In the early days of the 1970s, Santa Barbara County vintners made some pretty bad Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines tended to be quite green and bell peppery, so much so that the region’s reputation suffered dramatically until Pinot Noir and Chardonnay started winning wide praise and popularity in the 1990s.
The rise of versatile Rhône grapes soon followed, but not all vintners jumped off the Cab ship—in fact, many on the inland edge of the Santa Ynez Valley realized that their warmer climate was ideal for Bordeaux varietals. In 2009, these easternmost estates won federal recognition as the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation, and started re-educating consumers on the potential for Cab and other Bordeaux varietals in Santa Barbara. Then just last month, that battle for resurrecting Santa Barbara Cab gained a new warrior: the Los Olivos District American Viticultural Area (or AVA), which the federal government approved as county’s sixth official appellation.
Sandwiched between Happy Canyon to the east and the Ballard Canyon AVA on the west, the Los Olivos District is the brainchild of regional pioneer Fred Brander, who’s been growing lots of Sauvignon Blanc but also Cab and other Bordeaux varietals on his family property since 1975. He first conceived of the district when the Sta. Rita Hills was created near the Pacific Ocean in the western Santa Ynez Valley more than a decade ago, but waited patiently as the adjacent appellations were carved out.
To Brander’s delight, what remained was exactly what he hoped for: a nearly 23,000-acre, gently-sloped swath of mostly uniform alluvial soils extending from about 1,000 feet in the mountains down toward the Santa Ynez River. Quite similar to the geology and climactic conditions of Oakville and Rutherford in the middle stretch of the Napa Valley, the district includes about 1,200 planted acres of vines, 47 vineyards and more than a dozen wineries. “It makes a very tight AVA,” said Brander, who’s also proud that it includes the tourist-serving towns of Los Olivos, Solvang, Santa Ynez and Ballard. “It was staring me in the face for a long time, but it just took me awhile to figure it out.”
Though the Goldilocks-like appellation is well suited for a variety of grapes—roughly half is planted to Rhône varietals, with dollops of Chardonnay, Riesling and Spanish and Italian grapes—Brander is tremendously bullish on what the Los Olivos District could do for Santa Barbara Cab. “We want to be the strongest Cabernet AVA south of Napa,” said Brander, not mincing words.
Last November, to bolster his prediction, Brander hosted a tasting of nine different producers from both Happy Canyon and the Los Olivos District, inviting me and both long-established estates—like Buttonwood and Gainey—and newer producers like Tanner Dafoe and Baehner Fournier. As we sipped from bottles new and aged—not to mention brown-bagged bottles that turned out to be from Napa and Bordeaux, France—the conversation focused a lot on whether Cab should include an herbaceous influence or not.
Brander and most everyone at the table believed that, as in Bordeaux proper, there should be a touch of that character, a result of organic compounds known as pyrazines. “In my book, it’s one of those things that you want a little bit of,” said Brander. “The classic Bordeaux wines have pyrazines. But you have to have control. It’s a positive so long as it’s controlled.”
In tune with that appreciation, many winemakers present that day lamented that the modern consumer’s quest for ripe, jammy wines has rid many Cabernets of this elegant component. “We’ve moved away from the classic Napa vintages of the 1960s, ‘70s, and even the ‘80s,” said Brander. “They went to a riper style and obliterated the pyrazines.”
Most agreed that it will be quite some time for the everyday consumer to turn to Santa Barbara for Cab, but Brander is already seeing the shift, especially in places like New York City, where wine drinkers are open to exploration. “Educated markets are taking a second look at Santa Barbara Cabernet,” he explained. And now, thanks to the Los Olivos District, there’s a brand new lens for focusing on this promising category.