Drink Picks

Old World Meets New World in Santa Barbara Wine Country

Santa Barbara’s diverse, well-balanced, affordable wines are well worth seeking out—including these three producers to watch

A collage of bottles of Santa Barbara wine
From left to right: Stolpman Vineyards ‘La Cuadrilla’ Red Blend (Photo courtesy of Skurnik Wines and Spirits); Liquid Farm ‘SBC’ Pinot Noir (Photo courtesy of Liquid Farm); Clendenen Family Vineyards, Aligoté (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Thomas)
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Lindsay Thomas, director of wine and beverage,

River Oaks Country Club, Houston

While Santa Barbara is a well-established wine region at this point, it is often in the shadow of California’s better-known areas. But, according to Lindsay Thomas, the director of wine and beverage at River Oaks Country Club in Houston, it’s a region that deserves the spotlight. “I love wines from Santa Barbara,” says Thomas. “They often encompass this beautiful middle-of-the-road territory that makes them inviting and pleasurable to a wide group of drinkers.”

Winegrowing in the region dates back to the 18th century, but Santa Barbara’s modern era was pioneered in the 1970s and ‘80s “by some of the most iconic domestic vineyard managers and winemakers,” explains Thomas. Today, the quality of the wine is outstanding, while prices remain relatively modest. “The wines still offer great value when compared to similar wines from Napa or Sonoma,” says Thomas.

Santa Barbara wines have been such a big hit with Thomas’ guests that they’ve become a key part of her beverage program. “I’ve had great success with these wines on our bottle and by-the-glass list, and I’m noticing more consumers being curious about the region,” says Thomas. “Some of the selections have been so popular that our members will have a glass and then start purchasing the wine to take home with them so that it can be enjoyed at any time.”

Selling Points for Santa Barbara Wines

  • In Thomas’ experience, most wines from Santa Barbara are crowd-pleasing. “The cooler climate, thanks to the transverse valley pulling in the cool air off of the Pacific, keeps the wines bright and fresh, but they still get plenty of California sunshine and offer up delicious, juicy fruit flavors,” she says.
  • Thanks to the region’s unique terroir, these wines offer a stepping stone between Old World and New World styles of wine and are great for consumers looking to expand their tastes.
  • Santa Barbara is an exciting and relatively easy region to visit. “It’s fun to start planning a trip in your head while sipping on a glass,” says Thomas.

3 Santa Barbara Wines to Watch

  • Liquid Farm ‘SBC’ Pinot Noir 2021: “This Pinot Noir is sourced from multiple prime sites throughout the county which makes it a wonderful introduction to the region,” says Thomas. “It’s a wine without a lot of decoration, which gives it this pure, elegant quality. It’s lovely to sip by itself, but versatile enough to pair with many foods. It’s a smaller production and they don’t seem to have [plans to turn] it into a major operation, which makes each glass all the more special.”
  • Stolpman Vineyards ‘La Cuadrilla’ Red Blend 2022, Ballard Canyon: “I love everything about this wine, from the juice to the design to the story,” says Thomas. “This bottling started with an idea from Ruben Solorzano, the vineyard manager, to give the vineyard workers (who are employed year-round) a piece of the vineyard to farm themselves. This has grown into this bottling, which features a different blend and a different label every year, but is always a delicious, crushable red wine that is great any time.”
  • Clendenen Family Vineyards Aligoté 2020, Santa Maria Valley: “We can’t talk about Santa Barbara without including something from Jim Clendenen,” says Thomas. “He’s left an incredible legacy in the region and his wines will continue to be a testament to this. CFV offers a number of interesting, versatile white wines and we’ve been serving this Aligoté with great success. It’s a wonderful wine to offer as an interesting alternative to a Pinot Grigio or unoaked Chardonnay that also piques people’s interests and invites them to look deeper at the category.”

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Caitlin A. Miller is a New York-based wine writer and the current associate editor for SevenFifty Daily. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Vinous, and Christie’s International Real Estate Magazine. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and was the recipient of the 2020 Vinous Young Wine Writer Fellowship.

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