Daily Chronicle

Uncorked: Challenging terroir delivers uncommon rewards

LOMPOC, California – High atop a windswept hill, bright green leaves are unfurling the first signs of the 2022 vintage at The Hilt Estate in the Sta. Rita Hills.

The sun warms your face, and the Pacific Ocean is just 10 miles to the west and barely visible through a marine layer. It’s stunningly beautiful, with vineyards on all sides, on different slopes and aspect ratios, but the wind that pounds your eardrums every few seconds with a ruffling sound sends enough of a chill down your spine that it’s easy to regret not bringing a down jacket.

This is where winemaker Matt Dees’ heart is.

A forlorn place that blows his hair from side to side, with vines at its peak that simply refuse to grow, stunted by the near impossible conditions despite several years in the ground. They’ll get torn out eventually, replanted and, with fingers crossed, Dees and his crew probably will accept their fate and repeat the process again.

It’s rugged wine growing at a site shared with poison oak, rattlesnakes and coyotes. But, it’s a place that has so much soul. We visited The Hilt Estate’s two, single-vineyard sites in March, the aforedescribed Radian and the neighboring Bentrock vineyard, and tasted barrel samples of the different vineyard blocks Dees has mapped out from each.

“The amazing thing I would take away is the wind – the sheer magnitude of the place,” Dees said. “The pinot bowl is north-, south-, east- and west-facing, and that’s rare in the world of wine. The soils are different depending on the watershed and the flow of the water.”

It was a morning of geologic, soil and plant study. And a story about a lost baby goat – they are vociferous eaters and help reduce any mountainside fuel for wildfires – that was smart enough to return after a night beyond the estate’s fence.

Valuable information that chickens aren’t as bright and require half the flock getting eaten by coyotes before they realize they aren’t that tough. And a tale about a colleague’s Australian shepherd that jumped from the back of a truck, went into the brush to track down a coyote, and returned to meet them at the front gate licking its bloody paws.

Dees is a quality replacement to revive “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign. He’d do well to write a memoir, and I’d put him on my Mount Rushmore of winemakers.

Given the conditions and dramatic slopes, it’s amazing anything would grow at Radian. The white diatomaceous soils are a stark contrast to the nutrient-rich soils of the Midwest. Just a short walk to where the vineyard crests, what look like little white rocks begin to surround the vines. It’s Radian vineyard, but it’s not.

In a matter of steps, the jagged little rocks, which Dees later will explain are diatomaceous earth silica cells that have been packed tight over the eons, are a sprained ankle waiting to happen. While the rocks aren’t human-friendly, the vines embrace their presence. Upon further inspection, they have a yellow and brown ring every few inches, signs of algae blooms centuries ago when this was ocean floor.

It’s Row No. 37 on Radian, but will get bottled with the Bentrock lots. The silica soaks up heat during the day, and radiates it back into the vines at night.

“It’s superficial,” said Dees with one in his hand. “They are predominantly on top. It’s diatomaceous earth silica cells that are packed tight. It doesn’t fossilize. Like layers of rings on a tree, you can see dirt, an algae bloom, more dirt … and it all got pressurized over time. It covers all of Bentrock. Our best chardonnay comes from this type of soil.”

The Hilt Estate Chardonnay 2019 ($50) is a precision white wine that is fresh, lithe, crackling with acidity, with fruit flavors of papaya and pineapple along with savory notes of asparagus, sea salt, lichens and mossy rock.

From the barrel, we tasted a scientific study of Bentrock chardonnay, where three presses of two tons of fruit were each sent to the barrel separately. The first press with the lowest pressure had a green note and was salty, the second light press had bruised apples and started to sing out with apple aromas. The third and tightest press, in which the seeds came in contact with the juice and skin, Dees said “gets straight to the point it gets sticky, to your gums and tongue.”

The origins of what I consider America’s best chardonnay were awesome.

As we descended a flight of steel stairs, we also went deeper into The Hilt cellar and hit its magnificent pinot noir. The Hilt Estate Pinot Noir 2019 ($50) had black cherry, raspberry, tea, wild fennel hints of exotic spice and a pleasurable mouthfeel that was silky smooth.

From Radian and Bentrock, we barrel sampled various sites. Radian with the personality of a cat, sophisticated and not wanting to get emotionally attached. Every few sips, it would drop little hints on how to figure it out. Bentrock every bit the loving puppy ready to roll onto its back for a tummy rub and some affection with its soft fruit flavors.

The Little Volcano is a site aptly named for its soil type deposited there by a centuries-old explosion in Morro Bay. It’s completely north-facing, and is Dees’ favorite block in the Sta. Rita Hills. The Shoot and Mountain Spring blocks join it in the Radian bottling.

“Those three go into one bottling,” Dees said. “Everything eroded down on a slant, and that whole geological movement gave us our best wines. It’s protected [by hills from the ocean air] and is north-facing, so it doesn’t get cooked by the sun.”

A stunning tasting room has vaulted ceilings, lit fireplaces and comfy leather couches. It was a cozy addition to a piece of property often at odds with the elements. While Dees’ engaging personality, megawatt attitude and winemaking prowess carry the banner for the Sta. Rita Hills, The Hilt and anything he touches, he pays homage to what he said is a great crew.

“I love the way plants think and function, because you can figure out what they are going to do,” Dees said. “When you do something, you know it’ll make the relationship a lot better. I connect with plants. I adore people. For a long time, I was an idealist and thought people didn’t matter. I thought you could have the best site in the world.

“But now I say 50% of terroir is people,” he said. “A lot of winemakers bounce around. Everyone should do due diligence and pay dues in different hemispheres, but the best winemakers stay at one place and understand a terroir intimately, and work in cadence with a vineyard they know well.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.