Santa Barbara County is a wine region that established itself slowly, over time. Today, it is worthy of international attention for the great wines being produced by several generations of talented winemakers.
In 1782, Junípero Serra ordered wine grapes planted at what would become Mission Santa Barbara in 1786. More vineyards followed, peaking at about 45 plots, 260 total acres, and 17 winemakers in the late 19th century. None of that, however, survived Prohibition.
It wasn’t until 1962 that winemaking came back to the area. Pierre Lafond founded Santa Barbara Winery that year. But, because there were no grapes grown in the county, he sourced his fruit from elsewhere in California.
Two years later, Uriel Nielson and Bill DeMattei established Santa Barbara’s first modern vineyard, planting Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling on benchland in the Tepusquet region of the Santa Maria Valley. Nielson Vineyard still exists today, with 432 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, largely replanted starting in 1991. Since 1984, it has been home to Byron Winery, now owned by Jackson Family Wines, but it also remains the source for numerous vineyard-designate wines from other producers.
Santa Barbara County is large: 3,729 square miles, roughly the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island.
The soils of the Santa Barbara County AVAs are primarily sedimentary, originating from the Pacific’s sea floor. There are calcareous soils—limestone and chalk and diatomaceous earth—and chert, as well as clay loams and sandy loams, some left by receding ocean and others the result of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Rivers. Very close to the rivers, there are also well-draining topsoils loaded with gravel or rounded river rock.
The region’s climate varies based on altitude, proximity to the ocean, and exposure to maritime breezes. But that first vineyard, Nielson, is representative of Santa Barbara’s best-known viticultural characteristics:
Santa Barbara County is the southernmost county of the 250-mile-long Central Coast AVA. Its unique topography creates climatic diversity which easily justifies the presence of seven AVAs: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, Happy Canyon, and Alisos Canyon (pending).
The county’s most visible, viticulturally significant topographical feature is its transverse mountain ranges. Along nearly the entirety of North America’s west coast, mountains run parallel to the coastline. Those mountains shield lands to the east from the cooling winds, fog, and marine layer of the Pacific Ocean, with the exception of small areas near wind gaps. In Santa Barbara County, however, the mountains closest to the coast run east to west, perpendicular to the shore. Their valleys act as funnels rather than shields for cold air and fog. Thus, cool climate grape-growing extends well inland. Where the hills resume a north-south orientation, near the town of Buellton, for example, there is a dramatic climatic shift.
The Pacific Ocean is unusually cold along the Santa Barbara coastline, and this cooling is made especially extreme by an invisible, geographical oddity. The coast juts westward from the county’s southeastern corner to Point Concepcion and this, combined with the rotation of the earth, forces deep, frigid currents from both the Arctic and Antarctic to the surface where they super-cool the sea breezes.
Wine growing did not take off rapidly after the establishment of Nielson Vineyard in 1964. The next vineyard, that of Boyd and Claire Bettencourt in the Santa Ynez Valley, wasn’t planted until 1969. And it’s been said that this vineyard was born more from a desire for a tax deduction than exuberance about the wine business.
But starting in 1971, several significant vineyards were established. That year, Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict, who were looking specifically for a great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growing area, established their Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. Pierre Lafond added his eponymous vineyard there as well.
Over the next few years, several vineyards were established in the Santa Ynez Valley. In the Santa Maria Valley, Louis and George Lucas planted 100 acres, now part of Cambria Estate. In 1973, the Zaca Mesa Vineyard in Foxen Canyon and the Miller family’s Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley were planted. Santa Barbara County’s first estate wines, made by Santa Barbara Winery and Firestone, came with the 1975 vintage.
Still, it wasn’t until the 1980s that significant growth in viticulture really took off. During that decade, the Heat Summation Scale of Albert Winkler and Maynard Amerine (also known as the Winkler Index or the Winkler Scale) became well known. That study made the county’s potential for cool-climate Chardonnay obvious. Suddenly, there was a rush to Santa Barbara County by producers eager to slake America’s rapidly growing thirst for Chardonnay.
Twenty-some years later, a much less scholarly work, the movie Sideways, brought Santa Barbara wines and its Pinot Noir to the general public’s attention. That drove the planting and production of Pinot Noir, as well as wine tourism. However, the movie and its bacchanalian excesses are not something the region celebrates today. Santa Barbara County is a serious wine region, proud of the world-class wines it produces from many grape varieties.
Today, Santa Barbara County is at an exciting point. Recognition of its wines is reaching new heights. Many of the early vineyards still produce grapes from their original, vitis vinifera-rooted vines. Pioneering winemakers such as Richard Sanford, Ken Brown, Rick Longoria, and Fred Brander remain vital and are making excellent wine. So are winemakers who trained under them, among them Bob Lindquist, Jim Clendenen, and Adam Tolmach. And a third generation, which apprenticed with the second, is also making excellent wines and further expanding boundaries of style and climate.
There are now about 200 wineries in the county and more than 27,000 acres of vines. Wine grapes are the county’s second most valuable agricultural crop, behind strawberries. The Santa Barbara County wine industry accounts for more than 9,000 full-time jobs and an economic impact of $1.7 billion within the county.
The county’s first AVA, Santa Maria Valley, was established in 1981 and expanded southward in 2011. It now includes 25 vineyards with over 7,500 acres under vine. The AVA is predominantly in Santa Barbara County, but there is a small, triangular area north of the Santa Maria River that is within San Luis Obispo County.
The Santa Maria Valley climate varies from Region I to Region II on the Winkler Scale, mostly on a west-to-east basis. Because the combination of fog, wind, marine layer, and the Pacific’s overall moderating influence prevent temperatures from getting very high during the day, diurnal shift is only moderate but grapes retain plenty of acidity. Rainfall averages 13.5 inches per year. The growing season runs about 125 days, though the exact length depends on site and variety.
This AVA’s primary grape varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a good portion of Syrah. Other varieties of significance or special interest include Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo, and Cabernet Franc. Among the most recognized vineyards in the AVA are Bien Nacido, Nielson, Cambria, Riverbench, Le Bon Climat (Au Bon Climat), Solomon Hills, Tinaquaic (Foxen Vineyard & Winery), and Presqu’ile.
Created in 1983, the Santa Ynez Valley AVA covers nearly 77,000 total acres. Since then, four AVAs have been nested within it: Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, and Los Olivos District. With the most recent addition, Los Olivos District, and the even more recent expansion of Sta. Rita Hills, there isn’t much vineyard acreage falling only within the greater Santa Ynez Valley AVA, but what remains does include significant sites such as Zaca Mesa and Fess Parker.
Because the AVA has a large east-west span with a series of north-south hills in between, it experiences a great deal of climatic variation. The Santa Ynez Valley is Region I close to the coast, and Region III in the east. In general, it’s a bit warmer than the Santa Maria AVA at similar distances from the ocean. Average annual rainfall ranges from 10 to 17 inches.
Chardonnay is the most planted grape, but Pinot Noir is also a dominant variety. Because the climate warms significantly toward the east, Rhône and Bordeaux varieties also do very well.
The Sta. Rita Hills AVA was created in 2001 and expanded at its eastern edge in 2016. It now contains about 36,000 total acres with more than 3,000 planted. The odd use of “Sta.” instead of “Santa” is because Chile’s Viña Santa Rita objected to the geographically legitimate spelling under trademark law.
The AVA begins about 12 miles from the Pacific, as opposed to about 10 miles in the Santa Maria AVA. For every mile moved away from the ocean, the temperature rises about one degree. But even at the eastern edge, Sta. Rita Hills AVA is still Winkler Region I.
Topographically, the AVA features three transverse sets of hills. Looking down from above, it looks a bit like a capital “E,” with the open parts pointed at the ocean. There are vineyards in both valleys formed by the hills, situated on flats and slopes alike, from 200 feet in elevation all the way to 1,700.
The percentage of vineyard allocated to Pinot Noir has increased over the years and is now about 65%. Chardonnay is the next most planted by far, at nearly 15%. Other grapes include Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
The Happy Canyon AVA, established in 2009, totals nearly 26,000 acres, but less than 1,000 acres are planted. Happy Canyon reflects Santa Barbara County’s warm side. It is the furthest east of the growing regions and, well separated from the ocean by both distance and multiple hills, it experiences relatively little fog. Daytime temperatures can reach the mid-90s and sun is plentiful. On the other hand, high winds, high altitude, and diurnal shifts of up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit result in wines that have a cooler personality than one might expect.
Climatically, Happy Canyon is almost identical to Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll District. Their degree days (roughly 3,300), daily temperatures (high, median, and low), and even rainfall are very similar. The big differences are in altitude (Happy Canyon’s average is 700 feet higher) and wind.
As in Oak Knoll District, one of the primary varieties planted is Cabernet Sauvignon. And the personality of those wines, depending on specific site and producer preference, can be either ripe (but not jammy) or full spectrum, displaying not just the grape’s fruity notes but also its savory herb and mineral. Likewise, Sauvignon Blanc can focus on ripe tropical and stone fruits or also demonstrate tart citrus, grass, and peppers. Happy Canyon emphasizes red and white Bordeaux varieties, though Syrah is also widely planted.
To find an AVA where Syrah is the focus, we head to Ballard Canyon. Roughly midway between Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon, it only accumulates 2,900 degree days. That’s nearly 100 fewer than Los Carneros. The limited heat is further moderated by strong winds, fog, and a 40-degree diurnal shift.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay used to be planted in quantity in Ballard Canyon. Growers eventually realized, however, that the Cabernet rarely got sufficiently ripe, and the Chardonnay was at the other extreme. Now, aside from a bit of Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc, the vineyards are planted almost exclusively to Rhône varieties.
The AVA, created in 2013, is small. There are 7,700 acres in total, with only 550 planted. More than 50% of plantings are Syrah, and another 30% consists of other Rhône varieties, principally Grenache. The AVA refers to itself as “Syrah territory” and wines that are 100% Syrah are eligible to use a special bottle with “Ballard Canyon” debossed across the shoulder. Syrah in Ballard Canyon shows many savory characteristics typical of that grape in the Northern Rhône, but these California wines also show riper fruit, fuller body, and tannins that are softer and more plentiful.
The newest AVA in Santa Barbara County is Los Olivos District, established in January 2016. It is a 22,821-acre region, sharing its western boundary with Ballard Canyon and its eastern boundary with Happy Canyon. The towns of Los Olivos, Solvang, and Santa Ynez sit within its borders. Though its status as an AVA is new, wine grapes were first planted in this area some 20 years before Happy Canyon.
Climatically, Los Olivos District is a midpoint between its neighbors. With just over 3,000 degree days on average, it’s a cool Region III. The terrain is flatter than the two canyon AVAs, however, and the diurnal shift much lower. It gets little fog. This moderately warm climate allows a wide range of varieties to thrive.
At the time the AVA was granted, 1,121 acres of Los Olivos District were already under vine. Most of those are dedicated to Bordeaux (white and red) and red Rhône varieties. Italian and Spanish varieties are also common.
A petition to establish an Alisos Canyon AVA was submitted to the TTB in late February 2017. Alisos Canyon is a sub-area of Los Alamos Valley, which is an important wine-growing region but not an AVA. Currently, wines from Los Alamos Valley can only be identified as “California,” “Central Coast,” or “Santa Barbara County.”
Alisos Canyon is south of the Santa Maria Valley AVA, north of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, and about 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Soils are predominantly variations of sandstone and shale. Most of the provisional territory is Winkler Region II, while the easternmost area is low Region III. The area is cooled by maritime winds coming through the San Antonio River Valley but is still warmer and has less fog than the AVAs to the north and south.
In the greater Los Alamos Valley, key varieties include Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Rhône whites, Bordeaux reds, and some Spanish varieties.
In the past, many wanted to seek AVA status for Los Alamos Valley as a whole. However, current thinking seems to be that multiple, smaller AVAs within the valley will be more useful on wine labels in indicating wine style.
The most planted grape in Santa Barbara County at over 7,500 acres, Chardonnay grows in every region, though acreage in Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon is extremely low. The wines appear in a range of styles. Some producers pursue the Californian stereotype: rich, ripe, oaky, and buttery. Others use Montrachet as their model. There are producers that leverage the long growing season to make intensely fruited Chardonnay yet eschew malolactic fermentation and/or oak. Still others source from the coolest climes and pick early, yielding lean wines laced with mineral and acidity that demand cellaring.
Chardonnay does extremely well in the very cool Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. Some winemakers in Sta. Rita Hills even believe Chardonnay, rather than Pinot Noir, should be that region’s signature grape. In both AVAs, restrained winemaking can lead to wines that are very transparent to terroir.
Depending on location, the fruit focus of Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay can be lemon, green apple, or yellow apple. In some vineyards, fruit takes a backseat to mineral notes. Bentrock Vineyard Chardonnay, for example, can be all about smoky flint.
In the Santa Maria Valley, there are similar variations. Chardonnay on the far west side of the AVA tends to be lean, with bright acidity and flavors of green apple and chalk. Coming from the eastern bench, Chardonnay can be full-bodied, show yellow apple with floral notes, and accept a greater percentage of new oak.
With over 5,500 acres planted, Pinot Noir is Santa Barbara’s second most grown variety. As with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is best from Santa Maria Valley, Los Alamos, and Sta. Rita Hills.
It is generally easy to distinguish Sta. Rita Hills from Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, likely due to the substantially different soils in the two regions. The signature of Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is bright red cherry fruit—ripe and often with a Maraschino accent. Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is moodier. The cherry fruit is darker, and that fruit is often balanced with savory notes such as earthy spice and tea. That said, the grape also shows considerable vineyard-to-vineyard variety within each AVA as well.
Santa Barbara County is a sweet spot for Syrah, which comes in behind Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for planted acreage at nearly 2,000 acres. Excellent versions are made in every single AVA in the county, and in Los Alamos Valley as well. The styles vary substantially based on region and vineyard. There are some, particularly from Sta. Rita Hills, that are lean and often feature whole-cluster spice—though never as much as in the most extreme examples from Sonoma Coast and the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the warmest zones, Santa Barbara County Syrah can be full-bodied with broad, jammy fruit.
Sauvignon Blanc is another signature variety for Santa Barbara County, with 800 acres planted. Again, the wine styles can vary dramatically from one vineyard or producer to the next. In general, the main style is Bordelais. Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc can show a wider range of flavors, with individual wines showing ripe fruit but also a lot of pyrazines. One vineyard, Presqu’ile in Santa Maria Valley, has planted South African clones, and the resulting wines clearly show that personality.
Riesling was one of the main varieties planted in Santa Barbara in the 1960s and 1970s, when Americans had a taste for sweet and off-dry whites. However, it was largely grafted over as American tastes moved toward Chardonnay and other dry wines. In fact, many of the “own-rooted” Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other vines in the region are on Riesling rootstock. But now, Santa Barbara County Riesling is making a comeback as a dry, low-alcohol wine. The grape does particularly well in Santa Maria Valley and Los Alamos. There are pockets of good Riesling in Santa Ynez Valley, too.
Another prized, cool-climate European grape that thrives in Santa Barbara County—especially Santa Maria Valley—is Pinot Blanc. The variety, along with Pinot Gris and Syrah, was first planted in the county by Ken Brown. It has typically been made in a quaffable, consumer-friendly style. But, with tastes moving toward minerality, higher acidity, and terroir-driven wines, Pinot Blanc is being taken in that direction by several producers. Some of them are delightfully edgy.
It’s surprising that such a cool-climate region has taken so long to move toward sparkling wines, but the delay can be attributed to the additional investment needed in equipment, storage space, and inventory. Several producers are now making bubbly from Santa Barbara County fruit, offering a range of styles from sweet and festive to serious and complex with five years on the lees.
While the Santa Barbara County wine industry only gained serious traction 40 years ago, it has established itself as a region worthy of recognition on the international stage. Due to its unique geographical features, it is among the country’s most versatile, high-quality growing regions for wine grapes.
The region’s cool-climate takes on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are particularly important, especially given Americans’ increasing preference for fresh wines with moderate alcohol. The cool climate also results in many wines based on varieties from the Rhône, Bordeaux, and Italy with personalities reminiscent of their Old World counterparts. These are wines to seek out, from a region that will be exciting to watch as it continues to refine its identity in years to come.
Great feature, I'm glad more people can learn about the Central Coast!