West of France, Just North of LA

This catchy phrase describes the wine region of Santa Barbara County. More specifically, to its seven AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) of Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria, Buellton, Lompoc, Los Olivos, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, and the newest, Alisos Canyon. I had the great pleasure of spending two perfect days there thanks to Santa Barbara Vintner’s Association and The Wine Militia, who came up with said catchy phrase.

I cannot stress enough how underrated I feel this region is. This only became clearer over the course of my two day visit. I stayed at the Landsby Hotel in Solvang, a quaint little Dutch town full of windmills and bakeries. The hotel rooms were modern and spacious, beds were comfortable, and I had a gorgeous bathroom complete with soaking tub and bench in the shower. My only regret is that I didn’t get to stay there longer to really take advantage of the space.

Our first wine stop of the day was Babcock Winery. I had the honor of meeting the winemaker, Brian Babcock and soon learned that the vast percentage of his vineyard had been wiped out by Pierce’s Diesease, a bacteria that kills grapevines. Brian wanted to keep making wine so he has chosen to source grapes from Santa Rita Hill’s best vineyard sites. We hopped in his truck to take a look. Let the adventure begin!

When we pulled up to Radian Vineyard, I was struck with the beauty of the vines neatly lined up and down on the lush, green hillside. I was not expecting Brian to pull out a bottle of his The Limit Chardonnay, point to a set of vines and say, “The grapes for this wine were grown right here.” He then uncorked the bottle and we tasted it. Talk about a terrior (sense of place) experience! And the Chardonnay was delicious. With the Napa trend of big, oaky Chardonnays, people often say that they, “don’t like Chardonnay.” I used to be one of those people. But this one was anything but big and oaky. It was crisp, mouthwateringly acidic, with tart lemmon, green apple, minerality, and just a touch of creaminess. I now know the style of Chardonnay I personally love is Santa Rita Hills.

We continued up the hillside to the site of Babcock’s Pinot Noir, named Radical, grown at Radian Vineyard. Once again, I got goosebumps tasting it with the wine maker at the site. We followed up by visiting Bentrock Vineyard, site of Deja Vu Pinot Noir, and ended by a pond drinking Top Cream Chardonnay overlooking Peake Vineyard. With our tour of Santa Rita Hills complete, we made it back to Babcock Vineyards where Brian showed us his new vine training technique that allows the grapes to be equally in the sun and shade througout the day to acheive optimal ripeness. His tasting room is equally groovy, decorated by his talented wife in a 70’s vintage style. Here, we tasted everything from Picpoul to Cabernet Franc. Overall, I was blown away by both the wines and Brian’s spirit. I highly recommend visiting if you have the chance.

Next, we drove over to Santa Maria to visit the newest vineyard site of Lumen wines, run by Lane Tanner and Will Henry. It was a treasure to hear Lane’s wine making stories. She has always been somewhat of a pioneer, picking grapes earlier than anyone else and making a more reserved style of wine. At one point, with the Robert Parker and James Suckling scoring frenzy, a lot of producers aimed to make the biggest, smack-you-in-the-face-with-flavor wines possible to get those high points. But lucky for us, Lane held back. Her wines are delicate. They dance across your tongue with a finesse and mastery that only one with true vision can achieve. We tasted everything from Pinot Gris to Grenache and, of course, Pinot Noir. My favorite was from their grapes in Presquile Vineyard.

Tasting Lumen Pinot Gris and Chardonnay with winemaker Lane Tanner

After an amazing dinner at The Landsby’s Mad & Vin, and a great night’s rest in my comfy bed, we were up bright and early to do it again. First stop, Sea Smoke. Sea Smoke is a beautiful vineyard on top of one of the highest hills in Santa Rita Hills where they make world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, it’s so world class that I didn’t even get to taste it. It’s all sold out and there is a VERY long waiting list. I’m not exaggerating, it’s so exclusive that they told Oprah to get on the waiting list! OK, the owner DID sell her a couple of his own personal bottles, but after that even she was cut off! I did, however, get to taste some of their rare and delicious bubbly, Sea Spray. Again, I drank the product of the grapes right under the site it was grown! I also learned a lot about biodynamic farming. Organic farming tells you what NOT to do, but biodynamic tells you what TO do for a healthier, happier farm, like sourcing fertilizer from their own animals on site and following the cycles of the moon for optimal picking times.

Next, we were off to LaBarge Winery. It has some of the coolest climates in Santa Rita Hills. Winemaker, Pierre LaBarge, greeted us with a glass of Albarino. When they did an analysis of their vineyards soil and climate type, the Spanish region of Rias Baixes was the closest match. So they became the first winemakers in Santa Rita Hills to plant Albarino. They age it in concrete eggs and it is cool, crisp, citrusy, mineral… delcious! All of LaBarge’s wines blew me away. Fermented in stainless steel or concrete vats and aged in oak, thier Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah all sang. But what blew me away most was the Syrah. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought it was from Northern Rhone! It had blackberry, pepper, earth, tannin, delicacy. The winery was also one of the most gorgeous properties, pristinely clean with a glass floor you could look down onto the cellar below.

Last but not least, we visited Refugio Ranch. It was a little more out in the country, which was part of it’s charm. We were greeted by Ozzie the dog who’s fluffiness and piercing blue eyes won us all over instantly. He ran happily in front of our tram as we moved out to picnic by the lake. Where LaBarge was modern architecture and clean lines, Refugio is the comfort of a country farm. We sat comfortably out in the fresh air and tasted through the wines. Refugio makes a really interesting Malvasia Bianca, but are more known for their big, bold, fruity Petit Sirah/Syrah blends. There was no mistaking these wines as Old World. Rich, ripe, fruity, and playful, they make a dry red wine with the illusion of sweetness. For those of you who, you know, have friends that “don’t like wine”, these will be party stoppers! I really enjoy all styles of wine. You can’t drink the same thing every day, so I happily brought home a bottle of Petit Sirah.

I had previously been to the Santa Ynez/Santa Barbara area visiting Los Olivos tasting rooms (which I highly recommend!) as well as had the honor of doing some grape stomping and punch downs at Melville Winery. I knew the place was special, but after this trip, I see it as magical. Stop what you’re doing, and run there. Now.

And a huge thank you to all the winemaker’s who hosted me as well as The Wine Militia and Santa Barbara Vitner’s Association!

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