Image: Santa Rita Hills in the morning. Sea smoke indeed.
Published: August 30, 2021
This history is an appendix to our Santa Barbara Wine Country guide. We thought it would just be a few paragraphs for reference at the end of the guide, but – as you can see – it got a little out of hand. So, we are posting it separately.
We pick the story of wine in the region in the 1960s. There is a rich history of wine production before then, especially the mission era and the Mission grape in the 1700s. If you are interested, you can still find some ruins of 19th century winemaking in Goleta. There is much history to explore, but there is a break between the distant past and modern winemaking due largely to prohibition. Commercial vineyards and winemaking died out until the mid-sixties. At that point, a few vineyards were put in, often as part of diversifying a ranch’s holdings, like at Rancho Sisquoc. These grapes generally sold to large wineries up north. UC Davis graduates, Uriel Nielsen and Bill DeMattei were quicker than most to spot the potential to grow fine wine grapes in the region and purchased land to to start a vineyard, with their project supported by a contract with Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers.
In 1962, Pierre LaFond, who owned a wine and cheese shop in town, started Santa Barbara Winery using grapes he purchased from down the coast. This was the first post-prohibition commercial winery in Santa Barbara County. After a couple years he was able to produce 1,000 cases of white and red Zinfandel that he sold in his stores. Santa Barbara Winery still exists. After running into sourcing problems, LaFond would eventually plant his own vineyards in Santa Rita Hills in 1972, which he would name after himself. It remains on Santa Rosa Road to this day. Until 1975, there were only four working wineries in the county.
The three key centers sprouted around the same time. One was a vineyard planted by a couple guys who were just seeing if something might work. The second was also a vineyard, this one on a huge piece of land planted by a family with a long history in the agriculture business. The third center was a winery that that was a magnet for young, talented winemakers and the first place Syrah was planted.
Richard and Michael
Michael Benedict was a botanist who had worked on Santa Cruz Island just off the coast. In the 19th century there was a thriving vineyard on the island. Prohibition killed off the vineyard, but why the vineyard was there in the first place intrigued him. Looking over California, he realized that existing grape vineyard were in places too hot to sustain more fragile French varietals, but a stark, cool land with sunshine might do the trick. His sailing buddy, Richard Sanford, had been to Burgundy and fallen in love with wine. They could sense that wine was about to take off as an industry in California. So, they went looking for someplace that could replicate the success of the island vineyard, what would be cherished as “refrigerated sunlight.” Sanford, a trained geographer, recounts driving around with a thermometer out the window gauging the temperatures as he drove through the canyons. They found a plot of land off Santa Rosa Rd. in the Santa Rita Hills and planted the vineyard in 1971. They started with a bunch of different kinds of grape, but soon realized that the Pinot Noir that they got from Karl Wente, was going to be the winner. The first crop was in 1975, and it showed promise. The first commercial bottling was made at the Firestone Winery – which had a winery but no grapes at that point. The 1976 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir was released in 1978. It immediately received critical acclaim, with the L.A. Times calling it an “American Grand Cru in a Lompoc Barn.”
Zaca Mesa University – Founded 1973
A little to the north, in 1973, a group of wealthy investors founded Zaca Mesa Winery off Foxen Canyon Road. Ken Brown became the first winemaker in 1977 and started growing the first Syrah in the area. The own-rooted vines were acquired in 1978 from Gary Eberle up the road in Paso Robles, who smuggled them in as clippings from France. Those first rows would become famous as the “Black Bear Block.” Rhône varietals established themselves as neighbors to the Burgundian grapes in the region, and several Santa Barbara wineries eventually became associated with the Rhône Rangers. Under Brown’s supervision a winery was added. Zaca Mesa was one of the first, but not the last, to realize that just selling grapes was not a viable business model at their size.
The Big Baby
Also in 1973, two sons in the Miller family came back from the east to live. The family had bought two large parcels, totaling 2000 acres in Santa Maria. The land had been part of a land grant by the Spanish government that totaled 8,900 acres. The Ontiveros family bought land here in 1855 and built an adobe structure that still stands. In 1969, the Miller family, who are fifth-generation California farmers, purchased the ranch and an adjacent parcel that had been part of the original land grant. The family reunited the two parcels as Rancho Tepusquet, comprising more than 2,000 acres. Bob and Steve Miller decided to plant some grape vines on the land. Initially they only planted a few acres, but the family didn’t tend to think about crops on that scale, so it soon was over 600 acres of vines. Bordeaux varietals did not work well – the cooling breeze into Santa Rita that Sanford and Benedict identified also had a funnel into Santa Maria. Burgundian and Rhône grapes did work though. The vineyard took the name Bien Nacido meaning “well born.” It is reportedly the nickname from those who worked the fields and joked about how the land was coddled like a cherished baby. The Millers did not focus on growing their own brand initially. They sought out wineries to sell to and young winemakers to partner with. That model lasts until today (thought they did eventually start their own label).
More Than a Handful
Along with these three spots, a number of vineyards and wineries popped up in the eastern end of the area, many of them surviving to this day including Ballard Canyon (1974 – now Rusack) and Brander (1975). Firestone began in 1975 and built the first modern winery in the area. Mosby, just outside Buellton would come to focus on Italian varietals. In Santa Maria, Louis Lucas and his brother George started Tepusquet Vineyard, primarily to sell to others.
This interest in wine was not a mere coincidence. The American palate, aided by a sales job by the Napa vintners, started to shift to dry wine. The demand would not slacken for years. In the sixties and early seventies, vineyards had been bought as tax write-offs. Now wine held promise as a money-making product. With the demand clear, winemaking regions – not just grapegrowing regions – took root outside of Napa. This includes our nearby Virginia wine country that started around the same time.
There were also the first rumblings of recognition for Santa Barbara. Renowned wine writers Hugh Johnson and Bob Thompson flagged the area as a promising place for Pinot Noir in 1976 but cautioned it could be years to find out if that promise is true. In 1978, The New York Times would do a piece on Firestone, gaining the region national attention and credibility. Things were moving along. The seeds planted in the sixties were showing sprouts. The whole region was on the cusp of blossoming.
Building on the groundwork of the seventies, and two decades after LaFond’s facility in downtown, things took off. In the eighties. the number of wineries more than doubled, from 13 in 1980, to about 30 by the decade’s end. Along with that growth came more winemakers and more outside investors, yet the pioneering and experimental spirit continued.
The Boys of Bien Nacido
Two of the biggest names in Santa Barbara winemaking did not put their own name on their wines. Jim Clendenen had been the winemaker at Zaca Mesa, where he worked with Bob Lindquist. In 1982, Clendenen started up Au Bon Climat winery with Adam Tolmach. His goal was to create wines in the Burgundian style. By the end of the decade Robert Parker would put Au Bon Climat on his short list of Best Wineries in the World. Tolmach would eventually start up The Ojai Vineyard.
Lindquist took up the challenge of working with the Rhône varietals, especially Syrah and Roussanne, at Qupé. They both sourced from the Bien Nacido Vineyard and set up the joint ABC-Qupé winery facility next to those vines. Clendenen would become famous as a host to winemakers, journalists and many more at his home. Even when larger corporations started to show interest in the Santa Maria area and the “international” style (ironically trumpeted by Parker) came to dominate, Clendenen remained true to his vision and a mentor to many. Both Au Bon Climat and Qupé would gain international renown, becoming anchors in the area wine industry.
A New Generation Comes to the Fore
Rick Longoria is somewhat unique among the crew of winemakers because he was a local. Born and raised in Lompoc, he went studied at UC Santa Barbara then Berkeley, where he discovered wine. He got a job working in the cellar at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, working with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff, who was also consulting at Firestone, recommended Longoria take a cellar foreman job there in 1976. Longoria would go on to be the winemaker at J. Carey and then Gainey for twelve years. He set up his own label in 1982 on the side. In 1997 he would commit full-time to his own label. The following years saw a winery in the business park in Lompoc. He also opened a tasting room in Los Olivos in 1998.
Lane Tanner, another winemaker Tchelistcheff sent to work at Firestone and another one who spent time at Zaca Mesa, would also focus on Pinot Noir. She started her own outfit in eighties, becoming the first independent female winemaker in Santa Barbara County. Her first customer was the Hitching Post restaurant for which she made the house wine – a very well-known Pinot. She would eventually shut down her own label and is now at Lumen.
Chris Whitcraft, who got his start selling wines in a shop in the mid-70s, started a radio program focused on wine, and then his own label in the mid-80s. On the show, he got to know some legends of California wine, including Joe Heitz, Dick Graff, and Burt Williams, who would become a mentor to both him and his son. Whitcraft would also help make famous the block designation of wines from Bien Nacido by designating the wine “N Block” for example to show the section of the vineyard used for the wine. (A partial map of the blocks can be found at the bottom of this post).
Whitcraft, Tanner and many others would make wines at the Central Coast Wine facility built near the airport in Santa Maria by the Miller family to make wines from the Bien Nacido vineyards. Clendenen and Lindquist were the chosen who actually had their winery at Bien Nacido.
Not far away, Ken Brown, who had been the first winemaker at Zaca Mesa, started up his own winery in 1984, called Byron, in Santa Maria. Byron would include the original Nielson vineyard. Byron would get traction, eventually bought by Robert Mondavi in 1990. Mondavi was not the only company to come down from the north. The Jackson Family would start up Cambria in 1986, near Bien Nacido and Byron.
Farther down the Canyon, Dick Doré started a winery at Rancho Tinaquaic with his buddy Bill Wathen on his family’s land. His great-great-great grandfather, William Benjamin Foxen was a British sea captain at one point, and the family adopted the anchor as the brand for the ranch. Foxen Winery started in 1985. Dick would re-use the anchor brand as its symbol and make its first wine on Ranch’s basketball court. They would put out a sign on the weekends saying open for tasting, but they both became frustrated dealing with the public and hired a bartender away from the Hitching Post to run the tasting room. By 1991, they were making wine from their own vineyards, not just sourcing.
Santa Rita Gains Ground
While Santa Maria was combining the talent going through Zaca Mesa with the bounty of Bien Nacido, other winemakers were staking out new territory in the Santa Rita Hills. Across the way from LaFond, Benedict, and Sanford, Bryan Babcock’s parents bought a farm off Hwy 246 to supply the restaurant they owned. They tried growing “a few grapes,” planting 20 acres of Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay (In the large-scale agricultural sector of the region, 20 acres must have seemed like a small experiment). That turned out well enough that Bryan decided to cut short his studies in enology at Davis. In 1984, they started the first commercial winery on the 246 side of the Santa Rita Hills.
In 1989, Kathy Joseph, an enologist based in Davis (and a classmate of Babcock’s), was looking for a place where she could grow great Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. She started Fiddlehead Cellars sourcing primarily from the Sierra Madre Vineyard, but soon realized she need a consistent source for Pinot (she also would make Pinot in Oregon). When a plot across from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard went up for sale, she grabbed it and named it Fiddlestix.
As the Clendenen and Lindquist relationship was forming in Santa Maria, the Santa Rita pioneers Sanford and Benedict split in 1980. The vineyard stayed with Benedict, while Sanford and his wife founded The Sanford Winery in Buellton. Sanford also bought Rancho El Jabali in 1982.
Another Business Model Beckons
In Santa Ynez, the Gainey family had been farming their land for years, but had resisted putting in vines. In the early eighties they not only put in vines, they built a large winery that could accommodate visitors they hoped to siphon off from the Solvang traffic. Unlike the growers closer to the ocean, Gainey and others at this end of the Santa Ynez Valley had success with grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – as well as Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir.
The decade saw emerging individual talent, but it also saw some sense of a group identity form. The Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) were designated during this time. The Santa Barbara Vinters Association formed and began to collectively market the region. That collective instinct would carry over in the nineties.
The energy and interest clearly building, in the nineties Santa Barbara would move from emerging to established as a wine region. By 1996, grapes would be the leading agricultural sector in the county. By the end of the decade there would be more than 50 wineries. Twenty years of investment was bearing fruit.
The wineries in the Santa Rita Hills region would lead the way. Babcock was joined on Hwy 246 by Melville, planted by Greg Brewer, in 1990, and Clos Pepe started in 1994. In 1996, Bankers Jim and Mary Dierberg from Missouri, who owned an historic winery in that state, bought Drum Canyon Vineyard establishing Dierberg, a short drive down the road.
There was some frustration among the winemakers working on both sides of Santa Rita that the public didn’t seem to appreciate the land they were working on and how it defined the wines being made. The wines made in the Santa Rita Hills did not easily fit in the two existing AVAs of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. Greg Brewer explained to Brenna Ritchey in a Vinous article that, “Wine writers would reference the ‘cool Santa Maria Valley’ versus the ‘warmer Santa Ynez Valley,’” but what they didn’t understand is the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, where the Santa Rita Hills were, was not warmer. It was directly exposed to the sea breezes and could be pretty cold. If you missed that fact, you didn’t understand the wines.
So, a group of the vineyard owners and winemakers in the area, all familiar names if you have been following along, got together and mapped out the region on a table at Richard Sanford’s tasting room. Wes Hagen, the manager at Clos Pepe and a former English teacher drafted a petition to designate the Santa Rita Hills AVA. The AVA was eventually designated in 2001. A trademark fight with Viña Santa Rita in Chile led to the slight name change from Santa to Sta.
Crockett and Foley
The nineties saw two additional big names emerge in the county. Fess Parker had been a star in the early days of television. In the eighties he bought Foxen Canyon Ranch, ostensibly as a place for retirement and something to pass down to his family, but it turned into a second round of fame. Fess Parker Winery started in 1991. In 1998, he purchased the Grand Hotel in Los Olivos. The entire enterprise is now in the hands of the next generation.
On the eastern edge of the Santa Rita Hills, businessman Bill Foley established his winery on Rancho Santa Rosa, sticking with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. According to the winery website, he “set out to find the proper location for his vineyard and winery. Using topographical maps, soil research and climatic data.” His business sense did not stop when he shifted from the financial industry. He would add additional vineyards up and down the coast, buying up early pioneer Santa Ynez Winery and the J. Carey Winery in the region.
Que Syrah, Syrah
While Parker and Foley came with some resources, Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton got by on pluck. They were working at Sunstone and Beckmen respectively when they decided to go in together. With purchased grapes, they made their first bottling in 1996 at the Santa Barbara Winery. By 2000, they would have a stand-alone winery next to Rick Longoria in Lompoc. In 2001, critic Robert Parker would fawn over them and the rest is history. Amazingly, Clifton would also start another label at the same time, Palmina, that focused on Italian varietals.
As the Brewer-Clifton story indicates, activity had picked up on the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley. Tom Beckmen, who made his fortune with the Roland keyboard (ah 80s music), started a winery and purchased Houtz, one of the original vineyards. Tom’s son, Steve became the winemaker. Just south of Beckmen, Sunstone started in 1993. Elsewhere in the Ballard area, Stolpman, Harrison, Larner, and Saarloos families planted vineyards. Ballard would continue to promote the Rhône varietals, especially Syrah.
A little north of the Ballard crew, the Murray family had traded in their chain of Mexican restaurants for 200 acres, feeling the pull of wine after a trip to the Rhone. Their young son was entrusted with the winemaking responsibilities. It was not completely an act of impulsive parental love. Andrew had a degree from Davis and worked in Australian wine for several years before coming back home. It was clear this was his future and his calling. So much so that the family decided to name the wine after him. With the help of Jim Clendenen and others, they planted vines and harvested the first Syrah 1994.
Not all the change was easy to keep track of. In 1990, a British businessman, Robert Atkin, purchased the Benedict Vineyards, and with it the original Sanford & Benedict vines. He asked Sanford to come back and manage the land. For the first time since the duo split in 1980, Sanford was able to source from his namesake vineyard. After some hesitancy, he agreed to sell grapes to five select wineries as well: Foxen, Lane Tanner, Au Bon Climat, Babcock and Gainey. As part of deal each winery gave back a barrel that was blended by then-Sanford winemaker Bruno D’Alfonso (D’Alfonso now runs a winery with his wife Kris Curran, who was a winemaker at Sea Smoke and Foley among other places).
Santa Barbara wine was coming into its own, but it also was at risk of being crushed. A new generation would bring another round of change and creativity to match the early eighties. And then there was that movie that blew the whole thing open. Combined with the rise and fall of the “international” style the coming decade would lead to some soul-searching.
Happy Canyon AVA
At the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Happy Canyon AVA started to take shape. With its warmer days, and desert-like temperature drops at night, it was ideal for Bordeaux varietals. It started small, and it remains just a few vineyards and six wineries. The region saw its first vintage in 2001. Early on the vineyards mostly sold to wineries, but around 2005, a few places started selling under their own labels. The exception was one of the first in the AVA – Star Lane that was bought by the Dierbergs in 1996. They also own a vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills and operate as a single entity. The story of the happy name dates to prohibition, when people would go up the canyon to taste the alcohol being made on the sly and come back happy.
Like the Babcocks, the Grassini family decided to plant vineyards on the family farmland. They brought in noted consultants Jeff Newton and Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care to work with vineyard manager Ben Merz. Merz planned and planted the vineyard in 2002. Initially, the Grassinis sold their grapes, but started producing their first vintage under their own label in 2006. They built a winery in 2010.
Roger and Priscilla Higgins started the Three Creek Vineyard and Cimarone Estate winery in 2000. The first harvest was in 2006 and release of two hundred cases in 2008. They grew Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Sangiovese and built up production to about 3000 cases. Doug Margerum was the first winemaker there, and Andrew Murray took over in 2011. In 2012, they sold the property to Roger Bower who has since rechristened it Crown Point with the goal of making a world class, high-point Bordeaux-style blend.
Vogelzang Vineyard was founded in 1998 by Mary Beth Vogelzang and supplied grapes for several years to prominent wineries such as Foxen, Ken Brown, Liquid Farm & Dragonette. The first estate wine was in 2005. Grimm’s Bluff would start up in 2010, with plantings in 2012. Happy Canyon Vineyard is as well known for polo fields as vineyards (and its indicted owner).
The local AVA drafting expert Wes Hagen helped the region secure the Happy Canyon AVA in 2009.
While the upstarts were busy in Happy Canyon, there was money sloshing around in the rest of the county and lots of turnover. In the late 1990s, Richard Sanford started building a dream winery on the La Rinconada Vineyard site near the Sanford & Benedict plot. Constructed with handmade adobe bricks, stone and recycled timbers, the cost to complete the project forced him to sell it in 2002 to what is now the Terlato Wine Company. When they became majority owners in 2005, Sanford was out. In 2007, Terlato would purchase the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, meaning neither Sanford or Benedict would own a piece of it. Though Benedict seems connected to the Terlato enterprise – meaning that at various times Sanford has managed the “Benedict” vineyard and Benedict has repped the “Sanford” wines.
Sanford would start up the Alma Rosa label that he would sell in 2015. Ken Brown left Byron in 2003 to start his own modest label. Ken Volk purchased the Byron winemaking facility and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards. The Byron label, distinct from the winery eventually ended up in the hands of the Jackson Family Wines. Foley purchased Firestone Winery and vineyards in 2007.
Andrew Murray sold the land on Foxen Canyon in 2005 to developer John Zahoudanis. It became Demteria Estates. Murray would take over the Curtis Winery to replant the flag on Foxen Canyon in 2014.
Miles To Go
The release of the movie Sideways in 2004 raised a number of questions. Does filmmaker Alexander Payne hate his own characters? How can Merlot ever recover its reputation? How does vintage Bordeaux taste if drank from a Styrofoam cup? How is it after so much drunk driving the only car crash happens when the characters are sober and they propel the car into a tree on purpose?
For those in the region’s wine industry it raised other questions. The movie was filmed in the Santa Barbara wine country and, unlike the characters, the filmmaker clearly loves the wine and scenery. Pinot Noir is the inanimate object that animates the film. The success of the movie meant an enormous increase in interest in Pinot, especially Santa Barbara Pinot. Hitching Post’s namesake wine, which was featured prominently, went from 200 to 2000 cases a year. The style at the time, however, was big, exemplified by the Sea Smoke on the table in one of the dinner scenes. There was a risk that having had success with that style it would be locked in. As for the scenery, the tourism industry thrived in the movie’s wake. Some feared that the Old West, rustic nature of the place would be lost. Napa was a cautionary example on many levels.
Luckily, the worst did not come to pass. No question there was an influx of money and interest. It is probably not a coincidence that a few big wine companies made big investments around 2005, or that more than few new wineries or new winery names slapped on old facilities seem to date from this time. Pinot was and remains the dominant crop, but it did not grow out of proportion. Instead of cashing in and going to industrial-level production, the region doubled down on sustainable agriculture and direct wine sales. Overall, wine is a top five crop for the county in terms of sales, but competes with strawberries, cauliflower and broccoli, which combined cover nearly 40,000 acres compared to wine’s roughly 20,000 acres. The tourism conundrum was partially solved by the development of tasting room concentrations in Los Olivos and the city of Santa Barbara. Make no mistake, this breezy summary skips rounds of bitter disputes on land use, development, environmental protections, and how many concerts a winery should be able to have a year. As for locking in the style, the exact opposite happened.
One of the early developments of the decade was a long time in the making. The Margerum family bought the Wine Cask restaurant at the same time their son Doug graduated from UCSB in 1981. The Wine Cask would become a pillar of the wine community. Through catalogues and futures tastings, they promoted the wines of the region with several prominent names getting an early boost on the way to fame, including Au Bon Climat, Brewer-Clifton, Paul Lato, Tensley and Sea Smoke. In 2001, Doug started his own label. It is not surprising given his grasp of the region, that he would go on to make wines from nearly every corner of the county. Later he would buy the Honea vineyard in Los Olivos as an estate vineyard. His tasting room next to the Hotel Californian, a couple blocks from the beach, is almost temple-like. The family broke ties with the Wine Cask several years ago.
The story of a couple other veterans of the restaurant world exemplifies the way Santa Barbara continues growing without losing its spirit. Sashi Moorman worked in several restaurants on the East Coast (Including Obelisk in DC!) before moving west. In 1996, he started winemaking, first working at Ojai then for a decade as the winemaker at Stolpman. He noticed that it was often hard to work as a winemaker on several projects, unless one of those projects was a winery you owned. Whoever was your primary paycheck could veto a competing project. Instead of buying a winery, he started an independent wine-making company so that he could work on several different projects at once without a winery owner having a right of veto. One of the projects that he had already started was Piedrasassi, a small producer focused on Syrah that he co-owns with his former boss at Obelisk Peter Pastan. The other part of the initial Piedrasassi team was Amy Christine and Peter Hunken who left to run Holus Bolus, whose winery you can see from the back of Piedrasassi in Lompoc.
Around the same time he was starting up Piedrasassi in 2003, he crossed paths with Rajat Parr who was the wine director for Michael Mina restaurants, including the wine-lover destination RN74 – named for the main road through Burgundy. With the financial backing of investor Charles Banks (who was behind Jonata and several other big wine names until he ran into problems), they started Sandhi in 2009. Sandhi sourced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the region. Its first release was in 2011. It was a hit.
Forward not Sideways
In ways big and small, Santa Barbara continued to innovate and regenerate even with its new blockbuster status. A world-wide swing away from the big juicy wines of the previous decade began, marked by the publication of Alice Fiering’s book The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization that championed terroir-driven wines. That trend would find fertile ground in Santa Barbara.
Steve Beckmen and Bob Lundquist met a French winemaker, Philippe Armenier, who had a consulting business to support biodynamic winemaking. Beckmen would hire the consultant to start some experiments in some of his vineyards around 2002. Lundquist started a biodynamic vineyard up in Edna Valley and produced his first biodynamic wine in 2009. From this start, a large contingent of wineries either adopted wholesale or incorporated substantially organic and biodynamic practices.
Andrew Murray was an early adapter on the use of screw caps, using them on most of his wines starting in 2006.
By the end of the decade there would be more than 100 wineries operating in Santa Barbara. There were over 65 different varietals planted.
2010 to Present
Building on the attention from Sideways and critical acclaim, Santa Barbara could feel confident about its status in the wine world. In 2010, Robert Parker had relinquished his role as chief wine critic for California at the Wine Advocate. His successor, Antonio Galloni, was a huge fan of the region. One of the decisions he made was to break out Santa Barbara from the larger Central Coast grouping, recognizing the importance of the wines and granting them greater recognition. The region was holding up well.
In Lompoc, several winemakers had followed Longoria in building facilities in the old industrial zone. It is formally called Sobhani Business Park, but it was nicknamed the ghetto by one of the tenants. Prior to 2010, tasting room in Lompoc had to be connected to a working facility. Lompoc revised its zoning laws to allow stand-alone tasting rooms, and the “Wine Ghetto” became a destination for aficionados. The number of labels operating in the area grew, both in the old industrial area, and elsewhere. These included some big names like Brewer-Clifton, Palmina, Fiddleshead, Holus Bolus, and the wines in Sashi Moorman’s circle: Domaine de la Cote, Piedrasassi, Sandhi. Piedrasassi Bakery is also located in Lompoc. Longoria himself has since moved a few blocks away from the original park.
Los Olivos developed into the undisputed center of gravity for tasting rooms. Two decades after Longoria opened a tasting room there, it now has some thirty plus wineries represented.
Another cluster of tasting rooms grew in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone right by the location of LaFond’s Santa Barbara Winery. Despite being blocks from the beach, the wedge of land by the highway and cut by the railroad track was cheap real estate that artists and others took advantage of. Led by Seth Kunin in 2009, tasting rooms sprung up as well as restaurants and other shops, even as it lost some of its funk.
The development of the tasting room centers works as an informal compromise with the other farmers and ranchers who would prefer that the backroads not become cluttered. The downside, as the leading historian of the area Victor Geraci notes is that they become centers for “drinking” that is more bacchanalia than a tasting experience. Real estate prices can also be a challenge.
At the beginning of the decade, winemakers in Ballard Canyon hosted a sommelier seminar focused on Syrah and came away motivated to form an AVA for the region. Led by Michael Larner and employing the expertise of Wes Hagen (who had drafted the Sta. Rita Hills petition) they successfully secured the Ballard Canyon AVA designation. Granted in 2013, it claims to be the only AVA dedicated to Syrah.
The Los Olivos AVA, sitting to the east of the Ballard Canyon AVA, was designated in 2016, defined by the unique soil, topography and climate of the “alluvial terrace” of the Santa Ynez Valley than a commitment to any varietal or style.
Over in Alisos Canyon, the Thompson Vineyard changed hands. In addition to supplying grapes for the Bedford Thompson winery, it sold to several others. Noah Rowles bought the vineyard in 2014 and asked local expert Jeff Newton how to help the region gain recognition. Falling outside both Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez, the wines could only be classified as generic Santa Barbara. Newton made the suggestion to hire Wes Hagen to draft an AVA petition. Like the Los Olivos AVA, the Alisos Canyon AVA focused on the soil and “cooling marine winds” as a defining element of the area. The Thompson Vineyard is now part of Dovecote Estate and Winery. The varietals of the AVA focus on the Rhône varietals of Syrah, Grenache and Viognier, as well as a few others. In their AVA petition they argued that there is a “Goldilocks” zone for Rhone wines 24.5 miles inland from ocean. Martian makes a Tempranillo here too, and Sine Qua Non has some Petit Sirah in its Third Twin Vineyard.
Evening (Land) Makes New Stars
The Evening Land Vineyards were located at the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, only seven miles from the ocean. Sashi Moorman helped start the project in 2005 and planted the vineyards with Chris King in 2007 when it was owned by movie producer Mark Tarlov – who also had Evening Land holdings up north. Tarlov sold the vineyards to Moorman, Parr and Charles Banks and they launched Domaine de la Côte in 2013. In 2016, Moorman and Parr would consolidate the Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte holdings into a single company. The winery is located in Lompoc, and the overlapping nature of the various enterprises is exemplified by the tasting room entrance that has signage for Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte and Piedrasassi. The Sandhi and Piedrasassi wines continue to gain accolades, but the Domaine de la Côtes became a cult wine sold on allocation.
Moorman continues to run his winemaking company Provignage. Parr is building up a collection of restaurants in the region with Coast Range/Vaquero Bar in Solvang and Bibi Ji in Santa Barbara. A few years back they started what may be their most ambitious project, but one that will take decades to come to full fruition. They started growing vines from seedlings.
Defining a New California Style
Not only was this a new generation coming to the fore, it was a new style taking hold. The wines of Brewer-Clifton, Melville and Sea Smoke helped define the signature style of California that was dominant in the mid-2000s. Make no mistake, big wines are still plentiful. But many of the stars of current generation like Moorman, Parr, Justin Willett at Tyler (who worked at Clos Pepe), David and Anna deLaski of Solminer, Gavin Chanin (who started as an intern at Au Bon Climat and Qupé), and Doug Margerum who did so much to promote the wines of the nineties are all doing more restrained, terroir-driven production. In part, this is because they can. As Chris Whitcraft’s son Drake, who took over the winery when his father died in 2014, explained:
“My dad wanted to make that style of wines – European, leaner, lower alcohol – but the farming wasn’t really what it is now. I’ve looked through his notes, and his pHs are where I want mine, but his sugars were higher because back then the sugar would start to move but the pHs wouldn’t. He would complain about that all the time. Back then, everyone was using the California sprawl – no vertical shoot positioning. Just not very good farming. He always wanted to make lean wines. That’s what he liked to drink. I’m making my wines exactly the same way he made his – the same exact process – but I can make leaner wines because the farming is so much more evolved these days.”
Raj Parr was one of several California winemakers who started an organization called In Pursuit of Balance to support wineries producing balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California. The organization organized tasting and other promotions until closing up shop in 2016. Alice Fiering, the most prominent advocate for natural wines highlighted the biodynamic, organic and balanced wine being made in the region, captured this anecdote from a Pursuit of Balance tasting: “Leaving the tasting, Joe Czerwinski, an editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine, commented on the wines he had just sampled. ‘Well, they’re not very Californian,’ he said.”
In hindsight, it is clear that the producers in Santa Barbara that took the natural path would eventually redefine what California wines are, not so much by supplanting the big style as by staking out a space to exist alongside it. Sometimes the cultural change can be humorous. You can have of a red that sees 18 months new oak and clocks in at 15% ABV be described by the tasting room staff as “balanced.” A decade previous it would have been described as lush, fruity, fun. In 2009, Eric Asimov in the Times put his finger on the growing movement, but generally cited some of the old guard who had been stubborn enough to see it come around: Josh Jensen at Calera, Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines. What is interesting looking at his list of suggested wines in the category is how many are from Santa Barbara or nearby: Au Bon Climat (of course), Lane Tanner, Longoria, Ojai, Talley. Asimov followed the region closely for years. In 2015, Asimov would return to the theme with a tasting just of Sta. Rita Hills and would be citing Melville as a leading example the new trend.
As the original group personalities from the seventies and eighties grew older the moments that mark endings increased. Some sold and downsized to smaller projects. Bob Linquist sold Qupé and after a short stint as a consultant broke off his relationship with the winery in 2019. The Qupé “About Us” page does not mention him. He kept the winery located at Bien Nacido which was renamed Clendenen-Lindquist Vintners. Tragically, his friend Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat died in 2021.
Seth Kunin also passed away much too early in 2017. Magan Eng, Seth’s widow, took over full responsibility for the winery and continued to build its reputation.
In 2017, Brewer-Clifton was bought by Jackson Family Wines. Richard Sanford gave up the Alma Rosa Winery. Bill Mosby, who started one of the original wineries in 1977, passed away in 2020 at the age of 89, and in early 2021 the winery was on the market. Richard Longoria, another of that initial wave in the seventies and eighties, was reported to be looking to sell as well.
The spirit they spawned continues though. Following the Brewer-Clifton model of entrepreneurial boldness, a slew of young winemakers are starting their own small labels. Many of the next generation are women, following in Lane Tanner’s and Kathy Joseph’s footsteps. Some of the current crop of winemakers are taking over from their parents like at Whitcraft, Stolpman and Melville. Some are taking roles in established wineries. The mentoring spirit that Jim Clendenen and Seth Kunin exemplified lives on.
It is no longer really possible to keep track of all the wineries as a way to trace the history or even understand the region. What was five, then thirteen, then a hundred is now approaching three hundred wineries. The interesting part is that many of them are small upstarts that will provide a dynamism for years to come.
More History to be Written:
There are some trends highlighted that we expect will continue. Winemakers will continue to experiment with varietals, techniques will improve both in the field and in the cellar, and new talent will come along. The AVA designations may continue, and there is a long-standing discussion about whether to divide up Sta. Rita Hills. However, it would not be surprising to see using the vineyard designation as central to labeling and marketing expand. The two landmark vineyards that opened this history, Bien Nacido and Sanford & Benedict, continue to be sought after by winemakers across the county. In this way Burgundy may be a model again. The more Santa Barbara discovers and celebrates the various combinations of soil, sun, and temperature, the more it will be possible to market the vineyards associated with the best examples. Galloni advocates such an approach and rails when new buyers do not realize that consistent vineyard names are more important than another vanity label on the bottle.
In 2013, Stolpman’s then-winemaker Sashi Moorman working with vine manager Rueben Solorzano put in a single plant of Syrah. After a little while the vines grew out. Then they took the ends of those vines and steered them back under ground so that when they sprouted up again it would appear as if it were a new plant. But they remain connected to the original planting. The process is called provignage (which you may recall is the metaphorically-correct name of Moorman company that he started around this time).
A larger history is hinted at in the stories above, but it is not well documented. The Dovecote history page pays tribute to Juventino “Tino” Cervantes, who Thompson hired in 1990 to start the vineyard and continues to care for the land along with two more generations of Cervantes family members. Ruben Camacho, whose run-in with the black bear in the Syrah vineyards in 1978 gave Zaca Mesa the name for its Black Bear Block, is still the Vineyard Manager there. Ruben Solorzano of Stolpman and Vineyard Care Associates is called the grape whisperer by Matt Kettman (check out this piece on the DC wine shop DCanter’s website). Stolpman has embraced Solorzano’s reputation. The photographer on the Kettman book on the region, Macduff Everton did a piece talking about the reluctance of some of those who work the fields to seek recognition, but also showed just a little effort can get you a good story.
When taking into consideration the immense changes from moving away from pesticides to new clipping and trellising techniques, the voices of those working the fields everyday must be full of insights, but they are not as well recorded as the winemakers and estate owners. This history relied heavily on on-line sources, so perhaps there is a history somewhere capturing these voices that is not readily available. We hope so.
The willingness of winemakers to challenge the status quo has not stopped either. Simonne Mitchelson and Justin Trabue called out the industry on its problems when it comes to race in a 2020 open letter. Those words led to action with several Santa Barbara wineries stepping up to help take on the challenge of diversity and inclusion in an industry that is not very diverse – at least when it comes to the voices that are heard and the faces shown.
A quirky attempt at innovation was made by a group of guys who tried to start sell wine they aged under the sea (right temperature and limited light!). An interesting idea that they possibly didn’t fully think through.
Raj Parr thinks that his vineyards at Domaine de la Côtes that currently produce mostly world-class Pinot Noir should really be Chardonnay. And somewhere in the Santa Rita Hills there are some young vines that Sashi Moorman planted as seeds that one day may define an entire new category of wine in Santa Barbara.
We hope to enjoy watching it all develop and drinking the rewards of all those who make it possible for years to come. Writing this all up has been a fascinating trip through time and across the valleys. We hope you enjoy it.
The history above was mostly based on internet sleuthing. For a more professional take, there are a few published histories on Santa Barbara wine. The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association sponsored a history led by Professor Otis L. Graham at UCSB entitled Aged in Oak. One of the graduate students who worked on that book was Victor Geraci, who subsequently wrote two histories of Santa Barbara wine. Salud: The Rise of Santa Barbara’s Wine Industry and Wine by Design.
Matt Kettman, of the Santa Barbara Independent, wrote many of the articles cited. He also wrote a beautiful book of pictures and text called Vines and Visions: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County.
Greg Martellotto – Wrote a three part history of the wine region posted on his winery’s blog that we used extensively, especially as a starting point to understand the historical arc.
Brenna Quigley’s Podcast, Roadside Terroir, looks at the oldest possible history of the region through the lens of geology and current voices. She is currently working on the next season, which will focus on Burgundy. Don’t miss it!
As with our visitors guide to the region, should you find errors you feel compelled to flag for our attention, you can contact us through the website or through the gmail at 17degreesdc.