We woke earlier than the wineries were open, so we decided to spend the morning visiting a bit of Santa Barbara’s history. La Purisima Mission is located just north of the town of Lompoc. I’d been to one other mission before, San Juan Capistrano, south of Los Angeles. That mission was surrounded by a town and was fairly touristy. While La Purisima has a visitor center and offers tours, it is a little more off the beaten path, and definitely more agricultural. Perhaps it was because it was Sunday morning, or perhaps the legacy of the the Spanish missionaries lingered, but there was definitely something peaceful and beautiful about the mission. La Purisima has been fairly well restored and I can see how the missionaries of the time would have been able to worship God there. There’s a part of me that envies the simplistic life they would have lived, taking everything they would have needed--including wine, of course--from the land on which they dwelled.
After this respite, we headed over to the town of Los Olivos. Los Olivos is really only one street. There’s not much there except wineries, art galleries and the Fess Parker Inn and Spa (named after the iconic American actor known for his roles as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone who founded Fess Parker Winery after his acting career). That’s ok, though, because we were there only for the wine, really. Much like the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, all the tasting rooms are within walking distance. We parked along the street and walked over to the first tasting room on my list: Alta Maria Vineyards.
Alta Maria is a collaboration between winemaker Paul Wilkins and vineyard manager James Ontiveros, both of whom have great winemaking traditions. Paul grew up in the agriculture business and went to school for viticulture. Shortly thereafter he obtained a job at Alban Vineyards, a celebrated producer just north of Santa Barbara County known for their Rhône-style wines. Through all this he met and became friends with James and in 2005 they launched Alta Maria which produces balanced pinot noir and chardonnay.
While Paul grew up with agriculture, James lives and breathes it. His ancestors came to California in 1781 and became farmers. His family has owned land in Santa Barbara since 1837. While his focus has been on wine for only twenty years or so, farming and crop management is in his blood. He currently owns the Ranchos Ontiveros property in the Santa Maria Valley which is one of the sources for Alta Maria. Both partners also have their own projects we were able to taste: Paul spearheads Autonom, a line of Rhône varietal wines, and James makes Native9, a tribute to being a ninth generation California farmer.
All the wines we tasted at Alta Maria I thought were well-made, easy-to-drink, and thoroughly enjoyable. The standouts were the Alta Maria Reserva Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley and the Native9 Pinot Noir from the Ranchos Ontiveros Vineyard. Though I was also surprised at their cabernet sauvignon and rosé of pinot noir. All-in-all a fabulous experience, led by their wonderful tasting room manager, Stephanie, that I’d be happy to repeat someday.
Next up, we walked next door to Longoria. I wasn’t too familiar with this producer before we arrived in Santa Barbara, but I saw a few things that intrigued me and Stephanie at Alta Maria recommended we stop in. Longoria Cellars is one of the older producers in the Santa Barbara region, making wine since 1982. Led by Rick and Diana Longoria, they focus on chardonnay and pinot noir, but also place an emphasis on cabernet franc and zinfandel. We also had a chance to taste a rosé here as well, a welcome refresher as it was starting to warm up at this point in the day.
We took a break for lunch and headed across the street to the R Country Market where earlier in the day we had smelled tri-tip being smoked to perfection. Turns out every weekend they cook up some fabulous tri-tip sandwiches. It was a perfect meal for the day. Afterwards we headed to one more tasting room around the corner.
This was another recommendation as I had never before heard of Dragonette Cellars. I learned that Dragonette was started by brothers John and Steve Dragonette along with their friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis. We started off with three sauvignon blancs, one regional and two single vineyard. Of the three, the one from Grissini Vineyard in Happy Canyon (yes, Happy Canyon) was my favorite. Next we had the fortune of trying their grenache rosé. We were told that normally they don’t open the rosé, but a good customer had just stopped in so they had pulled out all the stops. Lucky us. We finished off the tasting with some muscular grenache that needs a lot more time to mellow out. This was a big wine.
We finished off the day with a stop for some gelato, a tribute to my dad who never passed up gelato. It was a good first experience with Santa Barbara, albeit short. I definitely want to go back and spend more time there. We really didn’t get to see many vineyards, either, something I’d love to see more of. I also didn’t really get a sense of the future of Santa Barbara wine. It seems to me that really, the industry is just beginning to grow. There’s been a lot more interest there recently, and I’m excited to see what’s next for Santa Barbara producers. They clearly have a good foothold in the pinot noir and chardonnay world, but I still don’t hear people including Santa Barbara in discussions on these two grapes. It tends to stay focused on Burgundy, Oregon and Sonoma. Pretty soon, though, I expect Santa Barbara will get thrown in the mix. However, I do think many producers will struggle to get recognized because they are small and don’t get much exposure. While small, family-owned producers make some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted, I can see how hard it is to get their product out there. There’s so much wine and so many large producers that tend to get the spotlight, it’s hard for smaller wineries to get noticed. That’s one of the reasons I love tasting wine and writing about it. I feel like I get to help tell the stories of the people I meet and the wines I taste.