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.
Winemaking is about storytelling, and the story behind Zaca Mesa is definitely worth telling. -Eric Mohseni, Zaca Mesa Winemaker
Zaca Mesa, one of the most storied wineries around due to it’s history. Established in 1973 when there were only two wineries in Santa Barbara County. Zaca Mesa is the first winery in the area to plant Syrah grapes, which helped kick start the Rhone varietal love affair throughout California.
Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block of Syrah is the oldest in the Central Coast. The vines themselves came from Gary Eberle, who acquired them from a UC Davis professor, who had taken them from Hermitage in France! Black Bear Block is all original rootstock– a rare find these days.
(Fun fact: “Black Bear Block” earned its name when vineyard manager Ruben Camacho found black bears there munching away on the grapes!) Today, Zaca Mesa’s estate exclusively grows Rhone grapes, everything from Viognier to Grenache and Syrah.
The story doesn’t end with the grapes, though. Located in a big ol’ barn up in the Santa Rita Hills, Zaca Mesa has been lucky enough to experience such legendary winemakers as Ken Brown and Bob Lindquist. Zaca Mesa has consistently kept quality wines above all else, and it’s that commitment to quality that attracted current Head Winemaker Eric Mohseni.
But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”
Eric worked part time at The Wine Country in Signal Hill during his undergraduate days at Cal State Long Beach, where he majored in food science and chemistry. As his role quickly grew, he became the buyer for Southern Hemisphere wines, which launched an obsession with Sauvignon Blanc. That, in turn, lead him to move to New Zealand to work a harvest and fully immerse himself in winemaking. But it was the moment that he set foot on the Zaca Mesa property that he knew “this is where I want to be.”
Still a chemistry major at heart, Eric loves experimenting with barrels and aging. Recent additions to the winery include massive concrete tanks and elegant clay amphorae, both of which are used to produce Syrah and a Grenache-Mourvedre blend. Those wines are big, deep, and tannic, as the concrete and clay are obviously less porous than oak barrels and allow very little air in. This kind of curiosity and experimentation allows Zaca Mesa to produce varied styles of wine from the same block of grapes, from smooth and round to big and bold.
Eric credits Vineyard Manager Ruben Camacho, Cellar Master Agustin Robles, and the entire Zaca Mesa staff with the winery’s success because of their ongoing commitment and dedication. Ruben has been with Zaca Mesa for over 40 years, and Agustin isn’t far behind. Eric believes that the camaraderie found there is crucial to the finished wines.
Eric was our Featured Winemaker for the month of June in 2017. View our upcoming featured winemakers on our special event page here.
You are at a dinner party, and suddenly you hear it, the sound of a popping cork. After that first cork is pulled the sound of the house changes, the conversations begin to flow freely, the laughter comes more quickly. You aren’t discussing the taste, it is time to relax and let the wine take us some place emotionally, and flavor wise, without having to feel the need to define it.
“Great wine should lead to a conversation about everything except itself. Wine is not egotistical, it is not narcissistic, it doesn’t care if you talk about it.” -Wes Hagen
Asked to describe himself in one word Wes said, “Performative”. There are a lot of winemakers with the same knowledge he has but the ability to be able to engage anyone with a glass of wine is what sets him apart. We certainly won’t argue with that!
Wes started his winemaking adventures in 1996 here in Santa Barbara County. Ranked among the top 100 most influential winemakers in the United States by Decanter magazine, Wes is an incredible resource for wine knowledge. He researched, wrote, and had approved three AVA’s in Santa Barbara County; Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and Ballard Canyon. He has written for various publications and taught at many prestigious institutions.
After 21 years as winemaker at Clos Pepe estates, he became the brand ambassador and winemaker for J.Wilkes winery. Founded by Jeff Wilkes in 2001 focusing on Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. The untimely passing of Jeff left the label at a standstill until it was purchased by the Miller family in his honor. Wes is continuing to represent Jeff’s legacy and his ideas about how to make great wine. Letting the vineyards speak, not getting too stylistic with the wines. Trying to keep the way they represent the place and the time they were grown, intact.
“…to put a bottle of wine on the table every night, and to use wine to keep the people you love at the table for an extra hour”-Wes Hagen
If you would like to meet Wes and try his incredible wines, he will be mingling with guests during our dinner service at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe on September 30th. Can’t make it in? All of J. Wilkes wines are 20% off the whole month of September in the retail store and online! Take advantage of this discount that will only last until the end of September, and try the sampler 4-Pack to get a taste of a wonderful selection of J. Wilkes wines. For reservations call 805-688-7265 or schedule online via open table
“To share and enjoy wine and food with friends is why I believe we are all in this industry.”
The Cotiere Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, is one of those wines that stops you in your tracks, once you try it you have to find out what it is, who made it, and how to get more! It is a head turner, the flavors are rich and textured throughout, with plenty of resonance and fabulous overall balance.
After about 10 years of harvest work, and assistant winemaking, Kevin Law began his own label, Cotiere, in 2006. A geology major who found himself getting involved with atmospheric sciences, meteorology, and mapping, Kevin decided to expand his experience into something he was genuinely passionate about; wine. Like all great winemakers, there are individuals who influence and guide them along their journey, Barbara and Jim Richards of Paloma on Spring Mountain in Napa, were incredibly helpful to Kevin.
In his mid-twenties there was an old vine California Zinfandel that turned Kevin into a wine-lover. From there it seems, there are many benchmark wines and varietals from around the world that captured his imagination. The first California Pinot Noir that truly got his attention was the 1994 Williams Selyem Allan Vineyard – “on release that wine was singing.”
Cotiere wines are made humbly out of respect for the fruit, to reflect that year’s unique growing conditions. The wines are crafted to offer a sense of place, an expression of the Central Coast terroir. Kevin wants to stay true to the grapes individuality per row, block, vineyard, and year. The fruit for Cotiere wines is sourced from selected vineyards such as River Bench, Thompson, Hilliard Bruce, La Encantada, and Presqu’ile. Keeping each vineyard separate he shows the honest truth of terroir, creating a unique experience for wine drinkers. We’ve had the honor of meeting Kevin, tasting his wines, and getting to know him on a personal level. We can vouch that Cotiere wines express the true authenticity of their place because of the character of the person behind them. Can’t think of a better way to experience the terroir of the our Santa Barbara Wine Country then enjoying these wines.
Kevin’s Pinot is one of many fantastic wines he produces for his Cotiere label. Here’s what we are currently featuring:
On Thursday September 18th, we’ll be hosting a dinner here at the Café featuring Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Trey Fletcher of Bien Nacido Estate to celebrate 40 years of Bien Nacido Vineyard. It’s very rare to get this legendary brain trust in one place to share their stories, so it should be a pretty magical evening. Leading up to the dinner, I’ve been reflecting about what makes Bien Nacido so distinctive, and, in a larger sense, the things that make a vineyard special beyond the usual talk of soil and climate.
Beginning in 2008, I had the privilege of working at Bien Nacido for 2 ½ years as a cellar rat for Tantara, whose winery was located on the property. From our location in the central flats of the property, I could see our neighbors Ambullneo down the road (Dieter Cronje and Matt Murphy, who would go on to create the formidable Presqu’ile property, were part of the cellar team there at the time), and ABC and Qupe’s massive cellar across the river. Driving into work each morning, checking out the various blocks was a visual roll call of the who’s-who in Santa Barbara County winemaking: that slope is Foxen’s Block 8; that little wedge of Syrah belongs to Paul Lato; there’s Manfred from Sine Qua Non checking on his fruit. And of course, there were the legendary parcels made famous by the likes of Au Bon Climat, Qupe, and Lane Tanner, each its own piece of history with a story to tell. Great vineyards have a certain energy to them, a soul if you will, and Bien Nacido is one of the most soulful sites I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in.
Where does this presence of place come from? I don’t think it’s something that can be separated from the human element. All of the factors that have come together in Bien Nacido- the passion of the Miller family, who founded the property and own it still; the fervent passion of Jim Clendenen, who spread the gospel of Bien Nacido throughout the world; the brilliant modern stewardship of vineyard manager Chris Hammell- have given form and voice to the natural elements of this piece of land in a way that is singular and special. A site whose natural factors suggest something merely good cannot be willed into greatness; by the same token, a site with the seeds of greatness can’t realize its potential without the vision of human beings like those mentioned above. In this way, wine may be the ultimate expression of the union between Mother Nature and Man.
If I were to use one word to describe the character of Bien Nacido Vineyard, it would be verve. Whether it is a late-picked, luscious Syrah, a spice-driven, lithe Pinot Noir, or a mineral, lean Melon, there is a brightness and vivaciousness that gives lift and precision to wines from this site. The cool climate of the Santa Maria Bench, coupled with calcium-rich shale soils, is a large part of the reason for this, though again, the personalities behind the wines are a huge factor. When one observes the passion and attention to detail given by Justin Willett of Tyler and Lieu Dit, or the acuity of Trey Fletcher for Bien Nacido’s estate program, it’s no surprise that this lively, precise quality can be tasted across the varietal spectrum.
There is a story in the soil, a voice waiting to be broadcast that will shout to the world the character of a great site. Bien Nacido is such a site, with translators who have managed to magnify and capture its unique personality. I look forward to hearing from Jim Clendenen, Trey Fletcher, and Bob Lindquist as they delve deeper into the story of Bien Nacido; no matter how much you think you know about a familiar place, there is also a new layer to be uncovered.
To purchase tickets to our event Rock Steady: 40 Years of Bien Nacido Vineyard,
My memories of the weather growing up as a kid in Santa Maria aren’t exactly the stuff of idyllic Norman Rockwell paintings. The howling wind blowing clouds of dust from the nearby strawberry fields into my grandparents’ yard where I was playing, families freezing at Little League games, and relentless fog even in the middle of summer. Ironically, given the career path I’ve chosen, this weather also makes for one of the planet’s most ideal locations for Pinot Noir. In the past year I’ve fallen in love all over again with the wind-battered, fog-shrouded west end of the valley in particular, and the thrilling Pinots emanating from this tiny corner of the world. This week I spoke with several of the farmers and winemakers who are crafting incredible Pinot Noir here.
While this area doesn’t have a specific name yet, some have begun referring to it as the Solomon Hills (also the name of one the most prominent vineyards here). Beginning in the southwest portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA along the transverse Solomon Hills range, directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean, this is an area defined by its extreme maritime conditions: harsh winds, constant fog, and lots and lots of sand. The nearby Guadalupe Dunes Complex is the second largest dune series in California, and walking the vineyards, one gets a sense of just how coastally influenced the soils here are. Over millennia, wind deposited all of this sand among the vineyards of what is now the west end of Santa Maria Valley. “This is pure sand, essentially no rocks or pebbles, and growing grapes in this soil is very difficult,” says Trey Fletcher, winemaker for Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. “It doesn’t hold water at all, so irrigation has to be managed very carefully. These vineyards could probably never be dry farmed.” The two dominant soil series in the far west along the Solomon Hills are Marina and Garey sands. As one heads north or east, the Pleasanton, Positas and Sorrento series begin to enter the picture, with more loamy, pebbly textures, marking the transition out of this small subsection of the Valley.
The Westside is separated from the eastern part of the valley by a gradual change in soil, climate, and exposure, beginning with the shift into riverbed soils that occurs at Cat Canyon Creek and the Santa Maria and Sisquoc Rivers. As the valley floor rises into what is referred to as the Santa Maria Bench, the soils undergo a more dramatic shift, showing the origins of volcanic uplift, with shale, limestone and more clay entering the picture. Much of the bench also moves to a southern exposure, warmer and slightly sheltered from the direct wind. When tasting Pinot Noir from riverbed sites such as Riverbench or benchland sites such as the famed Bien Nacido next to Pinot Noirs from the Western edge, the stylistic differences are readily apparent. “Solomon Hills looks to the sky. Bien Nacido looks to the earth,” says Fletcher. To elaborate on this idea, the wines from the valley’s west end, particularly those within the Solomon Hills such as Presqu’ile, Solomon Hills, and Rancho Real/Murmur, are shaped by refrigerated sunshine, pummeling wind, and wind-deposited soils, leading to sun-kissed Pinot Noirs driven by fruit and spice. Vineyards on the bench on the other hand have much rounder textures and more overt notes of organic earth thanks to the loam and stones that define this part of the Valley.
“There is a very apparent spiciness in the wines here when made in a delicate style,” says Ernst Storm. “In the case of Presqu’ile, it is exciting to work with a young vineyard that is already showing so much terroir.” Many producers, such as Storm, choose to highlight this character by utilizing whole-cluster fermentation. “I find that the Solomon Hills area is more conducive to whole-cluster,” says Luceant’s Kevin Law. “You get all of this beautiful savory spice, along the lines of Italian herbs.” Others feel that the fruit already provides so much spice that stem inclusion isn’t needed. “My tastings prior to 2013 of other producers and our own verticals seemed to show a more brooding character to the fruit and spice profile. As a result I was more reticent with our use of whole cluster, not believing there was much to gain in terms of spice and structure from the stems,” says Dierberg’s Tyler Thomas. “For the most part we found this to be true of 2013 though I would say 2012 and 2013 highlight fruit over spice more than I observed in vintages past.” Personally, I love the use of whole cluster here, particularly from the Presqu’ile vineyard. The intense spice these producers speak of, which for me leans somewhere between Christmas spices and dried Italian herbs, is distinctive, not only within the Santa Maria Valley, but within California as a whole.
Another facet that producers speak to about the area is its ability to capture perfectly ripe fruit at low brix and, therefore, low alcohols. “With the soil being so sandy, early-ripening Dijon clones do incredibly well, and there is beautiful phenolic character at perfect pH and brix of only 22 or 22.5,” says Law. “With those vineyards by the river, I find it can be harder to get that perfect triangulation of pH, brix, and phenolics.” These lower alcohols could also be due to the fact that most of the producers working with fruit in this area are a new generation of winemakers seeking a return to balance. Names like Storm, Luceant, Presqu’ile, and La Fenetre are associated with this movement, and it is not uncommon to see alcohols in the 12% range from these sites.
It will be interesting to see where this region goes in the coming years. While it is currently defined by a small handful of sites, there is still a lot of available land that hasn’t been utilized. Most of the vineyards are also quite young, and I expect their character to become more pronounced and refined with time. For now, it is one of the most consistent and unique Pinot Noir regions on the Central Coast, and for lovers of the balance and spice-driven profile that makes Pinot Noir so wonderful, this should be at the top of the list for new areas to explore.
Enjoy this brief video journey through the West end shot this past week, heading north and east, through the Solomon Hills, Ca del Grevino (Addamo), Presqu’ile, Dierberg, and Garey Vineyards.
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.