Exploring the AVAs of Santa Barbara County
Widely known as a land blessed with sunshine and coastal breezes, Santa Barbara Wine Country is actually quite diverse, with a wide range of mircoclimates and soils.
In fact, it now has five distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) – appellations with boundaries and geographical features defined by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Drive north 35 minutes from the coastal town of Santa Barbara and start exploring Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Santa Maria Valley AVA
The Santa Maria Valley AVA was the region’s first wine-producing area to be designated an AVA, earning the distinction in 1981. With growing dating to the 1830s, the land features around 3,000 hectares of vines on its nearly 40,500 total hectares. The valley is bordered by the San Rafael Mountains to the north and the Solomon Hills to the south, creating a funnel that further accentuates the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean, leading to an exceptionally long growing season that culminates in intense wines with low pH values. The western section of this AVA is predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while the eastern section is mainly Rhône and Bordeaux varietals.
Couple enjoying the afternoon in Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Ynez Valley AVA
The Santa Ynez Valley is fed by the Santa Ynez River and contains the largest concentration of wineries of the Santa Barbara County AVAs, featuring more than 70 in the approximately 17,400 hectares. The region predominantly produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the west, and Rhône varietals, such as Syrah, in the higher-elevated, eastern part of the valley. As an appellation, the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is extremely diverse, containing the smaller AVAs of Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and Sta. Rita Hills. The Santa Ynez Valley is Santa Barbara County’s largest and second-oldest AVA, receiving its status in 1983.
Ballard Canyon AVA
Ballard Canyon AVA takes up the central 10 percent of the Santa Ynez AVA. It spans 3,100 hectares and is the newest of the Santa Barbara AVAs, receiving its status in late 2013. The region focuses on producing Syrah and is located in a mixed-climate zone between the cool Sta. Rita Hills and the warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. The region is also notable in that the vines are planted in either clay or sand, with vines planted in the north of the AVA also influenced by limestone.
Happy Canyon AVA
Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, designated an AVA in 2009, encompasses around 9,700 hectares on the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. The region, which is warmer than the rest of the Santa Ynez Valley, features a high-mineral, low-nutrient clay soil, that lends itself to lower vine yields but more intense flavors. The region produces mainly Bordeaux grapes, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. The name comes from legend: During Prohibition, people would “take a trip up Happy Canyon” to purchase bootlegged alcohol.
Scenic view of Sauvignon Blanc grapevines at a Santa Barbara vineyard
Sta. Rita Hills AVA
The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is on the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton. The AVA was granted its status in 2001, although its name was changed from the original Santa Rita Hills to Sta. Rita Hills in 2006. Closer to the ocean, the area’s cooler climate and rocky terrain lends itself to the cultivation of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, growing up to 850 hectares and 200 hectares, respectively. Another 56 hectares are Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and other varietals.