Santa Barbara: Present & Future
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | SEPTEMBER 24, 2019
Santa Barbara remains one of the most fascinating regions in
the world. Rich history, a culture of site-specific wines and reasonable
pricing make Santa Barbara one of the most exciting and rewarding regions for
consumers who want to discover distinctive, high-quality artisan wines that
speak of place. I came away from my tastings this past summer more impressed
than ever with the region, its producers and a bevy of wines that are truly
A view of Ballard Canyon from Rusack
A Bit of Personal Perspective
This is my ninth consecutive vintage reviewing the wines of
Santa Barbara. I hadn’t really thought about it all until a few producers
pointed it out, while also commenting on the merry-go-round of reviewers at
some other publications. But I guess time really does fly.
I first visited Santa Barbara around 2007, during a very
different time in my life. I was working at Deutsche Bank and I was in the area
to give a presentation at the Bacara Resort. As soon as I got off the plane, I
felt it – that unique combination of sunlight, moderate temperature and ocean
influence. I was utterly mesmerized. After that, I often ordered Santa Barbara
wines in restaurants and started to learn more about the region. In 2010,
really by a twist of fate, Bob Parker asked me to take over coverage of
California from him at The Wine Advocate. It was the first time Bob had
handed over one of his core regions to another reviewer. For my first tasting trip,
I replicated Bob’s schedule from the previous year, which seemed sensible. In
2011 my Santa Barbara trip consisted of visiting about four producers and then
tasting hundreds of wines in a hotel conference room. Back then, Santa Barbara
tastings were lumped into a ‘Central Coast’ report. As soon as I started
spending time in Santa Barbara, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Paso Robles, I
recognized these areas were distinctive and needed to be covered separately. I
also quickly realized I wanted something more, and that was to get closer to
the wines, to understand the sites that inform them, and to get to know the
people who make them.
These days I spend more than twice that amount of time in
Santa Barbara, each and every year, visiting dozens of producers, while the
large tastings in the hotel are, thankfully, a thing of the past. In addition
to that, I also taste countless samples in my office. The reason I spend so
much time with these wines is really very simple: I believe Santa Barbara is
one of the premier wine-growing regions in the world. My tastings this past
summer only reinforced that view.
Winemaker Wynne Solomon and owner John Wanger of Peake
Getting a Handle on the 2017s….
Readers will soon see a bevy of 2017s in the market. Two
thousand seventeen is one of the most interesting vintages I have tasted in
Santa Barbara in some time because the style and quality of the wines covers a
very broad spectrum. Santa Barbara was spared the October fires that were so
traumatic in Napa Valley and Sonoma, but growers and winemakers still faced
plenty of challenges.
For most of the year, 2017 was quite moderate, with no
temperature excesses or shock events to speak of. That all changed over Labor
Day weekend, when a period of intense and sustained heat wreaked havoc during
the final and most critical phase of ripening. The most affected varieties are
Pinot Noir and Grenache, both of which have thin skins and were at a very
vulnerable period. Chardonnay, which is picked later and has thicker skins,
fared much better. I did not taste many 2017 Syrahs, as most wines will only
be released next year, but those I saw suggest Syrah, which is thick-skinned
and ripens late – probably came through the heat just fine.
The effects of the severe heat spike were many. Intense heat
caused many estates to pick earlier than they might have otherwise. That meant
bringing in fruit that was not fully physiologically ripe, often within a very
compressed time frame that pushed vineyard workers to the limit. The reality is
that not all of the fruit came off when producers wanted it to; that was just
not possible. Severe heat caused plants to shut down. In many cases, Brix
levels then dropped. In some places the vines regrouped and then resumed
ripening, but in other spots they did not. It is clear that some vineyard
owners panicked and over-irrigated at the last minute, a strategy that
In tasting, the Pinot Noirs are all over the place, both stylistically and in terms of overall quality. Some wines are deep and concentrated, while others are light, washed out and lacking in depth. The same is generally true of Grenache, although there are far fewer examples to look at. As a group, the Chardonnays are far more interesting and complete than the Pinots. Even so, there are only a few wines that are truly sensational. In short, 2017 is a vintage in which it pays to be selective.
Tasting the 2018s from barrel at Domaine de la Côte
The 2018s From Barrel…
I also had a chance to taste many wines from barrel during
my June trip. A moderate, cool and long growing season with no heat spikes
yielded stunning wines at a number of addresses. The finest 2018s are
exquisitely perfumed, nuanced and quite deep, yet never come across as heavy
handed or overdone. One of the things I like most about 2018 is the crystalline expression of place. Quite simply, 2018 has the potential to be a truly
magnificent, and perhaps even profound, vintage.
Santa Barbara native Brian Sieve from Domaine de Montille
and Justin Willett at Racines
What I Liked This Year
(I have kept the list brief relative to the past, not
because there is less to get excited about, but rather to focus on the true
standouts, as the list was getting a bit long previously.)
Au Bon Climat/Clendenen Family Vineyards – Every wine
I tasted from Jim Clendenen was brilliant. Clendenen represents the old guard in Santa Barbara.
And he’s still got it.
Brave & Maiden – This portfolio of red Bordeaux
blends made by winemaker Josh Klapper and consultant Paul Hobbs is superb.
Domaine de la Côte – In less than a decade, Sashi
Moorman and Rajat Parr have created a world class estate. The 2017s are superb,
but the 2018s are shaping up to be truly epic.
Faethm – The inaugural releases from Nikolas and
Julia Krankl are gorgeous.
The Hilt – The 2017 Pinots are especially impressive
given the variability of this vintage.
Ojai Vineyard – Adam Tolmach and Fabien Castel craft wines of understatement and nuance that are deeply expressive of site.
Paul Lato – These are some of the very best wines I have ever tasted from Paul Lato.
Pence – After a few first years that were, frankly,
underwhelming, these wines are now truly interesting. The best is no doubt yet
Racines – This new partnership between Justin
Willett, Etienne de Montille and Rodolphe Péters is off to a very strong
Tensley – Joey Tensley’s 2017s are terrific, but the
2018s are off the charts gorgeous.
Sine Qua Non – Manfred and Elaine Krankl are at a stage
in their lives when they could be slowing down. Instead, they keep introducing
new wines. The quality and singularity of these wines, and the Krankls’ other
projects, has never been greater.
Zac Wasserman and Joey Tensley at the Tensley tasting
room in Los Olivos
I Didn’t Like This Year
Santa Barbara still feels a bit like the Wild West. I
suppose that is part of its charm. Even so, in a globalized world and a global wine
market, my impression is that producers would be better served by taking a
longer-term view. For example, seeing growers sell young-vine fruit at high
prices is just short-sighted, especially when those vines aren’t ready to
produce truly distinctive vineyard designate wines. Some growers place exacting
standards on their grape customers and follow up with tastings of wines made
from their fruit, which is a smart strategy for protecting the equity value of a vineyard site brand. But many don’t. Every time a substandard vineyard designate wine appears on the
market it damages the value of that vineyard with the consumer, who will taste
that wine and may very well come to the conclusion that wines from 'Vineyard X' aren’t worth the trouble or cost.
I continue to strongly believe that changing vineyard names
with new ownership is a very fast way to lose established brand presence in the
marketplace, which then makes it much harder to build multi-generational value
in land. Earlier this year, I sat next to Sandy Otellini, who owns Rossi Ranch
in Sonoma Valley. I asked her why she and her late husband, Paul Otellini,
didn’t change the name of the ranch when they bought it. “That property has
always been Rossi Ranch, and it should always be Rossi Ranch,” was her reply. A
few years ago, François Pinault changed the name of “Araujo Estate’ to ‘Eisele
Vineyard.’ With all due respect to the Araujos, Mr. Pinault did not buy ‘Araujo
Estate’ he bought the Eisele Vineyard, one of the most storied sites in the
United States. There is a reason some people become highly successful and hyper-wealthy.
It usually has to do with understanding things most people don’t.
Making good wine is very hard, but selling it is even
harder, especially in a current environment that has all signs pointing towards
weakness. So, as vineyard owners name their newly acquired properties after
themselves, or choose sentimental names no one can pronounce or spell, they
would be well-served to think about the people who really make the wine
industry function, and that is every salesperson who goes to work today with a
bag of samples and has to explain to their customers why a wine is special and
why they should place an order.
In short, it would be great to see more growers and
winemakers making longer-term decisions, because Santa Barbara is a world-class
region that could truly explode with that sort of perspective.
of change in Santa Barbara continues at a dizzying rate. As I take a look at the producers
featured in this article, I can only marvel about how many of them did not
exist even a decade ago. I tasted most of the wines in this article in
June 2019, followed by supplemental tastings in my office in New York in July
and August. I would have liked to get this article in your hands earlier.
Unfortunately, major water damage to my house while I was in Europe this past
summer made me an expert on a variety of topics I was very happy to be blissfully
ignorant about previously, and also caused delays in our publishing schedule.
But here it is, the largest and most comprehensive article I have ever written
on Santa Barbara. As always, I am deeply appreciative to everyone who works
behind the scenes to make sure all of my tastings and appointments run like
clockwork. Thank you!
Eng continues to run the winery founded by her late husband, Seth Kunin
You Might Also Enjoy
Santa Barbara Dreamin'… Part One & Part Two, Antonio Galloni, September 2018
Santa Barbara: Better Than Ever, Antonio Galloni, September 2017
Next of Kyn – The First Seven Years: 2007-2013, Antonio Galloni, August 2017
Santa Barbara: On the Road, Continued... , Antonio Galloni, September 2016
Santa Barbara: On the Road, Antonio Galloni, August 2015