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Santa Barbara: Surfing the Wave of Wine in Southern California

From Syrah to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this coastal county has much to offer
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 15, 2011 11:00am ET

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?

Doug Durbin
Ballard —  June 15, 2011 11:28am ET
Agreed - this is a great destination for a "wine vacation". Adding to the list, I'd suggest/urge a stop to Loring's tasting room in Lompoc and Melville as well. Grassini also makes for a special visit and is one of the most gorgeous spots you'll find in the area. Cheers!
Tom & Nancy Brown
Louisville, KY - USA —  June 15, 2011 11:48am ET
I agree with you on this one Tim; lots of food and wine opportunities there. One of the wineries the WS hardly ever features is Firestone near Los Olivos. Their tasting room is a fun place to visit and we've always enjoyed the Firestone Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet as well as their Reserve Merlot.
J P Pecht
West Hollywood, CA —  June 15, 2011 12:07pm ET
Agree with Doug - Loring in Lompoc has some fabulous wine. I'd also recommend Jaffurs in Santa Barbara, which I've been drinking for years.
Matthew Slywka
Seymour, CT —  June 15, 2011 12:29pm ET

Been there once and thoroughly enjoyed the area. One thing that puzzles me is why Melville wines aren't reviewed by Wine Spectator? I think they are the best in the area. Actually perhaps that is a good thing so they keep there prices affordable :)

Matthew Slywka
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  June 15, 2011 12:47pm ET
Thanks for the nice comments, Doug and JP :) The Wine Ghetto in Lompoc is now home to 13 tasting rooms. Definitely NOT fancy, but nice to be able to park and walk to 13 different places.

Los Olivos is another spot to park and walk - with a ton of great tasting rooms and equally great dining options.

Of course, no trip to the area is complete without dinner at The Hitching Post. I travel a LOT, and since I only eat things that had a face, I've eaten in most of the great steak places in the US. And I've yet to find any place that rivals The HP.
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  June 15, 2011 1:06pm ET
I'll add another resounding vote for Loring. His Pinot Noirs (and there are many to try) are superb. He is also doing great things with Chardonnay now as well. Zotovich, who is also in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto is worth checking out too, as is Dragonette in Los Olivos.
Dana Perlman
Los Olivos, CA —  June 15, 2011 1:26pm ET
We discovered the Santa Ynez Valley last year and now call Los Olivos our second home.

In town, we highly recommend the Dragonette Cellars tasting room (Los Olivos). Their wines are amazing and the friendly and knowledgeable staff is wonderful.

Los Alamos is an up and coming area and a great place to start a trip on the Foxen wine trail. Everyone is excited about the upcoming opening of Foxen Farms, which promises to be the place to go for picnics and lunch in the Valley.

As for dinner options, you can't miss with Flatbread for Life (Los Alamos), the Ballard Inn (Ballard) and Root 246 (Solvang), Mattei's Tavern (Los Olivos) or Petros (Los Olivos).
Ryan Pease
Paso Robles, CA —  June 15, 2011 2:05pm ET
Props to Melville, best value for Pinot on the Central Coast, and great Viognier, Syrah, and Chardonnay.
Yale Sager
Chicago, IL, USA —  June 15, 2011 3:57pm ET
Though I enjoyed the article a great deal, I was a bit surprised to see no mention of the first winery since prohibition in Santa Barbara County – Santa Barbara Winery, founded by Pierre Lafond in 1962 - that should really be a part of any historical discussion regarding wines from the region.

Pierre is still alive and actively involved in the business, not to mention still making world-class wines from some of the country’s finest vineyards.
Terry Etherton
State College, PA, USA —  June 15, 2011 5:16pm ET
I would add Tantara to the list...they have great pinot noirs and their syrahs are terrific! It is in Santa Maria,and off the beaten path. In fact, it can be an adventure finding the place. However, it is great fun (schedule the visit) for a tasting.

Relative to your question, Tim, about availability of Santa Barbara wines in PA...it is "grim" at the state-owned stores.
Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  June 15, 2011 8:20pm ET
I'm a huge fan of the Loring pinots and the Longoria Sta Rita Hills as well.
Kristen Kroger
Geneva, Switzerland  —  June 16, 2011 8:54am ET
Kris Curran's Grenache Blanc is unique and consistently excellent.
Denny Kleber
Charlotte NC —  June 16, 2011 9:25am ET
We spent a week touring about 30 wineries in that area last Oct and fell in love with the wines and the area. Grassini was amazing, as was Harrison-Clarke, a small production husband and wife team near the Larner vineyard. Jaffurs has been one of my favorite for several years. Visit Bella Cavalli farms. The wines were very good and the setting on a horse farm was a lot of fun.
Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  June 16, 2011 10:56am ET

Thanks for 'taking note' of our area and our wines. Though I'm a 'relative newbie' to the area, having only been here since 2005, I continue to be amazed and committed to getting on my soapbox and letting whomever will listed about the quality and diversity of the grapes being grown and the wines being produced here in our County.

In many ways, the movie Sideways has proven to be a 'double edged sword' for us - many know our area because of it, and many believe that we are about is Pinot and Chardonnay. As others have mentioned, there is some INCREDIBLE pinots and chardonnays being produced both in the Sta Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley, world class regions in their own rights.

In addition to these grapes, though, an argument could be made that our county is one of the best regions for rhone varieties as well. With climatic and soil extremes from north to south and east to west, microclimates exist that allow us to grow and produce both cool and warm climate versions of these grapes, including syrah and grenache. In addition, there are good plantings of mourvedre (a personal favorite of mine!), counouise, cinsault, carignan, petite sirah and a few other rhone reds. And on the white side, some of the best viogniers and straight grenache blancs are coming out of our area, as well as world class rousannes and marsannes from the likes of Bob Lindquist of Qupe and others.

But the story doesn't end there either. Steve Clifton and a few others have realized that many Italian varieties truly flourish in our area, and Palmina, Mosby and Rancho Sisquoc, among others, are producing really wonderful reds and whites from these grapes, including malvasia bianca, dolcetto, arneis and more.

And if that's not enough, growers in the Happy Canyon AVA, east of Santa Ynez, are quickly turning heads with ever-improving Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc. And I would be remiss to leave out Jonata, with winemaker Matt Dees succeeding in creating great versions of these varieties along Ballard Canyon Road, home to our soon-to-be-latest AVA.

I also should mention the growth in Spanish varieties in our area, too. Louisa Lindquist, Bob's wife, has her Verdad label specializing in Albarino, Tempranillo, and others. And Rick Longoria has been committed to these varieties for some time as well!

So the next time you are along 'the Central Coast', don't forget to leave a few days to explore our area - I'm certain you'll be pleased you did! And feel free to drop me a line - I'd be more than happy to make some suggestions for you.


Larry Schaffer
tercero wines

Vice President, Board of Directors, SB County Vintner's Association

Board of Directors, Rhone Rangers
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 16, 2011 1:36pm ET
Thanks for all the comments.

Yale and Larry, thanks for adding to the wider discussion. It's a challenge to fit all the worthy details in a short blog though I try.

As for Melville, I'm a fan of the wines but with all the hundreds of great bottles out there it's hard to stay current with everyone. Would love to try them more frequently.

And for Loring, you know we can only give Brian so much love before it's embarrassing. (Although well deserved.)
Michael Bennett
Houston, TX —  June 16, 2011 6:00pm ET
I haven't been able to make a wine trip to Santa Barbara County yet but look forward to doing it soon since I'm a huge fan of the wines. I'll have to save this string for all the tips on wineries to visit and places to eat.

I join the compliments of Loring and Melville. Ampelos is another one I love that is a little smaller. If I'm not mistaken, they also have a tasting room in the "Ghetto" in Lompoc. In addition to wonderful Pinots, they make a well-priced Syrah-Granache blend ("Syrache") that's a great crowd pleaser barbecue wine. Smaller yet is Chien, that makes some mouth watering Alsatian and Austrian varietal whites. Not all the SBC wines I like are easy to find locally, but mail order is worth it.
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  June 16, 2011 7:16pm ET
Jaffurs makes a range of tremendous Rhone varietals ranging from Syrah to Rousanne and in a lucky year Grenache Blanc Botrytis or the occasional Grenache-based Rose'. The winery itself is in Santa Barbara and they source the grapes from dedicated blocks in a number of great vineyards.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  June 17, 2011 3:14am ET
Another great trip Tim and great posts by WS constituents as well.
I’d have to agree with Brian and Dana in their foodie selections, especially Mattei's Tavern and Hitching Post. Hitching Post has the best fillet I’ve ever had, but it’s at least a 120 dollar bill for my wife and me and there are other less expensive alternatives nearby that are nearly as good. Jacko’s in Nipomo stands out in my book for value, especially the large steak sandwich which isn’t really a sandwich at all. One of the other great features is the five-dollar corkage fee, but take your own glasses as the ones they provide are not worthy any wine you’d be proud enough to bring. A good place for a burger break when you’re in the ghetto is Tom’s Burgers a short distance into town. They’re the place where “have it your way” is more than just a slogan.
The wine ghetto is a great adjective for the winery tasting area in Lompoc, but the wines are first class! Pinot is the star, but there are defiantly other fine tasting wines to whet your whistle everywhere you turn. Even within the Pinot world there are at least half a dozen styles that each has their own appeal to aficionados. If you take Hwy 246 to or from the ghetto, you’ll find a number of delightful tasting rooms along the way and I’d have to echo the sentiment that viognier in the area is worth giving a try.
One of the stories that hasn’t been written about in quite a while is the way the county has developed winemakers through a sort of informal apprenticeship. A number of the stars of today got a start as an assistant somewhere else in the county. I know that at one time Zaca Mesa seemed to spin out a new star every few years. Good for the industry but difficult for a winery trying to maintain some sort of consistency. I think the feeling of brotherhood among those in the wine industry in this area lends itself to encouraging each other to go for their personal goals and dreams and it seems there are very few that would selfishly hold someone back to advance their own operation.
Anyone planning a visit should try to spend at least a three day weekend to get a feel for what the area has to offer. You could kill one day easily in the ghetto and Hwy 246 alone and find yourself inebriated if you don’t spit, share or exercise some self-control. The same could be said for Los Olivios or the Foxen Canyon trail. I’ve been here for about a year and still haven’t made it everywhere.
As a relative newbie to the area, I would like to ask others who frequent the area if they know where the best Mexican restaurants are? I swear the Mexican food is better in Washington than it is here. The population in the north county is well over fifty percent Hispanic, but they must all be eating at home, or I haven’t found where the best cooks are hanging a shingle. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  June 17, 2011 12:50pm ET
I forgot to chime in on availability of Santa Barbara wines in shops where we live:
Having two residences, one in Santa Maria and the other in the Seattle area, we can testify that the wine availability is just about as diverse and accessible in good wine stores around Seattle as it is in our home in Santa Maria. The difference being that we can jump in the car locally and spin off to a winery and get the non-distributed and some allocated wines more readily in Santa Maria. The same would be true if we were to be talking Washington wines in Santa Barbara County.
It seems that it’s easier to get a good bottle of Santa Barbara wine in Seattle than it is to get a good bottle of Washington wine down here, and that is probably due to the demographics of the population base more than anything else. In Santa Maria there is a large contingent of agricultural workers and people working in support of that industry. It’s not as likely that you’ll find as large a percentage of the population willing to shell out 40-60 bucks or more for a quality bottle of wine and thus there are fewer establishments that cater to wine lovers. I’m sure population itself plays a part too, as there are 100,000+ people in the Santa Maria area and better than ten times that in the Seattle area. There are a far greater number of professionals and well paid industrial workers in the Seattle area as well. The average worker at say Boeing can easily afford to indulge in an occasional 100 dollar plus bottle if wine is something he’s passionate about, and other industries in the area pay close to par with the big companies like Boeing and Microsoft.
There seems to be a larger percentage of the Seattle area interested in experiencing the pleasures of wine too. You can join a wine tasting group just about everywhere you turn, whether at the local wine store or a local gourmet pizza joint or even amongst friends at work. I haven’t seen that in Santa Maria, though I believe it might be different in Santa Barbara or up north in San Luis Obispo.
If there are any industrial magnets reading your blog, tell them to consider Santa Barbara County as a site for their next manufacturing facility. It’s a great place to live and do business and they could surely use some diversity and the employment opportunities. Last time I checked Lompoc (where the wine ghetto is) has an unemployment rate over 16 percent and that doesn’t even take into account the under-employed. Maybe with a few more opportunities in the county the interest would grow.
Gary Cohn
Cardiff by the Sea, Calif. —  June 17, 2011 7:09pm ET
Great article Tim. I am a fan of the Rhone blends and some of my favorites come from Jaffurs, Tensley,& Stolpman. We spent a couple of days there last October & had a terrific time. Living in Southern California means that most of these wines are readily available in my area. However they are generally easy to purchase through the internet to states that allow that type of commerce. I also feel that compared to their European or Australian counterparts they are better drinking and a much better value.
Tom Hailey
Raleigh, NC —  June 18, 2011 11:37pm ET
I have to agree with you 100%, Gary, on Stolpman. My wife and I fell in love with their wines when visiting the tasting room a few years back. Their L'Avion is hands down one of our favorite whites. Seriously, who else stateside makes a Roussanne of this quality? Sadly, I broke my Stolpman stem just the a few nights ago - not only was it linked with some great memories, but it was the perfect shape, to boot!

I'd also like to throw out Margerum as a great producer. Wonderful Syrahs, but some surprisingly good Sauvignan Blanc, as well (and, if you like Sauvignon Blanc, Vogelzang is a great winery to keep an eye on, too!).
Leonard & Terry Korn
Cathedral City, California, USA —  June 21, 2011 8:15am ET
I think everyone else has pretty much mentioned all my favorites, but I have some adds. In the Lompoc wine-ghetto, go to Palmina for Italian varietals. Also go to Beckman for Syrahs (he's between Solvang and Los Olivos). Love the Chardonnay at Foley. And it's always interesting to do a tasting at Curran-DiAlfonso in Solvang. And never ever pass up going to Foxen!

Terry Korn
John M Scherry
Foothill Ranch, California —  June 21, 2011 12:35pm ET
We love this region and especially enjoy the Italian varietals and "pizza wine" from Arthur Earle in Los Olivos.

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