2017 Grenache, Love Among The Ruins
This wine is a lot about discovery, and at least a little bit about reconciliation. First the discovery part. This is the first Sta. Rita Hills Grenache I have ever made. Historically, except for one or two small vineyards that never had any fruit for sale, there simply has not been much Grenache to speak of in the Sta. Rita Hills. Between Pinot being anointed as king, and a belief that Grenache requires more heat, this important Rhone variety was largely looked over. Recently, a few more brave souls have decided to give it a go. Thus far, these adventurous vineyards are Spear, Peake and John Sebastiano, and, yes, they are all represented here in this inaugural bottling. With there being some truth to the idea that Grenache likes it warmer, all three are appropriately located in the warmer, more eastern interior of the Sta. Rita Hills.
Initially, my interest in Sta. Rita Hills Grenache rode in the on the coattails of a Grenache I crushed in 2016 from a very coastal vineyard west of the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County. That Grenache, from the Spanish Springs Vineyard, turned out to be mind-blowing. Grenache usually makes lighter wines. What I got from Spanish Springs was a dark, dense, sublime freak of a wine with more fruit weight than I had ever seen. It was perplexing and exhilarating at the same time, and after wrapping my brain around it I then began to think, what if Grenache is like this when it is grown under the coastal influence of the Sta. Rita Hills? This 2017 Love Among The Ruins bottling is the beginning of the answer to that question.
It is not the dark beast that the first Spanish Springs bottling is. In contrast, this wine is very delicate with beautiful notes of cranberry, raspberry and spice. In the mouth it’s really succulent and it packs a bit more of a wallop than you might think it’s going to, based on how the wine appears in the glass. As to whether or not the three vineyards in this blend will produce darker, more structured wines in the future remains to be seen. This was after all the first crop for both Spear and Peake, and the vines are still quite young. But if this is what Grenache wants to be in the SRH, I am fine with that too. This is an absolutely classic rendition of Grenache and its fruit is super fresh and tantalizing.
The reconciliation part of the equation is as follows. Recently, the boundary lines of the Sta. Rita Hills were, if you will, gerrymandered to suit the purposes of a vineyard and winery owner named Blair Pence. At the time, most anyone with a stake of any kind in the Sta. Rita Hills considered this to be an affront to sacred boundaries that had been very thoughtfully established almost 20 years prior. Indeed, I was one of those people. After convincing the federal government in 2016 that it would be a good idea to redraw our AVA lines so as to include his vineyard, Mr. Pence became, in most minds and hearts, persona non grata. I then proceeded to nickname all the newly annexed acreage of the Sta. Rita Hills. I thought about a number of names; The Booty, The Loot, The Plunder, etc. While I really liked The Booty, what I landed on was The Ruins.
Looking back on the process, I realize that there was an antagonistic thing going on in my head that had nothing to do with plunder. It had to do with potential. Our AVA’s boundary lines had been changed, and there was nothing we could do about it. While I was deeply upset, that emotion ran parallel with reality and the realization that in his location, there was nothing stopping Pence from growing some very nice fruit, including Pinot Noir. Afterall, before the annexation, his vineyard was right on the edge of the Sta. Rita Hills. His climate was not hot by any means, and there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his soils. For all practical purposes, so as not to tarnish the reputation of our appellation any further, it would be best for everyone if Pence grew good grapes and made good wines. I sort of had this image of the Parthenon in my head; a beautiful achievement that is like a beacon to the potential of man, even though it sits there in Athens, the original home of western philosophy, in ruins. What was it that led to its neglect? Perhaps with the right effort, maintenance and investment, it might still look like new.
Then in 2017 I got the Grenache Itch and one of the three vineyards that would offer me some fruit was John Sebastiano. Sebastiano is one of those vineyards that was actually tucked just inside of the original eastern boundary line of the AVA, and everything that I always saw over the years from Highway 246 was clearly on the right side of the tracks. Curious as to where the Grenache was located in this 150 acre vineyard, I had the vineyard manager send me a map of all the blocks. The Grenache was in block 42F. It was way in the back, which is why I had never seen it from the highway, and it was far enough to the east to have actually been, gasp!, outside of the Sta. Rita Hills before Pence got out his magic maker. Sure enough, my Grenache-to-be was growing in The Ruins! So, I had to make a choice, either be obstinate and not work this fruit out of principle, or I could revisit this image of somebody getting some fresh paint on the Parthenon. I chose the latter.
If the worst thing that ever happens to the boundaries of the Sta. Rita Hills is what Pence did, then we will all be just fine. I can only hope that Pence does not show up some day trying to expand the SRH in other directions. I was basically the field general who organized all the local growers back around 1995 to do the homework, to cover the ground, and to come with viticultural lines that would truly represent the climactic and geographical capsule that was the original Sta. Rita Hills. We spent days looking, smelling, feeling for what we thought would have integrity. The boundaries we came up with are as solid now as they were then. In 2016 there was a slight breach in all of that. What’s done has been done. I think it’s time to get back to exploring every inch of the Sta. Rita Hills for its potential, even The Ruins. Let’s get back to a love for mastering the established things, like Pinot Noir, and for exploring new things, like Grenache.