On a warm weekend in mid-August, many of those who make wine from vineyards in Santa Barbara County's celebrated Santa Rita Hills gathered to honor the region during the Wine & Fire event marking the 10-year anniversary of the AVA. Wine tasting events led off the three-day Wine & Fire Friday night at both Avant Tapas and Wine in Buellton and D'Vine Wine Bar in Lompoc. Both events drew large crowds — Avant's staff ran low on glasses and wristbands and patrons had to shout to be heard over the din, and at D'Vine, proprietor Karen May said she turned down latecomers because space ran short. The next morning at Alma Rosa Winery, all seats were full for Wine & Fire's Saturday seminar billed as a look at the "past, present and future of the Sta. Rita Hills." Clos Pepe winemaker Wes Hagen welcomed participants by noting that 2011 is the 40th anniversary of the planting of the first vineyard in what is now the Sta. Rita Hills — the iconic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. So it was especially fitting that the pioneer of that vineyard and Sta. Rita Hills wine in general, Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa, was that morning honored for his work as "navigator" behind the evolution of the region's viticulture. "We're something different," Hagen noted. "We're not the Santa Ynez Valley, and we're not the Santa Maria Valley." He urged those present to look east, then west, and feel the difference between the two directions. "The Pacific Ocean to the west fights with the summer heat to the east," creating one of the most unique geological regions in California, he said. Winemakers seated for the panel included Sanford; Ryan Carr, Carr Winery; Kathy Joseph, Fiddlehead Cellars; Bruno D'Alfonso, Badge, D'Alfonso and D'Alfonso-Curran wines; Rick Longoria, Longoria Wines; Morgan Clendenen, Cold Heaven Cellars; and Ryan Zotovich, Zotovich Cellars. Josh Raynolds of Steven Tanzer's Wine Cellar moderated. The details each panelist offered — ranging from the region's history, soil structure, climate, wine grape varietals — provided attendees with an expert's view of the "SRH." Carr, whose vineyard management company oversees several area sites, emphasized that the Sta. Rita Hills' soils are a "unique" sandy loam — a mix of sand, silt and clay. That treasured soil structure, along with a cool climate, leads to the characteristics for which SRH wine is famous: "Great acidity, a ripeness on the mid-palate and a long finish," he noted.