Santa Barbara County wines are on a tear right now, garnering repeat accolades from the most important voices in the industry. “I have been a big admirer of these wines for some time,” wrote Antonio Galloni of Vinous after tasting more than 800 wines recently. “Best of all, Santa Barbara wines remain, inexplicably, largely undiscovered by both consumers and the wine trade.” Similar sentiments are uttered by Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Spectator, and Wine Advocate, while Wine Enthusiast continues to heap on the praise.
The latter magazine, where I also work, named Santa Barbara the Wine Region of the Year in 2021 and Greg Brewer as Winemaker of the Year in 2020. Just this month, Wine Enthusiast nominated Douglas Margerum as the 2022 Winemaker of the Year and Nicholas Miller of Bien Nacido fame as Wine Executive of the Year, and already announced the American Wine Legend Award for Bill Foley, who started his ongoing wine world takeover with Lincourt.
That’s quite a change from when Bryan Babcock landed here in the early 1980s. “Not all of the wines coming out of Santa Barbara County were compelling — honestly, some were substandard,” he said. “But 40 years later, there is a new status quo, as the quality and diversity of Santa Barbara County wines are now making the single biggest impact on the American food and wine scene. It’s mind-boggling.”
With everyone riding high, and the pandemic finally settling down low, the first Santa Barbara Vintners Festival since 2019 comes at an ideal time on Saturday, October 8. With nearly 60 wineries pouring and 30 food purveyors serving gourmet bites at the Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang, the afternoon can serve as an epic introduction to the region, a visceral reminder of its excellence, or just a forum for celebrating Santa Barbara’s ongoing rise.
Here are some of the interesting wines to search out at the fest.
Babcock Picpoul & Carignan: “Picpoul is a very rare grape in California,” said Babcock, who’ll pour his 2020 Gracious. “What little of it there is, is turning out to be very interesting.” He’s also serving both his Status Crow and Opportunity Knocks carignans. “With carignan, it’s all about the enigma of making great wine from a historically cantankerous grape,” he said. “Both of these wines accentuate the new diversity in Santa Barbara County wine growing.”
Bien Nacido Grenache: “Normally available exclusively for our wine club members and tasting room visitors, this is not a wine that one can buy at a store or try at a restaurant,” said marketing director Tommy Gaeta. “For that reason, we are excited to let a broader audience of wine lovers sample this exceptional wine. Both the recent 2019 and 2020 vintages were recognized with 94-point scores by Wine Enthusiast, so this is a wine not to be missed.”
Cambria Chardonnay: “We can’t wait to showcase our Katherine’s Vineyard Signature Collection Chardonnay,” said Jill Russell. “This wine showcases our own rooted chardonnay vines that date back to 1971.”
Donnachadh Pinot Noir & Chardonnay: Owner Drew Duncan will share his new line of Sta. Rita Hills bottlings of pinot and chard, which feature whimsical labels and are more affordable than his estate wines (though he’ll also pour estate gamay and syrah). “This will be their public debut,” said Duncan. “We wanted some wines that were younger-drinking and approachable but that still offered a lot of depth and nuance. We think these ‘21s deliver on that.”
Grimm’s Bluff Cabernet Sauvignon: “Fruit for our Contango Cabernet is harvested exclusively from our head-trained blocks,” said general manager Jeff Chaney, who’ll pour the elegant 2018 vintage, which comes from just four top barrels. “These blocks are grown with absolute minimal intervention and offer the most honest window into the unique terroir of Grimm’s Bluff, showing a striking balance of juicy new world fruit and graphite-driven minerality.”
Kunin Chenin Blanc: Magan Kunin’s 2020 Natural Chenin Blanc from the Jurassic Park Vineyard was processed like a red wine, the white grapes spending three weeks on their skins. “It’s a super-fragrant and clean and delicious skin-contact wine from the oldest chenin vines in the county,” she said. “We love our sparkling version and our traditional ferment, but this raw expression demonstrates what an amazing site Jurassic Park truly is for chenin.”
LaBarge Albariño: “It is the only albariño planted in the Sta. Rita Hills, and we only make 175 cases of it per year,” said Pierre LaBarge IV. “It is a wine that tastes like the ocean, yet has depth and roundness of fruit to back up the laser-like acidity.”
Samsara Chardonnay: “I’m still obsessed with chardonnay,” said Matt Brady, who’s pouring his 2020 Cuvée d’Inspiration from the organically farmed Francesca Vineyard. “We only produced three barrels, and it’s everything I love about the Sta. Rita Hills: balance, acidity, minerality, weight, mouthfeel, and big flavors.”
Strange Family Sparkling: This bubbly focused Sta. Rita Hills estate will pour their 2019 Blanc de Noirs. “Made in the traditional méthode champenoise, this Blanc de Noirs is made from 100 percent pinot noir and displays subtle notes of citrus, almond, and a touch of brioche on the palate,” said managing director Diane Dreyer. “With bright acidity, tiny bubbles, and zero percent dosage, this sparkling wine rivals a fine champagne!”
Tercero Gewurztraminer: “There is very little gewurztraminer remaining in Santa Barbara County, and that is a true shame,” said Larry Schaffer, who’ll pour his 2021 vintage of The Outlier. “This variety adds to the reality that not only can we grow dozens and dozens of different grape varieties here due to soil and climate diversity, but we can do so very, very well.”
The Santa Barbara Vintners Festival is on Sat., Oct. 8, 1-4 p.m. at the Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang. Tickets range from $25 (non-drinking) to $95 (regular) to $125 (early entry), and there is also a weekend pass to multiple tasting rooms for $50. See sbvintnersweekend.com.