Santa Barbara’s story begins, as does all California wine histories, with Catholicism. The spread of the Church has always meant the spread of winegrowing for use in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and Friar Junipera Serra of the Franciscan Order did no differently. Bringing grapes to all 9 missions he founded from Baja California to San Francisco, he founded the winemaking culture in the Milpas District in Santa Barbara County. From there, only a small portion of the county devoted itself to winemaking: winemaking never totaled more than 50 vineyards or 500 acres, none of which survived Prohibition.
Serious winemaking didn’t even begin to start again in Santa Barbara until the 60’s in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys, its two oldest and most famous regions. The 80’s brought on the recognition of the two valleys as AVAs, an explosion in the producers of Pinot Noir and Syrah (equally well-grown in the region) and the formations of established institutions we know today, like Qupe, Au Bon Climat and Santa Barbara Winery. From there, Pinot Noir only got bigger and bigger, truly exploding when featured in Alexander Payne’s Sideways. From there, many a skilled hand has come to Santa Barbara to try their luck with the cool climates and rich soil that produces such killer juice.
Where does that leave you, though? Why is it so good? Who’s making it best? Why should you drink that instead of the “the f^&*ing merlot”?
But most importantly, why should you put down that perfectly excellent glass of Etude or Penner-Ash or any heirloom Burgundy and pop open a bottle of Whatever-the-Hell from a tiny little vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills?
The first answer, naturally, is quality. The key to a good Pinot are its conditions, since the Pinot Noir grape is so transparent to its regions’s strengths and faults. Santa Barbara is, luckily, home to a cool ocean breeze in the morning and warm sunny afternoons year-round. When you add superb soils, a small-scale attention to detail and plenty of hungry-to-create winemakers in the region, you create an almost super-blend of the best flavors Pinot Noir has to offer. Pick yourself up a bottle and you’re likely to find the distinct cherry and bright tannins of Burgundy, the naturally complexity and roundness of Oregon and and the light, creamy oak umami of Carneros.
For a really nice example without having to throw too much hard-earned money at it, Byron Winery has been producing exceptional estate wines since Ken Brown founded it in 1984. You can pick up a bottle of their Santa Barbara Pinot Noir for roughly $15-20 and enjoy a rich tapestry of all the aforementioned flavors and a light richness you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in that price range.
Therein lies the second reason. As much as I love Goldeneye by Duckhorn (a truly exceptional Anderson Valley specialty), I can’t say I enjoy dropping $60 plus per bottle at my local Spec’s every time I want a quality Pinot. And God knows what you’d pay at a high-end restaurant or wine bar for the same. However, you can likely pick up an equivalent quality from Santa Barbara for roughly half the price. Cargasacchi Vineyards out of Sta. Rita often sells their grapes off to other vineyards like Siduri and Ken Brown (among others) and produces its own estate wine for ridiculously reasonable prices, considering the quality you get. Which, if you’re on a waiter’s salary like me, is a godsend.
Perhaps most importantly, the best feature is the attention-to-detail that the local winemakers seem to pay to their craft. Santa Barbara’s winemaking has been thrust into the national spotlight because of Sideways and has grown exponentially because of it, but the taste and spirit have remained “small-town”. As good as it is, Santa Barbara still doesn’t call immediately to mind for most the prestige of Napa or Sonoma. However, what it does produce are underdogs who try all the harder for it and produce at a higher quality. If Carneros is a Julia Roberts romance movie, think of Santa Barbara as Juno: accomplishing just as much with a fraction of the star power/money and an effortless natural charm.
There are countless up-and-comers that deserve attention in this piece, but the frontrunner in my mind for months has been the Deep Sea line from Conway Family Winery out of the Central Coast. Their Santa Barbara and Solomon Hills Pinots have both been some of the most vibrant and seductive reds I’ve had all year. True to its name, it’s has a deep complexity and light red fruit tones that will please your friend who drinks Roscato as easily as your average Nuits-St-George loyalist. A newer winery testing itself in my hometown of Houston, it’s really and truly something special and I can’t wait to see it take off.
There’s so much history and promise of a bright future in Santa Barbara wine that there simply isn’t enough room for to expand on it all. Go vote with your dollars and help support something that’ll keep giving back to you, in spades. It’s not often you get to see something special in the making for anything, and you might just kick yourself if you miss this one while it continues to grow into something truly exceptional.