Traffic jams and tasty waves aren’t the only things Southern California has to offer. Northern California may be better represented on wine shelves around the country, but southern regions like Santa Barbara County—within a two- to three-hour drive of downtown Los Angeles—have been on wine lovers’ radar for years.
The movie Sideways gave Santa Barbara its due, particularly its Pinot Noir producers, but this sizable county— larger than Napa and Sonoma counties combined—is a diverse wine region for both red and white wines. Most often you’ll find the region represented in restaurants or on wine shelves by established labels like Sanford, Zaca Mesa, Foxen and Qupé. Harder to find but worth seeking out are the newer players such as Tensley, Dierberg, Brewer-Clifton and McPrice Myers. (See more specific recommendations below.)
Winemaking in Santa Barbara dates at least to the 18th century, when the Franciscan priests planted vines for sacramental wine, but the modern era dates to the 1960s, when locals were spurred by UC Davis and the Christian Brothers Winery to plant the first new vines since Prohibition. The winegrowing regions are generally nearer the coastline, while the eastern interior is mostly mountainous. Los Olivos, about 130 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, is one of the main hubs of wine country.
A wine bottle from the region may not say it’s from Santa Barbara, at least on the front label. Many wineries identify their wines by designating one of the county’s four growing regions, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Santa Maria Valley is the oldest, approved in 1981, and soon followed by Santa Ynez Valley. The other two AVAs, Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, fall within Santa Ynez Valley.
One fact about Santa Barbara County I’ve always found intriguing: The valleys run east-west instead of the more typical north-south orientation found along coastal California. That means that even though Santa Barbara often runs warmer than other coast regions like Sonoma County, it benefits from the unobstructed flow of cool air and wind-swept fog that extends well into the interior from the Pacific.
Chardonnay thrives throughout the regions, while Syrah and other Rhône varietals shine in the inland warm areas. Pinot Noir does well in Santa Maria Valley and can be particularly impressive from the Sta. Rita Hills. There’s something about grapes grown in those shallow, rocky hillsides that appeals to me. There’s a unique intensity of flavors balanced by elegance and crisp acidity.
I explore the area whenever I can; driving along the rolling hills and country roads is an instant vacation. You’ll find good values, like Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2009 ($17), which has pretty apple and spicy melon flavors and I rated 88 points, non-blind, and Big House Syrah Santa Barbara County The Slammer 2007 ($12). There are also collectibles such as Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills Melville Vineyard 2008 ($50) and Jonata Syrah Santa Ynez Valley La Sangre de Jonata 2007 ($125).
I’ve only touched on a handful of the region’s top wines and producers. WineSpectator.com members can read full tasting notes and see scores for other Santa Barbara wines by using our Wine Ratings Search to find wines from Santa Maria, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez or Happy Canyon.
Have you tried the wines of Santa Barbara County? Do you have a favorite? Are the wines hard to find in your area of the country?