Sta. Rita Hills Wines: A Question of Integrity or Cynicism

mapThere is a proposal sitting on the desk of the Feds that, if approved, would expand the Santa Barbara County-based American Viticultural Area called the Sta. Rita Hills. The expansion proposal has been submitted by a grape grower whose vineyards now lie just outside the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The upshot of that unfortunate placement is that the grower does not get as much money for his grapes than if they were inside the boundary of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

There is significant disagreement over whether this expansion should take place. Most vineyard and winery owners inside the Sta. Rita Hills AVA oppose the expansion. Clearly, the grower outside the AVA, who submitted the expansion petition, supports it.

You can read more about it all here.

The question on the table is: Is this AVA Expansion justified?

There really are only two ways of looking at this.

1. AVA Integrity Approach
If you believe the AVA system is one that is meant to give consumers information about the character of a wine based on the AVA on the bottle, then very great care should be taken in drawing AVA boundary lines. This care should be taken at the time the lines are originally drawn and, after the AVA is established and has a reputation, the lines should be altered to include new land only under extraordinary circumstances. The priority is the maintenance of an AVA that can continue to deliver grapes that are made into wine of a particular character reflective of the area.

2. The Cynical Approach
If you believe AVAs are primarily marketing vehicles that, under the guise of giving consumers key information about the character of wines made from grapes grown inside the AVA, really are just brands and promotional words, then every effort should be made to expand the AVA’s territory in order to grow more grapes to make more wines to carry the brand name.


33 Responses

  1. Spencer - June 4, 2013

    I’m not familiar with the case and don’t know who the grower is or the quality of his product, but one thing to consider….The Santa Rita Hills AVA is less than 15 years old and, in the relative scheme of things, grape growing in the area does not have a particularly long track record. If we are talking about adjusting the boundaries of a Grand Cru Burgundy vineyard, the boundaries of which were drawn after centuries of close study, then I would say “sorry…too late”. However, when it comes to a region as young as the Santa Rita AVA, is it possible that when the boundaries were originally drawn we did not know enough about the area to say with a high degree of certainty that grapes grown on one side of the border are likely to be different than grapes grown just over the other side of the border?

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      If you have any questions about the issue, i will try to answer any questions as fairly and accurately as i can.

  2. David - June 4, 2013

    The Sta. Rita appellation was poorly put together for a Pinot Noir appellation leaving out areas west of the appellation and now adding areas east of the appellation. There is a distinct difference (temperature, wind speeds, and soils) between the western Sta. Rita and eastern Sta. Rita as it relates to Pinot Noir. Not to mention soil differences between Santa Rosa side and the HWY 246 corridor. This is simply a political appellation of growers nothing else.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      I would love to see some temperature and soil data to support your conclusions.

      Feel free. I already posted my data–in the federal register.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      Your comments continue to bother me, and don’t make much sense in context. It was poorly put together because..why exactly? Because Lompoc isn’t included? Because someone is now trying to expand? Please give us a reckoning of your philosophy and please use specific and justifiable criteria.

      Also, how much time have you spent with boots on the ground here, how much wine have you made from the area, and what viticultural training to you have?

  3. jake r. - June 4, 2013

    i strongly disagree with david. i know of a vineyard with in 1/4 of a mile from the east boundary of the santa rita app. after five years the pinot noir [five different clones] planted there was pulled out . the fruit quality was just not there.

  4. Dan - June 4, 2013

    Appellation lines are not perfect, but they are pretty good in most cases. However, there is way of approaching any change that may get a better result. The applicant may consider lobbying the established appellation group and selling them on the idea first. If he goes straight to the Feds, he is essentially saying “screw you” to the group. Bad result.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      And sir, that is exactly what Blair Pence did. No engagement until days before he submitted. Even the TTB suggested he engage the original petitioners.

      So if it gets through, he’s reviled. If he gets the expansion, he’s even more reviled. He has succeeded in estranging himself from a tight knit community of really cool people, and he has, in my personal opinion, committed brand suicide, and that’s about it.

  5. Kim - June 4, 2013

    Naming your option cynical versus integrity seems to indicate some preference, though I suppose I could be wrong. To quote a wine blogger of some notoriety:

    “Our appellations are primarily marketing vehicles and only rarely are drawn to encompass an area that has a very well-defined set of growing characteristics or “terroir”. If you want to put terroir on display then your best bet is to focus on a single vineyard.”

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      Good read and you made me think! :-)

      Some petitioners, and I’d like to include myself, do focus on defining a subregion for typicity. I know those lines will be second guessed, every inch, for hundreds of years. The true end of this story will be told by history books on SBC wine country some 300 years hence. I hope to be more respected than heckled for the three AVA’s I have penned and seen through the Federal Register and approval.

  6. Tom Wark - June 4, 2013

    Kim get the prize for the closest and most revealing reading of this Blog.

  7. David - June 4, 2013

    Jake I think that you are in agreement to my point the eastern boundry routinely gets in the 80-90 degree zone. There is an 15-20 degree swing within the Sta. Rita Hills boundry as it exists now from east to west. The AVA should have been drawn much closer to the coast if it is about Pinot Noir. I wont even start in about Soil diversity that’s another topic.

  8. Ken - June 4, 2013

    Why not set up a blind tasting of 5, 6, 7 etc vintages of wines form outside and inside and let the quality speak for itself….

  9. Dr. Bob Baehner - June 4, 2013

    Those that worked on the new AVA spent a great deal of time reseaching and then defending the reasons for the parameters. I would not expect any other Santa Barbara County AVA bounderies to be moved to accommodate some of us who might benefit from a marketing perspective.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      Those opposed: The entire Board of the SRH Winegrowers, even those who use Pence Ranch fruit.

      Richard Sanford
      Rick Longoria
      Peter Cargasacchi
      Wes Hagen (original petitioner)
      Chad Melville
      Victor Gallegos (Seasmoke)
      Craig McMillan (Prof of Viticulture)

      In fact I have yet to find a single supporter of the expansion that is not directly on the payroll of the petitioner.

  10. Ken Volk - June 4, 2013

    The AVA (American Viticulture Area) system in America has many similarities to southern and congressional voting districts – It’s all about politics and special interests.
    I am cynical about most AVA’s because they generally start off small and then get larger due to politics. Typically, a neighboring vineyard that lies outside of an AVA asks or petitions to be included in that particular AVA. Once granted, the AVA‘s tend to get expanded at a latter dates. For examples, review the federal register to see how many AVA’s have increased in size over the years. AVA’s are also used as important marketing tools, just look at the power of a Northern California AVA with a four letter word. AVA’s do define the general location of where a particular grape came from, but they do nothing to ensure the quality of wine in the bottle.
    The Santa Rita Hills appellation is home to some wonderful cool-climate vineyard properties and it a great winemaking community. However, very little of the AVA was not already part of the western portion of the already existing Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Like most California AVA’s, the Santa Ynez Valley was a large appellation of convince when formed, that includes both a warmer climate to the east, and a cooler climate to the west. The Santa Rita Hills AVA does provide the consumer a more specific geography and climate of where the fruit for a wine came from. In almost all AVA’s, winegrowing protocol will have a more dominant role in how a wine comes across versus a regional typicity of the AVA.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      Thanks for your astute commentary, Ken!

  11. Kevin - June 4, 2013

    Interesting point Dan. If the gent was truly passionate about Sta. Rita, one would think he would have purchased within the drawn boundaries? Although perhaps he feels so strongly that his vineyard falls within the temp parameters, etc. that he feels he can only win his case? At a degree increase for every mile driven east … where would one draw the boundary? Slippery slope perhaps? How hot is too hot for Pinot? What if they re-drew and kicked Casa Cassara or Rio Vista out. Can they go back and do that?

  12. David - June 5, 2013

    I total agree with Ken Volks comments – Unfortunately when poor homework is done on a AVA and politics get involved maybe “pretty good” is all we can hope for – However poor ava boundries beg people outside the boundries to fight to be included because the criteria is so weak. That is what has happened in Sta. Rita people on the west and the east boundries are asking the question. In my view western edge is more worthy to be included in any expansion of the AVA.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      With 82 lot lines impacted by the boundary of the SRH AVA, allowing even a single expansion will likely begin a flood of petitions and a watered down AVA.

      We had the balls to draw the lines and we have the balls to defend them. Enough said.

      My personal belief is that this an attempt by a developer to buy land on the cheap and then add value with lawyers and ‘scientists for hire’.

      But what do I know? I’ve just been farming here 20 years and wrote the original AVA petition…

  13. Mitch - June 5, 2013

    AVA meanings and purposes have changed over the years. Napa Valley AVA can be the most criticized because it includes virtually the whole county with some small areas out on the east side near Spanish Flats. Looking back now it was clearly too broad from a purists’ point of view. There was some arguments, most notably sides taken that pitted Robert Mondavi Winery vs Beringer Winery (RMW won). But the areas in despute were the Pope Valley, Chiles Valley areas (both do very well now with Bordeaux varieties). This was early on and Napa Valley is now thought of as more of a political geographic area as opposed to a specific AVA. But give Napa credit when they aggressively pursued more specific sub AVAs since. Ironically, it was Tim Mondavi who was the loudest voice. I was there when he proposed that everyone get together and create AVAs for Oakville, Rutherford, St Helena, Yountville and Calistoga. Oakville and Rutherford have benefitted the most here and the differences in the majority of the wines is quite distinct. So while Napa moved to, in effect, get smaller and more specific, other regions like the Russian River Valley has been expanded by larger wineries for commercial purposes. It is not a perfect “business”. In the end what is in the bottle is what makes the brands worthwhile.

  14. Daniel - June 5, 2013

    Dave, you seem pretty knowledgeable about the SRH AVA. I am surprised you feel the boundary should be moved further west. Have you been to Lompoc? there is a reason no one grows grapes pretty much west of the AVA boundary…. On the eastern boundary, I would have expected you to suggest that boundary be moved further west too – definitely not further east.. Your comment on the AVA being a “political appellation of growers” and your assertion of a 15 degree temperature change east to west in the AVA are both exaggerations in my opinion. I live in the area manage a vineyard and routinely see a max of 5 degrees from west to east AVA boundaries when I drive 246 from Lompoc to Buellton.

    • Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

      How do you feel about including areas of the Buellton Flats in the SRH?

      • Daniel - June 5, 2013

        I do not see any continuity in putting some or all of the Buellton Flats into the SRH AVA. Pence’s vineyard sits on a mesa above 246, which exposes his vineyard to some wind, but not to marine influence in my opinion. That influence ends at or west of (my personal opinion) the large north/south running hill 246 goes over. Looking at his vine growth at this point in time, it is pretty clear to me that the winds are much milder and it is much warmer at his vineyard than vineyards in SRH to the west of him.

    • David - June 5, 2013

      Really 5 degrees between evening land ranch and Peter works vineyard and rio vista – I suggest you get your temperature gauge fixed

    • David - June 5, 2013

      Really – a 5 degree difference between evening land ranch and rio Vista or peter works vineyard – I suggest you get your temp. gauge fixed

      • Daniel - June 5, 2013

        gauge is accurate. where did you get your data?

  15. Wes Hagen, VM Clos Pepe - June 5, 2013

    Integrity Approach: The SRH is defined by the boundaries that we created 15 years ago, and represent 100% of the reputation we have created. With 83 lot lines cut by the AVA boundary, we aren’t surprised that this finally happened, but we are concerned by the lack of engagement of certain petitioners, and the expansion petitioners should not be surprised when the local growers and winemakers end up isolating and reviling them for their unilateral attempts to push this through without the support of the local winegrowing community.

    Cynical approach: Of course we have spent 20 years and untold millions of dollars marketing the brand of Sta Rita hills. It is our brand and we built it. Of course we are going to try to protect it from what we see as an attmept to push the boundary into the Buellton Flats, an area that lacks the hyper-coastal influence and outside the land mass originally described in the Petition to Establish the SRH AVA.

    From both perspectives, we feel righteous in this. We think when we present our science, history and viticultural justification, the expansion petition will become transparent to its actual purpose: to legislate a reputation instead of having to build it like we did.

    Would the petitioners be amenable to making ME a full partner in their personal businesses? Of course not, because I wasn’t there to help them build it.

    Regardless of your position, I hope everyone will study the entire situation and send their comments to avaregs@ttb.gov

    Cheers and thanks for caring about this important issue in American wine.

  16. john - June 6, 2013

    I am a consumer that really really loves Sta. Rita Hills. It is what I gravitate too when I think of Pinot Noir. Just like when the AVA was formed another country 4000 miles away stepped in to make sure the integrity of there name which happened to be Santa Rita in Chile not be confused with a new AVA. Hence the Sta. in the name instead of Santa. The boundaries have already been set and I would agree with anybody working, breathing, living and making wine in those boundaries that they never be changed. I do recall sitting with Wes tasting his beautiful wines a few months back and he mentioned why not try to create a new AVA? Good Question! Since I am a consumer I always want to try and taste wines, so I did buy some Pence Pinot. It should arrive today. I am not going to judge whether it taste like Sta. Rita or not. I am gonna judge whether I like it or not. TO BE CONTINUED~

  17. Chad Melville - June 11, 2013

    I feel like in order to keep the integrity of our AVA, we should reduce its size. Want to change the border? Think 20 years is not enough time to draw accurate borders? Sure. Lets shrink it.
    David, there is not a 15-20 degree swing within the boundaries, get accurate info before you post.

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