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Visiting Santa Barbara Wine Country: Getting Ready


Santa Barbara Wine

This summer included several days of a quick tour of Santa Barbara wine country. Katherine and I started on the coast of the city, and drove north through wine in Lompoc, Los Olivos and Los Alamos, Happy Canyon, all the way up towards Arroyo Grande. This week I return for a week visiting some of the wineries and winemakers Katherine and I weren’t able to meet.

Santa Barbara wine country takes its fame originally from rich, while focused Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, but it has also succeeded at delivering strength in Rhone wines, and more recently started to show good quality Bordeaux varieties as well. This week I’ll be able to taste from each of these.

photos from this summer’s visit with Katherine

Coastal Succulents

Succulents along the coast in Santa Barbara itself

The region of Santa Barbara celebrates proximity to the coast, a unique East-West Valley orientation, significant elevation, coastal fog, and warmer inland temperatures, resulting in a variety of wine growing conditions. As a result, the area registers a handful of AVAs, with new ones still developing. Already established are: Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Sta Rita Hills and Happy Canyon AVAs. Currently in application are Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon AVAs.

Venturing into the hills of Los Alamos

Heading into the hills near Los Alamos

The area also stretches at least fifty miles from North to South, demanding ample driving time between wineries or tasting rooms, though several areas host a nice cluster of tasting venues for easier access to particular styles.

Santa Maria Valley AVA

The first officially recognized AVA in the Santa Barbara region, Santa Maria Valley pushes from the coast as an open funnel shaped valley heading directly East, pulling the ocean fog inland along the valley floor. Valley floor vineyards begin at 300 feet in elevation, with plantings reaching up the slopes to around 800 feet. The combination of warm day time temperatures, with cooling fog, and little rainfall offer long slow growing conditions for fruit, leading to an easy complexity in the grapes.

Los Alamos Valley Region (not an official AVA)

Sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley AVA to the North, and Santa Ynez Valley AVA to the South, Los Alamos Valley offers a big temperature swing between warm days and cooler nights. Still, the overall heat range falls between the two with Santa Ynez generally considered around 10 degrees warmer, and Santa Maria 10 degrees cooler than the middlin Los Alamos Valley. The soils through the zone are generally well drained, but with a lot of variation in its geography, Los Alamos Valley shows genuine range in the varieties it can grow. This valley currently plants primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there are numerous smaller crops of Italian varieties dotted throughout the area.

POST EDIT: Word on the street here in Santa Ynez is that the Los Alamos AVA application has actually been approved but not announced yet!

Looking out over Los Olamos

The hills of Los Olivos

Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon proposed AVAs

With the diversity of conditions through the Santa Barbara region, new AVAs continue to be developed. Currently Los Olivos AVA and Ballard Canyon AVA are undergoing the application process to be recognized for their unique growing qualities. Part of Los Olivos application showcases the subzone’s ability to grow Bordeaux and Rhone varieties in particular, with a moderate temperature range, and good drainage supporting vine health. Ballard Canyon AVA carries a similar focus as the Los Olivos district, with the argument of differing quality and soil types. Ballard Canyon has recently been described as showing a comparable potential as the Southern Rhone regions of Chateauneuf du Pape or Gigondas.

Visiting Coastal Tasting Rooms

Flowers growing in the cooler, moister Western reach

Sta Rita Hills AVA

Part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Sta Rita Hills AVA features a cool micro-climate created from the rush of ocean fog cupped by surrounding hills holding the fog close against the plants. With its orientation towards the ocean, the AVA also receives ocean breezes bringing a mix of cool air, a steady drying of the fruit mixed with a sense of humidity that keeps the plants from burning in sun. The AVA is known, then, for its cooler variety success.

Vineyards of Santa Ynez Valley

Vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon

Santa Ynez Valley AVA

Santa Ynez Valley AVA nestles in the inland section of Santa Barbara wine region, also part of the Central Coast AVA. Santa Ynez Valley carries the highest concentration of wineries for the region, as well as a great variation of grape varieties planted. To the West (the Sta Rita Hills overlap) the region is known for Chardonnay, but as it moves East the climate warms allowing for a higher proportion of Rhone varieties, and other warmer temperature grapes.

Happy Canyon AVA

Happy Canyon AVA is one of the newer subzones of Santa Ynez Valley. The region has shown wonderful conditions for Bordeaux varieties, and is also known for producing elegant Grenache. It offers hotter temperatures than other areas of Santa Ynez valley, as well as more protection from the ocean influence, and the soil of the Canyon is considered a unique mineral effect on the wines grown in the still small subzone.

Vineyard Flowers in Northern Santa Barbara County

Vineyard flowers in Northern Santa Barbara County

I’ll be posting photos and sharing tasting notes from visits throughout this week. My itinerary will be busy, with a collection of 12 hour days visiting wineries and winemakers. Tuesday I get to wake up to an ATV vineyard tour.


Commercial fishing in Naknek, Alaska, Summer 2001–from left: cousin Ceara, me, Jr age 18 months, niece Melissa

Having growing up racing around the rock beaches of Naknek, Alaska on 4-wheeler I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to jump back on a little tractor for a quick jaunt through vines and farmland. Cheers!

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