Santa Barbara: On the Road…Finally!


Santa Barbara continues its streak of superb vintages with the 2019s. Chardonnay and red Rhône varieties are particularly strong, while the Pinots are just a bit less consistent. There’s plenty more to explore in this report, including Bordeaux blends and the first of the 2020s. As I have written before, the vinous landscape in Santa Barbara has so much to offer.

A Little Perspective

The first Santa Barbara wine that I have a distinct memory of tasting, the first wine that made me pay attention, was a Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot. That was during my corporate days at Deutsche Bank. Right away, I knew there was something special about that wine. I am not sure I knew exactly what it was, but I knew. When I started reviewing these wines professionally, about a dozen years ago, it all came together. I quickly realized that Santa Barbara is home to extraordinary vineyards and talented winemakers who know how to get the most out of those sites.

Right before we went to press I attended a dear friend’s birthday party. It was the first time many of us had seen each other in two years. The wines were ridiculous. Too much, to be honest, and yet there is nothing better for perspective than having an education in the classics. We drank the very best and rarest of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhône. Iconic wines. The very next day I worked through a few last Pinot samples. I was blown away by what I tasted. Blown away. The purity of the fruit, the expression of place, the clear voice of a vintage – all the hallmarks of the world’s greatest wines and regions – they were all there.

Curiously, Santa Barbara remains very much undiscovered by the broader population. That happens to be great news for savvy consumers. The best wines offer tremendous quality and pedigree. They also happen to be significantly undervalued relative to global peers, both at retail and on restaurant wine lists, where the wines often see very gentle markups, even in the most high-end establishments.

Angela Osborne (seen here at Crown Point) turned out a set of sublime 2019s at A Tribute to Grace.

The Pace of Change Is Fast and Furious

One of the things that is most evident about Santa Barbara is the pace of change. The most dramatic example is Sanford Winery, which for years made wines that were so undistinguished they did not even make it into this report. In 2019, John Terlato hired Trey Fletcher to make the wines. Fletcher had previously been at the Bien Nacido/Solomon Hills estates, and Littorai before that. In his first vintage, Fletcher turned out a stellar set of wines at both Sanford and Domaine Jean François, Terlato’s joint venture with François Labet.

Justin Willet planted his new Mae Estate just a few years ago. In his first vintage with estate fruit, Willett made utterly sublime Chardonnays and Pinots to complement his range of wines from other top sources. SAMsARA went through a period of adjustment under its new ownership, which can happen. Today, Matt Brady is crafting wines of tremendous distinction. At Andremily, Jim Binns purchased the Slide Hill vineyard in nearby Edna Valley. Many other wineries in this report are still within their first few commercial releases. These include Crown Point, Dunites, Fingers Crossed, Folded Hills, Lady of the Sunshine, Outward, Peake Ranch, Piro, Racines and Spear, none of which existed when I first started covering Santa Barbara in 2011.

There is plenty more on the way. Dave Phinney’s new project, Bloodlines, is intriguing. Joe Wagner will soon release a vineyard designate from the Glasir Holt Vineyard under his Belle Clos label (although the first Sta. Rita Hills bottlings are all from the new property), the Jackson family has a large new development, Perilune, that is just coming online and Sashi Moorman is making the wines at Brouillard, a new operation from entrepreneur Bubba Hines. Many of these are described in more detail below.

Nikolas and Julia Krankl are making distinctive wines from a number of top sites in and around Santa Barbara at Fingers Crossed. The Krankls are seen here in their tiny cellar in Oak View, which also provides spectacular views of Cumulus Vineyard. 

A First Look at 2020…

Two-thousand twenty is shaping up to be an exciting vintage, especially for Pinot Noir. It was not an easy year, however. Temperatures were unrelentingly hot. Three heat spikes gave vineyard managers and winemakers plenty of anxiety. Dehydration on the vine was one of many challenge. Harvest was early and compact. 

The Pinots I have tasted so far are deep, fleshy and full of fruit. They are also incredibly expressive of site, which is one of the things that can be so exciting about top-notch Pinot Noir. The 2020 Pinots remind me of the 2018s in their fruit concentration, density and overall stature. So far, 2020 looks a bit less exciting for the whites, some of which come across as a bit flabby and lacking the verve they can show in more favorable years, such as 2019. Many whites display tropical flavors and the softer textures that are the natural result of warm, dry growing seasons. It’s a bit early to report on Rhône varieties, as those wines are almost always bottled later.

Winemaker Simon Faury has introduced a number of refinements at Crown Point, in Happy Canyon. The wines have never been better.

Santa Barbara appears to have dodged the massive fire and smoke issues that affected large parts of Napa Valley and Sonoma and that essentially wiped out production in most of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Lucia Highlands. There was high-altitude smoke and some ash in the air, but most of the fruit had been brought in by then. A small local fire at John Sebastiano was extinguished pretty quickly and seems to have affected a very small area.

Desperate for fruit and fearing a total loss, winemakers from northern California turned to Santa Barbara last year looking for fruit. As a result, we will soon see a raft of new bottlings from Santa Barbara. I imagine that trend will only continue. A few years ago, winemakers in Napa and Sonoma started bringing their fruit sources closer to home so they could spend more time at each site, but 2020 has caused many of the same winemakers to believe geographical diversification is a better strategy when fires can be so damaging. It’s hard to fault them. 

Vineyard Manager Ruben Solorzano and his company Coastal Vineyard Care farm many of the top sites in Santa Barbara County. Solorzano is seen here at Ruben’s Block, a Syrah parcel on own-rooted, head trained vines at Stolpman done in the Côte-Rôtie style.

The 2019 Growing Season & Wines

After a very benign 2018 winemakers faced far more ups and downs in 2019. Rain in spring caused uneven set in many vineyards. Mildew pressure was high throughout the year. The growing season itself was long and cool, but with a few heat events that varied in intensity from site to site.

Chardonnay is the clear winner in 2019. The wines are just off the charts. Rain and cool temperatures were not an issue. Neither was mildew, which affects skins more than anything else. Readers will find a large number of truly special 2019 Chardonnays in this report. The 2019s Syrahs are also superb. They offer a combination of fruit intensity and freshness that is so alluring. A very good case can be made that Chardonnay and Syrah are actually better suited to the Sta. Rita Hills than Pinot Noir, but that is a separate article for another day. Grenache is harder to get a grip on since it is less widely planted, but I tasted many 2019s that are fabulous. 

Pinot Noir is, of course, much more fickle. The challenges of the growing season were especially hard on Pinot. That comes through in wines that are variable. Some are outstanding, but some aren less exciting. As a Pinot vintage 2019 trails 2018 in terms of depth, complexity and consistency.

Sonja Magdevski turned out a phenomenal set of 2019s across all her projects. The highlights are the 2019 Grenaches at Clementine Carter. 

The Passing of an Icon

It is hard to think of a winemaker who meant more to their region than Jim Clendenen did to Santa Barbara. A tireless ambassador for Santa Barbara, Clendenen traveled the world to spread the gospel long before the region was well-known. Clendenden brought worldwide attention to vineyards like Bien Nacido and Sanford & Benedict through his wines, while inspiring so many of today’s leading producers, including Sashi Moorman, Rajat Parr, Gavin Chanin, Justin Willett, Marc Piro and countless others. The sad news of Clendenen’s death came just a few days before I was scheduled to see him. To say his passing leaves an immeasurable void seems so inadequate. Readers might enjoy looking back at this segment of Vinous Live, taped during the COVID-19 lockdown. Clendenen was in rare form that day. It was the last time we spoke.


Jim Clendenen was in rare form during this Vinous Live interview, which turned out to be one of our most popular segments.

Mapping the Sta. Rita Hills

As Vinous readers know, over the last six years we have been working on a project to map all the vineyards and appellations of California. Our latest map, shown here in draft form, is of the Sta. Rita Hills. In 2021, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA turned twenty years old. That seemed like a good milestone to do a map. When it is finished, the Sta. Rita Hills map will be like our other maps. The front will show the vineyards while the back will cover the history of the region and its top sites. We are thrilled to share our progress so far.

The Vinous Map of the Sta. Rita Hills by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2021 Vinous. 

Exploring the Vineyards of the Sta. Rita Hills

In addition to doing a map of the entire appellation, we are working on a series of single ranch maps. These maps show topographical detail for each site on the left and block-by-block breakouts on the right. Below are some examples.

Starting from far left to right and then top to bottom; Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada are two of the most highly regarded vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills. The oldest vines at S&B date to 1971. This is some of the most coveted fruit in the United States. Glasir Holt is the Sta. Rita Hills vineyard of Belle Glos, Joe Wagner’s Pinot Noir project. So far, there are no vineyard designate sites off this ranch, but that will soon change. Perilune is a new Jackson Family Wines development. I have not tasted any wines from Perilune yet. Drum Canyon is one of the Dierberg family’s two estate vineyards; the other is Star Lane in Happy Canyon.

Starting from far left to right and then top to bottom; Bentrock and Radian, seen here side by side, are the estate vineyards of The Hilt. In addition to making their own vineyard designates, The Hilt sells fruit from these ranches to a number of top wineries. Brouillard is a new project headed by Louisiana entrepreneur Bubba Hines. Sashi Moorman makes the wines. Moorman and Rajat Parr planted their Domaine de la Côte on the far western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills in a place then considered too marginal for growing grapes. Today, the thinking is quite different. This map shows the parcels Moorman and Parr use for both Domaine de la Côte and their Sandhi label.

Starting from far left to right and then top to bottom; Sea Smoke owns one of the most breathtaking vineyards in all of Santa Barbara. Alma Rosa is a relatively young estate in a part of the Sta. Rita Hills that excels with both Burgundian and Rhône varieties. Melville makes a number of single-block wines that will ultimately be added to this map. Our Brewer-Clifton map shows both Machado and Hapgood, along with the new Perilune development. 

How I Tasted the Wines

I tasted almost all of the wines in this article during a ten-day trip to Santa Barbara this past June. It was my first tasting trip after the lockdown. I met with each producer one on one, which naturally requires some time, but, in my view, ultimately yields greater insights that benefit our readers. The return to an active travel, tasting and writing schedule was intense. During this time I also took care of some personal travel, including spending time with my parents and relatives, many of whom I had not seen for a year and a half. Because of that, this article is appearing later than usual and later than I would have liked. Hopefully we can get back to a more typical schedule in 2022. Thanks for your understanding. 

I would like to thank the many people behind the scenes who coordinated all of my tastings in various locations.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jim Clendenden.

Looking north from Sanford & Benedict on a gorgeous summer afternoon.

© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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