The “American Riviera” Santa Barbara – splash, scenery and splendid sipping!

By Barbara Lichter – Lake Tahoe

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends Issue #75, Fall 2005)

Want to explore an idyllic grape-growing and premier wine-making region with picturesque oak trees scattered on rolling hills, with groups of grazing cattle and meandering river valleys lined with cottonwood trees? Then it’s time to visit Santa Barbara, located 100 miles north of Los Angeles, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the southern foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains.

This “American Riviera” is renowned for the beauty of its beaches, canyons and valleys and its distinctive architecture blending Spanish, Mediterranean and Moorish influences. With its red tile roofs and Californian Mission heritage, the city charms visitors with 19th century adobes, alfresco plazas, museums, waterfront, parks and gardens, as well as fine dining and shopping.

North of Santa Barbara's backdrop mountain range, where Central California juts out into the Pacific Ocean, you will discover gourmet food and distinctive, fine quality wines in a region of hedonistic pleasures and, as yet, unspoiled natural beauty. The North Santa Barbara County wine region is geographically diverse, with wild beaches along the coast, long running river valleys and rugged mountains. In Spring, the hills and valleys are lush and green with carpets of intense blue lupine and fluorescent golden-orange poppies. Later in the year, the hills and valleys become a tapestry of gold and green, highlighted with rows and rows of reddish-orange and gold grape vine leaves.

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Although relatively unknown until the zany hit Sideways, Santa Barbara County's grape growing and wine-making history began in 1782 when Father Juniper Serra planted grapevine cuttings from Mexico. The largest Mission vineyard covered 25 acres, and an adobe winery was built in 1804. Later, grape cuttings imported from France were planted on 150 acres on Santa Cruz Island in 1884.

The recent development of Santa Barbara's wine region began in 1962 when French-Canadian architect, Pierre LaFond, established the first post-prohibition commercial winery, using imported grapes because the area no longer had any vineyards. In the 1960s, University of California Davis researchers recognized that the area's geology, climate and soil had great potential for viticulture. The first modern vineyards were planted in the Tepusquet area of Santa Maria Valley, characterized by its cool ocean breezes and long grape-growing season, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes thrived.

In the 1970s, Vintners Sanford and Benedict planted vines at the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley in the Santa Rita Hills close to the ocean, proving that this area was ideal for Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay. Much warmer inland Santa Ynez Valley favored the growing of Syrah, Rhône and Italian varietals. Located between the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley and running between the ocean and the foothills, Los Alamos became another large wine growing area.

In recent years, the wine industry has exploded with more than 70 wineries in three appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. In contrast to the commercialization of Napa Valley, this region offers a laid-back, casual way to try world-class wines from many new wineries. While large wineries such as Firestone, Gainey, and Bridlewood have impressive tasting rooms, most wineries are small without on-site tasting rooms. Many of these boutique wines can be tasted in wine shops and tasting rooms in Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Solvang.

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The area’s small upscale communities of Los Alamos, Santa Ynez, Ballard and Los Olivos are surrounded by vineyards, lavender farms, expensive homes and horse ranches. These towns are often described as “cute, funky, sophisticated, country and/or Old West” and tempt your exploration with beautiful home, gift and garden shops, art galleries, antique stores, alfresco cafes, beautiful gardens and wine shops.

Wine touring is pleasant and unhurried on scenic back roads, along vineyards and through small towns. Wine routes are conveniently grouped into several different areas: Centrally located Santa Ynez and Los Olivos are home to a large number of wineries and/or tasting rooms. Tours of Alisos Canyon and Foxen Canyon meander further north, extending into upper Santa Maria Valley; and the wineries in the Santa Rita Hills are scattered toward the West and the ocean.

The North Santa Barbara County wine country will delight you with its bucolic country scenery, gourmet food choices, wide selection of wine varietals and blends of world-class wines, friendly vintners and charming and comfortable accommodations. But, don’t wait; visit this Central California wine country now before it is changed by too much success and fame.