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Time to Take a Deep Look at Santa Barbara’s World-Class Wines

Whenever you step into one of the 150+ tasting rooms in Santa Barbara County, prepare yourself for the same geography lesson. Unlike the rest of mountain ranges on the West Coast of the Americas that run north to south, the Santa Ynez Mountains travel east to west. They’re the terminus of the larger Transverse Range, which, thanks to the earthquake-inducing San Andreas Fault, form the hard 90-degree angle of California’s otherwise vertical coastline.

So rather than being protected from the sea, the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, where almost all of Santa Barbara’s wine grapes are grown, open onto the Pacific Ocean. The coastline is much more chilly, windy and inhospitable than Baywatch and other SoCal stereotypes imply.

The western side of the valleys can be quite cold most of the year, often soaked in fog in the mornings and whipped by breeze in the afternoon. The temperatures creep higher as you move inland, yet that wet and windy ocean influence persists even into the deepest canyons.

One early pioneer tracked that such a layout led to temperatures being one degree hotter for each mile you moved inland through the Santa Ynez Valley. Though the reality is more complicated than that, the point of this ubiquitous geography lesson is that a global array of grapes thrive in Santa Barbara County, and there’s now a number of different appellations exploiting that reality.

With that basic understanding, feel free to pass on the geography lesson and jump into the wine tasting. And for those who want to know even more, here’s an appellation-by-appellation breakdown.

Presqu’ile's vineyards, known for their cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah / Photo by Avis Mandel
Presqu’ile’s vineyards, known for their cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah / Photo by Avis Mandel

The AVAs of Santa Barbara Wine Country

Santa Maria Valley

Created: 1981

Varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with smatterings of Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and more.

What to know

Santa Barbara County’s modern viticulture movement started in the Santa Maria Valley, when table-grape growers like Uriel Nielson and Louis Lucas came from the Central Valley to experiment with wine grapes in 1960s. It quickly became a major source of Chardonnay for North Coast wineries in the ’60s and ’70s, and it slowly developed a focus on higher quality.

Its most iconic property is Bien Nacido Vineyard, planted in 1973 and now considered the source of the most vineyard-designated wines in the world. It produces ageworthy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Syrah and Grenache that are critical darlings. The Jackson Family owns a major stake with the vineyards around Cambria and Byron wineries, which form a large part of its Central Coast Chardonnay program. There’s also a growing movement toward sparkling wine here, as Riverbench has even planted Pinot Meunier in recent years.

Where to taste

There are a limited number of tasting rooms, but they’re worth the drive. Closest to Highway 101 is Presqu’ile, which makes cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. Cottonwood Canyon, founded in 1988, often offers library Pinot Noirs for sale. Riverbench has made quite a buzz with its Cork Jumper sparkling wines.

The old-world Danish architecture of Solvang / Getty
The old-world Danish architecture of Solvang / Getty

Santa Ynez Valley

Created: 1983

Varieties: Almost everything.

What to know

The Santa Ynez Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the overarching designation for the landscape carved out over eons by the Santa Ynez River. It’s still used by producers that make wines from grapes sourced throughout the area. However, most wineries now label wines with more specific sub-AVA names like Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

Where to taste

There are more than 50 tasting rooms in the quaint farm town of Los Olivos and another dozen or more in the Danish-themed city of Solvang. Many of these pour Santa Ynez Valley-appellated wines.

The Sub-AVAs of Santa Ynez Valley

Moving from west to east, here are the four sub-AVAs of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Sta. Rita Hills

Created: 2001

Varieties: Predominantly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but with growing amounts of Syrah, Grenache, Albariño, Gruner Veltliner and other cool-climate grapes.

What to know

In some circles, the high-scoring Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills are better known than Santa Barbara wine country as a whole. This was where Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted the county’s first Pinot Noir vines in 1971, which proved that the fickle Burgundian grape could excel there. Vineyard plantings have increased over the years, and now there are nearly 70 vineyards that total 3,200-plus acres. Of that, approximately 94% of the land under vine is devoted to Pinot Noir.

The region extends from Buellton to Lompoc and follows two slim valleys. One follows the Santa Ynez River along Santa Rosa Road, while the other hugs Highway 246. The terrain ranges from low-lying flat areas to incredibly steep hillsides in every direction. The soils vary, but there’s a steady amount of calcium throughout the region. There’s even diatomaceous earth mines nearby, and vintners just love that white, limestone-like rock.

Where to taste

There are a number of estate wineries along Highway 246 (Melville, Babcock, etc.) and Santa Rosa Road (Sanford, Lafond, etc.). You could devote two days to explore those regions. To tackle a dozen-plus wineries at once, hit the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, just west of the region, where most producers source Sta. Rita Hills fruit.

The vines and offerings of Rusack Vineyards / Photo courtesy Rusack
The vines and offerings of Rusack Vineyards / Photo courtesy Rusack

Ballard Canyon

Created: 2013

Varieties: Syrah is king here, and then come the other Rhônes, particularly Grenache and Mourvèdre, as well as the white varieties of Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne.

What to know

This is believed to be the first appellation in the U.S. defined by Syrah. The small band of vintners in this tightly defined region, which connects Los Olivos to both Buellton and Solvang, even created their own specially shaped and embossed estate bottle. The small appellation surrounds a north-south canyon, which offers a bit of protection from the wind and allows Rhône varieties to heat up. Styles differ, from more floral and zesty to richer and riper, but there’s always that peppery spice known to Syrah.

Grenache is also strong here, while Rhône blends that include whites made from a mix of Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne are worthy of attention. It’s a beautiful area to drive or bicycle through, but most of the estates are not open for tasting without appointments. The appellation currently includes 18 vineyards and nine estate wineries, but many other wineries as far away as Paso Robles and the North Coast buy the coveted Ballard Canyon fruit.

Where to taste

The only estate property open to the public is Rusack Vineyards, but it often pours more wines from outside the appellation. Many others, like Larner Vineyard, offer tastings by appointment. Beckmen, which owns Purisima Mountain, is nearby in Los Olivos, while Stolpman has tasting rooms in both Los Olivos and Lompoc.

Los Olivos District

Created: 2015

Varieties: Bordelaise varieties, especially Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon; Rhône varieties; Sangiovese, Tempranillo and more.

What to know

This is Santa Barbara County’s newest appellation, although it was a dream of pioneering vintner Fred Brander for decades. He grows predominantly Sauvignon Blanc as well as some red Bordeaux varieties. Others grow a wider variety in this area that extends from the flanks of Figueroa Mountain all the way to the Santa Ynez River, bookended by the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon appellations. These varieties include typical Rhônes, but also Italian (Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, etc.), Spanish (Tempranillo, Albariño, etc.) and even Austrian grapes like Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch.

Where to taste

The Brander Vineyard is a must for an educational experience and a lot of Sauvignon Blanc, while Buttonwood Farm & Winery is another classic stop. There are dozens of estate wineries, and the towns of Solvang and Los Olivos are home to nearly 70 tasting rooms.

Grassini Family Vineyards' winery, in Happy Canyon / Photo by Montana Dennis
Grassini Family Vineyards’ winery, in Happy Canyon / Photo by Montana Dennis

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

Created: 2009

Varieties: This is primarily Bordeaux country, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

What to know

Happy Canyon is the warmest part of the Santa Ynez Valley, albeit with the same fog and breeze known closer to the coast. Reportedly, it was named after the bootleggers who’d hide out here and sell hooch during Prohibition. Planting ramped up in the late 1990s and the 2000s. The dominant grapes here are Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, with all of the other Bordelaise varieties as well. There’s some Syrah, too.

The estates are all large and rather opulent. Star Lane Vineyard is among the most beautiful properties anywhere, Happy Canyon Vineyard is home to a polo field and Grimm’s Bluff features an invisible-edge pond with views extending to Cachuma Lake. The Sauvignon Blancs range from grassy to nutty, often thanks to Sémillon. The reds are rich, yet often with much more nuance than many other Cab-producing regions.

Some ambitious vintners are betting big on wine here. Roger Bower started Crown Point Vineyards with the hire of Adam Henkel, formerly of Napa’s Harlan Estate. With Philippe Melka as a consultant, Bower has spared no expense in pursuit of a 100-point wine.

Where to taste

There are no traditional tasting rooms allowed in the appellation, due to strict zoning laws. However, most of the estate wineries accommodate visitors with a reservation. The Grassini Family Vineyards experience is particularly enchanting, and its wines can also be tasted in the more urban setting of downtown Santa Barbara. Star Lane wines can be found at the Dierberg family’s tasting room in the Sta. Rita Hills on Highway 246. Happy Canyon Vineyard also has a tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara.

Appellations to Come

Alisos Canyon: An application was submitted recently to designate a small stretch of land along Alisos Canyon Road between Highway 101 and Foxen Canyon Road as a new appellation. This is Syrah country predominantly, with the Thompson Vineyard being especially well-known.

Los Alamos Valley: There’s a lot of Chardonnay grown for big Central Coast brands in this hilly region. It surrounds the hip little foodie town of Los Alamos (“Little L.A.,” as some call it), located between Santa Maria and Buellton. There’s also Syrah, Riesling, Pinot Noir and much more, as its warm days and cool nights are ideal for many varieties.

Foxen Canyon: The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail connects Los Olivos to the Santa Maria Valley via bucolic backroads. It includes iconic producers like Zaca Mesa, Fess Parker and Foxen, whose ownership is related to the area’s pioneer, Benjamin Foxen. Rhône varieties do well, but there’s also Riesling, Sangiovese and more. The historic Rancho Sisquoc grows a bit of everything, including Sylvaner.

Santa Barbara Highlands: This curious slice of high desert in the Cuyama Valley sits in the far northeastern corner of Santa Barbara County. Grapes have been grown here for decades, and the largest chunk is owned and managed by Laetitia Winery. The Rhône varieties are especially sought after, but Cabernet Sauvignon works, too.