July 20th, 2014
The last three decades has seen the establishment of five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within Santa Barbara County: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Valley, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and the Ballard Canyon AVA, the latter three being sub-appellations of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA. There is currently a proposal to further differentiate the diverse Santa Ynez Valley AVA with the proposed Los Olivos District AVA, which takes in the area between Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon.
The Santa Ynez Valley AVA was established in 1983, at a time where there were only a handful of wineries in the entire County, and when many of the wines carried nothing more than a “California” appellation. Aside from the Santa Barbara Winery in the city of Santa Barbara proper and Rancho Sisquoc in the Sisquoc Ranch east of Santa Maria, the other wineries were located in a region lying north of the city of Santa Barbara and south of the Santa Maria Valley. To promote these wineries an appellation was created using a broad area stretching along a significant portion of the Santa Ynez River, and academically defined as part of the Santa Ynez River Valley.
The Santa Ynez Valley AVA, which uses in great part the vast drainage area of the Santa Ynez River, serves a useful purpose in providing a general reference point for the location of vineyards in and near the Santa Ynez River Valley, but falls short on providing specific characteristics of geology and soils, climate, and topography, which are necessary to better understand the character and identify the provenance of the multitude of wines produced in the area.
As wine journalist, Matt Kramer, puts it, the “Santa Ynez Valley has struggled for identity as climactic uniformity is absent”. The emergence of the Santa Rita Hills AVA in 1991was the first big step in unraveling the Santa Ynez Valley conundrum, by delineating and separating the cooler climate area from its parental AVA. Going to the other end of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA was more recently established to partition off the warmest and most internal region of the valley.
In addition to the proposed Los Olivos District AVA, which encompasses no fewer than 50+ vineyards and 12 wineries, there are other areas within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA which are likely to gain AVA status. The area between Ballard Canyon and the Santa Rita Hills area, which is often referred to as the Santa Rosa Valley/Buellton Flats, merits appellation study. To the north of the Buellton Flats there is a larger area which goes all the way up to Zaca Lake which is worthy of its own AVA status. This area is drained by Zaca Creek and includes part of Foxen Canyon and encompasses some of the oldest established vineyards and wineries within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA.
The establishment of the Los Olivos District AVA, along with the yet to be petitioned AVAs encompassing the Santa Rosa Valley/Buellton Flats and/or Zaca-Foxen Canyon areas would bring much needed clarity to their parental Santa Ynez Valley AVA. The consumer would then be in a better position to understand and differentiate the multitude of wines from the various sub-region AVAs that comprise the large Santa Ynez Valley AVA, which all share the watershed of the Santa Ynez River Valley.
For additional information on the established and proposed AVAs of the Santa Ynez River Valley, please see: