Santa Barbara County’s wine grape growing and winemaking history began in 1782 when Father Junipero Serra brought grapevine cuttings from Mexico to be planted near Sycamore Creek. In 1804, the largest mission vineyard, 25 acres, was established just north of Santa Barbara, adjacent to San Jose Creek on land that is now part of the town of Goleta. An adobe winery was built as well, and it still stands as Goleta’s oldest landmark.
In 1884, Justinian Caire imported grape slips from France and planted a 150-acre vineyard on Santa Cruz Island. His prize-winning wines were shipped to San Francisco for bottling. Meanwhile, a grapevine planted in 1842 on a farm in Carpinteria grew to monstrous proportions. In fifty years, it had a trunk measuring nine feet around, an arbor covering two acres and an annual yield of ten tons of grapes.
Santa Barbara County’s first modern-day winery, aptly named Santa Barbara Winery, was founded in 1962 by Pierre Lafond, the 32-year-old owner of a popular wine and cheese shop. It wasn’t until two years later, however, that the county’s first commercial wine grape vineyard was planted – by UC Davis viticulture graduates Uriel Nielsen and Bill DeMattei. Lafond’s own vineyard was planted in 1972. Other pioneers included Firestone, Sanford, Rancho Sisquoc and Zaca Mesa.
Around 1980, vineyard owners and winemakers began fine-tuning vineyard plantings and winemaking to reflect Santa Barbara’s terroir. Chardonnay and pinot noir began replacing chenin blanc and white Riesling, and the county’s cooler regions began hosting Rhone varietals such as syrah, grenache, mourvedre, viognier, marsanne and rousanne. Today, chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah are the most widely planted grapes.
Santa Barbara’s wine growing region is home to a topographic feature not found anywhere else in the contiguous U.S. — a pair of mountain ranges running east-west rather than north-south. The result is a funnel effect that ushers in fog and cool air from the Pacific Ocean, thereby extending the growing season and allowing the grapes to develop intense flavors and optimum acid-sugar ratios as they ripen slowly and evenly. These favorable conditions, combined with plentiful sunshine and soils conducive to growing exemplary wine grapes, are the perfect elements for a world-class wine growing region.
There are three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Santa Barbara County. The Santa Ynez Valley AVA is the largest and is home to more than 50 wineries and many acres of vineyards. It consists of the warmer eastern part of the valley — farther from the ocean and, therefore, the recipient of less cooling ocean influence — and the significantly cooler Santa Rita Hills in the west, closer to the ocean. The difference is so great in the two parts of the valley that the Santa Rita Hills has now received its own AVA designation.
The third AVA, Santa Maria Valley, is bounded by the San Rafael Mountains (as they curve northward) to the east and the Solomon Hills and the city of Santa Maria to the west. Windy, cool and often foggy, this is another cool-climate growing area more similar to Burgundy, the French home of pinot noir and chardonnay, than to Bordeaux, where merlot and cabernet sauvignon are the mainstays. Those grapes are grown in the warmer, eastern part of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Because Santa Barbara is blessed with a cornucopia of microclimates, winemakers are able to produce a wide array of wines to please virtually any palate. After nearly forty years of experimentation and fine-tuning by vintners in order to match grape varietals with the region’s terroir, however, a handful of varietal wines and blends are taking center stage and achieving acclaim. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) and Viognier are standouts among white wines, while Pinot Noir and Syrah shine in the red wine category.
The most comprehensive information about Santa Barbara’s wine country, wines, wineries and wine events may be found at the website of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association.