Growing Pains: Expansion Win in Santa Barbara Wine Area Ruffles Feathers

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/8/16

Pence Ranch
The expansion of one of Santa Barbara’s most famous grape growing areas has upset many in the local wine community.  But for Blair Pence, it’s a major victory.

“We felt pretty confident that we’d ultimately prevail,” says vintner Blair Pence, who spearheaded the effort to expand the eastern boundary of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Lompoc.  The decision by the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB), which took three years to achieve and which adds 2300 acres to the 33,000-acre region, becomes official on September 21.

Sta. Rita Hills is one of six American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, in Santa Barbara County.  These zones get official federal recognition for unique characteristics – geology, weather, even history – that allow them to grow quality wine grapes.  Sta. Rita Hills, known now around the world for producing supreme pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, received AVA status in 2001.

Blair Pence
When Blair Pence, a successful real estate developer, bought a 200-acre property in2005 with the ultimate goal to grow grapes, it was situated right outside the Sta. Rita Hills’ eastern border.  And as his Pence Ranch label began to gain acclaim, defining the origin of his wines “became a real pain,” he says.

“People would ask, ‘Where are you?’

“And I’d say, ‘Santa Barbara County.’

“‘Where?’

“‘Between Lompoc and Buellton.’

“‘Where exactly?’

“Just telling people where we were always required a lot of explanation,” says Mr. Pence, so pushing to have Pence Ranch included within the AVA “was really a matter of clarification,” he says.

More importantly, he insists that the TTB decision – what he calls “a totally impartial move” – was based on “relevant data points” that prove that his land is a natural extension of Sta. Rita Hills, or SRH.

“The east [boundary] used to be defined by an arbitrary point-to-point between peaks, it was out of whack,” he says.  “What the TTB decision has done is taken the rationale applied to the west [boundary] and applied it to the east:  a 320-foot elevation line that wraps around the foothills.”

He calls it, “topographical continuity.”

The newly defined border now includes Pence Ranch in its entirety, as well as portions of neighboring John Sebastiano and Rio Vista Vineyards that were previously excluded.

The grapevines at Pence Ranch
Elevation variation helps define Pence Ranch
Mr. Pence’s thoroughly studied arguments, and the fact the federal government agreed, is not enough to quell the letdown of many of his neighbors, though.  The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, comprised of many of Santa Barbara’s best-known winemakers, voiced unified opposition to the expansion from the get-go, citing the integrity of borders that were carefully studied for years before approval.  The TTB decision to push out the eastern border, which is a rare occurrence in the wine industry, disappointed many in the group.

“It’s ill-founded,” says Richard Sanford, a pioneer winemaker who planted the first pinot noir vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills in 1971, long before the area was officially defined.  “It reduces the meaningfulness of appellations.”

“It sets a bad precedent,” says Richard Longoria, who’s been making wine locally since the early 1980s and who planted his Fe Ciega Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  “What stops the ranch adjacent to Pence from applying for an expansion? Where does it stop?”

Truly legendary places and institutions are built upon strong foundations,” winemaker Chad Melville writes in his Notebook blog, which is published on Melville Winery website.  “If a foundation is ever-shifting, how can permanence and true greatness ever emerge there?”

But a more conciliatory tone is coming from J. Wilkes Wines winemaker Wes Hagen, the man who led the charge to have the Sta. Rita Hills officially green-lighted in 2001.  “I’m glad we’re moving forward after this decision’s been made so we can continue to elevate the region as the United States’ premier cool-climate region for growing great pinot noir and chardonnay,” he told me.  “The decision is what it is, and what we need to focus on is what we do best in the wine industry: putting delicious wine on the table and getting people back together.  I love that there was passion on both sides.  To me, the main issue is that the Sta. Rita Hills is now valuable enough to elicit this type of passion, and that’s a win no matter how this thing came down.”

The ruling now allows Pence Ranch to print the lucrative Sta. Rita Hills name on its labels, a potential boon with consumers.  But he doesn’t plan on bumping up the prices of his grapes; the lion’s share of the Pence Ranch crop stays with the proprietary label (with wines made by Sashi Moorman and priced between $40 and $56), while some fruit is earmarked for two other labels only, Whitcraft and Bonaccorsi.  And his focus is on business as usual.

“I’m keeping emotion out of this,” Mr. Pence says.  “We’re just out to grow the very best grapes and make the very best wines.”



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