The Scene

Sublime chardonnay, pinot noir call region home

Alma Rosa's Samra Morris - Uncorked 2024

Pinot noir has been the king of the Sta. Rita Hills for years. The terroir in the California AVA is perfect for pinot. With a unique transverse mountain range that allows the frigid Pacific Ocean to exert influence over the region with fog cover and cold daytime temperatures, the fruit can ripen slowly and hang for a long time in the fall.

But lately, Sta. Rita Hills, part of a region made famous when its pinot was the muse for the Academy Award-nominated, 2004 film “Sideways,” has spread its wings with chardonnay, a worthy foil to pinot noir.

The Hilt pinot bowl - Uncorked 2024

“The Sta. Rita Hills is thought of as this two-grape region,” The Hilt winemaker Matt Dees said. “Chardonnay might deserve a spot at the head of the table, because it’s so consistent in its flavor profile with its vibrancy, texture and structure. A big stamp says: ‘green citrus, salt and electric acidity that hits the back of your head.’ There’s not that many regions in the world where a grape is so singular and so expressive as chardonnay in the Sta. Rita Hills. I’m so smitten with white wines from this county, but specifically Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay.”

When Alma Rosa winemaker Samra Morris travels the country, she implores people at tastings to discover Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay.

“It’s not a good chardonnay if I can’t taste the salinity notes,” Morris said. “I love the salinity in the Sta. Rita Hills. I love to go to different states where people think it’ll just be another buttery chardonnay. I make sure they taste the wine, because the experience they get won’t be the one they were expecting.”

In 2022 and 2023, this column declared The Hilt’s chardonnay the best of the variety produced. While every single chardonnay made in those years wasn’t tasted, of the many that were, the wines Dees and his crew crafted were electric. They vibrated with a nervous energy, a potent mix of citrus fruit, crackling acidity, sea salt and herbal notes.

“Chardonnay has quietly become the best wine we produce,” Dees said. “The beauty of chardonnay is the terroir. It’s a grape that highlights the feeling of place more than any other.”

Matt Dees

The Hilt Chardonnay 2021 ($50) was as memorable as its predecessors, with stone fruit, lemon zest, sea salt and lightning-like acidity that focused all the fruit flavors.

But, there’s room in the Sta. Rita Hills for both. Vineyards at The Hilt and Alma Rosa are in the sweet spot for maturity, and pinot noir is at a zenith in terms of quality.

At Alma Rosa, Morris had three distinct wines from different lots on the 628-acre ranch, 38 of which are planted to vines.

“On Santa Rosa Road, there are just a few wineries,” Morris said. “We have private tastings there, and you really get to see the wilderness – turkeys, bobcats and hogs. … If I’m in the vineyard and it gets dark, all the animals start coming out, which tells me it’s time to go home. It’s a unique place where we get to connect with nature and get to taste our amazing wines, too.”

The Alma Rosa Rancho La Vina Pinot Noir 2021 ($82) came from a windy site on the top of a hill that, combined with sandy soil, produced small, concentrated clusters. The wine had a solid core of rich dark cherries, was more full-bodied than its counterparts, and was a pleasure ride as the red and black fruits playfully mingled with baking spice notes and candied cherries.

The Alma Rosa El Jabali 2021 ($90) came from an early ripening vineyard, and had dark cherry, plum and herbs de provence on the nose with pronounced tart cherry, leather and blood orange that sailed above loamy earth on the lengthy finish. Planted in 1983 and replanted in 2015, it was the first certified organic vineyard in Santa Barbara County.

Alma Rosa Estate - Uncorked 2024

With a wild, feral nose of mushroom, soy, sage and thyme over a hint of pomegranate, there was sweet cherry and baking spice flavors on the Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Noir 2021 ($82). Its mysterious flavors were alluring, dangerous and nestled close to the edge of umami, fruit and spice flavors.

Just 12 miles northwest on Santa Rosa Road, The Hilt is in a cooler, more forlorn site with windswept peaks and valleys and a striking bench land site, Bentrock Vineyard, that basks in sun like a turtle seeking a midday warmup.

The Hilt Pinot Noir 2021 ($50) had black cherry and leather on the nose. There were black cherry, black tea, umami and warm iron shavings that teamed up with mineral notes that ran through the mid-palate and added mystery to the dark fruit, red fruit and spice profile.

“In pinot, for us, the vines are 15 years old,” Dees said. “In human parlance, they are just a jerky teenager, full of confidence and unworldliness. In grapes, that’s a world of real development and layer upon layer of fruit. There’s spice, complexity and just a hint of corruption that makes the pinot more joyful.”

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



Rio Madre, Rioja, Graciano 2021 ($12): Some of the best values hail from Spain. With cherry pie, wild blackberries, tobacco and fresh ground coffee. The 100% graciano had bold flavors and grippy tannins.


Paul Hobbs Coombsville, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($120): The nose had dried violets, black fruit and herbal notes. There were blackberry, black currant, vanilla bean, sage, rosemary, dark chocolate, hints of toasted brown sugar and well-integrated tannins for a silky-smooth experience.


Bengoetxe, Getariako Txakolina, Spain 2021 ($20): The Basque region and its pintxos – small plates – pair perfectly with this acidic white. Gold-colored in the glass, there’s dried apricot and peach on the nose. A peach and pear flavor collection assembles over a round mouthfeel in the mid-palate that finished with notes of dried rosemary, tart kumquat and iron-laced mineral hints.


Kosta Browne, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2014 ($72): Fig, raspberry compote and a salty olive note on the finish. Still potent after 10 years.