Of Sand and Fog: The Pinot Noirs of Santa Maria’s Western Edge
March 10, 2014
My memories of the weather growing up as a kid in Santa Maria aren’t exactly the stuff of idyllic Norman Rockwell paintings. The howling wind blowing clouds of dust from the nearby strawberry fields into my grandparents’ yard where I was playing, families freezing at Little League games, and relentless fog even in the middle of summer. Ironically, given the career path I’ve chosen, this weather also makes for one of the planet’s most ideal locations for Pinot Noir. In the past year I’ve fallen in love all over again with the wind-battered, fog-shrouded west end of the valley in particular, and the thrilling Pinots emanating from this tiny corner of the world. This week I spoke with several of the farmers and winemakers who are crafting incredible Pinot Noir here.
While this area doesn’t have a specific name yet, some have begun referring to it as the Solomon Hills (also the name of one the most prominent vineyards here). Beginning in the southwest portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA along the transverse Solomon Hills range, directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean, this is an area defined by its extreme maritime conditions: harsh winds, constant fog, and lots and lots of sand. The nearby Guadalupe Dunes Complex is the second largest dune series in California, and walking the vineyards, one gets a sense of just how coastally influenced the soils here are. Over millennia, wind deposited all of this sand among the vineyards of what is now the west end of Santa Maria Valley. “This is pure sand, essentially no rocks or pebbles, and growing grapes in this soil is very difficult,” says Trey Fletcher, winemaker for Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. “It doesn’t hold water at all, so irrigation has to be managed very carefully. These vineyards could probably never be dry farmed.” The two dominant soil series in the far west along the Solomon Hills are Marina and Garey sands. As one heads north or east, the Pleasanton, Positas and Sorrento series begin to enter the picture, with more loamy, pebbly textures, marking the transition out of this small subsection of the Valley.
The Westside is separated from the eastern part of the valley by a gradual change in soil, climate, and exposure, beginning with the shift into riverbed soils that occurs at Cat Canyon Creek and the Santa Maria and Sisquoc Rivers. As the valley floor rises into what is referred to as the Santa Maria Bench, the soils undergo a more dramatic shift, showing the origins of volcanic uplift, with shale, limestone and more clay entering the picture. Much of the bench also moves to a southern exposure, warmer and slightly sheltered from the direct wind. When tasting Pinot Noir from riverbed sites such as Riverbench or benchland sites such as the famed Bien Nacido next to Pinot Noirs from the Western edge, the stylistic differences are readily apparent. “Solomon Hills looks to the sky. Bien Nacido looks to the earth,” says Fletcher. To elaborate on this idea, the wines from the valley’s west end, particularly those within the Solomon Hills such as Presqu’ile, Solomon Hills, and Rancho Real/Murmur, are shaped by refrigerated sunshine, pummeling wind, and wind-deposited soils, leading to sun-kissed Pinot Noirs driven by fruit and spice. Vineyards on the bench on the other hand have much rounder textures and more overt notes of organic earth thanks to the loam and stones that define this part of the Valley.
“There is a very apparent spiciness in the wines here when made in a delicate style,” says Ernst Storm. “In the case of Presqu’ile, it is exciting to work with a young vineyard that is already showing so much terroir.” Many producers, such as Storm, choose to highlight this character by utilizing whole-cluster fermentation. “I find that the Solomon Hills area is more conducive to whole-cluster,” says Luceant’s Kevin Law. “You get all of this beautiful savory spice, along the lines of Italian herbs.” Others feel that the fruit already provides so much spice that stem inclusion isn’t needed. “My tastings prior to 2013 of other producers and our own verticals seemed to show a more brooding character to the fruit and spice profile. As a result I was more reticent with our use of whole cluster, not believing there was much to gain in terms of spice and structure from the stems,” says Dierberg’s Tyler Thomas. “For the most part we found this to be true of 2013 though I would say 2012 and 2013 highlight fruit over spice more than I observed in vintages past.” Personally, I love the use of whole cluster here, particularly from the Presqu’ile vineyard. The intense spice these producers speak of, which for me leans somewhere between Christmas spices and dried Italian herbs, is distinctive, not only within the Santa Maria Valley, but within California as a whole.
Another facet that producers speak to about the area is its ability to capture perfectly ripe fruit at low brix and, therefore, low alcohols. “With the soil being so sandy, early-ripening Dijon clones do incredibly well, and there is beautiful phenolic character at perfect pH and brix of only 22 or 22.5,” says Law. “With those vineyards by the river, I find it can be harder to get that perfect triangulation of pH, brix, and phenolics.” These lower alcohols could also be due to the fact that most of the producers working with fruit in this area are a new generation of winemakers seeking a return to balance. Names like Storm, Luceant, Presqu’ile, and La Fenetre are associated with this movement, and it is not uncommon to see alcohols in the 12% range from these sites.
It will be interesting to see where this region goes in the coming years. While it is currently defined by a small handful of sites, there is still a lot of available land that hasn’t been utilized. Most of the vineyards are also quite young, and I expect their character to become more pronounced and refined with time. For now, it is one of the most consistent and unique Pinot Noir regions on the Central Coast, and for lovers of the balance and spice-driven profile that makes Pinot Noir so wonderful, this should be at the top of the list for new areas to explore.
Enjoy this brief video journey through the West end shot this past week, heading north and east, through the Solomon Hills, Ca del Grevino (Addamo), Presqu’ile, Dierberg, and Garey Vineyards.