Say the words “California wine” and more often than not, bruiser Napa Cabernets or buttery Sonoma Chardonnays come to mind. There’s a certain irony to the fact that most consumers consider wine country of Santa Barbara County as a relative newcomer when in fact the area has had acreage under vine for over one hundred years. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Santa Barbara County really took off, thanks in part to the UC Davis’s assessment of it having the optimal climate for growing grapes.
What makes the climate of Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast so unique? Three factors come into play: The Humboldt Current, the Coriolis Effect, and the Transverse Range.
The Humboldt Current, despite its name, has nothing to do with cheese or green pharmaceuticals. It’s actually a deep ocean current that comes up from Peru, bringing cool waters with it. That combines with the Coriolis Effect, which is a phenomenon that occurs when northern winds push surface-warm ocean water off the top of the Pacific and moves it further west. The Coriolis Effect truly is phenomenal because it’s not possible without the Earth’s rotation! When that warmer water shifts away, those deep, cool waters shift towards the top, ensuring a continuous cooling effect mid-California Coast. That cool air is then funneled inland due to the Transverse Range: that’s where the North-South running mountains turn East-West due to an early plate tectonic shift. That geological and meteorological combination add up to the unique microclimates we find around Santa Barbara County – which add up to a great variety of wine!
The two biggest AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, in Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. Both are river valleys created by that plate tectonic shift, which means they oddly run west-to-east, funneling cool maritime air in with them. Both AVAs benefit from large diurnal swings because the cool Pacific influence brings in chilly fog overnight, lowering the nightly temperatures, before burning off midday at higher, hotter afternoon temperatures. That large temperature swing optimizes sugar levels in grapes while maintaining acidity. You’ll notice wines from both AVAs may be higher in alcohol but never taste out of balance: there will always be a refreshing prickle of acidity on the finish. Let’s take a moment to thank diurnal swings for that!
Within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the best known AVA is Sta. Rita Hills. (And yes, it is legally ‘Sta. Rita Hills’ and not ‘Santa Rita Hills.’ It seems the famous Santa Rita winery in Chile was a bit peeved when the Santa Rita Hills AVA was initially granted and sued to prevent consumer confusion.) Sta. Rita Hills is most famous for its Pinot Noir. The AVA benefits from that ocean air as well as very specific ‘chet’ soil that create the unmistakably bright and floral Sta. Rita Pinot flavor. It’s no mistake that some of the best-known California Pinot vineyards, including Sea Smoke, are located here.
Moving away from the ocean, we find the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon AVAs. As their names imply, they are both lower altitude AVAs and, since they’re surrounded by mountains, heat and sunlight reflect off to create much warmer microclimates than those found in Sta. Rita Hills. Bordeaux and Rhone varietals do well here. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon loves Happy Canyon and Syrah rules Ballard Canyon.
And, fun fact!: Happy Canyon earned its moniker by having the only working still during Prohibition, leading many a local to visit and to leave quite happy! We’re pleased to see this happy-making legacy continued with fantastic wine.
And finally, the newest AVA in the region is perhaps the closest to our heart: the Los Olivos District. Located in the area surrounding the Los Olivos Café, the Bernat vineyard is proud to be part of the Los Olivos District. Comparatively flat and warm, Syrah absolutely thrives here – which you can taste in the many different Bernat Syrah bottlings.
With the continued interest in Santa Barbara County, we feel that its potential is just now being brought to fruition. The various microclimates and unique topography allow for infinite possibilities, from rich, round reds to bright, acidic whites. Santa Barbara Country truly has a wine for every wine lover!
We love sharing Santa Barbara Wine Country! Shop our Wine Merchant here and we’ll ship our wine country to you! Consider choosing from our custom wine club selection that offers only the best of California Central Coast wines.
Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat– Pioneer Winemaker of Santa Barbara
According to the Au Bon Climat website, Jim Clendenen grew up in Ohio in a “gastronomically impoverished” culture. It’s safe to say that he has since more than made up for that epicurially lost time during the last 30 years!
A Global Education
Like many of his generation, time spent in Europe during a semester abroad opened his eyes – and his mind – that food and wine could be more than burgers and California Mountain Burgundy. Such a transformative experience caused him to dedicate his career to wine instead of law, which is what he was actually there to study.
After a stint at Zaca Mesa, which has become so well-known for cultivating future winemakers that it’s called ‘Zaca U,’ Jim partnered with Adam Tolmach to create Au Bon Climat. His time in France influenced both the name of the winery and Jim’s approach: he sought to craft more subtle, vibrant, and age-worthy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In other words, he wanted to create what he wanted to drink.
Francophile Tendencies and Shared Vision
Jim’s Francophile tendencies were shared by winemaking colleagues Bob Lindquist, Adam Tolmach, and Ken Brown.
They got together on a regular basis to drink the French wines they all loved so much, thereby cementing the future of Santa Barbara winemaking whether they knew it or not. Since then, all have become giants in the wine industry, but it’s still Au Bon Climat that stands out as the best Burgundian-styled using fantastic California fruit.
Jim is quick to point out that it’s the Clendenen Family label that’s actually his “first” label because the grapes are from his own vineyard and he has built it from the ground up. There, he creates wines from more esoteric French grapes like Mondeuse and Aligoté which are seldom seen stateside. Such wines are highly acidic and beg to be paired with richer foods, which is also a direct nod to his time in France as a young man.
But winemaking isn’t the only way Jim carries out his quest to make up for gastronomical impoverishment of his youth: his lunch time meals for staff and visitors alike are legendary. He personally prepares a feast at the winery every day that he’s there and everyone sits down together at a communal table to enjoy it. You never really know what you’ll get since Jim usually cobbles together a meal
from what he has available – the veggies come from his garden and the meats are from local farmers. A thoughtful selection of wines are always present on the table. Truly an experience!
We, however, don’t need to wait for an invitation because we’re featuring Au Bon Climat wines through the month of August. We are offering the three featured wines below for 20% off throughout the month. We hope you get to take advantage of this fantastic deal!
Stop on in at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café to experience Jim’s wines and to have your own gastronomical epiphany! And be sure to stop by on Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café on Friday, August 25thfrom 5:30 to 6:30 as his wines are poured at the bar by his long time assistant, Katie O’Hara, and paired with food prepared by our Chef.
Au Bon Climat Wines — 20% OFF THROUGH AUGUST! BUY NOW
This blend of 60% Pinot Gris from the Sierra Madre Vineyard and 40% Pinot Blanc from the Bien Nacido Vineyard should be your go-to summer wine! Stone fruit and hints of honeysuckle on the nose give way to an apricot palate, with slight hints of toffee and walnuts and bright acidity on the finish. Think fresh shellfish in saffron-based dishes – like paella!
Because of Jim’s deep appreciation for tradition, he created the “historical vineyard” series of wines, and this is a great example of why: the Los Alamos Vineyard is very sandy, which forces the vines to struggle for water, thereby creating more aromatics and minerality in the finished wine. A slight tinge of butter on the nose is followed by subtle pear fruit and white floral notes. On the palate, look for prickly, refreshing acidity that still manages to mellow.
A blend of grapes from the Bien Nacido Vineyard and Jim’s own Le Bon Climat Vineyard shows why Au Bon Climat has been the leader in Burgundian Pinots for decades: sweet fruit on the nose is balanced by white florals and earth. On the palate, the wine shows classic Burgundian black cherry, earthiness, and herbs. It’s a very focus and direct Pinot that is unmistakably Jim’s.
If you were to read a book about the history of wine making in Santa Barbara Wine Country, Foxen Winery would most definitely be a significant part of it. History is made when two people meet who’s personalities and talents compliment each other with a common vision, each bringing something to the table– or in this case the bottle– to make the vision a reality. And as Foxen’s popular, and rather catchy, adage goes, “If you don’t know FOXEN, you don’t know Dick… or Bill!”
Where did Dick Doré and Bill Wathen, commonly referred to as the Foxen Boys, meet? At a party… of course. You’ll enjoy watching our interview when they describe the details of the first time they met and their early years making wine. You’re sure to be entertained by their version of the story.
Though Dick and Bill get much of the well-deserved credit for Foxen’s success, their joint venture which began in 1985, is really a joint family business; which undoubtedly would not be the success it is without the expertise of their wives and all they do. Both Jenny Doré, Dick’s wife, and Becky Wathen, Bill’s wife, are behind the scenes keeping the business wheels turning and the Foxen boys on track– even their children play significant roles in running the family business.
Keeping it in the family is only natural since Foxen’s vineyard and winery is on Dick Doré’s historic family property. In fact, their original winery — commonly referred to as “The Shack”– is the old blacksmith shop that was in full operation when Dick’s great great grandfather, William Benjamin Foxen, operated the family property as a horse ranch. William Foxen was a sailor in the hide and tallow trade, who sailed around Cape Horn and came to Monterrey to pick up the hides and tallow, before dropping them off in Mexico and bringing back finished goods to California. On one of his trips he stopped in Santa Barbara at the Regional Commodant’s home. He met the Commodant’s youngest daughter, instantly fell in love and married. It was 1837, his new father-in-law arranged for William Foxen to purchase 10,000 acres from a Mexican land grant, which is now the Foxen property. William Foxen and his new wife started raising horses on the Foxen Canyon property and had 14 children! What better name for their winery than “Foxen,” with the logo adapted from the original cattle brand tilt head anchor.
So how did managing horses turn into producing wine? That’s where Bill comes in. More details are in our interview, but long story short, Bill knows what he’s doing in the vineyard where Dick says Bill, “makes the magic happen.” Clearly his talents are also in the winery because you’ll never find a Foxen wine that will disappoint– consider it a challenge and start with our three featured Foxen wines below. Even when they were operating in a 150 year old building, Bill still made incredible wines that built the reputation Foxen maintains.
When asked how they might sum up an aspect of themselves that may get infused into Foxen wines with one word, Bill said that he likes to borrow the term “Hózhó″ from the Navajo, meaning “walking in beauty – or living in a manner that strives to create and maintain balance, harmony, beauty and order.”
Foxen wines are just that… wines in balance.
We’ve had the pleasure of hosting a few Foxen Winemaker Dinners. They are always a great success– not only is the food amazing– but Dick and Bill bring their approachable demeanors and exceptional wine knowledge which always make for spirited conversation. After getting to know the Foxen Boys and their wives, it is apparent how they have become anchors of the Santa Barbara County wine industry.
“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.” Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills. Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock. However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him. These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else. This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.
The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific. As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall. In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California. “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen. “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.” Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions. The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.
The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam. Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay. The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils. This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power. Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in thesouthernhalf, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.” Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel. I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”
One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar. From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle. Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label. “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer. “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally. Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.” Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s. Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.
For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock. His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area. “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson. “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.” They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent. The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes. The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.
In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed. This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region. Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place. In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.
“This is a wonderful Pinot Noir, it’s very Burgundian”… “I think you’ll really enjoy this Syrah, it’s a dead ringer for something from the Northern Rhone”… “Their Chardonnay is beautiful, it drinks just like a great Chablis”. We’ve all heard these comments (and I’m certainly guilty of uttering them) in regards to Californian wines. It’s almost as if the greatest compliment we can pay a balanced wine from the New World is that it tastes like something from the Old World. After almost 30 years of high-alcohol, ultra-ripe wines, it’s understandable that those of us championing this return to wines of balance and place would want to connect the dots to Europe’s more classically structured, subdued wines. But if we expect to stand head to head with, rather than on the shoulders of, these old world giants, we have to start proudly owning our unique sense of place.
Santa Barbara County, despite its youth, has already carved out numerous small micro-regions with their own distinct site character. Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Bench, Los Alamos Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon, and the Los Olivos District all have distinctive soils, macroclimates, and topography found only in this special part of the world, and the producers advocating for these areas, now more than ever, are capturing their idiosyncratic essence.
Take Justin Willett. The winemaker behind Tyler, Lieu Dit, and Vallin (does he ever sleep?!?) is crafting wines at refreshingly low alcohols, with a vivid savor of place. While his inspiration comes from Burgundy (Tyler), the Loire (Lieu Dit), and the Northern Rhone (Vallin), the wines could clearly have come from nowhere else but California. The beet root and black pepper of his Bien Nacido Pinot Noir from Santa Maria; the guava, papaya, and musk notes of the Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon; the lush blueberry and cracked pepper of Vallin’s Santa Ynez Syrah; these are wines that stand on their own as benchmark examples of what our area is capable of.
Or sample the Grenache of Angela Osborne. It comes from Santa Barbara Highlands, a vineyard so remote and wild that it feels like stepping onto the moon; 3200 ft. elevation, soils so sandy that they look like a dune, scrub dotting the landscape, snow in the winter. This is a place with real character, from a winemaker who has tapped so deeply into her own wavelength that she’s essentially a genre of one. Tasting this wine, one senses the feral high desert in its origins, the California sunshine, the passion of a woman walking the vinous tightrope with no harness; the essence of what this new movement is all about.
And let us not forget our pioneers, the wild ones who started on this path of balance and never strayed from it even when fashion swung away from them. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat; Lane Tanner; Adam Tolmach at Ojai; Stephan Bedford; Fred Brander; they have helped shepherd and inspire this new generation, and are still making beautiful wines, further defining what makes our region so special.
It is a thrilling time to be a wine lover in Santa Barbara County. We have one of the most unique growing regions on the planet, with incredible soils, a huge range of climates, and topography to make any European envious. And now, in a big way, we have a wine culture that is starting to take proud ownership of this utterly singular sense of place. Perhaps one day, years from now, we will hear jealous murmurs in Burgundy: “Have you tried this? It tastes just like a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills…”
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.