Were you a painting, who would paint you? Would Dali capture how surreal you make the real? Would Picasso be able to abstract your complexity? Would Van Gough capture the passion or Rembrandt do justice to your story or DaVinci to your intensity? Would Cézanne capture your soul or Michelangelo your beauty? A picture they say is worth a thousand words, where does that leave me?
– With just my thirst for you; which comprises my existence here and hereinafter.
Along the picturesque jagged Pacific coastline of US 101N, approximately 90 minutes north of Los Angeles urban sprawl, lies dreamy downtown Santa Barbara – Mediterranean climate, lush tropical landscape, yachts jostling on the blue harbor, Spanish haciendas and Italian villas. Separated by the mountains enveloped in a hauntingly ethereal fog lies SB County Wineries, California’s best kept secret.
While America was engulfed in its war of Independence in 1782, much before California was declared a state, missionaries specifically Father Junipero Serra planted mission vine cuttings in Santa Barbara County. Fast forward to 2017, SB county wine region boasts 190+ wineries, 27,155 acres dedicated to 50 varietals where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are king and queen respectively, including Spanish, Rhone, and Italian varieties, spanning over 6 AVAs within Santa Barbara County: Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley nestling the AVAs – Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District.
At Point Conception in SB County, California’s coastline veers into an uncommon East-West orientation of mountain ranges, giving the land open access to maritime influence. This combination of sea and eternal fog creates cool conditions. In fact as per UC Davis Heat Summation Index, SB lies under Region I – despite its southerly latitude, the coolest region in the state. Recurring echo we heard – “significant temperature change as one travels East to West, where each mile inland adds an additional ½ to 1 degree Fahrenheit”.
With only one week to spare for our maiden voyage of SB county, our wine trail included the fore fathers, emblematic wineries, and for good measure, a few new kids on the block.
Shall we taste?
Sta. Rita Hills
(official AVA of Santa Barbara County)
Nestled within Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Sta. Rita Hills stretches from town of Buelton to Lompoc, including all locales between Santa Rosa Hills and Purisma Hills. Legal battle with Chilean producer Viña Santa Rita led to a change in the original AVA’s name from Santa Rita Hills to Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Blessed with ancient marine soils, elevated calcium content, maritime influence, and some of the longest growing seasons in the world (full month longer than Oregon), Sta. Rita Hills produces some of the most compelling Chardonnays and poignant Pinot Noirs.
Paying homage to the petulant princess Pinot Noir, Sanford & Benedict is home to the first and oldest Pinot Noir planting in Santa Barbara County (1971). Located in Lompoc – the Valley of the Flowers (the leading producer of the world’s flower seeds). Today under the umbrella of the Terlato Family (luxury wine importer), coupled with the discerning palate and expertise of winemaker Steve Fennell, Sanford continues its illustrious legacy of producing deeply intriguing, savory, outright delicious wines from some of the most coveted vineyards in California.
Sprawled in the heart of Sta. Rita Hills, Sanford’s winery and tasting room commands lofty views of the Sta. Rita Hills, surrounded by the immortals vineyards of Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada, both sustainably farmed. Shy of eight miles from the Pacific shore, meandering mountain springs, cold mornings (average of 75F in peak summer), and naturally hang times do the rest.
A sweet spot that never disappoints, Sanford & Benedict vineyard is home to 20 individual blocks, 11 different clones, and original plantings of Pinot Noir thriving on their own root stock, a rarity in the aftermath of the world’s most wanted pest phylloxera. Enriched with calcium-rich clay loam and shale soils, the resulting Pinot Noirs are shimmering with ripe red fruit, kissed with savory dried herbs and sweet baking spices, framed by velvety tannins, uplifted by vibrant acidity.
The intoxicating Chardonnays of S&B old vines expressed haunting depth, flintiness, and racy acidity that awakened our senses, beckoning a platter of sweet oysters, while La Rinconada Vineyard flawlessly exemplified the diversity of terroir with mineral-laced aromas of soft stone fruit, rich mouthfeel, finishing seamlessly with pure energy, including a vivacious Viognier. Both dazzling with purity and finesse.
Sanford Winery & Vineyards: 5010 Santa Rosa Road, Lompoc, CA 93436. Phone (805) 735-5900.
Santa Barbara Tasting Room: 1114 State Street, Suite# 26, Santa Barbara, Ca 93101. Phone: 805-770-7873 or 800-426-9363 ext. 3.
No sojourn to SB wine country is complete without an exhilarating stop at Santa Barbara County’s founding father and California Vineyard Hall of Fame inductee Richard Sanford’s winery. Committing to sustainable agricultural and business practices including organic farming and green building techniques, Richard Sanford founded Alma Rosa in 2005.
A relationship forged by their common love for organics, Richard’s erudite wine maker Nick de Luca, tutelaged under oenophile magnates David Ramey and Paul Hobbs. A proponent of native yeasts and hunger-inducing wines that belong on the table (Sicilian wife, go figure), Nick’s sensible wine-making style includes an obligation to the consumer, he fulfills splendidly – the promise of evolution with each sip of an Alma Rosa wine.
Our tantalizing line up included sparkling gems of Blanc de Blancs 2013 (Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc blend), Brut Rose 2013 (both methode champenoise), savory citrus flavored Pinot Blanc 2014, lively lemongrass scented El Jabli Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, clonal labeled brawny 2014 Pinot Noir 667, savory rose petal kissed Mt Eden Clone 2013 PN, and their flagship barrel select 2013 Pinot Noir, a people pleaser.
Alma Rosa Tasting Room: 181-C Industrial Way, Buellton, CA 93427. Phone: 805.691.9395
Fun Fact: If Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red grapes (89,697 acres), Chardonnay is the queen of whites in America. California’s most widely planted wine grape Chardonnay (96,819 acres in 2015) is also lauded as America’s most popular wine.
Some of the most captivating Chardonnays I have had the pleasure to taste from American soil are produced by the dapper Greg Brewer. Singing with exotic perfume, succulent texture, these beauties showcase their exquisite potential given a few years in the bottle.
With distinctly diverse terroirs of 3D, Machado, Acin, and Hapgood Vineyards, all located in Sta. Rita. Hills AVA, Brewer-Clifton Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are dripping with sheer sensuality and energy.
Brewer-Clifton Tasting Room: 329 North F Street Lompoc, CA 93436. Phone: 805.735.9184.
Lauded Top Ten Small Production Winemakers in the World by the James Beard Foundation, Bryan Babcock continues his parent’s legacy, skillfully transfusing his cerebral beliefs into mesmerizing, idiomatic wines recognized for their purity, intensity and above all expression of terroir.
Magnanimous maverick, Bryon enraptured our minds and palates with radical farming techniques from Saterasion Irrigation (saturation-irrigation at veraison) to Radical Canopy Pivoting (literally trellising vines upside down) leading to healthier vines and higher quality of fruit, ingenious wine making, and scintillating conversation with a healthy dose of humor, over some of the purest expressions of varietals ranging from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, my personal crush – Cabernet Franc, and for prosperity – a late harvest Pinot Gris. Magnificent wines at modest prices.
Rumor amongst the grape vines is PSI clone originates from the revered grounds of Burgundy Grand Cru vineyard – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The tasting room houses the grandest of all twinnings – Bryan’s dynamic wines and his wife Lisa’s art memorabilia spanning decades of history, culture, and music. Which transcends into each wine that sings a compelling story of hope and secrets, one that cannot be narrated, only experienced.
Babcock Winery + Vineyards: 5175 E Highway 246 Lompoc CA 93436. Phone: 805.736.1455.
Santa Barbara Wine Collective Tasting Room: 131 Anacapa Street, Suite C, Santa Barbara CA 93101. Phone: 805.456.2700.
Adjacent to Babcock Winery is the family outfit Melville Winery producing cold-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrahs.
Alongside the labyrinth of Sta. Hills vines lies the historic Rancho Tinaquaic where winemaker/founder Bill Wathen and founder/co-owner Dick Doré have been making wine together since 1985. From sassy Sauvignon Blanc, electric Chardonnays, plush Chenins, sweetly spiced Pinots, sensational Syrahs, to Bordeaux and Cal Italian varietals, Foxen seamlessly showcases sustainable and simplistic philosophy.
Foxen Vineyard & Winery: 7600 Foxen Canyon Road Santa Maria, CA 93454. Phone: 805 937-4251.
New kid on the block, an avid golfer Justin Willet, sources fruit from the iconic vineyards of Santa Barbara County to craft limited production brimming with exotically perfumed fruit and finesse.
Tyler Winery Tasting Room: 300 N. 12th Street, Unit 4A, Lompoc, CA. Phone: 805.741.7281.
Owner John Hilliard and Christine Bruce make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with Greg Clifton of Brewer-Clifton winery acting Wine Director on their LEED silver certified winery perched on a 101 acre site.
Hillard Bruce Estate: 2075 Vineyard View Ln, Lompoc, CA 93436. Phone: (805) 736-5366
We had to salvage our tasting appointment with Paul Lato due to conflict of times. Our loss entirely!
Santa Maria Valley
(official AVA of Santa Barbara County)
The region’s first officially approved American Viticultural Area (AVA), Santa Maria Valley is also the northern most appellation in SB County sporting breathtaking landscapes for nature lovers including San Rafael Mountains, Los Padres National Forest, and Solomon Hills.
How do you get 7 winemakers in one room during harvest? You get the culinary maestro and cerebral wine maker Jim Clendenen to host a lunch for you. Truly a surreal moment, meriting an exclusive story, stay tuned!
Tingling with trepidation and excitement, we embarked on the 75 minute car drive from the stunning Santa Barbara hotel – Four Seasons Biltmore. The plush tropical landscape and sparkly sea dramatically transformed, swerving through parched and barren hills. A constant reminder of the drought-infected region and subsequent stress on the vines carpeted through these barren hills. Which begs the question – the effects of stress on vines and subsequently the character of wine produced, I reckon that deserves another poignant publication?
Befittingly, Jim Clendenen winery emerges under the towering hills of Santa Maria Valley. Sourcing premier fruit from Bien Nacido Vineyard and estate Le Bon Climat Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley), Sanford & Benedict (Sta. Rita Hils), Los Alamos Vineyard (Santa Barbara County), and Talley Vineyard (San Luis Obispo County), Jim’s impressive lineup includes alluring renditions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris/Aligote blends.
And then there are the incomparable gems of Sauivgnon Blanc, Gewurtraminer, Aligote, Tocai Friulano, Viognier, Riesling, Syrah, Petite Verdot, Grenache, and perhaps the singular varietally correct interpretation of Italy’s king of grapes – Nebbiolo, I have had the privilege of tasting from American Soil.
It’s moments like these (4 hours & counting), inducing a state of surrealism – a glass or in our case a tasting line up of 2016 to 1997 (pinch me), served with a lavish spread, cooked by the god father himself Jim, sourced entirely from his personal garden, surrounded by wine mavens, under the steep-sloped hills of Santa Maria Valley, is what dreams are made of.
That’s the magic touch of winemaker extraordinaire Jim, who has been making wines of sheer purity and balance, setting a benchmark expression of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir and Chardonnay since 1989. One of the greatest values in California money can buy.
The entire family of Au Bon Climat wines from current releases to library wines, including ingenious projects and large format are available at ABC Climat tasting room, conveniently located in downtown SB.
ABC Tasting Room: 813 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101. Phone: 805-963-7999.
The brain child of one of America’s most admired Rhone Ranger – Bob Linquidist, Qupe (pronounced kyoo-pay’) honors the indigenous people of the Golden State’s Central Coast and Channel Islands, also is the Indian word for the California state flower – golden poppy.
Five minutes, a perfectly seared juice dripping chunk of meat, and a bottle of 1997 Qupe Syrah was all it took to recognize why Bob Linquidist, (recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Rhone Rangers), is one of the most admired and adored wine pioneers of California.
A stalwart of cool climate syrah, Bob Linquidist produced his very first vintage of Chardonnay, Syrah, and a dry rose of Pinot Noir while the Los Angeles Dodgers were still basking in the glory of winning their 4th world series in 1982. A die-hard fan, Bob had his star moment producing the 2013 “Qupe Santa Barbara Syrah, Dodgers™ Club Series”. I would like to believe that was the plan all along. Specializing in Spanish varietals including the aromatic Albariño is Bob’s biod-dynamic label – Verdad co-owned with winemaker and wife Louisa.
Stars were aligned in their favor or should I say the worlds, as we reap the benefits of the life-long friendship and partnership that bloomed between Jim Clenenden (ABC Climat) and Bob under the iconic winery Zac Mesa’s roof. In 1989 Lindquist and Clendenen collaborated to build a winery, under a lease agreement with the prized Bien Nacido vineyards, where to this day they continue to handcraft a cornucopia of deeply intriguing wines at unbelievably modest prices.
Even more commendable is the magnamity of these two tireless wine champions, who have shaped SB County’s enological lineage by mentoring an illustrious lines of prodigies including Jim Adelman, Gary Burk, Frank Ostini and Grey Hartley, Paul Lato, Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, Morgan Clendenen, and Gavin Chanin.
(official AVA of Santa Barbara County)
The newest assigned AVA of SB County (established October 30th, 2013 , Ballard Canyon sits smack in the middle between the cool maritime climate of Sta. Rita Hills on the west and warmer temperatures of Happy Canyon to the East. Ballard Canyon is America’s hallow ground for the sexy siren Syrah and its blending Rhone partners – Grenache, Viognier, and Roussane.
Considered the founding vineyard of Ballard Canyon AVA), Stolpman Vineyards is a family-owned outfit whose dream team – the charismatic Stolpman boys – tom and Pete, luminous ladies – Marilyn and Jessica, avante-garde winemaker Sashi Moorman, and grape whisperer Ruben Solorzano are collectively taking Syrah – Ballard Canyon’s signature grape, Roussanne, Grenache, and Sangiovese to mouth-watering heights.
Perched on top of a steep-sloped vineyard, was Villa Angeli, our back drop for Stolpman tasting, the private summer residence of the Stolpman family, one of four delectable venues to savor Stolpman’s splendid juice.
Blessed with marine-rich limestone soil, transition to organic and dry farming, minimal manipulation wine making philosophy, and dramatic diurnal change (up to 40 degrees) the Stoplman boys render gripping wines of extraordinary focus and kinetic energy. From ravishing Roussanne hand rotated to achieve its sun-soaked golden tan, Estate Syrah exuding vibrant blue fruits and juicy acidity, to Original’s Syrah from sandstone soils begging for succulent steaks of lamb or beef.
The vineyard also supports a polyculture including 5 acres of olive trees for extra virgin olive oil and a 14 acre rotating vegetable farm.
Stolpman Vineyards: 434 Alamo Pintado Avenue, Los Olivos CA 93441. Phone: 805.688.0400
Fun Fact: With over 913 million gallons wine consumed annually, America is the leading consumer of wine surpassing even France and Italy. Of which 90% comes from California.
“The connoisseur doesn’t drink wine but it tastes its secrets” – Salvador Dali. So come hither oenophiles and wannabes, savor the essence of Purisima Mountain’s fruit, where the talents of the Beckmen family meets glorious Grenache (co-fermented with Syrah), full bodied yet fresh and focused Syrah, citrus kissed Chardonnay, all from their biodynamic vineyard from the charming town of Los Olivos in the heart of Santa Ynez Valley.
Embark on the “Experience Beckmen” tour offered daily at 11 am to discern the dynamics of Beckmen wines or park yourself on one of the 4 gazebos (reservations required) for a delightful picnic while savoring the Santa Barbara sun.
Beckmen Vineyards: 2670 Ontiveros Road, Los Olivos, CA 93441. Phone: 805-688-8664
I for one have only the highest regard and admiration for people who stand strong to their convictions and beliefs, choosing the more arduous and less traveled road to arrive at their destination. Santa Barbara County wineries reaffirmed the recurring rhythm of eternal passion and dauntless conviction forged out of respect for their mountainous and savage land.
I implore you to change the paradigm of your mind. Santa Barbara County wine makers are the modern age explorers, relinquishing ships for grapes. From the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyards to the fashionable wines of Paul Lato, there has never been a better time to initiate your immersion into Santa Barbara County Wineries, who are producing exhilarating beauties dipped in sensuality and finesse.