Santa Barbara County's coastal wine region is divided into three vastly different appellations, or growing regions: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and, since 2001, a brand-new Santa Rita Hills appellation.
Santa Maria, featuring crisp, dewy mornings, profits from the east-to-west mountain valleys that allow unhindered ocean breezes to bathe the vineyards in cool moisture. It's here that Bien Nacido Vineyards, a sprawling 90-acre plot of grapes, grows some of the most sought-after Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit in the state. Popular Santa Barbara wineries like Au Bon Climat, Foxen and Ojai discovered the Bien Nacido secret long ago, but northern California wineries are just getting hip to the quality.
Santa Ynez Valley was previously delineated as one expansive appellation until a Santa Barbara coalition, realizing the two, very distinct climates on the east and west ends, lobbied to divide it. The downsized Santa Ynez Valley enjoys much warmer days, perfect for distinctive Rhone varieties like Syrah, and chilly Santa Rita Hills' Pinot and Chardonnay grapes benefit from the ocean's cold weather.
Nowhere is the difference more obvious than in the wines themselves. Ken Brown at Byron focuses on his favorite grape variety, Pinot Noir, in the coolness of Santa Maria Valley. However, for Io, his Rhone varietal label, Brown blends robust Santa Maria Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre (more-VEE-dra) grapes with other Syrah grapes from the Santa Ynez Valley, where the warmth matures the fruit to a vibrant sweetness. The combination creates an intensely concentrated, juicy, food-loving wine.
Down the road sits Cambria Cellars, probably the best-known Santa Barbara winery. This family-owned stead produces killer Chardonnay from their breezy vineyards in Santa Maria Valley. LinCourt Vineyards, in Santa Ynez, follows suit with a stunningly good value in their Bien Nacido Chardonnay. Their sister winery, Foley Estates, noticing the quality of soil and weather for Pinot and Chardonnay, recently purchased and planted more than 225 acres in Santa Rita Hills, and will continue to astound with their quality-driven single-vineyard and "barrel select" series.
Zaca Mesa, my favorite Santa Barbara winery for years, has its own groove on. My friendly tour guides at the winery were a pack of thirtysomethings giddy with visions of fabulous wine. Clay Brock, Zaca's relatively new director of winemaking, just bottled his first Zaca Mesa Syrah for the 2001 vintage, using sun-kissed Santa Ynez fruit grown on property. The 2001 bottles come complete with a drastically different, sleek label. They're hoping it will bump up their image a little, but I'm hoping it doesn't detract from the fun.
Up-and-coming Santa Barbara County wines to be on the lookout for include Tensley Syrah and Carina Cellars' Cabernet blend Iconoclast. Also, be on the lookout for Hitching Post wines, who makes a limited amount of absolutely fantastic Pinot Noirs. There's also a small, meticulously run winery called Melville, with Greg Brewer making breathtaking Pinots and Syrahs.
Some Santa Barbara wines might be hard to find; most are available in limited amounts in Southern states. Ask your favorite fine wine retailer to check on availability. They're worth the extra effort and the bucks.
Cambria 2001 Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay. $20.
Zaca Mesa 2001 Viognier. $18.
LinCourt 2001 Chardonnay. $14.
Foley 2000 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Hills. $38.
Melville 2001 Estate Syrah. $24.
Byron 1999 Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir. $45.
Io 2001 Upper Bench Syrah. $35.