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.

Published: 6/15/2015

By Robert Thurgood Johnson

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 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 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 43,000 acres. 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 7,700 acres 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 of Santa Barbara AVA

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, designated an AVA in 2009, encompasses nearly 24,000 acres 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.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is located 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 2,100 acres and 500 acres, respectively. Another 140 acres are Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and other varietals.

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 back to the 1830s, the land features around 7,500 acres of vines on its nearly 100,000 total acres. 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.

As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2015 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.