Shining a Spotlight on Santa Barbara Wines

Morgen McLaughlin, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Vintner’s Association, has what I consider to be one of the best jobs in the world, as well as one of the hardest. She is essentially an ambassador for the county’s five AVAs and the numerous, mostly small-production, family-owned wineries that strive for state, national, and international recognition in a highly competitive and sensitive market.

Chardonnay is the most widely planted variety in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara ranks fourth in the state, behind Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles, in terms of recognition as a viticulture area, says McLaughlin, and her goal is to move it up to No. 1. To that end she travels a great deal, both nationally and internationally, to get the word out. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Santa Barbara is highly attractive as a destination even beyond its vineyards and wineries, and is just two hours outside of the metropolis of Los Angeles. Nor do the celebrities who ventured into wine making in the area hurt its attractiveness, starting with pioneer (in more ways than one) Fess Parker back in the 1980s to the likes of Kurt Russell and Emilio Estavez today.

Santa Barbara’s five AVAs (a sixth, Los Alamos, is coming soon) grow many varieties of wine, not just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as many consumers think. The county’s east-west running mountain range brings ocean breezes far inland, creating many different micro-climates that allow varieties as disparate as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah, among others. Some do well in the cooler Santa Rita Hills, while others thrive in the warmer Ballard and Happy Canyon regions.

Morgen McLaughlin pours Santa Barbara wines

A recent luncheon of the newly formed Los Angeles Wine Writers group  (of which I’m a proud member) hosted McLaughlan, who brought 10 Santa Barbara County wines to be served with a four-course meal at the WEST Restaurant and Lounge of the Hotel Angeleno in Los Angeles.

It all began with a surprising 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Star Lane ($22) in the Happy Canyon district. This is the first vintage of Tyler Thomas, who comes from Northern California, and is a “methodical but artistic” winemaker. He ferments in stainless and ages in 1200-gallon oak vessels, creating a nuanced, balanced and refreshing wine, that paired beautifully with Chef Laura Scollan’s Lobster Truffle Mac and Cheese. 
Subsequent courses included honey-glazed salmon paired with three different Chardonnays — from Foxen, Melville, and Hilliard-Bruce. Chardonnay is the most widely planted vine in Santa Barbara (Sauvignon Blanc is the second), and can range in style based on where it’s grown. Foxen’s 2013 Chardonnay ($32) is from the famous Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria Valley which lays claim to being “the most designated vineyard in the world.” The Miller family, which owns Foxen, has been making wine for 30 years in the area and, says McLaughlin, is “staying relevant” by being at the forefront of modern viticulture practices.

Melville’s 2013 Chardonnay ($36) sees no oak at all, and is allocated and hard to get, so we wine writers were happy to be treated to it. Hilliard-Bruce’s 2011 Chardonnay ($45) is a lighter, cool-vintage style, and is made in the county’s first LEED-certified winery, which I toured shortly before it was completed last summer. (It’s a marvel to behold, but note that appointments are needed as they have no tasting room.)

Chef Laura Scollan’s Maple Bourbon Pork Loin

Maple Bourbon Pork Loin was paired with three Pinots, from Longoria (2012, $55), Au Bon Climat (2012, $40), and Lafond (2010, $50). Again, different styles, colors, and flavor profiles, with the last being older by two years. All were delicious.

The final course of Ginger Snap Lamb Rack was served with three Syrahs, from Brander, Demetria ($34), and Margerum ($25), all vintage 2012. While all lovely, the Demetria, with its slight hint of mint, was the perfect pairing with the lamb.

McLauglin, who recently held the same post in New York’s Finger Lakes District, says that while New York vintners (and beer and spirits makers) have major financial backing from their state, California’s regulatory body is anti-wine. It can be extremely difficult, for instance, to set up a tasting room on vineyard property. To combat this, she sees a trend of winery collectives working with third-party management companies providing tasting rooms that combine wine, food, and art. Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone and El Paseo districts are great examples. McLaughlin also envisions partnerships among wine regions in California, all of whom are fighting the same battles as Santa Barbara.

Syrah and Pinot Noir are among the many varieties grown in Santa Barbara

As for Santa Barbara County’s future in the wide world of wine, McLaughlin is hopeful: “People are back to spending money on wine, and consumers want wine from all over the world, wine that is all good and all worth drinking.”

Until next time, Cheers!