Ask anyone living or visiting Santa Barbara County, and they’ll tell you the same thing: There’s something special about the region.
Maybe it’s the way the Santa Ynez Mountains run east to west and somewhere in between come down to meet the ocean. Or perhaps it’s the air? Naturally perfumed with florals and sea salt. Or maybe it’s the palm trees set against majestic Spanish architecture that dot the small towns within the region.
“I always fly in and out of Santa Barbara airport, and every time I get off the plane, there’s this aroma of jasmine and ocean air. I know I’m home,” says Chad Melville, the head winegrower at Melville Winery. “It’s just something so incredibly magical about the area, the architecture, the mountains.”
Certainly the wine plays a part. There’s plenty of it produced across Santa Barbara County, including the Sta. Rita Hills appellation where Melville and his family make Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. And where there is wine, there is opportunity.
Young and independent winemakers are carving out space for themselves within Santa Barbara’s wine country, and as a result, the region’s list of designated American Viticultural Areas is expanding. In 2020, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved Los Alisos Canyon as a defined winemaking region in Santa Barbara, joining it to Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, Happy Canyon, and Sta. Rita Hills.
There’s a sense of new energy surging across the county.
A land made for wine
Santa Barbara has been prime winemaking real estate long before vines were planted commercially at Nielson Wines, in 1964. Mexican priest, Father Junipero Serra, is credited with bringing the first grape cuttings to California and planting Mission grapes in Santa Barbara in 1782.
Long before any of that, tectonic events, from tens of millions of years ago, gave Santa Barbara a geological structure and climate that would prove to be optimal for winemaking.
The region is essentially squished between the Transverse Mountain Ranges, which run east to west instead of north to south. Vineyard elevations across the long mountain ranges are as high as 200 feet in the valley to 3,400 feet in the hillsides. The mountains’ close proximity to the ocean is a major influence on the climate across Santa Barbara; the area receives constant wind in the afternoon and fog in the mornings and evenings that shapes the grapes’ acidity and tannic structure. The predictability of the weather also makes it easy to plan for the harvest.
The climate in Santa Barbara is what sparked the Melville family’s interest in growing grapes in Sta. Rita Hills. “There’s this cold motion current that comes all the way down from Alaska and regulates our temperature. It’s sunny, but it’s cool, and it’s windy,” says Melville, noting that each AVA is diverse in its climate. If you head east toward Santa Ynez and into Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, and Los Olivos District, temperatures will often feel a bit warmer.
Then there are the soils: alternating layers of marine sediments like sandstone, shale, and the occasional diatomaceous earth, that looks and feels similar to chalk, though chemically, it’s completely different. But it’s all well drained despite sometimes being low-nutrient, which Melville says can be a good thing.
“You want your environment to work hard. You don’t want it to be lazy and over-producing. You want vines that are kind of on the edge, because then they produce a small amount of really intense fruit,” he says.
While Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are considered regional classics, experimentation is on the rise.
“I feel like there’s a lot of different varieties being planted these days. Here in Santa Maria valley, we stick with the classics because that’s what does really well. But in the whole of Santa Barbara, people are having fun with different things like Gamay, Chenin Blanc, and different pét-nats,” says Jill Russell, winemaker at Cambria Estate Winery. “There’s a lot of room to grow in this region and kind of stand out on your own,” she adds.
Jessica Gasca of Story of Soil experimented with 2020 vintages of Gamay and Grüner Veltliner at her winery in Los Olivos. Both bottlings quickly sold out. Trousseau, a grape that is more commonly found in eastern France, is making an appearance, with sommelier and winemaker, Rajat Parr, testing out a pale pink pét-nat under his Combe label.
“It’s hard to get going in this business,” says Greg Brewer, founder and winemaker at Brewer-Clifton, a leading winery in the region that’s been around since the mid-1990s. “We started this one with $12,000. That type of storyline is possible. It just takes some grit and perseverance and creativity and tough skin.”
As someone who helped map some of the first AVAs in Santa Barbara, Brewer is happy about the attention the region is receiving. It also helps, he says, that winemakers are showing interest in making wine in a Burgundian style.
All the energy is inspiring wineries, like Cambria, to play around a little bit more with their own vines. In its more than 30 years of existence, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been the main source of fruit at Cambria vineyards, but more recently, about seven acres of the estate was turned over to Viognier and Syrah.
“We know that’s what works really well for us, but it doesn’t hurt to think about the future and maybe try some different things along the way,” Russell says.
A wine lover’s playground
The region as a whole is also growing thanks to new restaurants and hotels popping up all over the area.
“We need it. There’s so many small wineries here that completely rely on tourism. As a county, we don’t distribute our wines as widely as other counties do, like Sonoma or Napa maybe. So we really do rely on the influx of tourism,” says Tyler Thomas, president and winemaker of Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards.
With farm-to-table restaurants opening in the region as well as new tasting rooms placing an emphasis on Santa Barbara wines, there is a chance for even greater exposure. “It’s a great time to visit. So many new restaurants are coming in, and it helps inspire us as winemakers to really think about where our wine is going to be. It all goes back to knowing where your food comes from, knowing the farmer, and knowing the winemaker,” says Russell.
As the pandemic prevented people from traveling overseas, some set their eyes on Santa Barbara. At Dierberg and Star Lane, Thomas says foot traffic at the winery noticeably increased when California’s social distancing restrictions were lifted and guests were able to gather outside. Many visitors took the two-hour drive up from Southern California.
With new lodging options available, the growth will likely continue. In 2020, Auberge Resorts Collection announced plans to reimagine the beloved Inn at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos. It hasn’t reopened just yet, but the ritzy resort is expected to attract high-end clientele. Meanwhile, the new Palihouse hotel is welcoming visitors on a daily basis, as is Mar Monte Hotel.
At its core, though, Santa Barbara’s focus will remain on the wine. “Whether you’re just getting into wine and you’re on the early side of that journey, or you’re a full-on aficionado and doing deeper dives into wine, you can find something here,” says Thomas.
4 wines to try:
Cambria Estate Winery has been a sustainable winery, focusing on single vineyard wines since Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke bought the property in 1986. Most of the grapes are sourced from Cambria’s biggest vineyards, named after the couple’s daughters, Katherine and Julia, who now serve as proprietors of the family company. This 2017 offering displays red fruit characters but gets a savory kick from notes of baking spice.
The fruit for this Syrah comes exclusively from Melville’s Sta. Rita Hills vineyard, from different Syrah clones — which means five different expressions of Syrah. Only 60% of the wine is de-stemmed with the other 40% whole cluster, where the whole grape bunch is pressed, stems and all, adding more complexity to the final wine. The wine spends about 35 days resting with total skin and stem contact before it is pressed and sent to neutral barrels for fermenting.
If the aromas of jasmine and lychee jumping out of the bottle don’t entice you, then perhaps knowing this wine was produced by Greg Brewer, who was named the Wine Enthusiast’s 2020 Winemaker of the Year, will persuade you to give it a try. The grapes for this citrusy whole cluster Chardonnay were grown on a two-acre plot in the sandiest portion of Brewer-Clifton’s Machado vineyard. The wine is fermented in neutral barrels to promote its bright and elegant taste.
Although this wine is predominately made with Cabernet Sauvignon, a splash of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec were included in the 2017 vintage to help balance out the texture. It’s one of Star Lane’s most fruit-forward Cabs and displays plenty of bright red cherry characters, along with the blueberry nuances the winery’s Cabernets are known for.