Writer Emily Johnston Collins describes a burgeoning winemaking and hospitality scene in Santa Barbara County—a great place to consider starting your career in wine.
[Editor’s note: Writer Emily Johnston Collins, Advanced Sommelier CMS makes the case for making a home in Santa Barbara County, where a young winemaking scene with many winemakers farming blocks on vineyards owned by other winemakers or growers mingle with those exploring job opportunities in the nascent food and wine bar scene. Collins offers a snapshot of some exciting reasons to consider starting your career in Santa Barbara County.]
by Emily Johnston Collins, Advanced Sommelier CMS
The landscape of Santa Barbara County’s wine region is uncomplicated in its beauty. The vegetation consists primarily of oak trees and grasses sweeping the rolling hills. The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys that comprise the wine region are framed by the San Raphael Mountains to the North and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the South. To the West are the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean above Point Conception on California’s coast. This easily definable area is home to a vibrant and diverse wine region that includes 7 separate AVAs, more than 70 different grape varieties, and more female winemakers per capita than most of the world, at nearly double the national average.
Santa Barbara County benefits from the longest wine-growing season in California thanks to its cool, ocean-influenced climate. But if you were to visit the tiny wine-country town of Los Olivos in the summer, you may not believe it. Los Olivos sits toward the Eastern end of the longest transverse (East/West) mountain range from Alaska to Cape Horn and receives ample sunshine and heat. The cold air and fog that funnels down the valley from the coast dramatically cool the Western parts of the region, while still moderating the inland areas that receive more heat. Winemakers here often cite the calculation that one mile of travel inland is equivalent to a one-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature. In the nearly 30-mile-long Santa Ynez Valley, this equation also explains how Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon can flourish.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay first gained recognition in Santa Barbara County with the famed Sanford & Benedict and Bien Nacido Vineyards planted in the early 1970s. With the Bien Nacido Vineyard at its heart, the Santa Maria Valley gained its AVA status in 1981—the same year as Napa Valley AVA. But these pioneering vineyards offer only a sketch of the current vineyard composition of Santa Barbara County.
Labarge Winery’s estate on the westernmost edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA grows Albariño, Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Owner Pierre Labarge IV finds Pinot Noir “easy to grow” in his vineyards, but he believes his Syrah channels the allure of the old world. “For me, Cornas is the pinnacle for Syrah, well, besides the Sta. Rita Hills,” he grins. Across the region in the Santa Maria Valley, Riley Wathen Slack of Foxen Vineyard & Winery favors a different grape. She believes “Chenin Blanc is the wine [grape] for Santa Barbara.” The faithful devotees of Foxen’s old vine Chenin Blanc from the Ernesto Wickenden vineyard probably agree.
With over 275 wineries across 14,399 acres of harvested vineyards, the average acreage per winery in Santa Barbara County is small—half of that in Napa, Sonoma, or Paso Robles. At the 2023 Women’s Symposium in Santa Barbara County, a panel of prominent new female winemakers spoke about using a negociant model of sourcing grapes through the acreage and tonnage contracts to accommodate their small-production wineries. This model allows them creativity and flexibility.
Jessica Gasca’s winery, Story of Soil, works with every AVA in the county to achieve single vineyard expressions. Tara Gomez and Mireia Taribó have a smaller scope for their label, Camins 2 Dreams, working only with Grüner Veltliner and Syrah from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Alice Anderson of Amevive Wine leases the historic Ibarra-Young vineyard in Los Olivos District AVA planted in 1971, but also sources interesting varieties like Gamay and Mondeuse from organic vineyards in the county. Gretchen Voelcker believes she has made her best Syrah yet from the Geneva double curtain-trained vines at Hinnrich’s vineyard, one of the sources for her label, Luna Hart.
The emerging, young winemaking landscape in Santa Barbara County is complemented by a blossoming dining scene. Bell’s restaurant in Los Alamos, which the Michelin Guide calls “unpretentious,” opened in 2018 and received the region’s first Michelin Star. On the same street in the Old West heritage town, the esteemed Pico Restaurant has been a patron of local wineries since opening its doors in 2016. Los Olivos, with its 27 tasting rooms, has also hit its culinary stride with the opening of Bar le Côte from the team behind Bell’s and Nella Kitchen, the sister location to Santa Ynez’s farm-to-table Italian restaurant, S.Y. Kitchen. While Santa Barbara County historically lacks the glitz of other prominent California wine regions, its laid-back, quality-focused identity is reaching a contemporary audience.