n the decade since Sideways thrust Santa Barbara pinot noir into the spotlight, the wine region
has grown and evolved its vinous personality. Jon McDaniel, now wine director at Henri,
The Gage and Acanto, Chicago, experienced its pinot noir fame: He previously managed a
restaurant featured in Sideways. “The volume of Santa Barbara wineries has increased and so
has quality,” he says. “With global attention and higher demand, the winemakers had to challenge
themselves to make better wine.”
Santa Barbara is a huge county—larger than the state of Delaware. The geography of the wine-
growing areas is vast, too. Just ask Vidal Perez, winemaker at J. Wilkes Wines, who previously
managed vineyards for large Central Coast wineries. He now crafts wine from Bien Nacido Vineyards,
arguably the most famous wine property in Santa Barbara. “From near Lompoc by the ocean, where
cool chardonnay thrives, to the Santa Ynez Valley to the west, where cabernet sauvignon and syrah are
king, the temperature varies by 20 degrees,” says Perez.
An overview of several Santa Barbara appellations (AVAs) shows the continuing focus on
chardonnay and pinot noir. Yet other varietals, from viognier to syrah and grenache, are grabbing
headlines. The diversity of style and approach are the keys to discovering new Santa Barbara wines
suited for food pairing.
McDaniel sums up the terroir of Santa Barbara County: “You can taste the winds and soil
from Santa Rita Hills (near Lompoc) when tasting Melville pinot noir. You can taste the heat of
the dirt from a bottle of Larner syrah.”
SANTA RITA HILLS AND BALLARD CANYON
The Santa Rita Hills appellation is evoking attention because of the unique sandy soil tucked
between two sets of hills a few miles from the ocean. Chad Melville, proprietor of Melville Vineyards
and Winery, likes to pack visitors into his pickup truck to meet his family’s vineyards. “What is each
section telling me about crop load and soil amendments?” he says. “Why do rows with slightly
different slopes need different amounts of oak aging?”
Greg Brewer, Melville’s winemaker, also is passionate about the details, and makes 199
small batches of wine. Though the number of fermentations seems excessive, Brewer believes
that finding the nuances early creates the best wines.
From the Melville vineyard in nearby Los Alamos, Verna’s Vineyard viognier has garnered
attention from sommeliers. Wine director Arthur Hon of Sepia in Chicago prefers aromatic and
structure-driven wines. “Santa Barbara showcases how a cool climate, longer growing season
can transform a seemingly opulent grape, like viognier. Melville’s Verna’s viognier is atypical
for the varietal, and is exciting for its higher acidity and restrained yet pleasing texture.”
The setting for Larner Vineyard & Winery in Ballard Canyon is archetypal for Santa Barbara
County, where cowboys and cattle continue to co-exist. The Larner vineyards were previously a
cattle ranch, and the previous owners built a replica Old West town, replete with general store.
Larner may establish a tasting room at the “ghost town,” in addition to the one in Los Olivos.
After selling all their grapes to wineries such as Stolpman Vineyards and Jaffurs Wine Cellars
for several years, founder Stevan Larner asked his son Michael to relocate from Boulder, Colorado,
where he worked as a geologist. Literally digging into his field of expertise led Michael Larner to find
the best clones and rootstock for their syrah. Positioned between two east-west oriented (transverse)
mountain ranges, which enable cooling breezes from the ocean to provide relief after high heat, the
vineyards experience the daily changes ideal for the development of thick-skinned syrah.
“We like the European approach for syrah made for longevity, balance and food pairing, and not
the ‘Muscle Beach, Venice,’ big-fruit style,” Michael Larner says. “Our Elemental blend includes
grenache for a soft, velvety mouthfeel, syrah for structure and mourvedre for spice.” The Elemental
evokes a geologist’s tool, the phi scale, which measures the grain size of soil samples.
Up the hill from Larner on Ballard Canyon Road is Rusack, a boutique winery and vineyard
where syrah also rules. Winemaker Steven Gerbac looks for the ideal balance when harvesting grapes.
OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP:
1) Fess Parker vineyard and winery
2) Presqu’ile sauvignon blanc paired
with whole branzino at Acanto.
Bubble Shack at Epiphany Cellars
ISaNTa barbara wiNeMaKer labelS Winemakers around the world
frequently make wine under their
own labels. Here is a short list of
some excellent small-lot wines made
by Santa Barbara winemakers.
brewer-Clif ToN Greg Brewer of
Melville Vineyards specializes in
chardonnay, which, he says, “makes
itself with little intervention.”
He also makes pinot noir and a
sparkling blanc de blanc at the
facility in Lompoc Wine Ghetto.
blair fox CellarS In Los Olivos,
around the corner from the Epiphany
tasting room, Blair Fox has a tasting
room for his own label with vineyard-designated syrah and estate-grown
grenache, syrah, petite syrah,
vermentino and viognier.
Dolina is the small-lot pinot
noir project from Steven Gerbac
from Santa Rita Hills-designated
vineyards. “I never try to make the
same wine twice,” he says. “Each
year, the weather, the environment
is different. You have to listen to
what’s going on and create the wine
nagy wines Clarissa Nagy opened
her own tasting room in Orcutt, not
far from Riverbench Vineyards &
Winery where she is the winemaker.
She specializes in Rhone varietals and
pinot noir from the Santa Maria Valley.
saMsara Chad and Mary Melville
produce their own small-lot syrah
and grenache. Allegra Angelo,
sommelier for Mercer Restaurant
Group, San Francisco, pairs
Samsara grenache from Ballard
Canyon with 60-day aged veal in
a foie gras sauce accompanied by
black truffle potato salad. “This
grenache from warmer Ballard
Canyon has a rare fruity/savory flavor
profile to pair with hearty meat,”
she says. “If we find a table where
‘she wants pinot noir and he wants
cabernet sauvignon,’ we recommend