Santa Barbara County

Bruce Cochran’s
Wine of the Week: April 14

Hello Everyone,

Running a day late this week. Just got back from a trip to the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America convention in Orlando where nearly 2,000 people gathered around hundreds of wines and spirits for three days.  Good to go, and good to get back.

This week we’ll discuss California’s coolest wine county — literally.  And I learned something new with this one.  It’s an appellation in California that I didn’t know: a small, high-altitude valley where cabernet grows in the heart of pinot noir country.  That’s unusual.

Try a new wine this week!


Located on the south end of California’s Central Coast, Santa Barbara County has become famous for rich yet elegant chardonnay and pinot noir, and recently parts of it have become known for Rhone varietals as well, particularly syrah.

Geography is most important reason.  Not only do mountains run east to west there, but for 50 miles so does the coast. Cool Pacific breezes flow inland, making some of their vineyards the coolest in California.

There are four official wine appellations, with plenty of diverse microclimates within them. Today there are more than 60 wineries and 21,000 acres of vineyards, mostly in three districts: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.

Santa Maria Valley

Far smaller than the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley runs east to west, allowing Pacific fog and coastal breezes to enter, extending the fall ripening period and allowing the grapes more time to develop flavor.  Much of the region is planted to chardonnay and pinot noir, with a large part of that in three famous vineyards: Tepusquet, Sierra Madre and Bien Nacido.
Very close to the ocean and therefore one of the county’s coolest regions is an area called Solomon Hills.

Santa Ynez Valley

The Santa Ynez Valley is the largest wine region in Santa Barbara County. It’s a long valley formed by the San Raphael Mountains on the north and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the south. The western section is tempered by the Pacific, and is planted mostly in chardonnay and pinot noir.  Up the Santa Ynez River to the east—inland—the elevation rises nearly 1,000 feet
At this higher altitude, in north-south running side canyons, vineyards have higher temperature fluctuations between daytime and night, and a warmer climate overall. This is where much of the region’s syrah is planted.

Santa Rita Hills

Santa Rita Hills is one of  California’s newest — and maybe best—cool-climate wine regions. It’s very small, and until recently was mostly considered as a part of western Santa Ynez Valley. The leading grape varieties are chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as some syrah. The Santa Rita Hills also benefit from Pacific breezes, leading to low yields and intense flavors.  The official name is Sta. Rita Hills, changed to resolve a dispute with Chilean winery Vina Santa Rita.

Recently, a fourth official appellation has emerged, with one of the best names:  Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.  It’s small, so you won’t see a lot of wines from there.  It’s at the far eastern end of Santa Ynez Valley, with the county’s warmest temperatures.  Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon are doing well there.

Ken Volk’s “Santa Maria Cuvee” Chardonnay has grapes from  his Santa Maria Estate Vineyard, the famous Sierra Madre Vineyards in south Santa Maria Valley, and Garey Vineyard, planted in the heart of Santa Maria Valley by Robert Mondavi in 1998.

Each contributes its own unique feature to the three-vineyard blend.  It retails for $18-$20 per bottle.

Categories: Food