Santa Barbara County Wine Country

Wine Country – Glorious Santa Barbara County

Written by Carl Danbury, Jr.

Our Saturday morning, 60-mile drive from Paso Robles through San Luis Obispo, was awash in sunshine. As Highway 101 took us southwest to Pismo Beach, views of the deep blue Pacific’s glistening waters and the refreshing cool breezes momentarily paralyzed us as we made our way to Santa Maria. Turning east toward the valley, winding Foxen Canyon Rd. meandered through acres and acres of produce fields before finally yielding to grapevines. 

A view of Rancho Sisquoc

A beautiful view of Rancho Sisquoc

Familiar names began appearing on wooden signs. Historic Bien Nacido Vineyards, which produces some of California’s finest cool climate grapes (primarily Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Syrah) in an area boasting one of the longest growing seasons in the state for scores of winemakers, has regularly appeared on labels of 90-plus point wines since 1990. Cambria, Byron, Kenneth Volk and Riverbench appear, before the sign to Rancho Sisquoc appears.

Originally a land grant of 35,486 acres issued by Pio de Jesus Pico, (the last Mexican governor of Alta California prior to U.S. annexation and statehood), to María Dominguez de Caballero, Rancho Sisquoc passed through several hands before the James Flood family of San Francisco purchased it as a cattle ranch and farm in 1952. In the late 1960s, Flood decided to plant nine acres of Johannisberg Riesling and four acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Five years later, then ranch manager Harold Pfeiffer produced Rancho’s first wines. By 1974, nearby wineries wanted more grapes and the decision to plant 141 more acres of vines was enacted.

In 1977 Rancho Sisquoc became a bonded winery and the current tasting room was built. Ed Holt became the ranch manager in 1987 and has expanded the vineyard to nearly 320 acres and winery operation, which now produces nearly 20,000 cases of wine per year. A narrow winding road led us to the winery, where we were greeted by deer munching on vegetation on a hillside behind the winery and two avocado-eating dogs.

Alec Franks and Sarah Holt Mullins

Alec Franks and Sarah Holt Mullins

Assistant winemaker and daughter of Ed and Mary Holt, Sarah Holt Mullins, greeted us as the first visitors of what was certain to become a very busy day for the tasting room employees. Soon thereafter, we met winemaker Alec Franks, who loaded us into a well-aged Land Cruiser, for a tour of the vineyards. Because of overnight rains, he didn’t want to venture too far, but our vantage point afforded us a marvelous, yet hazy view, of the four-mile wide, 12-mile long ranch, and its vineyards. About 45 minutes later, we were back in the tasting room for a discussion about winemaking, and to sample several of the varietals that we hadn’t tasted prior to our visit, including Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Sylvaner (which is rarely found outside of Alsace, France or Germany). In fact, other than Sonoma’s Scribe Winery and Rancho Sisquoc, it is impossible to locate the varietal in the U.S.

Some of Rancho Sisquoc’s wines are part of its national distribution program, while others are sold only in California, to its wine club members and winery visitors. Those that are sold in Georgia are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sisquoc River Red, an intriguing blend of Burgundy and Bordeaux grapes. This winery’s remote, bucolic location combined with its relaxed atmosphere, alluring history and excellent wines is a can’t-miss stop on any Santa Barbara County wine excursion — but you may not want to leave once you have arrived. Take a picnic basket and enjoy.

Back on Foxen Canyon Rd. and now heading west, we passed more historic and well-known Santa Barbara County wineries, such as Foxen Vineyard, Fess Parker, Zaca Mesa, Curtis and Firestone. Sadly, we couldn’t stop as we already were late for our next tasting at Rusack Vineyards in nearby Solvang. Crossing State Route 154, we navigated another thoroughfare more suited for pack mules only to discover some stunningly beautiful property on the way.

Rusack is set atop a hill with an incredible view of the vineyards. Inside the beautifully appointed tasting room we were met by Dan Martin, who has been with Rusack for the past 10 years. We began the tasting with winemaker Steven Gerbac’s 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, which through us for a loop. Gerbac, who studied the craft under such Santa Barbara legends as Rick Longoria, Fred Brander, Chris Whitcraft and former Rusack winemaker John Falcone, managed to create a Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Valley that actually had layers more reminiscent of a Chardonnay. It is wonderfully indescribable. We then moved from Rusack’s Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, a few Pinot Noirs and the Ballard Canyon Estate Syrah. Anacapa, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, also is a wonderful wine.

Four vintages and Helen Falcone

Then, we were provided a sample of Geoff and Allison Rusack’s pet project, which are the first-ever wines ever produced from grapes grown on Santa Catalina Island, which lies 22 miles off the coast from Los Angeles. The 2009 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel grapes were grown on the island but produced in the winery in Solvang. The crop resulted in 265 cases of Chardonnay, 125 cases of Pinot Noir and just 60 cases of zinfandel. All are essentially sold out and have created quite a stir in winemaking circles and with buyers of the first vintage.

Once our Rusack visit ended, we met the aforementioned John Falcone, and his wife Helen, who have begun to produce their own wines under the label Falcone Family Vineyards. While they live in the Buellton area, much of the fruit for their wines is sourced from their vineyard in Paso Robles, which is situated at the eastern corner of the Templeton Gap, and named for their daughter Mia.

We met the handsome couple at Avant Tapas and Wine, which is essentially part of Terravant Wine Company, a state-of-the-art winemaking facility for nearly two dozen winemakers, including the Falcones and the legendary Ken Brown. In a private room, the Falcones provided great detail about their wines and philosophy, while sharing their latest vintages, a 2011 Chardonnay, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Syrah and their amazing Annate IV, a 52-case production blend of Syrah, Cab and Petite Sirah.

All were wonderful and could be making their way into the Georgia market soon. In addition producing the Falcone Family wines, John also is general manager and director of winemaking for the revered Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez.

Our final winemaking stop, just around the corner from Avant, was to visit with Ken Brown, who has been making fine wines in Santa Barbara County since 1977. The founder of Byron Wines before selling the operation to the Mondavi family in 2006, Brown is noted for his Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah bottlings.

Winemaker Ken Brown

Winemaker Ken Brown

We sampled his Neilson Vineyard Chardonnay, four distinctive Pinots sourced from exclusive vineyards, and a Syrah. While all were amazing, Pinot fans will be amazed by Brown’s skill and deft ability to create elegant expressions of the terroir, much like you would fine from some of Burgundy’s finest producers. Limited production of each varietal makes Brown’s wines highly sought after, yet less expensive than you would imagine. Because he and wife Deb are a two-person operation, scheduling a tasting appointment in advance is paramount.

After a long day of driving and tasting, we ended our Santa Barbara sojourn at Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café, located in precious downtown Los Olivos and owned by Sam Marmorstein. The café serves fresh, local, wine-friendly cuisine highlighting organic ingredients for lunch and dinner daily, and boasts one of the finest wine lists anywhere, include Marmorstein’s own Bernat Wines, which are produced from his four-acre organic vineyard. The restaurant’s intelligent blend of casual and upscale cuisine, and fair-priced wine list make it an essential stop during any visit to the area. It is a treat!

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