With a beautiful mixture of vineyards, farms, ranches, beaches and mountains, Santa Barbara County has everything you would want in a definitive wine country destination.
Located less than two hours north of Los Angeles on Highway 101, the original Mission grapes were planted in the region by Father Junipero Serra in 1782, now the charming historic city of Santa Barbara. The first winery was constructed in 1804 near the coastal town of Goleta. And by the late 1800s, the county was home to 45 wineries and world’s largest vine, La Vina Grande, which measured 9 feet in circumference when it was removed in 1915.
Following Prohibition, most of the vineyards and wineries were replaced with cattle, fruit trees, produce, and grain crops. But that started to change in the 1960s when viticulture pioneers started to investigate the possibilities of planting grapes in the northern part of the county between Point Conception, and the border of San Luis Obispo County. This represents the largest east-west traverse of shoreline from Alaska to Cape Hope.
The first entrepreneurs to take the plunge were Uriel Nielson and Bill DeMattei who began developing a large-scale commercial vineyard in the Tepusquet region of Santa Maria Valley. This occurred in the early 1960s. In 1962, Frenchman Pierre Lafond opened Santa Barbara Winery, the first since Prohibition. In the early 1970s, the movement exploded as newcomers and locals began planting grape vines on the benchlands and hillsides. They included spectacular vineyards such as Sanford & Benedict, Firestone, Zaca Mesa, and Bien Nacido, which are now known for cultivating the special cool-climate varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. After these premium sites were established in the early 1980s, new emphasis was placed on working with heartier red grape varieties brought over from France, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula in the warmer inland regions of Santa Ynez Valley.
As years passed, the success of these vineyards has attracted a new breed of talented young winemakers to the region, as well as more high-profile producers from the Central Coast and Northern California, which purchase fruit from this premier region. In 2004, these achievements were featured in Sideways, a dynamic wine-savvy movie filmed in Santa Barbara County. As a result, the tourism in the area has more than doubled over the past decade.
Today, the county features five unique appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, as well as special sub-regions that include Los Olivos, Los Alamos Valley and Santa Maria Bench. Offshore, grapes are also grown on Santa Cruz Island.
Whites: Since the 1960s, Chardonnay has been the dominant white grape planted in the county. After early experimentation with Riesling and Gewürztraminer, the new focus has shifted towards successful plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Italian and French Rhone varieties over the past two decades.
Reds: There is no doubt that Pinot Noir is the stately red grape grown in Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills appellations. But over the past 25 years, there has also been strong growth in newer plantings of Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Teroldego and Primitivo in the warmer interior regions of the county.
White Wines: The Chardonnays from the coastal areas have deep flavors of tropical fruits, peach, citrus, mineral, and bright acidity. Overall, they are clean, elegant styles of wine with persistent flavors and bright natural acidity. Generally, the Sauvignon Blancs are very aromatic with notes of melon, gooseberry, kiwi, citrus, mineral, and racy acidity. Italian varietals like Pinot Grigio, Arneis, Cortese, Tocai Friulano tend to be more floral with bright flavors of white peach, melon, and fresh stone fruits. While the Rhone varietals of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc are equally captivating with aromas of spring flowers, ripe fruits and wet stone; flavors of apricot, peach, lychee, citrus; and lovely texture. Many of these white grapes are also used to make a fantastic range of admirable dessert wines.
Red Wines: The Pinot Noirs in Santa Maria Valley are elegant and sophisticated, with bright acidity and deep flavors of cherry, plum and strawberry (one of the major fruit crops grown in the sandy soils at the base of the valley). Whereas the Pinots made with fruit from Sta. Rita Hills are often more concentrated with deep flavors of blackberry, dark cherry, raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate. The young and affordable wines are bright and perky; while the higher-end wines are more complex and often need a little time to breathe in a glass or decanter. With all these styles now available, Santa Barbara County is now a true Pinot Noir force to be reckoned with from the United States.
Same is true with the other red wines. For Rhone varietals, Zaca Mesa is home of the oldest Syrah vineyard in the Central Coast. And as time has proved, the vineyards planted in the warmer regions tend to be big and meaty interpretations of the grape variety, with deep flavors of dark fruits and savory spices. In contrast, wines made with cooler climate fruit from Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley have more emphasis on floral aromas, flavors of red berries, blue fruits, elegant texture, and subtle spices. Like Zaca Mesa, many of the other producers that work with Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and other Rhone varietals also make fresh, flavorful rose wines which are tangy and dry.
In the more full-bodied category, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux-style blends from Happy Canyon are highlighted by deep, concentrated flavors of ripe berries, dark cherry, red currant, mulberry, mineral, balance and structure. Same is true with the Italian and Iberian varieties that perform extremely well in the warm Mediterranean climates in the deep parts of the region to produce wines with lively and intense flavors, which rank up there with some of the finest styles made in the US.
For cuisine, think about white wines with oysters, appetizers, and frittatas, salads with citrus-based dressings, and grilled fish and poultry. For reds, the Pinot Noir pairings range from fancy mushroom pizzas on wood-fired ovens, salmon, pomegranate chicken, roasted pork, and complex cheeses. And the bigger the red wines are fantastic with eggplant parmesan, pasta, pork, lamb, and meats slowly roasted in the classic Santa Maria style that is done on a grill with oak, instead of charcoal, and rubbed with local spices.