Within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County, there are only a handful of wineries that have reached critical acclaim worldwide. For the last two decades Melville Winery has consistently produced top quality wines in this underrated region, helping bring attention to its very unique terroir and the exciting potential still to be realized there.
Chad Melville makes a great first impression. His smile and easy-going nature draw you in so completely, you instantly feel comfortable and relaxed. He’s a Dead Head after all so one almost expects a certain nonchalant personality. But we quickly learned that his calm and relaxed manner belies an intense passion for nature and, in particular, the complex world beneath the soil. Within minutes of meeting him, he looked at us with a gleam in his eye and asked, “should we go out and see the vineyards?”. Moments later the three of us were piled into his car and heading a short way up the road to one of the 40-acre plots that make up the 120 acres of planted estate vines.
To understand the terroir at Melville, one needs to understand the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Found in Santa Barbara County, the region became an official AVA in 2001 thanks to the hard work of local pioneers Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria and Bryan Babcock. These three winemakers recognized the uniqueness of its terroir and set out to have it receive its own designation. It should be noted that Chad’s father Ron also recognized the potential here and purchased the Melville property long before the AVA was ever established.
Sta. Rita Hills enjoys a cooler climate than just about all its northern neighbours: cooler than Napa and Sonoma, even cooler than Washington State. The reason for its unusually cool climate is the direction that the local mountains run. Throughout the rest of North America (and South America too), the mountain ranges run north-south, parallel to the western coast line. These ranges create a barrier between the ocean and what sits on the other side of the mountains. Cool, moist winds blow off the ocean and cool the lands they hit. When the mountains block the passage of this cool air, the other side is hot and dry. In the Sta. Rita Hills the mountains travel east-west and create a funnel to guide in the cool air off the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Rosa Hills which run east-west, separate the AVA from the ocean to the south. But to the west it is open to the ocean and those hills, together with the Purisima Hills to the north, create the funnel that allows the cooling influence of the Pacific to be felt. The result is that Sta. Rita Hills enjoys North America’s longest growing season with bud break typically in February, and harvest typically in late October. The cooler temperatures combined with plenty of sunshine, allow the grapes to almost always ripen fully.
Chad’s passion lies with the growing side of winemaking. He’s justifiably proud of the fact that Melville owns their land, does their own farming and doesn’t purchase any fruit. He admits it leaves them a little vulnerable, but he believes the benefits far outweigh the risks, “we get consistency and we get to control the quality. I’m so connected to the fruit that I really don’t have to do much in the winery.”
They are so serious about growing the best quality fruit possible, they have a soil scientist—the only consultant they have ever used. “He helps us understand this complex world we’re standing on. We’re taking soil samples every year as well as tissue samples because in some cases there isn’t that direct correlation between the fresh nutrients in the soil and the vines taking those nutrients, so you have to figure out why.”
As we step out of the car we notice that there are a lot of different vines between the plots because they use various different techniques. The particular vines we see aren’t the standard trellis system with the cordon split and going in opposite directions, instead they are going in one direction, “We planted 8 [feet wide] by 3 [every 3 feet is a vine] and when you plant every 3 feet you can’t really afford to split the vine, so you need to go in one direction. We go in one direction because of the wind. Where we’re growing now is way more extreme, we are right on the edge here—compacted, densely planted vines, low vigour root stock, sandy soil, low nutrient soil, and we barely get any rain. It all adds up to make you wonder why anyone would plant here but premium wine growing regions around the world have the same common denominators. These stressful factors balance out the health.”
Right after harvest they prep the soil by roto-tilling and basically drilling in the cover crop that is a blend of 5 different plants: rye grass, bell bean, spring pea, vetch and clover. It’s all legume-based except for the grass. The legumes pull the nitrogen out of the atmosphere and deposit it onto the roots. “The real benefit here is the root structure. This cover crop will get cut after it gets about thigh high, probably 4-5 times before it naturally dies off (usually in June) and then that’s when this massive root structure that’s been growing for 9 months decomposes right there in the soil where the roots of the vines are feeding. This organic matter provides food for all the microbiology in the ground, so we go back to the soil scientist mentality of this complex world living beneath us and this is a huge part of our contribution every year to the vineyard. Not only that, it’s organic, it’s natural, the way that Mother Nature intended it to be.”
The feeder roots are 12-24 inches long and every spring at bud break along with every fall, a “root flush” occurs which is when the vines send out new roots. “A vine essentially hibernates, it wakes up and it’s hungry, so it stretches out for nutrients. Then, right before winter, it does it again to collect extra nutrients to make it through its dormant winter months. Knowing that helps us ensure we have good nutrients available when the vines need it. Good farming is not so much how you do things but when. Timing is critical.”
All of this attention to detail in the vineyard allows for very little intervention in the winemaking. Chad focuses on the fruit, he doesn’t do fining or filtering, and he uses ripe stems for whole-cluster fermentations instead of new oak. “I want you to smell and taste the vineyard. I’m not anti-new oak and I have plenty of wine from other places in my personal cellar that use new oak that I love, but for me, in this place, it doesn’t make sense. So the farming has to be perfect and the fruit has to be perfect and the stems have to be perfect. The stems are part of the vineyard, part of the vintage, part of the varietal. So instead of using oak which gives you aroma, texture and flavor, I try to get that from the stems.”
Complexity is a descriptor that most winemakers covet. And the complexity of the ‘world beneath the soil’s surface’ as Chad puts it has found its way into their wines where the health of their fruit is on full display. Melville’s wines show an exceptional purity highlighted by an elegance and finesse not normally used to characterize Southern California wines. These characteristics have made the winery a standout for years and under the guidance of Chad’s passion for the winegrowing aspect, we’re confident he will continue that legacy for years to come.
2015 Melville Estate Chardonnay
From the west side of the estate facing the ocean and its cool winds, this is a terrific Chardonnay that was full of surprises for us. Golden delicious apple mixes with hints of fresh ginger and lemon zest to offer lots of complexity. The wine has a gorgeous texture that is at once rich and defined by good acidity. The big surprise was to learn that Chad was able to coax out that texture with just sur lie ageing, but no new oak, no malolactic fermentation, and no stirring of the lees. When the fruit gives you that much texture on its own, you have very special fruit indeed and nothing else is needed.
Excellent (US $32 at their tasting room)
2015 Melville Estate Pinot Noir
An elegant Pinot with a very pretty floral lift on the nose. The colour is medium light red and reflects the lighter body of this wine. Red cherry and cranberry flavours are joined by gentle spice notes. 40% whole clusters and 30 days skin contact, but the wine shows more delicate features than one might expect, given this treatment.
Very Good+/Excellent (US $36 at their tasting room)
2016 Melville Pinot Noir Anna’s Block
Part of Melville’s Small Lot Collection, the Anna’s Block comprises 8 acres planted in 2001 to two different Dijon Clones, the 667 and the 114. 67% stem inclusion and cropped to a miserly 1.9 tons of fruit per acre. We quickly recognized similar floral aromas that we found on the Estate Pinot but with Anna’s they are even more intense and with some subtle herb and light spice infusion. Again, a delicate body but wonderfully intense flavours. The structural components give definition and suggest further development for at least a decade.
Excellent (US $60 at their tasting room)
2016 Melville Sandy’s Pinot Noir
Another of the Small Lot Collection, this block is planted on the sandiest part of the estate, but is in fact named for Chad’s aunt, Sandy. Graceful and taut, we get flavours of cranberry and wet stone. There is plenty of black pepper on the back end. The finish is long and intense. 60% stem inclusions emphasize the savoury elements.
Excellent (US $60 at their tasting room)
2016 Melville Estate Syrah Santa Rita Hills
This wine way over-delivers for the price point! A bevy of black and blue fruits dominate the aromas and flavours. Medium body and a delightfully smooth mouthfeel give this wine early charm. There is ripe tannin present that suggests this wine should see its tenth birthday in fine form. Hints of bitter chocolate come through on the finish. Very seductive!
Excellent (US $36 at their tasting room)
2016 Melville Estate Syrah Donna’s
This is the darkest wine in the line up. The black and blue fruit profile of the Santa Rita Hills Syrah is present but here the dials are all turned up. Very intense flavours of blueberry compote and blackberries dominate. With some swirling the umami nuances come out. The finish is long and accented with black pepper. Already complex, it is still a baby and is likely to develop for 15 or more years. Lovely balance. Given what you can pay for some “cult” Syrahs in California and what you generally would pay in the Northern Rhone, at $48 this is a fantastic bargain.
Excellent (US $48 at their tasting room)
Melville has a tasting room at their winery in Lompoc as well as a tasting room in Santa Barbara. Both are open every day but have slightly different hours, visit the website for hours and directions.