The Wines of Santa Barbara

Discovering the potential of Santa Barbara in just three days!


I’ve already written up the Grenache based wines I tasted during my time in Santa Barbara, they can be found here: Grenache - The Next Pinot Noir?  so today I am focusing on most of the remaining wines that I tasted while in the region. I’ll save the few Pinots I Tasted for a Pinot round-up, which might surprise some folks. You see I went to Santa Barbara not to seek out their Pinots, but rather to take a look at what’s going on with the Rhone varieties in the region. I get to taste plenty of Pinot, but finding out what’s happening with some other less sought after, and thus less promoted wines can be a challenge; as can just finding some of the wines from small and/or up and coming producers.

Well, I’m glad I made the effort, seeing as I found great wines from producers familiar and new. It was a short list of visits but with a fantastic variety of styles, philosophies, and expressions of Santa Barbara fruit coming from:
Tercero Wines
Qupe Wines
Harrison Clarke
Zaca Mesa
Martian Ranch
Stolpman Vineyards
Before we dive right into the wines and wineries it’s worth spending a moment talking about Santa Barbara in more general terms. This is a fascinating region that really is just begin to find it’s footing. With a tremendous variety of soils , expositions, and altitudes working in their favor, the winemakers here have been able to produce some very impressive wines that range from Nebbiolo to Pinot Noir, the Rhone varieties to Chardonnay. I believe that the region will eventually be known mostly for the Rhone varieties, not because their Pinots don’t measure up, but rather because I’m not sure there are many better places to grow Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre in California than in the eastern portions of the county, regions like Ballard Canyon and the Santa Ynez Valley.
Of course there are obstacles in the way, chief among them may be water which could stop any agricultural industry dead in its tracks; and to be sure water looms as a big problem in the region, but assuming the best the wines of the region are poised to become more widely distributed and that can only be good for consumers. Granted the sample size of wineries visited during my time in the region is modest, but I tried to select a representative selection that included the old guard as well as the new school. I believe to a large extent I succeeded on that front. The mere ability to find such a broad cross section of winemaking styles in such a small and modest region is heartening in and of itself. This is a wine region that has yet to completely find itself, yet to stake out it’s turf, and yet to take itself too seriously. In short it’s a fun and exciting region to visit.
And about visiting, they could use a few more restaurants perhaps, or I just missed the good ones, and the same may hold for accommodations, though on that account I am fairly easy to satisfy, but what they do seem to have is spectacular weather and beautiful scenery. It’s absolutely worth visiting the region. The wineries all seem genuinely happy to see visitors, you are uniformly greeted with a smile, and the weather is as ideal for vacationing as it is for growing grapes! I visited in late July and enjoyed brisk evening temperatures and daytime highs in the low 80s, which I have been told is pretty typical though it gets notably cooler as you make your way to the coast.

Now on to the wineries!

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  • Snooth User: LisaTillis
    221025 13

    Greg - If you did not sample the wines of winemakers, Joey and Jennifer Tensley, then you need to make a return trip. They are making some really exceptional Syrahs from the Colson Canyon Vineyards and Thompson Vineyards. Tensley wines are consistently rated at 93 points or more and have become our go to favorite. Absolutely outstanding! - Lisa Tillis, North Carolina

    Sep 19, 2013 at 1:21 PM

  • Snooth User: snoman
    229582 210

    Ditto for Jaffurs.....

    Sep 19, 2013 at 3:18 PM

  • Snooth User: johnmmoore
    170772 16

    Glad to see the Rhones being showcased. I cut my teeth on Rhones in Santa Barbara county. Tensley and Jaffurs were early favorites of mine for sure. Jaffurs does a whole lineup of Syrahs, and my first experience with cool climate Syrah was a Jaffurs Ampelos Syrah (Ampelos is a Pinot producer in Santa Rita Hills that also grows Syrah and other Rhones). The lesson I learned there was to look for Syrahs grown where Pinots are grown, and it's paid off. Evans Ranch, the premium label from Gainey Vineyards in Santa Ynez, produces all their wines out of Santa Rita - two Chards, two Pinots, and two Syrahs - I love them all. And Melville produces some nice Syrahs as well - their Vernas is not only cheap but very tasty (not from Santa Rita but close by). Really too many good Rhones in the region to mention. It's wine heaven, and anyone searching for wines that will inspire simply must visit. Having Santa Barbara and the beaches just over the hill is simply a bonus.

    One note - I've learned that where the grapes are from is paramount. Yes, technique and style are important, but knowing where the fruit is from goes a long way to predicting what a wine will taste like. I eschew notes of strawberry, tar, etc and cut right to the chase - where are the grapes from? AVA is important, and vineyard if you know the region. I know a Tondre Pinot when I taste it - same goes for a Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. And for a cool climate Rhone lover, location is key. It's literally teaching someone to fish rather than giving them the fish. Santa Barbara county is a terrific place to hunt down some amazing cool climate Rhones.

    Sep 19, 2013 at 5:26 PM

  • After reading this I can't wait to get back out there to taste at Stopman and Martian Ranch! Zaca Mesa and Qupe are already favorites. I look forward to your Pinot wrap up and hope it will include Longoria, Clos Pepe and Hilliard Bruce! And have you tried the amazing Sav Blancs out of Santa Ynez?

    Sep 19, 2013 at 11:08 PM

  • Snooth User: eastwoods
    982332 1

    Interesting reading, but most of these are out of my $$$ range, with the exception of Zaca Mesa Chardonnay (it's at the top of my price point). Make note to self to try it.

    Sep 20, 2013 at 1:12 PM

  • Lisa is right Tensley is fantastic the colson canyon is amazing and so is their Grenache. Also Blair Fox down the street is amazing too. Loved their Grenache blanc

    Sep 20, 2013 at 1:54 PM

  • Snooth User: searchub
    1370139 20

    What about those who don't live in Santa Barbara. Maybe I need give a visit!

    Sep 23, 2013 at 11:01 AM

  • Greg, thanks for the update, definitely some interesting wines to explore. FYI, Stolpman winemaker Sashi Moorman is also doing great things at Sandhi Vineyards with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

    Sep 25, 2013 at 8:50 AM

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