Friday, October 28, 2022

House of the Rising Hilt


It's only fitting that famed architect Howard Backen gives off a beneficent golden glow, as he's designed so many beloved spaces, from Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, from MGM Studios Theme Park to Meadowood Napa Valley. He's also become a go-to for wineries who want comfort and style shy of outright ostentation, from Cliff Lede to Harlan Estate to, now right here in Santa Barbara, The Hilt Estate. That's not too surprising, as The Hilt's owner, Stan Kroenke, already had Backen design Screaming Eagle for him (even if it's closed to the public), so bringing a favorite architect south made all the sense in the world (especially when money is no object). 

The property recently celebrated its first year open to the public with a to-do featuring Bracken himself, folks from his team, and also many craftsmen and builders from Grassi & Associates, including founder Mark Grassi and partner Paul Niles. The evening was a well-earned love fest for everyone involved, as it's a gorgeous project, managing to provide plenty of space for high-end tasting while still remaining appropriately sized for the property. It doesn't hurt it's one big property, as Rancho Salsipuedes is 3,600 acres nestled into the elbow where Santa Rosa Road meets Highway 1 at the far western end of the Sta. Rita Hills. Only about 200 of those acres are vineyards.

The Barn took the place of old historic barns and mimics them a bit, with wall lumber set about a half inch apart to let the air in. But then you look closely and realize that now everything is screened off, so that flow happens without any buggy accompaniment. Such details abound. Take the two over-sized metal stoves in the two side tasting rooms (which, of course, open to the main room but can be shuttered off if the space needs that)--they provide a kind of hearth that's unique, homey, almost big enough to climb in. You don't just warm a backside in front of one, you get a full-body heat hug.

And, of course, it's an indoor-outdoor space, as this is Santa Barbara, even if one of its more chilly locales, just 13 miles from the Pacific. The wide open side of The Barn frames the low-lying Puerta Del Mar Vineyard and in the distance the Imerys diatomaceous earth mine glitters like a snowy mountain (and hints at the property's own diatomaceous earth that makes the Radian Vineyard such a horrible and therefore wonderful spot to plant grapes). You feel placed here.

Then there's the wine facility itself, which winemaker Matt Dees and his team thought through function first. All the dirty stuff--you know, this is a farming operation--happens outside the building, so it's spectacularly clean inside, even on what turned out to be the last day of 2022 harvest arrivals. There was some water here and there and some activity, but the most unkempt thing in the winery was Dees sporting a true mountain man beard thanks to the demands of the season. The basement barrel room is a football-field long (hey, what is that other thing Kroenke owns?), and you instantly get hit with oak and fruit as you descend the stairs. Dees points out the huge concrete space is sparse enough that if different people figure out a better way to make wine two decades from now, they'll have a blank canvas to begin with. 

Of course the evening also featured a tasting. The wine included The Hilt sparkling, a true beauty of fizz, tension, brioche, pear, and a lean, clean finish, The Hilt Estate Chardonnay (talk to Dees for a bit and he'll passionately convince you Chardonnay is the grape of SRH), almost lets you taste the ocean breeze that whips these vineyards. The Hilt Estate Pinot Noir is a bit more reserved than many SRH Pinot, but that just means it draws you in slowly and seductively to its cherry, spice, and cola. Finishing up was Jonata's Todos (Jonata is the sister property in Ballard Canyon, featuring Rhone and Bordeaux varietals, and now even some Greek grapes--Matt's always experimenting). Todos, as in "all the grapes," is a deep wonder that leads a drinker to much reflection about how full a red blend can be. Only another sip can get you anywhere near an answer.

Of course there was food, too, passed appetizers that never stopped coming, from delicate cheese-bomb gougères to seemingly just-fired arancini to the most adorable and delicious fish tacos that I was tempted to stuff my pockets with, they were so good, but luckily trays of them kept floating about the room so I didn't have to hoard. Thanks, Poe & Co., for the terrific stuff. Of course The Hilt isn't in the business of doing anything halfway, so the food had to be terrific. After all, they flew in a photographer from Sun Valley, Idaho for the gig just because he was their favorite.

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