Santa Maria Valley is the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County. The average temperature here is 64 degrees. The area is bounded on the north by the San Rafael Mountains and on the south by the Solomon Hills. They get early bud break here and then a long ripening season with an average of 125 days from bloom to harvest. The maritime fog keeps things cool here from sunset until about 10 am. This AVA boasts Nielson Vineyard, the oldest commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County that was planted in 1964.
The Santa Maria AVA was the 3rd established AVA in the United States. We think of this Santa Barbara region as being so new. But truly AVA’s are new. The Santa Maria Valley AVA was established in September of 1981. To give a little perspective here, the first US AVA was established in June of 1980. (And crazily enough that 1st AVA was in Augusta, Missouri!) If you are like me, you won’t be able to read any further until you know where the 2nd US AVA hailed from…so….I did the research and it is the Napa Valley AVA which was established in February of 1981, just a scant 7 months (or actually 6 and a quarter months) before the Santa Maria Valley AVA. Are you still curious…you can find this info at The Wine Institute (http://www.iwineinstitute.com/avabydate.asp). Feel free to search for AVA establishment dates to your hearts content.
There has been a massive replanting of the Santa Maria vineyards in recent years to varieties that are more suited to the climate and soil. You will find lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here due to the climate, but you will find many vineyards expanding into cool climate Syrah as well as other Rhone varieties.
The Santa Maria AVA encompasses some incredible vineyards like Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, Julia’s Vineyard and Foxen Estate Vineyard. As to Wineries… here you will find Cambria, Kenneth Volk, Riverbench and Tres Hermanas. Fine wineries such at Alta Maria, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Byron, Qupe, Solomon Hills and others feature wines from Santa Maria.
To enjoy this area take a look at the Santa Maria Valley & Los Alamos Wine Trail that is listed on the Santa Barbara Vintners site http://www.sbcountywines.com/tasting-routes.html#smv
To fully experience this area I suggest that you start at the Saarloos and Sons Windmill Ranch Vineyard. (Update…okay I made an assumption, because of the windmill, but clearly if you read the sign on the windmill, you will see that this is actually the El Camino Real Vineyard) You can’t miss the landmark windmill if you are driving on the 101. This is just their vineyard, you will have to head back into Los Olivos to do a tasting with them. From here take Zaca Station Road out into the vineyards. First on your drive you will pass Firestone (yes from the tire company). They have a vineyard, winery and a brewing company.
This place really got things going out here. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Linquist of Qupe both started out working here. The property is lovely especially if you get there early and can watch the marine layer roll through from Vandenberg AFB, and then stay long enough to enjoy the views that it was hiding once it burns off. The wines….I love their Rhones. And on weekends they often have lunch available on the patio. This place is really welcoming and….they have great trees.
A little further on you will come to Foxen. Now you can go into the Pinot House at 7600. It’s shiny and pretty and nice. But I prefer stopping a little past there at “The Shack” . This is their original tasting room and it is rustic and fabulous. You look out the door onto the hills as you are tasting and often the girls in the tasting room will point out the resident mountain lion who hunts on the ridge. The Shack pours their Bordeaux & Cal-Ital-style wines. at 7600 you will find Pinots, Chardonnays and Rhone Blends.
Continue north and you will come to the cluster of River Bench, Cambria and Kenneth Volk. I will give a shout out here to Kenneth Volk. I have not been to this tasting room, but did taste at the tasting room with Lone Madrone in Paso Robles.
He is another wine legend. He was the winemaker at Wild Horse and now has his own winery where he gets to play. He does Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Santa Maria and Bordeaux varieties from Paso Robles and then… he does Heirloom Wines. This are rare varieties like Malvasia, Trousseau, Negrette, Touriga Nacional, Blaufrankish, Verdelho and Albarino. This is a great place to go and explore varieties you may not have tried before.
Presqu’ile North in the Santa Maria Valley. I often speak of beautiful properties, but…you know when you go to a parade of homes and get to the most beautiful house…well Presqu’ile is the winery equivalent. “Presqu’ile” means “almost an island” in French and was the name of the Murphy Family property in Mississippi that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The family looked for a place to rebuild their family gathering spot and came upon this property in Santa Maria.
And I know that I have skipped a few in here. What can I say, I have more exploring to do myself. This is a beautiful drive. Start early and revel in the fog!