In the middle of the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County - sitting unassumingly at the base of a rugged hillside just south of Highway 246 - lies the 40-acre Zotovich Vineyard. This unique vineyard began its life in 1996 when it was first planted to a series of Italian grape varieties, but its story would change forever when it was purchased by Steve Zotovich in 2004. Steve, who up until that point was simply a wine collector, not only purchased the property but also altered the trajectory of what was to be grown there. He quickly arranged for the entirety of the vineyard to be grafted over to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Viognier, which better suited the strengths of the vineyard’s soils and climate. Additional blocks of Syrah and Grenache would be added a bit later in 2012. Within no time Steve's initial improvements paid dividends and today the Zotovich Vineyard is a premier fruit source for some of the region's best producers.
To complement his newly refreshed vineyard site Steve also started his own winery, dubbed Zotovich Vineyards & Winery. While around 80% of the fruit from their estate vineyard is sold off to other wineries, Zotovich consistently produces around 1200 cases a year using solely the very best fruit to come from their property. Because of their miniscule production Zotovich flies largely under the radar on a national scale, although their wine receives regular critical acclaim and is available in select up-scale restaurants and retailers throughout California.
After tasting - and being seriously impressed by - a few vineyard-designate wines from the Zotovich Vineyard crafted by various other producers we decided it was time for us to investigate this unique vineyard site for ourselves. We arrived at Zotovich's Lompoc tasting room early on what was a rather wet and blustery Sunday morning. We were greeted by the friendly face of Simonne, who we had spoken with previously to arrange our visit and who would serve as our guide for the day on our quest to learn everything there is to know about the Zotovich operation. Although it was quite rainy upon our arrival the forecast showed a break in the weather, so we first spent a little time chatting with Simonne to learn more about the unique attributes of the vineyard.
Our previous experiences with wines from the Zotovich Vineyard all had one thing in common: a distinct and pronounced streak of saline minerality. Although the entirety of the Santa Rita Hills appellation sees significant maritime influences, it seemed to us that there was something unique about the Zotovich property that captured the coastal brine more distinguishably than any other site we'd encountered. Simonne explained that soils in the Zotovich vineyard were composed of a particular type of oceanic sand, known technically as Arnold Series sand, which is very well-draining and perhaps responsible for the saline sensation we had experienced. Right when we came to that marvelous epiphany the rain decided to let up, so along with Simonne we hopped in the truck of Jason the vineyard manager to get a look at the property before the rain came back.
Determined and dry, we headed east on Highway 246 past endless hillsides draped in gorgeous greenery and dormant vineyards. After a just few miles journey we arrived at the Zotovich Vineyard and began our exploration with a drive around the property. The main portion of the vineyard sits on a gently inclined plain directly abutting the highway, but the property itself continues up into the densely-vegetated hills to its south. Our drive took us up a narrow muddy trail into these hills which led us to a small overlook just above their hillside Syrah block, and we stopped momentarily to take in the scene.
One of the first things we noticed about the Zotovich Vineyard from our observation point is that the property sits at a unique cross-section of the Santa Rita Hills appellation. The East/West facing hillsides actually kink south right next to the vineyard, which funnels in extra cool ocean air and causes this site to be one of the most wind-swept in the region. The soils in the vineyard were as described, as the lower portions of the vineyard were dominated by sand and contained very few rocks of significant size. The hillsides, however, were a different story. We observed some light clay topsoil, along with a greater presence of assorted larger rocks including what we identified as sandstone and chert. The presence of primarily sedimentary rock and sand suggests that this property once sat under the ocean - and given its geography it likely was a catch-point as the Santa Ynez basin eventually drained out to sea - which explains the extra salinity present in the finished wines from this vineyard.
After nerding out for a while with the vines, rocks, and dirt, the rain started to pick up again so we decided to head back to the tasting room to dig into some wines. Simonne generously poured us through an extensive piece of the Zotovich portfolio, including many past vintages and unique bottlings. We tried Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah all grown and produced by the Zotovich team. Everything we tried was absolutely terrific and distinctly reflected the very vineyard we just explored. The Chardonnays were the most transparent and terroir-driven of the lineup, and each vintage we tried expressed the same delicious sea spray minerality we had come to know as a Zotovich signature. The Pinot Noirs were delicate and ethereal, showing off pure beautiful fruit atop that same saline core. The Grenache we were poured was surprisingly structured and dense yet still light and airy, showing off juicy blue and red berry fruit. The Syrahs were also quite wonderful with their unique cool-climate meatiness and savory tones.
Our visit with Zotovich took us from curious and intrigued to totally enamored. The Zotovich Vineyard truly is one of the most unique vineyard sites in Santa Barbara, and it produces wine with a profile all its own. If you are going to seek out one wine from this site we advise you make it a Chardonnay, as the Chardonnay grown here is the closest thing we've found to the oyster shell influenced wines of Chablis. We are extremely impressed with everything we tried from this property, and are thankful to Simonne, Jason, and the rest of the Zotovich crew for making our visit possible. We now have a new addition to our list of favorite vineyards and we look forward to drinking a lot more wine from Zotovich for years to come.