Pence In The Sta. Rita Hills Cross Hairs, But How’s The Wine?

Vinted on May 2, 2013 binned in overachiever wines, wine news, wine review

Central Coast-ish California’s Pence Ranch, and its charismatic owner, Blair Pence (who, with toothy grin and cowboy hat looks every bit the part of a rancher) have been making the wine scene headlines so far in 2013, and not in a good way.

To bring you up to speed on what has become the U.S. wine biz equivalent of tossing flaming poop bags about AVA boundaries, let’s quote a few spots and then we can talk about what no one else seems to be getting at in this battle, which is Pence’s wine itself.

To the tape, from (emphasis mine):

Vintner Blair Pence filed with the federal government this February to expand the borders of the increasingly renowned Sta. Rita Hills wine-grape-growing appellation to the east to include his vineyard, which he planted in 2006 outside of Buellton… USC-educated developer-turned-farmer has been dealing with the wrath of his winemaking neighbors, and their terroir tussle is now making headlines in the international wine press. “If you look at the history, you look at the geology, you look at the weather, it belongs in the appellation,” said Pence, who built Los Angeles office buildings and industrial parks before growing grapes, ranching cattle, and raising avocados. “The science is so clear-cut.”

And the opposition summary, via (emphasis mine):

The board of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrower Alliance (SRHWA) disagreed with Pence’s arguments, however, and voted unanimously to oppose expansion. Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, the original petitioner who crafted the AVA boundaries, is against the expansion, saying the new border would extend into a distinct landmass called the Buellton Flats, which has a north-south orientation, while the current AVA has an east-west orientation. According to Hagen, the areas Pence wants included also lack the maritime influence that growers insist make the region ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We’ve spent $25 million and 20 years promoting the area,” said Hagen. “We don’t want to be catty, but we want to protect what we’ve built.”

Reaction has not been kind, probably because this seems like a bit of a money grab for Pence, who stands to gain higher grape prices if his AVA expansion bid is successful. Since I visited Pence Ranch and talked about this with Blair Pence last August, I thought I’d chime in on the debate/debacle; mostly because I find it very odd that little has been said about whether or not the Pence Ranch wine itself seems to fit what one might call the Sta. Rita Hills Pinot profile…

Pence is a working ranch, and the cattle and horses aren’t shy about making acquaintances with you (see pics herein). It’s the fifth ranch established by Pence (others grow avocados, among other things), having been carved out of raw land on a windy, elevated (about 450 feet above sea level) site that Pence described to me then as “essentially part of Sta. Rita Hills” (the ranch borders its eastern edge). The vineyards are, according to Pence and in contradiction with the opposing viewpoint of Hagen, exposed to Pacific influences (such as that wind, and morning fog).

“I became obsessed with Burgundy,” Pence noted to me during the visit, which explains the vineyard location and focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (which has yet to be produced commercially from his site). He also told me that he has “had bad luck bottling at a full moon; high pressure at a full moon is good, though, there’s less stirring up of wine in the barrel.” I didn’t get the sense that this was all business for Pence; he’s clearly intending to make excellent wine that he would want to drink alongside the (very) expensive Burgundy that got him into wine in the first place.

Ten blocks were planted across fifty acres on the ranch, each having separate clone and rootstock combinations depending on the various soil profiles of each block. Pence employed the same meticulous planning for the vineyard that he used for his other ranches. Interestingly, all of the workers are salaried employees. Jeff Fink handles the winemaking duties – remember, there really is wine involved here. Pence seems like a focused guy and a good businessman, but one who also takes care of his peeps, too (I can think of a lot of people who might less deserve getting more dough for their grapes).

I found a few things to like in tasting through some of Pence Ranch’s Pinot releases last August, finding them ballsy, unique, and tough to get your head around at first taste. Just in time for this coattail-jumping post received a sample of their 2010 Estate Pinot, so I was able to re-taste it in an effort to provide some thoughts on whether or not the wines alone echo Sta. Rita Hills and would help to justify Pence’s fight to expand the AVA.

2010 Pence Ranch Estate Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County)
Price: $30
Rating: B+

620 cases of this Pinot were made; other vital signs include 14.5% abv, grapes pulled from five blocks, 15% whole cluster, aged 22 months in French oak barrels (some older than one year), and bottled unfined/unfiltered. Now that the boring stuff is out of the way… Having spent more time in bottle has helped this wine come together. It’s less chalky and earthy than I remember it, though still contains some of those elements, along with a savory streak. There are bright red berry and cherry fruits and tea-like herbaceousness (in a good way), which you would expect from Sta. Rita Hills Pinot, along with more redcurrant-like fruit and more power than structure (which you might not expect from SRH). This is somewhat old-school Pinot, with austerity, pithiness, and a taut muscular and (very) leathery side. The finish is long, full of citrus, but it’s a bit hot, too. It’s a solid wine, a Pinot made for lamb stew and a drink that wants to rough-it, and maybe ride side-saddle with Pence’s horses to help him round up some cattle.

So… does it fit the Sta. Rita Hills profile?

Sort of.

I’m divided enough about it that I wouldn’t offer it up as Exhibit A evidence in support of Pence’s expansion bid. It seemed to me to have more in common (unsurprisingly) with the SBC Pinots made by the producers who purchase Pence’s fruit, lacking the spices, purity and focus of some of the best Sta. Rita Hills Pinots.

Having said that, there are aspects of it that are certainly kissing-cousins, spitting-distance with Sta. Rita Hills wines.

Enough fence-sitting, here’s The Verdict: Not a strong enough match. Yeah, we’re splitting Pinot characteristic hairs here, but these are still very early days for Pence in terms of showcasing his Pence Ranch fruit via his personal label. It’s just too early to tell (for me, anyway) if the wines will develop more into what might be termed a “classic” Sta. Rita Hills (okay, the “Sta.” thing is officially pissing me off now… what’s wrong with “Santa,” anyway? It’s not like we’re going to confuse it with Christmas…) Pinot profile.

From a wine-as-hard-evidence perspective, Pence’s AVA bid is probably a bit premature. Let’s give these young vines, and young wines, more time to develop; Pence might not have a strong wine-case (ha! see what I did there?) now, but given how quickly the 2010 Estate Pinot came together and improved with just a little bit of bottle time, I’m not going to rule out support for Pence’s plan at some point in the (possibly near) future…






  • masi3v

    Vina Santa Rita in Chile got their panties all in a bunch about the name of the appellation, so it was officially changed in 2006 from "Santa Rita Hills" to "Sta. Rita Hills".

    • 1WineDude

      Masi3v – did not know that. I suppose they have a point, though. But then, I know a TON of wine drinkers who are able to read the names of two different countries on different labels and logically determine that they were not made in the same place. Just sayin'…

  • masi3v

    I agree, you would think that a). People can read and b). They would know the difference between a $12 bottle of cabernet and a $30(+) bottle of Pinot. Similar argument on my blog the other day about Korbel calling itself Champagne. While I agree wholeheartedly that they shouldn't, if you don't know that "American Champagne" (what it says on the bottle of Korbel) is not the same as a bottle of "real" Champagne that costs 3 times more, well, I am pretty sure you are the target "real" Champagne consumer.

    • 1WineDude


  • masi3v

    * "I am pretty sure you are NOT the target "real" Champagne consumer. "

  • Rew

    Back in the 80's when people really confused Chablis with Jug wine, or Burgundy with Gallo's Hearty version – sure this might make sense, not that 'those' customers were ever willing to pay for a steel fermented flinty chard from France – and anyone working in a restaurant pretty much knew who was who and what they were looking for – I can see the division, but this thing about Champagne, and currently France doesn't want us to use the word Chateau? it's a bunch of B.S. anyone that is buying from Chateau St. Jean is most likely aware that it's not a Bordeaux or it's a good time to learn the difference.

    Anyway sorry for the rant – albeit, it's very current in our industry. I was wondering why they were shortening to Sta. lately – that just seems outrageously stupid to me. That's the name of the area – goofy laws. I concur with the other comments.

    • 1WineDude

      Rew – I’d disagree with you about Champagne (a place name is a place name… I shouldn’t be allowed to call maple syrup from Pennsylvania “Vermont Maple Syrup”), but would agree on pretty much every other point. The Chateau thing is just… sooooooo stupid….!

  • Hawk Wakawaka

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your write up on the Pence issue.

    I was able to visit the Pence Ranch in January, and to taste each of the three 2010 Pinot bottlings (Weslope, Uplands, and the Estate you describe above) then as well as again over several days a couple of weeks ago.

    His label is well-worth watching, I think. As you put it, considering how young the vines are, with 2010 his first vintage online, the wines are showing an interesting sense of their terroir already–the Weslope really has clay elements in it; the Uplands really does show loam. I'm really interested in how the wines will show once the vines have hit their adjustment mark in a few years. I can see your point too that that might be the more opportune time to judge if the wine merits AVA inclusion.

    As for Pence himself–I was impressed with his thoroughness in designing the ranch, and vineyard plantings. He's brilliant at research and really knows his stuff.

    I'll fore go getting into the AVA dispute question right now. As you've pointed out plenty of people are commenting there so for now I'll stick to considering the wine itself. My approach is to slow down and take in the information thoroughly before I come to a conclusion. We're simply not there yet.

    As for the wine, it could have the stuffing to become something special. I'll be keeping on eye on it to see how it develops in future vintages.


    aka. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka

    • 1WineDude

      Hawk – thanks. I also tasted the 2010s Uplands and West Slope, the Estate was the only one I had opportunity to re-taste later as a bottle sample, so decided to exclude the other two in the feature.

      I agree that there's something there, and that we should let the wine unfold. I just wonder if Pence himself shouldn't be waiting a bit on the AVA bid, and using future vintages of his wine as Exhibits C, D, etc. in defense of his claim. That's assuming he doesn't yet need the extra money in higher grape prices, of course! :)

      • Hawk Wakawaka


        Yes, since you'd talked about being present at the Ranch, I thought you must have tasted the other two bottlings. I respect you commenting here only on the wine you had more time with too. It's valuable to allow that clearer description that comes with drinking rather than just tasting. I mentioned the Uplands and Weslope simply because I had noticed they really do present distinctly and in ways that seem consistent to their contrasting sites, which speaks well of the vineyard's potential, I think.

        Yes, I see your point too on the question of him waiting. Pence has gotten just enough attention from filing already that it could turn away those that could (hypothetically) be supportive if he waited till there was more wine time/vineyard development to show for it. Though most AVAs are defended on paper based on the unique geographical conditions primarily, with the wine style being an indicator of those conditions but not the required condition. Still, letting the vineyard development first makes a lot of sense.

        Do you know anything about the necessity of his proposed boundary? Just for the sake of consideration (I'm not suggesting this would be the right thing to do, as I don't have enough information. I'm just wondering about it.), would it be possible to adjust the boundary in a way that avoids the Buellton Flats while including at least portions of his property? The current Pinot plantings at least avoid the directional problem mentioned in the counter argument, from what I understand. But maybe I'm wrong about that and his entire property also rests in the Flats. I was thinking it doesn't but am not sure.

        Stepping away from the particular Pence consideration, it is true that some of the outer boundaries for AVAs fall on gray area border zones demarcated in some cases by the convention of a road or county line that isn't necessarily a firm indication of climatic and/or soil change. The AVA system in SBC hits this kind of questionable set-up in at least a few locations, so this isn't a matter of whether or not it is appropriate to adjust an AVA edge, or even if it's appropriate to adjust SBC AVA edges. It's just if Pence Ranch merits bumping the boundary from the Western side of his property to a bit further East. Interesting hypotheticals to consider from the issue too.

        On a different note, thanks too for mentioning Pence's practice of keeping all vineyard/wine employees as fully salaried. There are a few people that take such an approach in SBC, and it's the only region I've found much of it. Steve Clifton for Palmina, Greg Brewer for Melville, and the two together with Brewer-Clifton are other examples. The result in those three cases is also that they operate wine businesses that really are economically sustainable not just for the business itself but each of the employees too. They are able to keep employees for very long term, which in turn feeds back into the longer term health of the vineyards, wine, and business too.

        It's a model worth noting, I think, and speaks well of the owners doing it on multiple levels–business foresight and care for their crew. I appreciate that you brought it up here because with all the talk of sustainability these days it's easy to forget that the only way to succeed in developing environmental sustainability is by also practicing economic sustainability. It's great that you're offering a forum to consider that discussion.

        Thanks again.

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, Hawk. I can’t speak to whether or not the Pence ranch could/should be bisected, but I agree the necessity of the ava isn’t necessarily necessary :-) . There are tons of ava boundaries that have no real necessity outside of politics, so in that respect Pence had some precedent in his favor, I suppose!

  • gabe

    in my limited experience seeing how ava lines are drawn up in the Willamette Valley, I can see both sides of the issue.

    On the side of the ava, it is a huge pain in the ass putting those things together – the paperwork and approval isn't so bad, but try getting a dozen people who are rich and crazy enough to start a winery to agree on anything.

    On the winery side, I have heard about boundries being extended or tightened to include or exclude certain wineries. I'm not saying that happens in all cases, and i am definitely not saying that is happening in the case of Pence (since i don't know anything about Sta Clause), but I do believe it happens.

    As for me personally, I have started putting less stock in sub-ava's, and more focus on the specific wineries. If a winery can consistently make good wines, I don't care if they're in the Russian River or Sonoma Valley

  • 1WineDude

    Gabe – nothing trumps producer, pretty much… ever! :)

  • David Vergari

    Just wondering if any of youse guys tasted Pence's wines blind alongside others from the established Santa Rita Hills AVA (BTW, Viña Santa Rita can kiss my derriére! I'll call it whatever I want :/)

    • 1WineDude

      David – I did not get a chance to taste them blind, I sampled them at the ranch and at home.

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