A Blessing and a Curse: Embracing the Complex Variety of Wines from California’s Santa Barbara County

santa barbara vineyard
Photo By Macduff Everton

Twenty years ago, as a young journalist fresh out of college, I was dispatched from my newspaper desk in Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez Valley to write a short report about the region’s emerging wine scene. After the 45-minute drive north, in a quaint Los Olivos tasting room, I met with Richard Longoria, who had started to make wine in the valley in 1976.

As I sipped through my first-ever proper flight, Longoria told fascinating tales of how Santa Barbara County’s geography is unlike anywhere else on the western coast of the Americas. Instead of the usual north-south orientation of mountain ranges, which block inner valleys from the sea, Longoria explained that the region’s Transverse Ranges cut from east to west.

That means Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys are open to the chilly, wind-whipped Pacific Ocean. Their sea-facing western reaches are quite cool, even into the warm summer months, while temperatures warm up gradually as you move inland.

Cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in the Santa Maria Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills in the west. Warmer weather varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc succeed in the Happy Canyon and Los Olivos appellations to the east.

In between, Ballard Canyon fosters grapes typical of the Rhône Valley, such as Syrah and Grenache Blanc. To the north, Alisos Canyon, Los Alamos Valley and Foxen Canyon grow a range of grapes, from Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Albariño to Grenache and Gamay Noir.

happy canyon santa barbara
Happy Canyon / Photo By Macduff Everton

Getting Acquainted

The region’s geography is represented all over, painted on the walls of tasting rooms from downtown Santa Barbara, where palm trees stand, and in the country chic village of Los Alamos, a culinary capital for farmers, fishermen and tourists. Though compulsory now, this lesson wasn’t part of the curriculum when Longoria first arrived.

“It took time for us to start to differentiate the cooler parts of the valley,” he says. “I think it was Richard Sanford who was the first to talk about it and make it a selling point to characterize the whole region, and that makes sense with his geography background.”

With Michael Benedict, Sanford planted Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1971, which proved Pinot Noir could thrive in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Commercial planting started in 1964, and, in 1981, the Santa Maria Valley became the first official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Santa Barbara County, just the second in California. Because it’s a much wider valley than Santa Ynez, the increased maritime influence extends throughout, and the valley remains a hotbed of primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

santa barbara vineyard
Crown Point / Photo By Macduff Everton

The Santa Ynez Valley AVA was established two years later. As vintages mounted, winemakers learned what did well where, so the valley was further divided into smaller appellations. The westernmost Sta. Rita Hills AVA, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay excel, was established in 2001. Eight years later, the easternmost Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, renowned for Bordeaux varieties, split off.

In 2013, a tight pocket in the middle of the valley became the Ballard Canyon AVA, lauded for Syrah and other Rhône-style wines. The Los Olivos District, which consumed the alluvial fan between Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon, was created in 2016. It works well for Bordeaux, Rhône, Spanish and Italian varieties.

More AVAs appear on the way, including Alisos Canyon, which was nearly approved as of press time, and possible appellations that involve Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos Valley.

This makes Santa Barbara County a paradise for winemakers.

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No other region in the world can support this diversity with the geographic, geologic and climatic data—plus successful, ageworthy vintages—to back it up. And for wine lovers, there’s something for every palate, often in the same tasting room.

Yet, there’s a hitch.

“It’s a challenge in terms of broad consumer marketing efforts,” says Longoria, who envies the simple and affective outreach efforts of other regions, like Cabernet in Napa, Pinot Noir in Oregon and big reds in Paso Robles. “The very fact that we are diversified means that there are a lot of different messages coming out of Santa Barbara County. They are all valid, but it’s hard to portray Santa Barbara County with one singular marketing voice. To me, that’s been a little bit of a disadvantage.”

Santa barbara santa maria valley
Santa Maria Valley / Photo By Macduff Everton

Embracing Multiplicity

For more than two decades, Doug Margerum ran the influential Wine Cask restaurant and retail store in downtown Santa Barbara. His catalogues and annual futures tastings elevated the region’s international reputation through the 1980s and ’90s and were a springboard for wineries like Au Bon Climat, Brewer-Clifton, Paul Lato, Tensley and Sea Smoke. In 2001, he started his own brand, Margerum Wine Company, and he now makes wines from every appellation in the Santa Ynez Valley, including his estate vineyard in the Los Olivos District.

Margerum appreciates the diversity conundrum as much as anyone. He says it affects the global impression of Santa Barbara. The city is in a somewhat tropical setting on a south-facing coast and is separated from the valleys by the nearly 4,000-foot-tall Santa Ynez Mountains.

“It’s hard for consumers to understand when they see that Santa Barbara is bikinis and bougainvillea and orange trees,” he says. “It’s a beach resort. But when people go over the hill, like to see a play at the outdoor theater in Solvang, they wonder, ‘Why are they giving us jackets and down comforters?’ Even though it’s 85˚F during the day, it’s gonna be 45 in a few short hours.”

Tyler Thomas left Sonoma and Napa in 2013 to work as winemaker for the only producer to own estate vineyards in three of the county’s appellations: Dierberg, in Santa Maria Valley; Drum Canyon, in the Sta. Rita Hills; and Star Lane, in Happy Canyon. With graduate degrees in viticulture, enology and botany, Thomas analyzes the region’s diversity every day, and he recognizes the challenge.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it is unusual, particularly for the marketplace,” says Thomas. “How could somebody who’s excelled at making Pinot Noir also excel at making Cab? It’s rare to have such a variety of cultivars in such close proximity.

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities for Burgundian winemakers to make Bordeaux wines or Rhône wines. You really have to educate people on it. But I think they are getting it.”

windmill ranch santa barbara vinery
Windmill Ranch / Photo By Macduff Everton

There’s another element to the equation as well.

“Santa Barbara wine country has always had a very independent streak running through it, both in personality and winemaking,” says Stephen Janes, general manager at Pence Vineyards. He’s also president of the Santa Barbara Vintners, the regional trade association that’s struggled for decades to rally its members around a common cause. “This is what makes the region’s wines so compelling, but it does not lend itself well to more collaborative thinking. This is both our curse and strength.

“As a region, we are making the best wines we’ve ever made collectively,” he says. “That story is not being told to the world.”

The group has funded a marketing campaign with the big-tent tagline of “West of France, Just North of L.A.”

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“How do we use that diversity to make us stand out?” asks Riley Wathen, whose parents cofounded Foxen Winery in 1985, two years before her birth. After hanging around the cellar and working harvests near and far, she embarked on a brief Bay Area tech career. Now, she helps her parents as they transition slowly to retirement. She’s also on the board of Santa Barbara Vintners.

“For Foxen, it’s one of our greatest assets, and we do it really well,” says Wathen of the region’s diversity; the winery sources from every AVA in the county to make more than 30 offerings. “When you can go into a single tasting room and try a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley, a Chenin Blanc from Foxen Canyon, a Pinot from the Sta. Rita Hills, a Syrah from Los Olivos and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Happy Canyon, I’m able to show the entirety of the county in five tastes.”

Like Foxen, Longoria makes wines from every appellation across a wide variety of grapes. He remains perplexed about the messaging challenge, but he believes the region’s benefits outweigh its issues.

“Even with just one winery such as ours, you can go from a cool-climate Albariño to a Bordeaux blend, to Syrah, to Tempranillo [and] everything in between,” he said. “There is a lot of diversity that consumers can enjoy.”

Along with photographer Macduff Everton, Matt Kettmann is the author of Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County (fall 2020). For more, see Vines & Vision 

Published on September 4, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings