Mark Aselstine
 
July 1, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Welcome to the Santa Maria Valley: Classic Santa Barbara Wine County

Having spent close to five years living in Santa Barbara, the wineries of Santa Maria Valley still feel a bit like home for me. I’m going to date myself here even a bit further than my picture does, but I moved from Santa Barbara in the summer when Sideways was being released, which would inescapably change the wine industry in the region.

While Santa Ynez Valley and the newly formed Happy Canyon AVA’s are gaining momentum, in many ways the Santa Maria Valley is the most traditional of Central Coast AVA’s, it’s the oldest in the area and consumers more familiar with northern California wine regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma will recognize the classic funnel shape, almost pulling in cool breezes and fog from the Pacific Ocean into it’s warmer inland vineyards.  What no one outside of the Mediterranean will recognize though is the 200 or so mile long stretch of coastline which runs west-east, the only such significant stretch of coastline in California to do so.  If you’re looking for a true Mediterranean climate in which to grow wine, this is your best bet in California and I don’t think it is especially close. The result of this unique topography are vineyard sites largely considered cool by modern standards, but warm and sunny enough to achieve ripeness and enough fruit in their wines to keep everyone happy.

Let’s start with the basics, what’s the Santa Maria Valley?

Like many cooler climate regions in the state of California, the focus here is largely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two grapes which came of age in perhaps the coldest of all growing climates: Burgundy.

Lately, there has been a focus on not only expanding offerings, but taking advantage of some sites where Pinot Noir has trouble growing.  Syrah is seeing increasing plantings on the red wine side and almost every winery in the region is now on the lookout for another white wine grape. Pinot Blanc is getting much of the critics buzz, but the wineries of the region are more actively planting Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris (see chart below). You might not be familiar with Pinot Blanc, but the grape is actually a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, crafting a full bodied white that reminds some of Gewürztraminer or even a dry Riesling (good luck finding one of those).

In any case, a few of my favorite wineries in the region:


Byron Vineyards: The first thing I love about Byron is their willingness to experiment.  While so many wineries try and guess or work toward the perfect clone of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in their vineyard, Byron took a simpler approach-simply plant a sampling of the available clones and see what worked best.  That initial planting was over 20 years ago and the results shine through their estate bottled wines to this very day.  Here’s what they have to say about the Santa Maria Valley:

The Santa Maria Valley is located on an unusual topographic slice of land known as a transverse range. Unlike the majority of California’s wine producing valleys, the orientation is east to west rather than north to south. As a consequence, an unprecedented amount of marine air and accompanying fog is pulled into the vineyards from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The unimpeded flow of cold air from the Pacific Ocean makes our appellation unique. Where the grapes come from really does matter!

Byron currently has three wines which are marked as coming exclusively from the Santa Maria Valley, a Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Hard Core Wine by Core Wine Company

Core Wine Company: So, simply put they don’t fit in.  They don’t make a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay.  Instead the focus is on bigger wines, with bottling reflecting Rhone choices as well as those grapes most closely associated with Bordeaux.  If you’re someone who likes some variety when wine tasting, a visit to Core’s tasting room while you’re looking around the Santa Maria Valley is a nice choice.

Kenneth Volk: Volk made his name (and according to many his fortune) by starting and then building Wild Horse Winery into a 150,000 case behemoth on the Central Coast.  Maybe it was a stroke of genius, but he didn’t name that first winery after himself and only after selling it to Jim Beam Brands (Bourbon, Maker’s Mark Whiskey and more recently Skinnygirl) he opened Kenneth Volk Vineyards to focus on smaller production, higher quality wines.  This is the winery which introduced me to the wines of the central coast as Volk makes a range of offerings from Pinot Noir & Chardonnay grown in the Santa Maria Valley, to Bordeaux varietals from Paso Robles and finally to a range of unique offerings you won’t find anywhere else like Cabernet Pfeffer and Negrette. My personal favorites are typically his Bien Nacido Vineyard offerings (typically Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) because of their higher than normal acidity as well as his Albarino, which I wish more people would attempt in the Santa Maria Valley.

Photos of Foxen Vineyard, Santa Maria
This photo of Foxen Vineyard is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Foxen: One of the founding members of the region, Foxen has been around since 1985 in northern Santa Barbara County, well before anyone knew that Hollister was a street!  I can appreciate Foxen because they truly make a bit of everything.  Classic Santa Maria Valley fare with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (which made a name for them originally) but also a spattering of Rhone’s, Bordeaux’s and now even a few Italian based wines like Sangiovese (which I think the climate is well suited for).  Pick up any major wine magazine and you’ll see multiple 90+ rated wines in each vintage from Foxen, according to many this is the best juice in the Valley.

Lastly, do you want some proof that the Santa Maria Valley is still tinkering and looking to find that elusive second white wine grape? Looking at the winery list from the Santa Maria Valley AVA Association, we see 11 wineries with tasting rooms in the Valley.  We thought the following chart would be interesting to see who is growing and producing what!

Winery Chardonnay Pinot Noir Pinot Blanc Sauvignon Blanc Pinot Gris
Cambria X X     X
Costa de Oro X X     X
Core          
Cottonwood X X      
Foxen X X   X  
Kenneth Volk X X      
Presqu’ile X X   X  
Rancho Sisquoc X X   X  
Riverbench X X      
Sierra Madre X X X   X
Tres Hermanas X       X

 

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