In Santa Barbara County, the mountains do something that happens nowhere else on the West Coast of the Americas: they run from east to west, rather than north to south. So unlike everywhere else where peaks protect the inland areas from the effects of the sea, the county’s prominent valleys open right onto the Pacific Ocean, which is a rather wild, frigid and wind-whipped beast in this corner of California.
On the western edge of the long, narrow Santa Ynez Valley—and for all of the wider Santa Maria Valley—that translates to cool temperatures, with fog in the morning and a steady breeze in the afternoon. This allows for deliciously extended ripening seasons for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The reward is that the county offers world-class wine at a tremendous value for every palate.
The temperatures rise a bit inland, becoming ideal for other varieties: Syrah and other Rhône grapes in Ballard Canyon; Sauvignon Blanc and a smorgasbord of reds in the Los Olivos District and Bordeaux grapes in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
There’s a diverse menu of great wine available from these appellations: Storm’s Donnachadh Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills; Liquid Farm’s Bien Bien Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley; Stolpman’s Estate Syrah in Ballard Canyon; Happy Canyon Vineyard’s Bordeaux-style red blends; and even Solminer’s Blaufränkisch from Los Olivos.
However, with this diversity is a double-edged sword. The breadth of grapes and blends does make telling the Santa Barbara story to a broad audience a bit difficult—there’s just no succinct way to explain what the county does best. But, for a visitor who comes to explore the area or for a shopper perusing wine shop aisles, the reward is that the county offers world-class wine at a tremendous value for every palate.
Wines from Santa Barbara County to Look for
Brewer-Clifton 2017 3D Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $65, 95 points. The brand’s telltale aromas of pure red fruit and earth recall a wild strawberry plucked from a field of minty sagebrush. Rounded red-currant, pine-needle and redwood-frond flavors power the fresh palate, which is delightful and delicious.
Storm 2016 Donnachadh Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $55, 95 points. There’s an extreme purity of black-raspberry fruit on the nose of this bottling by South African Ernst Storm, yet also earthy mineral-laden layers of slate and soil. The sip is taut, elegant and acid-driven, offering just enough raspberry fruit to balance the bay leaf, thyme and earthy soil flavors. It’s refreshing and goes down all too easily.
Liquid Farm 2015 Bien Bien Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley); $52, 94 points. From 40-year-old vines of Bien Nacido Vineyard, this bottling offers ashy Brie rind aromas alongside lemon pith and light guava peel. Compelling tension on the palate frames the tangerine pith and Key lime flavors, which warm toward buttermilk and flint toward the finish.
Stolpman 2017 Estate Grown Syrah (Ballard Canyon); $30, 94 points. The Stolpmans play up the cool- climate aspects of Ballard Canyon in this bottling, offering crumbled violets, black-pepper and underripe boysenberry aromas on the nose. The palate sizzles with acidity, delivering fresh berry, pepper spice, thyme and fennel pollen flavors.
Happy Canyon Vineyard 2015 Barrack Brand (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $49, 93 points. Fresh cranberries, a hint of blackberry and crushed river stone make for an accessible yet elegant nose on this blend of 80% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec and 5% Petite Verdot. The palate is subtle, smooth and balanced, with polished hints of blackberry, gravel and herbs. These qualities will intensify with time, so drink from 2020 through 2035. Cellar Selection.
Comartin 2016 Tierra Alta Vineyard Grenache (Ballard Canyon); $45, 92 points. Brooding aromas of dark red cherry, star anise and clove make for a heavier style of Grenache in this bottling. The baking spice powers the palate, where mouthfilling flavors of ripe cherry and plum meet with vanilla on a smooth, creamy texture.
Diatom 2018 Bar-M Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County); $30, 92 points. From a vineyard in the Los Alamos Valley, this bottling by Greg Brewer begins with fresh aromas of passion fruit, citron, lime leaf and wet cement. The palate is tightly wound with slightly sour tones of guava peel, presenting a very fresh, no-oak style that still has plenty of character.
Foley 2016 Bar Lazy S Ranch Chardonnay (Sta. Rita Hills); $45, 92 points. Full aromas of marshmallow, white peach and buttercream are billowing on the nose of this bottling. Creamy, ripe and rich flavors of white peach, cherimoya and oak consume the palate.
Deovlet 2016 Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County); $32, 91 points. Toasty aromas or brioche and hazelnuts meet with chalk and crème fraiche on the nose of this county-wide blend. The palate tangs with lime and grapefruit zest before a softer almond cream aspect rises in the midpalate and extends toward the finish.
Grassini 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $28, 91 points. Light and mellow on the nose at first, this bottling opens toward Asian pear flesh, warm nectarine and clean melon aromas. It lands on the palate with bright flavors of guava, passion fruit and lime, cut by mineral-laden touches of wet cement.
Grimm’s Bluff 2017 Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $28, 91 points. From a stunning estate that was planted biodynamically, this bottling, which is the first for this project by newly hired winemaker Ernst Storm, offers aromas of cut grass, dried grapefruit rinds and lime zest on the nose. Stony flavors of wet cement make for a fresh and compelling palate, with flavors of green-pear skin, lime rind and dried hay all apparent.
McKinney 2018 Vogelzang Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $42, 91 points. Clean aromas of rainy cement, sharp cut grass and lime blossom show on the refreshing nose of this bottling. The palate is crisp and lively, with grapefruit juice, grass and passion fruit flavors leading toward a taut finish.
Solminer 2017 deLanda Vineyard Blaufränkisch (Los Olivos District); $44, 91 points. A rare planting of this Austrian grape in California, this bottling by Anna and David DeLaski is very fruity on the nose, with crushed pomegranate, candied cranberry, black-plum and orange aromas. The palate is quite tangy, with lively flavors of fruit punch, cherry tomatoes and an intriguing range of sharp spices.
Whitcraft 2017 My Friend Matts Vineyard Syrah (Los Olivos District); $38, 91 points. This is another zippy, fun and refreshing wine by Drake Whitcraft, although his low-ripeness style may be outstripping the grape’s varietal character in this particular bottling. Aromas of fresh red currant, lavender and thyme lead into a Pinot Noir-like expression of smashed red fruit and rosebuds on the palate.