Santa Barbara County
Although people are generally much more familiar with Napa or Sonoma, Santa Barbara is rich with its own wine history.
The first grapes were planted here in 1799, though they weren't particularly good for making wine. The folks at Mission Santa Barbara knew the key to keeping happy, and in 1843 planted around 12,000 vines. By 1860 Santa Barbara was the third largest wine producer in California behind Los Angeles and Napa, with the largest winery prior to 1900 located on Santa Cruz Island.
Sta. Rita Hills
Far back in its history, the region was under the ocean. Layer upon layer of microscopic diatoms built up here in vast quantities. As glaciers in the north and south grew, the ocean receded, and land was uplifted leaving vast sand dunes along present day HWY 246, and huge deposits of diatomaceous earth throughout much of the Sta. Rita Hills and Lompoc.
As well, this all underwent a tectonic shift where it was pulled from the traditional north/south orientation seen along the west coast, to an east/west orientation. This created the only east/west growing region between Chile and Alaska.
What does this mean?
With the valley now being open to the Pacific Ocean, cool, moist air is sucked miles inland as the Santa Ynez Valley heats up and those convection currents rise, essentially creating a vacuum. Summers in the Lompoc and Sta. Rita Hills areas are typically cool, foggy and breezy while the rest of the region is baking in the summer heat, and has the longest, coolest growing season in the New World.
Due to climactic conditions, the yields of fruit from Sta. Rita Hills is considerably less than its Napa counterpart. While Napa can typically produce 3 barrels of wine from 1 ton of grapes, 1 ton of Sta. Rita Hills fruit will make only 2 barrels.
The different soils in the area are generally well drained resulting in more stress on the vines, as they struggle to penetrate deep into the earth for moisture. This allows the farmers to apply just as much water as necessary to produce flavorful, concentrated fruit.
The Pinot Noir grown here has incredibly long hang time before it is harvested, as does Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This produces rich, deep flavors, with the calcium-rich soils adding distinct minerality not found elsewhere. All grapes here tend to develop thick skins, full of bright color and tannin. Resulting wines have great acidity, and are ideal food wines.
Remember that its hard to find many of these wines elsewhere, so stock up or join a wine club while you're visiting!