Santa Barbara is much more than pinot noir (and snapshot of Santa Barbara's current releases)


In Sideways, Miles describes Santa Barbara as the pinot noir grape’s “promised land.” But make no mistake: Santa Barbara not just about pinot noir; nor only about chardonnay. In fact, much of the Santa Barbara is not even suited to those particular grapes, but rather completely different ones.

As a growing region, Santa Barbara is made up of four officially recognized American Viticultural Areas (i.e. AVAs); plus at least another four unofficial sub-regions, known to vintners and aficionados by their varying climates, soil types and topographies.

The county’s largest AVA, for instance, is Santa Ynez Valley; which runs along the Santa Ynez River in a west-to-east direction, starting about 12 miles from the coast at the town of Lompoc, extending 28 or so miles until running up against the Los Padres National Forest. At the western end of Santa Ynez Valley is the sub-AVA of Sta. Rita Hills; where due to its coastal proximity, temperatures can run a good 15 to 20 degrees lower on any given day of the growing season than that of the recently recognized (only since Nov. 2009) sub-AVA of Happy Canyon, located at the far eastern end of Santa Ynez Valley.

The drastic difference in heat units alone makes Sta. Rita Hills ideal for growing pinot noir and chardonnay; whereas virtually no pinot noir and chardonnay are grown in Happy Canyon. It may be too hot to produce much more than mediocre pinot noir or chardonnay on the east side of Santa Ynez Valley; but Happy Canyon does happily produce truly fresh, highly lauded white wines from the sauvignon blanc grape, extremely promising red wine combinations from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, as well as fine examples of Rhône style wines from grapes like syrah, grenache and viognier.

Richard Sanford, Sta. Rita Hills pioneer

Between Santa Ynez Valley’s Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon are the unofficial sub-regions of Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos. Here, vineyards planted on hillsides and benches sit in fairly warm climatic pockets which, like Happy Canyon, are more conducive to Mediterranean climate grapes. A number of California’s most acclaimed syrahs – black, dense, yet unctuous, perfumed wines – are produced in this middle section; as well as perfectly respectable, if underappreciated, reds from the Italian Sangiovese grape. Remember the scenes in Sideways where Miles dumps a bucket of spittooned wine on his face, and jumps out of the car in self-pitying dispair? These were filmed in Firestone Vineyards near Los Olivos, and Miles is running through winery’s 25-30 year old cabernet sauvignon.

North of Santa Ynez Valley is the Santa Maria Valley AVA, which enjoys relatively cool, morning fog shrouded growing seasons effected directly by a good sized coastal gap between Arroyo Grande (in neighboring San Luis Obispo County) and the farming community of Santa Maria: near-perfect growing conditions for pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as Northern Rhône grapes like syrah and viognier. Some of the county’s best known producers – like Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Cambria and Byron – draw most of their grapes from Santa Maria Valley.

Sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley is the unofficially recognized sub-region of Los Alamos Valley; enjoying moderate micro-climates that produce excellent pinot noir and chardonnay, but becoming increasingly known for exceptional Rhône style wines made from syrah, viognier, marsanne and roussanne. Finally, atop the hillsides of the Tepusquet Mountain Range at 400-800 ft. elevations, is the lesser known, unofficial sub-region called Santa Maria Bench; where lean hillside soils and fairly cool microclimates make for especially intense, velvety styles of syrah.

En conclusión: if you are not appreciating the “other” wines being produced in this promised land, you are simply missing out on a lot of pleasure. The following is a report recently published in Sommelier Journal (Nov. 2009) on some of the latest releases from Santa Barbara, culled from conversations with some of the county’s most respected winemakers. Re:

Stolpman Vineyard's Sashi Moorman

SNAPSHOT OF SANTA BARBARA’S FINEST CURRENT RELEASES

No one has farmed in Sta. Rita Hills as long as Richard Sanford, who describes the 2007 vintage as “mild… without the occasional bursts of heat we often experience in summer.” There were no issues in spring, so vineyards carrying modest crop loads “ripened well, the stems and seeds browning before harvest, the acid balance high.” Hence, Sanford’s 2007 Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Noir; its raspberry/blueberry fruitiness tinged with brown spices and soft but snappy, sinewy textures.

At the center of Santa Ynez Valley along Ballard Canyon Rd – a fairly warm climate region influenced as much by hillsides composed of beach sand and white calcareous stones – Steve Beckmen reports that 2007 was actually also a “cool vintage” atop his Purisima Mountain estate. For Beckmen, the combination of drastically reduced yields, Biodynamic® farming, and unusually mild temperatures produced “some profound syrah wines.” While structured with tannin and acidity, the 2007 Beckmen Purisima Mountain Syrah leans more towards gushy, fruit-bomb qualities, with violet, dark berry notes true to the grape; whereas from a south facing slope next door to Beckmen’s vineyard along Ballard Canyon Rd., the 2007 Stolpman Estate Syrah, is even deeper, thicker, more viscous in meaty, smoky, lavender and violet perfumed fruit.

In respect to their white wine grapes, Tom Stolpman and his winemaker/viticulturist Sashi Moorman both describe 2007 as “perfect,” and pushing the envelope with their dry farmed, close spacing, they produced a 2007 Stolpman L’Avion (90% roussanne/10% viognier) of stunning qualities: huge, round, fleshy with glycerol and waves of exotic fruit (mango, honeysuckle and ginger flowers).

In the cooler confines of Santa Maria Valley, Bob Lindquist describes 2007 as an “outstanding vintage,” marked by a long, cool season allowing grapes to ripen to ideal acid/pH balance at sugars 1 to 2 degrees Brix lower than normal. Lindquist’s 2007 Qupe Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne weighs in at a mere, levitating 12.6% alcohol, with a lemony crispness, minerally texture, and the classic white flower/marzipan/vanilla bean varietal fragrance.

Finally, since Santa Barbara is best known for pinot noir, it is important to note that we will soon be seeing a number of the earliest releases from the 2008 vintage. Pinophiles, gird thyselves: the ’08 pinots will be everything a proverbial Miles would want. Farming in Santa Maria Valley, for instance, Costa de Oro’s Gary Burk tells us to expect wines “characterized by a smooth and even ripening curve.” The grapes from Burk’s Gold Coast Vineyard came in with “beautiful balance and precise pinot noir flavors,” adding that “this vintage reminds me of 2005, where we had equally balanced and age-worthy wines.” In fact, the 2008 Costa de Oro Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is already plump and buoyant with juicy pinot fruit, its luxurious, velvet texture riding on graceful acidity, and prominent spice and earth notes.

Costa de Oro's Gary Burk



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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.