If you’re looking for grapevine-lined hillsides for as far as the eye can see, you’ll need to go elsewhere. If you expect to encounter tasting rooms with giant picture windows and soaring ceilings, you’ve come to the wrong place.
But if you’d like to taste a lot of different wines in a short period of time, with no need to drive from venue to venue, you’ve come to exactly the right place. That place? The California coastal community of Lompoc, and a few-square-block area that has been dubbed the “Wine Ghetto.”
There, you’ll find tasting room after tasting room, most devoted to low-production wineries that either can’t afford or simply don’t desire the fancy tasting rooms often associated with more famous wineries. It’s basically an industrial park devoted to wine.
The Ghetto was founded by Rick Longoria of Longoria Wines in 1998. Longoria has long been a champion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the area, which since 2001 has been officially recognized as Sta. Rita Hills.
Far back in its history, the area was under the ocean. Layer upon layer of microscopic diatoms built up in vast quantities. As glaciers in the north and south grew, the ocean receded and land was uplifted, leaving vast sand dunes along what today is Highway 246, and huge deposits of diatomaceous earth throughout much of the Sta. Rita Hills and Lompoc.
A significant tectonic shift also took place, and the area was transformed from the traditional north/south orientation seen along the West Coast, to an east/west orientation — the only east/west winegrowing region between Chile and Alaska.
With the valley being open to the Pacific Ocean, cool, moist air is sucked miles inland as the Santa Ynez Valley heats up and those convection currents rise, essentially creating a vacuum. Summers in the Lompoc and Sta. Rita Hills areas are typically cool, foggy and breezy, with the longest, coolest growing season in the New World.
Because of these climatic conditions, the yield of fruit from Sta. Rita Hills is considerably less than in California’s most famous winegrowing region, the Napa Valley. While Napa can typically produce three barrels of wine from one ton of grapes, one ton of Sta. Rita Hills fruit will make only about two barrels.
The different soils in the area are generally well drained, resulting in more stress on the vines as they struggle to penetrate deep into the earth for moisture. This allows the farmers to apply just as much water as is necessary to produce flavorful, concentrated fruit.
The Pinot Noir grown there has incredibly long hang time before it is harvested, as does Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This produces rich, deep flavors, with the calcium-rich soils adding distinct minerality not found elsewhere. All grapes in Sta. Rita Hills tend to develop thick skins, full of bright color and tannin. Resulting wines have great acidity, and are ideal food wines.
But this is no mere two- or three-variety region. Many of the tasting rooms in the Wine Ghetto offer an array of bottlings, including Bordeaux-style wines and even luscious dessert wines.
And in this most non-traditional setting for sampling wine, don’t be surprised if the person pouring the wine also is the person who made it.
For further information and to view a map of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, click here.