Wine 101: Slow Wine Guide Wineries in Santa Barbara AVAs from Sta Rita Hills to Ballard Canyon and Beyond #WinePW

Santa Barbara County AVAs in order of addition: 1 = Santa Maria Valley; 2 = Sta Rita Hills; 3 = Ballard Canyon; 4 = Happy Canyon; 5 = Los Olivos District; 6 = Santa Ynez; 7 = Alisos Canyon; move your mouse onto the map to see the key

While most mountain ranges snake south to north paralleling the ocean, in California’s Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, the Transverse Range is exactly that — crosswise, or perpendicular to the Pacific and running west to east. This anomaly is what makes Santa Barbara AVAs special: air off the cold Pacific Ocean rushes east, cooling inland valleys to make them habitable for vines, and closer to the coast, to provide a cool climate terroir that produces stellar Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as spectacular Syrah, gorgeous Grenache, and captivating Cabernet.

AVA stands for American Viticultural Areas, and indicates an appellation of origin, a specific region that offers unique or special characteristics. The US has 260 AVAs with over half of them (142) in California. Within an AVA, sub-AVAs further differentiate, and often particular grapes prevail.  Obtaining an AVA is complicated, complex, time consuming; only the truly devoted will succeed in proving the uniqueness of the terroir: geography, topography, climate, geology and more factors go into proving the distinctness of an area.

Why learn about AVAs? Knowing more about an AVA can help you find the wines you will love! Santa Barbara has 7 officially recognized AVAs: Santa Maria Valley AVA, Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Ballard Canyon AVA, Los Olivos District AVA, Happy Canyon AVA, and Alisos Canyon AVA.

Back to the Transverse Range: Growing up in Ventura County, I knew the significance of the Transverse Range, but I didn’t really understand how special the range was for wine until 2014 when I attended the Wine Media Conference, and in particular, a two day pre-conference seminar led by Fred Swann of SF Wine School that included a deep dive into the region. I’ve been smitten ever since.

As much as I love the wines of Santa Barbara, and that I only live less than 90 minutes away from the hubs of Los Olivos, Solvang, and Lompoc, making time to visit the region just doesn’t happen. I’m not one of those people who spends a lot of time visiting wineries, hanging out, and drinking wine for fun.

So I jumped at the chance last year to discover the Santa Barbara area wineries producing world class organic and biodynamic wine when I was asked to join the team to write for Slow Wine Guide.  Last year, Sue and I visited as many Santa Barbara wineries as we could as well as wineries in Lodi and El Dorado totaling almost 30. This year, between the ongoing COVID pandemic, high gas prices, non-functioning vehicles, scheduling, and other challenges, on three trips to the region, I was able to visit five Santa Barbara wineries and one tasting room for interviews for the next edition of the Slow Wine Guide. 

In the process, I learned a lot more about the large Santa Barbara AVA and the various smaller AVAs nestled inside, and I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned in the coming months. 

The Ojai Vineyards map of SB County vineyards

Today is Santa Barbara AVAs 101 — and by 101 I mean that the AVA is bisected by Highway 101 which stays close to the west coast from the Mexican border north to its terminus on Interstate 5 near Seattle, and along which you’ll find many of the important wine grape growing regions of California including Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma, and Mendocino because the breezes off the Pacific Ocean keep the temperatures in the range that make great wine grapes.

And by 101 I mean an introductory course because this month’s Wine Pairing Weekend theme is “Back to School” and Robin Renken of Crushed Grape Chronicles has invited participants to “school” us on a topic of our choice. Scroll down to find links to other articles on the topic. You’re also invited to join our 8am Pacific twitter chat by searching for the hashtag #WinePW. You’ll find the discussion prompts below. 

Santa Barbara County AVAs prior to Aliso Canyon

This is also a 101 about wines from the region that I am writing about for inclusion in the next Slow Wine Guide coming out in time for holiday gift giving. 

The map above provided by The Ojai Vineyard shows the topography in relief of most of Santa Barbara and ventura Counties.. You can see how this part of California, containing Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, juts out into the Pacific.

Looking more closely, you can see how there’s a substantial gap around Lompoc where the cold air above the Pacific rushes east toward Lake Cachuma. 

Whether you are a fan of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir or Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, you will find wines to love that are grown organically or biodynamically in Santa Barbara County. 

The Santa Ynez Valley AVA, noted in red above, is one of two larger AVAs, and it wraps around some of the smaller ones.

Demetria winemaker Ryan Roark

In the northern part of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, we visited beautiful, bucolic, biodynamic Demetria for the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last! Read about Demetria here. Grapes from the Rhone rule in this warm, steep sloped, area. We paired Demetria‘s rose of Grenache, white Rhone blend, and red Rhone blend with summer’s bounty: grilled vegetables and lamb meatballs. 

In the southern part of Santa Ynez Valley AVA near the Gaviota Pass leading to the Pacific, you’ll find biodynamic Folded Hills. The very specific weather there, with intense diurnal swings could qualify it for its own AVA.

PAIRINGS: We paired the Demetria wines with fresh produce we picked from our gardens, and the Folded Hills wines with produce from their farm. Anyone can go pick there for $3 a pound which is an amazing deal.

On the extreme west, not far from the Pacific Ocean on three sides, the Sta Rita Hills AVA (light green) is justly famous for Pinot Noir with famed Sea Smoke commanding much of the south facing slopes. Read more about 4 Pinot by Au Bon Climat from the iconic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, biodynamic J Dirt’s Duvarita Vineyard, Sea Smoke‘s Southing, and The Ojai Vineyard‘s Fe Ciega. Chardonnay shines here as well in these marine soils.

PAIRINGS: I love these Pinots paired with red fish like salmon and seared ahi tuna. With the Chardonnay, I love local Santa Barbara spot prawns grilled or sautéed in butter, a little wine, and lots of garlic. 

Grimms Bluff

On the far east sits Happy Canyon AVA. Furthest from the coast, it is significantly warmer allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc not only to ripen but to standout. Grimm’s Bluff also specializes in Sauvignon Blanc in two styles, the reserve have a light oak character and more select. Break out your steaks and Cesar salad for these wines. Biodynamic Grimm’s Bluff offers views to Lake Cachuma  further east as well as the Santa Ynez river and the hawks which abound floating on abundant thermals.

PAIRINGS: Break out your steaks and Cesar salad for these wines.

Ballard AVA

Ballard Canyon AVA sits right smack in the middle. Like Goldilocks, growers here find it neither too cold or too hot, but just right. Ballard Canyon AVA boasts being the only Syrah focused AVA in the US, and while I love the Syrah, oh my, the Grenache is great. Here Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards pioneered biodynamic farming and Michael Larner went for organic farming; both produce exceptional Syrah as well as other grapes mostly from the Rhone.  

Michael Larner, organic winegrower and winemaker

PAIRINGS: Go for game like duck or rack of elk with a tart fruit sauce, grilled rack of lamb with a fruit glaze, or even a grilled pork loin. Or for something summery, with Beckmen’s Own Syrah and 1ngredient Syrah, we did a BLTA on garlic rosemary sourdough with oven fries. OMG.

Los Olivos AVA is also centrally located and like large Santa Maria AVA to the north, we will save a discussion of wines from those areas of Santa Barbara County for another day. 

As I finish articles about each of these wineries, I will link back to this one and I will add the links here to them. 

Be sure to pick up a copy of the 2022 Slow Wine Guide and be ready to order the 2023! Find the publisher’s website here.

Like I mentioned above, this month the crew at #WinePW is taking you back to school. Each of our writers will pick a subject on wine and put together a fun educational piece to expand your wine knowledge! Here are the articles the #WinePW writers have in store for you!

Join us here on Twitter at 8 am PT September 10th– or check out the convo by searching for #WinePW.

  • 8:00 am PT Good morning!  Welcome to #WinePW’s Back to School chat!  Please tell us who you are and where you are tweeting from.  Share a link to your blog if you have one!
  • 8:05 am PT Q1 – So, what topic did you choose for today and why?  #WinePW
  • 8:15 am PT Q2 – Did you pull from fantastic knowledge in your brain or search for new information on your topic? #WinePW
  • 8:20 am PT Q3 – Time to dive deep!  Tell us about your topic! #WinePW
  • 8:30 am PT Q4 – Did you have a specific wine or vineyard that inspired today’s topic? #WinePW
  • 8:35 am PT Q5 – We are called Wine Pairing Weekend…Did you do a food pairing?  #WinePW
  • 8:40 am PT Q6 – What is the most important thing you want us to take away from your topic today?  #WinePW
  • 8:50 am PT Q7 – Last comments, questions, thoughts?  #WinePW
  • 8:55 Shout out to all the writers who joined us today! @Culinary_Cam @LemieuxAndrea @CrushGrapeChron @WendyKlik @cookingchat @tsteffes @ArtPredator @ExplorWineGlass
  • 9:00 am PT Join #WinePW next month when we do our annual #MerlotMe celebrations on October 8th, led by Jeff of @Foodwineclick

2 thoughts on “Wine 101: Slow Wine Guide Wineries in Santa Barbara AVAs from Sta Rita Hills to Ballard Canyon and Beyond #WinePW

  1. I can’t wait to hear more of your Santa Barbara explorations! Are fans of Beckmen and we love Michael Larner (he’s the go-to guy if you want to talk soils and geology!).
    You have given me several new to me wineries to look up on our next visit! Can’t wait to learn more about Grimms Bluff, J.Dirt and Folded Hills!

    Liked by 1 person

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