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Sashi Moorman: Raising Dough and Lowering Alcohol
By W. Blake Gray
May 1, 2012
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Following Sashi Moorman around the Lompoc winemaking ghetto -- an industrial park in western Santa Barbara County that changed in the last five years from dead bus storage to wine tasting rooms -- you would think he owns the place. 

Moorman, who makes wine for four wineries, seems to have keys to everywhere.  He wants to taste a Pinot Noir he makes in this former storage room, then a Syrah he makes in an identical building over there.  He's a compact bundle of energy, climbing barrels to show how he fills one to the brim with actual grapes, rather than just their pressed juice.

As if wine wasn't enough, Moorman is also opening a bakery -- and growing his own heritage-grain wheat for it.  He makes one concession to keeping his workload sane.  "We will use a tractor," he says.  "You can shoot me if I start talking about hand-harvesting wheat."

As there's a gun shop two doors down from his bakery, I could take him up on that.  But tasting his wines -- from Piedrasassi, which he owns, Sandhi, which he co-owns, and Evening Land and Stolpman, which he works for -- I begin instead to wish he did own the place.

Moorman, a former professional chef, has become the leading advocate of early-picked, savory, low-alcohol wines from Santa Rita Hills.

"Santa Rita Hills is a gifted region," Moorman says.  "The gift is tremendous ripeness you can achieve with low potential alcohol.  But very few people choose to take advantage of these gifts."

Moorman has partnered with celebrity sommelier Raj Parr to make these kinds of wine under two different labels.  They worked together for an ambitious multinational company called Evening Land, but Parr left after a falling out with the former CEO.  Moorman stayed on and still makes the company's Santa Rita Hills wines.

Together they founded Sandhi specifically to make food-friendly wines.  "Raj decided the best place in California to make elegant, acid-driven wines is Santa Rita Hills," Moorman says.

The reason, as always, is climate.  The Sta. Rita Hills -- which must be abbreviated in official uses because of a threatened lawsuit by Chile's Santa Rita winery -- are in the far west of Santa Barbara County and spend most of spring and summer with plenty of cooling fog.  Temperatures are usually in the 60s; days in the high 80s are rare.  So is rain.  The grapes spend a long, peaceful summer maturing gracefully.

However, there's a heat spike most years in mid-September.  Pick before it, as Moorman tries to do every year, and the potential alcohol is refreshingly low for California.  I tasted several of his Pinot Noirs, and a few of his neighbors' like Longoria and Moretti, that had ripe fruit flavors with less than 13% alcohol.

As we tasted my favorite of many good wines -- Evening Land Estate Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2010, which has just 12.9% alcohol -- Moorman said, "Why would you pick any later?" I agree.  The wine was deliciously complex, starting and finishing with smoked meat notes around a solid line of blueberry fruit in the middle.  The fruit was so pretty that it lacked nothing, and the savoriness added much more interest than a straightforward fruity wine.

"Santa Rita Hills could create quite a name for itself," Moorman says.  "If the name Sta. Rita became synonymous for elegant Pinot Noir, it would lift the whole appellation.  Why don't people get that?  There's one very strong way to make a global impression.  Where else can you do this?  You can't do this in Oregon.  You can't do it in the Russian River Valley.  You can only do it here."

I countered that for many people, Sea Smoke defines the Sta. Rita Hills, with its powerful, fully oaked, high octane Pinot Noirs.

"Of course they do, they've been the most financially successfully," Moorman says.  "But you can make opulent wines anywhere.

"Think about a peach," he says.  "I eat my peaches between green and very ripe.  I want a little resistance to them.  My daughter, she's 4 years old, she wants them very ripe."

I ask him if some winemakers shy away from picking the grapes so soon because the grapes aren't yet as delicious as they could be.  Jenne Bonnacorsi, a highly respected Pinot Noir winemaker, would tell me the next day that she doesn't like any green flavors in wine, and that's a popular position.

"These grapes, picked on this day, they're delicious," Moorman says.  "You wait two weeks?  They're even more delicious.  They're less complex, but they're more delicious.  You're burning those unripe elements out of the fruit.  It's like strawberries.  The best strawberries in the market, the ones that have the most flavor, aren't the sweetest ones."

Moorman makes a lot of food analogies because he thinks a lot about food.  He invited me for dinner, with the bread from his not-yet-opened bakery and pasta he made himself that he hung over a closet door to dry.  I took turns with his other guests trying to keep his large standard poodle away from both the pasta and the pork chops he laid on his fireplace pre-grilling. 

The bread was delicious; moist inside, with a strong wheaty flavor and potent sesame from the crust.  I realized aloud that I don't know where sesame seeds come from and Moorman says, "It's a grass.  We looked into growing it, but it takes a lot of water and that's not practical here."

Despite their long history as a home for cattle farms, the Santa Rita Hills are currently pretty much a food desert, which is why Moorman opened the bakery.  He's also growing organic vegetables and he thinks if more wineries were in the food business, they'd make their wines differently.

"You go to Europe and the wine industry is much more embedded," Moorman says.  "The idea of a wine region formed in small communities with producers of food products right alongside.  The guys making Sancerre came to an agreement about the style of wine they'd make.  That took years -- decades -- but they defined Sancerre a certain way, and that requires getting in touch with food."

Maybe Moorman just needs to break bread with everyone making wine in the Santa Rita Hills.  And now he's got the bread.