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Is Santa Barbara the Next Napa?

Santa Barbara County doesn't have the cachet of Napa Valley--at least, not yet. But with a growing reputation for world-class wines, it's become hot on its own terms.

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.

Santa Barbara winemaking probably would have re-mained a rather civilized pursuit, an amuse-gueule for the polo set, were it not for Jim "Wild Man" Clendenen, who rode out from the east (Akron, Ohio, to be precise) in the late Seventies and took a job as assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa. A few years later, Clendenen opened his own winery, Au Bon Climat, and in 1989 he joined another rogue spirit, Bob Lindquist of Qupé (who had also worked at Zaca Mesa). Together, they revolutionized the way wine was made in the county's Santa Maria Valley.

Clendenen and Lindquist, along with the equally irrepressible Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, gained a measure of fame in the late Eighties as the Rhône Rangers (so called for their interest in producing wines modeled on those of France's Rhône Valley). Their outlandish ideas included the creation of wines from then-little-known grapes like Viognier, Marsanne and Mourvèdre; they also produced great wines from more conventional grapes like Chardonnay.

Some of these early efforts were successful, others less so. As Jim Adelman, general manager of Au Bon Climat, admits, "A lot of mistakes were made that are being corrected now. Vineyards are being replanted and new clones are being chosen. The future looks bright because we're progressing."

One reason for such optimism is the land itself, where grapes as diverse as Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay thrive, yet where vineyards are still surprisingly affordable. (An acre of vineyard land in Santa Barbara costs approximately half as much as Napa's reputed $34,000-per-acre price.) The result has been an influx of new wineries owned by millionaires like Roger Wisted (Blackjack Ranch Vineyards) and by Napa behemoths like Beringer and Mondavi.

Bryan Babcock, who makes highly regarded Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs at Babcock Vineyards, says, "We're still young in terms of finding the best vineyards. And we all want to discover new grapes that work here. Our focus is on mastering craftsmanship, mastering winemaking."

But this hasn't meant that they have abandoned Santa Barbara's old ways. As Au Bon Climat's Adelman says, "Napa has a lot of money invested in buildings, lots of nice châteaus. But here it's just a metal building with barrels inside; a lot is spent on winemaking and a lot less on amenities. We don't have ornate gardens."

According to Margerum, Santa Barbara is what Napa was 25 years ago: "You go to the winery, and the guy looks at you mean, maybe he doesn't even come to the door. If he does, maybe he'll open some wine for you, maybe he won't. But you're actually talking to the guy who makes the wine. He's the owner. There are no stewardesses in blue blazers giving standard tours to groups of 20 at a time." It's this kind of attitude that Krysten Hommel, marketing manager of Cambria Vineyards (owned by Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson), believes has helped to sell Santa Barbara's wines. "In wine savvy markets," she explains, "Santa Barbara County is seen as very cool and hip because it's not a tourist destination. While we may not have conquered Des Moines, they know about us in New York. They like our outlaw image."

But to Babcock, as to most Santa Barbara winemakers, what matters most has nothing to do with image and everything to do with the fun of winemaking: "The crazy stuff is encouraged here. It's kind of cool and wide open that way. Santa Barbara is the final frontier."

Merrill Shindler is editor of the Los Angeles Zagat Surveys and host of the CBS radio show Feed Your Face.

Published August 1999
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