Understanding Santa Barbara County Wine

Understanding Santa Barbara County Wine

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Traveling Santa Barbara County Wine

As some of you know, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling and tasting Santa Barbara Wine Country. The area grabbed my fascination for multiple reasons. It’s a region doing a big range of interesting (and tasty) things in wine, that also has fantastic long-term potential for continued evolution of both style and quality. Still, the area has been comparatively under regarded.

Talking enough with people throughout Santa Barbara County wine, what becomes apparent is not only the passionate commitment that people in the area hold for the place. There is also a sense of historical necessity pushing the region forward.

Winegrowers there now can be seen as riding a sort of third-wave of influence through the area. Modern vines first started going into the region in the early 1970s in a try-and-see-what-grows crazy quilt of plantings. By the 1990s appellations were being defined and people had articulated general swaths of guidance like Cabernet and its kin needed to be further inland, whereas Burgundian varieties could sustain closer to the coast.

Today, wines of Santa Barbara County benefit from the work of those previous decades to now produce wines on the backbone of such established knowledge with the flesh of experimentation and fine-tuning pushing forward quality.

Part of my interest in Santa Barbara County rests too in its geographical complexity. Comprehending the wealth of environmental, geological, historical, and climactic influences factoring into winemaking in the region is no small feat. How these factors intertwine in Santa Barbara County wine differs significantly from other regions of California.

After returning from my most recent visit in March I began drawing a series of maps that compile information about the unique characteristics of the region. The originals are wall size pieces that I’ve had professionally scanned to present here (they’re too big for my little home scanner).

As a first installment in a series on the region, the following map of Santa Barbara County represents crucial climactic and geographical influences on the region’s growing conditions with a presentation of the County’s AVAs.

The Growing Conditions of Santa Barbara County

Click on the image to enlarge. You can then zoom in further with your browser. One small error on this map — I wrote “Alluvial Soils from the Mountains” along the Northern rim of Santa Maria Valley, and the Southern Rim of Sta Rita Hills. Properly speaking alluvial soils are left by water in riverbeds. Colluvial soils are dropped from erosion off mountainsides. The areas marked with this notation does have some of each but I should have been clearer in how it was noted.

The Role of Rain

Santa Barbara County (SBC) receives very little rain through not only the growing season, but the year in general. While it is possible to dry farm in the county, sites must be carefully selected to do so. In Sta Rita Hills, for example, some people have been able to dry farm along the Santa Ynez River. In Santa Maria Valley, some have been able to dry farm along moderate elevation areas of mixed loam.

The lack of rain occurs for multiple reasons. Storms from the North travel through Northern California into San Luis Obispo (SLO), then hitting the Sierra Madre and San Rafael Mountain Ranges at the boundary between SLO and SBC. The mountains effectively stop rains from the North in a rain shadow effect before they ever hit Santa Maria Valley or the rest of SBC.

Storms from the South will occasionally bring rain North from Mexico, but only on occasion. Such events can be problematic, however, as these usually represent hot rain and warmer temperatures that can cause trouble for agriculture.

The County stands unprotected from storms off the ocean as the Coastal mountains turn East through SBC leaving valleys open-mouthed to the Pacific. Ocean storms rush in quickly bringing intense weather conditions that often pass just as fast. The intensity of these storms comes partially from the weather effect hitting mountains on the Eastern side of SBC, as well as the North-South oriented range in SLO, then rushing skywards as a result. As the storms impact the mountains and rush upwards, water falls from the cloud fronts creating flash flooding through the region. Such occurrences happen only on occasion, however, as usually such storms will have resolved over water before arriving on land.

The Turn of the Coastal Range

Santa Barbara County represents the only place in North or South America where the Coastal range turns fully from a North-South orientation to an East-West one. (There are, of course, other American regions that have some maritime influence through gaps in the mountains.) While other major wine growing regions along the Western side of the two continents tend to be shielded from ocean influence by their Coastal range, SBC instead hosts direct maritime relation.

As the mountains turn East they create open-mouthed valleys through the county that effectively act as funnels bringing maritime influence from the Pacific inland in a consistent breathing pattern through the day. As inland temperatures rise, cool air from the ocean is pulled East over SBC. Westerly winds start just after lunch time on a daily basis, as a result, so that even on higher ambient temperature days vines are cooled by the breeze effect. As inland temperatures cool through evening, fog sets in all the way to the far Eastern side of the County.

With the ocean influence temperatures increase traveling East through the region. On average the thermometer can be tracked at a degree Fahrenheit increase per mile traveled East, though of course geographical variation creates more subtle differences in specific locales.

Fog Blankets and Wind

With the Eastern-oriented mountain ranges fog and wind both play significant influence through the region. With the predominately open-to-the-ocean valley formations throughout SBC, fog and wind reach all the way to the far Eastern areas of the county. As a result, even the warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation at the inland side of Santa Ynez Valley still receives that daily cooling influence, for example, though less directly than plantings on the Western end of Santa Ynez Valley.

Ballard Canyon, on the other hand, stands partially defined by its unique position within a North-South facing notch between Buellton and Los Olivos in the Hills that run East from Sta Rita Hills AVA through the Santa Ynez Valley. Thanks to nestling into the North-South notch, the fog and winds impact on the appellation is softened slightly, and some plantings at higher elevation in the Canyon receive less of the fog.

Fog generally increases disease pressure, raising worries of mold and mildew. Within nestled Western pockets of the area growers must especially track for disease. However, at the same, thanks to lack of rainfall, overall humidity levels remain lower thus keeping disease pressures lower than other regions with comparable levels of fog.

Fog also coincides with diurnal shift, appearing as a symbol of the cooler nights of the region that support up-acidity for super juicy wines.

Pacific Ocean Currents

Proximity to ocean as well as particular placement along the Pacific offer moderate temperatures throughout Santa Barbara County. The California Current carries a strong cooling influence along the coast to the North.

SBC is the Southern most part of the State to receive direct influence from the California Current as below the County the North American land mass cuts further East with the current moving back out into the Pacific. Instead, coming up from the South, the more moderate Davidson Current brings warmer water temperatures September through February. The two currents meet and mix along the beaches of SBC creating a mild climate, and nutrient rich waters.

Soil Variation

Soil types vary significantly through the County with a full range from beach-type sands or sandy loams, abundant clay or clay loams, to unconsolidated rocky soils the result of mountain erosion, as well as rocky shale or Diatomaceous Earth. Limestone and chalky bands also paint through sections of the county visibly appearing in swaths of Ballard Canyon, for example. Even within single AVAs very different soil types appear, sometimes side by side.

Within the Sta Rita Hills, for example, overt soil changes visibly appear along roadside with more sandy loam showing through the Highway 246 corridor, and completely different profiles appearing on the Sweeney-to-Santa Rosa Road side. There, soils change by elevation with clay loam along the riverbed, shale appearing through the mid-slopes, and Diatomaceous Earth at higher elevation. Sta Rita Hills may be the only wine growing region in the world that plants in Diatomaceous Earth as the rock is rare on the planet (if not the only such growing region it is one of the few).

The soil variation through SBC supports a huge range of planting choices and wine styles.

What This Means for Growing Grapes

The reality of grape growing in Santa Barbara County is admirably varied. The region as a whole carries impressive up-acidity through the wines, meaning even naturally richer profile grapes grown in the warmer inland temperatures offer the promise of real juiciness.

Taking a simple one-hour drive West to East through any portion of the County will result in significant viticultural change. At the far Western portions of SBC even cool climate grapes like Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay can struggle to ripen. Cool climate Rhone varieties do beautifully through the area, as do warmer style Rhone wines further inland. At the far Eastern sides of the County, Bordeaux varieties prosper, with most appearing through Santa Ynez Valley, though some also showing in the Sisquoc section of Santa Maria Valley.

The viticultural variation of Santa Barbara County offers growers and winemakers the opportunity to work with a range of wines in short distance, a situation unique in the state. While many winemakers in California currently produce wines of similar grape types grown from a range of terroirs, or wine styles grown in differing conditions, few are able to do so in such compact driving proximity.

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To read more on Santa Barbara County conditions:

Eric Asimov’s look at Chardonnays of Santa Barbara County: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/dining/reviews/rehabilitating-the-image-of-chardonnay.html?_r=0

RH Drexel’s excellent first volume of Loam Baby, entirely on Santa Barbara County wine: http://www.loambaby.com/v1.html

Richard Jennings on Santa Barbara County: http://www.rjonwine.com/santa-barbara/exploring-terroir-and-balance/

Climate in the County, and Ocean Influence: http://www.countyofsb.org/pwd/pwwater.aspx?id=27904

Sashi Moorman on the importance of Soils of Sta Rita Hills: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/01/28/a-glimpse-of-sta-rita-hills-climbing-the-mountain-w-sashi-moorman/

Stay turned for more on Santa Barbara County with hand-drawn maps…

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting summary of the Santa Barbara County wine country. Thank you. Having been there three times it is the place where my interest in wine first took root (so to speak) and I have often thought about how the geography produces the varied climate conditions that lead to such a plethora of excellent wines (thanks, of course, to the efforts of talented winemakers and vineyard managers).
    Looking forward to your take on the Finger Lakes. (ahem) :-)

  2. This is really excellent. So… when you take Foxen cyn N out of Los Olivos all the way back up in there to Zaca and Alisos: That’s all SYV? Obviously before you drop down into Tempesquet and SMV. Also, with all the hoopla surrounding Ballard and Happy AVA’s recently, I honestly had only a vague concept of where Ballard was haha. Excellent mapage!

    steve

    • Zaca is the very Northern most stretch of Santa Ynez Valley AVA.

      Los Alamos still goes without application to the AVA approval process. It’s circumscribed by its siblings too the North and South though, and in a very purposeful manner so that the proper Los Alamos AVA is implied by what is in place outside of it.

      Ballard Canyon is a tiny area but certainly distinct from the rest of Santa Ynez AVA. It’s one of the exciting though largely unheralded areas in the country right now for Rhone varieties.

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