I’ll never forget the first time I visited a winery when I was in my early 20s. Every year growing up, I would visit my dad’s family in California, but only stayed in Los Angeles. On this particular visit, my family asked if there was anything specific I wanted to do. “That’s easy,” I thought to myself, but I was hesitant to voice my request because of my dad’s family’s absolute lack of interest in alcohol. Case in point, at a barbeque one could only find soda and water in the cooler. Where was the ice-cold beer? This was quite the contrary from my Latin-European side of the family, where alcohol had always been an intricate part of the culture. My abuelo would often drink a glass of wine or a martini with dinner, and, of course, every celebration, even the minor ones, involved wine, beer or spirits. “Well…” I murmured, “I’d really like to visit a winery, but I know you guys don’t drink.” And the conversation ended.
To my surprise, a few days later my aunt said we could visit a winery in Santa Barbara located about two hours away. That was “a” winery meaning “one” winery, but in the midst of the excitement, I decided to take what I could get and simply chose the first vineyard listed on the online search results. Sanford Vineyards it was! That afternoon the family piled into different cars, and I slid into the backseat of my Uncle Bobby’s blue pick-up truck. A little over an hour later, we were jamming to Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” on the radio as we made our way through Santa Rita Hills, where the mountainous valley opened into an endless green landscape lined with grapevines. I still remember it felt like a scene from a movie.
Santa Rita Hills is a 100-square mile American Viticultural Area (AVA) with ideal growing conditions for cool-climate varietals, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The hills are situated in an east-west direction from the Pacific Ocean, where the airstream and fog from the sea cool the valley in the mornings and evenings while allowing just enough heat during the day for the grapes to ripen properly. Pinot Noir is a delicate, thin-skinned grape prone to disease, fungus, and pests and, therefore, requires specific climate and soil conditions to survive and produce quality wines. Pinot Noir, which is French for “pine” and “black,” is said to have been named after the royal Pinot family from the Roman era because of the deep-colored, pinecone-shaped grape clusters.
Pinot Noir is famous for the elegant wines it produces in the Burgundy region of France. For the past fifty years, other countries have been producing Pinot Noir wines, including the United States, New Zealand, and Chile, among others. From the late 1960s to early 1970s, winemakers in Oregon and California began planting Pinot Noir vines using clones from France. There are hundreds of Pinot Noir clones worldwide, but only about 50 are certified, and of those, approximately 15 are used consistently for winemaking. Winemakers worldwide craft their own interpretation of this fickle varietal, whether it be the old-world Burgundian style of light berries with earthy essences of mushroom and spice or the new-world expression of ripe and jammy fruit with a greater tannic structure.
Sanford Vineyards, which opened in 1971, was the first winery in Santa Rita Hills to plant Pinot Noir grapes. When we arrived at Sanford, I saw it only fit to select the tasting list of its five estate Pinot Noirs. Predictably, no one was excited to drink, but my uncle was a champ and took one for the team. I forced my dad to try a few sips as well. The wines were luscious and fruit-forward with a balanced acidity, and each Pinot Noir encompassed a slightly
different style and complexity than the next. I left the winery with a Sanford souvenir glass, which I sometimes drink out of for fun to recall the experience of the day I visited my first winery. A few days ago, sadly, I was washing the dishes when my elbow hit the Sanford glass on the counter, which proceeded to fly across my kitchen and break into a thousand pieces. “At least I drank the wine in the glass already,” I sighed. As I began to clean up the mess, I recognized that, glass or no glass, the memory of my first experience in winery will forever remain my