Lompoc, a small working-class community at the western reaches of Santa Barbara County, customarily isn’t the focus of wine enthusiasts as they plan a tour of the region’s wineries.
That honor goes to the busier and flashier inland settlements of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos and Solvang.
Yet, Lompoc – pronounced lom-poke – is the epicenter of much of the winemaking that is drawing admiration to the wines of Santa Barbara County.
Specifically, that would be the Sobhani Industrial Park, a sprawl of low, strictly utilitarian steel structures secluded behind the Lompoc branch of Home Depot, not far off Highway 246.
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Locally, the cluster is better and more affectionately known as the “Lompoc Wine Ghetto,” given that it is home to around 20 wineries, including such prominent Santa Barbara brands as Fiddlehead, Palmina, Stolpman and Sea Smoke.
And let’s not forget the very first inhabitant, Rick Longoria, who moved his and his wife Diana’s Richard Longoria Wines into the complex in 1988. For Longoria and others the move was a practical and inexpensive way to transcend the complexities and costs of building a winery elsewhere in development-cautious Santa Barbara County.
With this harvest, however, the Longorias are moving out of the Sobhani complex to new quarters in Lompoc, perhaps helping set the stage for the city’s evolution into a destination wine community to rival towns to the east.
Lompoc, after all, is in one of California’s accelerating American Viticultural Areas, the Sta. Rita Hills, a sub-appellation of Santa Ynez Valley. Ranging east from Lompoc, the Sta. Rita Hills, long recognized in agricultural circles for artichokes, asparagus, walnuts and flower seed, is the coolest of Santa Barbara’s wine enclaves, which helps explain the high standing of the enclave’s chardonnays and pinot noirs.
Rick Longoria makes chardonnay and pinot noir, to be sure, but he’s also in Santa Barbara County for its varied terrains, exposures and microclimates. That variety, coupled with the eagerness with which he and several of his neighbors embrace innovation and exploration, fosters a freedom that encourages him to make such other varietal wines as tempranillo, pinot grigio, albariño and syrah.
“The beauty of Santa Barbara is that we have the opportunity to make such a diversity of varietals,” Longoria is saying in the cozy tasting corner of his echoing quarters in the ghetto. “You don’t find that opportunity in other areas. They’re challenged by climate or tradition. Santa Barbara isn’t limited by climate or tradition. We haven’t pigeonholed ourselves.”
Longoria’s segue into the wine trade began in the early 1970s, when he was working on a degree in sociology at the UC Berkeley. On weekends, he escaped to Sonoma and Napa counties largely for their bucolic calm. “With my temperament I felt more comfortable in the country,” Longoria says. While there, he also learned that wine could come in styles more enthralling than the simple and sweet reds in screwcap jugs common to Berkeley.
Before he finished school, he opted for a career in agriculture, but he wasn’t sure what branch of farming would most appeal to him. In 1974 he signed on as a cellar worker at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County.
He subsequently took classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and UC Davis and caught a break when Buena Vista’s consulting winemaker, the renowned Andre Tchelistcheff, alerted him to a cellar job at Firestone Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley.
“It was kind of home to me,” Longoria explained, his family having lived there when he was in his teens and his father was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base just north of Lompoc.
Longoria introduced his own brand in 1982 and founded his winery in 1988.
Over the past three decades his wines have become recognized for their lucidity and finesse. He buys grapes from growers throughout the region and also developed his own small pinot noir and chardonnay vineyard in a remote area just west of Lompoc. He calls it “Fe Ciega,” Spanish for “blind faith.”
He says his stylistic goal is to make complete, balanced, transparent wines in which no one element distracts from a wine’s other aspects. “I want oak so well integrated with the fruit that you can’t tell where it starts and ends,” Longoria says. “The wines have to have great acidity; they can’t taste flat. The tannins have to be well managed. They have to be transparent – true to varietal and true to vineyard. I want them to be harmonious. It’s like art or a piece of music. If the composition is really good, you know it, you know there was some thought behind it.”
During his time in Santa Barbara County the biggest change he’s seen grape growing and winemaking has been the increasing range of clones that vintners have adopted.
“Clonal variations have changed the quality of wines from here. They’ve given us more to work with, the ability to blend and create something new,” Longoria says.
The changes have worked out well for the Longorias. They make just 3,000 cases of wine a year, about two-thirds of which is sold directly to consumers. Those strong sales have given them the means to move this harvest from the ghetto to new nearby quarters anchored by a 1913 structure that long served as the clubhouse for one of Lompoc’s key employers, the Johns Manville Corp., which mines diatomaceous earth in the area, a principal component in the filtering of wine, among other products.
“We’re right up there with Francis Ford Coppola,” says Longoria, referring to the filmmaker-cum-vintner celebrated for transforming wineries in Napa and Sonoma into swanky tourist destinations.
While Longoria makes clear that he is joking in the comparison, his spacious new facility just may be the landmark that Lompoc needs for the community to rank high on the list of Santa Barbara County destinations for wine pilgrims.