Doug Margerum, owner of the Wine Cask wine shop and restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, can practically name the day the wines of Santa Barbara County really took off. "On March 13 of this year, the first day of our wine-futures tasting, we sold more wine than we did during our whole first year in business in 1981," Margerum says. "And," he adds, "more than 60 percent of the orders were from New York, San Francisco, Chicago and abroad." On offer were wines from 83 producers, some with well-known names like Au Bon Climat, Babcock, Cambria, Gainey, Qupé, Ojai and Brander and many others that are relative unknowns, including newcomers like Andrew Murray, Blackjack Ranch and Brewer-Clifton, whose entire 48-case production sold out in a matter of minutes.
The wines of Santa Barbara have clearly come into their own--and this has happened in a surprisingly short period of time. In fact, the history of winemaking in Santa Barbara County, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, is barely 25 years long. As recently as 1973, only 200 acres of grapes were harvested there. And then, as they say in the wine trade, the lees hit the fan. As in Napa and Sonoma, the Seventies became the decade in which anyone in California who had more than a few dollars to spare went into the wine business. Winemakers ascended from mere grape growers to superstars seemingly overnight. The region appeared to be on the very cusp of a vinous victory. All it lacked was, well, a Santa Barbara style.
While the vintners of the early Seventies produced wines that were good, and often far better than that, as a rule they stuck to the straight and narrow. Brander Vineyards, which dates back to 1975, made wines in the traditional Bordeaux style, and Firestone Vineyards (founded in 1972 by the Firestone Tire family) defined the conservative Santa Barbara style. Its Cabs, Merlots, Rieslings and Chardonnays relied on tried-and-true European winemaking techniques.