The Hilt Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, 2018
From: Sta. Rita Hills
Cost: $45
Great wines often are made from fruit grown in places where you hardly expect to find grape vines. And great winemakers like to push the boundaries to see how far they can go.

That’s the case at The Hilt, where the rugged terrain of the southern Sta. Rita Hills fits perfectly with Matt Dees “farming in the margins” philosophy. With grapes from The Hilt’s windswept Radian and Bentrock vineyards he makes spectacular Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

I recently joined a virtual tasting of the 2018 vintage of their Estate Chardonnay and Estate Pinot Noir, and both wines are as breathtaking as the vineyards where the grapes were grown. I also visited the vineyards last year just before the pandemic shut down nearly all travel, and I found the winery and vineyards stunning.

“The 2018s represent the essence of what we’re trying to do,” said Dees during the tasting. “We have the most potential of any place in the world to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The main issue is acid in Chardonnay and fruit in Pinot Noir.

“The Chardonnay immediately grabbed our attention. Chardonnay is not complete without acid, like a Beatles album with only Paul McCartney tunes.”

Matt Dees

The Hilt Chardonnay is a complete wine, like a perfect Beatles album or a Beethoven symphony. It is a beautiful gold color in the glass, with aromas of apple, flowers and fresh baked bread. This complex, delightful wine continued to develop in the glass as we drank.

On the palate I tasted pear, citrus, apples and peaches, with a touch of saline brought on by the vineyard’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

The ocean’s influence is key to the wine’s development, said Dees. “Our hills run east-west,” he said. “All of our influence comes from the west. Our weather comes from the ice cold ocean water. That makes all the difference. We call it refrigerated sunshine. It’s really cold here.”

The Hilt Estate is an untamed landscape of steep hills, windswept ridges, and fog-blanketed canyons. The Estate’s north facing vineyards command the lower left quadrant of the Sta. Rita Hills, closest to the Pacific Ocean.

The Hilt estate.

Exposed to the Pacific Ocean’s rough winds and cool maritime influence, The Hilt’s chilly, sun-drenched vineyards present a grape grower with some of the worst possible conditions for farming. For Dees, however, the opportunities and sense of discovery presented by The Hilt Estate make them the most exciting vineyards one could imagine.

Sam Dependahl

Sam Dependahl, of Jarvis Communications, was the host for the Zoom tasting, and he showed a computer simulation of how the hills came to run east to west in the region. Pressure from two tectonic plates colliding pushed land from Mexico toward the north and folded it.

The Chardonnay was aged for 11 months in 34% new French oak, 56% neutral French oak and 10% stainless steel. They produced 2,080 cases.

When winemakers at The Hilt started making Chardonnay they started at 15-20% malolactic fermentation and gradually pushed that number up.

“We will probably end up with 40% malolactic fermentation. I first thought malolactic deadens acid, but it really spreads the acid. The 2018 was about 35% malolactic,” said Dees.

Dees said the wine is a good example of the wine that comes out of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.

“It’s exciting to me what the people in Sta Rita Hills are doing,” said Dees. “Chardonnay doesn’t need to be good. It needs to be unforgettable, memorable.

“We bought these vineyards because we believe in them. They go so far beyond what we could have hoped for. Because of the climate these wines are tough. The joy of the estate wines for me is the estate wines are right in the middle.”

Some of The Hilt and Jonata wines I tasted.

The Hilt also produces single vineyard wines, and Old Guard and Vanguard wines, as well as some limited release wines available in the tasting room and to wine club members.

The Vanguard wines are richly textured, opulent and velvety. The Old Guard wines are complex, energetic, taut and firmly structured. Both are blended barrel selections of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay in that particular style.

Drew Pickering, associate winemaker, guided me through my earlier visit to The Hilt estate. We tasted wines from The Hilt and Jonata, and all were outstanding. We tasted the wine in the new winery that was being completed. With so many tanks the winemakers can ferment grapes from each vineyard lot separately.

New fermentation tanks in The Hilt winery.

Shiny, new tanks stretched down the building while across the road the new tasting room was rising from the ground. It is now open

The tasting room as it was being built.

In an earlier interview Dees told me why farming in the margins is so important.

“We find that grapes grown at the limits of their ‘comfort zones’ can often produce the most energetic, complex and fascinating wines,” he said. “Cooler conditions can allow for slower ripening and the development of savory notes, spice nuances and a general tension that makes wines more exciting.

“At The Hilt, we are definitely pushing the envelope as the properties are home to fierce winds, dizzying slopes, very poor soils and cool, maritime-influenced temperatures that can make growing, setting fruit and ripening a challenge.”

Describing The Hilt estate, Dees said it is three miles by four miles, “incredibly steep, incredibly windy. I joke that if we get out of the grape business we could get into the poison oak and snake business.”

Both vineyards make great wines, but Dees said Radian is rougher and Bentrock is more focused.

Radian features rocky soils and ankle-deep diatomaceous earth on the ridgelines. Downhill, the soils are primarily clay loams and minimal irrigation is needed. Vines take longer to grow, and they send their roots down deep in search of nutrients.

Pinot Noir at The Hilt features small berries in a tight cluster.

The berries at Radian are small. Fruit and stems tend to ripen later. The winemaking team ferments the grapes with some of their stems, up to 1/3 whole-cluster fermentation, no new oak, and completely neutral barrels to preserve the essence of the fruit. When vinified, all Radian fruit reveals its wild origins in more austere, structured tannins. The vineyard produces white wines with sharp, crystalline focus and electric acidity.

Ranging from 400 to more than 500 feet above sea level, Bentrock is a landscape of long, rolling hills. The slopes are not steep, and the grapevines flow gently down the hillsides. Fruit ripens slowly, with cooling breezes moderating the plentiful sunshine. Bentrock comprises close to 100 acres, with 13.6 acres devoted to Chardonnay and the remainder to Pinot Noir. It is The Hilt Estate’s easternmost vineyard.

Clay, sediment, and shale are the primary soil types in Bentrock, along with outcrops of diatomaceous earth. At the higher elevations, the soil consists of Santa Lucia shaly clay loam and Tierra sandy loam. The grains of sandy loam soil are larger, more textured, more layered, and better draining than those at Radian.

Temperatures in this vineyard are slightly warmer than at Radian. The grapes ripen more quickly and evenly and accumulate ample sugars while still retaining fresh acidity. The warmer soils translate to a soft attack in the wines, giving them a pronounced velvety richness and roundness on the mid-palate. Reflecting the gentle nature of Bentrock itself, the wines are full of depth and opulence.

When making Pinot Noir Dees said he looks for the dark side, “a hint of corruption. Great Pinot has to have a hook.”

The Hilt Pinot Noir certainly has that wild taste, with aromatic notes of savory, spices and bright red berries. On the palate I tasted juicy red fruit, with some hints of sage and rosemary. The winery adds this description: “One can sense the cold, windy conditions of our estate vineyards in the focused and streamlined attack and persistent yet balanced brightness on the finish. Solid Hilt structure with large quantities of impossibly fine tannins.”

The tannins are perfectly integrated, and serve to give the luscious fruit some structure, without overpowering the rich flavors. This is definitely a seductive, complex wine.

The Hilt estate.

The grapes come from all over The Hilt vineyards, from 11 different Pinot clones. After fermentation the wine spends 11 months in 8% New French oak, and 92% neutral French oak.

All the different lots of grapes give the winemakers many components to play with when selecting the final blend. Each parcel is fermented separately, and in the future Dees said he might decide to bottle them separately.

“There are all sorts of possibilities with these parcels,” he said. “Each bloc has something special. Single parcel wines are possible.”

At The Hilt they have built a new winery and a new tasting room to provide maximum quality.

“We separated processing of fruit outside from fermenting,” said Dees. “We can focus better on what we are doing at each step. It’s also important to remember it’s all connected…

“We farm so well, that’s the main thing. We don’t do a lot in the cellar…I’d love to see these wines in five years, 10 years. They should still offer freshness.”

Rocky soil in the vineyard.

The conversation about The Hilt wines always circles back around to the land and the growing conditions.

“The grapes have very thick skins because of conditions here,” said Dees. “We end up making wines that by nature are filled with layers of tannins, forgiving tannins.

“The wine shows plenty of vineyard, full of rocky soil, which is a diatomaceous stew, 1,000 feet deep in some places. It has never been under heat or pressure. There’s a solid layer of stone protecting the earth. The sun heats rocks and it radiates all day.

“The resulting wine is a little more round, supple. At the end of the day the wine has to be delicious. Interesting is a plus, but it has to be delicious.”

During the virtual tasting we saw a video of the wind, which Dees said blows so hard in the spring it sometimes blows the leaves off the vines. We also saw a photo of the tight cluster of small grapes the vines produce.

Dees talked about the rocky soil during the virtual tasting.

Dees has some experience with extreme weather and soil conditions, working in New Zealand in 2002-04 before joining The Hilt’s sister winery Jonata. He remembered 30 straight days of rain in 2004 in New Zealand.

The Hilt estate.

One of the first things the company did when it bought The Hilt vineyards in 2014 was change the way the land was farmed. They stopped using chemicals to kill weeds and started using a mechanical device on the 3,600 acres that had been Rancho Salsipuedes.

Rancho Salsipuedes was once known as Rancho Cañada de Salsipuedes. In Spanish, “cañada” means canyon. “Salsipuedes” (pronounced sahl-see-PWAY-days) means “get out if you can.” The warning refers to the narrow canyons that Salsipuedes Creek travels through on its way to the ocean.

“Within a year you could see the difference,” said Dees. “This year we’re starting to work with biodynamic efforts. Maybe we’ll start with 5-10 acres and do it well. We’re buying equipment to do it right.

“We do the work in the vineyards instead of in the cellars. We farm 320 acres as if we had 10.”

The Hilt estate.

For the 2018 vintage The Hilt made 4,000 cases of Pinot Noir, 2,000 cases of Chardonnay and 2,000 cases of other wine, which includes a little sparkling wine.

Dees said they will plant more Riesling and Syrah because they like the wines they are getting from those grapes.

“I like the Syrah in Sta. Rita Hills even better than the Pinot,” he said.

If the other wines Dees produces are anything like the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they will be spectacular.

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    Matt Dees, winemaker, Jonata, The Hilt and The Paring

A native of Kansas City, KS, Matt was always drawn to nature. As a child, sitting in left field, he recalls being absorbed in studying the flowers while baseballs flew overhead. Years later, he enrolled in the University of Vermont to study plant and soil science.

During the fall of his freshman year he began work at Shelburne Vineyard in Vermont, helping Ken Albert to plant the site. It was here where Matt began to realize how wine represents the perfect confluence of soil and grapevine.

Matt’s epiphany to explore winemaking beyond Vermont came during his senior year. “Working the freezing vineyard in the dead of winter, I realized there must be a better place in the world to make wine.”

The following week, while visiting his older brother in New York, Matt purchased what would become a life changing bottle of 1995 Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at Sherry-Lehmann. Over dinner one evening, Matt noticed the phone number on the back label and dialed up Shari Staglin to express his interest in a job. Despite Staglin’s decline, Matt booked a flight and a week later arrived unannounced at the winery, where Winemaker Andy Erickson offered him a position on the spot.

Matt worked at Staglin for three years, splitting his off seasons working with Doug Wisor at Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Upon the conclusion of the 2004 vintage in New Zealand, he received a phone call from Erickson, informing him of an opportunity for a winemaking position at the new Jonata estate, where he had been consulting.

“By then I was looking beyond the Napa Valley,” recalls Matt. “I fell in love with Santa Barbara for its wild edge, the opportunity to help explore and define an emerging region at a very special estate.”

Matt was hired as JONATA’s first winemaker at the age of 25. His innate sense of curiosity and deep passion for the land made him a perfect fit for the unique wine estate; here he could forge an original path which was authentic to the Ballard Canyon region and also true to its unique ecology.

Under Matt’s leadership, in 2008 Jonata expanded into Chardonnay and Pinot Noir winemaking from Santa Barbara’s cool-climate coastal vineyards under The Hilt label. In 2014, with the acquisition of The Hilt Estate in the southwest corner of the Sta. Rita Hills, the winery had further established its presence in the region and found its true home for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production.

*    *     *     *  

    Drew Pickering, associate winemaker, Jonata, The Hilt and The Paring

As associate winemaker of Jonata, The Hilt and The Paring, Drew Pickering oversees the day-to-day operations at the winery as well as managing the cellar team. His responsibilities span the entire winemaking process at both JONATA and The Hilt estates, from fermentation management, to ageing, blending and bottling.

A native of Sonoma County, Drew’s introduction to the industry came while on summer break from San Francisco State University, through a job laying tile at Ovid Napa Valley’s residences and winery on Pritchard Hill. While there, he got to know winemakers Austin Peterson and Andy Erickson, sparking a passion to follow a career in winemaking.

Following graduation, under the guidance of Andy, Drew landed a cellar internship at Arietta Wines in Saint Helena, CA, in 2008. “It was such a rich experience to work with such a small producer under the guidance of Andy, his associate winemaker Morgan Maureze, and owner Fritz Hatton, who taught me so much about making classically-styled wines.”

Following his first harvest at Arietta, Drew secured a position at Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand where he worked harvest and met his future wife, Kiri. Upon his return home in 2009, he was recommended for a harvest cellar position at Jonata, finding his future winemaking home.

“The experience exploring the Jonata property for the first time with Winemaker Matt Dees invoked a feeling of inspiration which to this day I’ve never been able to define in words,” says Drew.

Half-way through this first harvest at Jonata, Matt realized the talent at hand and asked Drew to stay. Drew eagerly accepted, on the terms that he could return to New Zealand to fulfill a harvest position he had secured at Craggy Range Winery in Hawkes Bay. Following his return to the United States, Kiri relocated from New Zealand to join him, and the two later married.

For the past 11 years, Drew has worked alongside Matt as his right-hand man. Drew appreciates working alongside someone who is open to new ideas—no matter how radical or different they may be.

Outside of work, Drew enjoys spending time exploring the beauty of the central coast with Kiri and their three young children.

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