Here’s to Santa Maria-Style Barbecue

In keeping with tradition, Santa Maria-style barbecue is a superlative mix of native flavors that pair perfectly with local wines.

Published: 6/28/2017

Simplicity can be a delicious thing. Santa Maria-style barbecue was born in the mid-1800s on the ranchlands of northern Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley when local rancheros hosted Spanish-style feasts outdoors to honor their vaqueros, or guests from afar. They’d dig a fire pit into the earth, stock it with sturdy branches of California coastal red oak, and let it burn down into smoldering coals. The meat, rubbed with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, was lowered on a grill to a hovering point just above the coals and cooked slowly to perfection.

We’re happy to report that through the decades nothing has changed. Today’s Santa Maria-style barbecue is irresistibly authentic. Tri-tip has been the region’s signature cut of beef since the 1950s, when a butcher popularized it over prime rib and top block sirloin. Characterized by a hearty flavor and texture, the tri-tip takes on a beautiful smokiness when it spends time over oak. Instead of a tomato- or mustard-based sauce, the savory meat is usually accompanied by salsa, bread, and tiny, round pinquito beans, which are native to the area. Through the years, these exquisite flavors became so synonymous with the Santa Maria Valley that in 1978 the Chamber of Commerce copyrighted an official Santa Maria Valley barbecue menu consisting of barbecued tri-tip with fresh salsa, grilled French bread dipped in sweet melted butter, and tossed green salad.

“One of the most remarkable aspects of Santa Maria-style barbecue is how it smells,” says Bill Wathen, winemaker and owner of Foxen Vineyard & Winery. “There’s nothing like driving down Broadway and catching that first hint of oak wood, savory smoke, and spice. You instinctively start looking for the pit on the side of the road and grabbing for your wallet.”

This enticing smoky, savory, and sweet blend of flavors partners beautifully with wines that are also intense and savory in character. Many Santa Maria Valley-grown wines fit this description, but Pinot Noir and Syrah are always mentioned first. Winemaker Clarissa Nagy notes, “Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noirs have a rose petal and Chinese five spice component that is accentuated by Santa Maria-style barbecue, while our cool climate Syrahs tend to have a peppery character that is pronounced by the seasonings and oak.”

“Pinot Noir is my main choice for grilled tri-tip,” says Nate Axline, tasting room manager at Cambria Estate Vineyard & Winery. “The tri-tip just gets fairly charred, which works well with Pinot Noir’s strawberry and black cherry fruits that accent the savory qualities. Also, tri-tip is a relatively lean cut of meat, which works with a lighter style of red wine, but often still has enough marbling to marry beautifully with the acid in Pinot Noir. This varietal also pairs very nicely with many of the sides.”

Jon Macias, who manages Ca’ Del Grevino’s tasting rooms, leans toward Syrah. “Syrah from this area has meaty, tobacco, and spice notes, which amplifies the same flavors in the meat,” Jon explains. “These flavors come from the grapes, which are grown in the same soil as the grass that the cattle in the area eat. As they say, ‘if it grows together, it goes together.”

Santa Maria Valley-style barbecue is a unique, delectable culinary tradition that everyone should inhale and savor firsthand. To learn more, visit

As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2017 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.