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Thinking about appellations, as a new fight flares in Sta. Rita Hills


To Paso Robles this afternoon for a quick trip to moderate the first CAB Collective, a local group organized to promote the Cabernet Sauvignons of Paso Robles. Good timing: Paso is on the verge of a renaissance, if it’s not already happening, and tastemakers–sommeliers, writers, chefs–are starting to take note, especially of its red wines. Alcohol levels seem to have moderated in recent years, making the wines more balanced. Meanwhile, a new generation of winemakers (one might call them contrarians) is exploring Paso’s terroirs with renewed vigor, particularly on the west side.

There’s never enough time on these trips to do everything I want. For that matter, there’s never enough time in my life to go on all the trips I want. I’d love to get down to Paso, and Santa Barbara, and other destinations south four or five times a year; but that’s impossible. There’s been talk for years of sub-dividing Paso Robles into multiple AVAs. Some years ago, a proposal to establish an East Side and West Side appellation was killed amidst intense opposition. I’d love sometime to have someone familiar with the region drive me around and explain how the climate and soils change from place to place. Even after all these years, I feel the gaps in my knowledge. This map, courtesy of Tablas Creek, is helpful in understanding the wind flow patterns from west to east. It shows how the “Templeton Gap” effect is no simple thing, but instead is a spider-webby pattern that may impact one property while leaving another nearby alone.

Meanwhile, the battle over expanding the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heating up. I inadvertently got involved in it earlier this week, although I’ll spare you the dreary details. It’s a shame how these boundary line fights pit neighbor against neighbor, in a kind of Civil War. I recall a similar fuss some years ago concerning expanding the Russian River Valley’s lines (which eventually was approved despite some intense local opposition).

And who could forget the turmoil that arose when some folks in Napa Valley talked about establishing Rutherford Bench and Oakville Bench appellations? I was unable to find an online link to anything about it, but in the 1990s that brouhaha was tearing Napa apart. It went nowhere.

People take their AVAs seriously. An AVA is hard enough to get established anyway (consider that a branch of the Treasury Department is involved). It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, and I can understand why, once one is up and running, the people in it don’t want to tinker with it anymore. At the same time, the wine industry is a for-profit place, and, since wines from a smaller, prestigious appellation tend fetch higher prices than wines from bigger appellations, someone who’s outside is always going to want to be inside. It’s only human nature. But it can get ugly.  I hope the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills people get this situation under control soon. It’s not good for anyone. Can’t we all just get along?

  1. Steve, thanks for the thoughtful post, and the link to the blog with the Paso Robles wind flow patterns. You (and your readers) might be interested in a more detailed post I did a couple of years later with maps of soil, rainfall, and temperature zones within Paso Robles:

    I look forward to seeing you down here this weekend!

  2. Steve,

    On the whole I enjoy your blog and found little in this post with which to disagree.

    But…what’s up with the coy “Santa…err, Sta. Rita Hills” snark? It is what it is; that’s its name; deal with it. Otherwise you come off looking a bit, well, whiny.

    My tuppence, spend ’em as you will.
    Cheers, Marie

  3. Marie, I’m just making fun, that’s all. Do you know the history of why it’s Sta. and not Santa? So I’m not whining, I’m being facetious. Or trying to be.

  4. A winery in Chile is called Santa Rita and they objected to that name appearing on American wine bottles. So it’s spelled Sta. Rita on the labels but still pronounced Santa Rita.

  5. A winery in Chile is called Santa Rita and they objected to that name appearing on American wine bottles. So it’s spelled Sta. Rita on the labels from this area in California but still pronounced Santa Rita.

  6. Kris Curran says:

    Hi Steve,
    Larry is accurate about the history of how Sta. came to be, replacing Santa in Sta. Rita Hills. The Santa Rita Winery in Chile is to Chileans what the Alamo is to Texans, and they (the Chileans) had (still do!) way more clout and money then we (as an upstart little AVA in America) did. But understand that there is NO humor with regard to the proposed expansion of the SRH AVA. In fact, most involved would rather see the AVA delineated further but being as most of us are owner-operated we do not have the time to take on that project. That being said, we do have time to wage the “war” (as you referred to it) against expansion. There are many factual reasons for fighting this, but it comes down to one thing, for me anyway: Principal. Principal on many levels.

  7. Steve

    Thank you for coming to our first Cabernet event yesterday. Your questions were spot on in regards to what has changed in Paso and the work that lies ahead.

    In regards to your blog, it would be a pleasure to show you around our appellation and give you the different nuances and elements that make up each region that is part of the Paso Robles AVA. You just name the time.

    Your comments yesterday at the close will reverberate for many years for what we are trying to accomplish with Bordeaux varieties as an appellation. “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

    Thank you again for participating in this event.


  8. Steve,

    Indeed I was aware of the reasons behind the Santa-vs-Sta. naming convention. The commentary simply doesn’t come across to me as humor, that’s all.
    But as they say, your mileage may vary! 🙂

    Cheers, Marie

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