The Grapes Of Santa Ynez Valley

Had you driven through Santa Ynez Valley just prior to prohibition you would have seen almost as many planted grape vines as you do today. However, prohibition resulted in most of those 5,000 acres of grape vines being cut down. Now the boom in the Valley is resplendent in quality as well as quantity as Santa Ynez Valley has the greatest concentration of wineries in Santa Barbara County.

Located to the north Santa Barbara proper and 25 miles south of Santa Maria, Santa Ynez Valley is about 30 miles long and runs east-to-west. Santa Ynez Valley is bordered by the Purisima Hills and San Raphael Mountains to the north and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south.

The western Santa Rita Hills AVA section benefits from the moderating effects of the cooling breezes and fog off the Pacific, and is recognized for exceptional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. About twenty miles to the east of the Pacific, it is considerably warmer and more appropriate for Bordeaux white and red varieties as well as Syrah. As the Santa Ynez River borders on the east, the elevation rises approximately 800 feet. At this higher altitude, in north-south running canyons, vineyards experience high daily temperature fluctuations and the warmer climate so conducive to Syrah and other Rhone varietals.

Within the region there are warmer and cooler sections. Stolpman Vineyards, located 15 miles from the coast in Ballard Canyon, for example, has the long warm days and limestone soil in which Syrah, Sangiovese, and Rousanne grapes thrive. I talked with several winemakers who craft excellent wines from this valley, and asked what distinguishes Santa Ynez Valley grapes from those other parts of Santa Barbara County.

Ask The Vintners

Winemaker Bruno D’Alfonso explained, “Although I use the same winemaking process on [Di Bruno Sangiovese] that I use on my Pinot Noirs, the Di Bruno becomes seductive, sensual, and feminine due in part to the warmer climate in this part of the Santa Ynez Valley.”

On its east end, Santa Ynez Valley is considerably warmer, resulting in lush Syrahs characterized by rich flavor and dense fruit. Kris Curran’s Curran Syrah “Black Oak” expresses the dense, ripe earthiness of fruit from this selected Black Oak lot of the Reeve’s Ranch Vineyard. “This wine,” she says, “is like Black Forest cake, made with canned cherries in syrup, not the more tart fresh cherries served with real whipped cream.”

Gray Hartley poured a glass of his Hitching Post Syrah from Steve Beckmen’s “Purisima Mountain” Vineyard and credited Beckmen’s vineyard for the great grapes he had to work with. “This vineyard in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley has the warm weather that is a perfect match for these Syrah clones,” Gray says, noting too that, “We make the wine in the ‘old school’ manner. We don’t do much manipulation so the wine is truly an expression of this vineyard and the Santa Ynez Valley terroir.”

Several Bordeaux varietals have also gained acclaim in this versatile region. An example is Fred Brander’s Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is a standout even by Brander standards. Fred pointed out that, “The Santa Ynez Valley has sections with especially gravely soils like those in Bordeaux. This terroir plus our Napa-warm temperatures mean ideal ripening for these grapes.”

The appellation is home to a wide variety of wineries, and grapes from Santa Ynez Valley are used by wineries throughout Santa Barbara County and as well as wineries outside the county.

Some Santa Ynez Valley vineyard on-site tasting rooms include:

Bridlewood Estate Winery tasting room (10-5 daily) offering different “flights” of several glasses each that showcase the style and variety of their wines. A selection of delicatessen foods is available for picnics with your wine. 3555 Roblar Avenue, Santa Ynez (805-688-9000).

Lincourt Vineyards and Winery tasting room (10-5 daily) is nestled under California pepper trees and overlooks the Alamo Pintado Vineyard. Originally a dairy property; the old farmhouse, a Sears Craftsman kit home, provides the quaint tasting room setting while the milking barn has been converted to a winemaking facility. The picnic grounds, lawns, and gardens are an excellent spot to enjoy your picnic and a bottle of wine. 1711 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang (805-688-8554).

Rideau Vineyards tasting (11-5 daily) is housed in a charming, historic 1884 two-story adobe home, set amidst ancient oaks. You can taste these elegant wines and feel that you have stepped back in time to a place that has captured the feel of New Orleans and owner Iris Rideau’s Creole heritage. 1562 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang (805-688-0717).

Sunstone Winery tasting room (10-4:30) is reminiscent of some of the small wineries in the Provencal French countryside, featuring a kitchen, complete with a wood-burning oven and two stone barrel-aging caves built into the hillside. The estate Santa Ynez Valley wines are grown in their 77-acre organic, bio-sustainable vineyard. 125 Refugio Road, Santa Ynez (805-688-9463).