With micro-climates that suit everything from Pinot and Riesling to Cab and Syrah, it’s perhaps no wonder that Santa Barbara is a magnet for some of the most exciting winemakers in the world. Louis Villard picks out the AVAs and growers that should be on your radar
SANTA RITA HILLS AVA
Santa Rita Hills AVA is the jewel in the crown of Santa Barbara County. There is much about this interesting region
that makes it unique compared with the rest of California, most notably the mountain range that runs east to west rather than along the coast, creating a valley that has a wind tunnel-like influence from the Pacific Ocean.
Mornings are often quite chilly and foggy, but this burns off in the late morning, allowing the temperature to rise for a few hours, only for the on-shore winds to start cooling the whole area down again. The soil, too, has a marine influence, with quite a bit of calcium and patches of limestone.
Currently, there are 2,800 acres of vines planted within this 30,700-acre appellation. Here, Pinot Noir is king, with 2,250 acres planted, along with 500 acres of Chardonnay, a mere 43 acres of Syrah (the very rare bottlings are superb), and tiny amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
Sanford & Benedict was the first vineyard, planted back in the early 1970s, and it is still producing some of the AVA’s best fruit today. Other vineyards of note include La Encantada, La Rinconada and Fiddlestix. Also look out for Sebastiano, Dierberg, Melville, Zotovich, Wenzlau, Fe Ciega and Sea Smoke.
As well as these established greats, a group of relatively young winemakers is also changing the future of the region. Local Justin Willett of Tyler Winery is creating distinct wines with flawless precision. Look out for his La Encantada Chardonnay and his Dierberg Pinot.
Gavin Chanin of Lutum and his own-label Chanin Wines cut his teeth working in the shared cellar of Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist – two of Santa Barbara County’s most legendary pioneers – where he learnt to worship at the altar of lower alcohol and balance in wine.
Garnering international kudos, meanwhile, are the dynamic duo of ex-sommelier Raj Parr and winemaker Sashi Moorman, who are producing wines for the Sandhi label as well as Domaine de la Côte.
Dragonette Cellars’ Brandon Sparks-Gillis sources classic grapes from all over the region, including excellent wines from Santa Rita Hills. Not as lean as styles from the producers above, they are, nonetheless, making very exciting, clean and flavourful wines.
As well as these established greats, a group of young winemakers is changing the future of the region
Also worth a look are Wenzlau Vineyards’ distinctively direct Pinot and Chardonnay, and Zotovich Cellars, which has an excellent northern Rhône-style Santa Rita Hills Syrah.
There has also been a recent trend for producing sparkling wine from Santa Rita Hills. It is very expensive to make and therefore only produced in very small quantities, but do keep an eye out for it. Sandhi, Wenzlau, Sanford and Brewer-Clifton are all making superb styles.
SANTA MARIA VALLEY AVA
Santa Maria is the most northern appellation in the Santa Barbara County region and, like Santa Rita Hills, is greatly influenced by its close proximity to the Pacific. This is a cool-climate area, too – warmer than Santa Rita Hills by only a few degrees, with plenty of Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah.
The most famous vineyard by far is Bien Nacido, a Shangri-La setting of vines that covers a small valley in one of the coolest parts of the area. The vineyard is one of the oldest in the Santa Barbara County, first planted in the 1970s. Now encompassing more than 900 acres, it still has a lot of the vines from the original planting.
Purchasers of Bien Nacido fruit reads like a who’s who of the California wine scene: from the cult winemaker Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non fame, through the ever jovial Jim Clendenen, founder of Au Bon Climat, to the younger generation Gavin Chanin and Justin Willet.
Just south-west of Bien Nacido you’ll find relative newcomer Presqu’ile Winery, a 75-acre property that’s producing some truly stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyard was planted on a relatively sandy hill in 2007, on a slope that faces the Pacific Ocean, meaning that it’s able to reap the rewards of all the cool sea air.
HAPPY CANYON AVA
When Santa Barbara’s first vineyards were planted in the 1970s, Cabernet was the go-to grape. Growers soon discovered that the central part of the main Santa Barbara County AVA was far too cool to ripen the Bordeaux varieties, and it wasn’t until a few decades later that winemakers saw the potential for Bordeaux grapes in the warmest, easternmost area.
Now its own AVA, Happy Canyon has more than 500 acres of vines planted, with Cabernet the most popular, closely followed by Merlot. However, for many, the exceptionally bright, citrusy and rich Sauvignon Blancs are the stars, with a flavour profile quite distinct from those elsewhere in the state.
During the day it is hot in Happy Canyon, usually around 35ºC, sometimes reaching 40ºC, while at night it cools down considerably. This shift helps retain acids during the ripening period, thus allowing for crisp fruit flavours to develop. Names to look out for include Grassini, Star Lane and Vogelzang.
BALLARD CANYON AVA
Ballard Canyon is one of the newer AVAs in the region and has quickly developed as the local home for Rhône grapes. There are roughly 540 acres planted but with a sub-appellation encompassing 7,800 acres there’s plenty of room to expand.
Ballard Canyon sits between the cooler coastally influenced region of Santa Rita Hills and the eastern furnace of Happy Canyon, and the mild temperature suits Rhône grapes down to the ground. Syrah makes up more than half the vines grown, with Grenache coming in second.
When the first vineyards were planted, Cabernet Sauvignon was the go-to grape
Currently, there are 18 different growers. Vineyard names to look out for are Stolpman, Beckmen, Jonata, Rusack, Larner and Harrison Clarke. There are similar characteristics to the Syrah grown throughout the region: an intriguing blueberry scent pops up in a lot of the wines, and there’s a lovely savoury quality, rich dense fruit and some mineral/limestone characteristics.
Where's to watch
From locals to long-haul travellers, Santa Barbara has a range of inspiring winemakers. Here are Imbibe’s top six...
A Tribute to Grace
Kiwi-born Angela Osborne makes only Grenache, and she has seven single vineyard bottlings sourced from all over California. She, too, is non-intrusive in the winery, producing lower-alcohol styles. Look out for the wine from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard – full of wild raspberry, sagebrush and dark cocoa.
Municipal Winemakers and Potek Winery
Both owned by California-born Dave Potter. Municipal is a ‘drink now’ sort of project. Young, vibrant wines with funky names such as Bright White and Fizz. Potter sources obscure grapes for Municipal, making 100% Counoise and Cinsault, virtually unheard of in these parts. Potek is more serious, with classic varieties sourced from single vineyards.
Roark Wine Company
Texas-born Ryan Roark is a free spirit. Although he doesn’t want to be considered a Loire-style winemaker, he’s very much going against his own wishes. Roark makes three different Chenin Blancs and a Sauvignon Blanc as well as a Cabernet Franc; he also makes a Malbec to throw some contrast into the mix. Roark is very strict about performing all of the farming duties on all of the vineyards that he leases himself. This gives him total control of his fruit and, ultimately, his desired natural style of winemaking.
Ernst Storm is a rare South African in Southern California. Coming from a pedigree wine family,
his brother Hannes Storm is the famed winemaker at Hamilton Russell in South Africa. Not to be outdone by that, Ernst is making wines under his own label and concentrating on single-block Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
Another home-grown winemaker, Graham Tatomer spent some time working in Austria before coming back to Santa Barbara County and concentrating all his efforts on dry Riesling (which is usually made sickly sweet in this area) and some Grüner Veltliner (which, as you can guess, no one else makes). His efforts with both of these grapes are exemplary.
Started in 1985 by another Santa Barbara pioneer, Chris Whitcraft, the winery is now run by Chris’s son Drake. Under the tutelage of his now late father and family friend Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem, Drake is producing some of Santa Barbara’s purest wines. His boast is that he has no electrical equipment in his winery, not even a pump, and is completely hands-off. No yeast, no enzymes and very little, if any, sulphur. Chardonnay is probably Whitcraft’s best effort but his Pinot, Syrah and very limited amount of Grenache are all of a high quality.