California is rich with special wine destinations but Santa Barbara County (SBC) might just be the most exciting one at the present time. With the Pacific Ocean to the west and an unusual east-to-west mountain configuration, SBC’s wine growing regions are rife with varying microclimates. SBC currently has 6 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) which produce varieties from cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay near the coast to robust Bordeaux blends further inland.
With over 200 wineries, there are plenty of options but here are a few of my favorites.
Located in the cool Sta. Rita Hills AVA (which founder Ron Melville was instrumental in helping to create in 2001), Melville specializes in Pinot Noir but also produces Rhone-style Syrah and Chardonnay. One side note: while pronounced “Santa Rita Hills”, it’s written as “Sta. Rita Hills” to distinguish it from Chile’s Santa Rita brand.
Chad Melville, Ron’s son, produces an amazing array of wines from 16 different Pinot Noir clones, 9 Syrah clones, and 8 Chardonnay clones. Each clone (a complete replica of the parent grape) brings a unique attribute to the wine including things like better cold resistance, higher acidity, or more savory flavors.
With these clones, Chad is able to experiment and blend to produce the best expression of each vintage. He’s also an expert with whole-cluster fermentation. This is a winemaking technique often seen in France where the entire grape cluster is used in fermenting the wine.
Since the cluster contains stems, using whole-clusters creates a wine of greater freshness, more savory notes, and often more tannins. It’s fascinating to taste Chad’s wines side-by-side to experience the difference between his whole-cluster made wines and those without stems. The wines without stems are generally more fruit-forward and denser in flavor and body.
Melville has a minimalist winemaking philosophy which is reflected in no new oak use, wild yeast use, and minimal sulfur additions. 15 year-old French oak is used to allow the wines to preserve their primary flavors and freshness yet create more complexity in the wines. Melville also plants their vineyards to 1815 vines per acre which is higher than most typical vineyards. The idea behind this is to get each vine to produce less fruit which creates more intensity in the grapes.
Here are a few wines to try: 2014 Estate Pinot Noir- Sta. Rita Hills ($36) is made from 100% estate fruit and blends 16 different Pinot Noir clones. This wine is 40% whole-cluster fermented using open-top fermenters which aids in extraction of flavors and color. Bright ruby in color, this wine tastes of black cherry, ripe red apples, cinnamon, and dried roses. The lively finish has tingly acid and a refreshing mineral note threaded through it.
The 2015 Estate Syrah-Sta. Rita Hills ($36) is made from 70% de-stemmed grapes and tastes of violet, blueberry, black olive, and beguiling spice. This wine has a regality about it finishing with a long, elegant savory note showcased by vibrant acidity. All of Melville’s wines have a beautiful freshness, lively acid, and a mineral core to them that really stands out.
Melville is a “must-see” if you’re visiting SBC wine country. With outstanding wines and a stunning estate, it’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon either in the ochre-colored Tuscan style winery or on the patio surrounded by vineyards. The daily wind kicks up in the afternoons and you can feel for yourself how it impacts the grapes with searing sunlight yet a cool dose of the ocean 10 miles away.
The Dierbergs started their wine journey with Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, MO which is one of America’s oldest wineries. Their love for Pinot Noir and Bordeaux varieties led them to explore different climates as these grapes won’t grow successfully in the cooler Midwest. They discovered SBC in 1996 and now have three sites - two cool climate (Dierberg and Drum Canyon under the Dierberg label) and one warm climate in Star Lane. Dierberg lies in Santa Maria (north of Sta. Rita Hills) while Drum Canyon is in Sta. Rita Hills. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the main grapes at Dierberg due to the cooler climate.
Star Lane lies in the appropriately named Happy Canyon (located 30 miles inland). Its beauty is so unique and majestic that it’s hard not to find a smile on your face as you drive in. Warmer temperatures and altitude of 750-1550 feet allow Bordeaux varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc to fully ripen yet preserve refreshing acidity.
We were generously hosted at both of their Dierberg and Star Lane tasting rooms by A.J. Fairbanks (President). Dierberg has a chic yet charmingly rustic feel to it and Star Lane is their flagship tasting room with dramatic cellars and elaborate castle-like grounds. Most of their wines are available at either tasting room and both offer terrific experiences with different feels.
Some of my favorite wines here were the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($22), 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), and Astral ($120). The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc comes from Happy Canyon and tastes of tropical melon, spice, and lemon zest with stony mineral notes. A short time aging in neutral oak gives this wine greater weight and body while still retaining its elegance.
The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was made after extensive samplings of 30 different lots. This robust wine combines lush plum and black cherry flavors with savory notes of menthol, sage, and licorice all culminating in a powerful long finish.
The 2012 Astral is made from grapes grown at Star Lane’s highest elevation (1550 feet) on their own rootstock as parts of this area were never impacted by phylloxera (a vine root-eating insect). The higher elevation site results in smaller berries and intense sunlight which contribute to a deeply concentrated wine tasting of dense blackberry, coffee, tobacco, lavender, and sweet spice. This is a brilliant wine of nuanced complexity with another 20 years in front of it; well worth the splurge for a special occasion or aging.
Just west of Happy Canyon lies Ballard Canyon and Stolpman Vineyards. Stolpman sits on a rare limestone outcropping and focuses on stunning Syrah and Roussanne varieties (both from Rhone, France) as well as several other grapes (Sangiovese, Viognier, and Grenache). With little protection from the ocean winds and a minimalist winemaking philosophy, Stolpman’s wines are fresh, elegant, and have a natural vibrancy to them.
It is here that you’ll find possibly the only co-fermented Syrah and Sangiovese wine in the world in the 2014 La Croce ($66) as typically these two grapes don’t ripen at the same time (thus co-fermentation isn’t possible). Tasting of red fruit and licorice from the Sangiovese and blackberry, olive, and bacon from the Syrah, this wine is a showstopper.
Another special Stolpman wine is the 2015 Cuadrilla ($22). Vineyard Manager Ruben Solorzano and Tom Stolpman (Founder) wanted to help vineyard workers become more engaged in their work. Ruben started a training program in which he gave one Cuadra (a small vineyard block) to his team so they would take responsibility for their land and thus became the farmer rather than just the worker.
A few years later, the crew had independently mastered vineyard management and Tom gave all of the wine made from the crew’s training Cuadra to the team members for their own consumption. Starting with the 2009 vintage, the Cuadrilla program was expanded to blend in more wine from the vineyard in addition to the training Cuadra. Today, 10% of the vineyard’s production goes into the blend. The profits are returned to the crew members, divided by seniority, in the form of a year-end bonus.
The 2015 Cuadrilla is an amazing effort tasting of spice, strawberry (from Grenache inclusion), earthy minerals, with robust tannins. The blend of the Cuadrilla varies by vintage based on how the various grapes perform.
Two other wines to try are the Roussanne and the Angeli. Most people haven’t tasted much Roussanne as it’s not a common variety in the U.S. but here the 2015 Roussanne ($30) shines in a full-bodied style tasting of honeysuckle, papaya, and pear. “Rousse” means “rust-colored” and this wine has a beautiful pink tinge to it. Peter Stolpman (Managing Partner) likes to joke that Roussanne is “late to rise and stays out late” as he describes how the grape is late to bud and late to ripen which is perfect for Stolpman’s long growing season.
The 2015 Angeli ($68) is named after Marilyn Stolpman’s Italian family surname. Produced from one of their best Syrah plots with low yields and tiny berries, this wine has great depth and finesse with fine-grained tannins and dense flavors of blackberry, spice, iron mineral, and violet notes.
While there are more economical places to stay, it’s hard to beat the remote rugged beauty of Bacara Resort and Spa situated about 20 minutes west of Santa Barbara. Located right on the ocean with several winding trails, this is possibly the best of California in one spot: easy wine country access, stunning ocean views, and mountains every direction you look.
The resort itself is equally stunning with individual buildings set within lush gardens; many with patios/balconies and ocean views. Owned by Bill Foley (of the Vegas Golden Knights NHL team and Foley Wine Estates among many other properties), the hotel features the Foley Tasting Room along with several other bars and restaurants including the amazing Angel Oak restaurant.
Angel Oak has an open and airy atmosphere with dramatic bonsai plants scattered between mesmerizing
ocean views. Throw in the top-notch wine list and incredible seafood/steak menu and you have one unforgettable experience.