Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills

If there is one part of Santa Barbara County that most embodies everything that makes the region special, it’s the Sta Rita Hills American Viticultural Area (always appearing as Sta Rita Hills on wine labels thanks to a compromise made with Chilean producer Santa Rita). It fully deserves its own tasting article both because its wines alone made up nearly half of those I tasted in my recent survey of Santa Barbara County wines, but also because the region itself stands apart both literally and figuratively from the other AVAs in Santa Barbara County.

Far out on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Sta Rita Hills AVA is actually comprised of two separate valleys sandwiched between three sets of hills, like two slices of luncheon meat alternating with three slices of bread.

These two valleys, oriented directly west-to-east thanks to the region’s unique tectonic past, funnel extremely cold marine air in the form of wind and fog towards warmer inland valleys to the east, creating positively frigid conditions at the western extremity of the AVA, and downright chilly climes throughout.

Sunlight, silica, and soil

‘What makes us really unique though, and this is the real takeaway, is the extremely long growing season here’, says Chad Melville, of Melville Winery. ‘We have budbreak at the end of February and we’re still harvesting Syrah deep into November. So it’s a really long growth season. The reason why that works is because it’s sunny and cold. That’s the thing to remember about the Santa Rita Hills: it’s cold sunshine.’

In addition to its unusually cool climate, the region boasts two important soil characteristics that contribute to the unique character of its wines. Throughout the AVA, it is possible to find large swathes of relatively loose, deep sandy soils that in some places turn to pure sand. These drifts are scattered throughout the AVA, but are most prominently found in the area occupied by Melville Winery in the heart of the AVA.

More visible than the sand, however, and much more unusual, are the large outcrops of brilliant white compacted soil that most wine lovers, myself included, will immediately assume are calcareous. Despite looking identical to the chalk that you might find peeking out from beneath thin layers of topsoil in Champagne, there’s not a bit of calcium to be found in this white substance known as diatomaceous earth.

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