Santa Barbara County can't compete with regions like Napa when it comes to wine history, but the area is home to some of the most exciting bottles coming out of California today. Perhaps because the southern pocket of the state's Central Coast hasn't had to deal with the same burden of legacy, wine growers have felt freer to plant a wide array of grape varieties. There's the ubiquitous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sure, since those grapes excel in the region's west due to its cool, mild climate and long growing season. In the right hands, they create wines that would make even the most talented vintners in Europe swoon (see Domaine de la Côte, below). But the region had early success with Rhône varieties like Syrah, with winemakers like Qupé's Bob Lindquist leading the charge. And it's no longer unusual to come across Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Gamay and even Jura-native Trousseau.
The Santa Barbara winemakers who seek out unconventional grapes tend to have a similar goal in mind: make unfussy, delicious, drinkable wines that emphasize their varieties' unique qualities rather than hide them with laboratory yeasts and an abundance of vanilla-scented new oak. Many draw inspiration from the Old World regions where the grapes originated. The result is a diverse palette of expressive whites and reds that share a kindred spirit with natural wines from France and beyond yet have a terroir imprint all their own.
Here, 7 of the region's best new wines:
2014 Tatomer 'Kick-On Ranch' Santa Barbara County Riesling ($35)
Graham Tatomer came of age in the Santa Barbara wine business and cut his teeth on the area's Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. A pivotal moment in his career, however, was a 2003 apprenticeship at Weingut Knoll—a cult producer of Grüner Veltiner and Riesling in Austria's Wachau. Tatomer brought his love and know-how of Austrian grapes home and has been turning out textured, mineral wines like this one ever since.
2016 Lieu Dit Santa Maria Valley Melon ($23)
Lieu Dit is the brainchild of sommelier Eric Railsback and winemaker Justin Willett, whose shared affinity for the wines of France's Loire Valley prompted them to dedicate their entire production to varieties native to that region. The newest addition to their roster of wines is this Melon de Bourgogne—as fresh and zesty as great Muscadet (the wine the grape is known for), and as oyster-friendly, too.
2014 Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay ($36)
Sashi Moorman and sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr of Sandhi are staunch proponents of earlier picks and light-handed winemaking in their cool stretch of Sta. Rita Hills terroir. Their balanced, fresh styles of Chardonnay, like this intro-level bottling, have more in common with Burgundy than with many superripe California versions.
2015 Lo-Fi Wines Santa Barbara County Gamay/Pinot Noir ($25)
A newcomer to the Central Coast scene, Lo-Fi is run by former Martian Ranch winemaker Mike Roth. His natural approach includes using native yeasts and little to no sulfur, sourcing from sustainably farmed vineyards around the county. This blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir acts like a juicy rendition of a Bourgogne Passetoutgrains—fragrant, thirst-quenching and ready for food.
2014 Domaine de la Côte Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($52)
Arguably the most Burgundian (or most Beaujolais-like) of Central Coast Pinot projects, Domaine de la Côte turns out an impressive array of wines from its estate-farmed vineyards in the windswept extreme west of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. This bottling boasts pure, silky red fruit backed by a saline edge not often encountered in wines from outside France's limestone hills.
2015 A Tribute to Grace Santa Barbara County Grenache ($31)
Angela Osborne may be California's biggest champion of Grenache. What's more, she has redefined what the grape is capable of in Santa Barbara—lithe, ethereal, aromatic wines rather than rich, robust and dark ones. She ferments with indigenous yeasts and ages in old oak barrels, carrying out cellar operations at propitious moments in the lunar cycle.
2014 Broc Cellars Santa Barbara County Cabernet Franc ($31)
While much of California Cabernet Franc is modeled after the Bordeaux style (blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in robust, structured Meritage blends), this bottling takes a Loire Valley approach, embracing the grape's herbal side and emphasizing punchy, bright fruit. To get those results, Chris Brockway—who works out of an urban winery in Berkeley—ferments using whole clusters.
Other producers to look for: Chanin, Tyler, Piedrasassi, Qupé, Au Bon Climat, The Ojai Vineyard.