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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.

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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 names.

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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 www.riverbench.com.

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.

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