This is a longer version of an article also published by the Financial Times. For a more detailed report and tasting notes, see Santa Barbara's grapes that didn't get away.
Eleven years on from the release of Sideways, the movie that put wine tourism on the map and set American wine bottlers on a desperate search for Pinot Noir, the region in which it is set is arguably one of the least developed in terms of facilities for visitors.
Wine country in the hinterland of Santa Barbara on the southern California coast is some of the most visually appealing in the world, but those who apply to open tasting rooms, or entertainment options at their wineries, find they are turned down time and time again.
The Larner family started growing Rhône grape varieties in 1999 and make some fine Syrahs in the relatively recent Ballard Canyon appellation north of the determinedly Danish town of Solvang. They have been trying for years to have their application to build a winery with tasting room approved. The Grassini family planted Bordeaux grapes in the wonderfully named Happy Canyon appellation, and make wine exclusively from their own grapes (unusual in this part of the world), but have been forbidden from holding tastings at their sustainably designed winery.
The executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners Morgen McLaughlin used to have a similar position in another American wine region, the Finger Lakes in New York state, and moved west a couple of years ago. She was used to seeing an average of a million visitors a year in this small, cool wine region of the Finger Lakes five hours’ drive north west of Manhattan. In Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive west of the massive Los Angeles conurbation, they are lucky if they see 400,000.
Her husband is also in the wine trade and the couple have had ample opportunity to travel to other wine regions around the world. ‘It’s really baffling', she says. ‘We go abroad and see how much more wine is integrated into the local community. Then we come back here and ask, “What is wrong?”’
One person she presumably considers wrong is Bob Field, a leading campaigner against wine-related development. A retiree who has lived in the Santa Ynez Valley since 1998, he believes that ‘the inappropriate location of alcohol-serving businesses in rural neighborhoods and on dangerously sub-standard roads is a major issue in our community. They damage property values and present safety risks to residents and tourists alike.’
He was chairman of the committee that developed the 2009 Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan, whose primary goal has been to preserve the rural character of the Santa Ynez Valley where most of Santa Barbara’s wineries are located.
What strikes this visitor as odd is that the back roads of the Santa Ynez Valley are dotted with gas and oil-drilling plants, and just east of Solvang is a Chumash Indian reservation where the vast casino built in 2004 is visited by 6,000 people a day. I would have thought that vineyards and the chance to buy their produce would be more agreeably rural than either fracking or gambling.
But, having visited Napa Valley way to the north immediately before my tour of Santa Barbara County’s wine districts, I am keenly aware that wine tourism can get out of hand. It took me literally hours to inch, bumper to bumper, into Napa Valley one sunny Sunday in February. Locals there have to plan their journeys minutely, knowing that at certain times of the week and year left-hand turns on Highway 29 that runs north–south through some of the most visited vineyards and wineries on earth are physically impossible.
(A further threat was being posed by the Wappo tribe of native American Indians, who, backed by a gaming group, were petitioning to be granted land and, presumably, the right to establish a lucrative casino, in Napa – although this threat seems to have receded. See this news story.)
In southern California anti-wine sentiment is not confined to Santa Barbara County. Just along the Pacific coast from Santa Barbara, a brand new Malibu Coast appellation, named after the 21-mile strip of beach houses great and small, has just been approved, but the local farmers have managed to get the right to plant vines rescinded. Would-be vintners are appealing.
All of this seems very strange to someone from Europe where wine production is generally viewed as rather wholesome and life-affirming, and appellations are granted to formalise rather than precede its existence. But this corner of the world is a hotbed of activity in terms of applying for appellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) as they are known in the US.
The extensive Santa Ynez Valley AVA is in the process of being carved up into smaller ones. Sta. Rita Hills (so written to distinguish it from the Chilean producer Santa Rita) in the far west closest to the coast was the first to establish itself, as well it might since proximity to the Pacific makes it much, much cooler than the rest of the Santa Ynez Valley. I almost caught a cold thanks to the relentless coastal breeze in this district that produces some of the tartest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California. One winery just east of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA is campaigning to extend it eastwards but it will be a tough fight in a part of the world where each eastward mile is said to represent one more degree Fahrenheit in the ambient temperature. My picture shows, behind an essential propellor for warding off frost, the Sanford winery in Sta. Rita Hills. Founded by Richard Sanford way back in 1981 and now owned by Terlato of Chicago, it is one of relatively few to be open to visitors. Seniority helps.
Ballard Canyon to the east is definitely warmer than Sta. Rita Hills, and Happy Canyon in the far east of Santa Ynez Valley is the warmest of all. Earlier this month Sauvignon Blanc specialist Fred Brander was granted preliminary approval for a new AVA to fill in the gap between Ballard and Happy Canyons. The plan is to call it Los Olivos after the small town in the middle – in whose eponymous café Sideways anti-hero Miles famously declared his hatred of Merlotand where many of the county’s tasting rooms can be found, often far from their owners’ vineyards.
Presumably for the reasons outlined above, this part of the world is not rich in places to eat and stay. But a particularly agreeable small town for visitors seemed to be Los Alamos between Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley, the AVA to the north of it. Here there are bed and breakfasts, galleries, attractive small restaurants and bars, and the topnotch artisanal Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, run by an escapee from the television business who used to work for Greg Dyke.
There are even a couple of wine-tasting rooms which somehow managed to escape the condemnation of those seeking to retain the rural nature of this part of the world.
SOME FAVOURITE SANTA BARBARA WINES
Au Bon Climat, Isabelle Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Maria Valley
Bien Nacido Estate, Solomon Hills Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 Santa Maria Valley
Brewer-Clifton, 3D Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 Sta. Rita Hills
Dragonette, Fiddle Stix Pinot Noir 2012 Sta. Rita Hills
Lieu Dit Cabernet Franc 2012 Santa Ynez Valley
Melville, Estate Pinot Noir 2013 Sta. Rita Hills
Presqu'ile, Presqu'ile Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 Santa Maria Valley
Sanford, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Sta. Rita Hills
Tatomer, Kick-on Ranch Riesling 2012 Santa Barbara County
See wine-searcher.com for stockists.