The Santa Ynez Valley is the centrepiece of Santa Barbara wine country. Save for Santa Maria Valley to the north, all other sub-regions in the area fall in or around its borders, and it is home to most local tourist hubs.
From silky Pinot Noir and focussed Chardonnay to peppery Syrah and flashy Sauvignon Blancs, the Santa Ynez Valley offers an impressive array of winemaking diversity in a laid-back and unpretentious atmosphere. The traverse mountain ranges that form the valley are a unique calling card for the region, allowing maritime influence to travel further inland than otherwise possible.
This has a moderating effect on daytime temperatures, contributing to the diurnal swings crucial for the production of the balanced, acid-driven wines often found here. A handy rule is that for every one mile you travel east from the ocean, the temperature rises by one degree, accounting for the roughly 25 degree difference one can experience on a summer day between the Sta. Rita Hills in the west and Happy Canyon at the eastern edge of the valley.
Since the Santa Ynez Valley AVA was first established 1983, it has been continuously subdivided as the reputations and identities of its sub-regions have solidified. The famed Sta. Rita Hills AVA was made official in 2001, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara followed in 2009, then Ballard Canyon in 2013, and most recently Los Olivos District in 2016.
This is fairly rapid progress towards shifting the narrative of each sub-region into a more focused conversation, and in the long run should help Santa Barbara County as a whole come into its own on the world stage.
From the regional winemaking centre of Lompoc to the quaint tasting room hub of Los Olivos, a number of cities and towns dot the Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang is a Danish-founded village that is centrally located; a convenient home base for tastings and winery visits anywhere in the valley.
Santa Ynez itself is home to one of the best restaurants in the area, the Italian-focused S.Y. Kitchen. In Buellton one can visit the hip restaurant/butcher Industrial Eats, as well as Ellen’s Pancake House, which serves equally well as either a base for the day to come or a recovery zone from the night before.
The entire stylistic spectrum of wines produced in the Santa Ynez Valley offers an impressive quality-to-price ratio relative the rest of California. Top examples of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be found at an often 30% discount when compared to the blue-chip producers in Sonoma County. While land values in Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles continue to skyrocket, Santa Barbara’s still relatively-infant stage of development offers equal if not superior winemaking, combined with the relaxed and unceremonious Southern California lifestyle.