Getting To Know “The Other” Wine Country: Santa Barbara

For years, when someone said they were going to wine country for the weekend, they meant Napa or Sonoma. After all, it’s a short drive from San Francisco and an easy flight from Los Angeles.

Now, however, when people say they are going to wine country for the weekend, perhaps they mean Santa Barbara. A short flight from San Francisco and a beautiful drive along the coast from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara wine country, about an hour from the city of Santa Barbara, is no longer a “fly over” region. Wines, combined with the sunshine and the ocean, make Santa Barbara wine country a worthwhile destination.

Starting with the first vines planted in the Santa Maria Valley in the 1960s, through vineyard expansion in the 1970s and 1980s, new winemakers chose to set their roots, literally and figuratively, in the untapped Central Coast.

One of the early pioneers to the region was Richard Sanford. With a background in geography, Sanford, who had just returned from the Vietnam War, was looking for an appropriate place to grow pinot noir.

In the late 1960s only a few vineyards had been planted in what is now the Santa Maria Valley. As he was driving up and down the coast, he found the Central Coast to have the ideal climate, soils and exposure. Due to the Santa Ynez River, the soil was composed of sedimentary deposits that were weathered and well-drained. But, there was also something else that made this area distinctive.

As a result of moving tectonic plates, the mountains between Santa Barbara and San Diego counties run east-west (most mountain ranges run north-south), making it one of the most complex set of mountain ranges in North America. In fact, this is the most clearly delineated east-west transverse range from Alaska to Chile on the Pacific Coast.

The consequence of the transverse range is that the ocean breeze flows eastward into the valleys. The outcome is warm temperatures during the day and cool temperatures at night for the western wine regions and more moderate temperatures as you head further east. In fact, for every mile that you travel from west to east, it gets a degree warmer, impacting the character of the vineyards.

With diverse microclimates and soils ranging from diatomaceous earth to limestone, Santa Barbara wine country has evolved and expanded. In 1981, Santa Maria Valley was recognized as the first official AVA in the area, followed by Santa Ynez Valley in 1983. Today there are five federally recognized AVAs, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Ballard Canyon.

Santa Maria Valley
The first officially approved AVA in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria is the northernmost region. The transverse mountain ranges create a funnel between the San Rafael Mountains to the north and the Solomon Hills to the south. This funnel brings cool winds from the north and warm winds from the south, resulting in consistent average temperatures of 64 degrees in the valley. The cool temperatures result in a long growing season with early bud break and long hang time. It is an area primarily dedicated to chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as cool-climate syrah. The area produces wines with acid and tension but also great fruit.

Santa Ynez Valley
The Santa Ynez Valley AVA is home to the largest concentration of wineries. An east-west corridor that covers more than 30 miles (77,000 acres), it was the second AVA designated in the area. Although there are more than 60 different varietals planted, Fred Brander, one of the pioneers of the area and often called the “King of Sauvignon Blanc,” recognized the somewhat Goldilocks climate for Bordeaux varietals. It is not too hot and not too cold but just right to produce graceful wines.

Over the years, winemakers recognized the diversity of this vast region that was cooler to the west and hotter to the east and three sub-appellations (Santa Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Ballard Canyon) were designated.

Santa Rita Hills
Located on the far western end of the Santa Ynez corridor, Santa Rita Hills, which became an AVA in 1996, is between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton with Purisima Hills on the north and Santa Rosa Hills on the South. Due to the proximity to the ocean, the marine influence brings in early morning fog and afternoon ocean breezes. The first vines were planted in 1971 by Richard Sanford in the Sanford and Benedict vineyard and today the road is lined with vineyards specializing in pinot noir and chardonnay. The primarily sand, silt and clay loams, as well as marine deposits and long growing season with early bud break result in wines with spice, density and natural acidity balanced with firm structure.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Located at the far eastern edge of the Santa Ynez valley, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara received its AVA status in 2009. The smallest AVA in Santa Barbara experiences hotter temperatures and a mineral terroir perfect for Bordeaux varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc). Winemaker Kathy Joseph, who produces pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills and sauvignon blanc from Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, explained that the “warm days help ripen the fruit to be more fruit based on the flavor spectrum and the cool evenings, with the fog rolling in, preserve the acidity in the fruit for great balance in the wine.”

Ballard Canyon
Ballard Canyon, the most recent AVA, as of Oct. 30, 2013, is located in the center of the Santa Ynez valley. Encompassing only 7,700 acres, it accounts for only 10 percent of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. First planted in 1974 by Gene Hallock (Ballard Canyon Winery, which is now Rusack Vineyards), there was a boom in the 1990s when Stolpman, Beckmen, Harrison, Larner and Saarloos planted vineyards, followed by Jonata and Tierra Alta. What they all had in common was that they planted Syrah and today more than half of the north-south oriented canyon is planted to Syrah, with an additional 30 percent of acres planted to other Rhone varietals including Grenache, Viognier and Roussanne. As Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards expresses, “Ballard Canyon is the new home of Syrah. You don’t have to overwork it; it performs steadily year after year and flavors are consistent.”

Pending AVAs
There are two new pending appellations which will further define Santa Barbara Wine Country: Los Olivos District, the area between Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon of Santa Ynez, and Los Alamos, north of Santa Ynez and south of Santa Maria.

Get to know this “other” wine country. Whether in your local wine shop or restaurant or on your next weekend getaway, explore Santa Barbara.

In fact, a great way to get to know Santa Barbara wine country is with the “Key to Wine Country Weekend,” which takes place Dec 5-7. Buy a Key for $100 and receive unlimited tastings, experiences and special offers at participating wineries. More information is available at

Read the complete story in the Napa Valley Register.