Nestled along the southern portion of California’s famed Central Coast, Santa Barbara County is defined by a unique one-two terroir punch of topography and climate. The majority of the world’s coastal mountain ranges run parallel along the coastline, acting like a protective shield for the inland communities from the harsh marine layer. However, due to a shift in tectonic plates over 15 million years ago, Santa Barbara is home to rare east-west mountain ranges that run perpendicular from the coast which opens the door for a rush of frigid coastal air, wind and fog to infiltrate and extend into the inland valleys. These unfriendly, chilly weather conditions from the Pacific are courtesy of breezes being swept in from the deep offshore ocean currents that originated in Alaska which results in a very light rainfall (14 inches or less annually, on average) and an extremely long growing season in the area.
Santa Barbara’s 6 Wine Sub-Regions
Santa Barbara County is comprised of six official appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos District. The region has a rich viticulture history as it’s one of the oldest wine-producing areas in California tracing back to Spanish missionaries who planted the first grapes in the late 1700’s. That said, modern viticulture didn’t begin until 1964 when Uriel J. Nielson planted the first commercial vineyard in the northern parts of the area in Santa Maria Valley. Nowadays, Santa Barbara County has received acclaim for being a top growing region for cool climate varietals (predominately Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) due to complex coastal weather patterns and soil types as well as prominent winemakers calling the area home.
Santa Rita Hills
Santa Rita Hills Wine Region
Created in 2001, the Santa Rita Hills AVA is one of the smallest AVAs in California and is tucked away in the middle of Santa Barbara Wine Country between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc (a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles).
The Santa Rita Hills AVA is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic New World growing regions for serious, cool-climate varietals, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Santa Rita Hills wine trail is defined by a surrounding picturesque landscape of rolling hills, oak trees and fruit orchards.
The Topography and Climate of Santa Rita Hills
The AVA’s vineyards, planted 12 miles from the Pacific, are situated along escalating elevation levels between the flats and slopes of the bordering Santa Rosa Hills to the south and the Purisima Hills to the north. The area is defined by its sandy soils and legendary daily marine effect of cool weather, fog and wind that limit vigor and crop yield which culminates in intense flavors balanced with natural acidity making the wines of the region extremely food friendly."
Santa Maria Valley
California’s Second AVA
The second-ever AVA to be established in California, behind Napa Valley, the historic Santa Maria Valley AVA became official in 1981 and is recognized for its cool, coastal influence and sandy soils filled with ancient marine deposits. Located along the northern rim of Santa Barbara County (with a sliver of the AVA in San Luis Obispo County), it’s a combination of the quintessential California lifestyle mixed with world class terroir.
The Longest Growing Season
The valley offers small town charm where winemakers consider themselves more as farmers and is surrounded by beautiful stretches of classic California beaches and miles of wide open country roads. The unprotected valley feels the consequences of the transverse mountain range as it routinely grapples with the unforgiving marine weather that comes ashore from the Pacific Ocean. The effect of the cool ocean air is one of the longest growing seasons in California resulting in an extra hang time and wines with complex flavor & balance.
The First Commercial Vineyard in Santa Barbara County
The prestigious Nielson Vineyard, the very first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County established by Uriel J. Nielson in 1964, is situated along the Santa Maria Bench and sits at 500-800 feet above sea level.
The vineyard receives its fair share of cool fog and wind as it’s a straight shot from the Pacific Ocean, just 18 miles apart from each other. As it lies along a gentle south facing slope, the 432-acre vineyard is home to more than 23 different clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The high-density vineyard features east-west rows that are planted at 1500-1800 vines per acre, well above the California standard. The Nielson Vineyard also has an array of complex soil types with an eclectic mix of alluvial, sandy loam, decomposing rock and Elder.