From the palm trees and beaches of the Pacific coast, across the Santa Ynez Mountains, then down into the sun-swept Santa Ynez Valley that stretches to the mile-high Sierra Madres, Santa Barbara County defines Southern California’s lifestyle: both chic and relaxed.
With its red-tile-roofed houses and seaside promenade, the city of Santa Barbara captivates visitors. A favorite escape for Hollywood stars, the city pulsates with new energy in the Funk Zone, a revived neighborhood where surfboard-shaping shacks adjoin winemaking warehouses.
Less traveled are the inland wine valleys. Although the Franciscan padres established viticulture here in the 18th century, it wasn’t until the ’70s and ‘80s that pioneers such as Richard Sanford seriously began to plant grapes and make wine.
The region lies on the same latitude line as North Africa, but is cooler than you’d think. Because the mountains run east/west, sea breezes from the chilly Pacific Ocean sweep into the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, creating cool-climate growing areas. The coolest, westernmost part of the Santa Ynez Valley is now officially named the Santa Rita Hills (abbreviated, for legal reasons, as Sta. Rita Hills). Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stars, with Syrah playing a supporting role.
In the eastern part of the Santa Ynez Valley, summer temperatures climb into low 100s. Here, growers are succeeding with Cabernet Sauvignon in the new Happy Canyon appellation. The central part of the valley suits Rhône varieties, both red and white, as well as Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The same sunny climate that favors grapes also creates a one-word answer for the question, when is the best time to visit? Anytime.—Steve Heimoff