The Valleys Of Santa Barbara County

This is the first of a two-part series on the wines and vineyards of Santa Barbara County.

My shoes are covered in dried dust and sand from visiting vineyards. They used be a dark brown, now they have a lighter brown hue. I have just returned from a trip to Santa Barbara County wine country – specifically the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley in California.

When I go to wine country, I make it a point to spend just as much time in the vineyards as in the wineries, hence the dusty shoes. The area is unique in so many ways, and very different from the more-recognized valleys of Sonoma and Napa.

Yet it is plain to see and taste that the wines, especially Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, from here are some of California’s finest.

The starkest difference between this region and its northern counterparts is that the hills or mountain ranges run transverse to the coast, or east to west rather than north to south.

With no windbreak, the cold wind from the Pacific Ocean, part of what is known as the Humboldt Current, blows through the vineyards almost constantly, billowing up in the late afternoon.

It gets particularly breezy in the late afternoon and evening, as deeper inland pockets of heat rise and pull in the cold air from the Pacific Ocean. This acts as a stress on the vines as well as a cooling influence on what would otherwise be a desert climate.

The result is an intensely long growing season with long ripening and extremely long and late harvests. Several vine growers begin picking in August or September and continue well into November – as one put it, “ruining” Thanksgiving. One even harvested recently on Dec. 1!

In comparison, other California regions can begin in September and harvesting will be done in two weeks or less.

In fact, the Santa Rita Hills AVA is the coldest in all of California. The wines from the region are blessed with richness and amplitude from no lack of ripeness but remarkably balanced by bright acidity levels from the cooling effects of the wind.

The soils of the region are far from homogenous. The Santa Rita Hills are a mix of seabed soils, including diatomaceous earth composed of fossilized seashell debris mixed with sand and loam. There also are sandy clay soils and even some pockets of limestone.

To the east, in the Santa Ynez Valley, there are more limestone outcroppings along with rockier and clay-dominated soils but less sand.

Moving north to the Santa Maria Valley, there is mostly loam and clay along with alluvial deposits along the fertile valley floors.

There are plenty of fruit crops other than grapevines planted here because of the richness of soils.

Those quality producers who plant here use plenty of devigorating root stocks as well as other farming techniques to keep yields lower.

On the foothills and up slopes there are very thin and poor soils caused by erosion not only from water but also the prevailing wind. This is where you find some of the more compelling vineyard sites.

With the area’s proximity to the ocean, there also is the phenomenon of fog that blankets these valleys in the morning, to be later burned away by the sun.

Speaking of sun, this area gets plenty of light days as exhibited by many of the Santa Rita Hills wines easily reaching 14 to 15-percent alcohol in both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But again, the wines can remain balanced with bright acidity from the cooling winds and fog.

Wherever you go in the region, you are reminded of the winds that constantly buffet the vines. The sun is shining and the vines are flowering. It is another dry, cool and sunny day in Santa Barbara County.

Next week, I will share with you my favorite wines of the trip, so stay tuned.

Recommendations: 2010 Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay ($30) Beautiful fruit, citrus and minerality. It also adds a hint of salinity that lends itself to any food. It has one foot in the Old World but shines with fruit and body of the New. 2008 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir ($55) This Pinot has the wow factor. It has explosive fruit and wonderfully velvety texture. It has plenty of length and will age well.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier.

Email or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.