Locals call Santa Barbara the California Riviera, and with a mild climate and a rocky coastline hugging the Pacific, it’s easy to see why. Located just 100 miles north of downtown LA, the sun-drenched beach town is surfer heaven, but travel a bit to the north and you’ll find rolling hills and vineyards belonging to some of the state’s most exciting Pinot Noir producers. The county is home to five official grape-growing AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), each with a distinctive microclimate:
- Happy Canyon est. 2009 – Known for Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot & Cab Sauvignon
- Santa Maria Valley AVA est. 1981 – Known for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir
- Santa Ynez Valley AVA est. 1983 – Known for Syrah, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay
- Ballard Canyon AVA est. 2013 – Known for Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Viognier & Roussanne
- Sta. Rita Hills AVA est. 2001 – Known Pinot Noir & Chardonnay
It’s in the Sta. Rita Hills where distinctive terroir is turning California Pinot Noir on its head.
Sta. Rita Hills: Famous for California Pinot Noir
Located between the towns of Buelton and Lompoc in the northwestern part of the county, Sta. Rita Hills lies closer to the equator than any European wine region, meaning it should be much too hot for cool-climate varietals such as Pinot Noir. But Pinot thrives here and produces elegant, structured wines. The valley’s unique east-west orientation is the key to success with this cool climate variety.
On the western end, Sta. Rita is close to the ocean, with the steep Purisima Hills to the north and Santa Rosa Hills to the south. These mountain ranges funnel cool sea breezes and fog throughout the region. The fog creates some of the coolest summertime temperatures — cooler than Carneros in Napa and the Russian River in Sonoma— while the breezes help circulate air and deter rot. These two factors extend the growing season 35 to 40 days longer than most other California growing regions (from February to October).
Visiting Sta. Rita?
One of the largest concentrations of tasting rooms in Santa Barbara County is called the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Visitors here will find winery storefronts in an industrial zone next to Home Depot! You’ll find tons of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Rhône varietal wines from Ballard Canyon and other AVA’s in the county.
A lil’ History
There have been vines since the missionaries planted them in the 1770’s, but it took another 200 years for the winemaking world to notice its potential. In 1976, Sanford Winery became the first to release a Sta. Rita Hills Pinot, and drinkers took notice. Today, there are 2500 acres planted and most vineyards have been planted within the last 20 years, meaning the most modern trellising and best available vine clones were used. It makes sense that Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is one of the most exciting Pinot Noir areas in the modern wine world.
Something in the Dirt
Another golden factor in grape growing here is the soil. The hills have some of the world’s largest and purest deposits of diatomaceous earth —a chalky substance consisting of fossilized hard-shelled algae, layered into the hillsides by earthquakes and volcanoes. It’s the same stuff as the white cliffs of Dover, and it indirectly correlates into a fascinating note of minerality and salinity in the glass. In addition, the soils provide excellent drainage: in the north, there’s sand and clay; to the south, decomposed rock called Botella. With little rain and well-drained soils, the vines maintain good acidity and develop concentrated fruit.
Notable Producers in Sta. Rita Hills
The best vineyards for Pinot Noir in the area tend to be on the low slopes of the hills. While just a few vineyards fit that profile, many wineries may produce wines from those grapes. Because of the demand for these grapes, expect to spend about $40-$60 for an outstanding Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir.
Here is a short list of Pinot Noir producers (in no particular order) that have been making waves. Have any to contribute?