BALLARD, CALIF. — Pick up a bottle of Santa Barbara County wine and, if it costs more than $25, it's likely to have the name of a vineyard on the label -- a designation that tells you where the grapes were grown. Since almost all the region's better wines designate the vineyard source of their grapes, you've probably seen Bien Nacido Vineyard or maybe Clos Pepe or Melville on labels. Lately, some truly exceptional wines have been carrying a few new names: White Hawk, Purisima Mountain, Larner, Cargasacchi and Westerly. These are the exciting young vineyards to watch.
"The region has a lot of young winemakers looking for great fruit," says Kevin Merrill, vineyard manager for White Hawk Vineyard. "And you have a lot of rich guys coming here and buying vineyard land, hoping that they will develop the next Bien Nacido."
The most respected vineyard in Santa Barbara County, Bien Nacido is a sprawling 850-acre patchwork of plots the Miller family started planting in the Santa Maria Valley in 1973. Home to Jim Clendenen's Au Bon Climat and Bob Lindquist's Qupé wineries, the cool-climate vineyard has been an important incubator for independent winemakers.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the dominant grapes, but the Millers have planted dozens of varieties. Thirty-five wines carry the Bien Nacido Vineyard designation on their labels, making the vineyard a brand name.Clendenen first bought grapes from Bien Nacido in 1987 and now makes 20 of his 75 wines with Bien Nacido fruit. "The Millers indulge me," Clendenen says. "And the vineyard has the variety of soils to support all of the obscure grape varieties I asked them to plant."
With the notable exception of warm-climate grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, most of the varieties survived, in part because of the wide range of soils. Bien Nacido has both calcareous and loamy topsoils that are dominated either by sand, clay, silt or shale. Its subsoils shift from shale to clay to sandstone.
The lay of the land is just as varied, from flat lands at a mere 200 feet of elevation to steep hillsides that climb to 1,700 feet.
The most interesting up-and-coming vineyards are far smaller properties than Bien Nacido, with more homogeneous soils and less diversity in the grapes they grow. Located in very different corners of Santa Barbara's wine country, they represent some of the region's extremes: the warmest and the coolest spots, the sandiest soils, the steepest hillsides. Considered in the order in which they were planted, from oldest to newest, the vineyards are snapshots of Santa Barbara terroir.
Neil and Francine Afromsky were the first to plant wine grapes in Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara's warmest wine region when, in 1995, they started Westerly Vineyard, soon to be known as McGinley Vineyard. The 85-acre vineyard was planted with Bordeaux and Rhône grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah -- but Sauvignon Blanc is the star.
Hot days, cool nights
In Santa Barbara's easternmost wine region, the summer's dramatic diurnal temperature shift of 40 degrees between daytime highs of 95 to 100 degrees and the cool nights allows the grapes to ripen without losing their natural acidity, says Seth Kunin, the winemaker for the Afromskys' Westerly Vineyard wines. The thick summertime marine layer rolls into the vineyard in the evening and clears by 9:30 in the morning.
The Sauvignon Blanc vineyards are relatively flat with loose sandy loam soils over calcareous ocean bottom and volcanic subsoils. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes were harvested the last two weeks of August.
The Afromskys sold their estate last year to Chicago financier Jack McGinley. The 2006 vintage will be the last to carry the Westerly Vineyard designation. The Afromskys retain the Westerly Vineyards brand and buy their grapes from McGinley. Ojai Vineyard, Margerum Wine Co., Fiddlehead and Brander wineries that buy Sauvignon Blanc from this vineyard will carry a McGinley Vineyard label on future vineyard designated wines.
In the heart of Santa Barbara's wine region, electronic keyboard pioneer Tom Beckmen bought a 365-acre Ballard Canyon ranch in 1996 and developed the 125-acre Purisima Mountain Vineyard. His son Steve turned the vineyard into a leading producer of Rhône variety grapes in the Santa Barbara region. The climate is cooler than Happy Canyon to the east but warmer than Bien Nacido to the north. In 2003, Steve Beckmen shifted to biodynamic viticulture, an extreme form of organic farming. The Beckmens use 85% of the Purisima Mountain fruit in Beckmen Vineyards wines. The remainder of the grapes are harvested from plots that are custom-farmed for other wineries, including Qupé Winery, Hitching Post Wines, Margerum Wine Co. and Kenneth-Crawford Wines.
There are no flat vineyard plots in Purisima Mountain Vineyard; subsoils are limestone under loamy clay topsoils. Planted primarily with Syrah and Grenache, the steep hillsides rise to an elevation of 1,250 feet.