Seasons looks at the state of Santa Barbara County’s wine industry through the eyes of its originators and visionaries.
As fate would have it, Santa Ynez Valley had the environmental building blocks of an exceptional wine region long before a few intrepid pioneers took a chance and planted Santa Barbara County’s first modern vineyards.
The magnificent east-west maritime valley, bordered by the Santa Ynez Mountains in the south and the San Rafael Mountains to the north, is nature’s gift to winemaking; an almost daily blanket of “sea smoke” paired with ocean breezes extend the growing season, while California’s warm golden sun fully ripens the fruit.
Among the region’s earliest commercial wine grape growers was Pierre Lafond, who opened the first winery in the county, Santa Barbara Winery, in 1962. The closest vineyards were in northern San Luis Obispo County, where he purchased zinfandel grapes to make wine.
In 1972, a year after Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted their groundbreaking Sanford & Benedict Vineyard along Santa Rosa Road between Buellton and Lompoc, Lafond established his own 60-acre vineyard nearby, in what is now the esteemed Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA).
“At the time, I didn’t imagine this. It has grown considerably,” says 86-year-old Lafond of the Santa Barbara County wine industry, which now consists of 22,000 vineyard acres and 200 wineries. “We weren’t even sure when we planted the grapes initially whether it was a good area for planting grapes. It was a gamble, but it was an intelligent gamble because we had people from the California Farm Bureau telling us what the weather was like there, etc.”
It turns out that the cool climate and variety of complex soils in the western Santa Ynez Valley, only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, are ideal for growing pinot noir and chardonnay.
Winemakers say the temperature climbs as much as one degree for every mile traveled inland. On the same summer day, it could be a foggy 66 degrees in Lompoc and, in the valley’s far east, mercury can surpass the century mark at Cachuma Lake. In addition to pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, grenache and cabernet sauvignon, even lesser known varieties such as counoise and cinsault flourish in the valley’s different microclimates.
“We say that there’s no other region in the world that is as diverse as Santa Barbara County—60-plus wine grape varieties do very well,” says Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of Santa Barbara Vintners. “You’ve got five AVAs, all of which are very distinct from each other. So being able to taste Burgundian vs. Rhone vs. Bordeaux in one area is remarkable and unique.”
An eager teenager when he planted his first vines 25 years ago, Andrew Murray recalls how much has changed since he arrived in Santa Ynez Valley.
“It was really the wild frontier. It’s so different now,” says Murray. “We sought this place out so many moons ago. I love this whole area, but we put ourselves in the heart of Los Olivos for two primary reasons: weather and soil diversity, and the relationship those would have with Rhone varieties.”
Andrew Murray Vineyards farms 98 acres on the Curtis estate, originally planted by the Firestone family; some of the plantings are 45 years old. Murray is grafting, replanting and upgrading farming practices to “up” the vineyard’s prestige.
“The soils are wonderful to grow Rhone varieties; they’re rocky, they’re well drained, they’re uplifted mesas, they’re sandy,” says Murray. “When you add the quality of the weather, it’s sort of a no-brainer that there are so many Rhones and Rhone producers in this area, because it’s a natural.”
One such Rhone (and Bordeaux) producer several miles to the south, in the warmer inner valley, is Sunstone Vineyards and Winery, founded in 1989 by Fred and Linda Rice, along with son Bion, and daughters Ashley and Brittany.
“We start to see ‘bud break’ in early February. We’ve even seen it as early as January,” says Sunstone president and CEO Bion Rice, describing a typical growth cycle in their 28-acre organically farmed vineyard. “The flowers start to set at the end of March or early April, and then we see grapes forming shortly thereafter. By May, we have fully developed fruit, very green of course, and then by mid-June we start to see veraison—the grapes start to turn purple. We start seeing sugars developing over the course of July through September. October is where we see the spike. We’ll jump up to 25 Brix (a measurement of the sugar content) in a matter of weeks. Typically we pick from early October to late October on the heavier, bigger reds. From a winemaking perspective, harvest is always the most exciting time because we’re able to smell and taste the fruit.”
Sunstone encourages customers to experience those heady aromas during harvest or visit their beautiful destination winery any time of year.
Those looking for extraordinary accommodations for a culinary retreat or special occasion rent The Villa at Sunstone, a spectacular 8,500-square-foot five-suite Tuscan-inspired villa, built entirely with reclaimed materials and historical artifacts from France, such as French limestone, hand-formed roof tiles, a fireplace from the Bordeaux region of France, enormous hand-hewn pine beams from Queen Victoria’s lavender factory, a prison cell door from Normandy constructed during Napoleon’s reign, and a thousand-year old limestone kitchen sink.
“That’s really our new emphasis—getting people to see Sunstone,” invites Rice.
When the wine grapes are ready to be picked, everything else must wait.
“Harvest, for any winemaker, is a very intense experience,” says winemaker Andrew Murray. “The hours associated with it, the physicality of it. It’s very intense! It’s not giving up, it’s not settling, it’s seven days a week for months on end!”
Murray refers to the challenging 2015 harvest as “Mr. Toad’s wild ride.”
“It came early and then was at a frenetic pace. All the varieties were ripening at the same time. Tank space was at a premium. We had a lot of wines fermenting at the same time. It was tense!”
Every harvest is an opportunity to do better than the previous vintage. “We’re never convinced we’ve got everything figured out and it’s what makes showing up to work every day so darn fun,” adds Murray. “We are all still scrappy. I don’t think any of us take anything for granted. We don’t feel like we’ve arrived just yet, at least that’s how I feel. We’re still trying our hardest, and it’s a refreshing way to go through life.”
Experience matters, especially during harvest, when there are no do-overs.
“Harvest is crush. It’s exhausting; it’s physically and mentally exhausting,” attests longtime winemaker and progressive viticulturist Brian Babcock, founder of Babcock Winery & Vineyards, who has 31 harvests in Santa Ynez Valley under his belt. “Ten years into it, I had just enough information to be dangerous, and then 20 years into it, I really started to feel comfortable with the craft, and it is a craft. Now 30 years into it, I feel very comfortable and have some very exciting ideas with regard to my farming.”
Babcock took the viticulture status quo and turned it upside down in quite a radical way, moving his vineyard canes and cordons up several feet to eye level, encouraging new growth to work its way back down naturally, mitigating disease problems. Plus his rows are wide enough to machine harvest, which is also uncommon in Santa Barbara County. “We get cleaner fruit, we pick it faster, I harvest with three people instead of 60,” explains Babcock. “It’s saving me about 25% per year, per acre, so there are significant savings.”
Babcock also cut his wine production in half, to 10,000 cases, to focus on handcrafting the best wine of his life.
“When I look at what’s happened in the Sta. Rita Hills and the explosion of planting and the newer and absolutely stunning vineyards that we have … I never could have even conceived of in 1984. … I now have a whole portfolio of single-block single-vineyard pinot noirs from these stunning vineyards…” Babcock says of the palpable potential. “The whole thing is kind of mind boggling.”
Presqu’ile, an exquisite 173-acre hillside estate positioned on ancient sand dunes in Santa Maria Valley, with views of both the ocean and the San Rafaels, is another of the region’s wineries achieving excellence.
Presqu’ile is a multigenerational collaboration between Madison and Suzanne Murphy, their three adult children, Matt, Anna and Jonathan, and their daughters-in-law, Amanda and Lindsey. The name Presqu’ile—the Creole word for “almost an island”—is both a tribute to a beloved Gulf Coast family gathering place that was lost in Hurricane Katrina, and because they envisioned Presqu’ile as an island-like haven amid the vines.
“I always knew that this was the place that I wanted to be to make wine,” says Matt Murphy, Presqu’ile Winery’s co-founder and president. “I think Santa Barbara County has a huge amount of potential! It’s being realized too. There are world-class wines being made from every region … You can really visit Santa Barbara County and get a full spectrum of and understanding of the wine world without having to travel very far.”
Murphy and Presqu’ile winemaker Dieter Cronje worked closely with leading architects and process engineers to custom design a 12,000-square-foot, contemporary gravity-flow winery on top of the hill, connected, via cave, to a modern hospitality building below. Newly harvested fruit is gently processed in the winery, which is state-of-the-art and, at the same time, old school.
“The grapes come in from the vineyard in the picking bins. The sorting process is critical for us before we put the grapes into the tank,” Murphy explains. “Anything we sort and process into the tanks, red wine-wise, just drops straight off. The white wines are pressed up on the receiving level and then dropped through holes in the floor and the tanks are filled up by gravity down there, and then the wines are barreled down to the cave, which is also 70 feet below the winery, so that’s gravity.”
Presqu’ile ferments its distinctive sauvignon blanc in statuesque concrete eggs. “The concrete breathes like oak, but it imparts a different flavor. And the shape is unique compared to a barrel because it kind of allows this boiling pot motion during fermentation, during malolactic, and really efficient regulation of heat. You need that slight oxygen interaction to help age the wines…to help soften up the wines.”
Fermentation time—transforming juice into wine—is immensely aromatic. “It’s like walking into a jam factory! It just smells so good every day,” adds Sunstone’s Bion Rice. “That’s where all the experimentations start to happen; testing for yeast strains. It’s like cooking, and it happens very quickly, so you have to be on your toes. It’s exciting, it’s a little stressful, but in the end, it’s really fun!”
Valley vintners employ varied strategies to sell wine. Some winemakers travel extensively, pouring their wines to entice sommeliers in the nation’s best restaurants. Other wineries, like Roblar Winery, sell every bottle out of their local wine-tasting room.
“It’s an architectural masterpiece,” says manager Billy Kissel of Roblar’s lodge-style tasting room in Santa Ynez. “It’s a pretty impressive-looking place for such a small winery.”
Roblar, a 40-acre vineyard designed by renowned architect Bob Easton, in collaboration with owners Steve and Denise Adams, is unique in its ability to showcase a wide range of wines with food.
“We are the only winery in the Santa Ynez Valley with a full-service kitchen. We employ seven full-time chefs here,” says Kissel. “On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we offer food. We have chocolate and wine tastings and charcuterie platters and wine tastings. We do a thing called ‘The Perfect Pairing’—you can come in and have a five-course meal with five wines.”
Want to sleep next to the vines? Stay overnight at Roblar’s sprawling rental property, Royal Oaks Ranch estate, a beautiful five-bedroom 6,600-square-foot ranch home that overlooks pastures of Arabian horses, which were bred by the ranch’s former owners.
One of Santa Ynez Valley’s most recognizable wine brands is Fess Parker, the label founded in 1989 by the beloved Hollywood star and his children, Eli and Ashley.
“We really tried to tap into Fess’s fan base and the Baby Boomer generation, so we decided to put the coonskin cap on the label, which I’ve always thought is a really cool icon and pretty subtle, honestly. It distinguishes us,” says winery Executive Vice President Ashley Parker-Snider.
“The name Fess Parker was a blessing and a curse,” she discloses. “It was a blessing because people of a certain age recognized it, but they didn’t recognize it for wine. But they had warm feelings toward Fess, so maybe they’d give it a shot and try it. However, if the wine wasn’t in the bottle, they weren’t going to try it again. It took us a long time to overcome the idea that we were just in it on the fringe or just as a hobby—26 years is not a hobby!”
The Fess Parker wine club continually brings repeat customers back to the valley to enjoy discounts at the family’s hotels, the winery, and The Bubble Shack and Epiphany tasting rooms in Los Olivos, or to sit down for a harvest wine luncheon with winemaker Blair Fox at the winery’s gorgeous new terrace.
Valley visitors slumber in luxury at Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa in the heart of Los Olivos or reserve Fess’s former office, which was recently renovated into a guest cabin.
Parker-Snider recognizes that to be successful in marketing wine, the wine must be good. “There’s just no getting around the fact that if you want your brand to grow and you want to play in the upper price point area, you have to have quality in the bottle,” she says. “You can’t cut corners. It takes great grapes. It takes a really good winemaker, and then it takes some luck, too. I refer to this business as ‘fancy farming;’ you never know what’s going to happen.”
Ultimately, the key to the wine region’s success is the passionate wine artisans striving to craft the best wines of their lives, vintage after vintage.
“What Santa Barbara has not lost is the intent and pursuit of making great wine and also being at the ground level of making great wine,” concludes Morgen McLaughlin. “You have someone like Jim Clendenen [of Au Bon Climat Winery], you’ve got Bob Lindquist [of Qupé Wines], you’ve got Rick Longoria [of Longoria Wines], who set the benchmark, but they’re still actively involved. You don’t necessarily see that in other regions to the level that we do here. I think it’s an interesting time for Santa Barbara County to still have the legends and the forefathers working beside the young guns and the future.”
This story originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.