Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara’s wines offer a departure from those of the more familiar Napa and Sonoma Valleys. This rising star of the Golden State was made famous by the film “Sideways” and is the place to look if you’re partial to more elegant, Old World styles of wine. Santa Barbara’s wine regions are a perfect balancing act between finesse and ripeness. Several factors make the “American Riviera” uniquely suited to making fine wine. A maritime climate keeps vines cool during the growing season while abundant sun ensures grapes reach physiological ripeness. Along with the overall climate, dozens of microclimates exist in Santa Barbara — a result of the region’s unique topography.
The stand out feature of Santa Barbara is the region’s valleys which run east to west. Worldwide you’ll find that most valleys run north to south. What does this mean for winemaking? These transverse valleys draw cool air from the Pacific Ocean inland, helping to make Santa Barbara one of California’s coolest wine regions. Things get a bit warmer when moving away from the coast, allowing winemakers to focus on and experiment with different grape varieties.
Santa Barbara has six appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and Santa Ynez Valley. These six AVAs offer a variety of wine styles from elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to robust reds and choice whites reminiscent of those made in the Rhône. Another exciting development is winemaker’s experimentation with Italian varieties including Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Vermentino, and Pinot Grigio. But for now, let’s have a look at the appellations themselves.
Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Valley is the oldest officially recognized AVA in the county. It’s the most northerly of the six and has the longest growing season. Fog, wind, and a range of elevations characterize Santa Maria Valley. Warm days tempered by cooling fog and wind allow grapes to ripen at their leisure while maintaining the necessary acidity to yield harmonious, balanced wines. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir à la Burgundy are the fixtures here, but you’ll also find some delicious Syrahs which follow in the footsteps of Northern Rhône reds.
Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Ynez Valley covers the greatest land area in SB. As the largest AVA, there’s a wider range of temperatures across the valley. These microclimates mean winemakers can grow both cool and warm climate varieties in Santa Ynez, depending on vineyard location. Most of the region’s vineyards are concentrated in and around Santa Ynez Valley, a wonderful hodgepodge of smaller boutique wineries and large-scale operations. As you’d expect, cool climate grapes are planted closer to the coast while your Rhône grapes are found deeper inland.
Santa Rita Hills
Carved out of the westernmost edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Santa Rita Hills experience the full force of the Pacific’s cooling influences. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, where vines adorn the hillsides, basking in the sun, and laying the foundations for complex, highly sought-after wines. These are arguably some of the best examples of Pinot and Chardonnay in the whole of the US.
Ballard Canyon is a hotspot for Rhône varieties. There’s a lot of Syrah here, which is often blended with Grenache and occasionally Viognier, in the style of Côte-Rôtie. In addition to reds, white wines based on Marsanne and Roussanne are also on the rise. Regardless of color, these wines follow in the tradition of Rhône Valley; ripe and lush but with a savory mineralogy. Ballard Canyon is one of the prime spots for Italian grape experimentation and if you want to try some world class Cal-Ital wines, Ballard Canyon’s Sangiovese should be your first port of call.
Located in the eastern part of the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon is one of the warmer subregions of Santa Barbara; the cooling breezes coming off the Pacific don’t quite reach this far inland. As a result, Bordeaux varieties are a popular choice for winemakers and the majority of the Happy Canyon’s wines are concentrated and ripe. Love rosé? Happy Canyon has you covered.
Los Olivos District is Santa Barbara’s newest appellation. This flatter, warmer AVA is nestled within the Santa Ynez Valley. It’s more maritime than Happy Canyon and is dominated by alluvial soils courtesy of the Santa Ynez River. These poor soils help make the AVA a good choice for winemakers wanting to plant Bordeaux or Rhône grapes, though the cooler climate means that Pinot and Chardonnay do well here, too.
If you’re in LA, Santa Barbara is just a quick jaunt up the coast and worth a trip out of the city. Along with its outstanding wine, this little corner of California is fantastic for great food. For the dedicated food lover, a trip to Santa Barbara may make you seriously consider relocating to the area. What’s more, newer areas like Los Alamos are garnering attention and add to Santa Barbara’s exciting food and wine scene. This gorgeous coastal region is a true gourmand’s delight.