Even listening to The Hilt’s Matt Dees talk about wine is a treat for the senses. His descriptions, during a tasting of the 2018 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Chardonnay and 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, made the experience akin to a virtual poetry reading. “The wines vibrate,” the winemaker said of one of the Chardonnay’s three key properties (electricity, green citrus, and salinity). “They attack your palate with freshness.” As for the Pinot: “We look for a hint of corruption … all the things that make it a mystical, sensuous thrill ride.” And the land itself? “With Sta. Rita Hills … I think it has the most potential of any region possibly in the world right now, as far as Chardonnay goes. And Pinot is right there with it.”
The Kansas native discovered Santa Barbara in 2004, when he took on a position with Jonata, whose sister properties are The Paring and The Hilt. Dees had worked at wineries in Vermont, Napa, and New Zealand, but didn’t know much about the region. He fell in love. “It had some of the warmth of Napa with some of the cool brightness of New Zealand,” he says. “I knew it was home.”
The Hilt was founded in 2008 but sourced fruit until acquiring its estate, the 3,600-acre Rancho Salsipuedes, in 2014. The Spanish translation means “get out if you can.” Defining the southwest corner of the Sta. Rita Hills, the rugged land houses Radian and Bentrock vineyards; the former sits on about 100 acres of steep slopes and “takes the brunt of maritime influence—the wind and the soils.” Dees says.
The conditions speak to the label’s name: “We farm to the hilt,” says Dees. “There’s no bells, whistles, and tricks.” The estate wines are made from a blend of Radian and Bentrock. And the 2018s represent the “essence” of The Hilt. “We do wines of place, with intent,” he adds.
The acidity in the Chardonnay ($45) commands attention. “I’m an acid-head about Chardonnay,” says Dees. “Without it, it’s like a Beatles album with only Paul McCartney tunes.” Indeed, rather than a characteristic hit of oak, this wine greets the palate with mineral-driven salinity—like a refreshing ocean breeze. (It’s barreled in 34 percent New French oak, 56 percent neutral French oak, and 10 percent stainless steel for 11 months.) At first brush, it’s tart and clean, with apple notes and citrus—lime rind, lemon. With air and about a day’s time, the wine transforms; there’s more oak, along with crusty bread and yeast. There’s a balance among the flavors and textures, and it made a lovely complement to steamed mussels.
The Pinot ($45) is gorgeous. The ruby-colored wine is barreled in 8 percent New French oak and 92 percent neutral French oak for 11 months. It opens with a nose of tart cherry, raspberry, and a touch of the chalky soil terroir. Dewy fog. There are notes of almost sour cherry, black tea, clove, and herbs. Yes, the red berries bring brightness, but the earthy aesthetic gives it weight and depth. It’s smoky, chewy, herbaceous. Dees calls it a “gamey” quality. But the tannins are not overwhelming; instead, they are layered and restrained, defining the wine’s bold structure. (Because of the overall “misery” of the location, the grapes have thick skins for protection against the wind, says Dees.) The savoriness of the wine lingers, transforming with a hint of cola on the back palate, even bitter chocolate or coffee grounds. It is a singularly exciting experience—and I, for one, can’t wait for my next pour of each.