California will always hold a special place in my heart. Although younger than many of our Old World favorites, to me, California has already earned its spot as one of ‘the classics’-- and I only foresee the wines getting better with time. From grape varieties, to growing regions, to a multitude of vineyard sites and microclimates, the variation across the Golden State couldn’t be more exciting. With this month’s TGT, I want to hone in on one of my favorite growing regions of all time: Santa Barbara County.
Santa Barbara may have gained a huge boost in fame from the movie Sideways, but the region’s viticultural significance goes much deeper than just cinema. As with most of California, grapes were first planted in Santa Barbara by missionaries in the late 1700s. Some 250 years later, post Prohibition and two World Wars, the region’s winemaking scene saw a serious revival, becoming a prominent player within the state’s viticultural game. Today, Santa Barbara is home to over 200 wineries!
The larger Santa Barbara region is broken down into six AVAs: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos, and Happy Canyon. Santa Barbara’s most unique and defining geographical characteristic is that it is the longest east to west valley on the Pacific Coast, which is where the film Sideways gets its name from. This distinct layout creates ideal conditions for producing high-quality, cool-climate wines.
Santa Maria Valley became an established AVA back in 1981, making it Santa Barbara’s first designated appellation within the larger Santa Barbara AVA. It was here that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were first planted, creating ageworthy and aromatic wines brimming with zesty acidity. Santa Ynez Valley is spread across 30 miles, making it the largest AVA within Santa Barbara. Los Olivos, a relaxed, ‘old school’ town, is known for its uniform alluvial soils. The Sta. Rita Hills, located in the western part of Santa Ynez, is characterized by calcareous soils, which create Burgundian like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Ballard Canyon is surprisingly dominated by Syrah (50%) and other Rhone varieties, which benefit from large diurnal temperature swings. Happy Canyon is the easternmost AVA within Santa Barbara, characterized by hot temperatures, late-ripening grapes, and dense, fruit-forward wines.
Santa Barbara’s wine regions are found between two mountain ranges, with elevations ranging up to 3,400 feet. This topography allows for a consistently cool climate across the region, with loads of microclimates scattered amongst the various AVAs. Cooling Pacific breezes, as well as fog, penetrate most of the county, with Happy Canyon remaining the warmest of them all. The region’s main soil types range from limestone, to clay loam, to diatomaceous earth (DE). This melting pot of growing conditions creates vastly different wines, each one depicting a serious sense of place.
Over 50 grape varieties are planted in Santa Barbara, though the region is most highly regarded for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The region’s cooler temperatures preserve naturally high acidity within the grapes, leading to elegant, structured wines that are often compared to some of Europe’s best. Santa Barbara has also become a hotbed for Rhone varieties (Grenache, Syrah, and Viognier), as well as a smattering of Bordeaux varieties. Even Sangiovese, Pinot Gris, and Riesling are finding a home within the region! When it comes to California, there’s always something new to be discovered.
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier
Sandhi Chardonnay Santa Barbara County, 2016
Founded in 2010 by Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman, Sandhi embraces the ‘union essential for wine production’: man, earth, and vine. For Parr and Moorman, these three elements must work together in harmony to create great wine. Sandhi sources fruit from both new and old vineyards, each one deeply analyzed and selected for personality and balance. Fruit for their Santa Barbara County Chardonnay comes from vineyard sites in the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley, from vines averaging 30 years in age. Post-harvest, the must is vinified and aged in used oak. The final wine shows flavors of lemon, toast, and minerals, with zesty acidity giving way to a lingering finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: Old World elegance meets New World fruit in this thirst-quenching, delicious bottle. Rich yet restrained, the wine pairs gorgeously with roast chicken, creamy pasta sauces, and fresh seafood dishes.
Railsback Frères Rouge Santa Ynez Valley, 2016
Founded in 2015 by brothers Eric and Lyle Railsback, this namesake winery was inspired by the insanely ageworthy and drinkable wines of Domaine Tempier, as well as a handful of other southern French and Corsican producers within the Kermit Lynch book. The 2016 ‘Rouge’ is a 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache, fermented 25% whole-cluster, and aged for 14 months in neutral French oak. The final wine is dark and juicy, with notes of ripe berries, black fruits, and earthy spice.
PAIRING IDEAS: This savory, dark-fruited wine pairs beautifully with roasted red meats and black bean veggie burgers, thanks to its well-integrated tannins and energetic, acid-driven finish.
Presqu'ile Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County, 2017
Located in the heart of the Santa Maria Valley, Presqu’ile Winery produces cool-climate wines from a variety of sustainably certified vineyard plots that cover nearly 30 hectares across Santa Barbara County. The winery seeks to emphasize the unique personality behind each vineyard and vintage, highlighting elegance and balance within every bottle produced. Their Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir oozes with flavors of red fruit and earth, showing notes of juicy cherry, ripe raspberries, dried citrus, and spice, balanced by well-integrated tannins.
PAIRING IDEAS: The wine’s vibrant acidity and silky, approachable tannins make this bottle insanely versatile on the table. We recommend serving it alongside game, sautéed mushrooms, or burgers on the grill.
Black Sheep Finds 'Genuine Risk' Red Blend, 2017
Black Sheep Finds was created by Peter Hunken and Amy Christine back in 2005, after a long, inspirational hike through Santa Barbara. Hunken, a co-founder of Piedrasassi and Holus Bolus Wines, formerly worked as the Assistant Winemaker at Stolpman Vineyards, also located in Santa Barbara. ‘Genuine Risk’ gets its name from a local hometown hero: a former Kentucky Derby winning horse, raised down the street from the vineyard! The exact blend of this wine changes each year depending on the quality and condition of the vintage. The 2016 blend is comprised of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Syrah, showing spicy, balanced flavors of soft dark fruits and wet earth.
PAIRING IDEAS: This spicy yet succulent wine is delicious with a variety of grilled meats and roasted veggies, as well as red bean chili.