Ten years after “Sideways” put Santa Barbara on the wine map, that region is crushing it, literally and figuratively. This swath at the southern end of California’s Central Coast has matured into a mecca for great wine from all manner of grapes.
Touted in that movie for its pinot noirs, Santa Barbara now produces fabulous grenache, chardonnay, syrah and both iterations of sauvignon (cabernet and sauv blanc), plus blends and other varieties,
“Santa Barbara is a great place for wine, all kinds of wine,” said winemaker Tyler Thomas last week. He should know, having made his mark in both Napa and Sonoma, and he proves it with sublime pinots, syrahs and chardonnays for Dierberg, and world-class cabernet and more from its sister winery, Star Lane.
Thomas is also one of many relatively recent arrivals who have pushed boundaries and raised bars mightily in the region. Many of the smaller ones’ offerings — Storm, Chanin, Samsara, Tyler and Sandhi — are not available here (yet!). But Sandhi winemaker Sashi Moorman also crafts tasty juice at Stolpman Vineyards, whose wines are readily accessible.
And the stunning grenaches of one of the brighter new lights, Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace (named for her Kiwi grandmother), can be found in limited amounts in the Twin Towns. Forget everything you thought you knew about grenache and savor these wines of mystery and, well, grace.
Blessedly, many of the region’s pioneers not only are still at it but have built up their portfolios to allow widespread distribution. Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Bob Lindquist (Qupe) and Richard Sanford (Alma Rosa) are still making stellar, distinctive wines decades after deciding that grapes could thrive in this region.
Sanford is considered a true trailblazer, landing in the region in the early 1970s and planting grapes in the now-revered Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. His goal: to help make this area the same kind of wine destination for Los Angelenos that Napa and Sonoma are for San Franciscans.
It turns out that the valleys a few miles north of the town of Santa Barbara are spectacularly suited for grapes, which need, above all else, lots of sun during the day and just as much cooling-off time in the evenings. Unusual mountain formations running east-west provide cooling afternoon winds to complement the area’s 300 days a year of sunshine.
“This is the most extreme transverse mountain range from Alaska down,” said Peter Stolpman, managing partner at Stolpman Vineyards. “So we are in a wind chute coming straight from the ocean’s path after a duration of extreme heat. We will heat to 90, but only for an hour, hour and a half, before a constant strong wind comes.”
According to Melville general manager Kurt Ammann, that cooling effect gives the grapes “the longest hang time in the Northern Hemisphere.” The extended growing season makes the grapes so expressive that Melville eschews new oak; the youngest barrels it uses are from 2006. “Our philosophy is to grow wines rather than grow grapes,” Ammann said.
Melville’s success can be found in the bottle, with swell chardonnay, syrah and pinot noir in its portfolio.
Other wines that provide a great introduction to this venously burgeoning region:
• Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir: This might not be the best pinot of the bunch, but at $25 it’s probably the best buy, with pristine purity and gorgeous fruit. More than once, I’ve spaced out on buying a hostess wine and picked up this puppy on the way to a dinner party.
• Beckmen Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc: Lovely and deftly dancing that lush/lean pas de deux, this white offers up ample fruit (citrus, peach and more) and nice length, all for less than $20.
• A Tribute to Grave Santa Barbara Highlands Grenache: The grapes are grown in “high desert” land (3,000 feet, almost no rain), and the resulting wine is light in color — it could pass for a rosé — and large in favor, a racy but rich rendition of the Rhone grape.
• Habit Santa Ynez Valley Gruner Veltliner: The white grape most associated with Austria is finding a most welcome home in California, and this fiercely focused, fresh-as-spring wine with an almost explosive finish is Exhibit A.
• Fess Parker “The Big Easy” Syrah and Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah: One of the area’s early wine-minded explorers actually had played one on television: Fess “Daniel Boone” Parker. His son Eli now runs the show, and the wines are friendly and, in these cases, briary and a bit brawny with spot-on tannins.
• Zaca Mesa Santa Ynez Valley Rousanne: This white grape needs a lot of hang time — the Stolpmans don’t pick theirs until November — and this rendition shows the variety to full advantage: pear incarnate, with a dash of figs and a persistent mouthfeel.
• Stopman “La Cuadrilla” Syrah: Wine people, or at least this one, love a back story. This wine is carefully cultivated by vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano’s vineyard team — “La Cuadrilla = The Crew” — and the proceeds go to the families of the workers. Oh, and it’s great juice, too.
• Star Lane Happy Canyon cabernet sauvignon: Move over, Napa and Sonoma: The warmer, easternmost reach of the region is superbly suited for cab, and this rendition is sturdy enough to age and approachable/tasty enough to quaff upon release. The rest of the Star Lane and Diergerg portfolio is outstanding.
Ample evidence of why Tyler Thomas ended up in Santa Barbara.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.