An Overview of Santa Barbara Wine Country

The American Viticultural Area Santa Barbara County is about an hour and a half’s drive north of Los Angeles. Santa Barbara County contains two large AVA’s within it: Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley.

Within the Santa Ynez Valley there are three smaller AVA’s:

  • Santa Rita Hills
  • Ballard Canyon
  • Happy Canyon

The regions above are called the South Central Coast. They are among the most vital wine regions in the state of California.

One reason for this fact is that in such a concentrated space – there are many mega-talented winemakers. These range from the respected older winemaker Bob Lindquist to the younger Matt Murphy (cofounder and president of Presqu’ile) to dozens of others. Presqu’ile is one of Santa Maria Valley’s defining wineries.

The North Central Coast of California has viticultural areas that are distinctly different. However, the South Central Coast’s AVA’s share a style and character.

The Beauty of Santa Barbara

In terms of beauty, the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys are arguably the most attractive wine regions. Spring and fall sunlight bring a beautiful and clear indescribable light.

The hills are curved just perfectly and the huge mesas (flat-topped hills) are spread out everywhere. Arroyos (steep sided gullies formed by fast-flowing water) split the mesas. Cattle and horses graze among huge trees with interesting twisted limbs and strawberry fields abound!

Older but Trendy

The South Central Coast is one of the oldest wine regions in California, but is also among the trendiest.

In the eighteenth century Spanish missions and vineyards were dotted along the area. By the early 1980’s the South Central Coast had become a favorite of small up-and-coming wine companies on a very tight budget.

Smart and imaginative winemakers who understood the area’s potential like “Foxen” and “Sanford” took up residency and made delicious wines.

However, by the late 1980’s big companies like Robert Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Beringer grabbed up huge tracts of vineyard land at super low prices.

There was a looming sentiment that the character of the South Central Coast would be lost to corporate winemaking. Luckily that did not happen! These valleys remain full of young and hip winemakers with an energy and ingenuity that makes great wine.

It is interesting to note that many of these small and newer wine companies have been started by sommeliers who have taught themselves winemaking – primarily because they want to be in the Santa Barbara area. Instead of being full of trained winemakers with enology degrees, many of the wineries in Santa Barbara exist because of a love for the area and the wine it produces.

The Geologic Past of Santa Barbara

Parts of the South Central Coast have some of the coldest wine areas in the state. Although they are located in the southerly latitude, the direction where the main valleys lie is the reason for this.

California had a geologic past that is far from ordinary. Most of the state’s mountain ranges were formed in a north/south direction, disturbing and opening valleys that also ran north to south. As an example, Napa and Sonoma as well as the large Central Valley are included in this description.

The wine areas of Santa Barbara (Santa Ynez and Santa Maria), were formed so that the valleys run east to west, enabling them to get fog and cold offshore winds directly.

The winds coming in from the Pacific Ocean makes summertime temperatures stay around the low 70’s.

The Soil

The soils here have also been influenced by the Pacific Ocean. Most are sedimentary soils left from ancient sea beds. Many of these are now covered by many feet of wind-blown sand.

In the far western parts of the valley, such as Sta. Rita Hills, the soils are often fossilized sand dunes that have been weathered with centuries of age.

The Climate

Of the two main regions of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria is the most northern and Santa Ynez is the most southern. Within Santa Ynez, from west (coldest) to east (warmest):

  • Sta. Rita Hills: Sta. Rita Hills sits at the far western end of Santa Barbara. It is a small cluster of hills originally considered too cold for growing grapes. In 1970, Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict took a risk and planted Pinot Noir here.

The vineyard they established – Sanford and Benedict – went on to become one of the most well-known vineyards in California, proving that Sta. Hills was able to produce spectacular Pinot Noirs despite its cold climate. 50+ wineries are now located in Sta. Rita Hills and make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards here.

  • Ballard Canyon: inland and further from the ocean, known for outstanding Syrah
  • Happy Canyon: also inland and away from the ocean, great Cabernet Sauvignons, wonderful Sauvignon Blancs and also Syrah are known to be complex and delicious here

The Name: Happy Canyon

The interesting story of how Happy Canyon got its name is one that deserves to be mentioned. Happy Canyon was once a moonshine-making site for local dude ranches. It’s also where Hollywood directors filmed westerns such as The Lone Ranger.

Santa Barbara’s Cold Climate Grapes


Chardonnay makes up about 40 percent of the grapes grown in the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. The chardonnays produced here have texture, complexity and distinct acidity.

LaFond chardonnay is a celebrated wine from this area. The wine maker’s notes are as follows: “A blend of two neighboring vineyards, showcasing the Santa Rita Hills ripe, concentrated chardonnay for which the AVA is known”.

Other top rated chardonnays from this area include Melville Estates and Au Bon Climat. These wines have been compared to Burgundian Premier Crus.

Comparisons to Burgundy, France

Burgundian Premier Crus are dry red wines made from pinot noir grapes and white wines made from chardonnay grapes in the eastern area of France known as Burgundy. Held in high esteem, Premier Cru status is an elite one and is characterized by vineyards located in the very best locations in Burgundy.

Defined as being highly specific to its terroir (the collective influence of soil, composition, elevation, sun exposure and climate), the wines of Santa Barbara are given the highest compliment when this well-deserved comment is made about their wines.

Highly Regarded Producers

  • Melville Estates: Melville Estates produces exceptional cold-climate pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah grown exclusively in their estate vineyards throughout the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. As one of the most highly regarded estates in California, the cold-climate location in the western Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara is what brought father and son here from Sonoma County.

Melville’s Inox (meaning “stainless-steel” in French) is an incredibly lush chardonnay. Every drop is dependent on the purity of the fruit – meaning it sees no exposure to oak barrels.


  • Au Bon Climat is also a very highly esteemed producer. Winemaker Jim Clendenen’s Santa Barbara chardonnays have been described as “Burgundian in style and structure with a match of delicacy and richness”.

Also a producer of pinot noir and pinot blanc, these wines are described as an homage to Burgundy. These wines are also said to age beautifully because of their balance and restraint.

The area’s wines in general are said to have an exotic fruit quality, with an “apparent minerality”. Top wine maker Rick Longoria describes this as “a chalky, rocky, salty character”. These characteristics most likely come from the region’s sandy sea bed soils.

Santa Barbara and Pinot Noir

Some of the best pinot noirs in the state of California are made in the Santa Barbara area. Pinot noirs are characterized by strong fruit flavors, spice, and earthiness.

Vivid fruit flavors and acidic structure are at the forefront of the pinot’s here. Not to say that the earthiness does not exist – because it does – just not predominately. A pinot noir drinker looking only for the forest-like characters found in many pinot noirs will not find it here.

South Central Coast pinot noirs have a cool fruit, tight-knit character that comes alive after the first sip. In other words, the fruit in the wine becomes a lovely mixture of aromas and flavors.

The pinot noirs here have the quality that is a prerequisite for complexity in wine. That quality is a very long and precise growing season. It also helps that they have what is known as an early bud break. Bud break is when a new bud bursts out of an existing plant. It’s the first visual clue that dormant grape vines are waking up for the new growing season.

The lack of heat spikes also mean that the grapes are able to retain their crisp acidity giving them perfect aromatics. This is where the bright flavors come from, as mentioned above.

Santa Barbara and Syrah

Some wine experts say that the South Central Coast is the ultimate place for syrah. Syrah here is consistently and uniquely good. Syrah is characterized as thick, wild, and “meaty”. There is a huge blueberry syrup-like character that’s cut with the perfect amount of spiciness.

Some of the Top Syrahs Produced Here are:

  • Sanquis: Sanquis’ highly rated “Misfit Syrah” is reviewed in the Wine enthusiast – “aromas of charred pork rind, smashed black raspberry and rosemary blossom, with a palate that is tart with black plum and elderberry – yet full of roasted lamb and cracked pepper flavors.”


  • Jonata: Jonata in Santa Ynez Valley prides itself as being on the “vanguard of an emerging quality movement in California wine growing”. The name Jonata pays homage to the 1845 Spanish land great, Rancho San Carlos de Jonata. Jonata is at the heart of that land grant. The name means “tall oak”.


From the first harvest in 2004 and under the guidance of Matt Dees, Jonata’s winemaker, it become clear that planting syrah here (as well as sangiovese and Bordeaux varieties) was a wise decision with wines garnering critical acclaim from Robert Parker and many other esteemed wine critics.


  • Andrew Murray: These reds are powerful wines but perfectly nuanced. Robert Parker writes: “Andrew Murray Vineyards is one of the shining stars in the Santa Barbara firmament. Extremely low yields… and a dedication to hillside vineyards, ripe fruit, and non-interventionalistic wine-making have combined to propel this estate to the top echelon. Production is small but these wines are well worth seeking out.


  • Zotovich: A small family-owned and operated winery located in Sta. Rita Hills. From bud break to bottle, painstaking attention is paid to the wines in both vineyard and cellar. An estate syrah that is dark and brooding, with bursts of blackcurrants, Sopressa, olive and lavender. The structure is provided by a chewy frame and bright acid. Layered and vibrant, the syrah is aged in 100% neutral French oak for 18 months.


  • The Ojai Vineyard: 100% syrah, the flavors in this wine are full of cedar, incense, spice, sage, and a deep, rich, red meatiness. Among wine industry insiders, the owner/ winemaker of the tiny Ojai Vineyard is considered one of the best winemakers in California.

Visiting Santa Barbara Wine Country

Santa Ynez, Santa Maria and Santa Rita are positively charming and laid-back. They are also considered some of the most sophisticated wine regions in the state, despite their countryside locations.

The countryside is absolutely beautiful – add quaint wineries to this natural beauty, and you have the thing that makes visiting this wine country particularly fantastic.

The experience of strolling around in town is also a great time in Santa Barbara. There are a number of small towns devoted to wine tastings.

The Movie Sideways and the Hitching Post II

A note about the restaurant made famous by the movie “Sideways”. Sideways was a 2004 comedy-drama that follows two men in their forties, taking a trip to Santa Barbara wine country to celebrate one of the men’s upcoming wedding. Nominated for multiple academy awards and winning one for best adapted screenplay, the film increased tourism to the Santa Ynez Valley.

The Hitching Post II in Buellton is a local hangout made famous in the movie! Grilled red meats are their specialty and a great accompaniment is their great red wines.

Throughout the film one of the men speaks fondly of pinot noir but denigrates merlot. After the release of the film, merlot sales dropped 2% while pinot noir sales increased 16% in the Western United States.

A 2009 study by Sonoma State University found that sideways slowed the growth in merlot sales but the film’s main effect on the wine industry was a positive one. A rise in sales volume and in overall wine consumption followed.

Sideways Pinot Noir

Rex Pickett – the author of the novel Sideways – decided to launch his own pinot noir named Sideways in 2018. After a three month research trip to Chile for Sideways 3 Chile, he reportedly fell in love with the country, the people, and their wine.

Wineries near Lompoc, California: the Wine Ghetto

The reverse-chic “wine ghetto”, located in the town of Lompoc, is a confab of small, hip tasting rooms and wine production facilities. The first winemaker here was Rick Longoria in 1998.

Longoria didn’t have money to build a winery. He decided that the proximity of the industrial park to his vineyards could be advantageous.

The blue and white industrial buildings would later house 20+ brands including Fiddlehead and Stolpman.

The food trucks, camaraderie, laid-back atmosphere, and of course, world-class wine make this a must-see destination.

It’s fun to think of how close this area is to Hollywood – yet how far Hollywood is from the wine ghetto in style. In distance Santa Barbara County is the closest wine region to tinsel town, but in theory you couldn’t get farther away!