A wine journey through the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys.
It’s not just the palm trees or the balmy temperatures. In Santa Barbara, a shimmering quality to the light lets you know you’re in Southern California—a radiance Cézanne would have loved to paint.
From a climate point of view, the county presents two personalities. Along a narrow coastal strip, which includes the city of Santa Barbara, the weather remains too cool for winegrowing (although some backyard hobbyists keep trying). The coast is walled off on the north by the soaring Santa Ynez Mountains; just inland is wine country.
In most places, having a 4,800-foot wall of stone between you and the sea would make inland regions as hot as, say, Paso Robles. But the big difference in Santa Barbara lies in the east-west direction of the valleys, which allows chilly air to funnel inland from the ocean. If you’re a grapevine, that makes all the difference in the world.
There are two main inland valleys, the Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez, both of them dissected by rivers of the same name. The Santa Maria Valley is less traveled. A lean, low-rainfall plain with benchlands that gradually ascend to the mountains, the Santa Maria possesses an austere beauty. In 1981, the region became the third official appellation in the U.S.—Steve Heimoff
The Best of Bien Nacido
Because of its chilliness, the Santa Maria Valley is receptive to the Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which together account for the lion’s share of plantings. The best-known vineyard in the valley is Bien Nacido, which covers more than 2,000 acres. Owned by the Miller family, who purchased the land in 1969, it ranks as one of the top vineyards in California. A few years ago, the Millers launched a Bien Nacido wine brand; unfortunately, the vineyard and winery is not open to visitors.
Bien Nacido’s fruit, including Syrah and Pinot Blanc, is coveted by wineries lucky enough to purchase it: Au Bon Climat, Rusack, Longoria, Ojai, Sine Qua Non, and many other coveted brands. Other well-known vineyards and wineries in Santa Maria include Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Sierra Madre and Tepusquet.
A Matter of Degrees
The Santa Ynez Valley is less open to the maritime influence at its easternmost reaches than its neighbor, and hence is warmer. It’s green and lush, with a garden opulence to the landscape. Before 2001, the appellation extended from well inland all the way out toward the industrial city of Lompoc, by the sea. This gave the valley a huge spectrum of climates, from foggy-cold to searingly hot. It clearly made no sense, so the cool, western Santa Rita Hills appellation was recognized.
That refined the debate: Santa Rita Hills for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, inland for everything else, with Syrah succeeding in both. The next logical step occurred in 2010, when the federal government approved the Happy Canyon appellation, carving out the driest, hottest part of the valley. Vintners there are making ambitious strides with Bordeaux red varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Adding on AVAs
As the Santa Ynez Valley’s growers and vintners learn more about specific local conditions, the AVA’s broader generalizations are yielding to particulars. Recently, two sub-regions have garnered interest: Ballard Canyon and the Los Alamos Valley. While neither yet holds official AVA status, that could change soon.
Ballard Canyon sits just above the picturesque town of Los Olivos. The historic hub of the valley, the region shows the purest Santa Ynez Valley character: neither Happy Canyon hot nor Santa Rita Hills cool, just Goldilocks-right. Warmth is tempered by winds that sweep in at night, quickly lowering the temperatures.
The hilly area is emerging as a hotbed of Rhône varieties, perhaps best exemplified by Stolpman Vineyards. In addition to experimenting with Syrah and other Rhône varieties, both red and white, they’re trying unusual blends virtually unknown elsewhere: Sangiovese and Syrah, for example, in their “La Croce” bottling. Just within eyeshot across the canyon is tiny Jonata. Marching against the odds, they are crafting rich, elegantly tailored Bordeaux-style red blends to rival Napa’s.
Centered around the laid-back, old-timey town of Los Alamos, which dates back to 1839, the namesake Los Alamos Valley growing region is less well-defined. Fairly cool, it was developed by large wine companies as an inexpensive source of grapes, especially Chardonnay, Syrah and Viognier. Nowadays, a younger generation of vintners aims to explore the Los Alamos Valley’s possibilities.
Santa Rita Hills: Touring Sideways Country
The 2004 movie Sideways made the Santa Rita Hills appellation famous. Even without Miles’s antics, the region would have hit the big time for a simple reason: its Pinot Noirs are among the best in California.
The area lies in the western portion of the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley. Until 2001, wines from it could bear only that appellation. But that year, the U.S. government declared a formal Santa Rita Hills viticultural area (abbreviated, since 2006, as Sta. Rita Hills, for legal reasons).
The appellation consists of two valleys walled by coastal hills. Two roads run parallel through them a few miles apart: Highway 246 and, to the south, the less traveled but prettier Santa Rosa Road. Both end near the industrial, windswept seaside city of Lompoc.
Because of the unique east-west “transverse” orientation of the land, chilly maritime influences rush inland from the Pacific, although the precise patterns of the fog remain contentious among some growers. Many different grape varieties thrive in the chalky soils, but few would dispute that Pinot Noir is the greatest. The wines in general are full-bodied, fruity and tannic; the best age effortlessly.
Chardonnays share a purity and strength that allows them to embrace full-throttle oak barrel aging, although vintners also are crafting intensely flavored unoaked bottllings. The Hills also produces Syrahs that, with their peppery, meaty qualities, point to the region’s cool climate.
If you go, here are some of the best tasting rooms: Alma Rosa, Babcock, Foley, Melville and Sanford. In addition, many smaller wineries offer their wines at the “Taste of Sta. Rita Hills” tasting room, located in the famous Lompoc Wine Ghetto, an industrial park where they make their wines.
The Chardonnay Symposium
California’s ode to America’s most popular wine.
Believe it or not, California didn’t have a single consumer event dedicated to Chardonnay—the top-selling wine in America—until 2010.
The Symposium, which is co-sponsored by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, brings together vintners from all over California who pour their wines, chefs from local restaurants who serve savory foods and consumers who get to enjoy it all. The event culminates with a highly informative panel discussion by winemakers, who answer any and all questions about Chardonnay.
Santa Barbara's Top Varieties
From the Sta. Rita Hills in the west come some of California’s most coveted Pinots, rich, dense and ageworthy. The best can be pricy.
Grows well throughout the county, turning ripe and fruity enough to withstand considerable oak influence, yet retaining balancing acidity.
Syrah and Rhône-style red blends
Warm areas produce potent, lushly textured wines, while cooler Sta. Rita Hills yields more more tannic and peppery selections.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends
When grown in warmer areas, the grapes get ripe enough to produce delicious and charming wines. .
Has to be grown in warmer regions, but when successful, the wines are dry, crisp and savory, with a particular varietal intensity.