Santa Barbara Wine Country: Appellations and Region’s Layout

Gibraltar_rockgarden_santa barbara landscape

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Check out our wine travel guide to Santa Barbara Wine Country

Located on the southern end of the Central Coast appellation, Santa Barbara County is about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California. The history of this wine country can be traced back to five million years ago. Tectonic activity thrust up a huge part of the land, rotated it, and created a geologic anomaly: the mountain ranges in Santa Barbara County are transverse and run east to west, unlike the rest of California where the mountains are parallel to the coastline, positioned in a north-south direction. This topographical feature creates wind tunnels, which enable cool air to flow from the Pacific Ocean into the valleys of Santa Barbara County, keeping the temperatures moderate during the day and cool at night. The Pacific Ocean also creates morning fog that cools and protects the grapes in the vineyards. All in all, Santa Barbara Wine Country is characterized by little to no rainfall especially during the harvest period, a lot of sunshine, and extremely long growing seasons.

Babcock Winery Grapevine
Photo by Babcock Winery.

These climatic and geographical features have helped Santa Barbara County become a sublime spot for viticulture. The multitude of microclimates and soil types provide a perfect place for a wide variety of grapes. In fact, Santa Barbara is one of the oldest wine-producing areas in California, with the first wine grapes planted by the missionaries in the late 1700s. The modern commercial production as we know it today came about in 1960, when the first commercial vineyard was planted in Tepusquet in Santa Maria Valley.

Despite all the attention, Santa Barbara County remains somewhat alternative, especially in comparison to the other California’s wine regions.

Initially, most of the fruit produced was shipped out of the county to be vinified. Then, in 1962, Santa Barbara Winery, the first post-prohibition commercial winery in the county was established. In 1975, Firestone became the first estate winery to make wine using its own locally grown grapes.

The biggest revolution happened in the early 1980s when Santa Barbara became known for its independent winemakers with larger-than-life personalities. Among the first generation of winemakers that arrived in the county included Bill Wathen (Foxen Vineyard & Winery), Bob Lindquist (Qupé), Bryan Babcock (Babcock Winery & Vineyards), Chris Whitcraft (Whitcraft Winery), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Ken Brown (Ken Brown Wines), Lane Tanner (now Lumen Wines), Richard Sanford (now Alma Rosa Winery), and Rick Longoria (Longoria Wines).

Qupe-Bob-Lindquist
Qupé’s founder, Bob Lindquist, is a distinguished winemaking veteran and has mentored dozens of famous winemakers in the Central Coast. (Photo is provided by the winery.)

The spirit of innovation and quality permeated the county. Loads of delicious wines were coming out of Santa Barbara that could have built the area’s reputation single-handedly. Then, in 2004, the critically acclaimed film Sideways was released. Most of the movie was shot and set there; the film’s popularity and the protagonist’s affinity for Pinot Noir further enhanced the wine country’s shining reputation.

Today, the Santa Barbara County’s wine industry is said to generate around $1.7 billion of annual revenue, and the industry accounts for more than 9,000 full-time jobs. There are about 200 wineries in the region and more than 27,000 acres of vines.

Despite all the attention, Santa Barbara County remains somewhat alternative, especially in comparison to the other California’s wine regions. There is electricity in the air as an abundance of veteran experience and young talent keep the wine scene fresh.

vineyard santa barbara wine country
Photo by J. Wilkes.

 

Wine Growing Areas

At around 3,730 square miles in size, Santa Barbara Wine Country offers unique topography and climatic diversity that give birth to six official AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). The distance between the grape-growing area and the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean is a key factor that shapes the characteristics of each AVA. The western areas are cooler, while the eastern reaches are warmer. The grapes also show considerable vineyard-to-vineyard variation within each AVA. The highest vineyard sits on a plateau at over 3,000 feet above sea level.

santa barbara county ava wine map
Map by Santa Barbara Vintners.

 

Santa Maria Valley AVA

Established in 1981, this is the northernmost and oldest AVA of the region and the third oldest in the United States. It sees direct access to the cool ocean breezes, but without the topography that creates a natural wind tunnel. The vines are mostly planted on the slopes of rolling hillsides with well-drained sandy loam and clay-loam soils, at elevations between 300 and 800 feet.

There are several varieties grown here–including Albariño, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier–but the flagships are Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Chardonnays from this appellation can range from lean with crisp acidity to full-bodied with a floral tone. Noted for its slightly spicy and earthy characteristics, the Pinot Noir here can taste vastly different from the ones in Sta. Rita Hills. Overall, the wines from this AVA tend to have a nice acidic backbone, high drinkability, yet not shy on complexity.

Total Area: Around 98,000 acres in southern San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County
Planted Area: ~7,500 acres
Notable Vineyards: Bien Nacido, Cambria, Foxen, Nielson, Sierra Madre, and Tepusquet
 

Santa Ynez Valley AVA

A long east-west corridor with varying temperature: the west side of the valley is cooler as it is closer to the Pacific breeze, while the east side and further inland are significantly warmer. The diversity in climates within this AVA allows the growing of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and varieties of Bordeaux and Rhône—including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, Syrah, and Viognier. Small amounts of Arneis, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling can also be found here.

This AVA boasts various soil types, ranging from sand to gravel, loam, and diatomaceous earth (i.e. deposits of fossilized marine life that are high in Calcium Silicate). All of these soil types provide excellent drainage and are highly suitable for viticulture. This AVA has the largest concentration of wineries, and the grape varieties grown here are also the most varied.

Please note that four other AVAs are nestled within Santa Ynez Valley; they are Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, and Los Olivos District.

Total Area: ~182,000 acres
Planted Area: ~5,000 acres
Notable Vineyard: Firestone, Purisima, Zaca Mesa

 

Sta. Rita Hills AVA

Created in 2001, this AVA was known as Santa Rita Hills up until 2006, when the name was changed to Sta. Rita Hills because a Chilean wine producer called Viña Santa Rita objected to the original spelling. This is the westernmost AVA and has direct access to the cool ocean breeze. The hills act as narrow corridors and the breeze shoots through them, creating a cool climate in this wine-growing area.

There are 20 cool-climate wine grapes planted here. The majority of the plantings are Pinot Noir and a good portion is Chardonnay. The sites in Sta. Rita Hills make a distinct difference in the flavor profiles of these two grapes. In Chardonnay, expect to find mineral, smoke, or flint characteristic. For Pinot Noir wines, most are rich and concentrated with red fruit accent. There tends to be more stem inclusion used in the vinification of Pinot Noir here, which can lend interesting flavors and tannins to the wines. Pinot Noirs, especially the single-vineyard bottlings, that bear this appellation are said to perform better after five years of barrel and bottle aging.

Total Area: Over 30,000 acres
Planted Area: ~2,700 acres
Notable Vineyards: Acin, Ampelos, Babcock, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, El Jabali, Fe Ciega, Fiddlestix, Hapgood, John Sebastiano, Kessler-Haak, La Encantada, La Rinconada, Lafond, Machado, Melville, Mt. Carmel, Rita’s Crown, Sanford and Benedict, Sea Smoke, Sweeney Canyon, Zotovich

In this video, Sommelier-turned-Winemaker Rajat Parr describes the soil types in Sta. Rita Hills and how they affect Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

 

Happy Canyon AVA

This is the most inland AVA and because of that, it is significantly warmer than the other AVAs. It is at the far eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA and has shown promise with Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Syrah is also planted here. The wines from this AVA can be exciting, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon blends which tend to express ripe fruit notes without being overbearing. The soil types are made up of a mixture of loam and clay loam with red and yellow chert and serpentine cobbles.

Total Area: ~24,000 acres
Planted Area: ~500 acres
Notable Vineyards: Grassini, Happy Canyon, Star Lane, Vogelzang

 

Ballard Canyon AVA

This is the smallest AVA of the region and is situated near the town of Buellton. This area is known for producing Rhône-style wines. The majority of the plantings here are Syrah. Other varieties planted include Grenache, Sangiovese, Roussanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and small amounts of Chardonnay. The vines are planted in clay or sand. In the northern part of the AVA, limestone substrate lies under clay topsoil. The reds from this area tend to be aromatic, fruit-forward, rich, and slightly earthy, with approachable tannins.

Total Area: ~7,700 acres
Planted Area: ~300 acres
Notable Vineyards: Beckmen, Harrison Clarke, Jonata, Larner, Stolpman, Tierra Alta

 

Los Olivos District AVA

Established in January 2016, this is the newest AVA of the county. It sits within a triangle created by the towns of Solvang, Santa Ynez, and Los Olivos. From a geological perspective, it is fairly uniform and produces a handful of interesting wines from Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. Italian and Spanish varieties can also be found here. The soils consist of moderate to well-drained sandy loam and clay loam. The terrain slopes gently from north to south towards the water. As the AVA is largely flat, machines and other automated support can be used here, as opposed to the neighboring wine-growing areas with steep, rugged terrains.

Total Area: 22,820 acres
Planted Area: 1,121 acres
Notable Vineyards: Baehner Fournier, Sunstone, Tensley

 

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wes hagen

Charine and Matthew have captured Santa Barbara Wine Culture with passion and aplomb, making recommendations that are amazingly sympatico with my local favorites. As a Santa Barbara winemaker since 1994, I offer enthusiastic praise for ‘Sipping Santa Barbara’ and would offer it to friends and family as a one-stop guide for planning and executing an amazing trip to one of the most underrated and bucolic wine regions on planet earth. If this publication doesn’t get you fired up for a trip to our Wine Country, nothing will!

Wes Hagen
Winemaker & Raconteur / J. Wilkes Wines, Santa Maria, CA
matthew kaner

Being from Santa Barbara, I have a lot to say when the topic of Santa Barbara wine producers comes up in conversation. Sipping Santa Barbara is going to be the primary source document I recommend everyone pick up when desiring to learn more about Santa Barbara Wine Country. From the formative producers to the most important newcomers, Charine Tan & Dr. Matthew Horkey paint a full picture of the diverse winegrowing that happens from the Southern tip to the Northern most point of Santa Barbara County.

Matthew Kaner
Wine Director & President / Will Travel For Wine, INC // Covell Wine Bar // Augustine Wine Bar // Dead or Alive Bar // AM/FM Wines // Good Measure

 


Check the availability of Santa Barbara County wines globally at Wine Searcher.

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– Cover image by Mark Weber: Sunset at The Rock Garden and White Mountain high in the Santa Ynez Mountains above the city of Santa Barbara in southern California.
– The ideas expressed in this article are personal opinions and are not associated with any sponsors or business promotions. 
– We have referenced data from sources believed to be the most reliable or up to date. However, published data in this field is often conflicting and can quickly become outdated. It is recommended that careful attention is paid to the usage or reference of any data in this article.

Charine Tan
Charine Tan
Globetrotting Wine Geek & Brand Strategist
http://exoticwinetravel.com

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