Twenty million years ago, this land was under the ocean. The tectonic plates moved and the mountains were shoved up out of the ocean in a North-South direction causing the Mountain ranges we are familiar with in California.
Over the next 12 million years, the mountains in the Santa Barbara area broke away from the plate and began their gradual clockwise turn bringing the mountain ranges here to an East-West orientation. They are continuing their move today.
This east-west orientation of valleys allows the marine influence to flow into the region. The temperature from the west near the coast to the east inland in Happy Canyon increases by 1 degree per mile. As a result, many varieties grow here, over 70, according to the Santa Barbara Vintners Association.
There are 7 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in Santa Barbara.
The Santa Ynez Valley AVA covers much of the southern portion of the wine region. It has four nested AVAs, with the Sta. Rita Hills AVA sitting closest to the coast. As you move east, you find the Ballard Canyon AVA, which sits in a smaller North South Valley. On the eastern border of Ballard Canyon, you find the Los Olivos AVA, which is the most recently approved sub-AVA.
Happy Canyon sits the furthest East of these nested AVAs and is the warmest region.
North of the Santa Ynez Valley, you find the Alisos Canyon AVA. This AVA runs from the 101 East to Foxen Canyon Road. This East-West Valley pulls in marine winds from the Pacific Ocean, which is just 20 miles away. More and more winemakers have been pulling fruit from this region. This is part of the larger Los Alamos Region which is not at this point an AVA.
North of Alisos Canyon, you come to the Santa Maria Valley AVA. This was the 2nd AVA in California and the third in the US in 1981.
Santa Barbara County is divided into distinct Growing regions:
- Santa Maria Valley
- Santa Ynez Valley
- Sta. Rita Hills
- The Los Alamos Valley
- Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
- Ballard Canyon
- Alisos Canyon
- Los Olivos AVA
Sta Rita Hills AVA
About Sta Rita Hills AVA
Located on the West end of the Santa Barbara Corridor, its cool region generally is the home for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
First, let’s address the name. The name of the AVA is written “Sta.” but pronounced “Santa.” The reason for this? A Chilean wine producer called Vina Santa Rita took exception to them using the name. The AVA adjusted the name to avoid any confusion. The story behind how this change came about is fascinating, with Richard Sanford reaching out to create a peaceful solution. You can read about that here.
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cool Climate Syrah
a little History
Richard Sanford combed this area, looking for the perfect place to plant a vineyard. In 1970 he & Michael Benedikt found the site that would become Sanford & Benedict vineyard. The Pinot here was good, and soon others followed. Richard Sanford is the reason that Sta. Rita Hills is what it is today. Allison Levine wrote an excellent piece on Please the Palate when there was a celebration in honor of Richard’s 80th Birthday.
The region is now home to over 59 vineyards.
While the region is known for its Pinot Noir, it is also home to some of the finest Chardonnay in California.
take the Scenic Route
The Sta. Rita Hills AVA stretches closest to the coast, almost reaching Lompoc. You can drive a loop through the AVA, heading to Lompoc on Highway 246, passing wineries like Babcock and Melville. Then in Lompoc, head back via Santa Rosa Road for spectacular views of the valley around the Santa Ynez River. You will pass by some of the most famous vineyards in the region, including Sanford & Benedict & La Rinconada and Sanford Winery, Fiddlestix, El Jabali, Fe Ciega, and Sea Smoke.