Radian Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills

Block 40 + 41, Dijon Clone 115 + 667

It was 2006 when my esteemed colleague Ken Brown and I were invited to preview two ranch properties that were about to become homes for some new vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills. The new owner of the properties was, of all entities, CalPERS. Why did this governmental agency buy vineyard land? I guess it’s the allure of the wine business, and the notion that it can lead to a small fortune. As the saying goes in my business, “start with a large fortune,” which is probably what CalPERS had back in 2006. Now, with the California economy the way it is, I’m not so sure. One way or another, they thought vineyards were a good place to park public pension money. On behalf of CalPERS, I will say, the properties they chose are stunning. 

Ken and I were initially contacted by an on-the-ground management company, Premiere Pacific Vineyards (PPV). I think we were both surprised when we learned that PPV was running vineyard operations for CalPERS at a number of locations up and down the west coast of the US. The purchases that CalPERS had made in the Sta. Rita Hills were no fluke. CalPERS was all in, and they had hired a good outfit to farm and market their fruit. At that point, Ken had been in the wine industry since the 70’s, and actually had a contact within the PPV hierarchy. I had been growing Pinot Noir in the Sta. Rita Hills for the better part of 20 years. I knew my way around every inch of the place. Together, we were exactly the kind of team that PPV was looking for. As a result, they invited in us in and gave us pick of the litter.

While I am now making five single-terroir cuvees from CalPERS grapes, our earliest encounter with their vineyards led us to two ethereal sites.* One of them was Radical, i.e. blocks 40 & 41 at what is now known in the CalPER’S universe as the Radian Vineyard. Since then, the management of the vineyards has been assigned to an outfit called Atlas Vineyard Management. 2011 was the first vintage in which I captured a wine from these two extraordinary blocks.

Today, I find that when people hear the word radical, they often think of something that is edgy or risky. I don’t know how many times over the last ten years I have heard a young person exclaim, “Dude, that is sooo RAD!” It’s like saying something is cool and provocative, and perhaps a bit extreme. Pushing the envelope or pushing the limits of something is sort of radical by today’s standards. Of course there were the militantly lefti-minded professors and students of the 60’s and 70’s. They were, and still are I suppose, deeply steeped in the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. At that point, it was almost as if those types themselves became the definition of radical. In other words, to be radical was to be specifically Marxist. Personally, I think this misses the mark for the concept, certainly in the way that I am using it. I hold that it is possible for one to be radical in a number of different disciplines.

The aspect of radical that I am interested in is more a kin to the concepts of purity, depth and consistency. To me, a theory or an ideology is radical when it is thoroughly developed and when it digs down as deep as it can to identify its first principles, or axioms. If a single farming technique, for example, is really sound, it’s probably because it is tied to an overall system that is fairly radical. When one starts to postulate the effects of different pruning techniques on the quality of fruit, not just in that same year but two or three years down the road, that’s radical. And after I list all the pertinent viticultural criteria that I can possibly think of, and I find a vineyard that is seemingly perfect in every one of these ways, that’s when I deem it as Radical.

Blocks 40 & 41 at the Radian Vineyard are perfect.

  • Proven Dijon Clones; 115 and 667.
  • Rootstock 3309C, a Vitus riparia x Vitus berlandieri cross of American parents that is perfect for Radical’s soil.
  • Exposure; south facing, in the afternoon breeze daily. Exposed but not extreme.
  • Row Direction; north-south, providing for ample sun on the fruit, with some shade around mid day.
  • Hillside with Short Rows; providing for good drainage which can not pool at the lower end of the block because the rows aren’t that long.
  • Water; Santa Ynez River water table. Source is local, pure and sustainable.
  • Execution of farming; Atlas Vineyard Management, very effective.

    There are a couple more criteria that require a little more fleshing out. 

    Location: Blocks 40 and 41 are essentially on a little hillside that drops down from a tiny ridge line that runs east-west. This makes the blocks face south which is a bit rare in this neighborhood of the Sta. Rita Hills, where the overriding influence is the north facing aspect of the Santa Rosa Hills, on which Radian is located. Thus, the blocks are unique. Also, the blocks are on the western end of the CalPERS holdings, which places them in the far western end of the appellation. I believe this all but guarantees that their future wines will always be dark and saturated with fruit. We see this as a trend in many of the vineyards out that way; as the growing conditions become cooler because of the proximity to the ocean, the wines become sturdier. In affect, there is a little bit of the same kind of extremeness that we find at one of my other vineyards, Appellation’s Edge. At the same time, Radical is slightly more protected by a more westerly ridge line that runs north-south, thereby breaking up some of the wind and cold that can be a bit punishing. While Radical feels nature pulling back the reins, moderating its vigor and making for an elongated hang time for the fruit, its vines are nonetheless cozier compared to the vines in some of the more exposed blocks. Indeed, some of the blocks at Radian are so exposed that their vines do not grow. Does this aspect of Radical make it better than Appellation’s Edge? I don’t know, but it does make it a little easier for me to sleep at night.

    Soil: Block 40 sits right next to 41. The fact that there are two blocks here is a man made thing. The soil that runs underneath them is the same. It actually extends into the two blocks that are adjacent to 40 & 41, but for the discussion here, the important thing is that there appears to be a uniform soil or terroir that defines these two blocks that, collectively, I call Radical. The soil is a bit lighter in color than some of the surrounding blocks whose soils are darker and more visually like Botella. The reason for the lighter appearance in Radical is its rocks. Dude, Radical’s rocks are soooo rad! They look like someone, God?, painted them. They are like an extreme serpentine. While Block 15 at the Estelle Vineyard in Santa Ynez can stake claim to the most colorful rocks, Radical can stake claim to the edgiest pieces of stone imaginable.

    Do the rocks make the wine what it is? I don’t know. But I do think that this is an important aspect of a radical vineyard. These rocks give an existential uniqueness to the place that pulls in human consciousness. Like art, the vineyard itself is amazing to look at. While the criteria above may not be all that titillating to anyone other than a winemaker, or, perhaps, anyone other than me, all I have to do is pick up one of these rocks and say, “Check this out!”, and everyone gets it. While there are lots of blocks at Radian that are going to make great wine going forward, Radical speaks to the soul.



    *The other ethereal site we encountered was Slice Of Heaven.