Father Junipero Serra, “Father of California Wine,” brought grape vine cuttings from Mexico in 1782, the same lineage brought to the New World by Hernán Cortés in 1520. The grape’s association with the church caused it to become known as the Mission grape, which became the dominant grape variety in California until the 20th century.
The largest mission vineyard, about 25 acres, was in what’s now called Goleta. Santa Barbara was second in wine production of all California’s missions to the largest producer, the mission at San Gabriel.
By the late 1800s, there were 45 vineyards with a total of 260 acres and 17 winemakers in the county with the Mission grape still predominant, but not all wine being made for religious purposes. In 1884, Frenchmen Justinian Caire imported Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel grape cuttings from France and planted a 150-acre vineyard on Santa Cruz Island, just off the coast of Santa Barbara. His last vintage was in 1918 due to the coming of prohibition, which most people agree destroyed the wine industry statewide.
While Santa Barbara Winery was the first commercial winery in the county since Prohibition, Firestone was the first estate winery to make wine using its own locally grown grapes, with their first vintage being 1975.
In the early 1980s, 13 wineries existed and by the end of the decade there were 29 with over 9,600 acres of wine grapes in the county. The Santa Maria Valley (1981) and Santa Ynez Valley (1983) were established as federally approved AVAs.
In 2001, the Santa Rita Hills became a federally approved AVA, Sta. Rita Hills, emphasizing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Then in 2009, the formerly untapped eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley referred to as “Happy Canyon”, a region dedicated to Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, received its own AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
Today there are well over 100 wineries and over 20,000 acres of grapes planted to a very diverse 65+ varieties – most of the planting to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah – yet, the Cabernets, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris have a foothold, with Rhône, Italian and Spanish varietals making headway. The wine industry has grown from virtually nothing in 1970 to almost a billion dollar business in less than 35 years.