Santa Barbara County is on a nearly vertical trajectory in proving itself a world-class winemaking region. In under five decades, its modern wine industry has gone from being met with doubt as to the wisdom of its formation in the first place, to being the focus of a cult- classic film, to attracting top winemaking talent from all over the world.
Santa Barbara County lies in what is referred to as “the elbow” of California. It is the only place in either North or South America where coastal mountain ranges that typically run north-to- south shift to an east-to-west orientation, allowing the valleys tucked within exposure to oceanic breezes and marine layer. While the average latitude of the region is the same as Morocco, Santa Barbara County enjoys a remarkably temperate and consistent climate. To the north, both the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains provide a rain shadow eﬀect from incoming storms, and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south help funnel oceanic influence inland. Santa Barbara typically sees less than 20 inches of precipitation a year making dry- farming difficult, although more and more producers are making headway with this practice, often through a combination of careful clonal selections and own-rooted vines.
Santa Barbara AVAs
All of these elements contribute greatly to the diversity of varietals successfully being cultivated in Santa Barbara County. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay drive production in the western regions of Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Syrah and other Rhône grapes dominate the middle in Ballard Canyon, whereas Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is populated predominately by Bordeaux varietals. Soil compositions are complex, but beach-like sand along with clay and sand-based loams are found in multiple appellations. Sta. Rita Hills lays claim to rare diatomaceous earth, while you can find California’s state rock, serpentinite, present in vineyards in Happy Canyon. Parts of Ballard Canyon contain streaks of limestone, and cobbles line ancient riverbeds throughout Santa Barbara County.
The Pacific influence and mild climate are of course major factors in Santa Barbara’s compelling wines, but nothing can exceed the impact of the producers themselves. A common thread all over the region is the relationship between mentor and apprentice. The seminal, founding producers such as Au Bon Climat, Qupé and The Ojai Vineyard have done much to steward the projects of their protégés. Whitcraft straddles both timelines; the second- generation winery is on one hand an old-school pioneer of high quality Santa Barbara wine, and on the other a modern torchbearer for minimalist, hands-oﬀ winemaking practices. These kinds of shifts and traditions have helped move the entire region forward in an impressively short amount of time, and show no signs of being a thing of the past.
Santa Barbara County occupies a unique place in the wine world. Nowhere else in California is the trifecta of Burgundian, Rhône and Bordeaux varietals represented in such close proximity, and such at competitive price points. The influence of the beach is inescapable in both the wines and the culture, as this is Southern California after all. The present day beaches the wines are often enjoyed at sit next to the fossilized shores the grapes were sourced from, and the top wines feel equally at home in a white-tablecloth restaurant or at a local taqueria. This ease and malleability is intrinsic to Santa Barbara County, which to my eyes is the most exciting wine region in California.