellent tartness & acidity. 93+ points.

20. CHIEN - 2007 Elelzwicker - Santa Barbara County - Plush with nice minerality and a stong steely mouth-feel. 89 points.

21. TATOMER - 2008 Kick-on-Ranch Riesling - Santa Barbara County - overtly tart & minerally. Trying to be old world but not. 89 points.

22. DOMAINE OSTERTAG - 2008 Pinot Blanc - Barriques - I found it flabby and disjointed. 83 points.

23. ANDLAU - Riesling - 2000 - interesting and nice but slight oxidized. 88 points.

24. SUNSTONE - 2008 Pinot Gris - strange nose, but nice on the palate. 86 points.

25. ALBERT MANN - 2009 Pinot Blanc - bright, steely and fresh on the palate with a strong finish. 90 points.

26. ZIND HUMBRECHT - 2006 Grand Cru - Clos St. Urbain - Rangen de Thann Pinot Gris - ZOINKS! Interesting pinkish hue, huge palate, big acid, plush finish 92+ points.

27. ZIND HUMBRECHT - 1995 Pinot Gris - OMG! - beautiful in every way - thick, delicious, wonderful, awesome. The best Pinot Gris I've ever tasted. 96 points.

28. TRIMBACH - 2006 Gewürztraminer - very nice nose, plush and rich mouth-feel and finish. 91 points.

29. MARGERUM - 2009 Pinot Gris - Klickitat - pleasant but slightly disjointed. 88 points.

30. SCHUFFIT - 2002 Gewürztraminer - Lieu-Dit HARTH - Cuvee Alexandre - delicious, satisfying, complex, balanced. Excellent! 92+ points.


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