Santa Barbara Wine Country History

Where It All Began: Santa Barbara Wine Country History

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.

Modern Day Wine Boom

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 American Viticultural Area (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. Right around this same time (2004), the movie Sideways became a hit, putting Santa Barbara County’s wine country on the map in a whole new way. 

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.

The Future of Central Coast Wines

Grapes are big business on this part of the central coast. In 2018, the wine industry grossed $121.3M in revenues.

Chardonnay grapes were the highest producing grapes in the region at nearly 22,500 tons, followed by Pinot Noir at 17,500 tons. Combined, these varietals made up two-thirds of the 60,000 total tons of grapes harvested in Santa Barbara County, with Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc being other higher yielding grape varietals. 

With the Santa Ynez Valley, Buellton, Solvang, Santa Maria Valley, Los Alamos, Lompoc, Buellton and others all playing a role in the growing and harvesting of wine grapes in Santa Barbara Wine Country, one can expect that the industry will continue to grow, with the quality of wine coming out of the region also continuing to improve. 

An interesting trend to note is the growing number of small scale, boutique, and premium wine makers who grow and/or buy a limited amount of grapes for their small scale wine production. In some cases, these wine-preneurs offer extremely limited access to their product, benefiting those lucky enough to cross their paths. Sustainable Wine Tours has been blessed to forge a relationship with some of these unique wine partners, and are excited to highlight their best!

Sustainability practices across all agricultural commodities are on the rise due to concerns about water, climate, soil health and more, and while not exclusive to smaller scale vintners, organic and biodynamic approaches to farming are found at a higher level among this demographic of growers. One can expect that these practices may increase in the near future, with sustainability being the talk in tasting rooms throughout this wine region. 

One thing is clear: since the late 1700’s into modern day, wine grapes have been an integral part of Santa Barbara County’s history and culture. Winemaking, once reserved for missionaries and early settlers in early California, has turned into a world-class, well recognized industry on California’s central coast with no signs of slowing down. Immerse yourself in history and raise your glass to a healthy wine future!