Matt Dees: Pushing it to the Hilt of extremes

Winemakers will tell you that they want the grape vines to “suffer”. Wine grapes do not want luxurious lives that enable them to get fat and plump. That is the life of a juicy table grape. Our wine grapes want unique soils, long growing seasons, diurnal temperature shifts and more. But then there are the extreme vineyards where you wonder how a grapevine survives. That is what I thought as I stood on the top of The Hilt Winery’s Radian Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in the Santa Ynez Valley. But, it is the ideal place for winemaker Matt Dees and the wines he is producing demonstrate that, as I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and am sharing here.

Standing at the top of the Radian Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in the Santa Ynez Valley was like standing in a world of its own. The sight of surrounding vines was familiar and yet it was not like other vineyards I have visited in Sta. Rita Hills.

The sun was shining as a strong, cool wind continuously blew, creating a temperature that was described as “refrigerated sunshine.” Below me, my shoes were lightly covered with the white topsoil of diatomaceous earth. This dramatic landscape is a truly distinct place and it is the home of The Hilt, a winery that is pushing it to the hilt of extremes.

The Radian Vineyard is part of the historic 3,600-acre Rancho Salsipuedes that The Hilt acquired in 2014. With 600-acres of plantable land on this property, there are currently 200 acres planted, some of which had been planted in 2007. The planted acres are separated into three vineyards: Radian, Bentrock and Puerto del Mar.

The Hilt is located on the south side of Sta. Rita Road on the southwestern-most corner of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. In fact, the property is so large that a portion, which includes the Puerto del Mar Vineyard, sits outside the AVA.

I journeyed to the top of the Radian Vineyard with winemaker Matt Dees. A soil scientist by training, Dees was raised in Kansas City, Missouri and planted his first vineyard when he was a student at the University of Vermont.

Dees worked at Staglin in Napa and Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand before joining Jonata in 2004.

Based in Ballard Canyon, Jonata has 11 grape varieties planted on the 83-acre property. This “Noah’s Ark” of grapes, however, does not include Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Dees started buying fruit from across the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and producing Pinot Noir in 2004. When The Hilt, which focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, was acquired in 2014, a new brand was born.

For a soil scientist, The Hilt is a fantasy come true for Dees. Standing at the top of the vineyard with him, his excitement was palpable. His approach to winemaking is grounded in the vineyard.

And at The Hilt, the estate vineyards are an untamed landscape of steep hills and windswept ridges. The vineyards are planted only 13 unobstructed miles from the ocean, exposing it to rough winds and a cool maritime influence. The property offers a range of altitudes, aspects, soil types and microclimates.

And one ridgetop in Radian vineyard is covered in diatomaceous earth, a powdery raw material, formed from the microscopic fossilized remains of diatoms, single-celled algae organisms whose cell walls are composed of silica. This soil is impenetrable, and Dees had to drill holes to plant the vines, which then send out their roots, shattering the diatomaceous earth as they dig deep for nutrients.

These conditions are some of the worse possible for farming. But they offer an exciting challenge for Dees. The vines, which range from 2 to 12 years old, have to work hard and Dees says that he “can see the vines cry sometimes.” Even at 12 years of age, the roots are thin, yet they are strong. Ultimately, they produce wines that are lively, fresh, well-structured and express a place of origin.

The Radian Vineyard covers 95 acres, with 10 acres planted to Chardonnay and the rest to Pinot Noir. It is located on the western side of the estate, with the highest points sitting at 700 feet elevation and the incline of some slopes are as steep as 45 degrees.

The Bentrock Vineyard, which sits 400 to 500 feet above sea level, is 95 acres, 13.6 acres devoted to Chardonnay and the remainder to Pinot Noir. Here, the landscape is gentler with long, rolling hills and primarily clay, sediment and shale soils with outcrops of diatomaceous earth.

For the first few years of working with The Hilt fruit, Dees was not convinced of the differences between Radian and Bentrock vineyards. Since the first vintage of The Hilt wine in 2014, Matt has blended flavors from both Randian and Bentrock vineyards to produce estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that represent the place. But in the 2017 vintage, the specificity of the vineyards was apparent, and The Hilt produced single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are just being released.

Chardonnay has become Dees’s favorite wine to make. When it comes to Chardonnay, he wants the wine to be acidic to the point of refreshing, or as he described as “electric.” Dees described three markers for Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay: green citrus (lime pith), acidity (malic or lactic) and salinity. The Hilt Radian Chardonnay 2018 screams these things. Lime and seashell notes jump out of the glass and the palate is hit with electric acidity. This wine tastes like it came from out of the ocean. The Hilt Bentrock Chardonnay 2017 also has generous citrus aromas and an electric linear acidity. But the wine also has a bit more muscle in the body.

For Pinot Noir, Dees wants the wine to be “dark with a hint of corruption.” The Hilt Bentrock Pinot Noir 2017 is soft and approachable with raspberry, black cherry and blood orange aromas and sandy tannins with a bit of muscle on the sides. The Hilt Radian Pinot Noir 2017 has notes of dark fruit, spice, game and earth and there is a wild and raw nature to the wine. On the palate, the tannins are a mixture of dusty and chunky tannins.

Dees is pushing it to the “hilt of extremes” to make wines with texture and structure but are also pleasurable and delicious.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.