Standing on the balcony of his newly constructed winery on Tepusquet Canyon Road, which overlooks the Santa Maria Valley, wine maker Byron Kent Brown said to me, "The wine country is closer than you think." What he meant, of course, was that the traditional "wine country" of Napa-Sonoma has a serious new rival. We had spent the morning tasting wines at Zaca Mesa Winery, established in 1973, where Brown has been wine maker from the earliest years. Now, with his wife, Deborah, he has realized his dream: Byron Vineyard & Winery has four 1984 wines ready for release. There are 11,000 acres of fine wine grapes planted in Santa Barbara County, and 17 wineries belong to the young Santa Barbara County Vintners Assn. An additional seven local labels swell the growing ranks.
Everyone thinks that Santa Barbara is north of Los Angeles, but much of the drive to this lovely coastal region is almost due west. The topography of east-west mountainspermits cool westerly winds to flow directly into the main vineyard valleys. The climate of much of the Santa Maria Tepusquet bench land, closer to the ocean, leads Brown to call this cool region, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive, "Santa Burgundy." A few miles to the south is the warmer, but still cool, Santa Ynez Valley, which accommodates Bordeaux varieties and even the Riesling of the Rhineland and Gewurztraminer of Alsace.
Father Junipero Serra brought the vine to Santa Barbara, where the mission had been established in 1786. Wines were primarily used there for sacramental purposes, but after the missions were secularized in 1834, grape growing and wine making continued in the region until Prohibition. Although the northern counties were the first to recover, the Santa Barbara region did not begin reopening its commercial vineyards until 1964.
The beauty of the region drew Leonard Firestone, our former ambassador to Belgium, to the Santa Ynez Valley, where, with his son Brooks, he planted his first vineyards in 1972. Today, The Firestone Vineyard & Winery is the largest in the region, with about 270 acres of vines producing 75,000 cases of wine annually. Andre Tchelistcheff has been consultant since the beginning. Firestone's wine maker, Alison Green, joyously proclaims, "This is my 13th year of study with Andre!" When I tasted the 1983 Firestone Santa Ynez Valley Chardonnay ($10), I knew she had learned her lessons well.
Firestone's 1984 Sauvignon Blanc ($7) is 50% barrel-fermented, all of it aged in French oak, in perfect balance. Don't miss the 1984 Gewurztraminer ($6.50); Green perfected her ways with this grape in Alsace, and the wine is in that style, rich in character but with delicate elegance. Everyone will like the 1984 Johannisberg Riesling ($6.50), with 40% of the grapes touched with Botrytis, the ideal sugar-to-acid ratio. The Firestone answer to White Zinfandel is 1984 Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon ($4.50), which has an amazingly fresh strawberry taste. And in red wines, a 1981 Pinot Noir ($8.50) offers Cote de Beaune richness at great value.
The elegance of Pinot Noir continues at Zaca Mesa, with Brown's incredible 1984 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (to be released late this year), and with Sanford Winery's 1983 Central Coast Pinot Noir ($11). The latter just won the platinum medal at an American wine competition in New York as the best Pinot Noir made in America. And Sanford's 1984 Chardonnay ($12) is also nothing short of superb.
We are only in the beginning chapters of the emerging Sanford Winery. Richard and Thekla Sanford's 738-acre Rancho Jabali will soon have 70 acres of vineyards and an adobe winery full of high-tech equipment. Their exquisite labels by Sebastian Titus (who also designs labels for Firestone, Zaca Mesa and Byron) feature wildflowers that grow on the ranch.
The Santa Barbara Vintners' Festival will take place April 26 at Dunn School on California 154; tickets are $25. For a brochure, write: Santa Barbara County Vintners' Assn., P.O. Box WINE, Santa Ynez, Calif. 93460. And there will be a mini-wine festival May 10 at the Union Hotel in nearby Los Alamos, just off U.S. 101; tickets are $25. For information, telephone Dick Langdon at (805) 928-3838.