Tasting Wines from Santa Barbara Highlands
How the Cuyama Valley Could Be Its Own Grape-Growing Appellation
After a nearly two-hour drive up the snaking, seemingly never-ending Highway 33 from Ventura, you hit Ventucopa and the Cuyama Valley, nestled in the far northeastern corner of Santa Barbara County. With an elevation approaching 2,900 feet, this is the high desert in all its glory.
It’s also where you’ll find the aptly named Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, owned by the Arroyo Grande–based Laetitia Winery (which formerly called it the Barnwood Vineyard). The vines are tended by Lino Bozzano, a Central Valley transplant who doesn’t mind the challenge of growing grapes in arguably Santa Barbara’s most extreme region. There are 13 different varieties nestled within the 747 acres of vines, most of which are planted in an ancient riverbed extending from the usually dry Cuyama River.
The best sites are on the plateaus at about 3,200 feet, on the west side of the river. Unofficially dubbed Alta Mesa, the high elevation, huge diurnal temperature shifts, heavy and dense alluvial clay soils, and steady winds make for a merciless place to grow grapes — but that’s also what makes it incredibly distinct.
These days, new California appellations are announced more frequently than 100-point wines, but with this unique location and utter isolation, it feels like Ventucopa and the greater Cuyama Valley have a legitimate claim creating one more American Viticultural Area, or AVA.
Here are some wines made from the vineyard.
A Tribute to Grace Grenache 2012: This wine has made quite a few waves of late, having the recent accolade of best Rhône wine in the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100. It’s quite a funky little number, with a complex nose of sage brush, suede, and freshly chopped-up dark chocolate, not to mention wild raspberry. Have it with a Sunday roast. $45.
CORE Wine Company’s Hard Core Mourvèdre/Grenache 2009: A heady, musty wine, quite gamey with dried cranberry. Well named, this isn’t for the soft fruity types. Would be perfect pairing with a venison burger or perhaps a boar stew. Also check out Core’s straight grenache from the same vineyard. $28.
Nadia Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: Blackberry, cassis, some cedar, and a hint of mint, this cab needs time after being opened, probably a good swirl of the decanter, too. More Bordeaux than Napa and best paired with a juicy steak fresh off the grill. $35.
Sans Liege En Gedi Grenache 2012: A deep, rich wine, smooth as velvet and full of blackberry, plum, and some five spice; big without the tannin. For the people that like huge wines, grab this — at 16.2 percent, it ain’t no joke. A peerless match with a crispy grilled cheese sandwich, but substitute American with a large slab of gruyère. $40.
Dirty and Rowdy Mourvèdre 2014: Great name for a winery. This is more like Beaujolais than Tempier and is a straight laser shot of ripe raspberry fruit with a little bit of spice from the whole-cluster fermentation. Swirl it a lot. You’ll need something like a duck confit or a rich cassoulet to handle the wine’s sharp edge. $36. (Available soon.)