Brilliance in Santa Barbara


Santa Barbara continues to impress with a wide range of exceptional, world-class wines. After the challenging but ultimately strong 2020 harvest, producers were welcomed with far more favorable conditions in 2021. It is a spectacular vintage for the whites, quite possibly the best I have seen in more than a dozen years of tasting these wines, but ultimately less consistent for the reds, as we will explore in this year’s report.

Perched high atop the Santa Rita Hills Mountain range, Mt. Carmel is one of the most evocative sites in Santa Barbara. 

A Brief Introduction

Santa Barbara is a rare region that does extremely well with all the main white and red grapes. Burgundian varieties thrive on the western side of the appellation, Bordeaux grapes do best in the warmer, eastern sectors, while Rhône varieties can be interesting in many different places throughout the AVA. That is both a strength and a weakness. Readers will find incredible diversity here, but that diversity also means Santa Barbara lacks the clear identity of regions like Napa Valley, which is inextricably linked with Cabernet Sauvignon, the Santa Lucia Highlands and its cool-climate varieties or Paso Robles with its focus on Rhône varieties. Because of that, so many of the best wines in Santa Barbara never receive the visibility they merit and therefore remain very favorably priced versus global peers.

For readers seeking wines of place, Santa Barbara is a fertile hunting ground. That is especially true for consumers who feel priced out of the classic regions of Continental Europe, meaning Burgundy and, increasingly, the Rhône Valley. While I would never suggest that a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is a perfect substitute for Grand Cru Burgundy, the wines do offer many of the same attributes, but can be found for less than a monthly car payment or mortgage and opened without the guilt that, sadly, often comes with enjoying iconic wines from top producers in today’s market.  

Proprietor John Wagner and Winemaker Wynne Solomon at Peake Ranch, where the wines continue to improve.

The 2021 Growing Season 

The growing season started off cool and remained that way the entire year, with key trackers for vine maturation all delayed relative to what has become the norm.  According to data from several primary rainfall stations from the County of Santa Barbara, precipitation was 8-10 inches for the year, lower than 2020, about half of 2018 or 2019 and well under the historical average of 14-16 inches. Interestingly, rainfall in 2023 already exceeds 30 inches. Summer proceeded along similar themes. There were no heat spikes or other shock events to speak of. Cool-weather during the last phase of ripening allowed for extended hang time. Harvest was on the later side by modern-day standards.

“The season was very easy to deal with. In some years, we have no choice when to pick, but in 2021, we had tons of time to make those decisions,” Adam Tolmach relayed at Ojai. "It was a very dry year, with only nine inches of rain. It was pretty much textbook until September when temperatures dropped," explained Anthony Avila, winemaker at the Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Estates. Based on similarly positive comments from pretty much all winemakers, I expected to find a consistently strong to exceptional vintage as I began tasting through the wines. Ultimately, though, 2021 offers different shades of excellence.

Angela Osborne turned out a brilliant set of 2021s at A Tribute to Grace.

Whites and Red Rhônes Excel

Two thousand twenty-one is a spectacular vintage for the whites, quite possibly the best I have seen in more than a dozen years of tasting these wines. The 2021 whites marry fruit intensity, depth and structure, with salivating acids that lend palpable freshness. It is a vintage of wines that capture the essence of site, such an essential part of what makes the world’s best wines stand out. The Chardonnays are exceptional. Many producers I met with described cool weather during flowering that resulted in small berries with thick skins. But it’s not just the Chardonnays that are superb, all whites are strong in 2021. Readers will find a bevy of equally brilliant Rieslings, Grüner Veltliners, Sauvignon Blancs and assorted white blends that are superb.

Moving over to the reds, much of the same applies. The Rhône varieties are especially strong. Grenache is terrific and a huge step above 2020, when intense heat and drought blocked ripening and yielded a number of bleached, anemic wines. Syrah is equally brilliant, perhaps even a bit more so, as it shines in so many places. Syrah has a long history in Santa Barbara County. The wines have always been deep and powerful, but in recent years, I have seen a pronounced shift towards elegance that is redefining the potential of Syrah here. Whether it is climate change, better farming, gentler winemaking, the approach favored by today’s generation of younger winemakers, or, as I suspect, a combination of all these factors, the reality is that Santa Barbara Syrah has never been as compelling as it is today.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the newest developments on the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills.

2021 Pinot Noir…It’s Complicated

That brings us to Pinot Noir. I expected to see a very strong set of Pinot Noirs, given the enthusiasm around the vintage and what pretty much every producer described as an ideal growing season, but that was not the case. I imagine some readers may have expected a more positive assessment because of the strength of the 2021 Pinots in other regions, most notably in Sonoma, but the inconsistent quality of the 2021 Pinots in Santa Barbara vis-à-vis Sonoma is obvious.

I have long believed that California’s main appellations are distinct and that each region deserves to be considered individually. That is why I approach every report from zero, at square one, with no preconceived notions. For many years, the conventional wisdom held that the quality of a vintage in Napa Valley applied equally to all of California. Thankfully, we seem to have moved beyond that, at least a bit. Even so, there is still a temptation to associate the quality of one region with another, such as suggesting that because the 2021 Pinots are exceptional in Sonoma, they are equally compelling in Santa Barbara. 

Consider that the distance between the heart of the Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara is approximately 350 miles. The distance between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara is about 90 miles. Conversely, Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, which encompasses both the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, stretches across just 31 miles yet contains a microcosm of differences. In Bordeaux’s Left Bank, 36 miles will take you from Pessac-Leognan and the city of Bordeaux to the northern reaches St. Èstèphe, passing through Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and their neighboring areas to get there. To assume that the strengths or weaknesses of one region in California apply to other distant regions is patently absurd.

The reality is that the 2021 vintage is mixed for Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. The cooler vintage yielded wines that are variable. Some 2021 Pinots offer superb depth, definition and balance, but others come across as diluted and weak. The question is: Why?

My impression is that the 2021s suffer from yields that were too high, possibly accentuated by excessive late-season irrigation, something that is an issue in Santa Barbara. I suspect many growers feared late-season heat spikes and were overly generous with water at the worst possible time. It is important to remember that many vineyards in Santa Barbara sell fruit. They are essentially farming ventures. For these vineyards, wine grapes are a crop, just like strawberries, avocadoes or any other crop where the primary goal is production. Although the vintages are quite different, in many cases, some 2021s remind me of the 2017s because of their light, slightly washed-out personalities. Another explanation is surely to be an unpopular view, but it is one I have already expressed here before, and that is that Pinot Noir is planted in many places where it is not the optimal variety. The Sta. Rita Hills comes to mind as an obvious example.

In tasting, the 2021 Pinot Noirs show the leaner, more nervy style of a cooler year. They have less body and fruit than the 2020s. As a result, Pinots done with whole clusters tend to have a stronger stem character in 2021. It’s a vintage in which readers would do well to be quite selective. Some wines are fabulous, but others are not. Where possible, the 2020s deserve another look, as the best examples clearly outshine all but the finest 2021s.

Vineyard Manager Ruben Solorzano and Peter Stolpman and their team have made huge strides at Stolpman over the last few years. 

A Look Back at 2020

Winemakers, vineyard managers and owners were confronted with a very challenging year in 2020. Drought conditions and five heat spikes pushed vines and people to the limit, and that was before smoke taint from the north became a concern. This year’s tastings confirmed that Grenache was the most adversely affected variety. Intense heat bleached out color and robbed the wines of both depth and structure. Among the reds, Syrah and Pinot Noir fared far better. In some cases, the 2020 Pinots surpass the 2021s. Even so, out of an abundance of caution, I have kept my drinking windows fairly compact for the 2020s. Smoke taint does not appear to have been an issue in Santa Barbara, but there was ash in some vineyards, so a bit of prudence is probably a good idea.

Some of the highlights in this year’s tastings.

A First Look at 2022

So far, I have only tasted a small selection of 2022s, most of them in barrel, save for some whites. Poor conditions during the set lowered potential yields, in some cases significantly. Overall, 2022 was trending to be on the cooler side until a heat spike late in the season lasted a week longer than initially projected. Rain followed, further complicating matters. The whites I have tasted so far either show an added kick of textural richness from the heat or quite a bit of brightness from picking early to preserve freshness. The reds tend to show quite a bit of textural intensity.

The Bigger Picture

Ultimately, analyzing a vintage requires more than just looking at weather patterns, talking to producers and tasting wines. There are plenty of other external forces at play. One of these is labor, which remains very tight. With fast food restaurants offering close to 50% more than minimum wage plus benefits and other agricultural jobs paying more than vineyard work, filling slots is increasingly challenging for employers in the wine industry. Another consideration is competition for land and the opportunity owners have to farm more profitable crops. As I have written here in the past, outsourced farming through vineyard management companies means small wineries are often not able to pick when they would like to, as the bigger players have priority. This was not so much an issue in 2021, but it is a constant pressure on the system.

Brave & Maiden is one of today’s leading estates in Santa Barbara and is bringing renewed attention to the Santa Ynez Valley.

Santa Ynez Valley: Worth a Closer Look

Santa Barbara County is essentially comprised of two historic AVAs and a series of subdivisions that came later. The two main AVAs are Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valley, established in 1981 and 1983 respectively. In the years that followed, sections of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA were carved out into smaller, ‘nested’ AVAs that lie within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA. These are: Sta. Rita Hills (2001), Happy Canyon (2009), Ballard Canyon (2013) and the Los Olivos District (2016). (Santa Barbara’s most recent AVA, Alisos Canyon (2020) sits between Santa Maria and Santa Ynez). The subdivisions of the Santa Ynez AVA leave a considerable amount of land in the broader AVA. A corollary example can be found in the Sonoma County AVA and its nested AVAs. For properties in Santa Ynez proper, there is less cohesion and definition of place than in the nested appellations. Perhaps for that reason, so many estates fly under the radar despite making exceptional wines. Brave & Maiden, Refugio Ranch, Zaca Mesa and Folded Hills come to mind as examples of estates that have upped their game.

The Vinous Map of the Sta. Rita Hills, front and back. Several years in the making, it is the most comprehensive map and historical account of the AVA. Ó 2023 Vinous.

Mapping the Sta. Rita Hills

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in a comprehensive study to map the Sta. Rita Hills. Our map is now finished and about to go to press. The Vinous Map of the Sta. Rita Hills depicts these vineyards and the related topography with a level of detail that has never been seen before. The back of the map features a historical narrative of the region, descriptions of key sites and a series of 3D maps that further highlight the unique attributes of the AVA.

A view of the eastern sector of the Sta. Rita Hills, as seen from Donnachadh. The red winery is the new Sine Qua Non production facility, while the Eleven Confessions vineyard is just across the street.

How I Tasted the Wines

I tasted almost all the wines in this article during a trip to Santa Barbara in July 2023. My preference is always to taste with the producer, as is the norm in regions like Burgundy and Piedmont, where I began tasting wine. This year, I pushed my trip back by a month because of my kids’ summer camp schedules and certain dates with them I did not want to miss, hence the slightly later publication of this report. With close to 900 reviews, this is one of my biggest articles of the year. Only Sonoma and Napa Valley are bigger. Naturally, the editing and proofreading team requires a certain amount of time to process large articles. Lastly, I include a few wines from neighboring San Luis Obispo. Ideally, those wines would have been in a separate report, but Josh Raynolds’ untimely passing earlier this year resulted in my focusing on a few names from that appellation for this article.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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