California’s Wine Ghetto is more industrial estate than inner city estate. Situated in Lompoc, Santa Barbara, it’s home to around 10 wineries, all committed to producing wines of serious quality, as Stephen Brook discovers.

The Stolpman winery in Lompoc, Santa Barbara, is in a small industrial estate. One warehouse is occupied by Stolpman, but all the neighbouring buildings appear to be wineries too. Cellar rats whiz about on fork lifts; tea chests are filled with purple grapes slithering on the surface as fermentation gases poke their way to the top.

There are around 10 wineries nesting here, cheek by jowl. The spot has become known as the Wine Ghetto, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.

Well-known local winemaker Rick Longoria was the first to arrive in 1998 when he began to develop his own label. He was attracted by the adaptability of the buildings, by the coolness of the Lompoc climate (it reduced the need for air-conditioning) and, as a former Lompoc high school student, he knew all the best bars in town.

Next to lease space were Brewer-Clifton and Presidio. Then came Sea Smoke, Palmina, Stolpman and Fiddlehead. The most recent arrivals are Ethan and Worx. Each has a different focus, but they are all committed to quality, and source fruit mainly from Santa Ynez Valley, especially the cooler, westerly section of the valley, Santa Rita Hills, recently given its own AVA.

The potential of the Santa Rita Hills has been known for decades, thanks to the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, which has long produced outstanding Pinot Noir. Then, in the late 1990s, Sea Smoke and Fiddlehead independently developed 40ha (hectare) Pinot Noir sites, and many smaller vineyards are now coming into production. The wineries’ confidence in the region does not seem misplaced: there are an increasing number of rich but exquisite wines emerging from here.

Longoria draws his fruit from a wider range of sources, such as the famous Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria. In 1998 he planted his own high-density Pinot Noir vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills at a 3ha site called Fe Ciega. The result, in the second vintage of 2002, is a dense, imposing, somewhat austere wine of tremendous character and potential. He also produces splendid Syrah and Blues Cuvée, a Cabernet Franc-dominated wine with a loyal following.

Brewer-Clifton is the partnership of two young but experienced winemakers, Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer, the latter also responsible for the acclaimed Melville winery in Santa Barbara. ‘We set up our own winery,’ explains Clifton, ‘because we wanted to focus on single-vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays. We’re now producing six of each. We make each wine identically – same yeast, same cooper, one third new oak, same ageing period. The only variable is the site.’

A thorough barrel-tasting confirms that the wines, although almost all sourced from the Santa Rita Hills, are very different. Clifton opens a bottle from the first vintage, the 1996 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay, which is still showing great elegance and length.

Clifton has a passion for Italy, so in a neighbouring shed he vinifies and ages his Palmina wines. These are a mixed bag. He is still struggling with the tannins of the Nebbiolo he sources from Stolpman Vineyards, but his Barbera from Bien Nacido is a great success, and his two Pinot Grigios have more individuality than most expressions of that abused variety. Production will increase after his newly planted 8ha vineyard, crammed with a tutti-frutti of Italian varietals, comes on stream in 2006.

Doug Braun of Presidio also has a new vineyard in a very cool sector of the Santa Rita Hills, and in 2004 it delivered its first crop of densely planted Pinot Noir. Braun is an experienced winemaker, yet his wines lack consistency and often show irksome stewed aromas.

Sea Smoke is a very different kind of operation. Its owner, Bob David, made a fortune as a handheld games inventor, and has a deep veneration for Burgundy. So he planted 40ha of Pinot Noir on high slopes opposite Sanford & Benedict. Given the relative youth of the vines, the wines are already astonishingly good. David’s excellent winemaker, Kris Curran, has introduced three different bottlings, allowing her to select different levels of quality.

She experiments like mad with different periods of maceration, 10 coopers, and by vinifying each clone separately. The basic wine is Botella. One step up is Southing, and the top Pinot – a blend of one barrel from each of 10 different French clones – is called Ten.

I was suspicious of the wines’ deep colours, but Curran assures me this is all natural. The excellent first vintage, 2001, is surpassed by the 2002s, which place Sea Smoke in the top ranks of California’s Pinot Noir specialists.

Stolpman began life as a vineyard, planted on a former cattle ranch with unusual limestone soils. There is a large number of varieties, and two thirds of the grapes are sold to other producers. The cream of the crop goes to Stolpman winemaker Sashi Moorman at the ghetto winery, with international consultant Alberto Antonini keeping a beady eye on both vineyard and winery. The Stolpman shed is well equipped, letting Moorman vary his handling of the crop.

The range is slightly eccentric but it works. There’s L’Avion, a voluptuous Roussanne-Viognier-Sauvignon Blanc; an opulent blueberry-suffused Syrah; a harmonious new-oaked Syrah-Sangiovese blend called Croce; and top cuvée Angeli, which, confusingly, was a Bordeaux blend in 2001, and an intense Syrah in 2002.

From Stolpman I wander over to another shed, home to Fiddlehead Cellars. As I stride in I hear a succession of girlish shrieks. ‘Bear with us for a few minutes!’ yells owner/winemaker Kathy Joseph. ‘We’re filtering the Sauvignon!’

No one can accuse Joseph of a lack of enthusiasm. ‘Here,’ she says, thrusting a glass of chilled Sauvignon into my hand. ‘Just taste this! Gosh, I do love this wine.’ And with good reason.

For many years she’s been enamoured of Pinot Noir from Oregon and Santa Rita Hills, and Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc. Since 1989, Joseph has made only those wines. A major step forward came when she bought 40ha adjoining Sanford & Benedict and planted Pinot Noir. To help finance the project, she arranged with Beringer to buy half the crop. The vineyard is called Fiddlestix, and the wine, though packed with raspberry and cherry fruit, can’t quite match the finesse of the Sea Smoke range. Her top cuvée, Lollapalooza, showed a rise in quality in 2002. There are three Sauvignons in different styles, of which the oaky ‘Honeysuckle’ seems the most successful.

The Tank Family

Joseph and assistant winemaker Helen Keplinger also introduce me to their stainless steel tanks, which are christened Gin, Tonic, Nokia and Dimple. ‘One day my cell phone went missing,’ explains Kathy, ‘and I later found it in one of tanks. So I named it Nokia.’

Two newcomers, who forklifted their barrels into a spare corner of the Presidio shed in 2004, are Ethan and Worx. Ethan Lindquist’s father is Bob Lindquist of Qupé, Santa Barbara’s original Rhône ranger. Ethan Lindquist is following in Bob’s footsteps, sourcing Viognier and Syrah from good sites. The winemaking is artisanal, and Lindquist is wary of too much new oak. His best wine thus far is the 2002 Purisima Vineyard Syrah.

Peter Work and his wife Rebecca abandoned the executive lifestyle after 11 September, 2001, and planted 4ha of Pinot Noir near the Sea Smoke vineyards. Barrel samples of Pinot Noir from Fiddlestix Vineyard show promise, but Peter Work is still feeling his way stylistically, and these are early days.

The winemakers gather for a BYOB lunch at Stolpman’s. Competitiveness is held in check, as everyone tries to appreciate their neighbours’ styles. The ghetto is not a coop, and individual ambitions ride high, but there is a strong sense of a shared purpose.

Alas, its days are numbered. Stolpman and Presidio will soon start building wineries on their estates; others may gradually follow their lead. It probably makes logistical sense, but I bet they’ll miss Kathy Joseph’s loud voice proclaiming: ‘This is so exciting!’ she knocks back another barrel sample.

Written by By Stephen Brook