Santa Maria Valley
In a quest to try to satisfy my pinotlust, I traveled recently to the Santa Maria Valley
and discovered a region that is quietly, but quickly, becoming a major destination
for wine enthusiasts. Located in the northernmost reaches of Santa Barbara
County, it is an appellation that has been overshadowed by its neighbors to the
south, the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills, whose popularity has been fueled
by the post-Sideways Pinot craze. Part of Sideways was actually filmed on the
Foxen Canyon Wine Trail in Santa Maria Valley but this has been largely unrecognized.
To the north, the nearby Arroyo Grande Valley and Edna Valley in San Luis
Obispo County have assumed more notoriety for cool-climate wine enthusiasts, in
part because of a more publicized and established wine growing history, and in
part due to the close proximity to the town of San Luis Obispo.
The Santa Maria Valley encompasses the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe and
includes the unincorporated communities of Orcutt, Sisquoc and Tepusquet. The
Valley is tucked between the Sierra Madre Mountains to the east and the Pacific
Ocean coastline to the west. 25% of Santa Barbara County’s population resides
here and Santa Maria recently eclipsed its more famous neighbor to the south,
Santa Barbara, in population. Moderate housing prices (median $1.05 million in
Santa Barbara, $455,000 in Santa Maria) have driven young people to Santa Maria,
only 75 miles to the north of Santa Barbara. Santa Maria is still clearly an agricultural
town, but it is becoming a power center in Santa Barbara County.
Santa Maria was settled in 1875 and originally was known as Grangerville, then
Central City. The name was changed to Santa Maria in 1885 because mail was being
mistakenly routed to Central City, Colorado.
Perhaps the area is best known for “Santa Maria Style BBQ.” Tri-tip is seasoned
only with salt, pepper and garlic powder (no sauce) and cooked on an open grill
over red oak wood. Spanish rancheros, who began cooking with red oak 100
years ago, discovered the unique flavor this wood imparts to meat. On any weekend,
large barbecues are set up on many street corners in Santa Maria and tri-trip
is offered with salsa and the regionally favorite pinquito beans.
The Santa Maria Valley is part of California’s agricultural heartland, known for
strawberry fields and vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, celery and lettuce). Over
the last 10 years, there has a noteworthy growth in the local wine industry. Vineyard
plantings have increased from about 20,000 acres in 1999 to the current total
of 50,000 acres.
Modern viticulture in the Santa Maria Valley dates to the 1960s, when, according to Victor Geraci
(Salud! The Rise of Santa Barbara’s Wine Industry), Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei planted more than
100 acres of vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley. They were attracted to the cooler region I and II
Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys. By 1964 they had planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay,
Johannisberg Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sylvaner. The vineyard manager for their project
was Bill Collins who believed the area could grow wine grapes to rival the Napa Valley. His prediction
was born out when Christian Brothers Winery promptly contracted for the grapes shortly after
the vineyard was developed. A number of other growers followed soon after including James Flood III
(Rancho Sisquoc), George A. Lucas and Sons (Tepusquet Rancho lands), Jack Niven (Paragon Vineyards),
and the Newhall family (Suey Ranch - 1,000 acres by the end of 1973). In 1971, the 90-acre
Camelot Vineyard and the 533-acre Katherine’s Vineyard were established on Santa Maria Mesa Road.
Dijon clones of Pinot Noir were first planted in Santa Barbara County in the Santa Maria Valley.
Bob and Steve Miller were fourth generation members of the Broome family who had lost much of their
coastal agricultural holdings to military base expansions. They wanted to replace the family’s land
holdings and purchased the 35,000 Rancho Tepusquet from the Allan Hancock family in 1968. Initially
they planted row crops on the land but as neighboring vineyard developments were prospering, they
hired noted viticulturist Dale Hampton to plant 640 acres of Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir in 1972.
Hampton pioneered the use of galvanized steel stakes and guide wires for trellising in vineyards and
people began to call Tepusquet the “Cadillac vineyard.” This eventually led the Millers to name their
vineyard Bien Nacido, Mexican for “being born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”
The Bien Nacido Vineyard became a source of premium wine grapes for multiple noted California wineries
and to this day remains the most visible Santa Maria Valley vineyard. Many wineries built their
reputation on the wines they produced from Bien Nacido Vineyard including Au Bon Climat, Hitching
Post, Lane Tanner, Qupe, Richard Longoria Wines, Tantara and Whitcraft. Bien Nacido became a brand
and a seal of quality. Steve Heimoff remarked in the Wine Enthusiast, “Bien Nacido is one of those vineyards
that’s so famous, it’s almost a brand in itself.”
The location of the Bien Nacido Vineyard proved ideal for cool-climate wine grapes (see Google map
on page 4). Most of California’s vineyards are shielded from the Pacific Ocean by the state’s northsouth
coastal range of mountains. Just west of the Santa Maria Valley, however, a line of east-west
mountains exposes the Valley to the maritime influence of the Pacific Ocean which lies only seventeen
miles to the west.. The result is that temperatures are moderate in the summer, evenings and mornings
are cool, and the grapes ripen slowly.
Bob and Steve Miller were astute businessman who developed a method of custom growing wine
grapes for nurturing small winemakers. Bien Nacido now sells grapes to fifty-five wineries. Many of
the winemakers lease the same rows and same blocks every year. There are 28 blocks of Pinot Noir,
roughly 10 acres to the block, all planted with varying rootstock, clones, and planting patterns. Bien
Nacido Vineyards has the largest California planting of certified mother vines from University of California
Davis and is one of the major viticultural nurseries in the state for certified bud wood.
Four wineries have facilities on the Bien Nacido property (Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Tantara and Ambullneo).
These wineries are not open to the public but look for their wines at restaurants in the Santa
Maria area and tasting rooms in Los Olivos. The Bien Nacido Vineyard management also operates
Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria where over twenty-five boutique wineries, such as Hitching
Post, Lane Tanner, and Red Car, share equipment, storage and a laboratory. A similar facility is
also open in Paso Robles (Paso Robles Wine Services). Bien Nacido Vineyards offers limited tours to
groups (contact Nicholas Miller at 805-969-5803). Each year a Collector’s Case of wines is offered
from Bien Nacido Vineyard (and in 2007 its other two vineyard properties, Solomon Hills and French
Camp). The 2007 Collector Case is now available (www.biennacidovineyards.com).
The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail (www.foxencanyonwinetrail.com) has been the biggest tourist draw to
the region . Foxen Canyon Road winds itself through picturesque rolling hills from the town of Los
Olivos in the south to Santa Maria in the north. This two-lane highway has 13 wineries dotting its
length, many of which like Foxen, Zaca Mesa, Fess Parker, Byron and Cambria are household winery
Other than the wineries on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail
there has not been a lot to draw wine enthusiasts to
Santa Maria Valley. However, as I hinted in the first
paragraph of this feature, Santa Maria Valley is on the
move and major changes are in the works to enhance
wine tourism. Addamo Estate Vineyards was established
on Clark Avenue in 2000 with the planting of 120
acres to six varietals. A tasting room and Bistro is open
in nearby Old Town Orcutt (400 E Clark, hours 11-9
Tues-Fri and 11-7 Sat and Sun). I understand there are
plans afoot to build a restaurant and hospitality center
on the estate property in the future. The Pinot Noirs I
have had from here are outstanding. Special events,
tours and tastings are available (805-934-9830). Visit the website at www.addamovineyards.com. The
Murphy family are partners in Ambullneo Winery and Matt Murphy is an assistant winemaker there.
They have purchased a large property adjacent to Addamo Estate with magnificent views overlooking
the Santa Maria Valley to the Pacific Ocean. The Pinot Noir vineyard is being planted this spring and in
addition to a winery, there will be a tastefully situated tasting room and event center built on the property.
Cottonwood Canyon (see page 10) will be constructing an ambitious new restaurant and events/
hospitality center on the estate property.
Riverbench Vineyard and Winery is a new face in the Santa Maria Valley. The Riverbench Vineyard
has been producing wine grapes for over three decades and was acquired by new owners in 2005,
who have started their own boutique winery. A 1920s ranch house on the property is being renovated
and converted to a tasting room which will open next month. Chuck Ortman (Meridian, Ortman Family
Wines), joined Riverbench as winemaker in 2006. He had been sourcing Riverbench fruit for many
years. Jim Stollberg, who also works with Dale Hampton, will be the vineyard manager. The website is
The most visible figure in the Santa Maria Valley wine scene is James Ontiveros (photo below with hat).
He is a ninth-generation California farmer and rancher who is currently the Director of Sales and Marketing
for Bien Nacido Vineyard and Solomon Hills Vineyard in Santa Maria and French Camp Vineyard
in Paso Robles as well as Central Coast Wine Services and Paso Robles Wine Services. He farms
his own 8-acre Pinot Noir vineyard, Rancho Ontiveros, in Santa Maria Valley and consults on a number
of other vineyards in the area. James knows the back roads and every nook and cranny in the Santa
Maria Valley and many look to him for advice. He produces Pinot Noir under his own label, Native9,
and is a partner with winemaker Paul Wilkins and Sao Anash in the Alta Maria Vineyards label.