The Santa Rita Hills American Viticultural Area is located in Santa Barbara County. (The town name is often abbreviated as Sta. Rita Hills AVA for copyright reasons. “AVA” means “American Viticultural Area.”) The area is located approximately 30 minutes from the city of Santa Barbara off Highway 101. The towns of Buellton, Lompoc and Los Olivos are near the start of the Santa Rita Hills wine trails.
Weather & Geography of Santa Rita Hills
The Santa Rita Hills area covers approximately 30,720 acres, 2,500 of which are planted with wine grapes. The town of Buellton is called the eastern gateway to the Santa Rita Hills AVA. It is also in the middle of the Santa Ynez Valley. Both are located along the California Central Coast, about 100 miles northwest of Lost Angeles. This area is the heart of wine country in Santa Barbara County, and is partially surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest. The Santa Ynez Valley itself is home to approximately 20,000 residents.
The boundaries of the appellation were chosen to include only the locations between the Santa Rosa Hills and the Purisma Hills that matched the growers’ requirements for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The eastern edge is four miles west of Highway 101 in Buellton and the western boundary is two miles east of Highway 1 in Lompoc. This small size makes it one of the smallest t in California. Because many of the vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills AVA have been planted only in the last 20 years, they use modern trellising and clones – or cultivars – of certain premier wine grapes.
The Santa Rita Hills AVA is located between Lompoc and Buellton in the Santa Ynez Valley. The Purisma Hills are located to the north and the Santa Rosa Hills are to the south. The 100 square miles of Santa Rita Hills is crossed by the Santa Ynez River. The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance includes vineyards located within the boundaries of the AVA, as well as those who craft wines from grapes grown in the area.
The Santa Rita Hills wine region is crossed by hills running east to west. This allows breezes cooled by the Pacific Ocean just 12 miles away to enter the valley, creating a cool micro-climate. The region receives fog daily, which usually burns off by mid morning. The ocean breezes also serve to cool the summer weather, allowing for nearly perfect European-style vineyards. These fogs and oceans breezes moderate the summer heat so much that temperatures rise approximately one degree for every mile one travels east through the area. The Pacific coastline takes a sharp eastward curve at Point Conception, about 9 miles to the south of the AVA.
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History of Santa Rita Hills
Although the area has been settled for thousands of years, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Rita Hills AVA area were more recently inhabited by the original Spanish Mission builders and land grant holders. The La Purisma Mission still stands and is one of the least spoiled Missions along the California Mission Trail.
In 1970, former Navy officer Richard Sanford planted Sanford and Benedict vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills AVA area. The area was already under agricultural use by vegetable and seed flower farmers. Sanford established what some claim was California’s first cool climate vineyard. The flavor of his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay attracted other producers, who set up shop in the area. Vineyard development and wine-making exploded in the 1990s and 2000s. New vineyards were planted by those coming to the areas, and more premium wineries were launched.
The Santa Rita Hills AVA was granted American Viticultural Area status in 2001. The name was officially changed from Santa Rita Hills to Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 2006 due to a copyright conflict with a Chilean grower and vintner. The area was the setting for the 2004 film Sideways, and has been a popular tourist and oenophile destination for years.
Tourist Attractions in Santa Rita Hills
The Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay feature unusual flavor, intensity and complexity thanks to the climate and valleys, the use of modern wine growing techniques and the enthusiasm of the winegrowers. The weather, fog and soil combine to intensify the flavor of the wines produced in the area.
Wine tasting opportunities in the Santa Ynez Valley include a variety of premium wines from larger and smaller growers. The villages of Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Solvang offer tasting rooms and gourmet restaurants for visitors to enjoy amid the rolling hills and ancient oaks. The area has become a singularly wonderful wine tasting destination.
Of course, the vineyards and wine tasting rooms of the area are the main draws of the Santa Rita Hills AVA and the Santa Ynez Valley regions. The Santa Rita Hills Wine Trails passes through idyllic scenery surpassed by none other in the Santa Barbara region. Along with the vineyards are orchards and fields of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Lavender farms and horse farms grow side by side in the region. Driving from Santa Barbara to the valley via Highway 101 provides some truly amazing Pacific Ocean coastal scenery. Several small wineries operate in Lompoc and Buellton, the gateway to the Santa Rita Hills AVA and wine trail.
To tour the wine trail, experts recommend a round trip driving route starting heading west on Santa Rosa Road from Highway 101, going into Lompoc. Motorists then turn east on Highway 246 back to Buellton. Some of our favorite wineries are Sanford Winery and Melville Vineyards and Winery. The area is perfect for a long weekend of natural beauty and extraordinary wines. In addition to the wine tasting, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Rita Hills has many outdoor recreation opportunities, tourist attractions at the Danish village of Solvang, and the art galleries populating Los Olivos. Thits 34 mile loop from Santa Rosa Road back to State Highway 246, the Santa Rita Hills is a destination of choice for visitors looking for distinctive wines or a lazy drive through the unspoiled countryside of western Santa Barbara County.
Annual Events & Festivals in Santa Rita Hills
The Santa Rita Hills AVA hosts or participates in wine-themed festivals throughout the year. April is a busy month, with the Santa Barbara Vintners’ Association hosting the annual Vintners Festival Weekend. On the opening night of the weekend, the winemakers host a limited seating dinner and wine pairing at the La Purisma Mission.
The closing night of the Festival includes the Bubbles, Barrels and Big Formats Bubbles Bash, Barrel Tasting and Big Formats event at Clos Pepe Estate in Lompoc. Rare estate wines, an educational wine event with the owner of the estate, and a chance to take home some rare bottles with you are highlights of the day. Numerous other vineyards and wine producers open their tasting rooms and wineries to guests during the festival weekend. Food and wine will combine for a weekend to remember for any visitor.
In August, the Santa Rita Hills AVA sponsors its mid-summer Wine and Fire Grand Tasting event at La Purisma Mission in Lompoc. More than two dozen member wineries, along with local restaurants, will gather under the oaks in the mission courtyard to pair the world class Santa Rita Hills wines with grilled local specialty food. Finally, in October the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association sponsors the Celebration of Harvest.
Visiting Santa Rita Hills
If you are planning to visit Santa Rita Hills, California in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, click this link to view photos and video tours of vacation rental homes in Santa Rita Hills, as well as read reviews of the properties and make a reservation:
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