The History of Santa Barbara Wine Country, Part 2: Wine Industry Comes of Age

The History of Santa Barbara Wine Country, Part 2: Wine Industry Comes of Age

Santa Barbara Wine Country may be the most dynamic wine region in California today. From the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc to the newest AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, innovation abounds throughout the County.

While the Central Coast wine region is only 50 years old, it has become invaluable to California’s economy and wine industry. After Prohibition, the wine business in California did not exist. Today, Santa Barbara Wine Country contributes $1.75B and 10,000 jobs to the state’s economy. (Alison Laslett, CEO of Santa Barbara Vintners)

This three-part series follows the path of this astonishing growth.

santa barbara wine industry comes of age

The Wine Industry Comes of Age

Santa Barbara Wine Country’s early pioneers planted the roots for the wine industry after Prohibition. The business grew as others came to the region to capitalize on their successes and reputations.

The industry remained focused on grape growing and selling. By 1975, there were 32 commercial wine grape growers with 3,864 acres, but only four wineries. In 1982, Santa Barbara County growers shipped 92% of their grapes to northern California.

But keeping grapes, and profits, in the County became increasingly important. Growers wanted to capture the higher profits from value-added activities, so they expanded into winemaking, though the larger growers continued to sell their output up north. By 1980, wineries grew to 13, and to 29 by 1990.

The opportunity became clear: focus on premium, hand-crafted winemaking and grape growing, plus effective marketing. The farmers wanted to control their destiny, not be shaped by wineries in the north.

Serious marketing began with the 1983 formation of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. The SBCVA was created by expanding the Santa Ynez Valley Viticultural Association that had been established in 1981. The idea was to follow the lead of Napa and Sonoma in successfully promoting their wines.

Winemaker Rick Longoria, the first president of the SBCVA, created the annual Vintner's Festival promoting wine and tourism in 1986. By 1999, its 100 members included wineries, wine grape growers, and vineyard managers.

santa barbara wine country takes shape

Santa Barbara Wine Country Takes Shape

Consumers’ wine knowledge and habits became more sophisticated during the 70s and 80s, propelled by the media.
  • Wine writers Hugh Johnson and Bob Thompson wrote about the Santa Maria Valley in 1976. Sunset Magazine featured the region for the first time in 1977.
  • In 1978, The New York Times recognized a Santa Barbara County winery, Firestone Winery, for the first time.
  • Wine Spectator wrote about the region in 1981, and Bon Appetite featured it in 1987.
  • Firestone’s wines amassed domestic and international awards throughout the 1980s.

Premium wine consumption rose from 4% of the U.S. market in 1980 to 22% in 1989.

During the 1990s, Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate promoted the region to their readers, catapulting the wines’ reputation even further.

Marketing efforts grew and the Central Coast AVA was approved in 1985. This additional AVA helped consumers distinguish wines from the central coast from those of northern California. Wine tourism as a sales outlet began to take hold in the 1980s.

By the end of the 1990s, Santa Barbara Wine Country saw an additional 8,000 acres of wine grapes planted. By 1996, wine grape growing was the most significant agricultural activity in the County. Wine production soared to over 70,000 cases of wine produced from over 50 wineries. Only 56% of grapes were sold north by this time.

At the end of the 1990s, wine producers from Napa and Sonoma, seeing the success and cheap land prices in Santa Barbara County, moved into the region. With proven wine quality, Santa Barbara County’s land appeared comparatively cheap.

But wine wasn’t a sure path to financial success. The competition forced many vineyards and wineries to close or change hands. The 1980s saw an oversupply of grapes and prices fell. Many growers plowed grapevines under.

Larger companies took advantage. Robert Mondavi and Jess Jackson purchased Tepusquet Vineyard in 1987. By 1996, large companies owned 63% of the 10,000 acres of the County’s premium wine grapes. They created wineries focused on high volumes of quality wine and tourism through tasting rooms.

The Santa Barbara County wine industry continued to evolve. Only about 40% of wine produced in the region was consumed by Californians, the rest exported outside the state.

santa barbara wine country pioneers update

Update on the 13 Santa Barbara Wine Country Pioneers

  1. Pierre Lafond of Santa Barbara Winery, making wine since 1962 in downtown Santa Barbara, created his 1972 vineyard to ensure grape supply. In 1981, he expanded production, taking advantage of the growth of tourism to Santa Barbara.
  2. Rancho Sisquoc remained family-owned and operated, thriving through the industry’s ups and downs. Unique to the ranch, its manager brought uncommon Sylvaner vines from Europe, planting them on the estate.
  3. Santa Ynez Winery went out of business, and the property became the home of Kalyra Winery. 
  4. Los Vineros, the cooperative the Bettencourt’s founded in 1976, went out of business in 1985 due to a lack of marketing expertise.
  5. The partners of the famed Sanford and Benedict vineyard were in business together for less than five years. Benedict added to the vineyard when he purchased the property next door, La Rinconada, in 1997, to build a winery and tasting room there. 
    Sanford bought Rancho El Jabali in 1982, but lost his second winery, The Sanford Winery, due to disagreements with investors over organic farming. In 1990, Englishman Robert Atkin purchased the Benedict vineyard and hired Sanford as the vineyard manager.
  6. During the 1980s, Zaca Mesa expanded, keeping Ken Brown as winemaker. In 1989, brothers John and Lou Cushman took control, bringing on winemaker Daniel Gehrs. In 1993, Wine Spectator named Zaca Mesa’s Syrah the #6 wine of the year, a first for a Central Coast wine. The 1993 Syrah was served at the White House in 1996 during a State Dinner for French President Jacques Chirac.
  7. Geoff and Alison Rusack purchased the old Ballard Canyon Winery in 1995, creating Rusack Vineyards and promoting Syrah.
  8. Fred Brander of Brander Vineyard became the sage of Sauvignon Blanc since his first release in 1977 garnered wide acclaim. The grape makes up most of the plantings and production. He also introduced “high-density” vineyard planting techniques.
  9. Leonard and Brooks Firestone launched the first modern commercial winery in the region in 1975 with capital and expertise from the Japanese company, Suntory Limited.
  10. Bill and Jeri Mosby bought Rancho de la Vega in 1976 and created Mosby Winery and Vineyard in 1979 with their three sons. They championed Italian varietals. Son Gary started his label, Chimere, in 1989.
  11. After buying Houtz Vineyard, Beckmen Vineyards made wines from its two vineyards, the Thomas and Judith Beckmen Estate Vineyard in Los Olivos and the Purisima Mountain Vineyard in Ballard Canyon.
  12. Ken Brown founded Byron Winery in 1984, staying on after its acquisition by The Robert Mondavi Winery, which began acquiring thousands of acres of County vineyards. Brown remained winemaker for 20 years.
  13. In 1985, Dan Gainey, the son of Daniel and Robin Gainey, joined the business, buying land in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1996. The vineyard, Evan’s Ranch, was named for his great-grandfather.
  14. Dick Doré, Foxen’s great-great-grandson, and winemaker Bill Wathen (former Chalone viticulturist) established Foxen Vineyards & Winery in 1985 on the historic ranch. They made wine from purchased grapes and planted vines with proceeds beginning in 1991.

santa barbara wine country success catalyzes more wine producers

Success Catalyzes More Wine Producers

The trailblazing Zaca Mesa Winery produced more than its fair share of winemaking stars. A few of Zaca Mesa’s alumni artisan winemakers include:
  • Jim Clendenen, the second winemaker at Zaca Mesa, started Au Bon Climat with Adam Tolmach in 1982. Jim made the Au Bon Climat wines in the French Burgundy style.
  • Adam Tolmach met Jim while working at Zaca Mesa. Jim bought his interest in Au Bon Climat in 1991 and Adam then created The Ojai Vineyard.
  • Lane Tanner founded Lane Tanner Wines in 1989, the County’s first female owner and winemaker. She started at Firestone in 1981, then made wine at Zaca Mesa, and for the Hitching Post until 1989. She committed only to Pinot Noir and did everything herself.
  • Bob Lindquist of Qupé Wine Cellars met Jim Clendenen when they both worked at Zaca Mesa. Bob employed modern technology to enhance traditional production techniques.
  • From 1974 to 1990, Daniel Gehrs made wine in the Santa Cruz mountains. He came to Zaca Mesa as head winemaker from 1993 to 1997, then consulted with Bridlewood Winery in 1998 and Lucas & Lewellen in 1999.

Tony Austin, the first winemaker at Firestone Vineyards starting in 1974, worked there for ten years. He started Austin Cellars in Los Olivos in 1981. Tony’s 1982 Sierra Madre Pinot Noir was featured during a State Dinner at the White House. He eventually sold Austin Cellars.

Rick Longoria got his start at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma under Andre Tchelistcheff and at Chappellet Winery in Napa. He established Longoria Cellars in 1982, working part-time, while he made wine at J. Carey Cellars. In 1985, he transferred to The Gainey Vineyard, where he stayed for ten years. In 1989, his was the first winery to open in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.

Starting in 1984, independent wine consultant John Kerr worked with many wineries including Babcock, Brander, and Houtz, where he made wine for four years. John also worked for Byron from 1986 to 1995, when he went to Carey Cellars, then owned by the Firestone family. Carey was sold in 1997 to William Foley. John continued as winemaker until 1998.

Hampton Farming Company, Inc. began in 1972 as a vineyard management and consulting company. Dale planted and managed over 12,000 acres of premium wine grape varieties over the years. He was influential in the growth of the region’s premium wine grape business.

Another early pioneer, Louis Lucas, planted the famous Tepusquet Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley in the early 70s and opened Tepusquet Winery in 1983. As a grape grower, he sold to northern California wineries, including Beringer. Cambria Winery later bought the Tepusquet vineyard.

In 1996, Lucas partnered with Royce Lewellen, a local judge, in the Los Alamos and the Goodchild vineyards. The first release of Lucas & Lewellen Estate Vineyards was in 1999. They purchased the Valley View vineyard near Solvang in 1997.

Banker Bill Foley created Foley Estates Vineyard, on Rancho Santa Rosa, a historic racehorse ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills. He found the ranch by employing topographical maps, soil research, and climatic data. In 1995, he bought the Santa Ynez Winery (renaming it Lincourt) and the J. Carey Winery from Firestone in 1997.

When Fess Parker purchased Foxen Canyon Ranch in the mid-1980s, he intended to run cattle, plant a few acres of vineyard, and establish a small winery. He wanted to build a family business to pass on to future generations. Fess Parker Winery opened in 1991 and expanded tourism with the purchase of The Grand Hotel nearby in 1998.

Other significant wine businesses founded during this time included:

  • Fess Parker neighbor Andrew Murray Vineyards focused on Rhone varietals
  • Kathy Joseph moved her Fiddlehead Cellars from Napa to Santa Barbara
  • Fred and Linda Rice built Sunstone Winery near Solvang
  • Chris Whitcraft, Lane Tanner, and John Kerr expanded the Central Coast Wine Warehouse
  • Kendall-Jackson created Cambria Winery

santa barbara wine country making its way

Santa Barbara Wine Country: Making its Way

The Santa Barbara Wine industry continued to mature due to the vision and persistence of many dedicated wine grape growers and wine producers.

We’ll look at the following decades in the final installment.

The History of Santa Barbara Wine Country, Part 1: The Early Years

The History of Santa Barbara Wine Country, Part 1: The Early Years

Santa Barbara Wine Country may be the most dynamic wine region in California today. From the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc to the newest AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, innovation abounds throughout the County.

While this Central Coast wine region is only 50 years old, it has become invaluable to California’s economy and wine industry. Growing from nothing after Prohibition, the wine business contributes $1.75B and 10,000 jobs to the state’s economy. (Alison Laslett, CEO of Santa Barbara Vintners)

In this three-part series, we’ll follow the path of this astonishing growth.

Rethinking Spanish Colonization

Given the massive cultural changes happening in 2020, the Spanish colonization of the New World looks different. We’ll not touch on that meaningful conversation here, but for California wine, the Spanish conquest was pivotal. Without it, the California wine industry might have evolved differently.

Though wild grapevines grew in the U.S. and California, native people didn’t know wine. They made a fermented beverage from cherries.

Europeans had a different experience. The Spanish, much like the Romans, carried Vitis vinifera grapevines on their explorations. Their Catholic church services required wine, and it was also their daily beverage.

The first vinifera wines brought to the New World came into Mexico, maybe during the 1520 expedition of Hernán Cortés. Records aren't clear about the date.

An essential part of the growth of the colonies, Spain and France supplied the raw material for wine. It was impossible to supply the amount of wine needed without local production. Experiments with local wild grapevines resulted in inferior quality wine.

Grapevines came into the territory once called Alta California in 1782. The intrepid Franciscan friar of Spain, Father Junípero Serra, oversaw colonial expansion through building missions to convert natives to Catholicism. The first mission was built in San Diego in 1769 and the last of 21 in Sonoma in 1823.

Serra earned the honor “Father of California Wine” because he planted the Spanish grape, Listán Prieto, wherever he could. The grape became known as the “Mission” grape because all 21 missions had vineyards, though not all thrived.

Serra may have planted the first vineyard at the San Diego mission in 1779, though records no longer exist. He died in 1784 at the age of 71 and was buried at mission #2 in Carmel.

santa barbara county missions

The Missions of Santa Barbara County

Father Serra did not plant vineyards near any of the three missions in Santa Barbara County due to political troubles. He planted vineyards at only the first nine missions. But, he did plant a different vineyard near the city in 1782, two years before his death.

The Santa Barbara missions were: 

 Name - Order # Founded Vineyard Notes
Santa Barbara - #10 1786 San Jose
Vina Aroya
La Cieneguita
Second largest vineyard production of the 21 missions
La Purísima Concepcíon - #11 1787 Jalama
San Francisoto
Near Lompoc, the largest mission of the three
Santa Inés - #19 1804 Refugio
Tajiguas
Arroya Hondo

Near Solvang, built to reduce overcrowding at the other missions

 

The sale of wine, and brandy, brought much-needed income into the missions. The popular wines made from the Mission grape were sweet and light with low acidity.

Secular producers of wine and vineyards included several Comandantes of the three military presidios established by the Spanish in Santa Barbara.

Spanish land grants allowed owners to establish ranches throughout the town and the county. Some vineyards and wine production took place at Refugio Canyon and along Zaca Creek.

The Mexican government mandated the missions be secularized in 1834. Over the next decade, missions and vineyards were abandoned, including those in Santa Barbara County.

santa barbara wine country gold rush

The Gold Rush

The Mission grape lived on in California, especially in San Gabriel. Large-scale wine production continued thereafter the missions ceased religious operation.

Southern California had a thriving wine trade through the mid-18th century. Many immigrants planted vineyards there, as did the first American born on U.S. soil.

Many of these wine producers sold wine to the ever-growing numbers of prospectors searching for gold in the north. Northern California’s transition from gold to wine began in the mid-1800s, and, by the turn of the century, the north had become the dominant wine producer.

In the latter half of the 1800s, European immigrants planted vineyards and made wine in Santa Barbara County. Vine plantings reached 90,000 by 1858.

The vineyards of the Santa Barbara Mission in Goleta became the property of an Irish immigrant, James McCaffrey. He managed the San Jose vineyard and winery until his death. One of his workers, an Italian named Michele Cavaletto, took it over in 1900. He ran it until 1918, and it remains in the family today.

In 1984, Santa Barbara County named the winery building, the oldest man-made structure in the area, a historic landmark. Not open to the public, the Cavaletto family preserves the old adobe winery while managing the ranch. Wine is not part of their business today,

Around 1900, 13 vineyard production areas existed throughout Santa Barbara County. Prohibition wiped them out. Some people tried to hold onto their vineyards but with little success.

Pioneers After Prohibition: The Early Days

Prohibition, the Depression, and the Great Wars essentially ended the wine business in Santa Barbara County, and elsewhere.

The wine business didn’t reappear in Santa Barbara County until the 1960s. Setting the stage for the emergence of the new industry, UC Davis graduates plus grape growers from the San Joaquin Valley ventured in.

The first commercial vineyard, the famous Nielsen vineyard, lay east of Santa Maria. It was planted in 1964 by UC Davis graduates, Uriel Nielsen and Bill DeMattei. Part of the historic Rancho Tepusquet, they sold their first harvest in 1968 to Christian Brothers of Napa Valley. Nielsen’s family grew commercial food grapes in the San Joaquin Valley.

Another son of a San Joaquin grape-growing family, Louis Lucas, planted a vineyard in 1969 on Tepusquet Mesa. They hired Dale Hampton to manage it. Hampton started a wine-growing consulting company in 1972 that remains in business today.

The Miller family, long respected for wine grape-growing in Paso Robles, planted a vineyard in Santa Maria in 1973. They named the vineyard, Bien Nacido, a famous vineyard indeed.

In these early days, the focus was on grape-growing and selling. 1975 saw 32 growers and only four wineries.

santa barbara wine country founding 13 wineries

The Founding 13 Wineries

By 1983, with notoriety building, wineries grew to 13. Together, these wineries founded the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association. The Santa Maria Valley AVA had already been established in 1981, and the Santa Ynez Valley AVA was established in 1983.

 Winery Founded
Santa Barbara Winery 1962
Rancho Sisquoc Winery 1968
Santa Ynez Winery 1970
Sanford & Benedict 1971
Zaca Mesa Winery 1973
Ballard Canyon Winery (Rusack Vineyards) 1974
Brander Vineyard 1975
Firestone Vineyard 1975
Mosby Winery 1976
Houtz Vineyards (Beckman Vineyards) 1984
Byron Vineyard & Winery 1984
Gainey Vineyard 1984
Foxen Vineyards & Winery 1985

 

 Here is a look at these original 13 wineries. 

1. Santa Barbara Winery - 1962

In 1962, a Canadian wine shop owner named Pierre Lafond founded the Santa Barbara Winery in present-day downtown. He purchased grapes from vineyards further south to make wine. A few of his customers had tried planting grapevines to no success. He finally planted a vineyard in 1972 in the Santa Rita Hills, west of Buellton.

2. Rancho Sisquoc Winery - 1968

With an impressive history, the land of Rancho Sisquoc Winery, near Santa Maria, hails from an 1852 Mexican land grant. San Franciscan James Flood founded a cattle ranch and farm on the property in 1952.

He started a vineyard in 1970 planted with Johannisberg Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, selling grapes to Geyser Peak in Sonoma. Vineyard manager Harold Pfieffer started experimenting with winemaking in 1972. A tasting room, perhaps the first, rose in 1977.

The San Ramon Chapel, shown on the label, was built in 1875. It became the County’s first official landmark in 1966. Mass continues to be held every Sunday.

3. Santa Ynez Winery - 1970

Claire Bettencourt and G. C. Davidge were ranch owners in the Santa Maria Valley. Purchasing property on the site of California’s first college, they created College Ranch in 1969. They sold grapes to Paul Masson Winery in Soledad.

In 1975, they created a winery called the Santa Ynez Winery due to its location in Santa Ynez. Fred Brander was the first winemaker, and Australian Mike Brown spent four years here. Mike worked with Ken Brown at Zaca Mesa and Bill Mosby, both Santa Barbara wine pioneers.

Bettencourt also started a winemaking cooperative in Santa Maria as an outlet for grape production.

4. Sanford & Benedict - 1971

Botanist Michael Benedict and Richard Sanford planted the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills in 1971. Initial plantings included Chardonnay and Riesling, with Pinot Noir coming in 1972.

Sanford and Benedict were focused on making and selling wine, not growing and selling grapes. Their first vintage in 1976 caused people to take notice, raising the vineyard’s profile. Its Pinot Noir vines are the oldest in the County.

The partners split in 1980. The vineyard stayed with Benedict, while Sanford and his wife founded The Sanford Winery in Buellton, in 1981.

5. Zaca Mesa Winery - 1973

Oil executive Marshall (Lou) Ream, commercial real estate developer John Cushman, and other investors founded Zaca Mesa Winery in 1973. Their goal was experimentation.

Ken Brown became the first winemaker in 1976, influencing the decision to plant Syrah. The well-known block called “Black Bear Block” was the first syrah vineyard. They built a winery in 1978.

Other major winemakers worked here over the years, including Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist.

6. Ballard Canyon Winery - 1974

In 1974, dentist Gene Hallock founded the Ballard Canyon Winery near Los Olivos, on land which Rusack Vineyards now owns. He specialized in Johannisberg Riesling.

7. Brander Vineyard - 1975

Owner and winemaker Fred Brander started one of the first estate vineyards, Brander Vineyard, in 1974 east of Los Olivos. He planted vines in 1975 and built the winery in 1979. Plantings included Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Semillon.

Bordeaux varietals are still unusual for Santa Barbara County. Some original Sauvignon Blanc vines remain to this day.

8. Firestone Vineyard - 1975

Leonard Firestone, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, purchased a ranch north of Los Olivos in 1971. He planted a vineyard in 1972 to grow and sell wine grapes further north. He created the first estate winery with his son, hiring Anthony (Tony) Austin as the founding winemaker.

9. Mosby Winery - 1976

Lompoc dentist, Bill Mosby, made wine while in college at Oregon State. Purchasing land in 1963 near the Santa Ynez River, he created a vineyard in 1971. Another vineyard came along in 1977 south of Buellton, where he built a winery.

10. Houtz Vineyards - 1984

Dave and Margy Houtz built Houtz Vineyards in Los Olivos in 1984 and hired John Kerr as a winemaker. Beckman Vineyards purchased the property in 1994.

11. Byron Vineyard and Winery - 1984

In 1984, (Byron) Ken Brown founded Byron Vineyard and Winery in Santa Maria. Brown purchased the historic Nielsen vineyard in 1989. He also later purchased Bien Nacido Vineyard and Julia’s Vineyard, both part of the original Tepusquet Ranch.

12. Gainey Vineyard - 1984

Daniel and Robin Gainey started the Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez in 1984, planting Sauvignon Blanc and Johannisberg Riesling. They may have been the first to blend wine and tourism through hosting concerts, cooking demonstrations, and wine classes.

13. Foxen Vineyards & Winery - 1985

English sailor, Benjamin Foxen became a naturalized Mexican citizen known as “Don Julian” and “Guillermo Domingo.” He first visited Santa Barbara in 1818. In 1837, he took ownership of Rancho Tinaquaic, of which 2,000 acres remain in the family today.

Dick Doré, Foxen’s great-great-grandson, and winemaker Bill Wathen established Foxen Vineyards & Winery in 1985 on the historic ranch. The winery’s brand is an anchor in honor of Don Julian.

santa barbara wine country making its way

Santa Barbara Wine Country: Making its Way

The Santa Barbara Wine industry has come a long way in a short time due to the vision and persistence of dedicated pioneers.

We’ll move into the growth during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s in the next installment. As the industry matures, significant changes take place.