Why Santa Barbara Is the Most Underrated Wine Region
When you travel around the world visiting wine regions, as often as not you simply have your expectations fulfilled. Think about it. You travel to Piedmont to taste nebbiolo, Burgundy to taste pinot noir, Napa to taste cabernet, and Sonoma to taste zinfandel. It’s just one of the mental shortcuts we’ve developed in order to deal with an ever increasingly complex world. We are all guilty of pigeonholing, and by doing so we tend to sell whole regions or grapes short while depriving ourselves of new experiences that should be able to change our perspectives.
I was recently in Santa Barbara in search of wines that I wanted to taste in order to help better formulate an idea that I had. That idea, that grenache is really the perfect grape variety for a huge section of the red wine drinking public, is expounded upon in detail here, but I only bring it up today to add a bit of context to this idea of pigeonholing and how it’s robbing us of potential.
We all recognize that Santa Barbara is duly noted as Pinot Noir Country, and sadly when in the area many consumers spend their time going from pinot to pinot, all the while missing the great grenache that they might very well prefer instead of yet another pinot noir. The same can said for syrah and the whole family of rhone varieties which are heavily planted in the region. But let’s not stop there for there is yet another family of grapes that seems to thrive in Santa Barbara, those affectionately known as Cal-Italians!
Now I’m not quite sure why there is such diversity in Santa Barbara vineyards, but I think there are two forces at play here. The first is simply that until relatively recently land prices in the region were such that one could afford to experiment with ‘fringe’ grapes. The second force is the marketplace itself. With the knowledge that the cooler climate of this region would not be ideal for varieties such as cabernet sauvignon or say zinfandel producers knew there was no good reason to try and compete with established producers of those wines.
What vines were ideally suited to the region? With such a limited amount of history to grape growing in the region no one was really able to answer that question 10, 20, or 30 years ago, and we should be thankful for that. As it turns out Santa Barbara’s complex geology and wide range of climate as one moves inland from the ocean seems to provide for excellent growing conditions for a wide variety of grapes, grapes that would not have been planted if the region had already been well associated with but one or two.
Now I’m not saying that Santa Barbara is some magic place that is better suited to a wider range of grape varieties than most regions, though that may be true. I am just continuing on a theme that is near and dear to my heart. Much of the vineyards of the world may very well be better suited to other grape varieties but somehow we’ve locked ourselves into thinking that just because a cabernet comes from Napa or a pinot comes from the Russian River Valley it is somehow special. Visiting a place like Santa Barbara can, if nothing else, help to free us from this narrow way of seeing the world. In all likelihood as the wine industry in Santa Barbara matures we’ll find less variety not more. More pinot noir planted, and less experimentation with other varieties, and that leaves us all a bit poorer.
I mentioned Cal-Italians earlier and was fortunate to have been able to visit to solid producers of Italian varieties in the region; Mosby and Palmina. Palmina is quite well known for the mostly Piedmontese portfolio and while their wines may not hit the highest of the highs that the Piedmontese originals do, the truth is that they are better than much of what one can find in Piedmont, high praise indeed!
And then there is Mosby, a producer I am familiar with primarily because I periodically have tracked down bottles of their teroldego both for my own enjoyment and to bring back to Trentino to share with producers. The wines at Mosby manage to capture a very Italianate essence, right down to the slight edge of rusticity that one is not surprised to find in Italian wines. These are very good if not great wines, but wines that manage to speak with an Italian voice, translated as it is through the soil and climate of the region. They struck my as very honest and enjoyable wines.
Again, my point here is not to pronounce wines great, but rather to celebrate the diversity of wines that we have available to us. We live in exciting times. There’s a lot going on all around us so it is understandable that when it comes to picking a wine we fall back on the familiar. Do yourself a favor, next time don’t. Experience something new, something different, something that may have a ripple effect in years to come as we preserve some of the diversity we are so fortunate to have!
— Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth