Santa Barbara County is the southern half of California’s Central Coast wine region. It takes in almost 10,000 km2 moving north from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria and then inland from there. It combines stunning beauty, from gorgeous coastlines to beautiful interior rolling hills. And as we recently discovered, it is making some outstanding wines at very fair prices.
Santa Barbara County (SBC) has within its borders 5 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon. Each of these AVAs enjoys a distinct climate, even though they border each other over a span of maybe 40 miles. The key to understanding this diversity of micro climates in such close proximity is to understand the unique mountain ranges that exist there.
The Coast Mountain Range, runs in a north-south direction from British Columbia all the way down to California and in fact carries right through South America. Suddenly it makes a right-hand turn in Santa Barbara County and takes an east-west orientation there. This transverse aspect is unique in all of both North America and South America. What it means to the regions climate is that rather than having the mountains block the Pacific Ocean and its influences, the mountain leave the region open to the ocean and act as a passage that allows the cool pacific breeze to enter the region and travel the length of the county. As the Pacific Ocean air travels along this passage, it warms up, and quite quickly. As the cool air moves inland it picks up about one degree Fahrenheit for every mile it travels. Consequently, the western-most AVA, Santa Rita Hills will often have day time temperatures that are over 20 degrees lower than the eastern most AVA, Happy Canyon Valley.
Early morning fog is a regular feature of Santa Barbara County and its cooling influence is a welcome feature to grape growers. Even at its furthest eastern reaches some of that cooling influence can be felt. Whereas in the west, the ocean moderates the climate and keeps a relatively consistent cool climate character to the region, in the eastern parts it serves increase diurnal temperature swings as the night and early morning remain cool but as the fog blows off, afternoon temperatures can become quite hot.
This climatic diversity allows for a diversity of grapes to be grown in SBC. The two most westerly regions are Santa Rita Hills in the south and Santa Maria Valley in the north. Being closest to the Pacific Ocean they see the coolest temperatures and so the Burgundian varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir do best there. The Pinot Noirs from these AVAs have especially received praise and are helping to advance recognition for the whole county. These are the AVAs where Jack and Miles got up to their hijinks in the book/movie “Sideways”.
Further inland sits the Santa Ynez Valley, the largest AVA that is bordered by Santa Rita Hills to the west, Happy Canyon to the east and has Ballard Canyon at its center. Here the temperatures have moved up a bit and this warmth allows the Rhone varieties of Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre of the reds and Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne of the white to flourish.
Ballard Canyon has been recognized as its own separate AVA due to the distinct wind, soil, drainage, geology and weather there. This allows it do well with many varieties but its reputation is particularly hinged to Syrah.
Finally, the furthest east is perhaps the least known AVA of Happy Canyon. Based upon some of the wines we tasted when we were there, we don’t think it will be long before this AVA gets more of the recognition it so richly deserves. Being the warmest AVA, it does particularly well with the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Some of the Rhone varieties are found there as well.
It is a rarity in the wine world to find such differences in terroir all in one area. But that is the magic of Santa Barbara County. One of the great ways to take in all of the diversity of Santa Barbara County is to stop in and taste at The Valley Project, an educational, hip-looking and fun tasting room in the Funk Zone district of Santa Barbara. The Valley project is the recent creation of the husband and wife team of Seth Kunin and Magan Eng. Since 1998 they have been making Syrah and Viognier at Kunin wines, whose equally cool tasting room is just around the corner, down near the beach. They conceived the Valley Project to make wine from each of the different AVAs in SBC and to let people learn about the diversity of the region as they enjoy its wines.
When we tasted there they had a complete array of wines that touched each variety and each AVA within the county, all made in very small batches by Seth. The central feature of the tasting room is the huge chalk board that extends probably 20 feet up to the ceiling. The chalkboard has on it a map of Santa Barbara County showing each of its AVAs and also showing the mountains and the gap they create to the pacific, how the air flows and the temperature rises and which varieties are grown where. It is an amazing schematic and tells you everything you need to know about the climate and the viticulture of the entire region. It is quite an accomplishment to explain all of that diversity and complexity in a single drawing.
Santa Barbara County is a wine tourist’s paradise. It has physical beauty and it is very accessible. The wine country of Santa Ynez Valley is only an hour’s drive from downtown Santa Barbara. It has a tremendous diversity of wines and, at least for now, at very fair prices. Hopefully as it gets discovered, as has already begun and will no doubt continue, those fair prices will not change too much. It is also very accessible, with lots of flight options and only a 90 minute drive from Los Angeles. And of course, it is home to some spectacular wines. You will see some reviews of those wines in up-coming posts on AdVINEtures. We will be heading back soon!