The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is an American Viticultural Area located in Santa Barbara County, California. From its creation in 2001 through 2006, the appellation was officially named Santa Rita Hills AVA. The name change was the result of a protest by Vina Santa Rita, a very large Chilean wine producer that was concerned about the AVA name diluting its international brand value. I’m glad everyone was satisfied, but the change seems rather subtle to me.
Sta. Rita Hills is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, located between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton with the Purisima Hills on the north and the Santa Rosa Hills on the south. The hills run east to west, which allow fog and ocean breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean to enter the valley and create a cool micro-climate. The Sta. Rita Hills area is well-suited for the growing of Pinot Noir grapes, which tend to do well in cool climates with rocky soil. The region is also known for Chardonnay and Syrah.
The first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County was established by Uriel Nielson in 1964. After years of working as a winemaker in Santa Barbara County, Ken Brown (Byron Kent Brown) released the first Byron Pinot Noir from grapes purchased from Neilson in 1984, making 7,600 cases. Brown recognized the Santa Maria Valley’s potential for wines in the Burgundian style, and was the first winemaker to introduce grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay to the area. Brown acquired the 118-acre Nielsen Vineyard in 1989 and built his winery there.
In 1990, Robert Mondavi Winery bought Byron. Brown became Winemaker and General Manager. He and Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son, set about designing the new Byron Winery as an expression of their shared belief in natural farming, experimental viticulture, and gentle grape handling. They wanted to eliminate pumping, which shears grape stems, skins, and seeds, allows tannins and other harsh elements into the juice, and can make wine bitter. The resulting 4,000-barrel-capacity, multi-level winery replaced pumping with gravity flow, with the goal of producing more complex, dynamic wines. Byron’s vineyards were also expanded and replanted as Brown experimented with trellising systems, new rootstocks and clones, row orientation, and planting density in his quest for what he considered to be the ideal grape.
The Byron Winery. It is not open to the public.
A few years later, Ken Brown left to pursue his own label. Ken Volk purchased the Byron Winery and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards. Subsequently Byron passed through the hands of Constellation Brands, the now-bankrupt Legacy Estates Group, and finally Jackson Family Wines who currently own the winery, as well as 39 others.
Byron’s winemaker from 2003 until 2020 was Jonathan Nagy, a University of California Davis chemistry graduate. He worked with all of the commonly-used Dijon clones, plus Pommard, Wadenswil, and Swan selections from multiple vineyard sources including Nielson Vineyard, Sierra Madre Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Julia’s Vineyard, and John Sebastiano Vineyard.
Byron currently sells all of their wines by allocation only. Potential buyers are notified by email when new selections are released.
Byron John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016
The John Sebastiano Vineyard was first planted along the eastern border of the AVA in 2007. The 100-acre site, just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, has soil predominantly of diatomaceous earth and loam. It enjoys a myriad of exposures and marine influences, which together with premium clonal selection and high-density planting produce exceptionally small clusters and berries.
This 100% Pinot Noir saw 14 months in 100% new French oak. It is transparent brick, with medium aromas of plum jam and dark cherry. These continue as the flavors, with a bit of brown spice added. The acid is rather low, creating a sense of flaccidness or extra smoothness, depending on your perception. 150 cases were made, and the ABV is 13.2%.
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