While many people associate California wine with Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the regions found within the Central Coast AVA, including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara County, Monterey, San Benito and Paso Robles are all worth a closer look.
The subregions of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA of Santa Barbara County in particular are gaining great attention, and offer excellent experiences for visitors. With the county’s highest concentration of wineries, myriad tasting rooms pepper the valley towns of Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Buellton, Solvang and Santa Ynez, boasting fine restaurants, artisan boutiques and galleries.
About 160km northwest of Los Angeles, just over the mountain pass from Santa Barbara city, the terrain dramatically transitions from palm trees and glimmering coastline, to rolling golden hills dappled with grand oak trees. Sweeping fence-lined pastures with grazing horses command the landscape, balanced by occasional glimpses of vineyard rows.
Santa Ynez Valley wine country lies between three ranges – the Santa Ynez, San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains – that rise from the coastline of the Pacific Ocean with elevations up to 1,000m. Unlike the usual north-south orientation of ranges along the western edge of North and South America, these mountains are oriented in a transverse, east-west direction. This creates a funnel that ushers in cool air and fog from the Pacific Ocean deep into the valley, making an otherwise warm region much cooler.
The unique microclimates of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA have led to the designation of four separate sub-AVAs.
The four sub-AVAs of Santa Ynez Valley
At the western edge, beginning in the town of Lompoc, is the Sta Rita Hills AVA. Fog brought in from the nearby Pacific is common in this small region. With soils that range from diatomaceous earth and sandy and clay loams, this unique corridor is home to some of the area’s most stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Ballard Canyon AVA, so named for the small gorge within its boundaries, accounts for only 10% of wine production in the Santa Ynez Valley. The canyon ushers in wind, fog and ocean influences, giving it a slightly warmer climate. More than half of its 225ha of vineyards are planted with Syrah, with other Rhône varieties such as Grenache, Viognier and Roussanne making up the remainder.
The Los Olivos AVA is bound by Ballard Canyon to the west and Happy Canyon to the east and serves as a medium of its two neighbours. The terrain is one of the flattest, with much less of a diurnal shift than surrounding AVAs. This warmer growing environment is mainly planted with Bordeaux and Rhône grapes along with a few Spanish and Italian varieties.
The Happy Canyon AVA is on the eastern border of Santa Ynez Valley. It is one of the warmest regions in Santa Barbara, with temperatures reaching well above 32°C in summer. However, the various altitudes among its hills offer a wide diurnal shift that can exceed 25°C, bringing a particular freshness to the Cabernet Sauvignon blends typically found here.
Santa Ynez Valley: wineries to visit
Founded in 2005 by Sta Rita Hills’ pioneering 1970s vintner Richard Sanford (see below), Alma Rosa Winery is named for the 1839 Rancho Santa Rosa land grant that historically encompassed the region.
Today, it is owned by Texas-based Bob and Barb Zorich, with wines made by Samra Morris, a young female winemaker to watch. Morris produces wines with a defined sense of place, focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Alma Rosa’s El Jabali estate vineyard and other top sites in Sta Rita Hills.
Visit the website to book private tastings, hikes and wine and cheese pairings at the vineyard itself, or to make a reservation at the new tasting room in Solvang.
- Address: 1623 Mission Dr, Solvang, CA 93463
- Open: Sunday to Wednesday 11am-6pm, Thursday to Saturday 11am-7:30pm
- Contact: (805) 691 9395 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sink into cosy lounge-style patio seating in the front yard of a casual Victorian cottage and discover the Story of Soil – the journey of winemaker Jessica Gasca.
Sourcing grapes from renowned vineyards throughout Santa Ynez Valley – including the Duravita Vineyard from Sta Rita Hills and the Stolpman Vineyard in Ballard Canyon – Gasca’s goal is to produce wines that showcase their individual terroirs.
- Address: 2928 San Marcos Ave, Los Olivos, CA 93441
- Open: Monday to Thursday by appointment only. Friday to Sunday 11am-5pm for reservations and walk-ins
- Contact: (805) 686 1302
In the early 1970s, botanist Michael Benedict and his friend Richard Sanford planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in hopes of establishing a premium growing region in the cooler climate of the Sta Rita Hills. Today their legacy continues to thrive under the ownership of the Terlato family.
Grapes from the original Sanford & Benedict vineyard are among the most sought after in the region. In 2019, winemaker Trey Fletcher took over production, following stints at Bien Nacido and Littorai and harvests in New Zealand and Argentina.
Visit the website to book a range of tastings as well as an All-Terrain Vineyard experience.
- Address: 5010 Santa Rosa Rd, Lompoc, CA 93436
- Open: Daily, with advance reservations, 10am-5pm
- Contact: (805) 735 5900 or email@example.com
Jonata’s wines, from the warm and sandy Ballard Canyon, are in stark contrast to those of sister label The Hilt Estate from the western side of Sta Rita Hills.
The 237ha Jonata property includes 34ha of vineyards, planted to Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and some small experimental plantings of higher-acid varieties such as Xinomavro, Assyrtiko and Petit Manseng. Named for the 1845 Spanish land grant, Rancho San Carlos de Jonata, the word ’jonata’ is derived from the local Chumash indigenous tribe meaning ‘tall oak’.
Visit the website to make a reservation to try wines at The Hilt Estate tasting room near Lompoc (see below).
- Address: 2240 Santa Rosa Rd, Lompoc, CA 93436
- Open: by appointment only
- Contact: (805) 564 8581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Located 21km from the coast in the Sta Rita Hills, The Hilt Estate is home to three vineyards – Bentrock, Radian and Puerta del Mar, each planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Under winemaker Matt Dees, the resulting wines are concentrated and complex, displaying very different characteristics thanks to varying soils and microclimates. Visitors are welcome at the expansive contemporary barn for a seated tasting of both The Hilt Estate wines and those of sister label Jonata (see above).
- Address: 2240 Santa Rosa Rd, Lompoc, CA 93436
- Open: by appointment only
- Contact: (805) 564 8581 or email@example.com
This Ballard Canyon-focused operation runs from a quaint little house painted like a red barn. Tom and Marilyn Stolpman, for whom the label is named, originally planted their vineyard of Syrah and Roussanne along an outcropping of limestone soils in 1990, later adding other Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdre and Grenache, plus Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese.
Today their son Pete and his wife Jessica now manage operations. Book tastings, hikes and other special events on the online booking form.
- Address: 2434 Alamo Pintado Ave, Los Olivos CA 93441
- Open: Daily, with advance reservations, 11am-5pm
- Contact: (805) 688 0400
Santa Barbara native Justin Willet has garnered a reputation for making terroir-driven wines here and at Racines. In addition to estate fruit from his own 11ha Mae Vineyard near Lompoc, he sources Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the 1973-planted vines of the Sanford & Benedict vineyard, the La Rinconada Vineyard and other notable sites in the Sta Rita Hills AVA.
Visit the website to book a 1.5-hour tasting or a three-course lunch at the Vineyard House.
- Address: 4805 East Highway 246, Lompoc, CA 93436
- Open: by appointment only
- Contact: (805) 225 3395 or firstname.lastname@example.org<
Santa Ynez Valley: where to eat and drink
A fixture of Santa Ynez town since 2013, SY Kitchen’s executive chef and co-owner Luca Crestanelli serves rustic Italian fare evocative of his native Verona. Located in a historic farmhouse, this quaint restaurant features garden-fresh produce from local farms, handmade pasta dishes such as wild mushroom pappardelle and grilled king salmon with puttanesca and asparagus.
- Address: 1110 Faraday St, Santa Ynez, CA 93460
- Open: Thursday to Sunday 11am-2pm, Sunday to Thursday 5pm-9pm, Friday & Saturday 5pm-9:30pm
- Contact: (805) 691 9794 or email@example.com
Beyond your average bakery, this is the go-to spot for indulgent breakfasts and satisfying lunches in both Los Alamos and Ballard. Classic French-inspired pastries are generous in size and expertly made, with the pain au chocolat a local favourite. Sandwiches are served on fresh demi-baguette or pain de mie and range from classic turkey and cheese to a croque-madame.
- Address: 550 Bell St, Los Alamos, CA 93440 / 2449 Baseline Ave, Ballard, CA 93463
- Open: Thursday to Monday 7am-4pm (from 8am in Ballard)
- Contact: (805) 344 3000 / (805) 691 9549
Located in the Los Alamos General Store built in 1880, Pico offers a casual flavour of Santa Ynez Valley in an elegant setting. The wine list boasts more than 300 bins and the restaurant’s co-owner, Will Henry of Lumen Wines, also offers flights of his own label, ranging from Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to Grenache and Syrah.
- Address: 458 Bell St, Los Alamos, CA 93440
- Open: Wednesday to Friday 3pm-8pm, Saturday & Sunday 12pm-8pm
- Contact: (805) 344 1122 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On the first floor of the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos, Nella is the sister site to SY Kitchen. Creamy Italian burrata with house-made tomato jam and sourdough bread is an excellent starter. Or try a wood-fired pinsa (Roman-style pizza) with baby artichokes, pancetta and carbonara. The basil-spinach tagliolini is a local favourite, as are the lamb chops with sautéed porcini mushrooms and thyme-roasted red bell peppers and potatoes.
- Address: 2860 Grand Ave, Los Olivos, CA 93441
- Open: Thursday to Monday 12pm-8pm
- Contact: (805) 686 1359 or email@example.com
Along the quiet main street of Los Alamos is where chef Daisy Ryan and her husband Greg Ryan run a French-inspired bistro leveraging the local bounty of Santa Barbara County. Bell’s offers simple, flavourful dishes using classic French techniques. Lunches are casual, featuring salads and sandwiches, while dinner service includes a prix fixe five-course seasonal menu.
- Address: 406 Bell St, Los Alamos, CA 93440
- Open: Thursday to Monday 11am-3pm and 5pm-8:15pm
- Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Santa Ynez Valley: a brief history
The history of wine in the greater Santa Ynez area dates to the late 18th century, when a small vineyard was planted at Mission Santa Barbara for sacramental wine. And while there were sparse plantings to follow in the 19th century, the advent of Prohibition in the early 20th century put a halt to any significant production.
It wouldn’t be until the early 1970s that the region’s wine industry began with the planting of the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in Sta Rita Hills by Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict. Many of the original own-rooted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines still exist.
Other visionaries like Ken Brown, Rick Longoria and Fred Brander remain a vital part of the story today, while a new generation of winemakers, including Justin Willett, Samra Morris, Trey Fletcher and Matt Dees are carrying the torch, making wines with distinctive character and sense of place, further defining the region.