Southern California's Santa Barbara County owes its success with cool-climate wines (notably Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir) to a geological oddity: coastal valleys that run east-west and act as superhighways for chilly ocean air. Here, some of the region's best, most-reliable producers.
Alta Maria Vineyards
By day James Ontiveros manages sales for the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards, located on a swath of land in Santa Barbara’s Santa Maria district. On the side, Ontiveros moonlights with college buddy and winemaker Paul Wilkins on their boutique Alta Maria label. The duo’s four wines reflect Ontiveros’s knack for selecting top grapes and Wilkins’s delicate touch in the cellar.
This smallish Santa Barbara County winery is a rare breed in California: a Sauvignon Blanc specialist. Fred Brander planted some of the region’s first Sauvignon Blanc vines in 1975; early success encouraged Brander to plant more. Today he makes eight versions, each showcasing a distinctive style or site.
Cambria Estate Winery
Cambria’s vast 1,600-acre estate is located in the Santa Maria Valley, which funnels cool ocean breezes inland. This makes it perfect for growing high-acid Chardonnay, the grape that accounts for about 65 percent of Cambria’s production. Winemaker Denise Shurtleff excels with other varieties, too, turning out smaller-production Pinot Noir, Syrah and Pinot Gris.
Melville Vineyards and Winery
All of the fruit for the Melville family’s wines comes from its 139-acre estate in the Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County (the setting for the hit indie film Sideways). This is prime territory for Pinot Noir, and with Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton in charge of the cellar, the hits just keep coming.
The Ojai Vineyard
Instead of owning vineyards, winemaker Adam Tolmach and his wife, Helen, contract with some of the Central Coast’s best growers to buy grapes by the acre, an arrangement that encourages quality, not quantity. Tolmach makes as many as 20 wines each vintage, a mix of outstanding reds and refined whites.
A Rhône fanatic, Bob Lindquist is one of the country’s most renowned interpreters of Syrah, as well as of the unjustly obscure Rhône whites Roussanne and Marsanne. Based in Santa Barbara’s famed Bien Nacido Vineyards, Lindquist sources grapes from some of the most prized Central Coast sites, then turns them into refreshingly balanced wines.