One of my favorite things to do on a sleepy Sunday morning is take a drive to a place that puts me in the mood to relax and mentally prepare for the coming work week. I love driving through the Santa Maria Valley, particularly through the countryside, dotted as it is with agricultural crops, farmhouses, and vineyards. During the past few years, I’ve also enjoyed wine tasting in the Santa Maria Valley; they now even have a Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail.
With the addition of new tasting rooms, including Addamo Estate Vineyards, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, and Costa de Oro Winery and Gold Coast Marketplace, the Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail now boasts nine thriving tasting rooms. This esteemed coastal appellation has grown steadily, albeit slowly throughout the years. The pace of growth is intentional; the winegrowing community of Santa Maria Valley is protective of its history, character, and potential. Each new producer has added merit to the entire valley, and this, according to area winegrowers, is as it should be. Other producers have been making wines in Santa Maria Valley for years and will not consider moving on from their beloved valley. Ken Volk, for example, has been making Santa Barbara and Central Coast wines for more than a quarter century. Perhaps best known as the founder of Wild Horse Winery, Volk has earned a reputation for crafting world-class wines, particularly pinot noir and chardonnay, and he is proud to call Santa Maria Valley his enological home.
Though some are much larger in scope than others, all the wineries and tasting rooms in Santa Maria Valley are family owned. This is a rarity in the wine business, where corporate takeovers and consolidation are second nature. Even the larger Kendall-Jackson-owned properties-Cambria and Byron-remain family owned. This lends an intimate and loyal tone to the valley; it is hard not to feel as though neighbors look out for each other in this particular winegrowing community.
The Santa Maria Valley wine country has found its enological identity in recent years, and is now recognized the world over for its pinot noirs, chardonnays, and cool-climate syrahs. Ironically, though, even merlot thrives in this maritime appellation. Bien Nacido Vineyards, the iconic vineyard located on the Santa Maria Bench, has successfully grown merlot that ripens to full maturity. The Nielson Vineyard, the oldest commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County, is partially dedicated to grenache, another variety growing in popularity, not only in Santa Maria Valley, but also throughout the Golden State.
Visitors to Santa Maria Valley often stop at the Addamo Estate Vineyards tasting room before heading into the heart of the valley, the gateway of which is Betteravia Road. The Addamo Estate Vineyards tasting room is located in the charmingly sleepy town of Orcutt, an old-fashioned suburb of Santa Maria. There, visitors may enjoy award-winning pinot noirs and chardonnays. Another favorite stop for visitors is the Costa de Oro tasting room about which I’ve written before in this column. Located just off Highway 101, this tasting room also doubles as a marketplace for fresh, local, sustainably grown produce and fruit. Owner Gary Burk also produces critically successful pinot noirs and chardonnays.
More established vineyards like Rancho Sisquoc, Cambria, and Foxen offer visitors a rare dose of charm. Rancho Sisquoc offers sweeping vistas of the San Gabriel Mountains. Nestled in a wooded canyon, this lovely little winery offers a diverse portfolio of wines. Cambria has long been acknowledged as a producer of fine pinot noirs and chardonnays.
Byron and Cottonwood Canyon wineries round out the list. Winemaker Jonathan Nagy has arrived at Byron Winery with great enthusiasm and professionalism. His latest offerings prove he’s not only a very talented winemaker, but he’s also helping to put Byron back on the map as a producer of fine Rh’ne and Burgundian-style wines. Cottonwood Canyon Winery boasts the only wine caves in Santa Maria Valley, and visitors are invited to explore them while wine tasting.
The Santa Maria Valley, once known only for its row crops and cattle ranches, has joined other California appellations, like Russian River, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and Carneros in producing world-class wines with a real sense of place. Because Santa Maria Valley is an American Viticultural Area, you should be able to readily find wines from this area at fine wine shops, restaurants, and retailers throughout Santa Barbara and the country. Just look for the Santa Maria Valley appellation on the label.