Tag Archives: Santa Rita Hills


On Saturday, I joined a group for a wine tour of four wineries in the Santa Rita Hills Appellation (LINK), near Santa Ynez, California. The four were: Tyler, LaFondMargerum, and Ken Brown. I will blog about each separately, beginning with Ken Brown Wines (LINK). The Santa Rita Hills are located about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara. A unique geological area, they are on a circular land mass that separated from the North American tectonic plate about 12 million years ago. Since then, that circle of land has been turning about 1/4 inch per year, so that now, the mountain ranges and valleys run east to west instead of north to south. This provides a “chute” for cool breezes and moisture from the Pacific Ocean to come farther inland and created one of the perfect places on earth to grow Pinot Noir. The film “Sideways” (LINK) was filmed here (before the appellation was established), and the rest is, well, a rich history.

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Ken Brown is a legendary winemaker in the Santa Rita Hills area. He began at Zaca Mesa Wines. His first name is actually Byron, and after Zaca Mesa, he started Byron Winery in 1985, selling it to the Mondavi Family in 1990. He said that both of those wineries got to the level of 80 to 90,000 cases in annual production, and by that point, actually before that, it was no longer fun for him. The current annual production at Ken Brown Wines is just about 3,000 cases in total.

Along the way, Ken Brown has trained a number of winemakers in the area, including Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Lindquist of Qupé Winery. His tasting room is in Buellton, CA, just off the 101 Freeway. It is very nicely appointed, with a corkwood floor that got a lot of attention from some of the women on the tour.

Ken Brown Holding forth about his Wines.
Ken Brown Holding forth about his Wines.

Ken was very expansive in describing his process of winemaking and each of his wines. We tasted one Chardonnay, five Pinot Noirs and one Syrah. My general comment is that his wines are amazingly well-crafted in a Burgundian style, not big fruit bombs like many California wines. In fact, some in our tour group thought his wines were not big enough.

I found them to be nuanced, balanced, and each had different characteristics. I just about fell in love.

The Chardonnay was beautifully made, and very oaky – not to my taste, but you could readily smell, taste, and see the quality of the wine. Several bottles of this were purchased by tour members.2015-02-07 15.43.28 2015-02-07 16.11.47

Each of the five Pinots, one a blend of two Santa Barbara appellations, the rest from Santa Rita Hills, two blends of vineyards and two single-vineyard wines, had a strong sense of place and a very nice blend of fruit, mineral, and spice.

I won’t go into all of the individual wines in detail – mainly because it is unlikely you will be able to get any! All are small production, and available only through the winery (LINK to wine shop site).

I purchased the 2012 Zotovich Vineyard Pinot Noir (LINK), a very complex Pinot; the 2012 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (LINK), his most approachable Pinot – fruity and very refreshing; and the 2012 Watch Hill Syrah (LINK), a rich fruit-forward Syrah with great complexity. If we were not moving soon, I would have bought more.

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If you are in the Santa Rita Hills area any time soon, put Ken Brown Wines on you list of places to visit, You will not be disappointed (unless you only like the big, big wines. Then you better stick to Paso Robles).


Clos Pepe, owned by Steven and Kathy Pepe (the Spanish pronunciation, not the French), is a unique winery and vineyard for several reasons. Their wines, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown and crafted in the Burgundian tradition, are one. The miniature heritage sheep who keep the undergrowth beneath the vines trimmed and the dogs that herd them are another. Their secondary labels, Axis Mundi, featuring wines crafted from fruit from other Central Coast vineyards are another.

But the main reason that Clos Pepe Estate is such a unique operation is the winemaker, Wes Hagen. Wes is unique among winemakers in a variety of ways – one of which being that he is as much, or more, of a philosopher than anything else. Oh, he crafts amazing wines – some of my absolute favorites – but it is the depth of knowledge about all things wine and wine-related (plus a lot of other stuff) that make being around him so entertaining and enriching.

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Jim Lockard and Wes Hagan at a recent charity tasting of Clos Pepe and Axis Mundi wines.

Visitors to the Estate (by appointment only) are greeted in the vineyard by Wes. Everyone gathers around a vine and he begins his very thorough presentation that includes the geological history of the Santa Rita Hills (a part of California that is separated from the North American tectonic plate and has been rotating at about ¼ inch a year for the past 12 million or so years, so that the valleys here run east and west rather than north and south. This makes for excellent conditions for cool-weather loving grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay); the 6500 year history of wine and viniculture that began with a single vine in Kazakhstan – the ancestor of every wine grape vine on the planet today; the history and philosophy of Clos Pepe in growing their fruit and making their wine; a bit about the sheep and the dogs; Q&A time; THEN up to the owner’s home to taste (and purchase) some wine.

As the videos on the Clos Pepe website show, Wes can tell a story, explain a concept, delve into science, and bring up Joseph Campbell without skipping a beat. He truly loves his work, and he continually studies in a variety of areas to keep his incredible mind occupied and productive.

Clos Pepe wines are beautifully crafted from vines on the 28 acre estate. A number of top California wineries also source fruit from Clos Pepe vineyards. Wes, ever the experimenter, yet aware of tradition, crafts Pinot Noirs in both the lighter, more elegant French tradition, as well as the bigger, bolder California style. They emerge beautifully and age very well.

Wine - Clos Pepe label

The Chardonnays are also crafted in the French style primarily, with a nod to what California consumers are looking for as well. Wes is given to grand descriptions of his wines (that prove to be very accurate). Here, is a description of the Chardonnays from the website:

The Chardonnays are naturally lean, mineral-laden and racy, but with more winemaking influence can exhibit richness and roundness: new oak, malolactic treatment, extended barrel aging. When young, the wines have austere structure and bright apple fruit with hints of tropical fruit and peach. Clos Pepe Chardonnay is crafted for both early enjoyment as well as cellaring for a decade or more. As the wines age they gain a hazelnut and mineral complexity, quite similar to Premier Cru Chablis and White Burgundy from great vintages. Try young Clos Pepe Chardonnays with oysters, fried chicken or barbecue. Older vintages can be enjoyed with sand dabs in a lemon cream sauce, firm cheeses, cream-based soups, or any kind of delicate seafood preparation. Clos Pepe Chardonnay seems to like 3-5 years from vintage date to fully integrate, and can last up to 10-12 years for those that appreciate full maturity and a bit of oxidative aromas and flavor.

Dorianne and I have Pinot Noirs from Clos Pepe in our cellar going back to 2007, and Chardonnays from 2010 on (hard to keep the Chardonnays on the shelf). We pull them out mostly for special dinners or to share with good friends. With every bottle, I think of Wes Hagen, the depth of knowledge that he carries into his winemaking, and those sheep. Beautiful wines and beautiful memories.