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Santa Barbara Wine Country: Behind the Scenes

Santa Barbara wine country was poised to take off even before the movie Sideways triggered a tourist frenzy. Here, a look at the best of the classic and the new.

Our years ago, the uniquely pinot-friendly climate of Santa Barbara County seemed better known to starlings and mule deer than wine drinkers. And then the Oscar-winning movie Sideways turned the central-California appellation into the Cabbage Patch doll of the wine world. The public demand for Santa Barbara Pinot Noir was suddenly and seemingly insatiable: Winery mailing lists filled up, and local restaurants like the Hitching Post II became crowded with tourists traipsing after the film’s raffish stars. Even more remarkably, Pinot Noir sales nationwide jumped 45 percent over the next year as wine drinkers developed a hankering for the grape rhapsodized in the film as “the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”

Of course, the groundwork for many of these changes was laid long before as seen in Sideways signs were posted around the county. A number of important new wineries were in the works around the time that Sideways debuted—among them Alma Rosa and Jonata—and the amount of acreage under vine was at a record high. Indeed, the growth of the $500 million Santa Barbara County wine industry has much more to do with three decades of hard work than it does with the success of a popular Hollywood film.

Recently, I drove up Pacific Coast Highway to see how the wine scene in Santa Barbara County was unfolding. I spent my first two nights at the San Ysidro Ranch, in the foothills of Montecito, and my last two at the Four Seasons Biltmore, down by the Pacific Ocean. Both are wildly luxurious properties that have been recently renovated by owner Ty Warner, who made some of his initial billions selling Beanie Babies.

I arrived at the Ranch after dark and had a late dinner at its revamped Stonehouse restaurant that included tender Parmesan-crusted halibut and an excellent local Pinot from Tantara Winery. The secluded cottages and gardens of the Ranch make it seem like the sort of place you’d want to go on your honeymoon, even if you aren’t legally married. (JFK and Jackie O. celebrated their marriage there in 1953, in what is now known as the Kennedy Cottage.) All of the cottages have hot tubs, plasma TVs, Pratesi linens and some very literate books, including one in which I found a line from a George Santayana essay that seemed especially pertinent to the vision of the region’s wine pioneers: “Where one’s gift is, there will one’s faith be also.”

Grapes and faith have been entwined in Santa Barbara ever since Father Junípero Serra first brought cuttings there in 1782. Modern winemaking began with Santa Barbara Winery, founded in the city’s downtown in 1962. Today there are eight wineries and tasting rooms in warehouses within walking distance of each other downtown. In fact, when I went looking for the original Santa Barbara Winery, I stumbled instead upon an old tire warehouse where Christian Garvin has been making delicious Pinot Noir, as well as other varietals, under his Oreana label since 2002.

Though Garvin is only 34, he’s been making wine in the area since 1996, when he was a cellar rat at the Fess Parker Winery. “Santa Barbara is where Sonoma was 15 years ago,” Garvin said. “It’s still very laid-back. Winemakers help each other out. If I need to, I can borrow a tank of nitrogen from the winery next door.”

Things are just as neighborly in Santa Ynez Valley, where Richard Sanford, a founding father of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, presides over Alma Rosa. Sanford founded the Alma Rosa winery after selling the original Sanford Winery. The property is fairly hard to find, located behind a cactus gateway on Santa Rosa Road in the relatively new Santa Rita Hills appellation that he himself helped to create.

Sanford, a tall, tanned and presidential-seeming man, showed me around the buildings, fountains and Taoist-inspired paths of Alma Rosa. When he arrived in Santa Barbara County in 1969, farmers were growing mostly barley and garbanzo and lima beans, or grazing cattle. Sanford studied the area’s geography and topography to see if it could support vineyards, and he drove around with a thermometer taking measurements. “People thought, ‘This person is nuts!’” Sanford recalled. “When I said I wanted to grow grapes, I was told it was a dumb idea.”

Today, new vineyards are being planted everywhere—including those of the much-acclaimed winery Sea Smoke, which lies on the north side of the meandering Santa Ynez River and offers a commanding view of Sanford’s pioneering efforts on the south side of the valley. Sea Smoke covers 100 planted acres, some pitched on steep hillsides as high as 600 feet. “This is probably the strangest place to grow Pinot in North America,” said Sea Smoke general manager Victor Gallegos. “We’re at the same latitude as Tunisia.” The secret, he said, is the “sea smoke” itself—the cool ocean fog that’s ushered in by the transverse Santa Ynez Mountains and blankets the vineyards almost every morning.

Gallegos and I drove into Lompoc, where Sea Smoke wines are made and where Gallegos lives. There isn’t much going on in town after dark, he said, adding that locals usually drive to nearby Buellton for dinner, navigating the return trip with particular care because of the huge feral pigs often found wandering on the road.

In the winery’s office-warehouse, winemaker Kris Curran opened three Sea Smoke offerings: two Pinot Noirs and a Chardonnay. (Since that visit, Curran has left Sea Smoke to assume winemaking duties at well-respected Santa Barbara producer Foley Estate.) The Pinots were powerful and distinctive, an impression no doubt enhanced by their rarity. In fact, after the wine was touted in Sideways (writer-director Alexander Payne, a fan, had written Sea Smoke into the script), the mailing list was oversubscribed, wholesalers got pushy and the staff was unable to spare a bottle even for Virginia Madsen, one of the film’s stars. Sea Smoke wines are currently some of Santa Barbara’s most sought-after bottlings.

Over in the eastern, warmer part of the area’s wine country, winemakers aren’t only preaching the gospel of Pinot Noir but are also branching out into Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon. I stopped by the Fess Parker Winery (disguised as Frass Canyon in Sideways) for a quick tour.

However you might feel about souvenir T-shirts, cheesy wine paraphernalia and bus parking, it is hard to quarrel with the quality of wines created by 33-year-old winemaker Blair Fox under the Fess Parker label—and more recently his own Blair Fox Cellars label, one of the most exciting to debut in recent years. Fox makes big, rich, single-vineyard Syrahs, including one from the iron-rich soils of the noted Paradise Road vineyard, also the source of his zingy, peachy Viognier.

“I remember riding bikes with my parents out here when the only winery was Firestone,” Fox told me. “The Santa Rita Hills region is one of the best Pinot-growing areas in the world, but where we’re standing right now is ideal for Rhône-style wines like Syrah.”

While the Fess Parker Winery lies along one of the more heavily traveled wine trails of Santa Barbara County, the vineyards of Ballard Canyon are way off the beaten path, and they feel like Santa Barbara in those primordial days of the 1970s. Partly it’s the seclusion of the canyon, sequestered between Route 101 and the kitschy village of Los Olivos, which sells virtually anything as long as it’s related to wine (I had to drive to the next town over to find a notebook). The road into the canyon winds and climbs and doubles back on itself, and it eventually leads to a beautiful valley haunted by bobcats, mountain lions, wild boars and black bears.

It’s also the unlikely setting of one of the most talked-about new wineries in the region: Jonata, founded by Charles Banks, an owner of the celebrated Napa Valley property Screaming Eagle. The first Jonata wines, including a Cabernet Sauvignon–dominated blend, debuted late last year to an enthusiastic critical response.

Jonata covers 600 acres in Ballard Canyon, 80 of which are under vine. Jonata’s 29-year-old winemaker, Matt Dees, gave me a tour up the hilly vineyards, followed by a stop in a small private tasting room behind a red barn. Dees opened bottles of his first two vintages, 2004 and 2005 El Desafio de Jonata, and explained what the name means: “The Defiance of Jonata.” According to Dees, “People thought we were crazy to grow Cabernet Sauvignon down here. This is Syrah country, they said. But it’s been Syrah country for, what, 15 years? There are no rules here yet—this is the equivalent of the 15th century in France.”

The wines were a far cry from French—big, rich and thoroughly American—as were many of the other Santa Barbara wines I tasted. But beyond the power was plenty of finesse, not to mention plenty promise of great things to come.

And yet, for all the recent changes in the Santa Barbara wine country, it’s what hasn’t changed that continues to appeal. Wine remains as much a pleasure as a business in Santa Barbara. And there is still that unforgettable landscape, with its grape-savvy bears, feral pigs and tumbling ghosts. Before I drove back to Santa Barbara that night, I stopped for supper at the Brothers’ Restaurant in Mattei’s Tavern. The Los Olivos landmark lies along the route that famed explorer John C. Fremont crossed in 1846. In 1887, Los Olivos became the terminus of the Pacific Coast Railway. People heading down to Santa Barbara from the north would catch the stagecoach at Mattei’s, and in the 1930s, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper stayed at the tavern on their way up from Los Angeles to the extravagant parties held at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The wine list at Brothers’, chocka-block with local Pinots, refers to the grape as “the other woman.” I considered ordering a bottle to go with my pan-seared Nantucket bay scallops in a plum wine–ginger sauce—a prospect made all the more tempting by a sweet oak fire burning in the fireplace and someone who sounded like Carole Lombard laughing at the bar. But I was heading over the San Marcos Pass, and it was going to be a hard drive on a dark and winding road, with the specter of a wild boar at every bend.

Published April 2008
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