Cambria Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley (c) Cambria

“When one stops to consider, it should be very unlikely to grow world class Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays this far south along the West Coast. In this respect, Santa Barbara’s east-west valleys..are truly magical,” explains Jonathan Nagy, winemaker at Byron when talking about what makes the wines of Santa Barbara special. “The wines are unique, compelling, and exceptional.”

One of the oldest wine-producing areas of California, Santa Barbara is regarded as a “marine-derived paradise for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” Even though the first vineyards in the region were planted in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the region really came into its own and began to garner international attention. It was Jess Jackson’s vision of the potential of the region that solidified its status as one of the premier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir regions. Specifically, Jackon’s 1982 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay made a believer of many in the wines of Santa Barbara. Even Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson winemaker, who was a self-professed Russian River guy had to concede that Santa Barbara was a special place capable of providing beautiful wines year after year.

The larger Santa Barbara region is comprised of six smaller American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).1 Of these, two – Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills – have unique geographic characteristics where the vineyards lie in east-west valleys (transverse ranges) along the Pacific coastline. Ocean refrigerated air is pulled in from the Pacific resulting in hyper-cooled temperatures in the vineyards.2 These cool temperatures translate into a long growing season, particularly when compared to other premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir regions such Burgundy, Willamette Valley, and Russian River Valley.3 This extended growing season results in optimal physiological ripeness of the grapes. In a nod to the 2004 movie Sideways, which featured the wines of the region and firmly thrust the region into the limelight, Brewer-Clifton founder and winemaker Greg Brewer refers to the famed east-west valleys as “sideways sirens.”

Brewer-Clifton Vineyards in Sta. Rita Hills (c) Jackson Family Wines

The influence of the Pacific goes beyond the cool breezes and is responsible for the regions’ marine soils.4 For years, most of the talk in California centered around climate rather the soils. Santa Barbara has certainly shifted the dialogue. The region’s marine soils are responsible for distinctive wines that feature marked minerality. Additionally, Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay is known for its exotic tropical fruit while Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay exhibits pronounced citrus and salinity. Pinot Noir in Santa Maria Valley brims with red fruits and spice while Sta. Rita Hills Pinot shows off dark blue and black fruits. Constant among the wines from both regions is prominent acidity and elegance.

Here are a few examples of Santa Barbara wine that provide a great introduction to the region.

2016 Cambria Vineyards & Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley – rich peach, apricot and pineapple fruits, stony minerality, pronounced acidity.

2017 Kendall-Jackson Estate Camelot Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley – tropical fruit, brûlée, and vanilla spice.

2016 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills – citrus, salinity, and jasmine.

2016 Cambria Vineyards & Winery Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley – forest floor, baking spice and cranberry.

2016 Nielson Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County – with fruit from Santa Maria, Sta. Rita Hills, and Los Alamos, powerful with leather, rose petal, and black cherry.

2017 Siduri Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County – with both Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley fruit, earthy with ripe blackberry and black tea.

2016 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills – ripe cherry, herbs, lingering finish.

2016 Byron Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley – smooth with ripe dark cherry, floral notes, tea.

And while Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the stars, beautiful cool-climate Syrah is being planted more and more and likely represents the next big thing to emerge from the region. These wines represent some of the best values for Syrah in the new world. Similarly, lovely examples of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc can also be found in the region. Overall, the Santa Barbara wine region is relatively young with lots of young winemakers, who along with the old guard, are just beginning to scratch the surface. Stay tuned as I’m sure I’m going to be exploring more wines of Santa Barbara.

  1. Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, and Los Olivos District. Los Alamos Valley, sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, is an up and coming region but has yet to be appellated.
  2. The average daily temperature is between 70 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Average growing days from bud break to harvest: Burgundy’s Côte d’Or 160 days, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley 175 days, Oregon’s Willamette Valley 160-170 days, and 200 days for Santa Maria & Sta. Rita Hills.
  4. Santa Barbara soils consist of calcareous soils (chalk, limestone), sandy loams mixed with clay, gravel, and chert, and gravel (sedimentary river rock).


  1. Lori
    5 years ago

    Definitely some incredible wines come from this beautiful wine region. It’s our go-to region for Pinot and Chard

    1. Kat
      5 years ago

      Yes, completely agree not to mention pretty good values too.

  2. Tony
    5 years ago

    Thank you for this article. I was in the Santa Ynez Valley in March. The SYV and surrounding area is tranquil and spiritual. This area also produces some fantastic wines!

    1. Kat
      5 years ago

      Completely agree! In fact, I’ve just returned from there 3 days ago and had a lively time. Brought back tons of wine.


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