Jewel of the Santa Rita Hills

Tyler Thomas is making "hedonistically and intellectually compelling" wines at Dierberg

In 2004, the movie Sideways captivated American wine consumers and created an explosion of interest in Pinot Noir. The film also inspired a tourist boom in the Santa Ynez Valley region of Santa Barbara, as tourists flocked in to retrace the journey of Miles and Jack.

Part of the film’s glitter rubbed off on the Santa Rita Hills. The Sta. Rita Hills AVA, as it is officially called, lies between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton and benefits from the cool breezes coming off the Pacific. Those ocean breezes are crucial for maintaining the high acid levels crucial to making great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The area is home to nearly 60 wineries, some with familiar names: Sanford, Babcock, Melville and Foley. First among equals is Dierberg.

When Jim and Mary Dierberg founded the winery in 1996, they were no strangers to the industry. Since 1974 they had owned Hermannhof Vineyards in Missouri, a historic property dating to 1848. Eventually the couple decoded they wanted to go beyond the hybrid grape varieties engineered to thrive in cold climates. They conducted an extensive search for vineyard sites, rejected Bordeaux and Napa, and finally settled in the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley. Their winemaker is the thoughtful and talented Tyler Thomas, in charge of the cellar at both Dierberg and its sister winery Star Lane.

The nose of the 2014 Dierberg Chardonnay ($35) from the Dierberg Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley is recessed and a bit earthy, giving up aromas of citrus rind and butterscotch with coaxing. In the mouth, the wine is more complex than it appears on the nose, displaying deep flavors of stone fruits, peach pits, citrus and spiced honey. The earthiness is present but not unpleasant, and piquant notes of citrus rind emerge on the finish. This is the un-Chardonnay, perfect with pork, veal, poultry and game.

The companion Pinot Noir (same vintage, vineyard site and appellation, $42) has a fragrant, fine-tuned nose with scents of crushed red berries, anise and baking spices. Fresh and vibrant on entry, it exhibits a lush mid palate with a rich coulis of red cherries and overtones of rhubarb. Bright acidity contrasts nicely with the viscous texture, and the finish is long and memorable. Given the richness of the fruit, I’d be tempted to pair this with a spicy cuisine such as Thai or Szechuan.

Hedonism and intellect come together in the 2014 Pinot Noir from Drum Canyon Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills ($50). The deeply colored wine exudes scents of black raspberry, menthol, mocha and mint. The wine is full-bodied and generous in the mouth, with an unctuous texture balanced by good acidity; lush flavors of red and black berries are supported by a strong mineral backbone, and hints of chocolate emerge on the long finish. You could pair this with red meat if you wanted to, and it’s complex enough to stimulate both passion and thought.

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.

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