From the summit of Highway 154, the winding road that cuts in from the coast and snakes its way up the Santa Barbara Mountains, the view is spectacular. A thousand feet below, gentle hills undulate to the horizon, while in the distance the Sierra Madre Mountains meet the sky in a gauzy veil of purple.
The Santa Ynez Valley, one of three American Viticultural Areas in Santa Barbara County, is blessed with fertile soils and an equable climate. The old farms and cattle ranches are disappearing, but the local cowboys have found another calling as dudes for the local equestrian culture, fueled by Hollywood money.
Money has also poured into the valley in the form of wineries. The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association counts about 30, but since not all the wineries are members, the number could be twice that. Most are small, family-run operations; the average wine quality—and price—is high.
The valley is distinguished by its climate. Few California wine regions have as large a temperature gradient during the growing season. That’s because the valley runs east-west, not north-south, like Napa Valley. The San Andreas Fault has thrust the Coast Ranges sideways, allowing maritime air to rush in from the sea, picking up nearly a degree of heat with every mile eastward. As a result, it can be 65 degrees at Lompoc (LOM-poke), and 100 at Lake Cachuma.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best area for Pinot Noir is the valley’s western—chilly—end. The seminal vineyard was Sanford & Benedict, which was founded in 1971. Its owners planted everything from Pinot Noir and Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon, not knowing what would work. Cabernet didn’t; Pinot did, and determined the destiny of the western valley.
“I was working up in the North Coast when Sanford & Benedict’s ’76 Pinot Noir came out, and it caused some strong reactions,” remembers Bruce McGuire, winemaker/president of Lafond Winery. Fellow vintner Rick Longoria, of Longoria Wines, is more expressive: “Those S&B Pinots were, like, wow! I was astounded.”
The valley’s early Cabernet Sauvignons, however, were unripe and astringent, confirming the stereotype that California could not grow good Bordeaux varieties south of the Bay Area.
Despite a few interesting wines, the Santa Ynez Valley might have faded into the sunset were it not for the fanatical dedication of its winemakers and their deep pockets. They pushed onward, even if turning a profit was only a distant hope.
The Rhône Zone
If the problem for Santa Ynez growers was unripeness, the solution was to plant further inland. Not long ago, Gainey’s vineyards, just on the eastern outskirts of Santa Ynez, were about as far east as anyone grew grapes. Today, vineyards and brands such as Westerly, Vogelzang and Dierberg-Star Lane are pushing out toward Lake Cachuma and into the desert-like Happy Canyon, at the northeastern end of the appellation. There’s even talk of having an AVA by that name.
Cabernet Sauvignon, however, remains iffy. “I won’t make one,” insists Rick Longoria, whose vineyards lie just east of Lompoc, “because I don’t have confidence in it.” Says Stolpman’s young winemaker, Sashi Moorman, “I would never bottle Cabernet as a pure varietal, just as part of a blend.” Gainey’s Kirby Anderson makes a little Cabernet for the tasting room, but candidly calls it “average. I just don’t think it does well here,” he adds. A few diehards persist, but Napa and Sonoma have little to worry about.
The more exciting development in the east has been a series of extraordinary Syrahs. (Lesser Rhône varieties, like Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre and the white twins, Roussanne and Marsanne, are hit or miss.) This Rhône Zone is a swath running from Santa Ynez town northward past Los Olivos, where Beckmen’s Purisima Mountain Estate and Stolpman share the same hill, and then—after a break where an old rancher doesn’t want to plant grapes—up into the Foxen Mesa hills, where Fess Parker, Foxen, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Andrew Murray and others are located. Zaca Mesa got the Rhône ball rolling in the 1980s, and is still one of the best. So many famous winemakers have worked there—Ken Brown, Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach, Bob Lindquist—that locals call it Zaca Mesa University.
The key seems to be that it’s midway between the too-cold west and the too-hot east. There’s been talk over the years of forming a separate, Rhône-associated AVA, “but not much is happening right now,” says Murray, adding, “We’re moving toward common ideas.”
Of course, there’s always an argument for a peppery, cool-climate Syrah. Chad Melville, who says his model is the Northern Rhône, grows some next door to Babcock out on Route 246, the main drag across the valley. Jaffurs vineyard-designates their Syrah; it’s a tough, tannic wine.
The best Syrahs are from inland, or are blends of east and west. Steve Beckmen credits the juicy ripeness of his monumental Syrah, grown at about 1,000 feet in the Ballard Canyon area, to the micro-climate, which he calls “the best of both cool and warm.”
Into the fog: Pinot Noir and the Santa Rita Hills
“One day in the mid-1990s,” McGuire recalls, “I read a press release for another winery’s Pinot Noir that said, ‘Santa Maria Valley is where you grow Burgundian varietals, and in the warmer Santa Ynez Valley you grow Bordeaux varietals.’ And so I called up Richard and Brian and said, ‘We need to meet.'” That would be Richard Sanford of Sanford Winery and Brian Babcock of Babcock Winery. “We had to get the message out,” McGuire continues, “that this area, too, was a valid Pinot Noir appellation.”
The upshot was the creation of the Santa Rita Hills AVA in 2001. It was carved out a district in the west based on fog and maritime air. Most of the older vineyards are on the flats, but newer hillside vineyards, like Sea Smoke Cellars’ Pinot Noir, are remarkably steep.
(At press time, the big Chilean winery, Santa Rita, has threatened to sue over the appellation’s name. Local vintners, unwilling to wage an expensive legal battle have proposed changing the name to “Sta. Rita Hills.” That would require the federal government’s permission, however, and so far, no decision has been made.)
The challenge facing Santa Rita Hills’ winemakers is to carve out a unique Pinot Noir identity based on their terroir. The best Pinots, in a ripe vintage like 1999 or 2001, show intensely succulent black cherry, raspberry and blueberry flavors, backed up with firm acidity. There is a tendency among newer winemakers, working with young vines, to over-oak their jammy fruit, giving flashy, but insubstantial, wines. More experienced winemakers working with mature vines are able to add depth and complexity to the pizazz. “My advice to the newbies is, ‘Don’t try so hard. Let your vineyard do the talking,'” says Longoria.
Finally, a word about other wines. Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays are usually sleek and minerally, with taut acidity and a metallic taste. If they can achieve ripe, fruity flavors, so much the better. Sauvignon Blanc from the east can be very good, as Brander’s and Gainey’s demonstrate. A few wineries on the far eastern fringe of the valley, including Mosby and Clendenen’s Il Podere Dell’Olivos, are tinkering with Italian varieties. Sashi Moorman is doing some Sangiovese-based blends at Stolpman, and they are wines to watch.